Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood

The generally accepted definition of "high concept" is an artistic work that can be pitched with a simple but succinct premise. Some examples (from TV Tropes) to help you:

  • A 13-year old boy wishes he was a man. (BIG)  
  • A man is forced to live the same day over and over again. (GROUNDHOG DAY)
  • A man is forced to live the same alien invasion over and over again. (EDGE OF TOMORROW)
  • Aliens invade the Earth and ruin the 4th of July. (INDEPENDENCE DAY)
  • A group of roughnecks have to save the earth from a meteor. (ARMAGEDDON) 
  • Napoleanic Wars...but with dragons. (TEMERAIRE)
  • Boy wizards fights the evil wizard that killed his parents. (Do I really need to?)
You get the point.

Shield and Crocus is a high concept idea that is executed brilliantly and completely satisfying. A high fantasy team of super powered rebels fights for good in a strange city ruled by evil tyrants. There is so much I loved about this book that I'm really not sure where to start.

If you follow my reviews, you know that I love genre mash-ups and Underwood had crammed multiple genres into one volume. He most obviously plays with the massive moving pieces in the genres of high fantasy and superhero books. Imagine cramming the JLA/Avengers into Westeros and that's what we're talking about. I'm going to get into the world building in a minute, but he deftly handles the difficult job of managing to straddle these two genres with an amazing level of skill while also playing with several other genres a little smattering of horror, steampunk, gangster and suspense as well. Never once does any of it feel forced or cobbled together, it's a coherent story that works on it's own.

Playing with recognizable tropes made this a fun read as I tried to piece together the inspirations and allusions to the characters Underwood created and how he came to choose them. He managed to make the Green Lantern concept cool, something that DC still struggles with while injecting something different into the Batman archetype. His villains, the newsworthy named oligarchs (tyrants), are just as much fun to figure out as the heroes that extend beyond the epic fantasy genre into gangsters, artificial intelligence and even corporate intrigue. The Smiling King is appropriately creepy and brilliant and I wish there was more of him while COBALT makes Ultron look like a pussy cat. Our heroes, beyond The First Sentinel, a little cardboard-y at times, but they are all given enough to do and their own stories that shakes out by the end of the book they are starting to be recognizable beyond the archetypes that they represent.

The plot is tight and well planned. We're coming in to the story at just the right time when any story should be told: a tipping point. Underwood nails this feeling throughout the story and you can tell while this "rebellion" has been going on for a long time, there is something different when we pick up the story that is going to necessitate change in the world. A lot of authors don't make this a point and that often stops me from reading. I ask, "Why now?" and then get bored when there is no answer. Underwood implies a lot to keep a lot of the mysteries of the world mysteries which helps moves the story forward and leaves me with questions...good, important questions like "Now what?"

The world building is exquisite. Less Westeros and more the world of Locke Lamora, the enormous city of Audec-Hal is a fantasy version Coruscant and it's bloody brilliant. From the layout of the city to the hints of the greater world., Underwood has created a memorable world that breathes and demands a wider view of. The races are interesting and unique, if not a little confusing at times, but they all made sense in the context of the world. The threads concept of the Ikanollo got confusing at times and my ability to look up what the threads meant because of my eARC might have led to that since it was difficult for me to flip back to the glossary then back to the page I was on without losing my page.

This was another 5 star review for me and a fantastic and unique fantasy novel.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Soundtrack of Writing

Well, Summer is here, which means I'm writing. I'm spinning a lot of plates thanks to a unique opportunity afforded to me by my employer. I am a teacher consultant at the Seven Valleys Writing Program's Summer Institute at SUNY Cortland in Cortland, NY. (For the visual learners, picture the Carrier Dome, turn south, drive for about 45 minutes and you are in Cortland.) The 7VWP is part of the National Writing Project and I am now a member of the family. (It's like the Mafia, without the RICO laws.) This program has me spinning dozens of metaphorical plates in my writing world. Part of the program is a very sizable chunk of writing time each day to work on any number of projects, which I have gleefully done. It's been amazing and I can feel my batteries recharging about not only my writing but school.

