Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Review - Starters by Lissa Price

Lissa Price
Trade Paperback (ARC)
352 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 13, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0385742375


     I must admit a fondness for Science Fiction that builds on unique twists or creative concepts. Works that include highly imaginative or original plots, characters, or settings always seem to capture my attention. In fact, I’m going to confess publically that I’ve often rated books slightly higher than I might otherwise simply based on what I think is unique or inventive content. And, as long as I’m in full confessional mode I might as well come clean that Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy is often as entertaining and appealing to me as so-called “mature” SF&F. This might explain my admiration for the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, and Ender franchise’s or anything written by Diana Wynne Jones, for that matter. But, I digress.

     Starters, by Lissa Price, is a singular case in point. It is, overall, an excellent debut novel, written in a strong voice and with unabashed confidence and, oh, by the way, has killer cover art. But, I have a dilemma and I have to ask myself a few pointed questions before moving forward with this review. How exactly do I classify “unique” or “creative”? Should that definition be based on my own past reading experiences? Or by what I know has been previously published though I haven’t actually read it myself? Is this work merely “somewhat” original, a play on an existing theme, for instance, or is it a mind-blowing never-before-seen idea?

     Let’s start with the basic premise of Starters. A biological war kills everyone between the ages of 20 and 60. Okay, slightly unusual in post-apocalyptic concept since most fictional “world-killing” events are normally not that selective and real-world pandemics do just the opposite. So, points to Ms. Price for thinking, not just outside, but around the corners of the box. Body swapping and/or using others to remotely experience the actions of others is a major theme in Starters, but this same idea has been used successfully many times before. The Identity Matrix by Jack L. Chalker and I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein, among others, contain similar themes. Credit to Ms. Price for the unusual manner in which the Enders “use” young bodies. Dystopian future filled with struggling survivors? There are too many similar works to name here. Unsupervised children in a post-apocalyptic landscape? Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney and The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson spring to mind.

     So, what’s the dilemma? Good question. While most of the concepts in Starters have already been written in one form or another and by established, respected authors there is something solely “different” about this work of fiction. In short, Starters has a fresh and highly creative “feel” about it. So, when a debut novelist delivers a story that comes off as completely new, even though it utilizes “been-there” concepts, I have to step back and evaluate my opinion and why I feel the way that I do about it. So, how do I rate it?

     Let’s take a quick look at the positive aspects first. There’s a certain level of genre blending in Starters that Ms. Price handles both efficiently and effortlessly and that appeals to me as a reader, a lot. The story feels, at times, Urban Fantasy, like when the characters are squatting in an abandoned high-rise or running from bullies, then changes to Cyberpunk during the nuero-implant and body-swapping scenes, and then becomes Post-Apocalyptic when the death’s of millions and the resulting societal alterations are described. And for those looking for that Twilight or Hunger Games connection there’s also an understated young-love story swirling about. Each genre switch is handled without stumbling over the others and is competently written, the transitions so smooth they’re hardly noticeable.

     The main character, Callie Woodland, has a lot to do with why I feel this book is such a worthwhile read. She is a survivor - cautious, imaginative, courageous, and street-smart, yet, at the same time believable and utterly likeable, like your kid-sister or a favorite cousin. Again, we’ve all come across protagonists like this before but Ms. Price’s dialogue, timing, and the emotional voices of the main and supporting characters are intuitive and entirely believable.

     There are a lot of reasons I think Starters feels so original and refreshing and why I believe it deserves a huge audience. For instance, Callie’s love for her little brother and the sacrifices she’ll endure to make a better future for him is heartwarming, touching, and wholly convincing. Also, the Starters make up the poverty-stricken lower class while the Enders are, for the most part, prosperous and upper class. This is a unique enough shift in social inequality to merit mentioning. Not that teenagers haven’t always suffered as less-than-equal but it’s the way Ms. Price handles this theme that impresses me. When Starters rent their bodies to Enders so that they can experience, via neuro-implant, what it’s like to be young again the story really becomes interesting. And, what the Ender’s do with those bodies while the hosts are “under” could easily be considered unethical or immoral. The idea of a young person’s body possessed by the psyche of an Ender is often disturbing but very entertaining. Is the person I am interacting with at this moment a true Starter or, is an Ender in someone else’s body controlling them? Taken as a whole there are enough new and creative ideas intermixed throughout this story to rate it fairly high. So, I will.

