Monthly Archives: December 2011

Four Publishers You Should be Reading in 2012

Yep, that’s right.  I said “publishers”, not “authors”.  The reason for this wording is these are the publishers I think are publishing the most innovative, original, and/or best written stuff in the fantasy and science fiction fields, with a dash of horror thrown in for spice.

I’m limiting my list to four (plus a runner-up) because these are the publishers whose books I’ve most enjoyed this year.  If you’ve read my post from yesterday, you can probably guess which ones won’t be on there.  I’m deliberately not including small presses that publish pricey limited editions, even if they also publish trade editions.  I’m limiting the list to imprints you can find in a local bookstore.  Also, there’s at least one publisher not on the list because I simply didn’t get around to reading any of their books this year, and that’s Orbit. I’ve enjoyed things they’ve published in the past, and have several books in the TBR stack from them.  What I’ve read of Orbit’s line I’ve generally enjoyed, and I expect that to be the case with what I have on hand.

One thing to note about all the publishers on the list.  Roughly a decade, to use round figures, is about as long as any of these publishers have been around, although one or two have existed slightly longer than that.  Some are much younger.  All of them are lean, efficient, and not afraid to take chances with what they publish.  And their books don’t look like all their other books.

Here’s the way I’m structuring this list.  I’ll list the publishers in reverse order, starting with the runner-up (along with an explanation of why that publisher isn’t number 5), with a few recommendations from their line along with a list of some of what I’ll be reading from them in the coming months.  I’ll confine myself to three, at most four, recommendations and TBRs, even though in most cases the actual number is greater.  Links will be to the books’ webpages, not any reviews I’ve posted; there’ll be a comprehensive list of reviews at the end of the post.  For series, I’ll only list the first volume.  A book’s being included in the TBR listing is not a guarantee I’ll review it here or at Futures Past and Present.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Runner-up:  Prime Books.  The reason I’m calling Prime the runner-up is somewhat awkward.  You see, I haven’t actually finished any of their books, at least none that I’ve bought in the last few years.  Not that I’ve disliked any of the books, but that they’ve all been anthologies, and I have a really bad habit of dipping into an anthology  between novels, reading a selection of stories, then putting the anthology down for an extended period of time before coming back to it.  So I’ve got a number of anthologies sitting around unfinished.  (I really need to break that habit.)   Prime does publish novels, and I have some in the TBR list (which I promise I will finish).  Their ebooks are reasonably priced, with most in the $4.95 range, and unlike many higher priced ebooks from larger publishers, the TOCs are interactive.  Highlights of what I have read portions of include Rich Horton’s annual Best Science Fiction and Fantasy series, which I’m waay behind on, and Paula Guran’s annual Best Dark Fantasy and Horror series, which I’m not as far behind on.  Many of the their recent anthologies have been themed reprint anthologies.
Recommendations:  It’s hard to recommend something you haven’t finished, but you could hardly go wrong with any of the Year’s Best, either the science fiction and fantasy or the dark fantasy and horror
TBR:  When the Great Days Come by Gardner Dozois, Heart of Iron by Ekaterina Sedia, Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine

Number 4:  Abaddon/Solaris These are two imprints of the same company, with the former having a dark focus and the latter a less grim tone.  Either way, you can’t go wrong.  There’s enough solid science fiction, fantasy, and horror in a wide variety of subgenres here to keep anyone busy.  The company is British, so many of the author’s names might not be familiar to American readers.  Don’t let that stop you; British authors have a slightly different perspective on things, which I find quite refreshing at times.  Check their website, and I’m sure you’ll find several things appealing. 
Recommendations:  Hawkwood’s Voyage (in the omnibus Hawkwood and the Kings) by Paul Kearney, Engineering Infinity edited by Johnathan Strahan, and Viking Dead by Toby Venables
TBR:  Engineman by Eric Brown, The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney, The Recollection by Gareth L. Powell, Solaris Rising edited by Ian Whates

