Thursday, September 30, 2010

World War I, mechanical walkers, and VERY mixed-up animals

Steampunk fits in to many different time periods.  Gail Carriger integrates it into Victorian-era London in the Parasol Protectorate series.  Cherie Priest adds it to Civil War America in Boneshaker.  Here, Scott Westerfeld of The Uglies fame has combined steampunk and World War I in his newest teen book Leviathan.

The Clankers have put all of their science resources into machinery.  Steam-driven walkers are their war machines of choice.  They are also much more advanced with other weapons.  

The Darwinists, however, have mastered the art of genetically splicing animals.  The war effort uses some of them in the war, such as The Leviathan, which is a whale-like creature created to float over enemies, rather like a zeppelin.  The entire ship is a closed system, made of several different animals that each have a specific job to keep the airship afloat.

On a side, note, I read this book right around the time I was watching a lot of “Batman: The Brave and The Bold”, and I couldn’t help but think of the superhero B’wana Beast.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Deryn has always wanted to fly.  Unfortunately, she’s a girl, so that doesn’t work so well.  Her uncle had worked with the Darwinists’ airships, and she fell in love.  So, in intrepid girl style of old, she’s dressed herself as a boy and joined the army.

Prince Aleksandar isn’t in this for the fun, however.  Born the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was rescued from the assassination of the rest of his family, and is now on the run with a few old soldiers who were his trainers.

The story follows both of our young adventurers, and as their paths cross, they have to work together to stay alive.

If Westerfield wasn’t such an established Teen author, I’m sure that this book would have been classified as mid-grade.  While a lot of kids in middle school don’t learn much about World War I, a clever 12-year-old should follow along fine, and the type of story it is might be more suited to that age bracket.  For those of us who are still a kid at heart, though, it’s a fun, well thought out story that leaves us eagerly awaiting the inevitable sequels.

Highs:  Lots of action, sympathetic main characters

Lows:  The ideas of a prince on the run and a girl posing as a boy are a little overdone

Verdict:  More of a children’s book than a teen book, but entertaining for anyone who remembers being that age.

Further Reading:  Howl’s Moving Castle, Graceling

Monday, September 27, 2010

Manga Monday: A monkey-tailed boy, a turtle master, and a kid with no nose

For many people in the US, their first exposure to anime was badly cut and censored Dragon Ball Z.  Even now, with the proliferation of Japanese culture into many areas of the American airwaves, many people don’t know that Dragon Ball Z is only the second chapter of the story.  It all began with Dragon Ball.

Shonen Jump is finally giving the anime and manga fans what they want.  They’re releasing large-size versions of many of their more popular (and longer) series as three-in-one sets for $17.99.  Besides being much more affordable, the larger size lets the detail of the art come through better.  Admittedly, there’s not all that much subtlety to most shonen titles, but it makes some of the in-joke text to be a little easier to read.

Son Goku is a little monkey-tailed boy who’s living all alone in the backwoods.  When Bulma comes across him, he explains that his grandfather, Son Gohan, has died, and left him an orange and red glowing ball.  This glowing ball causes more trouble than either of them could have imagined.

Bulma, you see, is quite smart.  She was going through some of the old folklore, and discovered a story about the Dragon Balls.  It seems that if you can collect all seven and recite the right incantation, a dragon appears and will grant any one wish.  So she invented the Dragon Radar, and has set off on her summer vacation to find the dragon balls.

Of course, the #4 Dragon Ball is all that Goku has left of the man who raised him. He’s certainly not going to let Bulma take it from him, but he’s perfectly amenable to going on an adventure with Bulma to find the rest of them.  It’d be pretty cool to see the dragon, too.  So off they go, Bulma armed with her capsules and Goku with his magic staff, to see the world.

For the person who has only ever been exposed to Dragon Ball Z, or it’s more recent incarnation Dragon Ball Z Kai, the reader is quickly introduced to many of the main characters from that series.  Mugen Roshi, Yamcha, Pu’er, Kuririn, The Ox King and Chi-Chi are all introduced within the first half of the book.