     With that said, Starters is not without minor problems. A few insignificant plot holes and descriptive issues appear now and then, but the story moves at such a pace as to render them somewhat transparent. Keeping in mind that Starters is Lissa Price’s debut novel I think it safe to say that her narrative prowess will mature and, in the process, she will learn to eliminate the pitfalls of those minor inconsistencies. I can’t wait to see what Ms. Price has in store for us in the continuing stories of the Unseen Saga.

     Recommended for young adults, dystopian fans, those interested in body swapping, mind control, and the ramifications of eternal youth. Also, well-suited for mystery lovers, suspense enthusiasts, urban fantasy fanatics, and post-apocalyptic literature fans. And, there’s a subtle, well-written YA first-love story circulating throughout the book that should appeal to those who enjoy a little romance mixed in with their Speculative Fiction.

     File with: Fiction - Most of the works of Jack L. Chalker, Total Recall by Philip K. Dick, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein, The Annals of the Heechee by Frederik Pohl, Software by Rudy Rucker, Nueromancer by William Gibson, Time Enough for Love by Robert A Heinlein, and Old Man's War by John Scalzi. TV and Film - Caprica, Dollhouse, and Avatar.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Starters Webpage

Starters Amazon Page

LA Times Starter Review

Official Random House Starters Page

Random House Starters Series Page

Portrait of a Starter Amazon Page

Unseen Series
00. Portrait of a Starter (e-story prequel) 2012
01. Starters 2012
02. 2nd Unhidden Story (e-story) 2012
03. 3rd Unhidden Story (e-story) 2012
04. Enders 2012

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review - The Road of Danger by David Drake

The Road of Danger
Republic of Cinnabar Navy (Lt. Leary) Book Nine
David Drake
Trade Paperback
(Advance Reader’s Copy)
Publisher: Baen
Publication Date: April 3, 2012
368 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1451638158
Cover Art: Steve Hickman


     In the grand tradition of Golden Age Space Opera, The Road of Danger, the ninth in the Republic of Cinnabar Navy series, is an exemplary example of the genre. The series has, and rightly so, been compared to the high-seas adventures of Horatio Hornblower by C. S. Forester and the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. Except, and this is really important so listen closely, the RCN (or Lt. Leary) books are much, much better. Yes, I said it, and I’ll probably hear all sorts of flack since both Forester and O’Brian are much beloved authors. But, hear me out. They didn’t write Science Fiction Space Opera. And, the RCN books have something you’ll not find anywhere in those classics - space ships, FTL sub-lightspeed travel, and plasma ray guns. If you’ve read any of my previous reviews you’d know by the content that I’m a long-time Science Fiction fan. So, it should come as no surprise that I place the RCN series higher than those set on the high seas. (My apologies to Forester and O’Brian fans.)

     With that said, I think that Mr. Drake has an exceptional eye for developing atypical and fascinating personalities. The two main characters, Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy, are no exception and happen to work together like a well-oiled space-cruiser. Leary is a brilliant strategist, a charismatic, successful naval officer with a professional hit-man’s instincts and has an even-tempered nature even in the face of adversity. Mundy, the intelligence officer, is a self-professed information hound, is composed even under duress, has a no-nonsense attitude, and is especially competent with fire-arms. She isn’t afraid to shoot it out if the situation calls for it either. The minor characters stand out, as well. Lieutenant Vesey of the fighting corvette Princess Cecile is an able sailor who keeps her composure even during intense situations. And Leary’s and Mundy’s retainers, the sociopathic Hogg and Tovera, provide deadly, yet somehow comic relief.

