Monday Book Report: What I’ve been reading

bloodsongIt’s been a good long while since I’ve shared the novels I’ve been reading, so I thought I’d do a quick post to catch up!

  • The Far Shores (Zachary Rawlins): Part 3 of the Central series, this is kind of a weird blend between the Matrix, Harry Potter, and brutal contemporary in-fighting between fictional cartels.  I’m in the middle of this right now, it’s OK even though the main protagonist is a ninny.
  • Blood Song (Anthony Ryan): One of my new favorite novels, despite the tepid title.  A gripping coming-of-age tale of a military legend that’s just well-crafted with excellent characters, an interesting world, and a few good twists.  Couldn’t put it down.
  • The Night Market (Zachary Rawlins): A so-so fantasy novel set in Rawlins edge-of-the-world vision about a girl who goes on a long journey to save her brother.  I saw some connections between this and the Central series, interestingly enough.
  • Poor Man’s Fight (Elliott Kay): I’m a sucker for military scifi that follows a recruit through training and into war — been there plenty of times, but this was a well-done entry that had great action and actually kicked off a series.
  • Hollow World (Michael J. Sullivan): A very interesting time-travel tale about a dying guy who jumps forward a few centuries and gets involved in a murder mystery plot with this odd new world.
  • 14 (Peter Clines): This is all about the most mysterious apartment building ever and the residents who try to uncover the many truths about it.  At times the characters and backstory are a little too geeky for their own good, but it was a fun read.
  • Harry Potter series (JK Rowling): I purchased all of the ebooks as a Christmas present to myself to read, for the first time, back-to-back.  I still genuinely liked them, although I discovered that Goblet of Fire is probably my least favorite of the bunch.
  • Three Parts Dead/Two Serpents Rise (Max Gladstone): Gladstone’s bizarre fantasy series about a somewhat contemporary world (that’s not earth) where gods have been overthrown and a destructive magic has taken root.  I’m really impressed with the craftmanship of this series and am looking forward to book three.
  • Midnight Riot (Peter Graves): I really didn’t like this book, forcing myself to slog through to the end.  Nothing outright terrible about it, an urban fantasy story set in London, but nothing that grabbed my attention either.
  • Miriam Black series (Chuck Wendig): Few books have divided my opinion as much as these three about a very disturbed lady who can see how people are going to die.  They’re kind of the anti-Odd Thomas books in a way, with her being a mostly unlikable, crass character in an ugly world (while Thomas is a virtuous soul in an ugly world).  At times I felt bad just reading them but at other times it had enough interesting ideas to keep me going forward.

Best of Bio Break 2013: Books

bestThe Best of Bio Break 2013 is a series of “end of the year” lists that talk about various forms of entertainment that I enjoyed this year.  They’re not awards, but they are ranked.  Each entry doesn’t have to be something that came out this year, but merely something I encountered this year.

oddSo let’s talk about my favorite novels!  I think my reading in 2013 was down compared to 2012, although my “to read” list keeps growing.  I’ve been trying to accumulate suggestions of best scifi/fantasy novels to check out, and I liked these the best.

1. The Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz

I was a bit late to this party, mostly because I’ve never been a reader of Koontz, but on a recommendation I picked up the first book of this supernatural/sci-fi/horror/thriller/comedy/romance saga and then quickly devoured the rest over vacation.  A hero that can see and talk to the dead seems pretty cliche, but the path this series takes as Odd becomes a beacon of light in a very dark world is really captivating.  I kind of want to read them all over again.

2. Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Lawrence’s ultimate anti-hero, King Jorg, took me on an incredible ride for this final installment of this fantasy trilogy.  Jorg isn’t a nice guy by any stretch of the imagination, but he is captivating, cunning, and occasionally sympathetic — and that is a great combination to make one want to turn pages.  It’s mostly fantasy although there’s a slight sci-fi bent, as it takes place in our future after a pretty scary apocalypse happens.  I really liked how the series ended and that Lawrence had the strength to just end it instead of milking it for more.

3. The Last Policeman series by Ben Winters

The Last Policeman and Countdown City are the first two parts of a trilogy about a detective who clings to his job while the world counts down the days until it is destroyed by an asteroid.  Seeing the world fall down around him as he doggedly pursues his quarry makes you wonder what you would do in a similar situation, and there are times that I admire and find myself exasperated with the main character’s approach.  Can’t wait for the third.

