Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Look at Zachary Jernigan’s No Return

No Return
Zachary Jernigan
Night Shade Books
hardcover $26.99
ebook $12.99 Kindle $14.84 Nook

It was a Friday night in early April, and I was up late reading when I got a beep from my phone indicating an email.  The subject line was something about a request for a review.  My initial knee jerk reaction was to decline on the grounds of I had committed to a number of titles and was behind.  So I went to the computer to reply, not feeling like replying on my phone.  I had to open the email to do this.  In the process I read the first couple of sentences and immediately I changed my mind.  “Of course I’ll review your book.”  I may have even said it out loud.

The author was Zachary Jernigan, and the book, No Return.  It’s Mr. Jernigan’s first novel.  It was published by Night Shade in March, just a couple of weeks before Night Shade shut down operations.  (To put things in context, a few days prior to my receiving this email, Night Shade announced that it was selling its inventory, provided a certain number of their authors went along with the deal.)

As you might guess, Mr. Jernigan was nervous about how things were going to work out.  I have friends and acquaintances who are published by Night Shade, and I very much want things to work out for them.  I told him it would be sometime in May before I could work No Return in.  He said that would be fine.

Before being asked to do the review, I had seen the book, but with everything on my plate I’d decided to let it pass.  I’m glad I read it, and would like to thank Zachary Jernigan for providing the review copy.  I’d also like to thank Tom Doolan for recommending me to him.

This is one of those novels that’s marketed as fantasy but could be science fiction if you squint right.  It’s set on the planet Jeroun.  There is a god on this planet, or rather in orbit around the planet.  His name is Adrash.   He’s worshiped by about half the people on the planet, who think he will bring salvation to mankind.  The other half of the planet think he’s nothing but bad news and will eventually destroy the planet.  There’s much speculation regarding what his motives are.

There are five main characters.  Vedas, a member of a sect that opposes Adrash.  Berun, an artificial man whose body consists of a number of brass spheres.  Churls, a female fighter with a gambling problem.  These three are traveling across the only inhabited continent to attend a fighting tournament in which the matches are to the death.  Each member of the group has a motive for traveling, although it’s not necessarily the motive they’re publicly stating.

Elsewhere, in the Kingdom of Stol’s Academy of Applied Magics, two mages are engaged in academic politics of lethal proportions.  Ebn and Pol, female and male, are trying to physically reach Adrash, but not for the same reasons.  I say female and male rather than woman and man because these two aren’t human.  They’re half breeds, part human, part Elder.  The Elders are an extinct race.  There’s a thriving market in Elder corpses, and Elder sperm or egg is still fertile and can be used for breeding purposes.  Eldermen are one of the results of this breeding.  Ebn loves Pol, who couldn’t be less interested. Their relationship drives this portion of the plot to a large degree.  Their desire for power and the lengths they are willing to go to attain it drive it rest of their story arc.

The chapters alternate viewpoint characters, in the order I’ve listed them.  I found the chapters dealing with Vedas, Berun, and Churls the most enjoyable.  Ebn and Pol are both such vicious and unpleasant people that I didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with them.  That’s not necessarily a negative.  I view Ebn and Pol to be villains, and they’re not your typical stock villains.  Jernigan infuses them with understandable motives and a level of complexity that’s sadly lacking in most villains.

All of the principle characters are fully fleshed.  There’s a great deal of action in this book, but there’s even more character development.  Jernigan takes us deep inside these people’s heads and reveals what makes them tick.  They’re all highly flawed, but at least in the case of Vedas, Berun, and Churls, they try to do the right thing, even if they aren’t always sure what the right thing is or even agree about what’s right and wrong.

At the end of the book, I found the changes in the characters to be the most enjoyable part of the novel.  I’ve read works by authors with more books under their belts who don’t handle the character development was well as Jernigan does.

The prose is smooth and flowing.  Zachary Jernigan writes in a style that propels the reader along without ever getting in the way of the reading experience.  He’s not so impressed with his own turn of phrase or flowery metaphors that he forgets moving the story along is the most important thing.

The world Jernigan has created is fresh and original but not so bizarre I couldn’t easily relate to it.  It has a history going back 15 millennia. While a map would have been appreciated (and there may be one in the dead tree edition), the geography is described well enough that I had no trouble understanding where things were in relation to each other.  The cultures are  complex and not entirely uniform.  Jernigan gives us information about different sects and splinter groups, which adds a sense of depth to his world building.  For the most part, he balances the amount of information he gives us and avoids excessive infodumps.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you that No Return contains a great deal of graphic content, both violence and sex, occasionally in the same scene.  (I’m thinking of one particular scene near the end of the book.)  Enough so that if you’re squeamish, this might not be the book for you.  There’s more than one passage in which a character masturbates to a detailed sexual fantasy, and Ebn’s sexual tastes are…well, let’s just say innovative.  Injuries and death, defacing of corpses, and other acts of violence are detailed throughout the narrative.  There were passages that pushed my comfort zones.  Depending on your tastes and comfort zones, you might want to approach this one with caution.  Or not.  Your mileage will vary.