     Ordered to a normally peaceful sector of the galaxy to  quell a minor coup and repatriate the ringleader Leary and Mundy get caught up in local politics. But life as an officer in the RCN is rarely static and they quickly discover that the rebellion is backed by a syndicate of warring merchants on a nearby world where commerce rules, profits are high, and business is conducted with coercion and by armed conflict. The situation is made worse when a rogue Alliance intelligence officer plots to rekindle the Alliance-Cinnabar war for his own gain. Leary, Mundy, and their team must find a way stop the rebellion, capture the recreant officer, and bring peace back to the sector.

     All in all, The Road of Danger is, in my opinion, not the best of the nine stand-alone RCN books (Lt. Leary, Commanding is my favorite.) It is, nevertheless, a solid and entertaining addition to this fast-paced, adventure series. More importantly, it was as much fun to read as the others.

     Recommended for Science Fiction Space Opera fans, military fiction enthusiasts, action-adventure buffs, political intrigue lovers, space gadget geeks, war/combat/strategy fanatics, and those who love a dose of solid throw-back Science Fiction.

     File with: The Lensman Series by E.E. “Doc” Smith; the Captain Future books by Edmond Hamilton, the Known Space works of Larry Niven; Star Wars; the Culture books by Iain M. Banks, Allen Steele’s Coyote series, and, my current favorite, Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

David Drake Official Site

RCN Wiki Page (Free Downloads)

With the Lightnings Free Download

Space Opera Wiki Page

Republic of Cinnabar Navy (Lt. Leary) Series

1. With the Lightnings (1998)
2. Lt. Leary, Commanding (2000)
3. The Far Side of The Stars (2003)
4. The Way to Glory (2005)
5. Some Golden Harbor (2006)
6. When the Tide Rises (2008)
7. In the Stormy Red Sky (2009)
8. What Distant Deeps (2010)
9. The Road of Danger (2012)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Book Review - Against the Light by Dave Duncan

Against the Light
Dave Duncan
Trade Paperback
(Advance Reader’s Copy)
Publisher: 47North
Publication Date: January 24, 2012
484 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1612182032


     Well-written action-packed high fantasy is obviously Dave Duncan’s forte and he delivers a solid narrative once again with Against the Light. Best known for his Seventh Sword and King’s Blade fantasy series Duncan never fails to entertain with his complex, character driven stories. In my opinion, Mr. Duncan is one of the better fantasy writers of our time. The highest praise that I might give a fantasy writer is that their work reads “real-world.” By that I mean that the story itself feels like it could have actually happened. In Against the Light there are obvious connections to true historical events, most notably the social and political ramifications and religious persecutions of the Middle Ages, and that alone is enough to make it seem real-world.

     While Mr. Duncan normally develops his characters with great success the characters in Against the Light are not quite as strong as those in his other books. His characters are not as highly-developed, or completely likeable (or hate-able, if that’s a word), nor as memorable as those in previous works. And, the graphic torture scenes may be a little too intense for some readers. They made me feel a little uneasy, and I’m far from squeamish, but perhaps that’s because of the lengthy exposition Duncan gave them.

     In Against the Light the high priests of Albi hold sway over the powers of religion and magic, a deadly combination to be sure. Followers of the old ways are persecuted as heretics and when Rollo Woodbridge is arrested for heresy the entire kingdom is pushed to the brink of chaos. The arrest affects the entire Woodbridge family and culminates in the destruction of the family home and the deaths of family members. While Rollo’s sister Maddy positions herself socially and politically to avenge the loss, his brother Brat joins the underground resistance, and Rollo works frantically to find a way to save the kingdom and, in the process, the remaining members of his family.

     While I understand that this type of fantasy – persecution/vengeance – has been done before Duncan’s unique voice, character-driven plots, and real-world correlations make all of his stories stand out in the genre. This is definitely not his strongest story but still entertaining and worth the time, especially if fantasy is “your thing.”

     Recommended for fans of high-fantasy, underground movements, action/adventure/suspense, and those interested in well-written character driven stories.