Number 3:   Angry Robot  This is another British publisher, and the youngest imprint on the list.  Yet in the short time they’ve been around, Angry Robot has embarked on an aggressive program of publishing some of the most ambitious genre-bending books on the market.  Their authors come from all over the English speaking world, and some of their most acclaimed titles are by authors from places other than the US or Great Britain.  They’re beginning to get nominations for the some of the major awards in the field, including the Hugo and the Ditmar, and winning the Arthur C. Clarke and World Fantasy.  This is an imprint to watch.  They’re having an ebook sale  for the month of January, so now’s your chance to check them out and see what all the commotion is about. 
Recommendations:  Winter Song by Colin Harvey, Roil by Trent Jamieson, The Crown of the Blood by Gav Thorpe
TBR:  The World House by Guy Adams, Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson, Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren

Number Two:  Night Shade  This is the publisher on my list that’s been around the longest, but in my opinion they’re only getting better.  I didn’t read a great many of their books this year, and the science fiction I read wasn’t exactly to my taste although I understand the appeal of those particular titles.  But the fantasy was some of the best I’ve read in years.  The characters were all well-drawn, complex individuals, most of whom you could cheer for, including some of the villains, or perhaps I should say antagonists since most weren’t entirely evil.  The plots were involved and often twisty, with plenty of action and suspense.  Nightshade seems to be focusing on developing new authors at the moment, although one of my favorite authors, who hadn’t been able to get a publishing contract the last few years has signed with them and they’re continuing to reprint much of Glen Cook’s backlist, for which they are to be lauded.  All but one of their titles that I read were the first volumes in new series, which is a good thing.  I’m excited about what they’ve got coming up this year and will be reading more of their books than I did this past year.
Recommendations:  The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu, The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer, The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
TBR:  Miserere by Teresa Frohock, Southern Gods by John Horner Jacobs, The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells (which I’m reading right now, look for the review in a couple of days)

Number One:  Pyr  If you read books from only one publisher in 2012, this is the one you should read.  This is by far the most impressive and innovative line in all SFF publishing, although the others on this list are giving them increasing competition. If you’ve read many of their books, you understand why editor Lou Anders won the Hugo for Best Editor – Long Form last year.  I’ve not read a single book published by Pyr that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed, something I can’t say about any other publisher.  That’s not to say everything they publish is compatible with my taste.  They have a few items in their lineup that I can tell are not my thing.  And that’s okay; in fact, that’s how it should be.  A good publisher will a wide enough selection of product that most readers can find something they like, not cater to a narrow audience.  While they tend to focus on series (only makes economic sense), Pyr also publishes stand alone novels and a few anthologies.  Their focus has shifted since their inception from science fiction to fantasy, and they’re publishing some of the most exciting fantasy around, especially if you like the heroic variety, which I do.
Recommendations:  The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, Twelve by Jasper Kent, Wolfsangel by M. D. Lachlan, Shadow’s Son by Jon Sprunk
TBR:  Blackdog by K. V. Johansen, Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann, City of Ruins by Kristine Kathryn Rusch,  Shadow’s Lure by Jon Sprunk

These are the publishers I think are the best in the field right now, and the ones I’ll be reading the most in 2012.  That’s not to say I won’t be reading other publishers.  I will, just like I listed the indie published authors I’ll be reading in the coming months in a previous post.  As I said there, please be patient.  That’s a lot of books to read and will require time to complete, and I have other books in the TBR listing from some of these publishers that I didn’t list.  I’m sure some of you have your own ideas of which publishers are the ones to be reading, and I’m sure they aren’t the same as mine.  That’s okay.  Feel free to post a comment letting me know which ones they are.  As much good stuff is out there, I’m bound to have overlooked something.

For those who have too much time on their hands might be interested, here are links to the reviews I’ve posted of books by these publishers, arranged by publisher.

Abaddon/Solaris:  Hawkwood’s Voyage and The Heretic Kings by Paul Kearney, Engineering Infinity by Jonathan Strahan, Viking Dead by Toby Venables

Angry Robot:  Debris by Jo Anderton, Empire State by Adam Christopher, Darkness Falling by Peter Crowther, Winter Song by Colin Harvey, Roil by Trent Jamieson, The Crown of the Blood and The Crown of the Conqueror by Gav Thorpe

Nightshade:  The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu, The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer, The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

Pyr:  “Traveler’s Rest” by James Enge,Twelve, Thirteen Years Later, and The Third Section by Jasper Kent, Wolfsangel and Fenrir by M. D. Lachlan, Shadow’s Son by Jon Sprunk

We’re not Divorced Yet, but We’re Definitely Separating

It began like many relationships do.  At first there was the allure, the excitement, the promise of adventure and romance and suspense, of new experiences and unique horizons opening up.  As time went on, the relationship deepened and became one of the central focuses of my life.  There were many good years together.

