alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 62: Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

Goodreads: “For generations, the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt – was humanity’s great frontier. Until now. The alien artefact working through its program under the clouds of

Venus has emerged to build a massive structure outside the orbit of Uranus: a gate that leads into a starless dark.

Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships going out to examine the artefact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with the destruction of Holden at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to find whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.”

I’ve really enjoyed the three books so far in the Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, and Abaddon’s Gate. Where the first set the pace, tone, and foundation for the series in a way that was already epic in scale, the latter two have somehow continued to build on that promise by introducing more narrative lead characters and new high-stakes conflict without letting the story run away from itself. Despite the expansion of character profiles and deeper exploration of those characters’ motivations, the core group we were introduced to in the first book — James Holden and his crew — remain central to the story, thereby anchoring us to a heart of the tale that we’ve grown familiar with and attached to.

Abaddon’s Gate contains a classic redemption tale, a frame-job, and the possibility of massive war among two superpowers, a lesser alliance, and an unknown alien foe that is likely to crush everyone and annihilate humanity in the blink of an eye. Our hero, James Holden, also talks to ghosts and even goes on a one-man mission as an emissary to the alien would-be demolitionists because that’s what the ghost tells him to do. The book rarely takes a moment to breathe, but the slower chapters reinforce the emotional stakes and passion — sometimes quiet, sometimes imbued with burning rage — that drive the characters.

Also remarkable in the series is the way that each book feels, in a way, like a standalone: there are no cliffhangers and the individual stories therein are resolved; however, the resolution sets up a backdrop for what may become the main source of tension in the next book, or the one after. Leviathan Wakes saw the emergence of a dangerous, little-understood alien protomolecule that, by the end, was seemingly dispatched into the inhospitable environment of Venus, therefore saving Earth from destruction. Caliban’s War showed the protomolecule quietly taking over Venus and exhibiting feats of impossible physics, worrying everyone to death over what its next move would be. Abaddon’s Gate reveals what the next move was, and though, again, the immediate conflict was solved, the possibility for major catastrophe still lurks in another form entirely. And none of that takes into account the political and personal struggles of the humans themselves, which could themselves be a collection of compelling and suspenseful stories.

The Expanse series is space opera at its finest. The prose isn’t the most sophisticated, but it’s tightly written and consistently entertaining. Even sci-fi novices could enjoy these books, I think, since they’re not overly jammed with techie jargon and high-concept gimmicks. If you’re put off because it’s set in space, don’t be. The plots are steeped in classic noir and suspense, with war games thrown in for good measure. Highly recommended.

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Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #101: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman

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A beautiful cover done a disservice by some ugly jacket copy (“A noir novel that turns all the lights on” indeed). It’s a very funny, very smart book, but ultimately not as funny and smart as it thinks it is. Undoubtedly original, falls short of being truly great. Full review is on my blog here.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #83: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Ghost_Story_ButcherI am really, really glad I didn’t give up on this series. It took longer than it probably should have for the books to get this good, but now that he’s reached the middle of his series, Butcher isn’t afraid to get all experimental and I’m totally loving every second of it.

Changes ended with Harry Dresden being gunned down by a mysterious assailant and sinking to his death in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. (I mean, what other way could he have ended a book that featured so many life-altering changes to Harry’s life, most of them bad? It seems obvious in retrospect.) Only, because this is fantasy, dying doesn’t really prevent us from following Harry to his next destination.

I’ve read books where characters momentarily die and visit the afterlife, but I’ve never read one where the narrator stays dead for any significant period of time, and I’ve certainly never heard of an established character in a long-running series doing something like this*. Of course, the novelty is a large part of the fun, but I also think Butcher does a really good job exploring the ramifications of Harry’s death not only for Harry, but for all his friends, family, and the city of Chicago as well. Harry has to navigate his new, er, lifestyle and the reactions of those he loves, all while mayhem — in typical Dresden Files fashion — threatens to break loose.

