Review: Blackout, by Tim Curran

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About Blackout

In the midst of a beautiful summer, in a perfectly American suburban middle-class neighborhood, a faraway evil is lurking, waiting to strike the unsuspecting residents.

First come the flashing lights, then the heavy rains, high winds, and finally a total blackout. But that’s only the beginning…

When the whipping black tentacles fall from the sky and begin snatching people at random, the denizens of Piccamore Way must discover the terrifying truth of what these beings have planned for the human race.


About the Author

Tim Curran lives in Michigan and is the author of the novels Skin Medicine, Hive, Dead Sea, and Skull Moon. Upcoming projects include the novels Resurrection, The Devil Next Door, and Hive 2, as well as The Corpse King, a novella from Cemetery Dance, and Four Rode Out, a collection of four weird-western novellas by Curran, Tim Lebbon, Brian Keene, and Steve Vernon. His short stories have appeared in such magazines as City Slab, Flesh&Blood, Book of Dark Wisdom, and Inhuman, as well as anthologies such as Flesh Feast, Shivers IV, High Seas Cthulhu, and, Vile Things. Find him on the web at:

website: http://www.corpseking.com
blog: http://satansmeatlocker.blogspot.com/


My Thoughts

I became acquainted with Tim Curran’s work last summer after seeking out recommendations from a Goodreads group for some good marine-based horror. I was thinking something along the lines of the movie Leviathan, which attempted to be Alien at the bottom of the sea. When a few readers recommended Dead Sea, I took a chance on it and found myself immediately engrossed.

Directly after finishing Dead Sea, I bought a number of his other works and impatiently waited for my pre-ordered copy of Blackout to release. I also came to a central conclusion, based then on nothing more than that single book, and am none the least bit dissuaded in believing upon finishing this latest: Curran, who hails from the Upper Penninsula, is Michigan’s answer to Maine’s Stephen King. He’s got serious horror chops, sure, and that intimate campfire voice, the kind you really don’t want whispering in your ear long after night has fallen. More importantly, he’s able to draw relatable, recognizable, ordinary people locked in a struggle against the extraordinary. He takes impossible situations and grounds them in characters that could easily be your boss, your friends, or your neighbors.

And Blackout certainly gets to the heart of the extraordinary, by waking up the folks of Piccamore Way to a series of timed, repeating strobe lights and an impenetrable blackness. The stars are hidden, and the night is darker than normal. It shifts as something massive and unseen hovers above. Long shiny, black cables drop from the sky, leaking a sticky goo that traps any who touch it and hauls them back up into the belly of the great beast overhead.

Told in first-person and with short, punchy chapters, Curran wastes no time cutting to the chase and diving right into the horror. Blackout is a rich nod to The Twilight Zone, sufficiently so that the mental movie playing in my head as the story unfolded was in the good and proper black-and-white film-stock.

This novella is a grisly first-contact story, War of the Worlds by way of The Mist, and Curran plays the familiar tropes with fun finesse. The read is easy and briskly paced, with the pages practically turning themselves. It’s the perfect story to indulge in during a dark and stormy summer night, with a beer in hand, the lights turned low, and the doors locked. Maybe keep a flashlight handy, though. Just in case.

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Review: Consumed, by David Cronenberg

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About Consumed

The exhilarating debut novel by iconic filmmaker David Cronenberg: the story of two journalists whose entanglement in a French philosopher’s death becomes a surreal journey into global conspiracy.Stylish and camera-obsessed, Naomi and Nathan thrive on the yellow journalism of the social-media age. They are lovers and competitors—nomadic freelancers in pursuit of sensation and depravity, encountering each other only in airport hotels and browser windows.Naomi finds herself drawn to the headlines surrounding Célestine and Aristide Arosteguy, Marxist philosophers and sexual libertines. Célestine has been found dead and mutilated in her Paris apartment. Aristide has disappeared. Police suspect him of killing her and consuming parts of her body. With the help of an eccentric graduate student named Hervé Blomqvist, Naomi sets off in pursuit of Aristide. As she delves deeper into Célestine and Aristide’s lives, disturbing details emerge about their sex life—which included trysts with Hervé and others. Can Naomi trust Hervé to help her?Nathan, meanwhile, is in Budapest photographing the controversial work of an unlicensed surgeon named Zoltán Molnár, once sought by Interpol for organ trafficking. After sleeping with one of Molnár’s patients, Nathan contracts a rare STD called Roiphe’s. Nathan then travels to Toronto, determined to meet the man who discovered the syndrome. Dr. Barry Roiphe, Nathan learns, now studies his own adult daughter, whose bizarre behavior masks a devastating secret.These parallel narratives become entwined in a gripping, dreamlike plot that involves geopolitics, 3-D printing, North Korea, the Cannes Film Festival, cancer, and, in an incredible number of varieties, sex. Consumed is an exuberant, provocative debut novel from one of the world’s leading film directors.

About the Author

David Cronenberg is a Canadian filmmaker whose career has spanned more than four decades. Born in Toronto, Canada, Cronenberg was inducted onto Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1999. In 2002, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 2006 he was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s lifetime achievement award, the Carrosse d’Or; he is also an Officer in France’s Order of Arts and Letters (1990), and a Chevalier in its Legion of Honor (2009). Cronenberg’s many feature films include Stereo, Crimes of the Future, Fast Company, The Brood, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, Crash, A History of Violence, and A Dangerous Method. His most recent film, Cosmopolis, starred Robert Pattinson and was an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel. Consumed is his first novel.

My Thoughts

 (This review is based on an advanced review copy obtained through NetGalley.)
I’ll preface this review with a small word of caution: I am not nearly as up-to-snuff on Cronenberg’s film work as I should be. The man is a heralded director, yet, sadly, I’ve only seen a few of his films. Most of his best-known and most well-regarded films, such as The Fly, Scanners, and Videodrome came out well before I was of-age to watch them and I’ve yet to actively seek them out for viewing. I have seen and absolutely love The Dead Zone, and A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are up there, too. Those two latter films, however, are among his more mainstream efforts and did little to prepare me for the darker, more psychologically and physically horrifying nature of Cronenberg’s storytelling oeuvre as he makes his literary debut.

According to IMDB, Cronenberg is known as the King of Venereal Horror, or body horror, which usually involves the destruction of the body. Both The Fly and Videodrome are celebrated classics of this horror subgenre, along with John Carpenter’s The Thing. It is this genre that Cronenberg gravitates toward with his novel, Consumed (as well as the 9-minute short film The Nest, which was released at the end of June as a bit of a prequel/teaser to this novel).

