Good Stuff: L.I.F.E. in the 23rd Century by Jason R. Richter

wp-1489438469973.jpgI realized recently that you can measure the state of the union with Saturday Night Live as a barometer. It’s dark days for America when SNL is entertaining, troubled times when they have material to work with.
Following that notion, it’s no shocker to find a lot of comedy in new dystopian stories, and Jason R. Richter’s L.I.F.E. falls right in that vein. His vision of the future takes some of our brightest* qualities and cranks them to eleven: mindless consumerism, war-mongery, xenophobia, Christano-centrism (is that the word?), dependence on quick-fix psychopharmacology, hyper-sensitivity, reactionism, sheepism, use of the word “freedom” as a distracing bludgeoun while destroying the reality of the concept, our inability to deal with anything, and generally being collectively f$@#-witted.
(*: I said brightest qualities. Most visible, not best.)
I think this needed to be a comedy. Without the buffering jokes, the disheartening reality of the world in this book would hit way too close to the life we live in. It would feel like a tale of tomorrow, not of 200 years in the future. And that’s the point. Comedy functions to package awful concepts in palatable forms. You laugh and say “That’s so true!” But you keep on thinking about the idea, the concept, the warning. And you stop laughing. That is where this book fits; it its credit, and our detriment, L.I.F.E. is more of a mirror than it initially seems to be.
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Good Stuff: Abomination

25909020Have you ever had to give a book two attempts?

This was one of those for me.

Gary Whitta’s writing goes deep into both the history of the story and the hearts of the characters, delivering a full, rich immersion into a very real and immediate-feeling Dark-Ages England.

The first time I tried to read Abomination I think I was restless. I usually prefer books that read like a Luc Besson movie; Pow! pow! Blam! …sexy bit… gogoGO BIG FINISH and explode.

messin-wit-besson

Yeah, like that.

Maybe that makes me seem shallow. I dunno. I just get very impatient sometimes. I needed a book that moved fast like a river. Gary Whitta’s writing is more like an ocean current – deep, wide, but don’t think it’s not moving! I promise you, this book takes the werewolf/monster genre to thrilling, brutal, emotionally vibrant new places. (Fun fact: it’s not a wolf.)

The magic, the richness of the characters, the grotesquerie of the fiends in the fully-realized and very immediate historical setting stayed in my mind, and pulled me back when I was ready for a book to really sink into. The light is failing. Autumn’s closing in. Nights are growing longer. Time for a book about grappling with the darkness that lurks within all or us, eh?

Good Stuff: It’s All Fun and Games

28331715This is a fun, quick read kinda hanging out on the edge of YA fantasy. If you’ve seen the movie Knights of Badassdom, it’s a bit like that, but without Peter Dinklage trippin’ balls. (Maybe something to be worked into the sequel?)

To further differentiate this book from that film,  rather than fantasy elements invading a LARPing weekend, Dave Barrett’s LARPers are sucked into a fantasy realm – so this is a “portal fantasy,” though, thankfully, there’s no big flashy portal. I liked that. One moment they’re kids stompin’ through the woods, next moment “Oh, snap! Those arrows are real, yo!”

I also liked that, unlike many portal fantasies, there’s no over-dramatized freakout session (which, let’s be honest, would be accurate for many of our high-strung spazz-nick nerd friends, who tend to hyperbolize everything.) No, these characters are obviously true nerds. They’ve been dreaming of living in a fantasy realm all their lives. They’ve probably read all the portal fantasy YA novels they could get their hands on. So, when it happens to them, when they’re off Earth and realize their character stats are now real traits that they possess, their reaction is along the lines of “This is dope. Imma go throw fireballs at something.” I dig that; it lets you hurl right into the fun stuff of the story without the usual drawn-out freak-out.

(Side note; the kids in this story don’t talk like the lines I put in quotes above. That’s all me. But if the author wishes to drop some kids representative of more hip-hop/urban culture into the fantasy world in future books, that’d be dope. My only suggestion is that any Yo-Boys and anyone who says “Brah”  should be eaten by fungus monsters.)

If you’re looking for a light, fun read, a different angle on portal fantasy, or maybe a gift for that young geek in your life, you’ll find It’s All Fun and Games to be an exciting start to a new series.

Good Stuff: Asteroid Made of Dragons

26159959Not kidding. That’s what the book is called. If you’re looking at a title as jam-packed with ridiculousness as that, you know the content is either going to be awful, or awesome. Let me assure you: here there be awesomeness.

You’ve got a story here about a mathematical genius struggling to control phenomenal cosmic powers in her head, a guilt-wracked innocent murderer, a monster, and a penniless archaeologist with a flying motorcycle and her finger on the pulse of a shattering secret. And of course, over it all, is an asteroid.

The asteroid.

The one made of dragons.