*That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before, just that I’m not aware of it if it has.

The book also ends with a couple of hopeful yet chilling twists that I won’t spoil, just in case you haven’t read it yet. But it’s good, trust me. I really don’t understand why people didn’t like this book — from what I understand on the internets, it was pretty controversial for some reason? I’m not seeing it. So what the hell. Five stars! (It’s probably more like 4.5, but I’m feeling generous, and the ending more than made up for any dragginess in the middle.)

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #104: Fatale, vol 1: Death Chases Me by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Nicholas Lash meets a stunning young woman at his godfather’s funeral. Soon there are black clad gunmen after him, and the beautiful woman rescues him and drags him along on a high speed car chase. There is clearly more to her than meets the eye.

Josephine, the beautiful woman, is seemingly ageless, and in flashback we are told how she first met Dominic Raines, Nicholas’ godfather, back in the 1940s and more about her mysterious and dangerous past. Every man who meets Jo seems to fall completely under her spell. Why doesn’t she age? What was her connection to Raines, and why have sinister gunmen chased her through the ages?

The comic starts as a noir, but clearly has Lovecraftian influences, in a story involving dark forces, sinister rituals, corrupt cops, starry-eyed reporters, car chases, gun fights, murder, mystery and mayhem. The story is brilliantly told by Ed Brubaker, and wonderfully and very appropriately illustrated by Sean Phillips. Jo is a true femme fatale, and unwittingly brings despair and destruction to any man who falls under her spell. This first trade collects the first five issues, and while the story continues in the next volume, it can be read as a satisfying story in and of itself. Of all the comics I bought during my Chicago vacation, this is the one I’m so far the most certain that I will continue reading. Brubaker writes amazing mystery and suspense, and I can’t wait to see how the story develops further.

With this, I complete my double Cannonball, 3 months earlier than I managed it last year. I’m still unsure if I want to attempt the monumental triple Cannonball, only ever completed by one participant, as far as I recall. Still, with four weeks left of my summer vacation, and several long plane journeys ahead of me, I’m not going to rule it out.

Cross-posted on my blog.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #57: Side Jobs by Jim Butcher

side jobsSide Jobs is a collection of short stories and novellas published by Jim Butcher in various anthologies. Each story follows Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only Wizard for Hire, on smaller cases in between books (and one case that is from Thomas’s POV). The only exception is the last story, which is new for the collection, and takes place about two hours after the ending to Changes (and made me want to go out and read Ghost Story immediately . . . sidenote, this novella may also be indirectly responsible for me accidentally becoming a criminal).

I think it was very considerate of Butcher to publish these in one place so I don’t have to track them down myself (either that or his publisher wanted money and he gets my good will as a side bargain). I really resent when authors publish things in anthologies because it’s so hard for me to keep track of everything, which I realize is a horrible and stupid reaction, but I don’t care.

Most of these stories are fun little side trips (hence the name) that wouldn’t have fit elsewhere in the books (some are a bit shoehorned in, as there are thematic requirements to some of these anthologies, i.e. the star-crossed lovers one with Murphy and Harry). And the very first story of the collection is a bit shaky, not that I’ll hold it against it, as it was the very first bit of the Dresden Files Butcher ever wrote, and as he admits in the intro to the story, it’s at best an amateur effort and only included for funsies basically. That’s probably my favorite part of the collection, actually, is those introductions in front of each story. Well, that and the last story, which is told from Murphy’s POV.

If you’re a Dresden Files fan, this is a must read. Don’t pick this up as an intro to the series. You will be lost and/or not care. Or maybe I’m lying and I just want you to read things in order like a normal person. Wow, this review is weirdly angry. I think I need a snack or something. TOODLES.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #53: Changes by Jim Butcher

changesEverybody give Jim Butcher a slow clap. He’s finally written a book that impressed me so much that I’m willing to give it five stars. (It only took him twelve tries to get there!) I’ve been waiting for something awe-inspiring in order to bust out the five star rating, and I’m pretty sure this book qualifies.