Assembled here is a hodgepodge of philosophy, psychopathy, cannibalism, self-mutilation, and physical disfigurements. The book covers the gamut, from sexual promiscuity and STDs, to Peyronie’s Disease and apotemnophilia, and wraps it all in a puzzle-box that’s equal parts riddle and Chinese finger trap. Consumed is an erotic thriller that revels in its utter lack of sexiness and obscure fetishes before devolving into a roughly hewn conspiracy.

Beginning with the discovery of the murder and cannibalization of Célestine Arosteguy readers are taken on a multi-layered mystery that ties Naomi’s search for the missing Aristide Arosteguy into the secondary narrative thread surrounding her sometimes lover Nathan, as he becomes embroiled with the Riophe’s after catching a rare STD.

The story that unfolds then becomes a cross-country narrative filled with narcissists, sexual libertines, and the mentally unhinged. Unfortunately, while Cronenberg’s storytelling skills are top-notch and he’s crafted an absorbing and compelling page-turner, the result is unbalanced. Persistently interesting and uncountably strange, the final turns of the premise upon which it all hangs feels terribly disconnected and fruitless.

Ultimately, it’s a story of nothing more than pure voyeurism. Both Naomi and Nathan are photojournalists, and their affection for technology borders on the obscene, with photographic minutiae, like ISO settings and Speedlight specs, a fetishistic obsession. They see the world through a lens, their perspective and views limited to only what resides opposite the thick black bodies of their DSLR Nikon cameras and iPhones. It’s a limitation that carries over to the dual narratives, as we only ever see things through their dual viewpoints, with rare exceptions, and their depths of field come armed with armchair pop psychology.

Consumed is a challenging read, one that requires full investment, but which offers little in return. Closure is as hard to find, and absolute answers as rare, as Riophe’s STD. The ending offers only more questions and concerns, and, as a climax, packs little in the way of power. It’s a twisted, bent tale, the narrative itself a version of Peyronie’s Disease, and manages to be both obliquely satisfying yet intensely empty.

While I found myself dissatisfied, I can’t help but think that I’ll be examining the structure and roles of this story and its characters as time goes on, and I can’t help but think that the disturbing nature of the work as a whole has left a bit of a mark in me. I suspect Consumed will gain a cult following amongst Cronenberg purists, but personal satisfaction in the story may depend on your familiarity and enjoyment of the author’s filmic narratives.

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Review: In The Kindgom Of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

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About In The Kingdom Of Ice

New York Times bestselling author Hampton Sides returns with a white-knuckle tale of polar exploration and survival in the Gilded Age

In the late nineteenth century, people were obsessed by one of the last unmapped areas of the globe: the North Pole. No one knew what existed beyond the fortress of ice rimming the northern oceans, although theories abounded. The foremost cartographer in the world, a German named August Petermann, believed that warm currents sustained a verdant island at the top of the world. National glory would fall to whoever could plant his flag upon its shores.

James Gordon Bennett, the eccentric and stupendously wealthy owner of The New York Herald, had recently captured the world’s attention by dispatching Stanley to Africa to find Dr. Livingstone. Now he was keen to re-create that sensation on an even more epic scale. So he funded an official U.S. naval expedition to reach the Pole, choosing as its captain a young officer named George Washington De Long, who had gained fame for a rescue operation off the coast of Greenland. De Long led a team of 32 men deep into uncharted Arctic waters, carrying the aspirations of a young country burning to become a world power. On July 8, 1879, the USS Jeannette set sail from San Francisco to cheering crowds in the grip of “Arctic Fever.”

The ship sailed into uncharted seas, but soon was trapped in pack ice. Two years into the harrowing voyage, the hull was breached. Amid the rush of water and the shrieks of breaking wooden boards, the crew abandoned the ship. Less than an hour later, the Jeannette sank to the bottom,and the men found themselves marooned a thousand miles north of Siberia with only the barest supplies. Thus began their long march across the endless ice—a frozen hell in the most lonesome corner of the world. Facing everything from snow blindness and polar bears to ferocious storms and frosty labyrinths, the expedition battled madness and starvation as they desperately strove for survival.

With twists and turns worthy of a thriller, In The Kingdom of Ice is a spellbinding tale of heroism and determination in the most unforgiving territory on Earth.


About the Author

A native of Memphis, HAMPTON SIDES is editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author of the international bestseller Ghost Soldiers, which was the basis for the 2005 Miramax film The Great Raid. Ghost Soldiers won the 2002 PEN USA Award for nonfiction and the 2002 Discover Award from Barnes & Noble, and his magazine work has been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards for feature writing. Hampton is also the author of Americana and Stomping Grounds. A graduate of Yale with a B.A. in history, he lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons.


My Thoughts

(Review is based on an electronic advanced reader’s copy of the book and was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.)

With works of historical non-fiction, it’s important to contextualize the narrative within the broader scope of the era being discussed. While a journey to the arctic is all kinds of riveting, there still needs to be some semblance of motivation, either on a personal scale or for larger reasons. Author and historian Hampton Sides reflects wonderfully on these aspects in the book’s early chapters. Readers get a sense of not only the main players and peripheral characters, but of a divided nation that is recovering from the Civil War and seeking a rallying point to unify under, while also still growing thanks to Manifest Destiny and the purchase of Alaska from Russia. It’s a period of nationalistic pride, despite the still-young nation having a laughable Navy in comparison to European countries, and the Arctic Circle represents the “final frontier” of discovery. Rumors and educated guesses abound at what would be found at the North Pole, with much of the speculation and hope revolving around the discovery of a warm oasis, a dream fed by Viking and Greek myths that were immortalized by mapmakers, and, ultimately, the spirit of these hazy, safe concepts captured in the first modern rendition of Santa Claus by American cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1860s. The US, and, in fact, much of the world, were caught in the grip of Arctic Fever.

That fever, thankfully, extends quite well to the written word and makes In The Kingdom Of Ice a briskly compelling read. Using original sources, in the form of correspondences, ship logs, personal papers, and documents from Jeanette housed in Washington’s National Archives, author Hampton Sides is able to vividly bring to life the central Navy men aboard the ship, as well as the vitally important ancillary characters, such as arctic commander George De Long’s wife, Emma, and newspaper magnate Gordon Bennett, owner of the Herald. Bennett, whose wealth is responsible for the funding of the journey north, becomes a larger-than-life figure, full of vim and vigor and drunken escapades. We get a terrific sense of De Long’s happy marriage, and the affection that Emma has for her ice-bound husband is apparent in her personal letters.

Sides has gone to great lengths to capture the human spirits of those involved, which makes their ordeals all the more difficult to bear.

