Sunday 11 March 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Glitch in the World by Alex Drozd; Transient by Zachry Wheeler; Have Space Suit - Will Travel, by Robert A Heinlein; Necrotic City, by Leland Lydecker; Druid's Portal, by Cindy Tomamichel; A Glitch in the World, by Alex Drozd; Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Book Three, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It's been a busy few weeks over here at AI - a bunch of editing in the works and some exciting things to share soon, but also a lot of paperwork to juggle in real life. A new baby in the household means a lot of things to sort out, and adjusting to how things are done in a different country can throw a spanner in the works! In the meantime, here's a catch-up on the latest round of reviews from myself and regular guest Brent A Harris. 

Transient, by Zachry Wheeler

Transient is a terrific book. It’s a gem that shows how much raw talent lurks within the Indy Writing Community. And I heartily recommend it.
We follow the life of an outsider, Jonas, as he navigates the modern and sophisticated world of Vampires who now exist in modern cities, where what remains of the human population is spread out and hidden among the mountains. Jonas is a human infiltrator – a transient, who passes as a vampire to bring back intelligence to his human compatriots in order to destroy the Vampires and allow humans to once again claim dominance over the Earth.
What makes this book so strong, however, is not just a gripping storyline of tension and deception. It has a message and it speaks to the best and worst parts of humanity. Transient is more science fiction in that regard in that it questions deep themes of love, betrayal, and family. I like how humans are contrasted against the peaceful and technologically advanced Vampires. It says a lot about human history and its recurrent violence. The vampires are used as a reflection of our society, as in the vein of any good classic sci-fi.
However, even books as good as this can still contain missteps – unpolished bits that can creep in to any book – Indy or Mainstream Press alike. In this case, Wheeler tends to over-explain this strange new world rather than let Jonas (and therefore the reader) encounter it organically. In one instance, Jonas joins a group at a blood bar, which pretty much speaks for itself. Yet, because much of the book (indeed, perhaps even half of it) is told through diary entries, we get pages on how blood bars operate, their history, and how they evolved to fit into this advanced Vampire society.
Yet, I found myself engaged in many of these diary entries. They were insightful, and often had a deeper message (especially toward the end of the book). They read briskly, like the rest of the book. But, these odd chapters, combined with sporadic bits where the storyline devolved into a narration of sorts, still pulled me out of the story enough times to bear mention in the review.
Even still, Transient is an enjoyable read. Wheeler won’t be on the Indy scene for long. He has talent, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Transient is in production to be a feature film, and when it releases, expect Wheeler to make an Andy Weir-like trajectory. So, make like a hipster at a record store and ‘discover’ the book before it blows up big-time. It’s well worth sinking your teeth into. 4.5 stars (for the forced world-building) rounded up to 5.
Vampires as a reflection of our society places Transient in the vein of classic Sci-Fi

AI Rating: 5/5
Brent A Harris

Have Space Suit - Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein

I reviewed RAH’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel because I’ve wanted to read classic SF to see how the masters did it before I resumed writing more of my own. I picked Space Suit because one of my favorite science fiction authors, GRRM (yes, he’s written more than just Game of Thrones) hinted that this book had influenced him when he was young. Also, Robert A Heinlein is considered the ‘Dean’ of hard, 1950s pulpy science fiction, and I wanted to find out why.
After reading the book, it’s not hard to understand. Heinlein is a master. I don’t know what I was really expecting when I started this story. But one thing I found frustrating and riveting at the same time was Heinlein’s complete disregard for the rules. The first 30 pages are exposition-heavy. There times where the main character addresses the reader. For heaven’s sake, the book is loaded with mathematical formulae and pages of musical notes! But it was all deftly done. The pages kept turning, the characters (though firmly stuck in their 1950s worldview) were interesting, and the conflict kept coming.
Space-Suit follows the life of Kip, a bound-for-college-kid, who wants nothing less than to travel to the moon. This is a wish-fulfillment story, and like any good wish fulfillment story, the protagonist is given much more than they asked for. After Kip rebuilds an old, worn-out space-suit, he soon finds himself in trouble when he’s abducted. He’ll realize he’s in much more trouble when he’s thrust into a hostile alien plot that lands him on the moon – and beyond.
This is aimed for young adult readers, and it’s better balanced than Heinlein’s more infamous Starship Troopers (seriously, all these famous authors really do have more than just one book/series). It’s a perfect jumping off point for kids to moon-jump in to some rollicking good science fiction that’s more than just entertaining pulp. At its core, it asks some tough questions, which still resonate 60 years later. You can see the impact the book has had – as its heady themes have inspired storylines that I recognized in at least Star Trek (Next Generation) and (new) Battle Star Galactica.
All that from one simple book. I suppose if I’m to emulate the best of SF writers, I have my work cut out for me. Perhaps I should build me a space-suit and travel to the moon. 5 stars.

