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Ready Player One

Ready Player One

Ready Player One softcover coverYes, this is a bit late in the game, and no the movie had nothing to do with this. But I will talk about the trailers after the book. Spoilers below the fold.

Ready Player One is…well, it is a lot of things. It’s good. Let’s lead with that. It’s good.

The basic story – a treasure hunt – is mostly well thought out, with a plausible plot, motivations, and so forth. The characters don’t blend into each other, and are well-written for what they are (more on this later). Ernest Cline misses some opportunities to take the book to a higher level (several, really), and has a bad habit of discarding side characters like a starting level piece of gear. Some aspects of the way the world is constructed could have been better (stacked Winnebagos…shipping containers makes much more sense…and are designed to be stacked), but it is at least consistent. Again, I liked the book. But while it was good, there is real room to improve.

So good, but what it most assuredly is not is great. Not close. Despite the cover blurbs proclaiming it ‘Willy Wonka Meets The Matrix’ or ‘A Grown-Up’s Harry Potter’, it is neither of those either. See, the problem with the whole thing is that it is missing what Willy Wonka, Harry Potter, and even The Matrix presented in job lots.

Hope. (more…)

Disposal

Disposal

Disposal coverThis is the third book in the Pop Traveler series by Tara Tyler. Since I had missed the first two, I will cover them a bit first.

In book one, Pop Travel, we meet J L Cooper, widower PI and general dropout from life. He is hired to find out what happened to a man’s wife, and in the course of this investigation, stumbles on a massive conspiracy focused on the transformative technology known as Pop Travel. It’s a kind of instant teleportation from place to place. Advantages include instant travel, popping cures disease and intoxication. Disadvantages include exploding in a shower of glitter. Cooper encounters Geri, an agent assigned to derail his investigation. Or kill him. Either way. We are also introduced to Hasan, known as The Creator, the man who invented popping. Once this is resolved, we move on to Simulation, where illegal cone androids known as simulations are being used to replace people. These replacements are part of a larger plot, and sometimes killing using their faces.

Finally, we get to the last book, Disposal.

Cooper and Geri are back together, and Cooper’s nephew Jimmy is staying the summer while his dad is in the home stretch for the Presidency. Cooper is working with a local officer, who makes Geri feel insecure because of her looks. And there is a new drug about to hit the streets – Butter. Butter addicts the user instantly, and over time creates a dependency that allows the user to become a virtual zombie – fully controlled by the dealer.

So, of course, Jimmy gets caught up in the Butter plot as a means to control his father, who is expected to win the White House in a Reagan-like landslide. Cooper pulls all the strings he can to save Jimmy, recruiting Hasan to help break the grip Butter has on users.

So, this is the end of this series, for now at least. As I read them back-to-back, it is hard to fully separate one from the other. But overall, the stories were good, with a lot of interesting looks at a possible future, without any needless message insertions. Message is there, but it is done right – it is part of the plot, not something wedged in to check a box. My main impression is one of a good detective story, solid enough science (teleportation has its own suite of problems, from that whole ‘it kills you’ thing to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), and good characterizations.  The story is solid, it tells one story, isn’t trying to be too clever for the author’s ability to keep secrets, and tells one story. That last matters to me. Too much these days is trying to tell 2 or more stories, and seldom do we see an author who can pull that off. Not an issue here – each book is one story, contained, with subplots to be sure, but not subplots masquerading as plots. You get a good book, and one that is enjoyable to read.

I did have one real issue with the series, and it is worst in the first book. The near worship of Hasan, who invented pop travel, as The Creator (it’s caps in the book too). I get that something so revolutionary would make him a celebrity, and likely a Steve Jobs on HGH, ‘roids, and literally every other performance enhancing substance ever level of celebrity. But still…it gets to be a lot too much. Hasan is more-or-less charming with his mangling of idiom and metaphor, but the whole Creator thing was a bit much.

And that was really the main complaint of the whole series. Cooper and Geri were well done, the various side characters were exactly as detailed as they needed to be, and there weren’t any holes in the plot I could see. This was a perfectly enjoyable read, and a good journey from point to point.