The historical elements of the narrative, from the Jeanette’s send-off in San Francisco to its final resting place in the Arctic, are candidly reproduced, but never embellished or sensationalized. There were certainly moments that made me squirm, such as the depictions of frostbite and the rotting effects of the constant cold wetness in the Arctic, but Sides handles it with methodical cool. He’s not writing to gross people out, or reveling in the gore. His reportage is precise but still deeply moving, particularly in the book’s denouement when the fate of the Jeanette’s crew becomes apparent.

In The Kingdom Of Ice is terrific account of America’s early endeavors to reach the North Pole and it deserves to find a wide audience of readers. The trials and terrors the crew face, and the uncertain realities that affect their companions at home, make for a marvelous and gripping account. Sides is a masterful historian and a damn good writer. Highly recommended.

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First Impressions: Godus (iOS edition)

godusnewAfter learning of the release of Peter Molyneux’s latest game for the iOS, via TechCrunch, I immediately downloaded Godus from my iPhone’s app store.

Molyneux has always struck me as a heck of a character, a sort of mad-creator, and his game designs are usually pretty imaginative and brimming with terrific ideas that do not always translate perfectly to a playable product. While I appreciated Fable and it’s sequel (I’ve not yet played part three) at the time of their release, I found The Movies to be rather lacking despite a premise (a Hollywood sim-builder) that was exciting and right up my alley. I really wanted to love that game way more than I actually did, and I keep hoping for Molyneux to take another stab at it and try for a bit of course correction.

With Godus, a Kickstarter-funded God sim in the vein of Molyneux’s earlier Populus, players are dropped into a rescue mission of sorts from the get-go. Two people are on the verge of drowning, and you are given the task of saving them via a brief tutorial that explains the game’s concept of land sculpting. By tapping, holding down, and swiping up, down, left, or right you can control the depth of the terrain, the layers of which are color coded for easy discernability, and shape, or sculpt, the lay of the land.

Once rescued, these two figures recognize you, the player, as God and become your first followers. You continue following them around the map, sculpting the land and clearing it of obstacles in order to help them reach the Promised Land, where they can settle down, breed, build, and worship, all in your honor.

Image source: 22Cans (Facebook)

Image source: 22Cans (Facebook)

The initial game-play is pretty straightforward, and the opening segment revolves around building up your tribe’s population and expanding their territory. There are certain goals you have to hit – like breeding 10 new people and building three more abodes – in order to get your reward, in the form of specialized power cards and tools or specialized goods (like animal furs), which can be found in treasure chests across the Promised Land. The cards appear listed in a timeline, which allows you to scroll forward and see what’s coming up as the game progresses. It’s a neat feature and provides a built-in level of anticipation to let you know there’s a method to the madness and end goals to strive for, rather than just playing for the sake of killing time. You unlock more cards by reaching population milestones. The larger your population, the more belief your followers can generate – and it’s the power of belief that allows you to perform many of your actions. There’s a nice bit of interconnectivity to the game’s mechanics that allows one system to naturally feed and supplement other systems.

One of the first important tasks is to repair a temple, which then opens the game wider and generates several prompts requesting players to rate the game and to sign-in with a Facebook or Mobage account. I suspect some may have a problem granting yet another application access to a social media account, though. The game promises to make it worthwhile, and although I didn’t have a problem with logging-in via Facebook, I’m not sure how radical the differences will be for those who don’t. Repairing the temple unlocks gems, which can be used to purchase in-game content, like the Primitive Sticker Pack. You can also make in-app purchases and buy additional gems (50 gems for $4 and up, up to 1400 gems for $99.99). These stickers interact with the cards and are used to unlock and harness the upgrade each card offers.

During the loading of one play session, I was told that followers will learn how to behave based on my actions, which should make for some truly interesting observational game play in the future. I’m not too deep into the game, yet, but the social development of followers promises to be intriguing. Already I’m seeing the initial development of a community as neighbors meet-and-greet one another, sit around camp fires together, or climb trees to harvest coconuts. Your actions do have a direct effect on the people in-world, though. One unfortunate fellow was a bit too close to the water during an accidental sculpting and got dropped into the drink after the land disappeared from beneath his feet. Another townsman saw what was happening and ran out, yelling for me to save him. I was quick to put the land back, and the gent found himself safe and sound again and went back about his business. I may have also made a few people homeless by accident… I’m really keen on finding out what kind of moral quandaries and ethical entanglements may arise from my virtual omnipotence (and occasional clumsiness) as the game develops, and how this will impact and shape the world.

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Before.

While constructing a civilization is a vital element of the play-through, the world opens up with the discovery of a sailing vessel. After building the docks, you can launch an exploration to other islands, which basically functions as a mini-game with a network of islands that you’ll travel to and launch explorers. Once on land, you’ll need to select how many explorers to launch and get them from Point A to the temple at Point B by sculpting the land around them to overcome any obstacles in the way. But, you’ll need to hurry as the missions are timed! You also only have X number of explorers on your ship, so you want to be careful about balancing how many people are sent to an island, within the demands of a particular level for a certain number of required explorers. Your team of explorers are basically Lemmings, so you’ll need to be mindful of their group-think habits and act fast to corral them into following the path you’ve devised.

The mini-games make for an enjoyable and thoughtful (and sometimes frustrating) break from the basic mechanics of building abodes, and completing them earns you lots of powerful stickers. The game play opens up a bit further with the realization that your Chosen Ones are not alone in the Promised Land, and with the introduction and growth of God Powers. Although I’m still early on in the game and my Godliness is pretty limited, I sneaked a peek at the timeline’s future cards and there looks to be some very intriguing power sets coming up that should play heavily into the AI development of your tribes and their interactions with the world around them.

Godus is nicely designed and the focus, from graphics to sound, is high on pleasantry and fun. The game has a bright cartoonish feel to it, which is emphasized in the audio department. Send one of your followers to build a new abode and they cheerily reply, “Building!” The music is upbeat and easy on the ears, and the discovery of treasures is suitably ethereal and accompanied by a ghostly whisper when opened.

A supremely annoying aspect, however, and your mileage may vary, came in the form of push notifications. If you have multiple building projects going on, as I did, the game will send you notices when each one is finished. Because I had been building six abodes simultaneously, my iPhone spent quite a while buzzing and beeping to alert me of the status. At the moment I’m OK with logging-in and providing Godus access to my Facebook account, but I will be denying it access to my phone’s alert features very soon!

I also wish that navigation were a bit less sticky. Earlier I mentioned nearly drowning somebody due to an accidental sculpting job on the landscape. Moving around the screen requires a two-finger swipe. This was a little too cumbersome for me, so I tried using both thumbs to travel across the Promised Land with mild success. It’s an easy way to move, but not necessarily the most efficient. So, navigation could require a little bit of retraining of the old muscle memory.