The previous paragraph aside, I found No Return to be one of the most original novels I’ve read in a while and quite enjoyable in spite of some uncomfortable passages.  Jernigan has left room for a sequel.  I’d definitely be interested in reading it. 

I wish Zachary Jernigan the best in his writing endeavors, and I sincerely hope the Night Shade situation doesn’t stall his career.  I used the world “stall” intentionally.  If everything he writes is this well done, he’ll carve out a name for himself sooner or later if he keeps writing.   I hope it’s the former rather than the latter.

Happy Memorial Day

I’m traveling this weekend, so this is going to be a short post with no graphic.  (Borrowed computer and all that.)  I just wanted to wish everyone a safe and happy Memorial Day.  More importantly, I wanted to thank everyone who has served in any branch of the military.  Without your service, sacrifice, and commitment, this country and the world would be very different.  But not better.

I focus on heroes a great deal in these posts, but you men and women are the real heroes, along with the first responders such as paramedics, law enforcement, firemen, and National Guard.  Your service is much appreciated.  Thank you.

What is The Blue Blazes?

The Blue Blazes
Chuck Wendig
Angry Robot Books
UK Print
Date: 6th June 2013
ISBN: 9780857663344
Format: Medium (B-Format) Paperback
R.R.P.: £8.99
US/CAN Print
Date: 28th May 2013
ISBN: 97808576633518
Format: Small (Mass-Market) Paperback
R.R.P.: US$7.99 CAN$8.99
Date: 28th May 2013
ISBN: 9780857663368
Format: Epub & Mobi
R.R.P.: £5.49 / US$6.99

Chuck Wendig’s latest novel is the first in new series, about a gangster named Mookie Pearl.  It’s an over the top blend of fantasy, horror, and noir wrapped inside a family drama.  This is what urban fantasy for guys looks like, although I’m sure a number of ladies will enjoy it as well.

Mookie is a gangster who has a special skill set.  He deals with problems the Organization has with the Great Below, the underworld where several supernatural races live and scheme against humanity.  He’s divorced, hasn’t spoken to his ex in years, and is trying to build a relationship with his estranged teen daughter who’s building a criminal empire of her own.  Somehow she’s learned that the head of the Organization, The Boss, is dying of cancer.  This is not yet public knowledge.

When the Boss’s appointed heir and nephew asks Mookie to try and find a way to cure The Boss in the Great Below, Mookie knows it’s a fool’s errand, but really, what choice does have?  The Blue Blazes of the title refers to a blue powder mined in the Great Below.  When rubbed on the temples, it allows a person to perceive the supernatural world around them.  There are other substances, all of them with colors in the name, that are rumored to exist but by and large believed to be mythical by most people.  It’s one of these the nephew wants Mookie to find in order to save his uncle.

The task would be bad enough, but there are other who are also aware of The Boss’s impending demise.   And they’re moving to take advantage of it.  Including Mookie’s daughter.

The action in this one moves fast and furious.  Wendig has crafted a compelling mystery, a suspenseful thriller, and a gritty urban fantasy with a dash of Lovecraft.  And along the way he manages to make Mookie Pearl a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that Mookie isn’t the sort of man who would want to invite to dinner.

The secondary cast are well developed.  While the story is told primarily from Mookie’s viewpoint, Wendig shows us the other characters’ thoughts and motivations. Mookie’s friends and enemies are an assorted lot, including mobsters, ordinary, humans, and even a dead man (that Mookie had killed).

The major plots lines were all resolved, but things won’t be going back to the status quo.  It’s going to be interesting to see where Wendig takes this one.  And in case you’re wondering, no, he hasn’t abandoned the Miriam Black series (reviewed here and here).  There’s an announcement of the next one, The Cormorant, in the author bio.

I’d like to thank Angry Robot for the review copy.  Below is an excerpt.  Check it out.

An Open Letter to Stephen King

The Wall Street Journal published an article (link may expire) yesterday in which Stephen King announced that his next novel, Joyland from Hard Case Crime, won’t have an electronic edition.  As you can imagine, there’s been no end of comment on the web.  After reading some of the remarks, both supportive and not so supportive, I thought I’d put my two cents in, specifically where he said “…let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one.”