What might also be interesting to American readers is the strong Teen rating of the manga.  There’s nothing really inappropriate in these books, but when compared to a show like Pokemon, there’s certainly some differences.  Being raised by an old man in an isolated area, Goku sees nothing wrong with running around naked, and is also not quite sure how tell boys and girls apart without...well...checking.  Also, Mugen Roshi rather likes the women, and isn’t terribly shy about it.  Nosebleeds abound.

The new format of the manga is a great way to draw buyers in to the series.  Seeing 26 volumes staring back from the shelf at a bookstore can be fairly daunting, but seeing nine nice volumes in a row is much more approachable.  The quality of printing is nice enough, with a few full-color additions, and the fact that it’s not censored is refreshing.

Highs:  Uncensored version of the story, the character Lunch

Lows:  A little heavy on the panty humor, but it’s a boy’s comic

Verdict:  A must-read for any Dragon Ball Z fan, or a fan of any shonen series

Further Reading:  One Piece, Dragon Ball Z

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What if the Civil War lasted 20 years...and had a few zombies too?

The best thing about steampunk is that it’s not really a genre unto itself.  Good steampunk is just a backdrop to the rest of the story, and doesn’t get in the way.  It shouldn’t be so jarring that it snaps the reader out of the story.

Boneshaker is a steampunk setting with a zombie story.  It’s set in the time of the Civil War, but the war became so protracted that it's been going for 20+ years. The steampunk material fits, since technology could have easily diverged at that point, and wartime tends to bring out scientific advances.  And since the city in which the story takes place is so run down and post-apocalyptic, mad scientists and strange technology fits, too.

In this timeline, America is starting to debate whether it should by Alaska from the Russians.  But during the debate, Russia wants to know if the Yukon has gold before it settles on a price.  Enter Doctor Leviticus Blue and his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine.  Made to drill underground to look for veins of gold, something went wrong one night.  It drilled its way out of Blue’s basement laboratory, ran under half the town, and then returned to the lab.

Generally, cities don’t like having the ground drilled out from underneath them, so this caused a good bit of destruction.  Beyond the physical destruction, however, the Boneshaker released as gas known as Blight.  It is this Blight gas, when inhaled, which creates “rotters”, the half-dead creatures that we call zombies.

So what do the good people do to combat this?  They build a wall around the city, high enough to trap the gas, and keep in the rotters.  

Unfortunately, they also trapped healthy humans who couldn’t, for one reason or another, get out of the city.  The largest group of these was the people incarcerated in the city jail.  The police wanted to get out of the city themselves, and they left the jail closed, leaving the people there to die.  Local citizen Magnus Wilkes couldn’t leave these people to die, so he ran back in to the city himself to let them out.  While there, he was overcome with the Blight gas, and while two of the prisoners he released got him back out, he died.

Almost two decades later, Leviticus Blue’s wife, and Magnus’ daughter, now going by her maiden name of Briar Wilkes, and her son Zeke, live in the city outside the wall.  Briar works in the water works, which does its best removing the residue of the Blight from the area’s water supply, for a pittance.  Zeke is able to continue to go to school, but since he’s treated so badly by the people of the city (being the son of the person who brought about the zombie apocalypse does that), he’s been running with a bad crowd.  Most law-abiding citizens still see Magus’ final act as a crime, but the seedier side of town thinks of him as a hero.

After a particularly hard day for both of them, Zeke gets it into his head that he wants to go back in to the Blight to clear his father’s name.  There have been rumors that the Russians coerced Leviticus into testing the Boneshaker early, and it went out of control.  So, armed with an antiquated gas mask and an ancient revolver, Zeke makes his way into the walled city.

When his mother finds out what he’s done, she prepares to go in after him.  When an earthquake rocks the area, and the drainage pipes that Zeke uses to get in collapse and become impassable, Briar uses his father’s name to befriend an airship captain to get dropped into the city.  And from there, the gas-masked-wearing, dirigible-flying, steam-cleaned-air breathing adventure begins.