After.

After.

Ultimately, I’m enjoying Godus a hell of a lot. I think it’s a really fun game, some minor navigation quibbles aside. The big question, as is often the case with mobile games and simulators in general, is how long it can keep my attention. Simulators like this are ridiculously easy to get sucked into and after a few hours (or days and weeks that only feel like a few hours…thanks for that, Civilzation!) it can start to feel like you’ve seen and done just about all there is to do before it gets repetitive. Mind you, repetition can be fun if there’s at least some variability in the AI, but most of the time it just sucks. Molyneux and his team of developers at 22Cans will need to keep the updates and improvements coming steadily, along with introductions of new materials, resources, powers, and the like. It does seem like they have their eyes on the horizon and lots of stuff planned to keep the game running for a while, based on this page, although I’m not sure how much of their “Coming Soon” info is based on PC/Mac editions versus the mobile iOS version. After playing the free mobile edition for a while, though, I am deeply tempted to explore the Mac edition and see if I can discern any differences.

To top it all off, Godus is free to download, which makes trying the game out for yourself a nicely risk-free venture. I’m suitably impressed and suspect I’ve found a new addiction to help kill my phone battery. Go get it!

Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

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About Broken Monsters

A criminal mastermind creates violent tableaus in abandoned Detroit warehouses in Lauren Beukes’s new genre-bending novel of suspense.

Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half boy, half deer, somehow fused together. As stranger and more disturbing bodies are discovered, how can the city hold on to a reality that is already tearing at its seams?

If you’re Detective Versado’s geeky teenage daughter, Layla, you commence a dangerous flirtation with a potential predator online. If you’re desperate freelance journalist Jonno, you do whatever it takes to get the exclusive on a horrific story. If you’re Thomas Keen, known on the street as TK, you’ll do what you can to keep your homeless family safe–and find the monster who is possessed by the dream of violently remaking the world.

If Lauren Beukes’s internationally bestselling The Shining Girls was a time-jumping thrill ride through the past, her Broken Monsters is a genre-redefining thriller about broken cities, broken dreams, and broken people trying to put themselves back together again.


About the Author

Lauren Beukes writes books, comics for DC Vertigo, movie scripts, TV shows and occasionally journalism.

She won the Arthur C Clarke Award and The Kitschies Red Tentacle for Zoo City, a gritty phantasmagorical noir about magical animals, pop music, refugees, murder and redemption in the slums of inner city Johannesburg. She is currently adapting the novel as a screenplay for Oscar-nominated producer Helena Spring.

Her debut novel, Moxyland is about a neo-corporate apartheid state, bio-engineered art, nano-branding, cell phones used for social control and terrorism.

The Shining Girls, out May/June 2013 is about a time-travelling serial killer.

She recently made her comics debut in the Fables universe with a Fairest mini-series called The Hidden Kingdom with art by Inaki Miranda. The six issue arc follows Rapunzel travelling to Tokyo to confront a dark secret from her past.

She also writes for kids TV shows including Florrie’s Dragons and Mouk and co-created South Africa’s first half hour animated show: The Adventures of Pax Afrika.

She’s a recovering journalist, who has covered everything from wannabe teenage vampires to township vigilantes and directed a documentary, Glitterboys & Ganglands about South Africa’s biggest female impersonation beauty pageant, which won Best LGBT at the Atlanta Black Film Festival.

She lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her husband and daughter.

Website: http://laurenbeukes.com/


My Thoughts

(This review is based on an advanced readers copy supplied by the publisher via NetGalley.)

Broken Monsters begins with a grisly murder scene that would be perfectly at home on NBC’s Hannibal – a young child cut and a yearling deer cut in half and glued together, like a perverse satyr.

Lauren Beukes unravels her story across multiple characters, each having their own distinct voice, purpose, and point of view, and it becomes clear that the title Broken Monsters is not representative of only the harsh deeds of a serial killer, but emblematic of the people populating these pages, as well as the setting of Detroit itself. Motown ain’t what it used to be, saddled instead with the label of most violent city in America. Take any list – worst place to live, highest rates of murder, most depressed, least healthiest – and Detroit is sure to find itself near the top. It’s a bent and broken city. So, too, are wanna-be writer Jonno Haim, and lead investigator Detective Gabi Versado. Versado’s daughter, Layla and her friend Cas, are mutually derisive of one another in a way that only best friends can be, and they spend their free time trolling the internet for minor instances of vigilante justice against online perverts, while Cas struggles with a dark secret of her own.

When looking back on Broken Monsters, the first word that leaped to mind was “grit.” The book is a dark police procedural, and you could almost cut yourself on the shards of broken glass, aka “Detroit diamonds,” littering Woodward Avenue just from reading the damn thing. Lauren Beukes doesn’t write characters – she plops down real people whole-cloth and shares their lives with you in 3D, the good, the bad, and, most of all, the ugly. All of it, sparing you nothing. Jonno is, by turns, sympathetic, inspiring, and atrocious thanks to the mistakes he’s made and effort he puts into making it one more turn. Layla and Cas – I’m sure we all had friends like these two, or know of girls like them. Versado and the remains of her private life, the struggles she has as a female cop in a man’s world – it’s all eminently relatable. These are flesh-and-blood individuals. They do stupid things, each trying to be the hero in their own messed up lives, and we can root for them one moment and be angry at them the next because, in some ways both small and large, we are them.

Beukes nails the atmosphere of Detroit and it’s police. The dirty, sometimes mean-spirited, humor and the ordeal of women on the force. Gabi remembers, for instance, a time when all of the women’s bust-sizes were leaked after being fitted for a bulletproof vest. There’s the bullpen chatter and daily debriefings over the progress of the murder investigation that ring authentic and accurate, right down to the squad commander nixing the internal nickname of “Bambi” for the slain boy.

The Detroit setting is mined for all its worth and given credibility by mentions of local staples like Belle Isle, Eastern Market, the Packard Plant, Nain Rouge, Fox 2 News broadcaster Charlie LeDuff, a police department that’s overworked and so underfunded that even the whiteboard markers are dead, as well as some of the more notorious aspects the city is known for – urban decay, homelessness, a notorious ex-mayor and federal felon Kwame Kilpatrick (currently serving a 28-year prison stint), drug abuse, theft, property abandonment and foreclosures and squatting, and, most of all, murder.