4. Third Shift: Pact / Dust by Hugh Howey

I read the final two books of Howey’s awesome Wool series this year, and while the ending lacked some of the great punches that the books provided along the way, it still did the job.  So what are these about?  Uh… without spoilers (and really, start with Wool) it’s about a giant silo where a contained civilization of people live after the world above ends.  Although not everything is as it seems and there are secrets abounding.

5. The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

Lots of recommendations forced me to check this one out, and I couldn’t put it down once I started.  It’s about a military campaign in a fantasy land, except that it’s more in the Revolutionary War/Civil War era of military technology so there’s a lot of muskets, bayonets, and cannons instead of swords and spells.  I found the two main characters pretty riveting and the pace snappy.  Good action, too.

6. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

A good, solid third entry to the Gentlemen Bastards series about the adventures of a group of highly trained thieves as they seek fortune and revenge.  Each book has a different focus, with this one being a battle of wits between competing thieves while flashing back to an earlier tale of romance and theatrics.  I liked it a lot and it definitely made me want to go back and re-read the first book now that some facets are revealed.

7. Heroes Die by Matthew Stover

Speaking of anti-heroes (it’s a theme!), Heroes Die has a great one with Caine, a man who lives in a dystopian sci-fi future but who also travels to a parallel fantasy world where he goes on adventures that are recorded for the crowds back home.  The book is about him trying to save his wife while facing threats from both worlds, and while it’s at times a little eye-rolling with the portrayal of its growly lead character, it does the job and then some.

8. Abbadon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey

Pretty cool third part of this space opera series, more concerned this time with exploring the unknown (in this case, a ring that sends spaceships to a very scary pocket of the universe).  I really liked its hard sci-fi approach to how ships and their crew would function, with a special emphasis on disasters and recovery so very far from home.

9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Yay for another Gaiman novel (man, it’s been a while!) although boo for a short tale that was more like a short story than a proper book.  It’s just over too soon with too little substance too it, and that was that.  There’s a clever approach to urban fantasy, however, that I appreciated.

10. Pines/Wayward by Blake Crouch

Pines was a gripping and gut-churning sci-fi thriller that put Crouch on my radar, and I guess it got enough of a response for him to turn it into the first part of a trilogy.  Wayward is the middle episode, taking us back to Wayward Pines, a Stepford-like town in Iowa where the citizens are all being watched, where disobeying the rules gets you mob-murdered, and where the real terror lies beyond the electric fence that rings the town.  Fewer big reveals this time and little doubt what the main character was going to do.

Reading Railroad

vorpWith so many projects going on in my life, I’m finding it increasingly helpful to make lists and schedules, even if I don’t strictly stick to them.  One of those areas, oddly enough, was reading.  I’ve started to feel like my approach to reading was getting scattered.  I have a lot of half-finished books that I really should wrap up, and I kept thrashing around for new book ideas without any sort of plan.

So I took an hour the other day to dig through several book recommendation lists and create a list of about 20 novels that I’m going to try to read this year.  Since many of those are the first books in series, that could end up being a lot more than 20 books if all goes well.  So I’ve got my reading list lined up, and my new rule is that for every new book I read, I’m going to finish up one of those half-read ones.

Anyway, if you care for a few recommendations, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

  • Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold — I was really excited to finally read a new book in the Vorkosigan universe, although it was a bit disappointing that Ivan, not Miles, is center-stage in this one.  It’s still a pretty entertaining read that actually comes in the timeline before Cryoburn (which was the previous book released in the series).
  • Devil’s Lair by David Wisehart — An interesting revisit of Dante’s Inferno as a group of Dante’s contemporaries journey to Hell to recover the Holy Grail.
  • Spirit’s End by Rachel Aaron — A solid end to the Eli Monpress series.  I highly recommend these books: the characters are quite engaging and the fantasy world is definitely different than the norm.
  • Red Country by Joe Abercrombie — The latest book in his First Law universe, Red Country is more of a Western than anything else.  It’s still pretty brutal, but actually not as dark as his previous books.  It’s also not as good, in my opinion, but I still enjoyed reading it.
  • Prince/King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence — Now talk about dark, here you have a series where the main character is as anti-hero as you get.  He’s a prince-turned-assassin who travels with murderers and is hell-bent on revenge.  And yet, he’s a guy you end up rooting for, because there is something about him that is redeemable.  And as an added bonus, the fantasy series takes place in a far-future earth, so there’s a bit of post-apocalyptic vibe going on.
  • The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks — I love Weeks’ stuff, and this second book in his color-magic series picks up steam from the first.  It’s still a weird magic system and world, but I’m kind of on board with the concept.  The prison escape sequences were my favorite.