This book has a little bit of everything.  It has silent Chinese men working the unbearable steam jobs, a drug refined from the Blight gas called ‘lemon drop’ that they’re hoping will get some of the opium money flowing into the country, and of course the face-eating zombies chasing them whenever they hear living flesh around.

Cherie Priest has written a few books before this, but this book is getting her a lot of publicity.  For good reason, too.  This book sets up a great world for either sequels or parallel novels, and I can’t wait to see what else will be coming.

Highs:  Watching the mother Briar meeting the airship captains

Lows:  Uneven action, maybe too many stories in one.

Verdict:  A popcorn-munching, fun, fast romp

Further Reading:  Feed, Soulless, World War Z

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Where the supernatural get a bit less super...

Note:  Changeless is the sequel to Soulless.  If you haven’t read it already, check out my review of Soulless here. Otherwise, read on!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A teen primer on urban fantasy

Charles deLint is the grandfather of urban fantasy. Without him, the whole scope of modern-day fantasy would be changed. His Newford series is his longest and probably most well-known series. He began to introduce teen readers to the series with The Blue Girl, and with Little (Grrl) Lost, he continues to introduce teens to his world. Since it’s a standalone novel, it’s a great place to jump in and see if the series is right for you.

It’s a fairly standard girls-finding-their-place-in-the-world story at heart. T.J.'s family had to leave their home in the country for financial reasons, and they’ve moved to the city. In the move, she had to leave behind her best human friend, as well as her best animal friend, her horse. Moving from the country to the city has other obstacles as well, since the types of cliques are different in different areas. So she’s having a pretty hard time fitting in.

Elizabeth appears in her room one night. She’s a Little, and lives in the walls of T.J.'s new house. A rebel in a fairly conservative, cautious family, she wants to go see what else there is in the world. Of course, being only a few inches tall makes this a more precarious venture than it would be for another girl her age. And since she was raised in such a cautious family, she’s never really encountered the perils of the outside world for herself. But she’s heard a legend that Littles used to be birds who gave up their wings, and there might be a way to learn to switch back and forth.

Along the way, both girls run up against a lot of the problems of growing up, just with a bit of a fantasy twist. We meet a few more creatures from European mythology, and travel to the underground world of magical beings that seems to exist under a lot of cities. We also learn what it means to make a promise, to keep one’s word, and to have a real friend.

Compared to some of deLint’s other stories, Little (Grrl) Lost is much more light, even during the relatively dangerous parts. It’s an easy teen book with easy, teen morals, but it’s still a nice, quick read to escape our much more mundane world.

Highs: An easy read, and a good introduction to the world of the series

Lows: A little simple, but fairly standard for the Teen Fantasy genre

Verdict: Worth the read, but don’t expect high art

Further Reading: The Blue Girl, City of Bones

Monday, September 20, 2010

Manga Monday: A cute kitten realizes cabbage isn't tasty

Note:Chi’s Sweet Home Vol. 2 is, of course, the sequel to Chi’s Sweet Home Vol. 1.  If you want to read that review first, check it out here.  Otherwise read on!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

After the Zombie Apocalypse, life goes on

Most zombie stories take place during the initial outbreak.  That makes sense; action movies are based on action, after all, and normal humans first finding out that their loved ones want to eat them tends to create plenty of action.  Even movies like the recent Zombieland still have a post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

But what happens after the first outbreak?  Assuming that we normal folk can keep some kind of containment going, you might get a world like the one in Mira Grant’s Feed.

It all started out innocently enough.  In 2014, scientists use engineered viruses to cure both the common cold and cancer.  One would think that this would create a new renaissance.  But a few problems begin, snowballing into the greatest public health epidemic in world history.  

First, liberal do-gooders, who are afraid that the scientists might try to sell the cold virus cure, steal the new virus, called the Kellis virus, go up in crop dusters, and spread the cure around the country.  Some people hailed them as the greatest humanists of all time.  At the same time, the first cases of cancer are cured with the Amberlee virus.

