John Dies at the End – No, He Doesn’t.

john-dies-at-the-endThe days are getting shorter, the temperature is fluctuating 30 degrees a day, and everything is slowly turning brown. This can only mean one thing: We’re most of the way through October and Halloween is fast approaching. Regular readers of this blog know that with Halloween comes…a SPOOKY CORNER POST.

Yes, that’s right. I’m back in all my cobwebby, dusty, half-seen-in-the-dark-of-a-new-moon glory. With me, I bring a review of a book that was released over a decade ago, John Dies at the End, by David Wong (pen name of Jason Pargin, executive editor of Cracked.com). Now, you may be asking yourself (or me), “Why review a book that’s been out for a decade, one popular enough at that time to have spawned a cult-favorite motion picture?” Well, kind readers, because I’ve made a note to read it, and subsequently forgotten to, more times than I can count. Also the third book in the series released this month, jogging my memory. Without further bullshit meant to inflate my word count and pay (that’s a joke, Andrew refuses to pay me), let’s find out what I think about what will henceforth be known as JDatE (note that I am not reviewing Jewish dating services though).

John Dies at the End is a weird book, for a variety of reasons. I can describe it as: scary, funny, clever, dumb, enthralling, confusing, and unique each in their turn. It is essentially the story of a couple young delinquents who take a drug and start seeing shit. This drug, named Soy Sauce by the characters, does something to them that peels back the layer of normalcy from the world and allows them to see things as they really are. Based on the fact that this is at least partially classified as a horror book, you can probably guess that “things as they really are” means “HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT”. After taking the sauce and having the veil lifted, they go on an adventure or two and save the world…sorta.

Now, I’m a huge fan of cosmic horror. The idea of the universe as a dark and terrifying place occupied by vast, unknowable entities is one that appeals to me. In this, JDatE is extremely up my alley. The specific explanations given for how the human mind reacts to seeing things it has no ability to fully comprehend was, if not completely unique, certainly spelled out more explicitly in this novel than in many I’ve read. The idea that paranormal sightings (ghosts, aliens, demons, etc.) are really just your brain trying to wrap itself around something that’s impossible for a human to have a frame of reference for is really cool. Now, explaining why people are seeing certain things isn’t enough, by itself, to make a good horror book. Luckily, Wong/Pargin does a great job in thinking up some actually horrific stuff. There’s a decent mix of atmospheric, shock, and body horror, and I feel like when you consider how childish a lot of the humor is, the fact that the horror wasn’t exclusively gross-out body horror is something to be applauded. I was as creeped out at various points in this book as I ever have been by Barron, Lovecraft, or Chambers, and that earns this book major points from me.

The humor was somewhat more hit or miss for me. Before I get into any criticism, it must be said that this book did have me laughing so hard I cried a couple times, so when it hits it really hits. However, a lot of the humor would find itself comfortable in a Reddit.com comments thread, and while that’s all fine and dandy, it’s really not something I’m looking for in a long-form novel. The shock humor and childishness of it can wear thin at points, even with the understanding that this is keeping in character with the novel’s two leads, David and John.

On that note, if you’re someone who needs likable protagonists, or just protagonists that aren’t lowlife shitheads you may want to look elsewhere. John and David are not successful or mature adults. They do not become successful or mature adults by the end of the book. They are very much a pair of college dropout fuckups just trying to get by day-to-day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that by itself was enough for people to drop the book. Personally, I was alright with it, but it is something of a trope in cosmic horror/weird fiction for the protagonists to be…well…shitheads. The alcoholic and once-great detective, the journalist out of a job and needing a big story to afford his morphine addiction, the obsessive and immoral scientist: these are all standard themes in horror, and lovers of the genre will likely have grown a somewhat thick skin for bad behavior in leads. Readers coming for the humor, or simply trying out something new may not be as forgiving, and I would have a hard time holding that against them.

The one thing I’ve really struggled to form an opinion on was the pacing. It felt incredibly off in some aspects and incredibly on in others. The book really felt like three separate stories to me due to a few time jumps and narrative changes. It’s not bad to have the different “adventures” each feel relatively self-contained, but I think the transitions could have been handled a little better. They felt abrupt, and while I think that was intentional, they were still a little more jarring than I think they should have been.

