#SteampunkMonth Review: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis is a Steampunk war story about a woman who, by luck and her willingness to fight, becomes an airship captain. She is set up by the general, with his nephew Bernat being sent aboard to report on her and provide evidence she’s incompetent.

After the opening battle, the first third or so of the book progresses naturally along these lines with Josette trying to establish her command, and Bernat attempting to foil that, until it gets into the thick of the book where a great battle is promised and then delivered upon.

The plot is pretty straightforward so it’s a bit hard to talk about that without spoiling it, but those who want an epic steampunk war piece will not be disappointed. The amazon listing states this is in the tradition of Honor Harrington, and I think that despite the setting change from space to airships, this book delivers on that about perfectly. Fans of David Weber should absolutely love this.

For my personal tastes, the Weber-esque aspects were the weakest parts of the book. It goes into hefty detail on the workings of the airship, the procedures of the crew, etc. Now this isn’t bad writing by any means, it was all very competently done, but those stretches of pages don’t appeal to me, and they occupy large portions of the book’s real estate in hefty detail. That said, it will likely appeal to every other science fiction reader out there big time, so it’s understandable why it was written that way.

Where Bennis actually does quite well that goes beyond what Weber’s done in my opinion is provide a very excellent dichotomy of characters. Josette is rough, rugged and a hard worker to root for. Bernat at first may drive you crazy, and you’ll find yourself agreeing with Josette’s internal and external assessments of him, but he grows on you as his intelligence and wit are revealed. The side characters like Bernat’s lordly uncle and Jutes are well done and memorable also.

The best part of the book, however, is the tone. It’s so masterfully done and multi-dimensional. While it’s a very dark story, really highlighting the horrors of war and making a very gritty environment, the sense of humor and sarcasm from the characters makes a wonderful balance to that. I laughed out loud at several points during the book, which is very difficult to make me do. And at the same time I felt horrible for the characters for what they were thrust into. Being able to achieve both of those moods simultaneously is an incredible feat in writing. This adds a layer to the characters where they don’t just feel like military grunts.

It’s paced very well, and the developments are very nice in terms of the war. I wish we’d see a little bit more of the personal side of the characters, as things are hinted at but the focus stays very much on the war. That’s natural given the crazed state they’re in, but there are points where we could have seen just a little bit more of a push in that direction.

On the war itself, I do appreciate the author’s subtle anti-war messaging to it, the way that Bernat as a lordling really can’t explain what the war’s about and why it matters, nor can the military in Josette. They try, but the reasons are thin. They just have to destroy the enemy because. And sometimes our real wars feel like that in earnest, especially in the last few decades.  Josette’s sense of duty despite this is both admirable in points, and makes you want to scream at her to do something else – but it does always come off well developed and natural. This message didn’t come across as preachy at all either, which is a bonus.

On the flip side, I didn’t feel much sense of progress from Josette or Bernat internally. The latter gave up on his mission to destroy her, but didn’t really change or develop in much of a sense. Josette by the same token had her command firmed up, but the same in terms of lack of much internal development. And I didn’t get a great sense of resolution of the war – now this is consistent with the worldbuilding as the war is talked about as a multi-generational thing that never seems to end, but I would have liked a clearer resolution in that regard where I at least felt some progress was made one way or another.

There is one other message of the whole women are oppressed and held down and everyone’s sexist which is not subtle at all, and while at certain points of the book it can get a bit burdensome, I don’t find it as overwhelming as I have in some books. Still at this point, there are far too many books with that monolithic message where it rings propagandic from publishers in our society rather than ringing true, and it’s not fun to read in the least. For the majority of the book though, it doesn’t have much of an impact or cause too much of a problem.

The prose is about perfect. I mentioned the wit and humor at points, but the descriptions of all the airship components and the workings are really marvelous. You feel very immersed in the world as a reader, it’s incredible. This is a great steampunk fantasy world that’s sensible in every regard.