What no one knows until it is too late, however, is that when the two viruses interact, they cause Kellis-Amberlee syndrome.  Generally benign as long as the host is alive, once the host dies, the virus becomes active within the host.  The body resurrects, with higher brain function destroyed, and an insatiable craving for fresh meat.  Every animal over 40lbs can, and is, infected (there’s at least one recorded death by giraffe bite at a zoo...).  Being bitten, even non-fatally, by a human or animal with active Kellis-Amberlee in its system will also cause the virus to manifest in the victim.

On top of that, when the virus first broke out, the Mainstream Media mocked the idea that zombies were among us, and actively tried to cover it up.  The internet, however, distributed the true information, along with ways to kill zombies, localized outbreak information, and theories about how the outbreak started.  Because of this, many, many people do not pay attention to the MSM anymore, and the idea of blogging news has taken off. 

This brings us to our intrepid reporters.  There’s Georgia, the leader of the group, and a staunch Newsie (fact with as little opinion or commentary as possible); Shaun, her not-quite-twin brother and Irwin (a little too dumb to survive, likes to poke at zombies with sticks, and gets everyone into trouble, but draws lots of ratings); and Buffy, the small, blonde, perky Fictional (writes the fiction, poetry, and soap operas of the ‘net).

Mira Grant has worldbuilding down to a science in this book.  She does enough that nothing pops out of nowhere to surprise us (except zombies, but that’s what they do), but not so much that it gets repetitive or boring.  Every leap that the country has done socially makes sense, and even the science seems plausible.  Nothing annoys me more than coming upon bad science in a novel, but Grant has audited virology courses to make sure that this book makes sense, and it shows.  It sets the stage well for the next two books for the trilogy, but still has closure unto itself.  Very nice novel.

Highs:  Worldbuilding, characters

Lows:  Some zombie cheesiness

Verdict:  Great start to the trilogy

Further Reading:  Boneshaker, World War Z

Monday, September 13, 2010

Manga Monday: Books as weapons? Oh my...

Manga in the US is still something of a niche market.  Along with American comic books, they have gotten some mainstream attention recently (mainly through major summer blockbusters for comics, and late-night cable TV for manga and anime), but people still have to seek it out to some extent, and the average American high-schooler is unlikely to have an Afro Ken cellphone charm.  For that reason, most manga readers here are lovers of books of all kinds.  Which makes a comic about a girl who has ‘sold her soul to books’ an easy sell.  

May I introduce you to Yomiko Readman of Read or Die Vol 1. Yomiko, we soon learn, is a paper master.  She can control paper, making it into, for example, a blast shield, or able to cut through steel walls, or dive-bomb enemies with razor-sharp paper airplanes.  Because of this power, she is also the 19th person to be known as “The Paper,” a James Bond-esque title given to her by The British Library and MI6.  She runs errands for them and goes on missions, often relating to acquiring a rare book and determining its authenticity. Of course, things often go horribly, horribly wrong.

We also meet Nenene Surimigawa.  Having written her first novel at age 13, Yomiko runs into her when she briefly substitute teaches at the high school she attends.  At first put off by a  Yomiko (she comes across as a VERY enthusiastic fan), Yomiko eventually grows on her and they become friends.

The Joker is also introduced in this first volume.  The leader of Special Operations, he often assigns Yomiko to cases.  He’s quite clever, and has a quick tongue, but not much else is brought up about him in this first volume.

This being from the seinen magazine Ultra Jump, there is a slight lean toward fanservice throughout the book.  Even the picture on the back cover shows Nenene jumping, with her short schoolgirl uniform flaring up for a panty shot. Even Yumiko, with her overly-proper manner of speech and buttoned-up outfits gets herself into some questionable situations with Nenene and with one of the villains.  There is also a subplot that is reminiscent of the Stephen King novel Misery, except that the fan is an older male, and the author is a schoolgirl.  Again, fanservice.  There’s enough action and decent storytelling to make up for this, however.

The Read or Die story was first told in a series of 12 light novels written by Hideyuki Kurata.  As far as I can tell, they have never been published in the United States, but as Spice and Wolf and FLCL have come out in light novel form in the US, perhaps ROD will follow.