When looked at as an entire package objectively, I think John Dies at the End is a solid book. It will be very hit or miss for people based on the style of the humor and some of the descriptions of various…things in the book, but I definitely recommend at least giving it a try. However, when looked at as an entire package personally, this book was an absolute blast that I read in one sitting. I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it highly enough to people that share my love of cosmic horror and sardonic humor experienced through the perspective of characters that have no business being the heroes in any story, especially their own.

Rating: John Dies at the End – 7.0 (objective rating) 9.0 (personal rating)/10

-Will

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Shadowblack – Same Great Writing, New Darker Color

34913716When I was a kid, I didn’t have very much money for comics. As such I decided that I should stick with the one comic franchise I was really enjoying, the X-Men, and get as deep into their story as I could. While reading the X-Men, I fell in love with one of their classic friends/foes: Gambit. Gambit is a smooth talking mutant from New Orleans who was the coolest because he threw playing cards as a weapon and could make things explode. So when Sebastien de Castell’s newest protagonist, Kellen, developed a penchant for throwing playing cards and making things explode, describing me as ‘thrilled’ would be an understatement. Shadowblack is the second title in de Castell’s new YA Spellslinger series and is the third of his books to come out this year – a very impressive feat. I reviewed the first novel in this series, also titled Spellslinger, earlier this year and really enjoyed it – but does the sequel continue de Castell’s stellar publishing record?

Unsurprisingly, yes it does. Avoiding spoilers as best as I can for book one, when we last left Kellen he was setting out on the road with his Argosi guardian, Ferius, to learn the ways of the world. The Argosi are wandering annalists who find and record great events in the world by remaining neutral. However, their tendency to stalk world events mean that they often find themselves embroiled in conflicts due simply to their proximity to arguing parties. In Shadowblack our protagonists soon meet a plague victim suffering from the famous ‘shadowblack’ – a magical malady that kills quickly. Sensing that the plague might not have occurred naturally, Kellen and Ferius head to The Land of Seven Sands to investigate the mystery of the plague’s occurrence.

The mystery of the plague created an exciting page turner that resulted in me burning through Shadowblack in a weekend. The plot of the series continues to get more complicated and exciting and though I have read two books in this series this year – I already can’t wait to find out what happens next. Kellen’s constant ineptitude with magic and learning Argosi skills has continued to endear him to me immensely – which is surprising given that inept characters tend to drive me insane. As I mentioned in my review for Spellslinger, de Castell has gone in a very different direction with the personalities of his characters compared to his first series The Greatcoats. However, the earnestness and vulnerability that sucked me into his first cast can still be found in his writing, and the more you get to know Kellen and Ferius the more you will adore them.

On a different note, worldbuilding always has been, and likely always will be, one of de Castell’s greatest talents. The world of Spellslinger continues to get bigger and better as we get to meet a number of cultures that were only alluded to in the first novel. The Land of Seven Sands sits in a borderless dead zone that lies in the center of the four major countries in the Spellslinger world. As such, it is used as a dumping ground by all four countries and gives de Castell a great way to show us the various cultures he has created and how they interplay. The political machinations of the book are particularly impressive for a YA book and should keep any adult reader interested and invested in the story. Given how short these books are and the fact that I want to spend more time in this world, I hope de Castell makes a boat load more installments in this series.

Shadowblack only had one major problem in my opinion, and that is that the first few chapters of the book feel fairly awkward. It seems to me that de Castell had some difficulty transitioning his characters from the previous plot line into his new one for book two, and as a result the hand-off feels jarring. Kellen and Ferius have a plague victim walk straight up to them and lay out the start of their quest for the rest of the book in the first few pages and it felt a little unnatural to me. However, once over this initial hump, the book smooths out completely and nothing felt out of place for the rest of the book.

Sebastien de Castell proves that you can accomplish both quantity and quality with his third book this year. Shadowblack’s story continues to develop Kellen’s character, builds out the world around the cast, and has convinced me I want to be an Argosi. The Spellslinger series is a fun and heartwarming adventure for all ages that teaches you that all you need to be successful is hard work and a little of sleight of hand.