I’ve put a lot of criticism in here but the real reason for that is I was so immersed that I care about the book, settings, and characters. It’s very few and far between that a book makes me care to that level of detail or that I can envision so much of it so vividly.  I found all of it memorable, and extremely well done. I’ll go so far to say that this is the best book of 2017 to this point about halfway through the year. Highly recommended.

9/10

 

#SteampunkMonth Retro Review: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

I had originally thought that this would a short read, something quick that I could get into and show its influence on the streampunk genre, as in steampunk communities, this book is talked about regularly. I’d considered it proto-steampunk from my loose memory of it as a child. Perhaps its due to its attitude, just the time that it was released, but because it was such a slow read it took me a couple of weeks to get through.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne actually opens in a very nice manner, with an omniscient perspective explaining the disappearances of several ships over years. They’re destroyed, people are worried about a giant sea monster. I was pretty intrigued and excited.

It switches to the perspective of a scientist who is brought aboard a vessel along with a Canadian harpoonist to take down this monster that’s plaguing the oceans. Action occurs here very nicely, as the twist is that it’s not a monster at all – it’s a big metal submarine contrapction! Their boat gets sank, they’re about to die and they’re brought into this strange submarine as prisoners. They’re held in the dark for a long time, wondering what their fate will be, until they’re informed by Captain Nemo they have a choice – join with the Nautalis and vow never to leave, or die. So far so good. I’m intrigued. I wonder why Nemo is so angry and taking down these ships, it’s touched on a little, but never fully explained. Perhaps it’s a mystery that will get explored along with the depths.

And that’s about where the book stops being interesting. They travel around the world, going to different areas. Different geographical regions are explained. Different undersea creatures are explained. And when I say explained I’m talking paragraphs that take up 2-3 pages going into absurd detail like this is some sort of academic journal. Maybe it’s just the deep perspective but yikes. It repeats this for the whole book.

There is some narrative in there as well. The heroes want to escape this creepy Captain Nemo. They keep plotting. Nemo keeps disappearing for hours/days on end and they don’t see him, only to return so they can se something. Something happens so they can’t escape. They forget about it and get lost in the wonder. A few chapters later repeat.

That’s my major qualm, the repetition. It’s over and over. Nothing builds. No tension gets escalated, it’s just more cataloguing and more “Captain Nemo is mysterious and melancholy!” which we were already told. There’s a couple cool parts – a fight with sharks, running from savage natives as they blast them with an electrified hull of the ship, there’s some cool steampunk feel right there, and later when they kinda do battle with a ship hunting them, but it’s sparse between the description.

I’ve read a lot about how there were originally intended themes of anti-imperialism, etc. that Verne really wanted to play up in his battle against various empires, but the edited version of the book we got removed most of that content. Perhaps that’s the case. It’s a cool concept, this submarine contraption. During the day that alone may have been enough to make this book a hit, now if it were described a little better would provide a cool alt-history content take. However, all the cool promises of that didn’t really get fulfilled. Instead we got a catalogue of fish.

I was pretty disappointed. It’s a really tough read. It has some historical value but I wish I could say this was something that would be more inspiring.  4/10

#SteampunkMonth Short Story Review: Chasing Christmas Past by Melanie Karsak

I learned of Melanie Karsak’s Airship Racing Chronicles through a friend yesterday, and figured I’d check out the short story last night. The short is very short indeed, and it’s actually available for free on amazon, so well worth a try. 

The short opened in a personal moment, a sad Christmas eve of getting drunk for the fair Lily, captain of the airship Stargazer. She’s alone while others are enjoying Christmas mistletoe and jolly times in a bar, and the story sets off on a Christmas day airship race where they’re late because they overslept after drinking so much.

I loved the airship race. Descriptions were beautiful. It was gripping and thrilling.

It’s cute, and didn’t try too hard for a twist — though I suppose there’s a romantic one involved, and I found it to be an enjoyable read. I think perhaps the story really started more when the waking up to airship race began, but I don’t fault the part of introducing the characters first, especially as this is meant to be a sampler for a larger series. The end was a bit rated-R for my tastes, and the characters went a little too debaucherous for me, but that may be a plus in some people’s books.

