SINless #1: Necrotech

What do you get when you cross Resident Evil with Cyberpunk 2020? Let’s find out by hacking into Necrotech, by K. C. Alexander.

Synopsis:

Street thug Riko has some serious issues — memories wiped, reputation tanked, girlfriend turned into a tech-fueled zombie. And the only people who can help are the mercenaries who think she screwed them over.

In an apathetic society devoid of ethics or regulation, where fusing tech and flesh can mean a killing edge or a killer conversion, a massive conspiracy is unfolding that will alter the course of the human condition forever. With corporate meatheads on her ass and a necro-tech blight between her and salvation, Riko is going to have to fight meaner, work smarter, and push harder than she’s ever had to. And that’s just to make it through the day.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I’m always up for a good cyberpunk story. But once you’ve read enough of them, they all start to fell kind of same-y. The same mega-cities sprawl across the same environmentally devastated wastelands, the same lawless hackers fight against the same corrupt corporate authorities, the same gang members menace civilians with the same cybernetic enhancements. Realistically speaking, nothing’s going to top Snow Crash in its little niche, so any new cyberpunk story hoping to stand out better bring something fresh to the table.

Bring on the techno-zombies.

One of the major themes of cyberpunk has always been cybernetic transhumanism; the melding of technology to flesh, and the consequences for the human condition. Necrotech is about what happens when people have so many cybernetic implants that the processing power of the tech in their bodies exceeds that of their meat brains, and programming starts flowing the other way. Each shiny new enhancement increases the risk; but it’s hard to get by as merely human when everyone else is using tech to give them an edge, so there’s always pressure to push the envelope just a little bit further.

I mentioned in the opening that this feels like a combination of Cyberpunk (the tabletop game) and Resident Evil (the movie adaptation). And let me stop you right there – I know the movie has a bad reputation, but I actually thought it was decent. So sue me. In any case, the setting is straight out of Cyberpunk. I’m not just talking about your general cyberpunk tropes – of course the corporations are evil, obviously; that’s every cyberpunk story ever – but certain specific details. For instance, augmentation to the human body coming at the price of one’s humanity, with each enhancement increasing your risk of going Cyber Psycho – or necrotech, as the case may be. I’m pretty sure Cyberpunk even uses the same “SINless” pun for citizens without a Security Identification Number which gives this book series its name. From Resident Evil, then, comes the premise: after waking up with missing memories, our badass female protagonist’s quest for the truth leads her to a zombie-filled secret lab. Neither element stands as unique on its own; but in combination, they make for a new and interesting story.

On top of which, Necrotech presents a very compelling lead character. Riko takes your typical cyberpunk protagonist, an anti-authoritarian rebel on the margins of society, and adds a massive violent streak. Cyberpunk anti-heroes are usually hacker; Riko works with a team of hackers, but her personal specialty is hacking people into pieces. Sometimes you just want to take a break from cool, calm, collected, and reasonable heroes and read about a bundle of barely-contained rage whose first impulse in any situation is to punch somebody’s face in. It may put her at a disadvantage when comes to unraveling the mystery surrounding her memory loss, but it sure comes in handy once the zombies start popping up.

And to top it all off, Riko’s bisexual and currently has a girlfriend. You’ve probably noticed by now that I often complain about how hard it is to find good books with LGBTQ+ protagonists. Maybe this will finally be the one, the holy grail I have quested after so long: an epic story featuring a protagonist in a lesbian relationship which ends happily.

…Oh, wait, never mind – the girlfriend dies in the second chapter. Go ahead and tally up one more Dead Lesbian Penalty. Sigh.

Well, if it hadn’t gone for the kill-the-gays cliche, I would have ranked it as great; but even with that mark against it, the setting, plot, and characters are interesting enough that it’s still good.

Final Rating: 3/5

Last Song Before Night

If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of celestial harmony, the music of the spheres. Listen closely; do you hear it? …No, you can’t; because this is a text review, not a podcast. With that in mind, let’s listen to the Last Song Before Night, by Ilana C. Myer.