But as often happens, one party began to take the other for granted, with give and take becoming less give and more take.  I was expected to take what was offered, with little or no input.  And what was offered weren’t the things that drew me to the relationship in the first place.  The relationship became stale, predictable, dull.  Furthermore, my wants and needs meant less and less to the other party, with decisions about the things central to the relationship being made with the apparent expectation I should be thankful the other party was there at all.  Everything became the same, and I began to be unfulfilled.

I began to seek fulfillment elsewhere, with new partners.  And I found it.  All the adventure and excitement that first attracted me so many years ago were there, all the-

What’s that?  My marriage?  It’s just fine, thank you.  Why do you ask?

Anyway, we were talking about books and publishing, not my marriage.  Over this last year I’ve turned begun to read more and more indie published books, in a variety of formats.  I’ve reached the point where I’m really not interested in reading many books published by the big New York houses.  It’s all the same stuff, and frankly, most of it doesn’t appeal to me.  I mean how many sex-with-dead-things novels can you read without puking?  In my case, not many.

And yes, I’m speaking in the most general of terms here.  There are exceptions to the above statement; for example I will continue to read Jack McDevitt in hardcover as long as someone publishes him in that format.  And I’ll continue to read other a few other authors and books published by the big houses (especially if Barnes and Noble sends me a coupon), but for the most part, I’m going to stick with small to mid-sized presses and independently published authors or authors who are publishing their own backlists.  And I’m going to read as many as possible in ebook format.

Ebooks I most definitely will not be buying from major publishing houses unless they’re on sale.  Because in addition to publishing the same old same old, the major publishers are gouging on ebook prices.  Don’t think so?  Then read this post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in which she shows that publishers aren’t hurting from ebooks sales as much as they would have us believe.  In fact they’re making a profit, and they’re doing it on the backs of their authors, as Kris ably demonstrates.  More on that in a minute.  My point is that ebook prices are overinflated, and they’re only going to go up, which isn’t sitting well with some people

I had a chat about ebook prices with Lou Anders at Fencon a few months ago.  It was a brief conversation, taking place in the hall at the end of the convention with both of us having to go do other things.  Now I like and respect Lou a lot, but he and I aren’t on the same page with ebook pricing.  However, to be fair, the conversation was rushed, and I would like to discuss it further with him.  Also, he talked about doing ebooks right.  Something many of the major houses aren’t doing.

Case in point:  A few weeks ago, I was browsing in B&N and came across The Spy Who Came for Christmas by David Morrell.  There was an ebook version reasonably priced ($3.99 IIRC) which I bought and downloaded, thinking it would be a nice seasonal read that wouldn’t be too sappy,  something not related to either of my blogs that I would simply read for my own pleasure.  I’ve not read a great deal of Morrell’s work, but I’ve liked everything I’ve read.  The book was 240 pages, according to my Nook.  As I got further into the book more formatting errors crept in, words without spaces between them, new paragraphs starting in midsentence, that sort of thing.  As I got into the 130s page range, the story seemed to be winding down.  I expected a plot twist, something to keep the tale going.  Nope, it ended at page 140.  I thought maybe there was a second story included.  Wrong again.  The last 100 pages of the ebook were the last 100 pages of the story, simply reprinted to fill space and make the book appear to be longer than it was.

Yes, you read that correctly.  The publisher included the last 100 pages of story twice, and since the story was only 140 pages, including an afterward by the author, that almost doubled the length of the ebook.   Either the publisher tried to make the book look longer than it was, or the person responsible converting the book to ebook format didn’t have a clue what they were doing (or both).  Regardless of the reason, that’s just completely unacceptable.  As I’ve pointed out previously, none of the indie published ebooks I’ve read this year were anywhere near that sloppy.