Dishonor Thy Father

Dishonor Thy Father

Dishonor Thy FatherWow. This was a lot of fun to read, and then…well, wow can go both ways.

This is a well crafted murder mystery, with a lot of background, and a lot of twists. And well-done ones, not the ‘oh, look, a twist’ kind we see so often. This book covers some touchy topics in the course of spinning a good detective story.

The basic plot summary is like so: a 15-year-old Iranian girl is viciously attacked by her father for being seen with a boy (not approved of). In running to escape certain death, she undertakes a dangerous journey to a new land with unfamiliar customs, where she must hide the truth from everyone she meets. Twenty years later, amid racial tensions in a Los Angeles hospital (immigrant doctors being the issue, not so much skin color), a female Muslim doctor is violently murdered, sparking a controversial police investigation. The lead investigator, Detective Michael Tucci, finds himself compromising both his job and his life as he embroils himself in an affair with Dr. Tara White, the victim’s associate, who could be the killer’s next target. Suspects include a head doctor who is mentoring on one hand, and supporting the protests on the other, his wife, protestors, and more.

So, there is a lot happening. And most of it is smoothly done.

The characters are nicely fleshed out, and they start from a place where they didn’t need to be, exactly, to work. If you think of Pacific Rim, the characters are total archetypes – the gruff vet, the burned out hero, the novice with mad skills, the cocky sidekick…and that is all you need – there is no other development needed, these are so ingrained in the zeitgeist that we know them without thinking. Our detective, Michael Tucci, could easily have been left at ‘weary veteran cop with a jaded outlook who still has a spark of hope left’, and no more is needed. And to be fair, that is mostly where he stays – but he does have a story, and a depth beyond the archetype. That is a great bit of writing – to go beyond what you must do because it is more satisfying. The characters all get this treatment – there are very human levels to them all, even the victim (who gets very little page time). These added dimensions help make them all more real, and that is something to be encouraged at all times.

But then we hit a snag. The snag is that the book just up and ends. No resolution, no real sequel setup, just an ending. A stopping, rather. And that is really unsatisfying. Especially since the rest of the book is so well crafted and written. I want to say this was a setup for book 2, but honestly it reads more like someone decided this was enough words, and cut it off. There is, I suspect, a chance there will be a sequel that will be as rough at the beginning, since this feels a lot like the book was chopped into pieces to make length. Time will tell.

But that is just the ending – there is a lot of resolution before that point, and this is very worth the read. If you like a good mystery, solid characters, and unexpected plot twists, this is very much the book for you.

Heir Ascendant

Heir Ascendant

Heir AscendantMatthew Cox giveth, and he taketh away. This was an odd sensation, as I read Silver Light and Heir Ascendant back to back, and have the opposite reaction to each.

Sorry, but this was just too much to take. Especially once I read the afterward.

So, Heir Ascendant is the tale of Maya Oman, the daughter of the woman who controls what’s left of civilization, the CEO of Ascendant Pharmaceuticals Corporation. Maya is used as more prop than child, selling everything from vital medicine to vanity drugs with risky side effects. Lifelike android clones reside in over a dozen homes, shielding her from the violent resentment of a population straining under her mother’s control. The evil drug company’s power comes from a drug called Xenodril, a drug capable of reversing the effects of Fade, a disease some claim came from aliens or from the governments that predate the war (a WWIII event that is only loosely explained). Only Ascendant sells it, and at a price only those who can afford to live in the walled cities can afford. The rest are left to die.

Maya lives alone, with no companionships except computers and the smart apartment, and is only allowed out to promote the company in ad shoots.  Until a group of…hard to say, since they are alternately described as mercenaries (blurb), freedom fighters, revolutionaries, or terrorists…kidnap her for ransom. And this was where it stopped, originally, with the interactions between Maya and the kidnappers.

That part of the story is really well done. And works, regardless of the outcome that was originally there. I liked that, even though it comes at you very quickly, and without any real setup. That’s ok, it still works.

But that isn’t where it stops. And this is where I start shaking my head. Maya is nine. Nine. And she is engineered to be smart, yes, and all the other things, but she is still nine. She spends the whole book (or close enough) barefoot in a nightgown. And winds up in multiple firefights, crossing miles and miles of broken, ruined, city, and so on and so forth (no spoilers, right?). It leaves believable quickly, and moves into the realm of sub-par fan fiction. Sorry, but this is just not something I can buy into.