Dear Mr. King,

While I doubt you’ll ever read these words, or care very much if you did, I still would like to go on record responding to the comments you made recently regarding Joyland not having an electronic edition. 

I’ve read a number of your books over the years, and I’ve enjoyed most of them.  I particularly appreciate your publishing Joyland through Hard Case Crime as Hard Case is one of my favorite publishers.  Your association with them is sure to strengthen their sales, helping to insure they continue to publish more books.  And for the record, I’ve been intending to buy a print copy of Joyland, if for no other reason than I like they way the look on the shelf and have an almost complete set.

I’m not going to chastise you for holding onto the digital rights to your book.  More power to you for doing so.  I only wish all authors had that choice.  Nor do I wish to take you to task for taking control of your career.  I only wish more authors would.  Then maybe publishers wouldn’t try to slip so many draconian terms into their contracts.

Over what I do wish to take issue with you, sir, is the statement you made in which you said “…let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one.”  I find that to be highly insulting.  The are multiple reasons why I feel this way.  Please allow me to explain. 

First, being able to buy books without having to go to a bookstore is a huge advantage to many, I would even say most, readers.  Many people can’t simply “stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore” because there aren’t any within driving distance.  While there may be bookstores in every community on the coasts, I can assure you that is not the case in flyover country.  When I was in high school the nearest book store was over an hour’s drive away.  And I didn’t live in an isolated part of the country.  Furthermore, not everyone who lives near a bookstore is physically able to go.  A number of elderly and invalid persons have been able to enjoy reading through either electronic books or ordering books online who would otherwise not be able to buy new books.

And speaking of online bookstores, will Joyland be sold online through venues such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble?  We both know it will.  As well as in Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, and other large discount box stores.  If you wish to support bookstores, have you tried to keep your books from being sold there as well?  I realize you probably can’t prevent your titles from being sold in those venues.  But the big discounts those stores force on publishers have hurt authors and traditional bookstores.

The second, and more controversial, reason I take offense at your words, Mr. King, is that I’m beginning to question to what extent bookstores should be supported.  I love browsing, but the experience is becoming less and less enjoyable.  There are three stores in the city where I live that could be considered general interest bookstores that are not second-hand, religious, or university bookstores.  One is Barnes and Noble. The other two are Hastings, which is a chain based here in Texas. 

Hastings isn’t much of a bookstore.  Most of its sales are from music, movies, and video games.  The small portion of its floorspace devoted to books is a mix of new and used.  The selection is poor, and many of the bottom shelves are empty.  My experiences with what passes for customer service there have been so bad (to the point that I was treated as though I was a thief when my five year old son had to got to the bathroom, charging more than cover price for books, etc.) that I won’t spend my time or money there.

Barnes and Noble has been on a downward spiral since I moved to this city three and a half years ago.  The space devoted to books has continued to diminish to make room for toys, games, puzzles, Nook accessories, and assorted doodads.  The selection has diminished in quality and variety.  Last summer I went in looking for two new hardcover releases, one mystery and the other science fiction.  The computer said they were in stock, but they weren’t on the shelves.  I assumed the store had only ordered a single copy of each that had sold out.  Two weeks later I found out what was really going on.  Multiple copies of the books had been ordered.  They simply hadn’t been taken out of the boxes and were still in the stockroom after two weeks.  This is typical of the customer service I’m finding at every B&N I’ve visited in the last year.

Tell me, Mr. King, why should I support that business model when I can order just about any book from my home, in either electronic or print edition, with only a few clicks?  Why should I get out in the heat, put up with the traffic, endure a store full of unsupervised children whose parents have left them at the mall for the evening, and try to tune out the music blaring from the PA system only to find there’s next to nothing that interests me or that the recent release I’m looking for was never stocked? 

I love bookstores and very much want them to stay.  But the bookstores are going to need to rediscover who they’re truly in business for, the customer.  Not the sales reps.  Not the major publishing houses.  Not even the authors.  Bookstores which don’t have customers don’t stay in business.  You speak and people listen, Mr. King.  Rather than insulting your readers, next time please encourage the bookstores to be more reader oriented.

Thank you.

Return to Starvation Lake

The Hanging Tree
Bryan Gruley
St. Martin’s
tpb $15.00
electronic $9.73 Kindle $10.93 Nook

Last summer I picked up a mystery, Starvation Lake, by newcomer Bryan Gruley.  I was impressed.  A few weeks ago I finally got around to buying the sequel.

I concluded my review of Starvation Lake with speculation about the sequel, mentioning the fact that sequels sometime don’t live up to the standards set by their predecessors.  That’s not the case here. 