The story actually was very good on characterization, unlike most shorts that I read. A big plus there. I get the feeling there’s a little more depth for people who understand and have read the full series, but this stands alone fine.

Overall, it was well written, and definitely a good enough teaser to warrant checking out the series. 9/10

Review: Your Name by Makoto Shinkai

I went into reading Your Name. thinking that it was going to be a stupid bodyswapping movie. Unfortunately, from American media, the whole “Freaky Friday” thing is so overdone in every television show – and done so poorly, that the concept jars me and makes me not want to pay any attention in the least. It’s a romance, but with some supernatural elements that unfold into something bigger over the course of the story.

So I was hostile to this light novel and skeptical on read, but was looking as it was highly recommended as an anime (movie is in theatres now). The first pages were a bit odd. It’s written in first person present from two perspectives and it’s been translated, so it’s a little difficult to get into the flow of the prose. The perspectives sometimes would have breaks, but sometimes it’d switch between paragraphs and get a bit confusing. It took me about 30-40 pages of reading to get settled into it.

The opening actually has us thrown immedialy into that body swapping, as the characters discover each other, their lives, and everything. It’s pretty intriguing as both have very relatable backstories and interesting aspects to them. Each has friends they rely on, both noticing that there’s something odd and different about them when they switch, which plays an important part later in the story.

About halfway through the book, the story opens up and changes direction dramatically in a way that I wouldn’t have predicted. It becomes a very intense emotional ride from that point forward. This is where I won’t spoil, but it’s what hooked me and made me interested in writing a review of the book. The intensity and the pacing are beyond much fiction I’ve read at all, even though this is at its heart a high school romance story.

The supernatural aspects really ramp up as well, and have some really cool components to it that I appreciate.

What I will say is that Your Name. doesn’t care at all about logical aspects of the supernatural, it just goes and tells the story and pushes you in the feeling and connecting with the characters. It’s pretty refreshing to read something like that, and by the end of it, I didn’t want it to end at all. Beautiful stuff and I look forward to seeing the film version. 10/10

Retro Review: Star Wars: Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn

In my review of Heir to the Empire, I called it space opera t its finest. After reading Dark Force Rising, I am sorry to report that I am wrong, because THIS is space opera at it’s finest. While Heir to the Empire did a lot to set up the story in Dark Force Rising, the characters really came into their own, were allowed to breathe, and upped in complexity. We didn’t need an introduction to Mara Jade or Karrde or C’baoth anymore, and they pushed the story along almost better than the canon characters at points.

In Dark Force Rising we have a few plot threads going: A Bothan is trying to take over the New Republic and frame anyone who gets in his way. There’s a missing Katana fleet of old clone war ships that’s been rediscovered and it’s a race to find them before Thrawn does. C’boath and Luke confront each other and Luke sees how the other Jedi has gone insane and turned to the dark side – but still hopes for redemption like Vader. There’s the Noghri who in the last book were sent to kill Leia and now have their own story of how the Empire corrupted them, and Leia works with them. And then there’s Mara Jade’s fumbling into her use of the force. So much going on there’s very little time for a break.

A sign of a great writer to me, is one who can take threads that bored me in one book, and make them my favorite in others. It shows concentrations can change, a depth in understanding character, and skill in setting up cool plotlines. While last book I was pretty bored with the Leia plots, in this one I thought she really shined, and I was very interested in the Noghri and their plight with the empire.

But the plots converge very nicely as well. I would say that the last 75 pages or so are literally impossible to put down. The ending battle is fun. I liked the feel of having the New Republic back to being underdogs, and the solutions they scrap out are quite enjoyable. The pace of the whole book is really nice, and the complexity involved just makes this a superior volume to the last. I also love that the tone of the trilogy has the same cadence as the original Star Wars trilogy. This feels like empire. The Rebels have a victory in the battle, but it feels like a loss of the war, and the Empire becomes strong again. It’s truly a beautiful work of art. Don’t underestimate this just because it’s a tie-in. It’s better than all but a handful of non-tie-in fiction.

Comic Review: X-O Manowar #3

Some spoilers ahead, though I left out a couple crucial details to ensure the story is still enjoyable to those who pick this up.

