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#13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

My parents like Michael Chabon, and they got me The Final Solution a few years ago, thinking (somewhat correctly) that a Sherlock Holmes story written by the author would be an excellent way to introduce me to his work. While I was not particularly entertained by that book (preferring other authors' new tales of Holmes), it was an entertaining read. Kavalier & Clay, on the other hand, was an excellent book, and I am very glad to have read it.

The titular characters are Joseph Kavalier, a Jew who flees Poland just before World War II who is trained in the art of stage magic and escapistry, and his cousin Samuel Clay, a New York Jew who wants to write and draw comics. Thrown together by family ties, Kavalier and Clay create The Escapist, a hero that draws upon their hopes and dreams and knowledge, and they become famous in pre-World War II America. The story follows their careers and lives, intermingling various real people but also a wide range of people that they love and loathe. Kavalier and Clay must deal with the effects of their books on the public, with their own lives, and with the oncoming war.

The book is excellently written; Chabon uses language masterfully. I enjoyed reading it for the use of language almost as much as I enjoyed the story. As a long-time fan of the comics, I am familiar with the events that Kavalier and Clay have to deal with, from the Cease & Desist that National Allied Publications (later known as DC Comics) filed on those other comic companies that supposedly imitated Superman, to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that created the Comics Code Authority and put EC Comics and several other companies out of business. Reading Chabon's story, I kept waiting for it to fall into the easy solution, the trite or cliched denouement, but I was pleasantly disappointed. Chabon creates a story that is both plausible and respectful of the characters he created and the events that occurred in the real world. And he interjects just enough of the almost-but-not-quite mystical that you have an almost magical feel to certain parts of the story, as if barely touching on the wondrous or miraculous. Given that Kavalier is a stage magician by training, such a feeling is perfect, for I was left at the end of the book feeling like I had just watched an illusionist perform his perfect show.

If you like comics (or at least the history of comics), you'll probably like this story. If you don't like comics, you'll like it as the story of two young men taking on the world in their own way. It's an excellent book, worthy of the Pulitzer it received.
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#12. Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

The followup to Mort, this is the second book of the Discworld series to put Death in as the main character. It provides some interesting ideas about the concept of death and why the Discworld (and perhaps people in general to some extent) need a personification of such a concept. Death's removal from his position as the personification of death leads him to find something else to do, and it makes him aware of the fact that, without his office, he is as much a slave to the passage of time as any other being on the Disc. He is forced to find a way to deal with this mortality and the attachments and emotions that come from having a lifespan, rather than lifelessness.

Pratchett once again mixes humor with a few poignant truths about life and death, all the while stomping mercilessly all over the tropes of drama and fantasy. Death has an almost universal appeal, serving quite nicely as an everyman for the reader. Secondary characters that have to deal with the lack of Death (but not the lack of death) provide interesting perceptions of how the end of life happens (the mayflies and the oaks are interesting examinations of the event and how our perception of time may not be the only view in the Universe). Not my favorite book of the Disc, but a good one nonetheless.
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#11. Honor Among Enemies by David Weber

I am, very slowly, making my way through the Honor Harrington series, and I've just now reached this title. (Yes, I know it was published in 1995. Shut up.) The series (for those unfamiliar with it) follows the adventures of Honor Harrington, an officer in the Royal Manticoran Space Navy, whose fortunes seem to be intertwined with the rise and fall of the Star Kingdom of Manticore (much like C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower and Great Britain, who was Weber's inspiration). The previous book in the series, Flag in Exile, saw Harrington disgraced and forced into half-pay and inactive status, which sent her to the Grayson System, where she had been awarded the rank of Steadholder and served in that world's space navy. In Honor Among Enemies, she is pulled back into active status, but given a less-than-desirous position, that of hunting pirates in an allied confederacy of systems' space. The ships that she is given aren't traditional warships, and her crews aren't quite the elite, but Harrington finds herself back in command of Manticoran ships again, and she is determined to do her duty to Queen and System.

Weber writes good prose, and I like his science fiction. He gets a little technical in places in the series, but in this one, he focuses mostly on the people, making you enjoy watching them face their challenges and succeed. The battles are exciting, even with the normal delays that space combat has, and he manages to keep suspense by alternating events and scene changes from chapter to chapter, drawing you along. My only criticism is his use of something approaching deus ex machina at the climax of the story. It isn't exactly an unforeseen event, but the possibilities of it seem remote, if you take into account the sheer size of outer space. Still, it doesn't seem to contrived, given the circumstances leading up to it, and I was willing to accept it, since the story up to that point had been enjoyable reading.
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#10 Tales of the Red Panda: The Crime Cabal by Gregg Taylor

I've mentioned Decoder Ring Theatre previously, and its flagship show, "Red Panda Adventures," before. Gregg Taylor, the director and writer of this podcast radio drama, has published two books featuring his characters on a direct-to-print distribution through Amazon.com. I picked one up recently.