The Hanging Tree is set a year after the events in Starvation Lake.  Gus Carpenter’s cousin Gracie McBride is found one night in a snowstorm hanging from a tree.  There are no tracks, of course.  Nor is there a ladder or any other means present by which Gracie could have reached the branch she from which hangs.  And she’s missing a shoe.  A shoe that’s nowhere to be found.

Of course, this leads Gus to suspect murder.  So does Deputy Sheriff Darlene Esper, Gus’ girlfriend and Gracie’s best friend.  Proving it, though, isn’t going to be easy.  And before it’s over, most of the relationships Gus has with his friends, family, and employer will be put to the test.

I really liked the mystery in Starvation Lake.  It was nice and layered, with a number of twists.  The Hanging Tree is the same, only moreso.  I figured out quite a bit of the mystery in Starvation Lake.  This one kept me guessing more than its predecessor, and there was more than one surprise I didn’t see coming. 

The characters are all human, with their flaws and faults as well as their acts of kindness and nobility.  Mysteries. especially series mysteries, set in small towns tend to have characters that are more caricatures than people.  Gruley never falls into that trap.  I suspect one of the reasons he can write people so well is because he’s been a reporter for so many years, and a Pulitzer Prize winning one at that. 

The Hanging Tree was a top notch mystery, with a depth of character, setting, and theme that you don’t always see.  The next book in the series, The Skeleton Box, comes out next month.  I’m looking forward to it.

Congratulations to the Nebula Award Winners

The winners of the 2012 Nebula Awards were announced over the weekend in San Jose, California.

They are: 

NOVEL2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
NOVELLA: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon)
NOVELLETTE: “Close Encounters” by Andy Duncan (The Pottawatomie Giant & Other Stories)
SHORT STORY: “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld 6/12)
RAY BRADBURY AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING DRAMATIC PRESENTATION: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin (director),  Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Abilar (writers), (Journeyman/Cinereach/Court 13/Fox Searchlight)
SOLSTICE AWARD: Carl Sagan and Ginjer Buchanan

A complete list of the nominees can be found on the SFWA website.  

Adventures Fantastic would like to congratulate all the nominees and especially the winners.

New Acquisitions

Today a friend and I took my son hiking in Palo Duro Canyon while our wives stayed home doing whatever wives do when husbands are away.  (I don’t want to know; that it involves spending money is enough.)  This will tie into a Dispatches From the Lone Star Front post later in the week after another road trip. 

When I go home, there was a package waiting for me.  It contained a copy of Ari Marmell’s In Thunder Forged from Pyr Books.  Along with Wrath-Breaking Tree (James Enge) and Kindred and Wings (Philippa Ballantine) that came Thursday and Nebula Awards Showcase (Catherine Asaro, ed.), which arrived last week, that’s four from Pyr in about ten days.  The Marmell and Nebula Awards will be reviewed first since the former will be out in a couple of weeks, and the latter is out already.  That’s not to say some of the other review copies Pyr has sent me won’t end up in the queue in the next couple of weeks.

I’ve also got several titles from Angry Robot in my ereader:  The Blue Blazes by Chuck Wendig (which I’ve already started and am loving), iD by Madelaine Ashbury, and A Discourse in Steel by Paul S. Kemp.

Finally, I’m looking forward to diving into No Return by Zachary Jernigan.  He was kind enough to send me a copy of his first novel.  This one got some good advance buzz, and I love the cover.  It’s up Blue Blazes

Anyway, those are the novels from publishers and authors I’ve agreed to read and review.  I still plan to increase the amount of short fiction I review.  (Sooper Seekrit Project #2 requires me to do so.)  I’m also going to stick in some novels just because I want to read them.

Think all that will keep me busy?

It’s All Over but the Crying

Well, not quite, but almost.  I turned in grades for graduating seniors (as well as for a few who thought they were) today plus most of my other grades.  There are a few loose ends to tie up, some student inquiries about why they barely passed when they all the papers they got back were A’s (uh-huh, yeah, right), a blatant case of academic dishonesty to crack down on, and that sort of thing.  But for the most part, my semester is over.

I’m not going to get much time off.  As lab director, I work all year because we have summer classes.  I’m not teaching this summer, so I should have some time for fun before things get hectic in the fall when I’ve got another overload.  In the meantime, I’m going to get some rest, get caught up on reading, increase my blog output, and get back to writing my own fiction.  Hopefully, I’ll have some of my own fiction up for sale within a few weeks.

A couple of ARCs from Pyr were waiting for me when I got home this evening that I’m looking forward to diving into, I want to read some of the Nightshade titles I’ve not gotten to in an effort to show support for them with all they’ve gone through lately, and I have some eARCs from Angry Robot to read.  Plus a couple of indie titles. 