Synopsis:

Long ago, poets were Seers with access to powerful magic. Following a cataclysmic battle, the enchantments of Eivar were lost–now a song is only words and music, and no more. But when a dark power threatens the land, poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a task much greater: to restore the lost enchantments to the world. And the road to the Otherworld, where the enchantments reside, will imperil their lives and test the deepest desires of their hearts.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Last Song Before Night is about Dane Beylint, a wealthy merchant and shrewd politician involved in the king’s court, who… Whoops! Point of view change! Moving on to a new character now!

Last Song Before Night is about Lin, a girl who dreams of becoming a poet and lyricist in a society where that profession is forbidden to females… Nope! Switching perspective again!

Last Song Before Night is about Rianna, a young woman who has had a political marriage arranged for her but is carrying on a secret romance with… Too slow, Joe! Next character!

Last Song Before Night is about Darien Aldemoor, an aspiring poet whose partner Marlen sometimes demonstrates disturbing sadistic and violent tendencies… Psyche! Time to switch characters! No, wait – even though there was a section break, the POV didn’t shift this time; it’s still Darien! Double psyche!!!

Oh, and I guess there was some stuff about ritual murders and blood magic and a world-ending plague or something? I’m not sure; I might have missed it among all the sudden jarring perspective shifts. I’m feeling dizzy; I think I need to sit down.

Now, books with multiple point-of-view characters are nothing new. Usually, however, authors limit it to one perspective per chapter. All of the above, however, are used as POV characters in chapter one! I’ve just been introduced to this brand new universe, and before I can even get my bearings I’m being yanked back and forth between all these different characters and it’s too much too fast.

There’s a lot I don’t get about this book. For instance, Lin wants to be a poet. However, it is forbidden in this universe for women to become poets. It is demonstrated that the laws about what poetry is allowed and how is allowed to perform are downright fascist, enforced with speed and brutality: guards are standing by ready to seize, torture, and potentially execute anyone who steps out of line. And yet, despite this, Lin is for some reason allowed to openly perform as a female poet at an important festival where the King is in attendance? Despite having had to disguise herself as a boy before, and going back to disguising herself as a boy afterwards? And the guards completely let Lin’s flagrant violation of the law against female poets slide, only to immediately jump on Valanir Ocune during his performance? I don’t get how this society works.

I think a weakness of the story is that it is so focused on song and music. It’s presenting a universe where the Court Poet is the most powerful and influential man in the world, having the ear of the King and all his Court; where public performances by poets are considered so influential that all their songs must be approved by censors who screen them for treasonous sentiment; where musical poetry is in fact the medium by which magic and enchantment might be wrought. Unfortunately, a story all about the power of music suffers a great deal when presented in a literary format, where the reader cannot actually hear the music. The text may tell us that a particular piece of music is powerful and stirring, that it is laden with subtle metaphor and delivers a message so evocative and compelling that listeners are moved to tears; but all we see are words on a page.

The majority of the book is your basic quest narrative: ancient evil returning, heroes go on a quest to uncover the lost magic which saved the world before and can save it again, lots of traveling to distant locales and sifting through books in dusty old archives and running from pursuers, insert Lord of the Rings travel montage music here. I mean, it’s competently executed and all, shifting back and forth between all these different characters in different locations and managing to maintain a sense of continuity with regards to what each one is doing and why and what impact it’s having on the others; but competent execution can only do so much. If I’m not interested in the characters or setting, then no amount of high-quality writing is going to salvage the experience for me. I can appreciate the craftsmanship of the story on a technical level, but I’m just not invested in it.

Honestly, Last Song Before Night is probably the best book I’ve ever given a non-recommended rating; but based on my experience reading it, I just can’t recommend it.

Final Rating: 2/5

Quasing #5: The Rise of Io

After Dan Simmons named a classic sci-fi novel after the fall of a moon of Saturn, it was inevitable that someone would respond with a sci-fi novel named after the rise of a moon of Jupiter. Let’s ascend into The Rise of Io, by Wesley Chu.