X-O Manowar #3 picks up right where #2 left off, with Aric preparing for an outright assault on the President of the other faction. It starts out with this pretty montage with guest art by David Mack, as it’s explained how cruel and awful these people are in the way they treat “inferior” species, both using them in slavery and tinkering with different species genetics to keep them down. It’s jarring and makes a reader care for this war that hadn’t been explained too much to this point.

Then Aric goes to track the president down and we get thrust into the intense action that’s defined the first couple of issues. After reading a lot more of Kindt’s work between Issue 1 and now, I see that Kindt made a purposeful choice to let the beautiful art of Tomas Giorello breathe, which I appreciate. The scenery is so detailed, so many different alien concepts, Giorello really did more for this arc than I’ve seen an artist do for the vast majority of comics I read. He worked extremely hard and it shows. Giorello’s art has some of the best pages in this issue of the run so far.

The side Aric is on then bombards the city before Aric and his team can get out, betraying them, the end result of the rivalry with the Captain from prior issues. This gets resolved in an extremely satisfying manner, which I’ll leave for readers to discover.

There’s a couple pages of Aric’s internal dilemmas, as he talks to the armor. The armor attempts to woo him further and what’s interesting is I expected wholly that Aric would don it by this point, and was surprised that he didn’t. Which I’m okay with, I’m very much enjoying Aric Warrior adventures as it is, but this is an intriguing plot thread I hope gets more pages dedicated to it in the next arc.

I’m just as excited as I was in issue 1. Each issue has been packed so far, hits story points, sets up the next. This first arc of three issues really nailed all the high points that make me want to read comics. 10/10

Review: Brandon Sanderson – Snapshot

Snapshot is the recent “between novellas” project by Brandon Sanderson. This one is a little different, a science fantasy near-future world where police can create these “Snapshots” which are direct copies of the world before a crime occurs. Police can go into these snapshots and investigate by seeing what actually happened for a period of hours. Any action they do inside creates ripples called “deviations” which tarnishes the evidence, so they have to be careful. It’s not explained how this works, or really anything about it other than a cursory “I don’t know how it works” by the main character, which is why I call it science fantasy. I’m fine with that, as it’s a neat concept. It reminds me a little of his 2016 novella, Perfect State, in the sense that this is a tech-driven story rather than a magic one.

Because Sanderson’s books are so twist-dependent, there will be spoilers. If you want to avoid those, stop reading now.

This story follows two detectives who are investigating a murder, but that’s not the main crux of it as they solve that relatively quickly. There’s a serial killer on the loose that they discover, that the department hasn’t been talking about or letting them in on at all. It’s not abnormal as they’re snapshot investigators, separate from the rest of the force, but it does appear it’s covered up. They take it into their own hands during the snapshot time left to uncover this information and catch the killer.

The characters are a little hard to connect to. Sanderson’s been using a formula lately of straight man / comic relief buddy, and while it’s okay once or twice, I’m seeing it as a pattern in all of his work that made this a bit rough. I really didn’t start connecting with the characters or being interested until about 25% into the book, where some personal stuff develops that makes it a little more interesting.  Still, they come across as vehicles for a plot or comic relief jokes a lot of time rather than real characters.

This is a short book so I’m going to jump to where it gave me the biggest problem. Sanderson also does a “two-stage twist” in all of his books. He gives you one where it’s obvious and you’ll call well in advance, in order to lull you reading wise into not realizing what the big twist is. Since again he employs this formula with extreme regularity, I was prepared for it. What threw me off was what happened. The twist was that the main perspective character was in the snapshot to uncover his partner boinking his ex-wife and kill him for betrayal. It’s actually a cool plot point, but the problem is– it was the perspective character. We went along the whole book without the guy thinking about killing his partner. There were points he was mad at him, calling him a liar, but it seemed almost in fun. He was never concerned about the event until it happened, which means the reader was cheated the entire time to put a twist in there. The story fell apart for me because of this. This was the “twist you don’t expect”. The twist that you do expect was that this was a snapshot of a snapshot to investigate this whole thing, which we discover later on. Usually the order of these are reversed for Sanderson — and in the essay after in the collector’s edition, he does address that he would have liked to have reversed those but didn’t find a way to in the story — but that was pretty flat and expected, and I didn’t buy the big twist because of the above.