AI Rating: 5/5
Brent A Harris

Necrotic City, by Leland Lydecker

Necrotic City is a Cyberpunk dystopia set firmly in the worlds of Blade Runner/Electric Sheep and others that have come along since, hinting at stories like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell and a touch of a Chuck Heston movie I dare say no more of, lest I spoil.
Adrian is a Company Man, a Hero with the pre-built, programmed instructions to save others, genetically grown by the same company responsible for these dystopic conditions. Heroes help others, in particular, Jumpers, that have no where else to go when their credits run out. Jumpers jump from the heights of the city, and Heroes must do whatever they can- including jumping after them themselves – to save them.
While seemingly altruistic, the reader soon realizes there’s a darker purpose to saving those who would end their lives on the streets below. Everybody can serve The Company, even in death, so long as their remains remain intact. But, when the cost to maintain the Hero force is insufficient to the amount of nutrients preserved by their heroic deeds from their daily duties, the Hero programmed is scrapped by The Company, and Adrian is left adrift, bouncing from one dangerous situation to the next.
While the setting is immersive, the characters felt real, and the reader feels thrust into Adrian’s plight, I felt his character arc was a little flat, with real no objective in sight. Adrian is reactive throughout the story. Even as a Hero, he has no choice but to respond as events unfold, it’s in his programming. As a drifter, he stumbles from one encounter to the next, often having to be saved time and time again with no real agency of his own.
As a Captain America-type do-gooder, he’s unable experience any significant change in character. He ends the story pretty much the same as he started – a story that simply ends as his encounters draw to a close. I would have liked to have seen him a bit more perceptive and a bit smarter at figuring things out and I expected the story to wrap back around to the set-up given in the beginning, but I assume that’s for a later book. Still, if you don’t mind a fairly mild and unengaging character reacting to a mostly listless story, Necrotic City does offer up some strengths. It’s a story mixed with a strong setting and solid sci-fi elements. At its core, Necrotic City provides a glimpse into a startling cyber-punk world that could easily become our own. 3.5 Stars rounded to 4.