Synopsis:

Ella Patel – thief, con-artist and smuggler – is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace.

With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The Rise of Io presents a complicated and interesting backstory. Long ago, incorporeal aliens crash-landed on Earth and were only able to survive by possessing human bodies. For a long time, they existed in secrecy; but then humanity developed technology allowing them to discover the aliens, resulting in a panic that triggered a massive world war and caused the aliens to divide into two opposing factions. It is a fascinating and unique premise the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else.

valvravetheliberator

Boku janai, boku janai… sorry, what was I talking about?

Oh, right, The Rise of Io. Ella is a small-time thief and con-woman who has never left her slum of Crate Town. Io is an immortal parasitic alien who has shaped human history for thousands of years and is a member of a secret organization trying to stop another faction of aliens from destroying humanity. When Io’s former human host dies, she is forced to relocate into Ella’s body, thus binding them together for life. Talk about an odd couple destined for wacky hijinks! Together, they fight crime!

In all serious, the partnership between Ella and Io is surprisingly well balanced. With Ella being young, uneducated, and in many ways ignorant about the world, it would be easy to make her a clear inferior in the relationship; nothing but a bumbling yokel graced with the vast cosmic wisdom of a vastly more intelligent alien. The book puts them on more even footing, however, by making Io her race’s equivalent of a bumbling screw-up. Her winding path through human history has been one long transcript of disasters and incompetency. Her advice gets Ella into trouble as often as it helps, and it often takes Ella’s quick wits to save the day.

The story alternates between focusing on Ella and Io and checking in on their enemies, represented primarily by ruthless and ambitious operator Shurra the Scalpel. These scenes are quite effective at escalating the tension, by showing the seemingly unstoppable progress of the grand villainous machinations which the heroes must attempt to derail. They even made me view Shurra in a somewhat sympathetic light, as they showed her own struggles with treacherous underlings and glory-stealing superiors. It’s always nice to have a complex and somewhat relatable villain. But the most important aspect of these villain cutaways is to establish that there is a traitor within the heroes’ organization, spying on them and sabotaging their efforts. This sets the groundwork for a well-executed surprise reveal as the mid-story twist.

There were a few minor things that bugged me, like Ella repeatedly refusing the guns offered to her by her allies with the cryptic comment “No guns in Crate Town”. Yes, it’s building up to a dramatic fight scene revelation of the reason for the rule; and yes, re-reading the beginning of the book, it was actually foreshadowed as early as the first chapter. But if you think about it at all logically, the moment Ella saw that all of her allies were armed with guns, she should have spoken up and clearly explained to them the reason why that wasn’t such a good idea – out of a self-interested fear of friendly fire, if nothing else.

Other than that, it was pretty good. It’s strange, though, that this book isn’t listed as part of a series on Goodreads. I mean, the whole millions-of-years-long war between two alien factions shaping the whole of human history seems like the kind of premise that it would take more than one novel to fully explore. But The Rise of Io is simply listed as a standalone: no prequels, no sequels, no companion novels, nothing. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first novel I’ve read which really feels like it should be part of a larger series that never actually materialized. Let me just do a search on the author’s name to be sure and I’ll close out this review by saying…

Wait, hang on, what’s all this Tao stuff? There’s a character in this book named Tao. Are these set in the same universe? It looks like they are.

So there were actually four whole other books published before this one, which for some reason Goodreads doesn’t consider part of the “series” even though they’re in the same universe?

Aw, sunnuvabitch.

Final Rating: 4/5

A City Dreaming

New York City never sleeps, but it dreams. And down those dream streets a man must go who is not himself a dream; who is not tarnished or afraid, but a wizard. Such is the strange a frequently amusing life of the man known only as M. Let’s stroll into A City Dreaming, by Daniel Polansky.