Rating: Shadowblack – 8.5/10

-Andrew

False Idols – Restoring Faith

51wy42bxtkvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Earlier this year I read a fun book called Dragon Lords: Fools Gold, by Jon Hollins. I thought it was a comedic romp with a little bit of substance that was dragged down slightly by character relatability and depth. While I was a little late to the party with Fool’s Gold, I decided to jump on Jon’s sequel, False Idols, thanks to the lovely people at Orbit sending me a review copy in return for my honest opinion. This year I have seen a multitude of authors improving on their past books and learning from their mistakes; the question is did Jon follow this trend?

What is False Idols about? – In the wake of liberating their small country from dragons, our five person crew from Fool’s Gold all went on their way to live happily ever after. This, unfortunately, didn’t work for everyone. Three of our crew find themselves unsatisfied with their new wealth and life, and the other two soon find themselves forced out of their ever after. On top of this, a new set of dragons have set themselves to conquering, not just the tiny country we visited before – but the entire continent. However, the oversize iguanas have decided for a change of tactics. Instead of brutal oppression, the dragons have decided to oust the gods and ascend to the pantheon in their stead – and then go back to brutal oppression. Unsurprisingly, our crew soon finds themselves united and once again plotting the deaths of dragons.

Did he fix the issues? – In short, yes. I am elated to see so many writers I like getting better and better this year, and am happy to add Jon’s name to that list. My major problems with Fool’s Gold were that some of the characters were unlikable (primarily Quirk) and that the plot of the book was a tad repetitive. First, not only did Jon revamp Quirk into a much more enjoyable character to read about, he also maintained her character identity from book one to have the best of both worlds. Quirk still has a stick up her ass the size of a redwood, but Jon has toned down the condescending tone that drove me insane in the first book and has raised the awareness of her character flaws amongst his cast making her a lot more fun to read. On top of this, Jon has developed and improved every member of the cast to make them more relatable. He still tells the story of deeply flawed, and sometimes unlikable people, but I no longer found that these character elements imposed on my reading experience.

The first book was broken up into three similar arcs of: locate dragon, plan to murder dragon, watch the plan fall apart and wing it. It was a fun idea but it started to feel a little repetitive by the end. In contrast to this, False Idols has a much deeper plot that pulled me in. The humor in these books is enough to carry them by itself, but paired with a plot that got me invested in the story made the entire book feel like it stepped up. In addition, I thought that the prose of book two was simply better than it was in the first book.

Does it still have what made Fool’s Gold good? – As I mentioned above, False Idols is still hilarious. The contextual humor of the situations our cast finds themselves in continued to make me laugh out loud, though I will say that because this book takes on a more serious and dark identity that meant I probably laughed a little less. The chapter titles still made me chuckle every time saw one, and character reactions and dialogue had me in stitches.

In Fool’s Gold we got a nice glimpse of Jon’s worldbuilding and I was excited to see it fleshed out more. False Idols shows us a variety of countries and cultures as the crew travels around trying to stop draconic oppression. I won’t spoil their various quirks, but just know that I don’t think you will be disappointed with Hollins’ imagination.

Is it perfect? – Books rarely are, but I think False Idols is a lot closer than book one. I only had one minor annoyance this time around and that was the relationship between Lette and Will, two of the protagonists. At the beginning of book two they have just broken up, and I felt that the book spent a tad too much time with them thinking of each other. However, this was only a very small bother and I otherwise thought that False Idols was fantastic.

On top of all of this, False Idols ends with a massive cliffhanger that has me on the edge of my seat for the sequel. The book addressed all my issues with its predecessor, is still hilarious, and has developed a plot that has completely pulled me in. Jon Hollins has done wonders to improve his already great series and I highly recommend you check these books out as soon as you can.

Rating: Dragon Lords: False Idols – 9.0/10

-Andrew

City of Brass – Guess Who’s Coming To Djinner

32718027We have been getting a lot of fantasy based on the desert and Arabian/Islamic lore recently and I dig it. I think djinn are pretty rad (they usually have fire for blood, which is awesome) and I will read every book that includes them I can get my hands on. The most recent entry into this genre is S. A. Chakraborty’s, The City of Brass. The lovely people of Harper Voyager sent me an early copy of what they promise is this year’s biggest debut in exchange for an honest review, so let’s see if the book holds up to their praises.