As always, I’m up for more recommendations from you guys!

Guest Post: Professor Beej’s Birthright

Some of you probably know MMO/geek blogger Professor Beej. He’s a good friend of Bio Break, and when he asked to do a guest post about his upcoming novel, Birthright.  Beej is attempting to self-publish using Kickstarter to fund it, and he’s hoping you can help him out.

When World of Warcraft was first being developed, I didn’t care one iota about Blizzard’s soon-to-be megatitle. I was content with Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Star Wars Galaxies.

In fact, I was a little irked when I read about this new and revolutionary technology Blizzard was going to be using for WoW’s dungeon content. It was called “instancing,” and for an old-school, open-worlder like me, it sounded like blasphemy.

Why did every group need its own private copy of a dungeon? Bah! Bah, I said! Sure, you were locked away from kill-stealers and other griefers, but at what cost?

WoW launched in 2004, and instances were a major hit. People loved not waiting on spawns or worrying about griefers. No more camping lines and social etiquette; no more post-midnight alarms from your guild leader telling you that Korfok the Unintelligible had respawned.

Outside of quality-of-life changes like cross-server groups, party-size limits, and automatic dungeon finders, instancing has been pretty consistent across MMOs for the better part of a decade. Anyone familiar with modern MMOs should be familiar with the technology.
So when I started worldbuilding the Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy, which begins with the novel Birthright), I took the old adage to “write what you know” and ran with it. What I know are MMOs, and I wanted my novels to somehow represent my fourteen years of experience with online gaming and communities.

Which means that instancing could–and should–make an appearance.

Luckily, Birthright is hybrid-genre SF/F–think Ender’s Game meets The Lord of the Rings. That in itself presents more than a few worldbuilding challenges; however, it also opens up just as many possibilities. As an author, I’m not limited to a single genre’s narrative conventions anymore.

Since The Technomage Archive is a fantasy series that wears the shiny, technological veneer of science-fiction, there is no magic. Everything is based on technology or science in some way, shape, or form.

Instances, then, are pocket universes that fall within the control of the titular Technomage Archive. People can move between Instances through various portals that exist at fixed points in the world, and part of the conflict in Birthright arises from the loss of control of these Instances.

Before, the technomages could control the growth and evolution of the Instances, these synthetic universes. They could be as large as a planet or galaxy, or as small as a library. The Archive used them for such mundane tasks as adding wings onto school campuses, or for more specialized tasks like sequestering and isolating a prison of dangerous criminals.

Now, though, new universes are spontaneously and naturally being created, which should be impossible. Even the controlled, synthetic universes aren’t obeying the laws and rules built into them.

And unlike Star Trek and Star Wars-style, galactic-level conflict, this fundamental breaking down of the laws of physics is literally happening right on top of everyone.

They just don’t know it.

While Instances in MMOs are limited by the technology and gameplay mechanics of the games themselves, the idea behind the technology is what intrigued me. Creating multiple versions of the same reality has so much storytelling potential, I couldn’t resist exploring it.
I mean, in WoW, each expansion has its own storyline where certain NPCs kill the big bads, with the “merry band of adventurers” helping. Each Instance in the game is just as valid as any other. We’re all the hero. We all win.

But in Birthright, that isn’t the case. When these gameplay mechanics are excluded, there isn’t a single common ending for all realities. There are any number of realities stacked on top of one another, some created and some natural, and throughout the Technomage Archive, they’re all coming to a head.

I want to explore the real-world implications (if you’ll forgive me the use of that term) of this kind of God-playing–not just the creation artificial intelligence like in I, Robot or virtual reality like in Neuromancer, but full-on synthetic universes made of real-as-you-and-me organic matter. I want to explore the question that when the very foundation of your reality is both real and created, is there even a distinction anymore?

And if I hadn’t been an MMO gamer for the last fourteen years, I never would have had the chance.

Summer reading recommendations

Wow, I’ve really been slacking in sharing some of the books I’ve read during this past year.  Um… sorry?  It’s always on my to do list, because we’re all geeks here, and I like to evangelize a few of the titles that have delighted me.

So if you’re looking for a good summer read, here are a few I’ve read recently that get my thumbs-up of approval!