Synopsis:

M is a drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and limited magical ability, who would prefer drinking artisanal beer to involving himself in the politics of the city. Alas, in the infinite nexus of the universe which is New York, trouble is a hard thing to avoid, and when a rivalry between the city’s two queens threatens to turn to all out war, M finds himself thrust in thrust in the unfamiliar position of hero. Now, to keep the apocalypse from descending on the Big Apple, he’ll have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he’s ever acquired – he might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of Wall Street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steam-punk universes, hipster zombies, and phantom subway lines. Because the city never sleeps, but is always dreaming.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The best thing about this book is the main character, the wizard drifter M. I like his laid-back, go-with-the-flow approach to life, and how he solves his problems with his wits as often as with magic. The setting is also great, a psychedelic urban fantasy world where anything can happen, and often does. The introduction is competently executed, with the world’s rules of magic being clearly laid out in the first chapter. The colorful cast of characters, such as Boy and the two queens, is instantly intriguing and makes me eager to see M interact with them. Really, it’s a great book. There’s just one tiny problem with it…

The problem is, the book’s synopsis and subtitles are lies. It claims to be A City Dreaming: A Novel. It is not a novel. It is a collection of short stories. A novel has an overreaching plot; a beginning, a middle, and an end. A City Dreaming is a collection of episodes from M’s life; some featuring recurring characters or referencing previous events, but for the most part independent from each other and telling their own self-contained stories. And the synopsis which claims that M must intercede in the rivalry between the queens to prevent war; that is the plot of only maybe two of the stories.

At the end, nothing has really been resolved – this one crisis has been averted, but the power struggle between the two queens remains ongoing, and it is only a matter of time before their conflict once more comes to a head. M has hardly grown or changed as a character, aside from taking Flemel as his apprentice. We’ve learned nothing of M’s past other than that he himself doesn’t remember it; a plot contrivance which almost always indicates that said forgotten past will come back to haunt him. It feels like something’s missing. Like this is not a stand-alone novel, but an anthology collection of short stories – the first of multiple such collections detailing the ongoing adventures of M as he continues to struggle to preserve the balance of the city.

But no, it insists that it is a novel. Well, regardless of how much better I think the premise and execution would work in an anthology format, I have to admit that the actual novel is still pretty enjoyable – definitely above average.

Final Rating: 4/5

Faller

This is the end. Hold your breath and count to ten. Feel the earth move, and then… ashes, ashes, all fall down? Well, something like that. When you reach the end of the world, the only sensible thing to do is jump. Let’s plummet into Faller, by Will McIntosh.

Synopsis:

Day One

No one can remember anything–who they are, family and friends, or even how to read. Reality has fragmented and Earth consists of an islands of rock floating in an endless sky. Food, water, electricity–gone, except for what people can find, and they can’t find much.

Faller’s pockets contain tantalizing clues: a photo of himself and a woman he can’t remember, a toy solider with a parachute, and a mysterious map drawn in blood. With only these materials as a guide, he makes a leap of faith from the edge of the world to find the woman and set things right.

He encounters other floating islands, impossible replicas of himself and others, and learns that one man hates him enough to take revenge for actions Faller can’t even remember.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Islands of land hang suspended in an infinite sky, and everyone living on them suddenly awakens without any memory of who they are or what came before. This makes for an intriguing premise for an epistemological mystery, and a promisingly strange setting for a speculative fiction story. The execution, however, does not live up to the story’s full potential.

The way stories like this usually play out is that the main character investigates the world they find themselves in, gradually uncovering hints and clues that eventually allow them to piece together who they were and what happened to the world. Faller, however, deviates from that pattern. Flashbacks explaining what happened are presented directly to the reader, while Faller himself remains completely ignorant. I found that this damaged my ability to relate to the character: instead of going on a journey with Faller, making discoveries and coming to realizations alongside of him, I got handed the truth on a platter by an omniscient third-person narrator and then got to watch Faller stumbling around in the dark trying to figure out what I already knew.

