Coldbrook – Something Something Lukewarm, Something Something Bad Pun

81jyozjppulFor those of you who have been reading the blog for…more than 1.5 years (wow it’s been awhile now huh?), you may remember a short recommendation list I made for the zombie fiction genre. In the opening blurb that isn’t nearly as pithy or interesting as I thought at the time, I mention that books about zombies are a weak spot for me. I can, without exception, find something to like in any zombie book I read. Some might say it’s a character flaw and they’d probably be right. Back to the matter at hand I realized that it’d been awhile since I’d read a new zombie book, and while on holiday with some of the QTL crew at PAX I picked up Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

With an opening paragraph like that, I bet you’re expecting me to say that this was the exception and Coldbrook is the only zombie book I’ve ever read that I couldn’t enjoy. You’d be absolutely wrong, I was just stumped on how to lead into this review, so the joke is on you.

Coldbrook is the story of a zombie plague brought about by a scientific experiment that opens a gateway between different versions of earth. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s literally in the back blurb. Coldbrook is, shockingly, the name of the science installation where this experiment takes place. We open with the experiment just having succeeded and things quickly go wrong from there. I want to focus on that word ‘quickly’, as that is a recurring theme in the book. The zombies run quickly, the virus spreads quickly, the plot moves quickly. It’s all very edge of your seat for the majority of the novel’s running time. This has its pros and cons. I absolutely tore through the book, finishing it in about a day and a half, and there really wasn’t a place where I felt comfortable with stopping, as the action was split rather well between the various povs.

Unfortunately, for a zombie book that seems marketed more as a horror book than an action book, the pace hinders what could have been some real scares. This is unfortunate, as Lebbon has a lot of talent for situational writing. Individual moments and scenes in Coldbrook rank up there in terms of scary zombie stories for me, and I think that with a little more room to work with, maybe over the course of a two or three book series, Coldbrook could have elevated the tension and risen to the heights of true horror.

I am not as big a fan of his characters, unfortunately. Another issue brought about by the amount of story Lebbon attempts to tell in a standalone novel is that the wide variety of characters don’t really ever get time to distinguish themselves as individuals. Instead most are reduced to broad strokes descriptions and individual unique traits that are leaned on in lieu of deeper characterization. The welsh scientist references wales and whiskey basically nonstop, the family man having an affair literally will not stop talking about how much disappointment he sees in his wife’s eyes, and so on. Please note that the characters aren’t bad, and I would have loved to spend more time getting to know them, which is the real shame.

Outside of the outbreak’s source being an alternate dimension, all the standard zombie fiction fare is here: airport shenanigans, school bus fiascos, gory cannibalism, all the fun stuff. The zombies themselves are pretty by the numbers, with their one distinct aspect being that instead of moaning, they make a quiet “hoot” sound. This doesn’t really change a lot other than the characters talking about how they didn’t think zombies would make that sound, which got a little meta for me, but in the end I do prefer characters that are self aware over characters that have somehow never heard of zombies and are absolutely dumbstruck by everything to do with them.

I don’t know that Coldbrook will make my shortlist of zombie book recommendations for the wider public, but if you enjoy zombies a lot already I think it’s a unique enough take on the genre to check out. The issues I had with the book are extremely common in the genre, and present in a much lighter degree here than in most similar stories. If you’re looking for a solid zombie apocalypse story with a little unique flair, the zombie guy at The Quill To Live recommends Coldbrook by Tim Lebbon.

Rating: Coldbrook – 6.5/10
-Will

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The Night Circus – Precision And Beauty Like A Well Made Clock

518f-dysfql-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a popular book that has sat on my to-do shelf for some time. I have a number of friends who have read it, and I found myself discouraged by their seemingly polarized reactions. Many thought it was one of the best books they have ever read, while a different number thought it was a pile of garbage that was insanely overrated. I decided to take the plunge this week and found that I can see where both opinions come from. However, I definitely fall into the first category of reactions.

The Night Circus has a slightly deceptive back cover. The blurb on the back claims that the book is about two dueling magicians using a wonderful circus as a venue. This is true in broad terms, but I feel that some who read this short description will come in with expectations that might not be met. The book tells the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians who are bound to fight to the death in a magical showdown within the walls of the night circus. But, the competition is less of a wild west standoff and more of a rap battle/baking competition. Each of the two magicians alternates adding wonders to the circus that are judged by their various patrons. This continues until one of the two magicians fails to produce something wonderful or breaks. So, if you were interested in this book because you were looking for a fast-paced magical duel, you are going to be sorely disappointed (which is how many of the people who didn’t like this book seem to feel).

On the other hand, if you are looking for your imagination to explode with wonder and delight and to experience the world in a new way that leaves you reeling, well then you might be in the right place. The goal of this competition between Marco and Celia is for them to blend showmanship and actual magic into a mix that both blows the mind of the circus patrons and doesn’t feel so completely impossible that the patrons suspect there is something else in play other than sleight of hand. Morgenstern walks this line fabulously, crafting tent after tent that feel like something you might experience at an actual circus – but that fill you with awe every time you enter them. Morgenstern’s ability to walk this line, and the superb writing quality, makes The Night Circus feel like a deeply immersive book that pulls you in and never lets go from start to finish. The circus is just so damn cool. I found myself rereading descriptions to take in every single detail as fully as I could. For example, the massive clock at the front of the circus (and visible on the cover) was a thing of profound beauty, and I read the description of it at least five times. The plot also has a number of tricks up its sleeves that surprise and delight – never remaining predictable – while also telling a wonderful love story.