     File with: Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Series, Raymond Feist’s Riftwar books

3 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Dave Duncan Official Author Site

Against the Light Sample Chapter

Against the Light Amazon Page

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Breaking news…

     The Alternative is now a contributing reviewer for SteamPunk Magazine. Check out their website, become a subscriber, download back issues, and look for Issue # 9 in early fall of 2012.

SteamPunk Magazine

Issue #8

SteamPunk Magazine Download Page

SteamPunk Magazine Back Issues

Note: Reviewing for SteamPunk Magazine will NOT interfere with normal posts to this site. In fact, I expect it to enhance The Alternative blog in the near future.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Book Review – Exogene by T C McCarthy

Subterrene War Series Book Two
T. C. McCarthy
Orbit Books
Publication Date: March 1, 2012
Mass Market Paperback
400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316128155
Cover Art by Steve Stone



     Talk about alternative life styles? Single, white, female, lesbian, military, genetically-enhanced, life expectancy 18 years. Yes, you read that right, that’s the social status of the main characters in T. C. McCarthy’s Exogene, the second book in the Subterrene War series. Following Germline (see my review here), the first book in the series, we enter back into an alternate universe that is running low on natural resources and ravaged by conflict. Rare and precious metals are so expensive, so integral to technology, and so isolated by location that they are worth going to war over. However, rather than seen through the eyes of a civilian, as in Germline, we track the exploits of the genetically-enhanced female soldiers that are, in essence, disposable. Programmed to “spoil” at the tender age of eighteen these soldiers are lethal killing machines but the government does not want them walking around free after they’ve out-lived their usefulness. The answer? Get rid of them after two years of service by programming them to “self-destruct” or “spoil” starting on their eighteenth birthday.

    McCarthy’s main character in Exogene is Catherine, one of the genetically-engineered 18-year-old killing machines. While she’s an effective soldier and dreams of dying to reach paradise and meet God she’s having doubts about spending the rest of her life as a soldier and giving herself up at the end of her service. Catherine has heard rumblings that a sanctuary for over-aged soldiers can be found in Thailand and she’ll do almost anything to get there.

    It’s not often that Science Fiction represents strong (read kick-ass) women as main characters but T.C. McCarthy does that and more. The subtleness of being a soldier and a woman is captured beautifully but to do so in the midst of a long-running war even more so. While some may consider this series military science fiction I think it falls more into the realm of social science fiction. Are genetically-engineered beings truly human? What might they do to be “considered” equal? What are the future implications of tampering with genetic material? McCarthy displays great skill in imagining a world history that, given the right circumstance, could very well come to be. Assuming the voice of his characters McCarthy comments on what it means to be human and the means those considered “less than” might attempt to attain equality. Tucked unobtrusively into a science fiction novel is a vast commentary on our future. Genetic manipulation, forced euthanasia, social inequality, and the human condition all play their parts in this story which McCarthy handles with his usual, seemingly effortless approach.

    The third book in the series, Chimera, is due out later this summer. I can’t wait to see how he wraps up the series.

    Recommended if you like anything by Joe Haldeman, David Gunn’s Death Head series, or Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander series or if you’re a fan of military science fiction, social science fiction, future warfare, quests, technological advances, genetic manipulation, resource depletion, or solid, creative, thought-provoking fiction.

4 out of 5 Stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

T.C. McCarthy Author Page

Exogene Page

Exogene Page

Exogene Cover Page

Subterrene War Series
1. Germline (2011)
2. Exogene (2012)
3. Chimera (2012)

Monday, April 02, 2012

Book Review - The Burning Sky by Joseph Robert Lewis

The Burning Sky
Halcyon Series Book One
Joseph Robert Lewis
Publication Date: December 2011
eBook Edition
462 pages (Portrait View)
Cover Art by Max Davenport


     Ah, more Steampunk! The Burning Sky, the first in the Halcyon Series, by Joseph Patrick Lewis is loaded with Steampunk, magic, dirigibles, political intrigue, angelic ghosts, subtle magic, saber-tooth tigers, nine-foot raptors, shoot-outs, cold-blooded murders, and sword-fights all wrapped up into one remarkable Urban Fantasy set on an alternate Earth. What could be better than that? How about all of the above, superbly written, tightly woven, and packed full of action scenes.