Then there are the sky-islands which Faller visits. Each is a macrocosm of a different world, a different potential setting: different kinds of people, different terrain, different equipment and natural resources, and resultantly different societies. Each presents its own unique and interesting conflicts. The problem is, none of these conflicts ever see a resolution, because Faller’s solution is always the same: jump off the edge and head to the next world. He doesn’t find solutions to any of the situations he finds himself embroiled in; he just runs away. Now, that makes sense in terms of his character’s motivation – he’s trying to reach the end of his map, not deal with the issues of every miniature dystopia he stumbles across. But just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it makes for a good story. Rather, it results in a lot of short, unsatisfying episodes where Faller turns his back on people in trouble and just goes on his merry way, leaving a long string of unsolved problems and dropped plot threads in his wake.

Combine that with a vague non-ending for the main plot which does not so much resolve things as imply that they might be resolved at some undefined point in the future, and yeah, I can’t recommend this one. Go ahead and toss Faller off the side of the world.

Final Rating: 2/5

Women of the Otherworld #8: Personal Demon

Can you taste the chaos? It’s half-demon paranormal reporter Hope’s turn to headline a Women of the Otherworld book. Let’s dive into Personal Demon, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Tabloid reporter Hope Adams appears to live the life of an ordinary working girl. But in addition to possessing the beauty of a Bolly-wood princess, Hope has other unique traits. For she is a half demon- a human fathered by a demon. And she’s inherited not only a gift for seeing the past but a hunter for chaos- along with a talent for finding it wherever she can. Naturally, when she’s chosen by a very dangerous group for a very dangerous mission, she jumps at the chance…
The head of the powerful Cortez Cabal- a family that makes the mob look like amateurs- has a little problem in Miami: a gang of wealthy, bored offspring of supernaturals is getting out of hand, and Hope is needed to infiltrated. As spells, astral projections, and pheromones soar across South Beach, Hope weaves her way through its elite hot spots, posing as upscale eye candy and reading the auras of the clientele- and potential marks.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

From the start, I had a hard time getting into this book. The premise involves Hope going undercover in a gang of young supernatural thrill-seekers. The problem is, these characters are utterly unsympathetic. Yes, Women of the Otherworld protagonists have walked an ethical grey line before by, for instance, killing people; but the heroes have thus far been very good about limiting their crimes to justifiable self-defense (the only exception being, I believe, Elena’s aside remark that, oh yeah, she once ate some people). These supernaturals aren’t fighting for their lives against mad scientists or murder cultists like in Stolen or No Humans Involved, or engaging other supernaturals on even terms like the other novels; they’re robbing innocent humans. They aren’t even charming con men in the vein of Moist von Lipwig; they’re just assholes.

But the gang is set up from the beginning to be the villains of the book. It shouldn’t matter that the villains are unlikeable, right? Except for the fact that Hope’s undercover mission means that she has to spend the whole first half of the book working with them, hanging out with them, being friendly with them. It gets real old, real fast. Not to mention, Hope is sympathizing with them and there’s supposed to be this tension about whether she might dump Karl for Jaz. Even with the excuse that it’s her demon half causing her to be beguiled by their chaotic energy, it doesn’t do my opinion of Hope any favors. All in all, it’s just really unpleasant to slog through.

The story finally picks up about midway through, when the whole undercover angle is pretty much dropped; with murders coming one after another, it’s just a straight-up race to stop the killer before it’s too late. The pacing really accelerates here; whereas before the story seemed to be slowly dragging on without anything of consequence happening, now there’s a pulse-pounding urgency to events. On the whole, I think the latter portion of the story actually worked well.

The ending did seem a bit too on the nose, though: everyone points out how imprisoning Jaz rather than executing him is a terrible idea because he’s an utter sociopath with magical powers that make his escape likely, then shrug and say oh well, that’s a problem for another time. It’s like they all momentarily became aware that they are characters in a serial fiction universe which wants to establish a recurring antagonist, and there’s no point fighting this narrative imperative. I’d argue that Women of the Otherworld has worked fine thus far with a new villain each story, and the Jaz in particular is a boring villain that I’d be perfectly happy to never see again; but the characters have already resigned themselves to the inevitable “Jaz 2: The Revenge: This Time It’s Personal: Electric Boogaloo”, so I guess I should as well.