Traditional big publishers are scared (and they should be), which is why they’re handing authors increasingly draconian contracts.  They’re also behind in the game; they should have had ebooks ready to go a long time before now.  There’s no excuse for pushing shoddy, poorly formatted product and charging the same amount as a paper copy.  Lou Anders talked about Pyr including some interactive formatting that would do things like resize maps when the font size was changed, something I haven’t seen yet in other ebooks.  That would be worth paying more for, although not as much as a paper copy.  But then Pyr, while priced higher than I would prefer, doesn’t charge as much for their ebooks as they do their print versions.

Understand, I’m not asking for ebooks to be free or only a dollar or two.  Much of the cost of the book is in the editing, proofing, copy editing, etc., which is the excuse the major publishers use to justify their ebooks prices.

Yeah.  I get that and don’t have a problem with it.

I also get that you’ve got to pay rent on your Manhattan offices.  And keep happy your corporate overlords who expect growth every quarter.

Not my problem.  There are more quality books published than I could possibly read in two lifetimes, never mind however many years I have left in this one.  There’s no reason I should pay those prices for that quality when there is a growing selection of ebooks with more variety (see Emily Casey’s Venn diagram) that are just as good and better formatted being published by small presses and indie authors. 

So, not that you’re likely to care, but I’m putting you on notice Tor, Ace, DAW, Del Rey, Harper Collins, Spectra, and all other publishers who think I should pay premium prices for shoddy ebooks, or who charge just as much for a paper copy.  I’m not buying from you anymore.  In print or electronic formats.  At least not unless there’s a coupon or a second hand shop involved.

I can hear the outrage from some of you, saying that by doing this I’m hurting authors.  Oh, really?  Let’s look at that statement a little more closely, shall we, because by that logic I hurt authors every time I walk into a bookstore.  What I’m doing is deciding where I’m going to spend my money based on perceived value of the product.  When I go to a bookstore to buy a book, I consider several things, such as author, genre, subgenre, and price.  And I buy what I consider to be the best value.  I leave all the other volumes on the shelves.  Am I hurting some authors because I decide their books aren’t a good value for me and don’t buy them?  No more than anyone else does who chooses one book over another.

And by saying I’m not buying anything from certain publishers (other than a few exceptions for favorite authors and bloody few of those), I’m not hurting those publishers’ authors for the reasons explained in the previous paragraph.  Instead I’m helping other authors who are publishing their own stuff, who get more money from the sale (even at a lower price) than they would with a large publisher.  As I understand the math, if I spend the same amount of money I have been, only I buy more books at lower prices, more authors will make more money per sale than they would through a traditional publisher.  In my economy that’s a good thing.

I’m still going to buy from traditional publishers, just not most of the big boys.  I’ll have a list of publishers I’ll be buying a lot from in 2012 in an upcoming post.

In the meantime, I’ve got indie/small press published books by the following authors to read (in no particular order; links are to author pages rather than books):  Ty Johnston, Charles Gramlich, David J. West, Barry Nugent, Stephen D. Sullivan, Ken St. Andre, Chris Northern, Katherine Eliska Kiimbriel, Todd Shryock, James Hutchings, Moses Siregar III and Charles R. Saunders.  Just to name a few.  If you’re name is in this list, and I choose to review one of your books, I’ll send you an email.  Please be patient; that’s a lot to read, and those are only the indie/small press items in the TBR stack.

For those you who are gluttons for punishment interested, here are links to all the reviews of indie/small press books I’ve done in the last year in reverse chronological order:  The Paths of Righteousness by James Reasoner, Strange Worlds edited by Jeff Doten, Stones by Gerald So, Dark Heroes edited by Jessy Marie Roberts, Age of Giants Awakenings by Rob Reasor, Tisarian’s Treasure by J. M. Martin, Dreams in the Fire edited by Mark Finn and Chris Gruber, Gods of Justice edited by Kevin Hosey and K. Stoddard Hayes, The Ladies of Trade Town edited by Lee Martindale.

I also published a review of The Roads to Baldairn Motte by Craig Comer, Ahimsa Kerp, and Garrett Calcaterra at Rogue Blades Entertainment.