About my writing, I was chugging along at the contemporary YA, THE SEVEN LABORS, and making good time on it actually breaking past what I imagined the half way point to be when I shipped it off to a beta to just sort of skim and tell me what they thought of what I was doing with something that was making me uncomfortable. Well, I was okay, but said beta made me realize that this was a good place to stop and do a rewrite of the first half. I had some ideas for the second half that would completely botch the first half, so for continuity's sake, I stopped and boxed it for a few weeks. I'm not quitting, I'm just putting it aside to let it marinate.

I've got a new idea that I'm working on that has me excited. I'm not sure what it is yet...a novella, a MG book or a chapter book. I'm hazy on the title so don't ask, but I can describe it best as being "a more malicious version of E.T but from the ocean." I can't go further into it because, as I said, I'm still not sure what it is.

But this blog post is about soundtrack because music has been driving a lot of the writing I've been doing. This writing institute has been a breeding ground for my writing since I'm spending a lot of time looking back to my youth and in trying to capture that by choosing music to get me into that thought process. Since I was looking back I had decided that my story was going to be set in Queens, NY in the late 80s. My soundtrack? Billy Joel, focusing on the live album recorded at Shea Stadium with some other songs thrown in there, all by Billy Joel. It's fueled my writing, which really is what music should be doing when you are writing. It can't get in the way and it can't necessarily completely drive the writing, but it has to provide the energy for writing.

I'd love to finish this up by the end of July. Like I said, it's not going to be one of my epics (more on that in a sec), but we'll see what I can wedge in. Hopefully, I'll have a title.

I've got to be honest though, I kind of missing writing one of my big, epic pieces. I'm going to return to SISTERS OF KHODA soon because I think I have a solution to my problems with that book and how to fix it. (More epic.)

So back to the writing.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: Frostborn

It's really unusual that the two most recent books I read and am reviewing this summer have been two Nordic inspired books filled with snow and ice considering the oppressive heat that had settled over Central New York for the last two weeks. And both books have been phenomenal for different reasons.

It would be safe to say that reading Lou Anders' Frostborn after reading Abercrombie's Half A King could be considered unfair, but Anders has written a completely different kind of book that does what it does really, really well. Labeled by some as middle grade, it's hard to argue, but it reads "older" and more like a RPG tie in novel. (More on that later.)

Frostborn is a fantasy adventure told through the POV of two young people (one of my favorite methods of telling a story), a female giantess of mixed heritage and a young boy more interested in playing games than learning how to run his father's farm. The two characters meet and embark on a dangerous adventure with both of their families lives hanging in the balance.

 Anders captures the awkwardness of adolescence brilliantly in this story while not hitting you over the head with it. One of the issues I have with YA/MG right now is that author's focus so much on how much of a schlub our hero/protagonist is. I love that while both characters are awkward in their own way, they are capable and confident in others. That is something that is so overlooked in so much YA that I'm reading these days. Karn and Thianna are great characters, especially Thianna....a strong female character as a lead...just what we need in fantasy these days.

The plot is snappy. Not as grim as Abercrombie (big shocker there), it's more of a romp with just the right number of hints that there is a much bigger picture than we are seeing about these characters. It's a real skill to pull this off and Anders does it well. In this day and age of grimdark, fantasy is missing the fun and Frostborn provides that in spades without diminishing the risk and tension of what the characters are going through. It's a classic, well done chase book with all the tropes of a chase book executed brilliantly. I'm looking forward to the next step of what these characters are going through, how they are going to grow and how it fits in the world at large.

Let's talk a little about the world...I know, having talked to Lou via social networking, that there is a larger world and a setting guide/RPG created for the world of Frostborn. I have something of a fetish (maybe not the right word, but it's the best I can do right now) for setting guides and if I had extra money kicking around, there would be a shelf of these sitting in my imaginary office somewhere. I know that Lou and I share this fetish (again, I make it seem salacious) and his world building is brilliant. It's a very real and fascinating world that he's created that fits what I think that he might be doing. He mixes the right real world cultural and historical references together to build a terrific world. I'm eager to see how these pieces fit together in the next volume. It's a pretty darn good study in world building and how to introduce a world without a lot of exposition.