Half of Personal Demon is a good book. But it’s a real painful slog to reach the good parts; and on the whole, it isn’t worth it.

Final Rating: 2/5

The Age of Discovery #1: A Secret Atlas

Who is braver than the mighty heroes who follows a map that leads him through the dark forest of Mirkwood, over the corpse-strewn Battleplain, through the Black Gate of Mordor, and up the burning slopes of Mt. Doom? The poor cartographer who had to go before them in order to draw the map, that’s who. Now, at long last, we receive a story about those unfortunate men. Let’s chart out A Secret Atlas, by Michael A. Stackpole.

Synopsis:

In Nalenyr, the family of the Royal Cartographer stands in a unique position. They not only draw the maps, but also explore uncharted territories, expanding and updating the existing knowledge of the world. Their talent has yielded them enormous power and wealth–and it can also cost them their lives.

Now the Royal Cartographer’s two grandsons, Keles and Jorim, have been sent on a dangerous mission to explore the darkest corner of the unknown. As one charts the seas, looking for new lands, the other braves a region torn apart by ancient magics. Meanwhile, back home, their sister, Nirati, tries to protect her brothers from the intrigues, passions, and jealousies that constantly endanger their family. But what Keles and Jorim discover this time is bigger and more terrifying than any new land or sea. It will threaten the fragile peace maintained since the near-apocalyptic Cataclysm years earlier. And provoke a murderous act against the Cartographers that will set off a chain of events shaking the world–both discovered and undiscovered–to its core.…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Most fantasy worlds simply take the existence of maps as a given. This is the first book I’ve read which actually explores the work that must go into making those maps, and what a premise that is. On top of that, it presents a fascinating setting for an epic fantasy: an empire shattered into warring nations by the disappearance of its monarch. An ancient cataclysm caused by magic run wild, resulting in vast tracks of alien wilderness where mystical energies still run wild and cause random transformations. And the characters! A wandering swordsman with a mysterious past training a talented but arrogant apprentice. A telepathic cartographer trapped in a gilded prison, living vicariously by mapping maps based on the information relayed by his adventurous grandsons. The cartographer’s granddaughter, who lacks the mystical ability of her brothers and is seeking to discover where her talent may lie. This is the grist from which a great story might be made.

So, given the prevalence of elements which I like, why did I have such a hard time getting into this book?

Perhaps it’s because the backstory is so complicated. One gets the sense that the author saw the Seven Kingdoms of A Song of Ice and Fire and thought, I can outdo that! When the story opens, we’re immediately thrown into complex political machinations between no less than nine Principalities, which emerged from a former Empire shattered by magical calamity, which itself arose in the wake of the self-destruction of a yet-older Empire of the ageless and mystically potent Viruk (they’re not exactly elves, but they’re the setting’s “elves”, if you know what I mean). But that doesn’t quite hold up – after all, I love other works with incredibly complex backstories like The First Law and The Second Apocalypse. If I can recite from memory the details of the thousand-year histories of the feud between Bayaz and Khalul or the Cuno-Inchoroi Wars, why should learning this new fantasy world be so much more difficult?

Well, the choice of viewpoint characters may play a role. Usually, in epic fantasy with complicated histories and nations and magic systems, there’s a character who is an outside – a Logen or a Kellhus. Their ignorance allows other characters an excuse to explain things to them and thus the audience. In A Secret Atlas, however, all of the main characters already know everything there is to know about the history of their Empire, and the balance of power between the principalities, and the nature of magic, and so on. They talk to each other without bother to stop and explain anything to the poor, befuddled reader.

The abundance of fantasy terms doesn’t help matters. When you use a made-up term in place of a common English one, like calling a pharmacist a bhotri, it slows down the reader’s comprehension. At least, I think a bhotri is a pharmacist, or some sort of producer of medicinal elixers; I can’t be sure, because the book doesn’t include a glossary. And oh, could it ever use one, with the made-up words coming fast and furious: bhotri, jaecaiboot, gyanridin, vrilcai, xidantzu, thaumston… I mean, I can live with “thaumston”, because it’s clearly rooted in the words “thuam-” (as in thaumaturgy) and “stone” and its meaning is readily apparent; but as to the others, at least give me a hint! Don’t just have characters drop it in casual conversation and continue on without explaining what they’re talking about.