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

This is a weird hybrid of a book.  It’s part contemporary fantasy, part X-Files, part The Secret World, and part Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  It starts out with a woman suffering from total amnesia who finds a letter she wrote to herself before whatever happened happened.  I really don’t want to spoil much, except to say that she finds herself plunged into a secret organization in London that takes care of the many supernatural threats and situations that pop up on a regular basis.  It’s interesting and quite funny at times, and I really hope there’s a sequel.

First Shift — Legacy by Hugh Howey

If you’ve read all of the five Wool novels (and you really, really should), it’s time to head back to the world of the Silo with the first of a prequel series that show how things got that way.  It’s interesting to me how Howey reveals a lot while still creating mystery and surprises all over the place.  Please do not read it if you haven’t read the other Wools first, though.

Zero Sight and Zero Sum by B. Justin Shier

Here’s an out-of-the-blue surprise for me.  Shier is an actual medical surgeon who decided to write the kind of contemporary fantasy novel he wanted to read, and actually created a pretty darn good series.  It’s set slightly into the future where the world’s started going downhill, and where a teen discovers that he has actual magical powers.  He’s then recruited by a magic school and makes best friends with a vampire and…

Okay, it sounds totally like a ripoff of Twilight and Harry Potter, with some X-Men thrown in.  It sounds like that.  But it isn’t.  I normally hate books with vampires as main characters, but this one does such a good job portraying how icky and freaky vampires really would be that I was captivated by it.  It’s not a perfect series, but it definitely has a lot of interesting ideas and has me wanting the third book in a bad way.

The Anathema by Zachary Rawlins

Rawlins continues his Central series with this second book, and it’s even better than the first.  The story of a special school outside of our normal universe that trains super-powered individuals who go on to join one of many special cabals in the real world has a hard edge that I haven’t seen in other “magic school” books.  Probably the most unsettling thing is that you don’t know just how good or bad any of the characters are, as everyone is practically a double-agent of some kind, and the good guys are capable of some pretty awful things.  But it’s definitely right up there in story and characters, from the vampire whose skin turns to hard ceramic forever when she’s injured to a scary lady who can move in and out of shadows but loses more of her memories with each use.

When I was done with this book, I picked up another Rawlins title, Paranoid Magical Thinking.  It’s not quite the same caliber, but it’s worth a read.  PMT is about a pair of fugitives who find themselves in the city at the end of the world, a place that’s really off in so many ways and is inescapable.

Percepliquis by Michael J. Sullivan

The final book of Sullivan’s fantasy series of two thieves who get caught up in events way over their head.  It’s a good ride and one of those rare modern fantasy series that isn’t “mean,” but has characters you like, actions you respect, and fight scenes without tons of gore.  The whole series is worth a read.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Moving from fantasy, here’s a rip-roaring scifi opera adventure about a hard-boiled detective and a gung-ho hero who have to unravel a stunning plot set in the inner solar system.  It’s the start of a series and wonderfully done.

Woolgathering

One of the things that I absolutely love about the Kindle is that it’s taking me back to the era of my childhood — and cheap books.  Books got pretty expensive for a while there, and a few years ago I was dumping up to $30 per book store visit for two or three novels — or just one if it was a hot new hardcover.  But back when I was young, I used to haunt secondhand bookstores and library outlets where I could pick up a stack of stories with money leftover in my allowance for a malt.  No, wait, that was a different generation.  A Go-Bot, perhaps.

My theory back then — as it is now — is that no matter how good a book looks or how highly acclaimed it is, there’s still a good chance it won’t do the trick for you, so why not pile the odds in your favor with a bunch of books instead of one or two?  In short, when I’m paying $15 for a book, I’m far less likely to take risks with unknown qualities, but if they’re free or just a few bucks, then sure, fill my bag up!

That’s what the Kindle store is to me now.  Sure, I still pick up the odd hot new release, but I’m finding that when I’m out shopping, I’m frequently pilfering the freebies and discounts for surprisingly good deals.  That’s what brought me to Wool, a rising star in the Amazon Kindle charts and only $0.99 to boot.  Why not take a chance, especially with all the five-star ratings going on?