With low character work that made the story tough to get into, and a twist that imminently didn’t work and felt forced for the sake of it, this is probably my least favorite Sanderson work to date. I really wanted to like this, and read it fairly quickly — as the pacing is the element that saves this, but found that this story didn’t work at all.  5/10

Retro Review: Sassinak by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon #SpaceOperaWeek

What timing, as over the weekend I read this space opera beauty by Grand Master of Science Fiction Anne McCaffrey, and one of the space opera greats, Elizabeth Moon. Ms. McCaffrey was extremely generous with the brand name in the late 80s early 90s, co-writing with a number of folk to help increase awareness for young writers. Sassinak is the product of that, a book in her Planet Pirates series which followed the two Ireta Dinosaur Planet books.

The original books in the series are not the best of McCaffrey work, but not the worst either, resulting in a world that I wasn’t all that impressed with after those novels. When I read the co-written The Death Of Sleep with Jody Lynn Nye is when the series really took hold for me. A beautiful story about the perils of space travel and cryogenic freezing, and dealing with life, love, family over time. It gave a lot of depth to the character of Lunzie, and crossed over at the end of the book with the original two books.

Sassinak follows the same format. It starts with young Sassinak growing up with pirates, getting captured by slavers, and rescued by the fleet. The fleet then becomes the only family she knows and she works her tail off to move up the ranks despite no help or political influence to the name. The book really breaks down into 4 novellas, each stories of their own: 1. youth and slavers 2. first fleet assignments 3. Sassinak, commander and pirate hunter 4. the overlap with Ireta.

The character work is wonderful, great plot that goes through it dealing with the prejudice against “heavy worlders” in the fleet, and sabotage erupting from political conflict. I loved the real glimpse at military life, and the bond that’s formed “once fleet, always fleet” between people looking out for each other. The second act with Sassinak dealing with a saboteur and getting jettisoned into an escape pod with limited air was very tense and beautiful. The third novella was most fun with the pirates attacking, hiding on a moon and using resourcefulness to get back to fleet. It really provided a great character lead, using wits and smarts and social skills — the character feeling like a real woman and a great lead at the same time.

I think the fourth novella/act in the book is the weakest, which is where it overlaps with Ireta. We see things from a different perspective, and a lot of the story is glossed over to where I’m not sure it even works if you didn’t read Ireta. As a consequence, this part felt a little flat for me, but the first 3/4 of the book was good enough that it makes it worth it.  I look forward to the sequel Generation Warriors as the end set up a nice little promise to go hunt some space pirates.

8/10

Comic Review: Green Lantern Corps: Rebirth Vol. 1

What’s interesting about the DC reboots is some of them don’t even try to “start over” but launch with the assumption that you know everyone and everything going on. For Green Lantern Corps and the Sinestro Corps and all that with the yellow/green war for who’s policing the galaxy – it pretty much assumes you’ve read a lot of Geoff Johns’ now classic work on the characters, and is probably slightly more rewarding when you do.

I picked this up mainly because I like Robert Venditti and wanted to support him. It’s the first Marvel/DC title I’ve read in a couple of years, having stopped after Marvel got so crazy and when the new-52 was having problems. And when I read this it validated my decision.

Don’t get me wrong, this is actually an excellent book by Marvel/DC standards. There’s tons of of action, a nice arc, its’ cleanly written, the characters are all in classic form. Robert Venditti did a great job, and the art is epic too – great work with the green lantern powers on that front producing stunning visuals, my only complaint is it suffers from “modern movie-ism” on the art front where a lot of the pages are so cluttered and dense that it’s distracting.

The problem is the old comic book characters and brands. There’s really nothing at stake so even these high powered cosmic action stories like this, mean nothing. Hal Jordan will always come back, even if he dies. Sinestro too. The corps were “dead/disappeared” for like 3 issues of this comic, but they just poofed back into existence. When there literally are no stakes for a character, it just makes things impossible to care about.