Highs:  Fantastically funny and relatable characters, depth

Lows:  Fanservice

Verdict:  The fanservice moves this manga closer to the ‘fluff’ pile, but there’s enough intelligence remaining that it’s worth the time to read.

Further Reading:  Read or Dream, Kino’s Travels

Friday, September 10, 2010

Oh No! Mean aliens are coming!

I’m not a military science fiction fan.  Actually, I’m not a military fiction fan of any sort.  That being said, John Ringo is one of my favorite sf authors.  Like most of his books, A Hymn Before Battle is full of military jargon and tactics and such that take me a good while to get used to, but the story itself is what keeps me hooked.

Earth’s first contact with alien species starts off rocky.  There’s a race of aliens called the Posleen who are bent on interstellar conquest and destruction.  And then there’s another group of aliens, which are rather incapable of defending themselves.  So they decide to recruit the backward, primitive Humans to do their fighting for them.  I assume that normally the leaders of Earth would tell them to fight their own battles, but unfortunately, Earth is the next in line to get taken over.  Damn.

Enter Mike O’Neal.  A former soldier who is now a web developer and sci-fi buff, he’s called back in by friendly former commanders to help head the tech development teams that will be working with the (relatively) friendly ETs to get the soldiers of Earth ready for interstellar combat within five years.  Rather a tall order, but there’s really not much choice there.

Throughout the book, we flip between fronts, from a recon group, to front-line fighters, to the people left back on Earth.  Since I’m not a military buff, I can’t speak very well on the tactics being used in the field, but it’s the interaction between people that makes the heart of this story shine.  There’s a lot of heart in this book, especially because so many people are being separated, and because war forges very tight bonds between people.  You care about the people in this book very quickly, and that makes each loss all the more heartbreaking.

Like most of Ringo’s books, even during the slower sections, there’s something to keep me engaged.  Of course there has to be a lot of dialog, and explaining, in the first book of a series.  Thankfully, the humans are clueless and need plenty explained to them.  As we’re introduced to our new extraterrestrial allies, the level of technology that we’ll be able to use is explained, as well as some basic military knowledge that some of the audience might not know.  Again, I’m not a military fiction fan, and since I have pretty much no military knowledge at all, a few parts can be a little tricky to get through, but never bad enough to stop reading.

The place where all of John Ringo’s books shine, however, is the characters.  As the books go on, you get really attached to the characters and want them to win.  Mike’s father seems like a blast, too, and I’m wondering if Cally might turn out like the girl in Kick-Ass.

All in all, it’s a great book to start a series out with, and certainly well worth your time.

Highs:  Great setup for the series, interaction between characters

Lows:  A little hard to follow the military terms sometimes

Verdict:  Definitely worth the hard parts for the story

Further Reading:  Gust Front, Live Free or Die

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Great potential, great story...inexperienced author

I was introduced to the novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms through an online book club, and read the author’s blog before  ever picked up the book.  That may have raised my expectations unfairly high, since the author seemed like a pretty cool person (and the blog was well written), but this book is a first novel, and that does show through.

The story itself is quite a good one.  The idea of aspects of the gods, and fallen gods, walking among the morals is a standard, it’s a standard for a reason.  The idea of a triumvirate of higher gods, with children of them making up lesser gods is also fairly standard, but the gods’ personalities and interactions are great.

Unfortunately, they outshine the personality of the main character, Yeine.    Raised in a society that is steeped in misandry, and considered very backwater.  Yeine was raised in a very forward-thinking family, but there still should have been more of that culture showing through in her actions and thoughts about what was going on.

There’s also a distinct lack of worldbuilding in this book.  Jemisin has mentioned that the next two books in the series will take place outside of Sky, which will give more opportunity to see how the rest of the world works.  That will certainly be welcome, since so much was hinted at, but not developed.

I wonder if the publishers gave Jemisin a shorter word count than more established authors.  I think that this story would have benefited quite a bit from a page count closer to a Robert Jordan fantasy novel, rather than the scant 400 or so trade paperback pages she got.  I know that parts of the story weren’t revealed to the reader on purpose, or were kept until much later in the book, but it really felt like parts of it were rushed.