After reading The Shining Girls last year – one of my absolute favorites of 2013 – I immediately bought Zoo City and Moxyland (sadly, I’ve not gotten to them yet), and kept my ear to the ground for news of her follow-up. I was really excited when she announced the Detroit setting for Broken Monsters. It would have been a must-read regardless of the locale, but being from Michigan this made my need to read more immediate. Beukes has done her research, and it feels almost as if this South African author has written one of the definitive fictional Detroit crime books. If there was ever a perfectly crafted ode to a fallen American city, this is it. She tackles the Motor City with the authentic finesse of The Wire by way of Red Dragon, polished with sublime sheen of noir-cool. Highly, highly recommended.

South African edition cover art, designed by the supremely talented Joey Hi Fi.

South African edition cover art, designed by the supremely talented Joey Hi Fi.

Guest Post: S. Elliot Brandis, “It’s Not The End Of The World”

S. Elliot Brandis is a writer I came into contact with thanks to KBoards. I was immediately taken by his description for his debut novel, Irradiated (part one of The Tunnel Trilogy), and have been patiently waiting for the release of its follow-up, Degenerated. The good news is that the latter is now available, and both can be had for the uber-cheap introductory price of only 99c for a limited time. Two books for less than two bucks. Go buy them immediately!

If you’re wondering whether Irradiated may be up your alley or not, check out my review. If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, I think it’s a pretty safe purchase. The story is solid, and Elliot has a damn strong writing voice and a style I really dig. To top it off, those Jason Gurley covers are beauties. All in all, it’s a top-notch package.

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buy irradiated at amazon
buy degenerated at amazon

I’m really happy to have Elliot posting here today, so let’s get on with it. Here’s his article, “It’s Not The End Of The World.” Enjoy!


 

It’s Not The End Of The World

Think of post-apocalyptic fiction, and what do you see? Zombies, bombs, disease, disaster, war? Maybe you see barren landscapes, or bones jutting from emaciated bodies. Whatever it is, I bet it’s unpleasant.

It would be easy to think, then, that post-apocalyptic fiction is about one thing: fear. Indeed, fear is deeply ingrained in the genre. Our stories tap into our fear of the future, of human nature, of what happens when it all goes wrong. However, fear is only half of the equation.

If you distil the genre down into core elements, what you’ll find are two competing emotions: fear and hope. They are the heart of the genre, it’s defining feature. The balance between the two changes, but the conflict between them is always there.

Consider The Walking Dead, in all of its guises. It taps into many of our fears. Our fear of dying, and of losing loved ones. Our fear of fellow man, and the darkness that may lay hidden deep in their hearts, waiting for a chance to surface. It also raises questions about ourselves. If you were pushed to the edge, would you still act in a way that’s moral? Or would you compromise your morals to save yourself and your family? What is more is more important? But, on the other hand, it’s also a show about hope. The hope that if we tough it out and try to work together—maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe we can make a new start, forge new relationships, and persevere. The hope pushes us forward, through all the darkness.

Even the darkest works have this glimmer of hope. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is often described as bleak, perhaps even ‘hopeless’. But I disagree—there is hope. The man and his son are “carrying the fire”. He instils this idea in his son—they are amongst the last flickers of humanity, it’s final chance. Without this sliver of hope, as slim as it is, I doubt that the book would work. It is a trickle of oxygen in an otherwise suffocating world. And, as bad as that novel may make us feel, it also makes us think that perhaps, just perhaps, there is merit in our sheer doggedness.

So, we arrive to the title. Despite the name, post-apocalyptic fiction is not about the end of the world. It’s about our fight to prevent the end of the world. The conflict between hope and fear—the fundamentals of human existence—lay at its core. It’s about our will to survive.

And that’s what makes it so damn good.

Writing Shot

 

S. Elliot Brandis is the author of Irradiated, the first novel in a trilogy. He lives in Brisbane, Australia, and often sets his stories there, too. He loves hearing from readers, and can be found at many locations across the internet.

Website: http://selliotbrandis.com/

Review: Tom Clancy Support and Defend (A Campus Novel) by Mark Greaney

support_and_defend

About Support and Defend

One of Tom Clancy’s most storied characters, Dominic Caruso, is the only one who can stop America’s secrets from falling into enemy hands in this blockbuster new novel written by Clancy’s longtime coauthor.

Over the course of three decades, Tom Clancy created a world alive with prescient action and remarkable individuals. In Tom Clancy Support and Defend, Dominic Caruso is presented with the deadliest challenge of his career.

Dominic Caruso. Nephew of President Jack Ryan. FBI agent and operator for The Campus, a top secret intelligence agency that works off the books for the U.S. government. Already scarred by the death of his brother, Caruso is devastated when he can’t save a friend and his family from a terrorist attack

Ethan Ross was a mid-level staffer for the National Security Council. Now he’s a wanted fugitive on the run with a microdrive that contains enough information to wreck American intelligence efforts around the world. The CIA is desperate to get the drive back, but so are the Russians and various terrorist groups all of whom are closer to catching the fugitive. Only Caruso stands in their way, but can he succeed without the aid of his Campus colleagues?


About the Author

Mark Greaney is the #1 NYT bestselling coauthor of Command Authority, Threat Vector, and Locked On, by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney. He is also the bestselling author of the Gray Man series, including Dead Eye, The Gray Man, On Target, and Ballistic.

Mark lives in Memphis, Tennessee

Learn more at MARKGREANEYBOOKS.COM


My Thoughts

I was immediately saddened by the loss of Tom Clancy last October, only a few months before the release of his final Jack Ryan novel, Command Authority. I’d been reading Clancy books since high school, after discovering his work by way of Harrison Ford’s adaptation of Patriot Games. The movie quickly became one of my favorites, so I had to read the book it was based upon, which then led to a long-term addiction.

The seven-year drought between The Teeth of the Tiger and Dead or Alive was a much too long dry-spell, but with a team of co-authors the master of technothrillers was back in top-form (in my eyes, at least). No sooner were fresh Clancy books on the shelf, than news came of his unfortunate passing.

Thankfully, not all is lost. Mark Greaney, who collaborated with Clancy on the last three novels, is helping to keep the franchise running and returns with a solo effort focusing on The Campus operator, and series regular, Dominic Caruso.

Ethan Ross, an intelligent NSC staffer guided more by his inflated ego than his principled ideals, finds himself in hot-water after an inter-agency effort to find the source of a classified intelligence leak. That leak led to the murder of a Mossad agent and his family, whom Caruso had become involved with during a series of training exercises. The data was pulled by Ross in order to assist a Wikileaks-like program, the International Transparency Project, and as the FBI’s manhunt intensifies and the nature of the hacktivist brigade he works for grows cloudier, Ross becomes convinced that the only way to protect himself is to steal so much classified data that he then becomes too large of a target for the American government. As Caruso becomes more plugged-in to the investigation surrounding Ross, the more determined he grows in carrying out vengeance for the deceased Yacoby family.