One Final Robert E. Howard Anniversary This Year

Cross Plains Universe
Scott A. Cupp and Joe R. Lansdale, ed.
Monkey Brain Books
296 p.
Given free to attendees of the 2006 World Fantasy Convention

In all the hubbub earlier this year about all the anniversaries related to Robert E. Howard, one seems to have been overlooked.  This year marked the fifth anniversary of the publication of Cross Plains Universe, an anthology put together to mark the Robert E. Howard centennial as well as the 30th anniversary of Lone Star Universe, an anthology of Texas writers. 

Now as anniversaries go, the fifth isn’t all that big a deal unless you forget and your wife has to remind you.  (Can I get an “Amen” from the brethren?)  Also, this book was never made for sale to the general public, at least as far as I know.  If you weren’t able to attend the 2006 World Fantasy Convention in Austin or one of the following Howard Days, where the book was made available in the gift shop, you probably haven’t seen a copy.  I’d even wager that many of you might not be aware of its existence. 

If you are able to score a copy, do so.  It’s worth your while.  A brief perusal of the contents will show you why.

After an introduction by Scott Cupp, Ardath Mayhar leads off the stories with “The Pillar in the Mist”, the tale of a young Briton who has to prove his prowess as a warrior on the moors one night.  Rick Klaw and Paul O. Miles give an interesting alternate history take on the pulps in “A Penny a Word”, while in “Slim and Swede and the Damned Dead Horse:  A Tale of Bloodson” C. Dean Anderson mixes two of Howard’s favorite genres, western and sword and sorcery.  Bradley Denton provides poetry in “The King Comes to Texas.”  Howard is resurrected from the grave in “An Excerpt from The Stone of Namirha” by Bill Crider and Charlotte Laughlin.  “Two Hearts in Zamora” by Jessica Reisman is the story of a pair of girls who find themselves in a dangerous land.  Co-editor Scott Cupp provides a weird western with “One Fang”.

l. to r., Cupp, Reasoner, Crider, Lansdale

One of Saddam Hussein’s sons meets an end not seen on the evening news in “The Bunker of the Tikriti” by Chris Nakashima-Brown.  Gene Wolfe tells the tale of “Six From Atlantis”, while Mark Finn lets us know why a Conan movie wasn’t made in the early 70s in “A Whim of Circumstance”.  James Reasoner’s contribution is a twisty El Borak story, “Wolves of the Mountains”.  The incomparable Howard Waldrop tells what happens when some seniors make a trip across the border in “Thin, on the Ground”.  Grandchildren learn about their grandmother’s encounter with a warrior king in Carrie Richerson’s “The Warrior and the King”.  Lillian Stewart Carl provides a historical adventure in “The Diamons of Golkonda” while “Prince Koindrinda Escapes” is an alternate history tale with giant apes from Jayme Lynn Blashke.

L. J. Washburn tells how a young Bob Howard helps solve a murder in Cross Plains during the oil boom with “Boomtown Bandits”.  Chris Roberson’s “The Jewel of Leystall” is an installment in his Paragaea series, and very much in the vein of Howard.  Neal Barrett, Jr. tells a tall tale in “The Heart”, while Lawrence Person explains why you don’t mess with “The Toughest Jew in the West”.  “The Sea of Grass on the Day of Wings” by Melissa Mia Hall is a meditation on Howard’s final hours.  Finally, Michael Moorcock gives us the story of Ronan the Red Archer in “The Roaming Forest”.

As you can tell, the contents of this anthology are quite varied, with stories told in the style of Howard, using new characters, characters and settings previously created by the contributors, Howard’s characters, and even Howard himself.  All of the contributors are from Texas or resided there at the time of writing, which is why some of the names may not be familiar to you. 

ABE currently shows 11 copies available with prices ranging from a steal to a gouge.  One thing to keep in mind, though, is that unsigned copies of this book are rare.  With the exception of Gene Wolfe and L.J. Washburn, all the contributors, including artist Gary Gianni, were at the WFC and participated in the mass signing, and Washburn sent signed bookmarks with her husband James Reasoner.  Before you buy a copy online, check to make sure you’re getting a signed copy.