Lou Anders is one of the good guys in fantasy publishing right now. About a year ago, he did me a solid that I will always appreciate. As an editor, he's putting out some of the best new voices out there. I have a dream list of editors that I'd love to work with some day and he's among them. He's written a terrific fantasy novel for all ages. Don't let the whole middle grade thing throw you, any fantasy fans will enjoy his book.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

Look at me, I'm on a bit of a roll. Spending some time in hospital waiting rooms and next to a sleeping wife really helps get some reading done. (All is well, nothing to worry about!)

I've been looking forward to this one for a while and when it came up in Net Galley, I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did. I'm not the biggest Abercrombie fan...I know, I should have my epic fantasy fan/writer card taken away for saying that. I started The Blade Itself, couldn't get into it and put it aside. Several years later, I picked it back up and started to get into it and it disappeared on me. (I think a certain little girl might have put it somewhere on me and I just have to find it again.) But I was eager to see what "Lord Grimdark's" take on "young adult" was like and it's quite stellar. It reminds me, in many ways, of a slightly more grown up version of the Ranger's Apprentice series, which I loved. (I'm only on book 5 and that's in my queue.)

Yarvi is an unlikely king. Born crippled but with a keen mind (a rather timeless trope really), he reminds me of a much more innocent and altruistic Tyrion Lannister. The parallels to ASOIAF are well done...is anyone writing a YA fantasy that isn't filled with nods and allusions to Martin now? That's not a critique, just a comment, because God knows I'm guilty of that as a writer. He's a great character that develops and changes over time. His naivete is hardened as his world crumbles around him from not becoming a minister (think Hand of the King) to losing his kingship and trying to regain it while plotting revenge against those who stole it from him.

The plot is pure Abercrombie. It snappy, filled with tense action and thrills. It moves and there is little in the way of slowing down with just enough places for the reader to catch their breath. His action scenes are second to none. I see the great appeal of his writing to so many people in the way that he draws these scene with words. I'm usually terrible at "seeing" these things, but Abercrombie makes it work. I wonder if studying the entire Abercrombie catalog might help my action scene writing.

His world building is sharp. I can imagine this place in my mind and the culture he's built. Inspired by Viking culture, there's a bigger world around them and Ambercrombie gives us some hints of that without overwhelming the reader. The analogous conversion to Christianity is a big idea in the story that I feel might show up in later volumes and make for a really interesting book.

Where this book shines is the characters. Yarvi is sympathetic from the outset. He's a hero worth rooting for and when things start to click for him about half way through the book, he wears the mantle well, very similar to the way Tyrion does in ASOIAF. His mates are well drawn and become the rag tag group of "brothers" that a book like this needs, especially in YA. The mystery of the character named Nothing, the grizzled Rulf, the obvious crush Sumael, the big guy Jaud and the heel turn face Ankran could easily become little more than the tropes that the embody, but they are deeper than that and become important to the story and integral in Yarvi's growth as a character. His antagonists, for the most part, aren't one-dimensional and have depth and layers. Even background characters have a little depth to them that make you feel like they are real people.

Ambercrombie knows the tropes and, like a good author should, knows how to play with them. I think using tropes properly and in the right way is the sign of a good fantasy writer. You can't avoid the tropes, you just have to learn how to play with them. Half A King is a great place to look at the right way to play with the tropes of fantasy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

Every culture, nation, people, town, city, village, school and even neighborhood has it's own myths, legends and folklore. I firmly believe that it comes from our base need, as a species, to tell stories to explain the things about the world around us that scare us. Starmer explores both of these ideas in this brilliantly written book that brings me back to my youth while keeping me grounded in who I am today.

Childhood abduction/disappearance is a terrifying thing, both as an adult and as a child. As a child, from early on, we fear being taken from our parents. One of my earliest memories is being lost in the woods when I was a kid on vacation with my grandparents. It still kind of makes me chilly thinking about it. As an adult, the fear is amplified and much more intense as we think about our own children. Starmer tackles this difficult subject by wrapping it in a mythic story that uses just the right level of intensity, suspense and just plain weirdness as Alistair Cleary (interesting choice of name, BTW) is asked by his quirky neighbor Fiona Loomis to write her biography. The tale she weaves is mythic and Cleary tries to apply common sense to something that doesn't seem to require any sense at all.