That’s not the creative team’s fault, but Marvel/DC’s. No matter what, it’s going to reset in a couple years. No matter what, there will be no real development. And it shows in the book, as it seems like the writer is almost ordered not to do anything that will have any lasting impact to the character.

Content wise: you get a lot of fights. It’s a very decompressed story that reads a full volume of 7 issues in like 20 minutes, you get some Sinestro vs. Jordan action as well as yellow corps vs. green corps. The most interesting thing is the bit with Sinestro’s daughter where she seems to care for Hal despite following the yellow corps Sinestro put together. The moments there with that character were about the only time I cared.

I compare this to Venditti’s XO Manowar, which I’ve been reading in trade and spurred me to pick this up. Same writer. Same action. The difference is in XO, the character can grow, suffer real loss, change. There’s tension there because of that. It wasn’t always like this with Marvel/DC. They actively tried to progress characters up through the 90s. Then they panicked with sales slumps (due to crowding the market and variant covers killing collecting) and pushed everything back to “classic”. I like seeing classic characters, but the thing that makes them classic is that they’re actual characters – and that requires development.

While this is a fine story, fine art, everything’s just fine about it. At the same time, it doesn’t offer me anything to care about. I’m going back to reading Valiant Comics now.

Comic Review: Eternal Warrior Awakening #1

 

After discovering the new X-O Manowar and going back through the Valiant universe titles… I’m very near the point where if it says “Valiant Comics” on it, I’m going to at least try out an issue. Eternal Warrior: Awakening also is written by Robert Venditti, who as I mentioned in a review of Armor Hunters, wrote some of the best comics I’ve read in recent years. Add Artist Renato Guedes, who did some great work on the Superman/Batman book awhile back and is no stranger to valiant work himself, and you have quite the creative team.

One issue in, I’m happy to say, Valiant has killed it again. And I mean that with the best puns possible with the Eternal Warrior’s premise — an immortal man who fights through the ages. This is a book set in ancient times, where the Eternal Warrior has lost his memory from an old wound, having nightmares, a wife, a new life as a farmer. A Geomancer shows and reminds him of his history, and sets off a hero’s call to action. Those who are familiar with the Warrior and Geomancers from past Valiant books are already salivating for more, but for new folk, this is a great origin #1 issue set-up. I haven’t read the prior Eternal Warrior books yet, but am familiar with the character from Archer & Armstrong.

What impressed me about the book is that it has a full story in it. We didn’t meet the villain, have the hero brush his teeth and head out like a lot of comics do in their first issue. We have the villain. We have the hero setting out. We have the action. We have the conclusion and then there’s a set up for a larger story afterward. I compare this to Kindt’s X-O Manowar run currently — and with the two, I believe that Valiant Comics have rediscovered the “tell a story in a single issue but leave them wanting more” formula that made old comics great, and not material to wait for trades.  I have to think it’s intentional on these writers’ parts, and I’m extremely happy to see it. Applause on that.

With comparing this to Valiant’s Manowar relaunch, I would say that if Manowar represents pulp sci-fi John Carter Warlord Of Mars in all its gloriousness, The Eternal Warrior: Awakening is Michael Moorcock Elric Saga in modern comic form. That’s about as high of praise I can give, and these books have both earned it in its own right. Eternal Warrior really is the pulp action-adventure fantasy that I’ve been craving out of comics for a long time.

The art’s great. Guedes does a wonderful job in expressions, figures, crowd scenes, having to draw camels (I like seeing cool animals in comics, +1!) fight scenes, all sorts of breadth here. The background gets a little lost at points which I’m guessing was a time consideration, and gets filled in with a little bit of aggressive coloring, but very minor complaint on that front for what is near perfect art to compliment near perfect storytelling.

I said last week that I think I’m in for whatever Matt Kindt writes from here on out… I think I’m there with Robert Venditti too. This is a great book and you should pick it up. Another epic win for Valiant Comics.  10/10