Changes is a rather literal title. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find something within its pages that doesn’t represent a change in Harry Dresden’s life (or that of his friends and family), whether its something as minor as dealing with a broken wizard’s staff, or as major as learning you have an eight year old daughter that you never knew about. A daughter who has been kidnapped by a vengeance-seeking noble of the Red Court vampires. Harry deals with both in this book, and the whole range of the spectrum in between.

Actually, let’s list out all the changes that happen in this book, so I can better illustrate for you just how monumental this book is in terms of the whole arc of the series (this should be obvious, but DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED):

1. In the very first sentence of the book, we (and Harry) learn that he has an eight year old daughter, Maggie. She is the product of his one night reunion with Susan back in Death Masks. Susan never told him about her, and sent the little girl off to live with a foster family so she would be safe. Harry understandably becomes very, er, UPSET, about most of this information and remains that way for the rest of the novel.

2.
 Harry’s office, which has been with us since the very first paragraph of the first book, was blown up by Red Court vampires. (They get away with this, we learn, because they actually own the building. In a neat bit of continuity, Butcher mentioned that Harry’s rent went up a couple of books ago in passing, and it turns out that the Red Court buying the building was the reason why.)

3. The White Council is sidelined by a mysterious illness, and new Senior Council member Christos makes his power play. After books of inaction and thumb twiddling on the part of the Council, this is pretty significant.

4. Harry receives an inheritance from his mother: her knowledge of the ‘Ways’ of Faerie, an extensive collection of passages to and from the Never Never, which enables Harry to travel quickly from one place in the world to another.

5. Harry learns (finally, the dolt) that his apprentice Molly is in love with him.

6. Harry’s infamous car, The Blue Beetle, is finally and utterly destroyed, after eleven books of it being wrecked and fixed, over and over again. (Inside the car is also his wizard staff, which is also destroyed.)

7. Harry’s apartment is burned to the ground by minions of the Red Court, along with all of his worldly possessions (excepting a few illicit magical items he had hidden from the FBI, like Bob the Skull and The Swords). Again, this is a place well established in these books. It is kind of mind boggling that all of these things  Butcher has set up for as givens in his storyworld are just completely disappearing.

8. Harry gives in to Queen Mab and becomes the Winter Knight in exchange for the extra power he needs to save his daughter. (He also needs her to heal him, as he breaks his back falling off of a ladder while trying to rescue his neighbors from their burning building and seems to be paralyzed from the weist down.) This is actually probably the biggest change in the book as it has so much potential not only to change the way Harry views himself, but how he lives, and how the books from here on out are structured. He essentially gives up his freedom and independence in order to save his daughter, something inherent in the Dresden worldview as built up over twelve books, and as such, is not an act we can take lightly or that can easily (if ever) be undone in the world Butcher has created.

9. Susan becomes a full vampire of the Red Court and Harry kills her in order to destroy the entire Red Court (the machinations of this are too complicated to explain, just read the book). This is also a huge moment for him, as he murders someone he loves, knowing full well it doesn’t have to be done. He also takes responsibility for her murder of Martin, which caused her to become a vampire in the first place, as he essentially goaded her into it, knowing what the outcome would be (the destruction of the Red Court, the end of the war with the Council).

10. The entire Red Court is wiped out, thus ending the war that has been going on since book three, Grave Peril, when Harry rescued Susan from the Red Court vamp, Bianca. It’s fitting that he should be the one to end it, as he was the one that started it. This potentially has implications for the entire world as Butcher has created it, as Harry mentions that there were a lot of Red Court vamps hiding out in plain sight in powerful positions worldwide, and now they’ve just simply vanished.

11. Harry learns that his mentor, Ebenezer McCoy, is also his maternal grandfather.

12. Murphy loses her job as a cop thanks to the events of the book, and will presumably take up the holy sword Fiddelachius, and become a Knight of the Cross. This still leaves Amoracchius to be taken up by some unknown person in a later book.