Spoilers (unless you read the back cover), Celia and Marco slowly fall in love. I am not a huge romantic, but I couldn’t help but enjoy watching these two slowly (and unsurprisingly) fall for each other over the course of the competition – further complicating the game. All the characters in the story are wonderful, but Celia and Marco are particularly hard to dislike. Their warm personalities, difficult lives, and perseverance in the face of adversity had me both identifying with them and looking up to them as role models at the same time. The progression of their romance felt both real and adorable – but my one complaint for the book as a whole was how Morgenstern handled the dialogue between Marco and Celia towards the end of the book. There are just some recurring lines that felt a little cringy near the end (as their love suddenly felt weirdly intense). This feeling on my end definitely came from the fact that the passage of time in the book is a bit abrupt. The book skips around in its time line, and will often jump multiple years forward at any moment. Most of the time this didn’t cause any issues for me, but it does make the development of the protagonists’ feelings feel a little abrupt. While only a few pages pass for you, several years pass for the characters. This leads to a little bit of a mismatch in perceived timing, but it was only a small thing in an otherwise perfect book.

The Night Circus captured my imagination and made me feel like I was inside the book. The book has left a deep and lasting impression with me, and I keep finding myself drawn back to the circus like many of its patrons in the story. There is just so much to like here that I hope everyone has a chance to pick up and enjoy this beautiful story. It has a slow pace, but you will luxuriate in it instead of wallow. So wait for sundown, get in a comfy chair, and go through the gates of The Night Circus.

Rating: The Night Circus – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Blood of the Four – The Antagonist Protagonist

y450-293An interesting stand alone found its way into my lap this month, courtesy of the lovely people at Harper Voyager. The Blood of the Four, a joint work by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, tells a story of dark fantasy, people large and small, and a nefarious queen with a secret agenda. The book has a huge multitude of POVs that follow royalty, slaves, priests, and artists – each with a small piece of the story. The weird and interesting thing about this book is that there isn’t really a protagonist in the story – other than the antagonist. The division of narration falls 50% on the antagonist, Phela, and 50% on a number of other bit characters. Spending so much time with a woman that you desperately want another character to murder was a strange experience, but it certainly was memorable.

The book takes place in the kingdom of Quandis, a fantasy city state founded on the bones of four godlike sorcerers. Unfortunately, the magic of the four is no longer around – but the legacy of power and splendor that they established is still going strong. The city is led by a group of royals, pampered aristocrats who have their every whim indulged. Far below the royals and normal folk are the Bajuman. Forced into a slave like existence despite their huge numbers, the people of Quandis are taught at an early age to ignore the Bajuman no matter what. Because magic has been kept at bay in Quandis, royals and Bajuman have lived together in an uneasy peace for centuries. However, Princess Phela’s desire for power and flagrant disregard for others is changing everything as she makes a bid for godlike power.

The characters of the book are its selling point. As I mentioned, the really unique thing about Blood of the Four is that its protagonist is sorta the antagonist. Phela manages to both be extremely dislikable and still captivating to read, which is a very rare combination. She does this through excellent exposition, with the authors revealing just enough of her plan and thoughts to keep you interested in what she will do next. Besides her, there is a litany of other bit pieces that you will come to know. For how little time we get with each, I was surprised how much I quickly got to care about the small characters. A mild spoiler is that a major theme of the book is that, while all the small bit pieces seem unrelated at first, you will quickly begin to realize that they have a lot more overlap than initially realized and that many of them know each other. The fusion of the many small POVs into a larger group POV is seamless and beautifully done.

As a mild warning, the book is extremely graphic in both sex and violence. My other contributors like to claim I am basically a puritan inquisitor when it comes to sex in novels, but I actually didn’t mind the over the top scenes in Blood of the Four as they felt like they fit the intense voice of the novel. I also really appreciate the choice to make Blood of the Four a standalone book, as Christopher and Tim use a number of character narrative tricks and surprises to keep the book exciting – but that wouldn’t work well in a longer series. On the other hand, I didn’t appreciate the culture and world building.

I have never actually read a book before and disliked the culture, so this is a weird topic for me. I brought up briefly before that the Bajuman, a slave like race of people, live in the lowest rung of society in Quandis. They play a major role in the story and their cultural standing is a major part of the driving force that moves the plot along (i.e., they are treated terribly and several characters want to stand up to Phela to stop this). My main issue is that Blood of the Four claims that this is a world where the Bajuman are SO looked down on, that it is so ingrained to ignore these people, that many cannot even get their brain to recognize that Bajuman exist. There are multiple scenes where Bajuman are literally invisible because royals have been conditioned to ignore them so much. It is a weird over the top recurring plot point, and I found it pulled me out of the story immediately every time that it happened. This, plus the fact that the plot is not the most original I have read, dampened its otherwise really positive character and narrative qualities.

Blood of the Four is a unique read for both its strengths and its weaknesses. I recommend you check it out just to experience the weird prantagonist. The intense prose and strong characters of Christopher and Tim make me want to check out their additional work, but the offputting worldbuilding in Quandis makes me glad that this is just a stand alone. Overall though, I had a pretty good time with Blood of the Four and think you might too.

Rating: Blood of the Four – 6.5/10
-Andrew

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