Support and Defend is clearly influenced by the recent Edward Snowden affair, and Greaney proves to be a more than capable handler of Clancy’s legacy. The story elements borrow heavily from a quite recognizable geo-political landscape as Ross attracts the attention of international forces in Israel, Russia and Iran, in addition to agents and agencies at home. Although the Ryan family is absent and unmentioned (although from the few references made to POTUS, it’s clear Jack Ryan, Sr. is still sitting in the Oval Office), Dom is able to carry the weight of the story quite well and the book harkens back, in some respects, to earlier Clancy novels, like The Cardinal of the Kremlin.

While there is a clearly political element to the story (let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a Clancy book without that!) and the repercussions of the data leak pose a global problem to American Intelligence agencies, the primary focus of the story is on espionage and spy-craft, particularly early on when Ross gets a quick education in recognizing a tail and employing old-school trade-craft to alert his handlers within the International Transparency Project. The action is blazing and Greaney manages the same gripping narrative of previous entries, making the read a breezy, but completely interesting and involving, affair. He’s also quite masterful in weaving together the disparate, multi-layered elements presented by the Transparency Project, Russian involvement, and the goals of Mohammed Mobasheri, an agent for the Iranian Republican Guard.

If there’s one complaint to be had, it’s that the epilogue takes a bit of a left-turn into debonaire James Bond territory, and the interaction between Adara Sherman and Caruso felt a little bit off and out of character, particularly for Sherman. Given their previously established relationship and Adara’s professionalism, the resolution to their involvement together seemed forced, as if the material had been cribbed from any number of other generic spy-thrillers in an effort to needlessly spice things up a bit.

That quibble aside, I’m hoping Mark Greaney sticks around for the long haul and that he gets to make the Clancy universe his own. His involvement here provides a nice measure of hope that we haven’t heard the last of The Campus recruits and the Ryan family. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the All-Star team will be making a comeback sooner rather than later. And you can be sure I’ll be adding Greaney’s own The Gray Man series to my reading list soon.

Buy support and defend at amazon
Source: The Official Tom Clancy Page on Facebook

Source: The Official Tom Clancy Page on Facebook

Review: Soft Target, by Iain Rob Wright

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About Soft Target

– From UK’s Top Selling Horror & Thriller Author, Iain Rob Wright

NOWHERE IS SAFE…
When a quaint village in the United Kingdom is stuck by a suicide bomber, the once proud nation is brought to its knees with grief. Yet that first attack was just the beginning of something much greater and much worse. Something that nobody could ever have predicted.

The days that follow will determine if the UK even has a future left, or if it will be reduced to anarchy and ashes.

The only person that stands between the people of the UK and its complete destruction is an angry, damaged ex-solider named Sarah Stone. Sarah despises her own country and what it did to her, which is what makes it so hard when she is forced to save it.

SOFT TARGET is the first in a series of books featuring acerbic protagonist Sarah Stone. It is a non-stop action thriller in the same vein as 24.


About Iain Rob Wright

Iain Rob Wright is one of the UK’s most successful horror and suspense writers, with novels including the critically acclaimed, THE FINAL WINTER; the disturbing bestseller, ASBO; and the wicked screamfest, THE HOUSEMATES.

His work is currently being adapted for graphic novels, audio books, and foreign audiences. He is an active member of the Horror Writer Association and a massive animal lover.

Check out Iain’s official website for updates at: http://www.iainrobwright.com or add him on Facebook where he would love to meet you.


My Thoughts

Wright attributes his inspiration for Soft Target to 24, and even goes so far as to quote Jack Bauer’s infamous “Damn it!” prior to the book’s opening. It’s a decidedly fun nod and sets the mood, but let me get this particular bias out of the way right up front: I am an unabashed 24 fan. It’s one of my all-time favorite action series, and I was ecstatic to see the Jack Bauer Power Hour make a return to the recently concluded UK-based miniseries, 24: Live Another Day. As it just so happens, Wright’s Soft Target is also set in the UK, his homeland, and, inadvertently or not, further reinforces that parallel to 24. To me, Live Another Day was a fine return to form and a bit like a collection of Greatest Hits spread over its half-season run. All of this is to say that when a thriller writer makes the bold claim that their work is in the vein of 24, it’s a large promise to live up to.

Soft Target introduces us to Sarah Stone, a physically disfigured and emotionally scarred combat veteran who has lost everything. In 2008, she was abducted by Afghan terrorists, led by Al Al-Hariri, after an IED detonated and killed the soldiers under her command. After suicide bombers start detonating themselves across London, and evidence surfaces linking these terrorists to Al-Hariri’s organization, the Major Crimes Unit (Wright’s run-down, underfunded and understaffed equivalent to 24‘s CTU) calls on Stone for help.

While Soft Target draws on the rapid-fire pacing of its inspirational source, Wright, unfortunately,  also brings in some of 24‘s more notable weaknesses, which is evident in the book’s opening. As is typical in these types of thrillers, the narrative is based on the outsider who is called in to assist and who knows far more than the somewhat-bumbling superiors she is assigned to, but whom seem to hardly ever listen, in order to generate more conflict and ratchet up the tension. For instance, after receiving a video attributing the terror attacks to an Afghan terrorist, Sarah Stone instantly knows the video is fake and rifles off certain key aspects to support her theory, primarily the misplaced henna tattoo of the videoed spokesman. It takes some convincing, but eventually MCU is forced to acquiesce to Stone’s knowledge and let her run the show. In between, there’s snarky inter-personal conflicts galore, many of which are instigated by Stone, who is intent on maintaining her outsider lone-wolf status by making bad jokes and generally treating those around her with brusqueness and a cold shoulder attitude.

I was a bit put off by Stone’s self-ascribed bitchiness initially, but Wright was able to layer her personality and unravel the past horrors of her capture in Afghanistan expertly, and, eventually, win me over to her side. There are several flashbacks to Stone’s time in the military, which shed so much light on her current scarred psyche that by book’s end it has actually become quite difficult to not sympathize with her, and she transforms into a figure to root for. The way Wright shades in her history is much appreciated, and those 2008 flashbacks were oftentimes the greatest strength of the book and carried the most emotional resonance.

The Afghanistan interstitials and the mad-bomber threat of the premise alone were enough to keep me turning pages, and by book’s end I was fully invested and completely won over. The action is pretty solid, oftentimes exciting, and I was drawn in by the mystery of why seemingly normal UK citizens were suddenly turning into terrorists (although, this particular issue was not fully resolved with satisfaction or with enough clarity to approach closure, but that may be a subject for the next book). While I still have a bit of those initial misgivings, and there were several scenes that fell a bit flat for me, I can examine them with hindsight and see a tad more clearly what Wright was attempting and where both he and his characters were in terms of head-space.