Whatever the reason, the first part of the book was a real struggle for me. By about the halfway point, though, I had started to enjoy it. Three clear plot lines had coalesced, based on the locations of the viewpoint characters: there’s Jorim leading one expedition across the sea and encountering hostile fish-people; there’s Keles and Moraven on a second expedition into the magic-warped wasteland created by the magical cataclysm; and finally, back in the principalities, Cyron and Pyrust are weaving political machinations against one another while Nirati gets into a romance and hopes to discover a magical talent. Even better, it is revealed that these seemingly disparate plotlines are actually tied together by the common thread of hints of the re-emergence of an ancient evil known variously as Mozoloa, Neletzatl, and Nelesquin. My opinion was improving by the page.

Then Jorim reaches a new continent and meets an indigenous people who mistook him for a god. Facepalm x1. And then Nirati, the only female viewpoint character, gets brutally murdered for the explicit purpose of the impact it will have on the male characters – she would have been chopped up and stuffed into a refrigerator, no doubt, if they’d been invented yet. Facepalm x2. You go and give me hope, and then you started pulling out the terrible hackneyed story cliches

Overall, I guess I liked it, or at least enough elements in it to consider it worthwhile to read; though it is straddling a thin line indeed. It remains to be seen whether the sequels will improve my opinion, or damage it.

Final Rating: 3/5

Wild Cards #3: Jokers Wild

‘Tis the season… for REVENGE! We return to the Wild Cards series one year after the Astronomer’s evil plan was foiled to see what retribution he’s been cooking up. He’s made a list, he’s checked it twice, and he doesn’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice. Let’s go to town with Jokers Wild, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

The streets of New York have erupted in celebration of Wild Card Day-the annual event held every September 15th to remember the dead and cherish the living. It is a day for fireworks and street fairs and parades, for political rallies and memorial banquets, for drinking and fighting in the alleys. With each passing year, the festivities become larger and more fevered. And this year-1986, the fortieth anniversary-promises to be the biggest and best Wild Card Day ever. The media and tourists have discovered the celebration, and taverns and restaurants expect record-setting business.

But lurking in the background is a twisted genius who cares nothing for fun and festivity. The Astronomer has only one concern: destruction.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The heroes might have foiled the Astronomer’s plans for TIAMAT; but with the Astronomer himself getting away, it was inevitable that he would return with a plan for vengeance. Now, the time for his roaring rampage of revenge has come, as he plots a day of death and destruction that will see the massacre of every Ace who opposed him at the Cloisters as well as every former underling who failed him, and will culminate in him stealing Dr. Tachyon’s spaceship and setting out to bring his malice to the stars. It’s quickly made clear that the stakes are high and anyone can die, as Howler and Kid Dinosaur are gruesomely killed to establish that the Astronomer means business.

Of course, with the main villain being the Astronomer, that means we have to spend a lot of time with his nemesis Fortunato playing the hero. I don’t like Fortunato. Happily, this book isn’t afraid to call him out for being an asshole; notably, one of the first scenes is Veronica pointing out that he’s not nearly as good of a guy as he thinks he is. Having the narrative acknowledge his hypocrisy makes it a lot more bearable than when it was just presenting him as a straight-up hero opposing the Astronomer and the Swarm Mother.