The sex scenes also really felt like they were written by a bad fanfic writer.  There’s a knack to writing erotic literature, and this isn’t it.

All in all, most of the problems with this book are just what happens with a new author.  The core story itself is fantastic, and makes it well worth reading through the less well done parts well worth it.  I’m certainly looking forward to the next books in the series, and sometimes that’s the best compliment to a story that you can give.

Highs:  Lots of potential, great story.

Lows:  First book syndrome, not much worldbuilding

Verdict:  If nothing else, read it to enjoy the story and set up the next books

Further Reading:  The Way of Kings, Wizard’s First Rule

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ever wonder why Victorian England was pale and wore high collars?

Steampunk has gotten popular.  Very popular.  You can’t throw a rock at a genre convention without hitting someone with goggles on.  But the best authors add in a bit of steampunk as background, without drawing too much attention to it.  Same goes for vampires, werewolves...there’s a lot of fiction shticks that get old fast.  But some authors manage.  Gail Carriger seems to have that down pat with her debut novel Soulless.

Main character Alexia Tarabotti just doesn’t seem to fit in with her family.  First off, she’s the offspring of her mother’s first marriage, to an Italian.  So she’s just a little too dark, a little too curvy, and a little to well-endowed in the nasal area to fit in to Victorian norms.  Because of this, her mother decided not to bother throwing her a coming-out and a season in London, and she’s been declared a spinster since the ripe old age of 13.  

Oh, and she doesn’t have a soul.

In this universe, vampires, werewolves and ghosts are successfully made because they have an abundance of soul.  For this reason, they tend to be artists, and poets, and (gasp!) actors.  To balance this out, of course, there must be some unfortunates who are born without any soul at all.  Miss Tarabotti would be one of these people.  In less enlightened times (also referred to as the Dark Ages), these soulless people, usually men, were used as vampire and werewolf hunters.  Their soulless state negates vampirism or lycanthropy.  In vampires, this takes away their supernatural strength, fangs, and sensitivity to sunlight.  In werewolves, this negates their strength and their change to wolf form at the full moon.  But then the Renaissance happened, supernaturals were given citizenship and rights, and people are no longer able to just kill them on sight.  

(As an interesting aside, which I wish would be followed up on, the people who left England for America left because they believed that vampires and werewolves should still be hunted down and killed.)

The Victorian setting is explored very nicely, but in passing, as it should.  Generally, a character that belongs in a setting would not be expounding on details that would be strange to the reader, but normal to her.  We do get bits of it, though, as she complains about society’s obsession with vampire-pale skin, Roman purge buckets (because, of course, vampires don’t need to eat, but can for the flavor), and the two houses of Parliament (Day Court and Night Court, of course.)

There are also little bits to please the Steampunk audience.  Lord Maccon’s assistant, well, Beta, since he’s a werewolf, has a pair of magnifying ‘glassicals’ that beg to be cosplayed.  There’s also an abundance of dirigibles to be seen.  It’s not dwelled on, though, which is how it should be.

And, like any vampire novel, there’s an aspect of romance in it.  But, being Victorian, it’s completely without smut.  Amazing!  And quite fun.  Not every book needs pages and pages of bedroom scenes.

Admittedly, the book doesn’t start out too great.  When being attacked by a vampire, Alexia seems to be more concerned with the treacle tart that she doesn’t get to eat and her crumpled skirts than her near brush with death.  Also, Miss Hisselpenny, Alexia’s best friend, drives both Alexia and the reader mad obsessing about her hats and pretending to faint.  As the story progresses, though, the reader starts to see the humor in it, though, and it really does begin to be charming.  I suppose that Victorian spinsters probably don’t have terribly much else to concern themselves with than fashion and parties.  Lord Akeldama, though, is amusing from the start.

So it’s vampires without smut, steampunk without being distracting, and funny without being ludicrous.  And that’s a great combination.

Highs;  Appropriate mixture of period items and technology, quirky side-characters

Lows:  Author takes a while to find her voice

Verdict:  A fun fluff piece that has a lot of promise for the rest of the series

Further Reading:  Changeless, Boneshaker