Soft Target may not reach the glories of 24 in its heyday, but it’s ultimately worth a read. It’s a fun, fast-paced thriller, which is ultimately more important than how well it stacks up as a 24 clone. And while I was a bit put-off by Sarah Stone during the opening moments, her past was sufficiently detailed while her present-day experiences helped to shape and inform her, and help her grow to the point that I’ll be looking forward to seeing where Wright takes her next. I think she could develop into an interesting, multi-layered heroine and the series as a whole has much potential. Soft Target is a good start to a new adventure series, and I’m hopeful it’ll have an explosive future.

At the time of this writing, Soft Target is available for free on Amazon for a limited time, which makes giving this book a try that much easier.

Spoilers for 24: Live Another Day in the comments below. Consider this your warning!

Test Driving BitLit

Yesterday, I came across this article from TechCrunch, which talks about a new mobile app called BitLit and their recent partnership with HarperCollins for an eBook bundling pilot. The impetus is simple – you have a print book, but what if you also want a digital copy of the same book that you already own for easy access while on the go?

I’ve been in the process of slowly going digital with my media consumption, and (confession time!) I have not read a physical hard-copy of a book since becoming an Kindle addict in December. All of my reads have been digital, and my electronic TBR stacking is piling up quickly.

Unfortunately, I also have a ton of physical books in TBR stacks atop the bookshelves and lined up on tables in the basement. I enjoy reading on my lunch breaks at work, but sometimes lugging around a physical book can be a bit too cumbersome, particularly if it’s a monolithic epic like the kind Stephen King has a tendency to produce, or one of the A Song of Ice and Fire books from George R.R. Martin. It’s much, much easier to carry around a Kindle and have a massive, weightless library at my disposal.

Redemption across the format divide has been tricky and, more often than not, lackluster. I was heartened when Amazon launched its Matchbook program, but can’t help but think that has gone by the wayside. Although I have purchased numerous physical books through Amazon, I’m hard pressed to find many of them listed in the Matchbook catalog. I also have plenty of books not purchased on Amazon that would thus be ineligible for the Matchbook program, and having only the option of repurchasing the same title as an eBook.

I’ve been dissatisfied with the Matchbook program, but I’m not if that’s the result of a lack of internal support for the program within Amazon, or a certain reluctance on behalf of the publishers at large. All I know is, all of the titles I’d be keen to obtaining a digital copy of are unavailable, and I’m not willing to shell out an extra $5 – $15 to double-dip and repurchase, particularly for those unread titles that, at this point, I’d be far more likely to read sooner on my digital tablet than in dead tree format.

Recently, Marvel and DC Comics have been giving hard-copy buyers free access to digital copies of the same title. Buy a monthly comic or a collected trade hardcover and get a redemption code for use on their website. It’s simple, easy, convenient, and gives readers full access to their title in whichever format is preferable to them at any given time. Say you want to read AvX but don’t want to lug around a ton of monthlies or bulky over-sized hardcovers and companion volumes – cool, no problem. Just plug-in a code and hit the road with your tablet and read at your leisure through an app. I’m a huge fan of that.

Which is why I instantly fell in love with the BitLit app when I found out about it yesterday. This Vancouver start-up is a great idea, and may help ease some traditional publisher’s recalcitrance when it comes to the digital domain by offering an alternative to Amazon and affording readers more options in how and when they can access purchased materials.

There’s a number of smaller publishing houses signed up with BitLit, most notably (in my opinion) Angry Robot (listed under their parent corporation of Osprey Publishing Ltd). The HarperCollins pilot program is a big first step, but the titles are incredibly limited. At the time of this writing, Halfway to the Grave is the only eligible HarperCollins title, but five more titles are expected to land soon.

If successful, I’m hopeful it will pave the way to more big-name publishers signing on and offering cheaper alternatives than repurchasing a particular title as a full-priced eBook. I’m even more hopeful that some will follow in the footsteps of Angry Robot by offering their electronic titles to owners of the physical copy for free.

The process of obtaining the electronic copies are ridiculously easy (you can see how it works at their site), and since Angry Robot was currently the only publisher whose titles I own that were eligible, I was able to give the app a bit of a test drive.

Once you register the app and log-in, you just hold the book at arm’s length from your camera-equipped mobile device – BitLit is available in both Apple and Google app stores – and line it up between the guide bars, and take a picture.

photo-4The app then verifies the image and matches it against their catalog. This can take a little while, and the better lighting available to you when imaging, the better. I ran into a number of failed attempts when trying to convert Ramez Naam’s Nexus, due to the cover’s color palette and being in my dark, dingy unfinished basement. Oddly, I had no trouble with the darker color palettes from Wendig’s The Blue Blazes and Mockingbird, or Chris F. Holm’s Dead Harvest.

I should note here that because BitLit is still a small company, each scan is supervised, and when they recognized I was having lots of trouble with Nexus, they reached out to me immediately with advice and I trotted the book upstairs to our well-lit kitchen table and the problem was solved instantly.

I also want to note that I was pretty darn impressed with their unobtrusive vetting process. I really respect and appreciate that they’re looking out for their partners and authors, and helping to make sure the app isn’t being used by some delinquent scanners in a bookstore, or preventing the book from being returned by doing a little minor defacing and claim of ownership to the copyright page.

Once the image is verified, you’re asked to write your name in all-caps on the copyright page and snap off a scan of that, too. Again, the image recognition kicks in and registers the physical book to your name, and dispatches the electronic copy to your e-mail address.

I suspect that the deliverable files will vary in formats used depending by the publisher, and that readers will receive either a PDF or universal ePub edition (or both, according to an image on BitLit’s website). Within seconds of completing the scan, I had the electronic copies in DRM-free ePub format and did a quick Calibre conversion to create mobi files to send to my Kindle. The digital files looked perfect, and the conversion did not cause any funky formatting issues, so I’m quite content with the experience!

BitLit makes for a welcome change in the ever-evolving landscape of publishing, and could prove to be the kind of innovation readers will need and want in the digital world.

Unfortunately, the app is still in its early days and content is pretty lacking at the moment. I searched for a handful of titles, both on my app after downloading, and on their website prior to, but couldn’t find much in the way of titles stocked in my own personal catalog. Hachette has not signed up with them, so you’ll not find digital copies of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series ready for claiming (which I really, really, really want!), and you won’t find any big names like Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Marcia Clark, or James Patterson. No George R.R. Martin titles, nor Tom Clancy, nor John Grisham, either. While the Angry Robot titles were enough to hook and draw me, they’re not enough to keep me around long-term until more publishers sign on the dotted line.