The Red Panda is very much like his predecessor, the Shadow, complete with the spooky voice, chilling laugh, power of hypnosis, and rich alter ego. The differences between the two mystery men are diverse, however. The Red Panda patrols Toronto, rather than New York, a choice I believe Taylor made because of his familiarity with the city. He also has a sidekick, the Flying Squirrel, who serves as his alter ego's chauffeur when she's not leaping rooftops with him. The story takes place in the middle of the first half of the episodes that have been aired (they're currently at Episode 57), before the major changes in the lives of the heroes that happen after Episode 36 occur. An all-out war on the organized crime syndicates of Toronto cause the gangs to team up and join forces with several of the Red Panda's rogues' gallery, and the Crime Cabal, as they call themselves, plot to destroy the masked mystery man and his partner.

This is good, old-fashioned pulp, and it's right up my alley. I love the podcast show; Taylor and his cast have great verbal skills and the characters are fun to listen to. The book shows that Taylor is equally adept at prose as he is at scripts. The dialogue is fresh and entertaining, and if you listen to the show, you can hear the voices delivering the lines. The plot itself is a good introduction to the characters, engaging without being too complicated. If you like pulp, and you think you might like radio drama, I urge you to go check out Decoder Ring Theatre, and if you like what you hear, buy a copy of the book to help support the show.
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#9. Princeps' Fury by Jim Butcher

(Yes, that's two Jim Butcher books in a row. So what?)

The next in the Codex Alera, this story picks up almost immediately after the end of Captain's Fury, with the Princeps of the Aleran Empire, Gaius Octavius (known to the reader as Tavi, up until the last book), sailing for the homeland of the wolflike Cane, with whom he has brokered a peace (of a sorts) with on behalf of his grandfather, the First Lord of the Empire. The journey and arrival in the Cane lands across the ocean (if the Aleran Empire sits where the real world's Roman Empire was located, the Cane are located in North America) takes up part of the story. While Tavi goes to Cane lands, his mother, Isana, goes north to the northern provinces to broker peace between the Empire and the bestial Icemen. This peace is needed, because the First Lord's spies tell him that the insectoid Vord, who were first fought in the second book of the series, Academ's Fury, have begun to take over parts of the southern Empire. All of this is happening as Tavi reaches the West ... and finds what dangers and strangeness lurk there among the Cane.

Butcher fills this book with a lot of non-stop action, and it's fun to read. I enjoyed this better than Proven Guilty, perhaps because, unlike the Dresden Files, I managed to not read these out of order. Also, I really like the Codex Alera setting. It's a neat spin on epic fantasy. Butcher does a good job of making sure that most of the characters are not wholly good or evil in a black and white sense, and developing each into a unique person. He also does a good job of incorporating his system of spirits and magic into the society completely, rather than the sort of tacked-on feel that many fantasy stories have had. The events are an interregnum, unfortunately, and the story does not stand on its own, which is a weakness. But, on the other hand, it does ensure that I will be buying the next book as soon as I can.
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#8. Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

(I'm actually reading these faster than this; I'm just reviewing them slowly.)

A novel of the Dresden Files, Proven Guilty is the first one that I've read out of sequence. I picked it up, thinking it followed Blood Rites, and only found out that it was not the next one after I started reading it. The story follows Harry Dresden on a pretty standard Jim Butcher plot progression, three separate events that roll along with Harry involved in each, and that come together as one single unified plot as the denouement is reached. Harry is charged by the White Council of Wizards to investigate black magic in Chicago, and at the same time he gets called by Lieutenant Murphy to investigate an assault at a horror movie convention. Also at the same time, the eldest daughter of his friend Michael Collins, a modern-day paladin, calls him to get her boyfriend bailed out of jail. The three plots intertwine until it becomes apparent that someone is summoning demons of fear to kill people and using the convention as a focal point.

On one hand, it's a good story. Butcher has Dresden down perfectly now, and knows how his characters think and move and what motivates them. His descriptions are vivid and good fun to read. It's nice to see Michael and his family again; they are some of my favorite characters. The plot revives several hanging hints from earlier books, and it's a fun read.

On the other hand, it suffers from too much. There's too much going on. There are scenes that Butcher could have lingered upon, allowing Harry to do more than skip through, to give true emotional impact, that he glosses over, because he has action that has to happen right away. The story feels overstuffed with plot and it left me with a wish that he could have slowed things down a little. For a detective story, his characters don't do much detecting; it all seems left off screen, until Harry stumbles into the denouement (which, as I may have said before, is French for "Now we beat up the supervillain"). It's an easy read, and an enjoyable one, but not as satisfying as some of the earlier stories. However, I read it out of sequence, so I may have missed something.
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#7. Gaunt's Ghosts: The Saint by Dan Abnett

As I said in an earlier review, I don't normally go for gaming fiction. I have a few books, mostly singles from series set in a game world that I want to see a perspective on. The exception to these are the Gotrek and Felix series for Warhammer Fantasy, and several collections for the Warhammer 40K Universe. There's something unique about Warhammer 40k that makes it interesting to me, and some of the Black Library's (Games Workshop's fiction house) stable of writers are extremely talented.