Dispatches From the Lone Star Front, Christmas Edition: The Santa Claus Bandits

This is going to be brief, in part because Damon Sasser did a thorough write-up on this crime last year, and I see no need to repeat what he said.  Also, Damon quoted from one of Robert E. Howard’s letter describing the crime.  Instead, I’ll provide a brief summary of what happened and then get into why I was reminded of this.

Site of Ratliff’s lynching

In short, four men robbed the First National Bank in Cisco, Texas on Friday, December 23, 1927.  The men were Marshall Ratliff, Henry Helms, Robert Hill, and Helm’s brother-in-law, Louis E. Davis.  The men started from Wichita Falls, in Northwest Texas.  They chose the bank in Cisco because Ratliff’s mother once ran a cafe there, and he knew the city.  To keep from being recognized, Ratliff wore a Santa suit into the bank.

Things went wrong from the get-go.  The end result was 14 causulties, including 6 fatalies, three people (all children or teens) kidnapped, two gun battles, and the first manhunt from the air in the state.  Davis died of his wounds received in the first gun battle, Helms went to the electric chair, and Ratliff was lynched after killing a deputy sheriff in an attempted jail break.

The whole thing almost reads like a movie script, one with equal measures of drama and comedy, especially if the Keystone Kops are involved.  It amazes me that law enforcement couldn’t catch wounded men driving on the rims because the tires have been shot out.  Twice, the second time ending in a chase on foot.  Two of the three crooks still on the loose got away; Ratliff was wounded in the leg and captured. The photo below shows the posse after capturing Hill and Helms in Graham.  Hill is the man in the front row to the right of center with his arm in his dark coat; Helms is the man on his left looking down.

The competency of the bank robbers wasn’t much better.  Ratliff was mobbed by children who thought he was Santa as he walked to the bank.  The robbers had to abandon the getaway car shortly after leaving the scene of the crime because they didn’t think to check the fuel level before the robbery and ran out of gas.  They were so intent on transferring their hostages to the next car that they forgot to transfer the money and left it in the original car.  Getting turned around in the dark after spending the night hiding in the country, they drove back into Cisco to steal another car (one the police wouldn’t be looking for) thinking they were driving into Breckenridge.  The two remaining robbers surrendered in Graham; they hadn’t eaten in days and were too weak to resist.  The whole thing sounds like one of Donald E. Westlake’s caper novels.

To get full details, read Damon’s post or see Gangster Tour of Texas by T. Lindsay Baker (filled with photos and maps) or A. C. Greene’s  The Santa Claus Bank Robbery for further details.  The Baker book is a tour book of gangster sties in Texas.  The bank in Cisco still exists, although it’s in a different location.  Other than the site of the first Hilton hotel (yes, that Hilton), the bank robbery is Cisco’s only real claim to fame.

The reason I’m bringing this crime up is because on Christmas Eve 1950, a highly fictionalized dramatization of the story with the title “Christmas Present” was broadcast on Tales of the Texas Rangers, a Dragnet-style radio program.  I heard it rerun the other day on satellite radio while driving my son to meet his grandparents.

The show took great liberties with the story, moving the story to 1931 and reducing the number of bank robbers to two men and one woman accomplice.  Both of the men wore Santa suits and pretended to be charity bell ringers, with one relieving the other.  The story also introduced a poverty stricken man who had been duped into renting the Santa suits in order to raise money to give his children a Christmas.  The thieves are caught with old fashioned detective work, with not a single shot being fired.

As a detective story told with the limits of radio, it was pretty good, even if it didn’t have much resemblance to the facts.  One of the consultants on the show was Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas.  Gonzaullas was one of the Rangers in the (unsuccessful) plane search for the bank robbers in the original crime.  My last installment of this series focused on a Texas Ranger, so I’ll save Gonzaullas for another time.

Big Apples in Peril

Empire State
Adam Christopher
Angry Robot

27 December 2011
416pp Trade Paperback
$12.99 US $14.99 CAN

27 December 2011

If you like pulp superheores, noir, action, mystery, and a fun read, then this is the book for you.  If you notice, the release date on this novel is two days after Christmas, so you will have something to buy with that Christmas money Grandma always sends.