The novel also features a couple of supporting storylines which tie into the Astronomer’s vengeance; like Hiram turning the Wild Card Day party at his restaurant into a safe haven for Aces being targeted, and Roulette being sent on a mission to assassinate Tachyon but having second thoughts as the night goes on. The most major secondary storyline is Wraith stealing Kien’s books, resulting in a massive manhunt by his minions seeking to recover them. It only occasionally intersects the Astronomer storyline, and has much lower stakes since it’s only Wraith at risk, but the story is nonetheless entertaining. It keeps up a frenetic pace, multiple different groups of goons chasing rumors about the books across the city and making some amusing mistakes as they accidentally run afoul of Yeoman, Dr. Tachyon, and Sewer Jack along the way. It’s here’s where Popinjay makes his first good showing, handling first Bludgeon and then Wyrm’s goon squad with charming wit and panache; then outsmarting Loophole Latham for an encore. Billy Ray, who is not yet identified by his Ace name of Carnifex, also gets to strut his stuff for the first time as he battles the Immaculate Egrets for custody of Wraith. Though he’s kind of a tool and ends up working for the villains as often as not, I’ve actually come to like him a lot because of the sheer joyful glee he exhibits when charging into combat. Whenever Carnifex comes onto the scene, you know it’s only a matter of time until the fists start flying.

Which is not say to that all of the supporting plot lines entirely work. There are also a couple of storylines which feel out of place: Sewer Jack looking for his niece Cordelia, and Rosemary and Bagabond doing some boring Mafia-related stuff. Now, don’t get me wrong, normally a super-powered mob war would be a potentially very interesting storyline – I loved the hell out of Baccano! – but it pales in comparison to the threat posed by the Astronomer. He’s planning a huge massacre of superheroes which will culminate in stealing a spaceship and departing the planet, and you expect me to care what these Gambione suits are doing? Not to mention, I don’t really like Rosemary. Is she supposed to be a sympathetic character? Because she’s a bigger Judas than Golden Boy, working tirelessly to subvert the judicial process and let Gambione thugs get away with their crimes. Or, I guess, technically she doesn’t start doing that until after the end of this book, since this story is about her reconciling with the Mafia and starting to work with them again; this might be a case of my knowledge of later books tainting my impression of previous ones. I’m pretty sure I thought she was boring even during my first read-through, though; I viewed her as a peripheral character to Bagabond since her whole secret-Mafia-princess thing didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Wild Card. Personally, I care less about her than Demise: he may be a remorseless murderer, but at least he’s up-front and honest about his villainy; plus, he’s about a thousand times more interesting.

This book is where Demise comes into his own as a fully realized character. When previously introduced, he planted the seeds of interest with his unusual backstory and unique Ace powers, but his role in the story was ultimately just to be one of a number of lackeys serving the Astronomer. Now that he has his own story about trying to escape service to the Astronomer and make himself a place in the Shadow Fists, he is finally a protagonist rather than a supporting character. And who is it who kills the Astronomer in the end? Not Fortunato; he overcame the Astronomer in their mid-air duel, only to toss him into the river instead of finishing him off. Not Roulette; she had a gun trained on him but just broke his glasses and let him crawl away. Not Tachyon; he just whined about Fortunato not doing it while not doing anything himself. If it had been left to those bumbling idiots, the Astronomer would have succeeded in turning insubstantial and slipping away. He would have regained his power and become a threat again and doubtless unleashed some new wave of terror on the world. But lucky for our ineffectual heroes, they had a villain around to do their dirty work for them. Demise, ladies and gentlemen: he might not be the nicest guy, but damned if he doesn’t get shit done. That’s right, in the end, it’s Demise who defeats the arc villain of the first three books. I think that buys him enough good karma to forgive the occasional random murder, don’t you?

The book ends on a strong positive note. The Great and Powerful Turtle inspirationally rises again after apparently perishing in the river; Hiram gives Bludgeon a well-deserved ass-kicking; Fortunato departs New York and the book series for the foreseeable future; Sewer Jack has reunited with Cordelia courtesy of Popinjay; Bagabond has cleaned herself up and gotten a boyfriend; and Rosemary has reclaimed her position as Mafia princess and is determined to use that power for good – and not, say, to totally fuck up the aforementioned mentioned happy ending for Bagabond, who would find it horribly traumatic to be betrayed by the person she considers her best friend and indeed savior… but that, as they say, is a story for another time. Taken on its own, as a conclusion to the first trilogy of Wild Cards novels, Jokers Wild succeeds by every measure.

Final Rating: 5/5