The City of Brass blurs the lines between high fantasy and urban fantasy, as our story starts in Cairo but rapidly moves to a complete fantasy land hidden in the deserts of the Middle East. Brass follows the story of two protagonists, Nahri and Ali. Nahri is a savvy thief on the streets of Cairo with the magical ability to sense illnesses and heal wounds. Shortly after the story begins she encounters some magical beings (an ifrit who is trying to murder her and a djinn she accidentally summons trying to keep her alive) and finds out that being able to magically heal wounds is slightly abnormal. Her djinn protector, Dara, tells her she might have djinn blood in her veins and that he should take her to their legendary capital of Daevabad to find out more about her past. The other protagonist, Ali, is the youngest son/prince of the king of Daevabad and is currently training to become captain of the guard when his brother eventually ascends to the throne. Daevabad is currently in a period of unrest as tensions between full blooded djinn and human/djinn hybrids, called shafit, fight over shafit rights. Ali is a shafit sympathizer and trying to support their push for a better life, but is actively working against the interest of his father to do so.

Both the leads are fun characters with relatable flaws to keep them grounded. Ali in particular has a stick up his ass the size of a tree, and watching him loosen up and learn to take life less seriously was something I really enjoyed. Nahri’s ignorance of Djinn culture and Ali’s training to become captain both allow Chakraborty to do a lot of seamless worldbuilding in a really natural way. On top of this, the world building is fascinating, rich, and deep. There are a variety of Djinn tribes, multiple magical races, and a handful of cities that Chakraborty brings to life creating a vibrant world hidden within our own. In addition, the plot of the book feels like a well written political thriller with a multitude of twists and reveals that keep the book constantly exciting.

One thing in particular that I really enjoyed about the book has to do with family. The family dynamic and interactions that Ali has with his family was one of the most refreshing and heartwarming things I have read in awhile. Ali, his siblings, and his parents all have very different ideologies and personalities, but Chakraborty manages to paint them as a group of people who deeply love one another despite their differences instead of Game of Throne-esque where they are just waiting for the best moment to betray each other. The book does a wonderful job of painting all issues and opinions in shades of grey that I love. Ali’s conversations with his older brother and father were some of my favorite parts of the book.

While there were many things I enjoyed about The City of Brass, no book is perfect. I mentioned that I loved Ali’s family, the exception to this is his sister. Ali’s sister is underdeveloped to the point where I cannot remember the name of her character. She seemed like she had some interesting things to contribute in the small time we had with her, but she simply does not get enough development or screen time. On the other side of things, Nahri was a great lead but her story sometimes felt like it would drag a little bit. In particular, the middle of the book felt slightly repetitive as Nahri was traveling over large expanses of desert.

Summing up my thoughts, I did really enjoy The City of Brass. I feel that this debut holds up to all the hype and will likely be one of the best books of the year. Brass has a lot of heart, a rare and valuable attribute in books, but might need a touch more polish. However, this is an incredible book for a debut and I cannot wait to see what Chakraborty has for me next.

Rating: The City of Brass – 8.5/10

The Curse Of Chalion – Undeserving Of Obscurity

61886As I continue to dig through my older to-read pile, I have been hitting a lot of books that my opinions of could be charitably described as “late to the party”. One exception to this case might be a lesser known classic that I would love to draw your attention to: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Those who know it almost always love it, but I have been finding that many avid readers (myself included until recently) know little about it. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Lois McMaster Bujold is a quite famous author best known for her Vorkosigan Saga – a science fiction series epic in size that actually just won the Hugo for best series this year. However, Bujold has written a number of books in various genres, and one of her most highly regarded, though still lesser known, is a semi standalone fantasy novel called The Curse of Chalion. The book technically has both a prequel and a sequel, but they both seem to only tangentially follow the events of Chalion so I am going to treat it as a standalone.