I was fortunate to score an eARC through the Robot Army, and I’m glad I did.  The storyline wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but that’s good.  Angry Robot has a pretty solid track record of publishing stuff that isn’t the same old thing.

So what’s the story about, you say?  I’m glad you asked that.

Now I don’t want to give too much away, because a great deal of the fun is how Christopher plays with your perceptions of what’s really going on and who’s on whose side.

The novel opens like a burst from a Tommy gun, literally.  Rex, a small time Manhattan bootlegger, is on the run from a bigger bootlegger he’s offended.  While making his escape, he gets caught up in the crowd watching a battle between the Skyguard and the Science Pirate over the Empire State Building, under construction at the time the book opens.  These are New York’s two superheroes, once partners and now bitter enemies.

The Chairman

The battle creates a pocket universe, the Empire State, which isn’t a nice place.  It’s a darker version of New York, filled with perpetual rain and fog and governed by the Chairman of the City Commissioners.  That’s an actual photo of him to the right.  (Really.  It is.  Don’t believe me?  Read the book.  You’ll see.)

Over in the Empire State, a detective named Rad is hired to find a missing woman.  It’s at this point that the novel departs from the superhero genre into the PI genre, at least for a while.  You can rest assured the case will involve superheroes, since Rad had a run-in with one just before he gets this case.

Being a detective in the Empire State is even harder than it is in New York.  For one thing, the Empire State is in a perpetual state of Wartime, fighting the Enemy, an unseen foe somewhere out in the fog.  Every few months a new fleet of ironclads is launched, crewed by men who have been turned into robots.  In all the years of Wartime, no ironclad has ever returned.  Until now…

I’ll refrain from telling you further details of the plot.  I don’t want to spoil anymore surprises.  There are twists, turns, crosses, and double crosses in this one.  It has a delightfully pulpy feel to it.  Especially during the airship chase.

I know that at least one person who follows this blog has been waiting for this one.  It’s almost here, and I think you’ll find it will have been worth the wait.

Here’s a sample chapter:

It’s Christmastime, Which Means Layoffs

It’s the season of layoffs, at least at Wizards of the Coast.  Jeff Grub explains why here.  It’s an entertaining and ultimately sobering explanation of why so many positions tend to be cut around the holidays.  Makes me glad I’m not in the corporate world.  Also reinforces my desire to be self-employed (despite the persecution from the KGB IRS that career path will incur) when I eventually leave academia.

Historical Fiction in eBook Format

This may come as old news to many of you, and if it does, it just means I’m more behind the curve than I thought.  I was reading a post over at the Passive Voice, and found a link in one of the comments that I thought might be of interest to those who peruse this here blog.  The site is Historical Fiction eBooks, and while most of the books in the ancient and medieval categories appear to be romances or classical mysteries set in past epochs, I did see one or two that seemed to be more action oriented.  Anyway, I’ll probably give one or two of them a try at some point.  In the meantime, I thought I would pass the link on in case anyone else wants to take a look.

She Takes After Her Parents More Than Her Brother Does

The Third Section
Jasper Kent
Pyr Books
Trade Paper, 479 p., $17.95

Okay, I know what I want for Christmas.  A time machine.  That way I can go forward in time and pick up copies of the next two volumes of the Danilov Chronicles and read them.  Now.  Because I don’t want to wait.  Jasper Kent says on his website that the next two books won’t be out until 2013 (provisional title, The People’s Will) and 2014 (provisional title The Last Oprichnik).  The world could end before then (like next year, maybe?), and then what would I do?

Oh, well, nothing much I can do about publication schedules.  Instead let me encourage you to start reading this series if you haven’t already.  Each book is different than the last, but if Kent continues to maintain the quality he has so far, this series will be greater than the sum of its parts.

And if you haven’t read either of the preceding books, Twelve and Thirteen Years Later, reviewed here and here, this review will contain spoilers for those two but not The Third Section.