Glad I did, too, because it turns out that Wool is not only a gripping little post-apocalyptic tale, but the first of a series.  Author Hugh Howey apparently uploaded Wool, a short novella, to the Kindle store without great expectations, but when it started to outperform all his other works, he decided to make this into a multi-part series, each with a dollar-priced novella that would pick up the story from where it left off, but from a different character’s point of view — and he wrote several of them during last year’s NaNoWriMo challenge.  Wool 4 just came out not too long ago, and I know he’s already half-finished with Wool 5, which I think will be the last of the series.

Wool works because Howey gives us a radically different type of post-apocalyptic tale and couples that with really gripping revelations, mysteries, and plot twists — all within a quick read (each Wool novella took me between one and two hours to read).  It’s set in the Silo, where apparently the last of humanity has lived for quite some time, unable to go out into the toxic world above, and under severe penalty of even talking about the outside.  It’s fascinating to see how Howey sets up the Silo to be a functioning community without the typical post-apocalyptic references we’re used to seeing.  For instance, we have no idea what happened on the outside, how long it’s been since the Silo was founded, or why there’s an “uprising” every few generations among the community.   Because we’re reading the POV of characters who are born and raised completely within this environment and know no other life, we as readers are outsiders with privileged information that have to struggle to understand where the characters are coming from (which is a good thing).  For instance, the characters only know of most animals because of pictures in children’s books, but most think they’re just fairy tales drawn up by artists instead of the reality we do know.

The change of character POV between installments is jarring, but there certainly is a central plot line going on, and eventually a main protagonist bubbles up to the center of the rising events.  I’m really not into spoilers, but I like how this character — and all the others — are certainly flawed even while trying their best to do the right thing.  The shifts in POV, like they do in George RR Martin’s books, help us to understand motives and aspects of these characters that weren’t easily understandable before.

Anyway, I just wanted to recommend them to you, because the Wool books are great, cheap, and a little bit different:

Book Report: A to Z in communicable diseases

I haven’t done a “what I’ve been reading” post for a very long time, and there are a few book recommendations I’d like to pass along.  Cool?  Cool.

The first is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a novel that’s both been received with wide acclaim AND has quite a bit to do with us MMO players.  The conceit is that it’s a dystopian future where the world has gone to pot and most everyone now lives in an online world called OASIS.  OASIS consists of many themed planets (including MMO conversions like Azeroth) that function as learning environments, homes, businesses, and games.  One day the creator of OASIS dies and leaves behind a contest to find three hidden keys and gates — the person who does so will inherit OASIS’s parent company and billions of dollars.

The interesting catch to this contest is that the creator was obsessed with his childhood in the 80s, and left behind an 80s-themed “almanac” as a clue.  Because of this, contest participants have become obsessed with 80s culture and brought about an 80s revival in the 2040s.

What follows is an entertaining romp through cyberspace, MMOs, and plenty of references to 80s movies, TV shows, video games, and other pop culture lore.  Since it all takes place in this huge MMO, it’s not uncommon for people to be flying X-Wings, stomping around as MechaGodzilla, and diving into classic D&D dungeons while leveling up.

This is one of those books that I really hope gets made into a movie some day.  There’s a lot of affection for geek and 80s culture, and if you’re into these things you’ll be delighted with it.  My only nitpick is that sometimes the writing isn’t as smooth as it could’ve been — I often caught myself thinking, “This is exactly how I write” and I usually expect better from what I read.

I’ve also been doing a lot of diving into Kindle-only books, since many of them are cheap ($0.99 cheap) and sometimes surprisingly good.  One that I found and highly recommend is The Academy by Zachary Rawlins.  It’s best described as Hogwarts-meets-The Matrix, but it’s more than that.  It starts out with an average teenager who gets attacked by werewolves and wakes up in a special academy dedicated to training superpower-sensitive warriors and scientists.  The thing is that their powers come from being able to handle nanotechnology with inherent abilities, so it’s not so much magical as it is high-tech.

The Academy is extremely rough around the edges — it needs another pass by a good editor to catch typos and spacing errors, and the lead character isn’t engaging at all.  What does make this gripping, and it is, is how interesting this world is and how atypical everyone is in it.  At first glance, it’s setting the scene for the good guys (the Academy-trained Operatives) versus witches and werewolves and the like.  But the good guys aren’t so good and often are just one shade above pure evil, and it’s hard figuring out who’s trustworthy and who’s just using who.  Also, everyone is divided between houses and major factions, all of which are vying for new recruits from the Academy, which means that your friend today might be your enemy tomorrow.  Or your enemy now, except you just don’t know it.

It’s the first part of a series, and I think the second comes out in the spring, so I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.