Chalion’s plot is a bit difficult to describe, as it is one of those books where the point is less about what happens and more about the emotional journey it takes you on. The story follows Cazaril, a middle aged disenfranchised nobleman. We meet Cazaril at the start of the book just after he has escaped life as a slave and is traveling back to friends of his youth – hoping they will remember and employ him. Upon arriving at the estate of Chalion where he was once a page, he is recognized and soon given a job as a tutor for a princess. The book then spends a significant amount of time developing the cast of characters, exploring Cazaril’s backstory, fleshing out a well-built world, and introducing the endgame of the plot: the house of Chalion has an age old curse that must be broken. A large portion of the book revolves around its religious structure and the worship of a family of five gods (The Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, and Bastard) that all represent different aspects of life. I found that Bujold’s interesting take on Gods, and their involvement in everyone’s life, was one of my favorite elements of the book and really gave her world a unique feel.

This is a gross oversimplification of the story because the writing in Chalion is very much a slow burn. Bujold’s writing style reminds me very much of one of my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, in its slow pace and beautiful prose. Fortunately the slow pacing is very enjoyable because the cast of characters, both protagonists and antagonists, are excellently written and pleasent to be around. Chalion accomplishes the rare feat of showing some of the cast grow up over time and getting you invested in how they change as a person. This is particularly impressive because as I mentioned the story is contained to a single book. To make up for this, the book is extremely large and I would not recommend it to those who are looking for breakneck pacing and action. Chalion feels almost like the literary version of a gentleman, preferring to resolve all conflicts with words and discussion as opposed to combat.

As mentioned before, the prose in this novel is gorgeous. I found myself presented with an endless stream of quotes that I was sending to friends because they were profound and wonderful. Bujold has an outlook on life and a way with words that combined make her narrative voice a joy to read. An additional major focus of the book is on romance, and I think you would truly have to be dead inside to not enjoy it. The cast is charming, loveable, and genuine and watching the various members slowly come together is simply heartwarming.

The Curse of Chalion is food for the soul and a gorgeous piece of writing. It is a shame that I constantly see it on underread and underrated fantasy lists because it was one of the most warm books I have read this year. If you have the patience for a book with a slower pace or are looking for a story with a heart of gold I definitely recommend you check out this self-contained story. In the meantime, I am clearly going to have to check out The Vorkosigan Saga to get some more time with Bujold’s narrative voice.

Rating: The Curse of Chalion – 8.5/10

The Left Hand Of Darkness – Gender Politics

left-hand-of-darkness-design-alex-trochutToday’s post is more of a thought piece than a review, because no one needs another positive review of The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin. It is one of the best science fiction books ever written, has won a number of awards, and is considered one of the most iconic books ever printed – if you haven’t read it you should. I will say that I have been making my way through a number of iconic sci-fi novels this year, and have had a few that didn’t quite live up to my expectations like Stranger in a Strange Land. However, I am happy to say this was decidedly not the case with The Left Hand of Darkness and it is definitely worth a read.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, Darkness is a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, a series of semi stand alone books that catalog the stories of the lives of ambassadors for the Hainish empire. The Hainish are a consortium of planets who possess methods for instantaneous communication, but not instantaneous travel. This means that planets can talk to each other to trade ideas and technology, but visiting other planets is a colossal effort. For this, and a number of other reasons, when the Hainish discover a new planet they want to bring into the alliance they send a single ambassador to study the planet and convince it to join. Darkness in particular tells the story of Genly Ai, an ambassador to Winter. Winter is a cold and icy planet with a very interesting adaptation from the humans who live there – they can freely switch between male and female genders, but mostly remain androgynously between them.

Darkness tells a wonderful story that is worth reading, but it also contains a large thought experiment on the meaning of gender and our unconscious assumptions about both genders. I will say right off the bat I have not read a better book at helping me discover some of the unconscious biases for both genders I apparently personally hold and clearly need to work on. Before reading this I would have said I didn’t have any bias at all, but Darkness has a way of digging deep and, ironically, letting the light in. The power of Darkness is in its subtlety. The book doesn’t focus on the genderless aspect of the story, instead treating it as almost background information that occasionally gets brought up – usually by the narrator Genly Ai as he reacts to people flipping genders around him. Le Guin instead takes the characters, who have been wiped clean of any gender identity, and put them into situations that have traditional gender roles and identities attached to them. She then pulls apart our expectations about those roles and how it influences how we think of the genders. I know that seems confusing as an abstract so let me give you a concrete example. One of the eye opening things for me was the monarch. Winter has a royal ruler, a king/queen. While there are of course any number of queens, a monarchy is something that I (and I assume others) associate as a traditionally male role. In addition, the monarch is arrogant and stubborn which are two additional things I apparently associate with being male. Using these primers, Le Guin got me to think of Winter’s monarch as a man, but then as I got to know the monarch I found I was uncomfortable and confused when they both revealed themselves to also be nurturing and motherly, in particular when the monarch eventually gets pregnant. Darkness is just clever and subtle in its gender manipulations and it is something I really appreciate about it.