That said, I am genuinely interested in how BitLit performs long-term and to see if they can clear the hurdles that Amazon Matchbook has, thus far, seemed incapable of. I’m hoping their catalog of titles and publishers expands considerably in the near-term.

The app makes for a welcome challenger to Amazon’s Matchbook, particularly in the realm of open accessibility for non-Amazon users or books purchased elsewhere. And the app’s mobility and use of pre-existing, built-in technology gives it a significant leg-up. Once BitLit has grown a bit more and both readers and publishing houses become aware of its significance, I suspect quite a few weekends will be lost to scanning.

BitLit.versus.MatchBook-2

Image source: BitLit – “Infographic: eBook Bundling Face Off”

Review: Blightborn, by Chuck Wendig

cover50117-mediumAbout Blightborn

Cael McAvoy is on the run. He’s heading toward the Empyrean to rescue his sister, Merelda, and to find Gwennie before she’s lost to Cael forever. With his pals, Lane and Rigo, Cael journeys across the Heartland to catch a ride into the sky. But with Boyland and others after them, Cael and his friends won’t make it through unchanged.

Gwennie’s living the life of a Lottery winner, but it’s not what she expected. Separated from her family, Gwennie makes a bold move—one that catches the attention of the Empyrean and changes the course of an Empyrean man’s life.

The crew from Boxelder aren’t the only folks willing to sacrifice everything to see the Empyrean fall. The question is: Can the others be trusted?

They’d all better hurry. Because the Empyrean has plans that could ensure that the Heartland never fights back again.

Chuck Wendig’s riveting sequel to Under the Empyrean Sky plunges readers into an unsettling world of inequality and destruction, and fleshes out a cast of ragtag characters all fighting for survival and, ultimately, change.


About the Author

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He’s the author of BLACKBIRDS, DOUBLE DEAD and DINOCALYPSE NOW, and is co-writer of the short film PANDEMIC, the feature film HiM, and the Emmy-nominated digital narrative COLLAPSUS. He lives in Pennsylvania with wife, taco terrier, and tiny human.

Website: http://terribleminds.com/


My Thoughts

[This review is based on an advanced copy received by the publisher through NetGalley.]

Blightborn, the latest release from the ever-prolific Chuck Wendig, and second in his cornpunk The Heartland Trilogy, follows swiftly on the heels of Under The Empyrean Sky‘s conclusion.

With the world building out of the way, and many of the main cast’s rivalries set up in Empyrean, Blightborn allows Wendig to go hog-wild and blow stuff up, upend expectations, and expand on the premise of The Heartland series in fine fashion.

When last we saw the intrepid crew of the sky ship Betty

- spoilers for Under The Empyrean Sky

Cael had learned that his father was illegally growing fresh produce and had killed the mayor. His girlfriend, Gwennie, was a lottery winner and elevated, along with her family, to live aboard one of the Empyrean’s floating cities and escape the hardscrabble life of the dirt-farming Heartlanders. Needless to say, Cael wasn’t going to let that happen without a fight, and he and his teenage crew of Blue Sky Scavengers set out to cross the desolation of the Heartland and, somehow, win her back. Unfortunately, that ticked the hell out of his Obligated bride-to-be, and the dead mayor’s son, and rival to Cael for Gwennie’s affections, had an awful large score to settle.

Returning to these characters in Blightborn, Wendig delivers fully on the conflicts established at the close of book one, and creates even larger obstacles for his cast to contend with, while driving new wedges between them. As expected, the Empyrean’s lottery is a double-edged sword: the promise of elevation too good to be true, and it comes wrapped in the caul of class-warfare. As Gwennie quickly learns, life in the Empyrean sky is hardly a joy, and even less so for a pure-bred Heartlander like she and her family, who are separated, exiled, and forced into labor.

Beneath the floating flotilla, Cael and his friends are trying to make it to a loading depot, with grand designs of boarding a sky ship (after losing Betty in the previous book) and making their way upward. Along the way, they are beset by raiders, Boyland’s crew, a murderous hobo who wants to catch the wanted trio (they’re considered terrorists by the Empyrean overlords and have a hefty bounty hanging over their heads), and the blight, a ravenous disease that stems from the genetically modified corn fields that cover the Heartland. All of this ties neatly into a bit family history that Cael is unaware of and provides some terrific background to his now-absent parents, which helps to fuel and shape his own quest and place in the Heartland.

Wendig is an author who has been on absolute fire of late. His Miriam Black books are among some of the finest paranormal thrillers I’ve had the pleasure to read, and Mookie Pearl from The Blue Blazes (watch out for subtle nod toward that book early on in Blightborn!) was a fun new character whose return I’m greatly looking forward to later this year in The Hellsblood Bride. The Heartland series is a wonderful departure from either of those previous series, and, in some ways, proves to be a bit darker and deeper. While Miriam’s visions of death and ordeals with serial killers isn’t exactly light-weight stuff, there’s a buoyant flippancy to that series, thanks in large part to her natural sarcasm that lends for a natural sort of humor. There are far less funny shenanigans, wry observations, or witty back-and-forths in this cornpunk entry, but that’s life in the Heartland.

Wendig is focused more on exploring the struggles of a violent class warfare and food politics. That’s not too say the read is dry and dreary – far, far, far from it. Rather, it simply strikes me as, tonally, a more serious work, and that tone grows naturally from the characters and the world they inhabit, as well as the threats they face. It’s dark story of survival and impossible odds.

One thing I appreciated was the increased focus on the female cast members, particularly Gwennie and Cael’s sister, Merelda. The two find themselves on opposite ends of the social spectrum, with the latter having become the mistress of the flotilla’s chief security officer and hiding her true Heartlander roots. Their roles are necessarily expanded after having gotten a bit of a short-shrift in the previous book, but they shine nicely in Blightborn, and it was great to see Gwennie so prominently in on the action (especially since she’s the one who taught Cael how to throw a punch!). I won’t spoil her role in the book, but she does carry a lot of the thematic weight mentioned earlier in regards to the class struggle, and it’s juicy stuff.

Blightborn is a heftier, more serious work than its predecessor, and Wendig is clearly crafting an epic trilogy of terrific scope with this series. It’s also quite a bit darker, which is pretty common in middle entries – the stakes are higher and the threats more formidable. The Initiative, which is teased a bit before finally being revealed in the book’s third act, is a horrifying manipulation that perfectly illustrates the evil and grandiose ego of the Empyrean rulers, and their sense of entitlement. Wendig has also planted a good number of compelling seeds that will bear beautiful fruit come book three. I’d expect the conclusion of this story to release next year, but damn if that’s not going to be a long, brutal wait. Alas, that’s life in the heartland.

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