In the earlier books in this series, we saw a lot of vampire hunting. While there’s some in this book, with Kent again coming up with some clever ways to dispatch the undead, the focus here is more on intrigue.  Do you remember how Shakespeare would create the most convoluted plots where the characters would misinterpret words or events or deliberately mislead each other?  And how those misunderstandings added to the tension and suspense?  In The Third Section Jasper Kent has crafted a web of misunderstanding and deliberate deceit of Shakespearean proportions.  Do you remember how Shakespeare used this trick in both his tragedies and his comedies?  Jasper Kent hasn’t written a comedy.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Crimean War and takes place over about a year and a half, roughly.  There are three viewpoint characters.

First, the lady, Tamara Valentinovna Komarova, daughter of Alexsei and Domnikiia.  She’s in her early 30s, has lost her husband and children, and is now working for the Third Section, also known as the Tsar’s secret police.  She’s just returned to Moscow from Saint Petersburg and is given an undercover assignment, running a brothel.  The same brothel where her mother met her father.  One of the prostitutes is named Raisa, and she helped Iuda escape from Chufut Kalye in 1825.  One of the others is about to be murdered in a manner similar to a murder that occurred in the same building in 1812.

The man in the secret police Tamara directly answers to is named Yudin, but like some of Tolkien’s characters, he’s known by other names.  Richard Cain.  Vasiliy Makarov.  Iuda.

Dmitry Alexseivich Danilov is a captain in the army, helping defend Sevastopol on the Black Sea.  When the book opens, he’s about to get an unwelcome visit from some “friends” of his father’s.

And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot.  I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises.  And there are plot twists aplenty, almost all the way to the last page.

So rather than ruin the pleasure of experiencing the twists, let’s talk about how Kent handles the characters.  This is the first time we’ve seen things from Iuda’s point of view, although he got considerable stage time in Thirteen Years Later.  Kent does a good job of showing us Iuda’s motives while not turning him into a sympathetic character.  Instead, we have a deeper understanding of how evil he truly is and how he was a monster long before he became a vampire.  Yudin, as he’s referred to here, is a master of manipulation, deceit, and betrayal.  There were times I was reminded of Hannibal Lector, the way he pulled strings.

As a result of losing her husband and children, Tamara has become obsessed with the idea that she has a set of parents who are her true parents and the parents she’s grown up with are deceiving her.  This is a common fantasy of small children who are unhappy with some aspect of their home lives, but it’s not typically an idea entertained by a grown woman.  In this case, though, we know it’s correct.  Alexsei and Domnikiia left Tamara in the care of the Komarovs when they were exiled to Siberia at the end of Thirteen Years Later.

Finally, there’s Dmitry, who will turn fifty before the book is over.  In Thirteen Years Later, he was incensed that his father was betraying his mother by having an affair with, and a child by, Domnikiia.  The years have mellowed him somewhat, or at least caused him to understand his father’s motivation and forgive him.  Dmitry is his father’s son, especially after he returns injured from the war and his behavior in many ways follows down the same paths as Alexsei’s.  Ultimately Dmitry proves that he isn’t the man his father was, and in some surprising ways.

The contrast between Tamara and Dmitry is fascinating.  Both of them end up following in their father’s footsteps, and in Tamara’s case, her mother’s as well.  Dmitry is an officer in the cavalry, although he is only a major and hasn’t accomplished nearly as much as his father did by his early forties.  Tamara is both an agent for the Tsar and a prostitute.  It’s this contrast that the title of this review refers to.  Tamara excels at both her parents’ professions, secret agent and prostitute, while Dmitry is neither the decorated soldier his father was nor the accomplished vampire hunter.  How the children end up fulfilling their parents’ legacies, or fail to, is what makes this book such a gripping read. 

Of course, there’s another character, one who doesn’t take an active part in the events, but who nevertheless casts a long shadow over them, and whose influence on the events and people is almost palpable at times.  Alexsei Ivanovich Danilov.  This was another aspect of the novel that I found so captivating, how Alexsei’s actions from decades before had such an influence and how small details from the earlier books took on greater significance. 

With this latest installment of the Danilov Chronicles, Jasper Kent adds to the depth of the series and sets up the conflicts in the remaining two.  This series is a generational story of a family, their successes and failures, and there are still two books to go.  Family history affects multiple generations.  That’s certainly proving to be the case with this series. 

Like I said in the opening paragraph, I can’t wait for the rest.