As Alistair spends time with Fiona, he is left with more questions than answers...but the one answer he gets is the one that changes him the most. He develops feelings for Fiona that are deftly handled in a great series of scenes that lampshade the tropes that this book could have very easily fallen into. For all the mythic elements of the story, in a lot of ways this is as much Alistair's story of growth as it is a record of Fiona's story of fantasy.

Starmer blurs the line between reality and fantasy quite brilliantly. I'm still not sure if Fiona's whole story is real or just what she imagined. It's a testament to Starmer as a writer that I'm still not sure even a day after finishing the book AND reading several other reviews whether or not the Riverman is "real."

Now, to be fair, Aaron Starmer and I grew up under very similar circumstances in the same area of upstate New York at about the same time, so I like him already. I've gotten to know him a little, well as much as you can via social media, and I like him even more, so it was easy to root for this book and that fact that it is so good makes me even happier. He peppers the book with references to the late 80s that a kid reading this book probably wouldn't get and Central New York that someone not from this area would completely miss. I completely enjoyed them.

The Riverman is listed as a MG book, but I'd recommend it for anyone. It's a quick read that does a nice job of balancing mystery and suspense with the themes of the importance of stories to people. And that is what I can take from it as a writer.

In the contemporary YA I've been sort of chiseling away at, the main character is a writer. I'm drawn to stories like that. Grasshopper Jungle was about a writer and I loved that. The movie Almost Famous was about a writer and is one of my favorite movies of all time. People love stories, even stories about stories.

Also, Starmer makes setting as much a part of the story as any writer I've seen. His world building (and yes, even in contemp stories, world building is important) is brilliant. As I said, it's easy to see his inspiration and it works in this story. I've often said that you can tell a story is mine when the setting is very similar to Central New York...even if it takes place in a fantasy world with knights and wizards and dragons. \

Starmer also makes nostalgia viable in this. Sure, most of the 80s references will go over the kids heads, but that doesn't distract from the story. Aaron and I had a Twitter conversation about my desire to write an epic CNY skiing story that takes place in the early 90s. Aaron challenged me to write it. I actually set some planning notes in my notebook for it, but I'm also going to go in a bit of a different direction. After reading this book, it makes me think that it's possible. Fresh off of finishing this and Grasshopper Jungle, I also started writing a very weird story, that like these two books, are going to do two things at once: be a coming of age story and a monster story at the same time. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Reviewing Books

For a long time I was hesitant to review books on my blogs. Who am I to judge someone else's work, especially critique it for some sort of merit. I was always afraid that any review that I would write would almost immediately come across as sour grapes and jealousy.

A few months ago, I amended that a little bit by joining the group blog Guys Lit Wire to do a monthly review of a book. I also went out of my way to write longform reviews on Goodreads and Amazon of books that I really liked, because that's the best way to support an author you like: review and recommend.

I've also discovered Net Galley and decided that I wanted to add an element to my blog (mostly in an attempt to increase my blogging) where I review books. I'm pretty much only going to review books I like and they'll be pretty much copy and paste jobs for my Goodreads/Amazon reviews. But for the purposes of this blog, I'm going to add a section of where I discuss what I've learned/what I can steal from that book....because good writers borrow and great writers steal.

Also, I've decided I'm going to restart my DRAGONLANCE re-read and blog this summer, so keep an eye out for that.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How Did It Get To This?

Being a writer can be vexing even in the best of times. I'm in a bit of a crunch right now and I'm trying to figure out how I got here. I don't know how to end this rewrite. My confidence is shaken. Seriously. Between reading amazing books recently and remembering how awesome GRRM, I'm really scrabbling here.

It's baffling to me that I got this far. I've rewritten/revised/edited this thing about three and a half times. As I'm working through this rewrite, I'm realizing that I don't have a good ending. The end of this book is a freaking mess and I have no idea how to fix it. I'm happy with what I've written thus far. The story up to this point is pretty good. It's going to need one more pass before it's "ready, ready" but I think the story is in good order...needs one more good polish and there are parts that I know I can still fix. But I'm not going to get there until I figure out this ending.

I have the set pieces and a vague notion of what I want to do....I just can't seem to grasp how to fix it.