AI Rating: 4/5
Brent A Harris

Druid's Portal, by Cindy Tomamichel

I was keen to read Druid’s Portal because I love stories about time-travel. And, who doesn’t like ancient Rome or stories about Celts and Druids? My favorite is Household Gods, by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove. So, I dove right in to Druid’s Portal.
What I got was perhaps heavier on the romance and less on the time-travel, but there are some interesting time-travel concepts at work here, which I fully appreciated. Druid’s Portal is not an Outlander knock-off; instead it is a straightforward portal fiction romance between a Roman soldier and Druid scholar Janet.
If anything, Druid’s Portal is perhaps too straightforward. There’s no real twist to the tale, no deviation from the standard, steamy romance story. I would have like to have seen the characters a bit more fleshed out. The antagonist needed to be someone who did more than sneer and cackle and call the heroine vulgar names. There was an opportunity to make the villain grounded and real, but it was lost in the twirling mustache and one-dimensional dialogue. Most character choices were made for the convenience of plot, with decisions often running counter to the character – for example, our Roman hero seemed adept at adopting modern morals, rather than acting as a Roman soldier. And Janet, a college professor, doesn’t figure certain things out until well-after an exasperated reader is yelling the answer at her.
I would have also liked to have seen a tighter focus in the narration. It’s written in third-person omniscient (think a camera hovering overhead) which made all the head-hopping a bit difficult. The dialogue, at times was off (though there are some really, really good lines that balance this out) and each character had an odd habit of talking to themselves for long stretches; telling the reader what they were thinking/doing. At the same time, the narration was also distant, quite often using phrases like ‘there was’ or ‘a sound of’ rather than creating an immediacy within the scene.
In general, the book is well researched (there will always be anachronisms that slip by), and I liked the path our heroine took, even if she played the damsel bit a bit too much. However, Janet’s journey changes her, and I quite liked the last bit of the book where the new Janet was on display (though the ending seemed to break a rule, or I was just confused). Druid’s Portal is a fun romp through time toward a steamy romance, where Celtic myth meets Roman bravado. 3 Stars for fans of SF and Time-Travel, 4 for Romance, where character counts less than steamy scenes.

AI Rating: 4/5
Brent A Harris

A Glitch In The World, by Alex Drozd

It's hard to sum up A Glitch In The World without straying too much into spoiler territory - for there is so much about this novel that is wrapped up in questions of identity, the uncertain nature of reality and issues of mental illness that it is difficult to say too much about it without giving the game away. 
Let's start at the beginning. Stuart is a school student on a distant world, a colony that is wrestling with its own identity separate from Earth. Issues of politics swirl in the air around Stuart, with matters such as universal income being debated on the colony. 
A lot of this doesn't matter to Stuart - who has his own issues. He is depressed, he has no real drive to commit to anything in his future, and finds himself pushed along by the people and circumstances around him. He turns to experimenting with drugs with his best friend - but that way lies tragedy and Stuart finds himself in a disintegrating spiral, with his only lifeline being the pretty girl who pays attention to him at school. Then comes the glitch. A flaw in the world around him, that means some of the things he depended on as he clung to reality might not even exist at all. If you're thinking that this has echoes of some of the work of Philip K Dick, you wouldn't be wrong - albeit more in a young adult kind of setting. 
This is a novel exploring two possibilities - the breakdown of its lead character, or the collision between two universes as opposed to one another as matter and anti-matter. 
Along the way, we explore philosophical issues, such as the value of life, the nature of mature societies versus those rising up, and the question of reality. With such weighty questions in the air, it is perhaps no surprise that we are left with more questions than answers, but the book is an intriguing glimpse inside the fragmented world of a youth as he struggles to understand it, and his place within it. 

AI Rating: 4/5
Stephen Hunt

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

I've been reading through quite a lot of Black Panther collections before and after watching the movie - and man, the work by Ta-Nehisi Coates is both tantalising and frustrating. 
This is the third collection from his Black Panther run, and while I enjoyed a great deal about the ideas and philosophies explored within the book... man, it just didn't hold up as a comic story. 
I honestly grew very, very tired of seeing the characters either sitting around or standing around talking. There's a dearth of action in here - Brian Stelfreeze is a smashing artist, but you've got to give him more to do than drawing conference room tables. 
The Black Panther movie clearly draws on some of the ideas from this run - questions about Wakanda's role as a nation and what path its future will take, and T'Challa's dual position as both king and hero - but the movie wrapped that all up in a bundle of action, threat and purpose that this third book rarely manages. There is one superb section in here - but that issue is written by Jonathan Hickman. 
The ideas that Coates showcases will make a great comic book one day, an awesome one - but this isn't there yet. 

AI Rating: 2/5

Stephen Hunt

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