     The Burning Sky is quality writing with great characters, an interesting mystery, a cunning antagonist, and a number of unusual but compelling protagonists whose motives, although somewhat hazy to start, soon become clear as the story develops. By far the most interesting character is Syfax Zidane, an ex-soldier and Major in the Royal Marshals. Syfax is a policeman that shoots first and doesn’t need to ask questions later. He’s been passed-over for promotion due to his “wild” antics and the number of dead criminals he’s arrested but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s loyal, smart, and driven and certainly knows what’s right and he’ll do anything to make sure that good has a champion, even if a few criminals get hurt in the process. He’s in hot pursuit of an arsonist and murderer and is not afraid to employ any method necessary to secure an arrest.

     Other characters worth mentioning are the conniving Ambassador Barika Chou; Shifrah, a paid assassin; Qhora Yupanqui, an Inca princess and her husband Don Lorenzo Quesada de Gadir; and Taziri Ohana an electrical engineer and the pilot of the dirigible Halcyon. de Gadir is a swordsman of some renown and can talk to a ghost and Qhora keeps a nine-foot tall domesticated bird and a saber-tooth tiger as weapons of war. Ambassador Chou has a political axe to grind and will do anything to promote her cause, including murder. Taziri Ohana is caught in the middle of it but all she wants is get back home. If that isn’t enough to get your creative reading interest flowing then nothing will.

     One of the more unique and unusual elements Mr. Lewis has employed in his alternate universe is the integration of Steampunk with the dawning of the age of electricity. Scientists and engineers are becoming more prevalent and certain high-ranking government officials have begun to manipulate science to their benefit. But to what ends? Modern electricity is wholly regarded as an impingement on the current way of life and it plays a subtle but integral role in the plot. Its very existence could bring the world to the brink of war. In many ways The Burning Sky transcends Steampunk as it draws from elements of the advent of the Industrial Age, noir suspense, clever mysteries, sword-flashing fantasy, and plenty of action adventure.

     A short word about self-publishing and why I think it’s a good thing. There’s a lot of debate both for and against self-publishing these days, mostly concerning quality, and the perspective depends on which side of the fence you’re on but in my modest opinion if there ever was a good argument for self-publishing then The Burning Sky is definitely it. As a matter of fact, if you ever find yourself in a dispute with a purist, or his agent, put a copy of this book into his hands. Argument instantly over! This story is polished and professional and as well-crafted, edited, and written as anything that comes out of the established houses. If this is a glimpse of the future of publishing then we, as readers, are in for a very fun ride.

     If you liked Chris Wooding’s Ketty Jay series, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century cycle, or Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinburne books then the Halcyon series is ideal for you. Also, recommended for Steampunk fans, Science Fiction and Fantasy buffs of all kinds, those who enjoy an action-packed swashbuckling adventure, anyone who takes pleasure in strong character-driven stories, mystery aficionados, suspense junkies, and anyone looking for something truly unique to devour.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Halcyon Series

(Part of The Other Earth series of books)

1. The Burning Sky (February 2011)
2. The Broken Sword (May 2011)
3. The Bound Soul (August 2011)


Other Books by Robert Joseph Lewis:

Europa Series
1. Omar The Immortal
2. Freya The Huntress
3. Wren The Fox Witch

Chimera Duet
1. The Dragon and the Lotus
2. (Coming Soon)

Other Books:

Heirs of Mars: Prelude

Heirs of Mars

Daphne and the Silver Ash

Additional Reading:

Author Website

Author’s Blog

Joseph Robert Lewis Digital Publishing Article The Burning Sky Page The Broken Sword Page The Bound Soul Page

More on the authors mentioned in this review and Steampunk in general:

Chris Wooding

Cherie Priest

Mark Hodder

All things Steampunk

The Steampunk Workshop

Steampunk Magazine

Comprehensive List of Steampunk Works

Steampunk Music