13. In the aftermath of saving Maggie (Maggie having been bundled away to safety by Father Forthill) and before he takes up the mantle of Winter Knight, Harry finally makes a move on Murphy. She doesn’t reject him.

14. Oh yeah, and Harry dies. The book ends with him being shot by an unknown assailant while on the deck of Thomas’s boat, The Water Beetle, while waiting for Murphy to show up for their date. From what I’ve heard of book thirteen, Ghost Story, this is not a condition he will get out of in a hurry.

If I hadn’t already read a couple of interviews with Butcher where he pretty much stated it outright, this book would have clued me in that Butcher is playing the long game with this series, and this book was clearly designed as the pivot point. The series was often unpredictable before Changes, but it followed a general formula, where certain things were always a given. Now, though. That’s pretty much all shot to hell, and the next eight books in the series will be very different than what’s come before.* Because it was designed as a pivot point, a lot of previous storylines paid off here, and it was incredibly satisfying for that to happen after having spent twelve books with these characters. One of the advantages of television, which is why I always compare this series to TV, is that spending long periods of time with characters creates a different type of relationship between them and the reader.

*Supposedly, there will be twenty books in the The Dresden Files proper, to be followed immediately by a trilogy to be called The Big Apocalyptic Trilogy (tentatively to be titled, cutely, Hell’s Bells, Stars and Stones, and Empty Night, after the magical profanity Harry is prone to using).

Anyway, all of this is to say that I’m REALLY glad I stuck with this series after almost giving up on it after book three, and thanks to my buddy Dan in particular for giving me the recommendation in the first place. (One of my favorite things on the internet is this sentence he wrote in his review of Turn Coat: “It’s next to impossible for me to write anything about this series without it devolving into incoherent fanboy sputtering followed by a loss of consciousness.”) I figured if someone could possibly love something that much, it must be worth sticking around for. It took a while, but I turned out to be right. So thanks, Dan!

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #40: Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

3475161I’m going to keep this (relatively) short because I’m about 7 gajillion reviews behind, but this series just keeps getting better and better. There aren’t many series that I’ve read that up the ante like this as they go along. In fact, most start out really promising and then totally biff it along the way. The Dresden Files just keeps getting more interesting and exciting and emotionally complex. I think a lot of that might have something do with Butcher having started this series as a formulaic urban fantasy noir, but he’s taken it to another place in the decade plus since. It’s definitely not ‘epic fantasy’ but one might choose to use the phrase EPIC when describing it, if only because starting a new Dresden book lately makes me want to get on the floor and roll around and maybe squeal for a little bit.

Turn Coat is the culmination of the series-long feud between Harry and the Warden known as Donald Morgan, a hundred year old wizard who is also the de facto executioner for the White Council, and who’s had it out for Harry ever since he was sixteen years old. But this time, Morgan’s in trouble. He’s being framed for the murder of a member of the senior council, a murder which would also implicate him as a traitor, and he wants Harry’s help to find the real murderer. Why Harry? Because Morgan knows Harry has experience in being unjustly vilified, and also he would literally rather die than see an innocent man condemned. And yes, the irony in this situation is delicious, for Harry and for us as readers. On top of that whole situation, Harry is being chased by a scary-ass monster called a Skinwalker, and his involvement in the case threatens not only his own safety, but that of his friends and family.

I didn’t like this one as much as I liked Small Favor or as much as I’m liking Changes, but it’s pretty damn good. Morgan has always been a frustrating character for me, and he remained so for most of this book, but his arc wraps up nicely by the end. The flavor and intensity of the plot movement in this book hints that big stuff is coming, and Harry takes some pretty significant losses. The fact that these losses seem to largely be foreshadowing is a frightening thought. (And if some of them don’t get, um, fixed, I’m going to throw a shit fit.)

On to book twelve.