I do want to point out that at no point is the very real threat (in the modern world, much less this dystopian version) of sexual assault realized. So you won’t face that. It is discussed, and there is some off-camera abuse of a side character. It was in the past, so while it informs character actions, it is not happening in the time frame of the book.

I do think that Cox’s instinct was correct – he needed to age the character more. A mid-to-late teen would have helped a lot, even without any real plot changes. A more believable set of circumstances would have helped. Shoes. Damn, just some shoes would have helped.

The messages here are clear – evil pharma companies, exploiting child actors, bad parents. That was also a bit heavy, especially when the full scope of the actions of Ascendant come to light. It just all piled on, and defeated itself. There are bits to like, plot points that could work, I just didn’t feel it this time.

I will say this – Cox is a good author, and no one is perfect. So while this one book is not recommended, keep an eye out for his other work – they are very much worth your time and money.

Silver Light

Silver Light

Silver LightThis was really appreciated. A solid, new, take on classic mythologies without the all-too-frequent baggage of overly forced subplots. Silver Light by Matthew Cox is just about perfect. And the one imperfection is forgivable, and probably just in the eye of the beholder.

Alexis Silver is a PI, someone who has a reputation for getting the job done, and sometimes doing weird things. Like being a mermaid. If it helps, she wasn’t born that way… Ok, I expect eyes are rolling, since the ‘mermaid’ thing is basically associated with the House of Mouse and their animation department. Or any number of clones thereof. Cox has done something totally different here. In this cosmology, the mer are possessed (ish) by what he terms Dark Masters, who seem to be ascended (descended?) humans with magical powers and darkness in their souls. Evil deeds, even when done for understandable reasons, are still evil – that kind of thing.

So, we have Alexis, born about a century back, very smart, married young to a soldier killed in WWI, and then shipwrecked, and transformed. The back is a bit weaker than I like, but not so much to be an issue. As a mer, she needs to consume raw meat fairly often (sushi counts), and not be too far from salt water, preferably the ocean.

When she is hired to find a missing family, she finds herself in the middle of a lot more – from ex-boyfriend werewolves to children in peril. That is part of what makes this so good; there is a lot of room for more, but you never feel the plot or characters are being neglected. And that includes all the characters. Alexis, her Dark Master, the victims, the clients, the cops, the side characters, everyone is getting their time, and their arc are all contained and consistent. We never see anyone acting out of character, or beyond the realm of believability.

It is refreshing to see people being real. A lot of the books I haven’t talked about have been having problems with that, and so it becomes something to note here. Literally everyone is believable. It seems like a small thing, but really, really isn’t.

There is one little problem I had. The book runs afoul of Chekhov’s Gun. This literary rule was stated by the playwright several times, and basically says “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Misdirection is one thing, but it still uses the ‘gun’. In this, we have the oddly detailed opening scenes with the missing rich kid and his hippie friends in the woods. I mean, really oddly detailed. As in (per my Kindle) the first 8% of the book. And it goes nowhere. That is just ringing a bell in my head – there needs to be either less detail for it to work as a throwaway introduction, or we need to come back to this. I spent the rest of the book waiting for things to tie back together, and it just never happened.

Then again, this is book one of a series, so there is time!

Really, the initial intro case’s level of detail and lack of continuation is all I had issue with in this book. There is every reason to buy and read, and not a single good reason not to.

Season of the Wind

Season of the Wind

Season of Wind CoverThis is the second book in the Clockwork Gods chronicles. I read it back to back with the first (Hour of Mischief), and have to say, these are a decent pair of stories.

In an nutshell, the setting is a steampunk / godpunk world where there are 12 Clockwork Gods – not clockwork as in gears and such, but they each control an hour of the day, along with various other aspects of life. Think the usual smattering of war, lust, drinking, theft, knowledge, and whatnot, but also tied to a section of the day. It is an interesting setup, and one that is beginning to be explored here in a bit more depth than the first book. Admittedly, the exploration is still playing second fiddle to the plot, which is good in most respects (except for the whole ‘need more background’ thing I do), and the background serves the story. In fact, everything serves the story – there is a lack of extraneous elements, which is refreshing. Nothing is shoehorned into the book, or if it is, it is done well enough that it isn’t obvious in the least.