What makes it all work is G. Derek Adams’ mastery of storytelling. His writing is engrossing, beautiful, exciting. There are moments of linguistic virtuosity in this story, of written jazz, that lit fireworks in my head. I’m not talking about big words. I’m talking about the right ones. I’m talking about knowing the rules, using them well, and having the relaxed courage to break them and the intuitive wisdom to know when to break them. There are no wasted words here. You’re dropped into a strange world, right in the middle of these peoples’ lives, and it all is made real with such natural storytelling that the pace never drops. No chunky exposition, just drips and drops and “figure the rest out yourself because we’re busy saving the bloody world! Can’t tell you my story, you can get to know me by the way I cope with all the things trying to kill me!”

So there’s the rub; perfect character development, wordsmithing juicy enough to make you get up and dance, and and unabashedly bold story that will shake down your preconceptions of what a fantasy can be.

I’ll be watching this guy.

Good Stuff: The Life Engineered

26494475When the protagonist achieves Nirvana within the first few pages, you know you’re entering a story that’s goin’ places. When the first words a hero  hears after rebirth into physical life are “Brace yourself” you know the ride is going to be exciting.

J.F. Dubeau has created a post-human universe of gods, engineered life-forms tasked with repairing a damaged, uninhabitable galaxy while we hibernate in safety. Dagir is born into a lush universe, a vivid and thrilling trans-human society – and into instant calamity. She is quite literally made-to-order and unleashed barely in time to respond to a civil war that is staggering in its bredth and suddenness, though the causes for it are rooted in human programming written hundreds or thousands of years before.

If you’re looking for a fast pace and a grand scale (and that’s my bag, baby), you won’t be disappointed with The Life Engineered.

Good Stuff: Monkey Business

28650515This book breaks narrative rules. I mean, the narrator staggers drunkenly from one side of the fourth wall to the other. Sometimes he plops down on the couch next to you and starts eating your cheetoes. And he/she/it/disembodied-narrator-voice isn’t even part of the story. Chats all over the place in a familiar storytelling manner as if he was someone involved, someone there, but he’s (I’ll settle on the masculine pronoun) not. He’s just a voice. It comes off like some dude, maybe your bartender, telling you this really long yarn about a couple of nut-jobs living out a trippy mashup of Gilligan’s Isle and Castaway…

And it works beautifully!

Monkey Business is pure, cut-loose fun. Any lessons about life, love and how to be are purely coincidental. (But present all the same.)

The story is a buddy adventure about two guys trying to escape a tropical island. It’s also about angry monkeys, indigenous dudebros, the fragile, shifting borders of reality and exploding fish. It kicks off in the aftermath of a failed attempt at escape. The most recent of several. No appendages were lost in this failure, and the protagonists’ frustration has an accepting, fatalistic edge. The protagonists are longtime friends, caught on this island for some time, but the author deftly skips all the backstory and jumps us right into that special kind of humor born from watching other peoples’ pain and ineptitude. Exposition creeps in naturally… along with the monkeys. This is a big plus for me, as massive expository blobs make me want to fling massive excretory? blobs.

What really stuck with me with this story was its frenetic edge-of-reality scenes. If you’ve ever seen the psychadelic trip-scenes from Simpsons and Futurama – yeah, Monkey Business has parts like that, just as vivid, scenes that burst like a vomiting kaleidoscope inside my brain. The characters blur across the ragged edge of sanity as the world gets weirder and weirder around them, as if some ancient disgruntled god (probably that asshole narrator) is absently messing with them. The slippage of reality works beautifully to pull you in and keep you reading as the story gains more of a fantastical flavor. By the end of it Monkey Business has the feel of an American tall tale, with mundane reality shoved off into the wings to make room for a good story – Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Big Fish, Monkey Business.

Happy reading.

Or, As Pratchett might have written:

Oook.

.

.

.

I know, I know! The Librarian was a great ape, not a monkey. Cut me some slack!

Good Stuff: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’ve n9732865ever read a story like this before, and it really wowed me. Fantasy? Sure. But Fantasy so well researched it could be historical fiction.

Through poetry and intrigue this story brought me on a grand adventure across a land heavily inspired by Tang Dynasty China, a culture that always seemed mysterious and thrilling to me in its complexity and sophistication, especially when compared to what was going on in Europe around the same time.

So  the scope is big, and well-planned, but the world is wrought effectively by keeping close to the protagonist, Shen Tai, who balances martial and poetic mindsets as he struggles with the trials that fall onto him.

And there are trials. For the performance of a selfless act, a deed which he undertook for purely personal reasons, Tai is given a gift that is anything but, a present that turns him into a political firebomb. Think of it this way; if someone gave you a fusion-powered personal hovercar with unlimited range, a completely unique vehicle, you’d think it’s cool, right? But then think about what lengths every government and corporate manufacturer would go to to take it from you?

Not such a good gift, eh?

That happens to Tai. Kind of. But it’s horses. Really good horses, and a lot of them. That’s where the story begins. The rest of this gripping tale follows Tai’s flight and fight to stay alive as every political faction in the empire moves against each-other and against him in the upheaval his staggering gift causes.

It’s a long tale, but the author’s mastery of beautiful language – simple on the face of it, layered with complexities between the lines, and always within a breath of poetry – pulls you fully into this world, makes it as real as your own. When you read this story, you’re not visiting a strange world. You’re living there, immersed in Tai’s existence, and you understand him and the people around him as well as yourself.