Dan Abnett is one of these. He currently writes on a couple of titles for both of the big comic companies, but he wrote most of his Warhammer fiction before that. The Gaunt's Ghosts series chronicles the story of the Tanith 1st Imperial Guard, the Tanith "First-and-Only," a company of guard set in the Warhammer Imperium of Man whose home planet of Tanith has been destroyed by the forces of Chaos. The Ghosts are the only survivors of their homeworld, drawn together under the command of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt. The Saint is the second omnibus that the Black Library has released and reprints the middle four books of the series.

The stories in this omnibus center on the events leading up to the second coming of an Imperial Saint, whose original crusade many millennia before claimed the sector of space for the Emperor. Now that the forces of Chaos are being fought in a new crusade, the signs point to the saint's return. The Ghosts find themselves dealing with conflicts on several worlds, and in each place, there are signs and portents indicating their part in events to come, leading up to the final reappearance of the saint, and their defense of her against one of the Enemy's greatest commanders.

Abnett writes engaging military sci-fi, and the characters he has created are well developed and interesting. Even the sociopathic Lijah Cuu, who is instrumental in the progression of the story, draws you in and reveals himself to be more than a two-dimensional caricature. While the stories aren't very deep, they are enjoyable, and it is clear that Abnett has researched the activities of individual soldiers during conflicts and not just how battles are won. You can see some of the great battles of World War I in "Straight Silver" and the commando raids of World War II in "The Guns of Tanith."
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#6. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

It might be said that I was going to read this book the minute that I heard that both Wil Wheaton and Warren Ellis liked it. That would be true, but only because I know their tastes overlap mine (except for the pictures of body modification that Ellis likes throwing up on LiveJournal; those frighten me terribly). In truth, I probably would have found this sooner or later without their recommendations, but why turn down a free book recommendation when somebody's just throwing them up on their blog?

Boneshaker is set in 1880, outside of the walled ruin of Seattle. In 1863, an inventor, seeking patronage by people mining the Klondike, invented the Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine ... which promptly went out of control, tore through the earth below downtown Seattle, and released a strange gas now known as the Blight. Incredibly poisonous, the Blight not only kills, but it animates many of the dead. With no way to stop the accumulation, the people of Seattle built up a wall around the damaged areas, keeping the heavier-than-air gas contained, at least for a time.

The wife of the now-dead inventor, Briar Wilkes, is forced to return to the city that she and so many other fled when her son, Ezekiel, goes into the ruins to find out the truth behind his father. Briar must confront her history and deal with the aftermath of her husband's Infernal Device, facing the dangers of the city to rescue Zeke.

Boneshaker is a great book. The story runs fast and furious, and it hits on a number of proper Steampunk images: air pirates, mad scientists, anachrotech, and street life. This is not the glossy, corseted and goggled Steampunk of the fashion movement, this is proper Steampunk, which much like Cyberpunk, deals with the messy, petty, and violent lives of the people in the stories. The zombies are just an added pleasure that serve as the same sort of catalyst as they do in one of George Romero's works, motivating and propelling the characters through the plot.

If you like alt-historical fiction, or Steampunk, or zombies, or any and all of the above, I recommend this one. And if you don't think I'm a worthy source, then remember that Warren Ellis liked it, and he's the Internet Jesus.
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#2.Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Book Six of the Dresden Files, Dead Beat is another adventure for the only wizard listed in the Chicago Yellow Pages, Harry Dresden. This book continues the events of the past two books, the war between the White Council of Wizards and the three Vampire Courts. Harry, as befitting a private investigator, is right in the middle of the shit, and he finds himself coerced into protecting a film director from an entropy curse (i.e., fatally bad luck) by Thomas Raith, a son of the White Court's King.

The "case" in this mystery novel seems to be primarily a vessel by which Butcher furthers his overarcing plot of the war and Harry's background. There's some token portrayal of the events of the entropy curse, but for the most part the story pulls Harry into some vampire intrigue and spends a lot of time dealing with his ties to the White Court and Thomas. I found the plot hook of the film director and the curse to be treated a bit poorly; Butcher could have spent more time on it if he wanted to, I think, but he wanted to add other information, and probably ran out of room. His development of the White Court intrigues was good, but if he wanted to go that direction, the whole thing with the film director seemed to be getting in the way. I suppose it would have been better to make this a longer story, giving both sections an equal amount of time, but the Dresden books are supposed to be fast reads, and to split it into two books probably would've drawn it too far out. On the whole, this felt like a filler novel, bridging the events of the past novels with the one that will come afterwards, with a few bits of drama and backstory to make things interesting. Not a bad read - Butcher has a good voice and style for Harry - but definitely not my favorite so far.

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