The plot follows our crew from the first book as they continue to work to save the world. This time, in another city altogether, and without the aid of her patron, Itazura. The stakes are bigger, as one of the elder seasonal gods has Itazura captive, and may plan to kill him to disrupt the power of the pantheon. To add to the drama, Janet is changing. And not in the way one expects at her age. No, she is healing, can open locks at a touch, and seems to be having prophetic dreams as well. Almost like she has Itazura’s powers or something.

So, in order to save the pantheon, herself, and hopefully her wendigo-imprisoned friend Sylvia, it’s off to rescue Itazura – with the aid of some Clockwork Gods. Sadly, there isn’t a god of rescue missions.

The story is well done, with good pacing, new information about the conflict and world, and properly introduced new characters (properly – they are introduced in a natural way, treated realistically, and have their own stories). The expansion of the world is well-done, with elements drawn from a good array of sources, without being the exact source. Little changes are nice, and it makes the informed reader feel they saw behind the curtain, without leaving the uninformed reader wondering what they missed. There is only one real issue I had with the expanded world.

It feels too much like a post-apocalyptic Earth. Way too much. And it didn’t in the first book.

While I have nothing specific against the far-future fantasy, it always feels like the creator is thinking themselves so very clever when the inevitable reveal occurs. Dispensing with it early (Son of the Black Sword, for example) doesn’t mitigate the bad taste this leaves. In Ms. Hyndman’s defense, there has been no such reveal, and the feeling could be just an artefact of the ‘drawn from’ method of world building that has already occurred (see wendigo above…).

But that is all there is to really complain about. Like a good sequel, it is light on ‘last episode’ stuff, and heads right into the action, with some gaps in time, but they are explained in the narrative, so no long blocks of explaining how we got from there to here.

This is a good series, and worth the time to pick up and read. Well done.

The Switch

The Switch

The Switch CoverThis was just a fascinating read. It is rare to find a book where the characters, their interactions, responses, and motivations are all so simply and rightly done. There really wasn’t a point where this didn’t seem to work, and no point where I was just over it.

This is the story of Jacob (properly, and inexplicably, Jacobus) and his friends Connor, Moses, Gordon, and Jemma (and sometimes Hartun) as they experience and (mostly) unwillingly explore the multiverse in and around Chicago. The setup is simple – Jacob has a rough home life, is bullied at school, and has a case of Crush On ‘Unattainable Girl’, 1 of. As an aside, that is the second book with this in a row, and it feels old. Not the authors faults, I picked them, but still…maybe YA/NA needs to retire this one a bit. Anyway, Connor leads Jacob into an abandoned house to check it out, and they find the oversized mad scientist switch you see on the cover. Working together (as there is substantial resistance), they pull. And reality shifts.

Without telling too much, this causes major impacts on the kids. Life as they knew it is radically different – in almost all respects. This leads Jacob to return, and try again. And again, and again. Always hoping the next switch would be the switch home… Ok, it isn’t Quantum Leap. The Switch does, however, owe a lot to that show – because there is the hope they will get home, and there is the Sam Beckett ‘inhabit the body’ aspect as well. People undergo slight physical changes on switching – nothing drastic, they are still themselves. But minor differences.

The biggest differences are in the worlds themselves, and this is where it shines The authors use a simple thing – Orange Julius – to show the seemingly minor differences in the worlds. And once that is understood, it allows greater changes.

One of my personal interests is the how of things – and that is where the book falls short. We know a lot of the surface how, but little of the different worlds is explored. The most jarring shift has, oddly, the lease fulfilling explanation. And since some of the less drastic worlds have none, that is indeed saying something. But then, when the difference is somewhat less major than the ending of Back to the Future, exposition isn’t really needed. But when you give the reader a major change – and not just in who people are, but in the entire world – you might want someone to give something more than was provided.

And when that is the biggest flaw…yes, this is a good book.