While reading Darkness, my mind often jumped to two recent popular sci-fi novels that both play with gender politics: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, and Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer. I have talked about both before, and like both of them. Both books have clearly taken some of Le Guin’s ideas and taken different directions to explore the reader’s assumptions about gender (I am oversimplifying but Justice is told from the perspective of an AI who can’t tell gender apart and Lightning constantly lies to you about what gender people are). However, I found I liked Darkness’ take on gender most because of the previously mentioned subtly. With the two newer books the gender discussion is at the forefront – always present. The Left Hand of Darkness’ clever use of it as a subconcept hidden in the noise in the story allowed me to have a much higher degree of self discovery than in Justice or Lighting. As such, if you have not read The Left Hand of Darkness yet, I definitely recommend that you do. You might learn something about yourself.

-Andrew

Communication Failure – A More Clear Message

51iumd8kwyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_One of the hidden gems I read last year was a satirical science fiction called Mechanical Failure, by Joe Zieja. It was the story of a disillusioned and incompetent military vet, Rogers, being forced back into service on a warship where everything seems just a little off. The plot follows Rogers attempts to uncover what’s causing the weirdness and results in a larger conspiracy being revealed. The book only loosely relied on its plot, with the meat of the appeal being the book’s humor that had me laughing out loud constantly. So when I got my hands on a early copy of Zieja’s sequel, Communication Failure, I was very curious to see if the series could keep its appeal in a second novel.

I was concerned that the plot, which was neither outstanding nor bad in Mechanical Failure, might drag Communication Failure down. However, the exact opposite was true as Comm sees an enormous increase in plot complexity and world building. I was incredibly impressed with the level of detail that Zieja added to his world in this second novel. Our story picks up with Rogers somehow in charge of a derelict fleet. Comm follows his attempts to learn to be a leader, deal with a foreign fleet attempting to destroy him, and continue to unravel a tapestry worth of conspiratorial threads around him. There was a lot more character development than I was expecting as the book progressed and I found myself very invested in the characters by the end. I found myself groaning aloud as I finished Comm because I am dying to know what happens next.

While Comm vastly increased my investment in the plot, it didn’t lose a single step on the humor front. Communication Failure is just as funny as Mechanical Failure was and I found myself once again laughing like a mad man in public as I read Comm on the subway. What is particularly impressive about Comm is what I would describe as a diversification of humor. Zieja does not just rely on a single joke or type of humor, keeping the books constantly fresh and funny. There is situational and contextual humor, science fiction parody and satire (his take on sci-fi fighter pilots is amazing), wordplay and puns, and terrible unfunny jokes that Zieja repeats until I angrily laughed at them. My favorite example of the last in that list was Zieja’s Thelicosan captain who roundhouse kicks something or someone every two seconds. When she initially made her introduction and started kicking people I loudly thought “well this book is hilarious so far, but I think you missed with that one Zieja”. About 100 pages and 30 kicks later I found myself angrily trying not to laugh, and failing, as she continued to kick her way through existence. As I have been writing this review I have just been sitting at my desk laughing as I think about various scenes, so it is safe to say Communication Failure is one of the funniest books I have read… well since Mechanical Failure.

With vast improvement to the world and characters, and continued top notch humor, Communication Failure is a sequel that surpasses its previous debut. The story now has me hooked and I am dreading the long wait to find out what happens in the next book. With this successful second entry, my hope is that Zieja will keep churning out an endless number of Failures as I don’t think I will ever get tired of reading them.

Rating: Communication Failure – 9.0/10

-Andrew