Does it sound like I’m going to be busy?  I got tired just thinking about it.  I’m probably not going to dive into any of that until next week sometime.  I’m going to read for my own pleasure for the rest of the week, something along the lines of noir and/or space opera and let my mental batteries recharge.  (There’s a blog post in there that ties in with something Tobias Buckell wrote the other day.)  I’ll probably blog about whatever I choose to read, but for now I want to relax.

So that’s how things stand with me.  What’s up with you?

Blogging Conan: The Scarlet Citadel

It’s been quite a while since I wrote a post on Conan.  All I can say, “Where did the time go?”

Anyway, there are times when you just need to get back to basics.  This weekend has been one of them.

The Frazetta art for “The Scarlet Citadel”, shown at right and originally appearing on the cover of Conan the Usurper, has always been one of my favorites.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t like snakes.  If that were me chained up, I probably be a blubbering mass of jelly.  Anyway, even though it isn’t exactly faithful to Howard’s description, it’s still a masterpiece. 

“The Scarlet Citadel” was the third Conan story published in Weird Tales, following “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Tower of the Elephant“, although “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” and “The God in the Bowl” were probably written before Howard wrote “The Scarlet Citadel”.  (Links are to my posts about those stories.)

This story takes place during Conan’s reign as King of Aquilonia.  It opens with him taking 5,000 of his knights and riding to the aid of King Amalrus of Ophir against Strabonus, King of Koth.  With them, and actually the one in charge, is the sorcerer Tsotha-lanti.  It’s a trap, and all of Conan’s men are killed.  Conan is captured and offered his life if he will abdicate.

If you’ve read any of the Conan stories, you should know what his answer is.  As a result, he’s chained in a dungeon in total darkness to wait for the giant snake in the above picture to have him for a snack.

I’m assuming most of the people reading this are familiar with the story, but there are probably one or two of you who either haven’t read it or haven’t read it recently, so I’ll not give much in the way of spoilers. 

It had been a few years since I last read “The Scarlet Citadel” before I reread it the other day, and the images that had most stayed with me were the opening scene and the sequence of Conan and the snake.  It was fun to refresh my memory of this tale.

Howard by this time was becoming comfortable with the character.  His identity is well established.  Howard’s prose is top notch.  There’s a portion of the story in which Howard relates the events in Aquilonia after the population learn (falsely) that Conan is dead.  Howard summarizes the series of events beautifully, painting in broad strokes the usurpation of Conan’s throne by Tsotha-lani’s pawn and giving details about the resistance of certain individuals, such as the student Athemides speaking out and having to flee the city.  This is some of Howard’s better writing, although probably not his absolute best.  It’s certainly better than the passages in “A Witch Shall be Born“, in which the soldier Valerius relates events to his lover Ivga.

Yet, as much as I enjoyed this story, I can’t help feel that Howard was never really comfortable with Conan as a king.  While he’s still king, he spends most of the story trying to regain his throne.  Most of the story that’s told from Conan’s point of view consists of his capture and adventures in the dungeon, plus the concluding portion of the final fight at the end.  We never really see him in any kingly role.  And even though he’s portrayed more like a ruler in “The Phoenix on the Sword” and The Hour of the Dragon, I can’t shake the impression that Howard is at his most comfortable with the character when he’s not a king.  Even in The Hour of the Dragon, Conan spends much of his time traveling in order to regain his throne and even reminisces about when he was a wanderer. I know the Conan stories I’ve enjoyed the most have been those in which Conan answered to no one, even if there was a woman he was protecting.

Much of this one after Conan manages to escape consists of summaries and skips over some of the details.  If filled in, those details would turn this particular adventure into a short novel.  I don’t know if Howard didn’t feel as though he could write some of the details effectively or if he didn’t think he could sell Farnsworth Wright a story of that length about this relatively new character.  Certainly on the surface the basic concept of Conan having to fight against an invading army here bears a strong resemblance to the basic plot of The Hour of the Dragon.  Perhaps Howard felt more comfortable a few years later when he wrote Dragon, or if the character was by then popular enough to sustain a serial of that length.  Of course, by the time he wrote The Hour of the Dragon, Hester’s health was in a steep decline, and he probably needed the money a novel would bring more than he did when he wrote “The Scarlet Citadel”. 

“The Scarlet Citadel” is well worth the read.  The action is broken up into two main parts, the first being Conan’s capture and subsequent escape, and the second relates what happens in Aquilonia while he’s gone and how he gets his throne back.  It’s not one of the longer Conan stories, and it’s readily available in a number of collections.