Review: Zoe’s Tale, by John Scalzi

This is another book in the Old Man’s War universe, and it takes place during the same time period as The Last Colony. In fact, it covers many of the same events as The Last Colony, but it does it from a different POV, specifically Zoe’s.

Zoe is the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, both veterans of humanity’s ongoing war against an endless parade of alien species over galactic real estate. How the three of them came together in the first place is a spoiler-ific backstory, so I’ll merely direct you to Old Man’s War and Ghost Brigades. Suffice it to say, John and Jane kick ass, and Zoe became the most famous five-year old in the galaxy quite some time back. As a teenager, it’s starting to wear thin.

So, just as The Last Colony was, this is the story of the human colony of Roanoke. A large interspecies alliance has placed a ban on new colonies, and humanity has decided to thumb their noses at the ban. This puts the colonists of Roanoke in grave danger, but never fear – the Colonial Defense Forces have a plan. Unfortunately, that plan isn’t necessarily such a good idea in the long run for humanity, let alone the poor folks sitting down on Roanoke.

I have to admit, I had some worry when I started into this book, since I knew it was essentially retelling a story that I already knew. There were not a lot of grand revelations lurking behind the scenes – most everything had already been put out there in The Last Colony. However, it really comes down to the writing, and John Scalzi knocked this one out of the park. The book was filled with little moments that were merely off in the background of the first telling that were quite moving when seen up close. An early chapter about a jade elephant pendant brought me to tears.

But it’s not all poignant vignettes and cool POV twisting. One unknown had been left out there by the first telling in The Last Colony, and here we finally see what really happened with Zoe went off on her own. We had already known she had met with some degree of success, but now we finally see how she did it. Zoe kicked ass even better than her adopted parents do.

So, even if you think you already know the whole story from The Last Colony, this is definitely worth the read.

Non-compete clauses in contracts

The subject of non-compete clauses came up in a recent meeting of my local indie writer’s group, so I thought I would point to a number of blog entries regarding them over the years.  They’re not in any particular order, nor are any of them necessarily canonical.  However, if you read them all, you’ll get a pretty good feeling on why non-compete clauses are bad for the author and why you should be wary of any contract a traditional publisher offers you.

The Passive Voice talks about the bad attitude of agents and publishers towards authors.

Kristine Rusch talks about the various forms a non-compete clause can take.

More from the Passive Voice on how to read a contract with non-compete clauses.  In fact, I recommend all of the Passive Voice articles on how to read a contract.

A few more thoughts on not signing dumb contracts.

And finally, a cautionary tale of how publishers really will exercise that non-competition clause to stop you from self-publishing that independent book.

Does all of that spell the death of the hybrid author approach?  That is, does this mean you cannot do both traditional and self-publishing?  No, it doesn’t.  But the key to success seems to be to start as an independent self-publisher, and then once you have something that traditional publishing wants, you will have the leverage necessary to negotiate away the non-compete clauses in their various forms.  If you start with the traditional publishers from beginning, you don’t have much to negotiate with.

Review: White Trash Zombie Apocalypse, by Diana Rowland

This is the third in Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series, and it has kept up the brain-munching pace of the earlier books. Things with her kind-of boyfriend are still in the one-shamble-forward, two-shambles-back stage. Her alcoholic dad is struggling to reform. And zombie mafia and evil corporations are still using her as a pawn in their shadow war. Did I just say zombie mafia? Why yes… yes I did.

I really enjoyed this book because I felt that Angel, our eponymous White Trash Zombie, finally came into her own. In the first two tales, she was struggling to find her way between forces that would use her as a pawn, but I think this time she really established herself as a player to be reckoned with. And as always, Rowland hits this one out of the park with excellent writing and a great character voice.

However, I do have a mild complaint that she (and a couple of other folks) were not as wary as I think they should have been. When a dangerous character arrives briefly on the scene, they simply write it off as something to keep an eye out for. Meanwhile, I was screaming at them to load up, hunker down, and call in the cavalry. But apart from that, they were all fairly sharp, especially towards the end when the, um… brains hit the blender.

So, it’s a good installment. The denouement was long enough that I thought perhaps Rowland was wrapping up the series as a trilogy, but according to her FAQ, she has at least three more novels planned for Angel and her zombie friends. Look for the next one sometime in 2014.

Review: Cursed, by Benedict Jacka

This is the second in the Alex Verus series, an urban fantasy about a mage living in London. What makes this series particularly interesting is that you won’t see Alex slinging fireballs or lightning bolts. While there are plenty of those around, Alex isn’t that kind of mage. Instead, he’s a diviner, someone who has the ability to see into the many possible futures lying ahead of him. It’s great help in a maze, but not so obviously useful in a firefight.

In this second installment, Alex is asked to investigate some dark rituals for another mage, an employer he does not entirely trust. For starters, he’s a mage, and Alex has learned not to trust other mages, and second, when this mages other employee showed up at his door, a nasty attack by some third party arrived within seconds. Meanwhile, some ambitious mundane is trying to make off with Alex’s beautiful (but cursed) apprentice. And when Alex’s best friend is attacked… well, everything just falls apart.

I really enjoyed this one, and I’m starting to think of these books as great companion’s for the Dresden Files. While Harry often blasts his way in without thinking, Alex sneaks in because thinking is his only weapon. So, two thumbs up for this one, and as I say with all series, start at the beginning with Fated.

Review: Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson

This was an odd time-travel story. The only thing that travelled back in time, really, was information, but it did so in an impressive way. Giant statues and monoliths began popping up in southeast Asia to commemorate some warlord’s victory… twenty-three years into the future. They result in political instability in the region as well as study in how such things are possible. This ends up being the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecy: scientists figure out how to make these happen and the affected regions start falling apart, making them ripe targets for any warlord who wants to snatch up the mantle and declare himself to be the anonymous Kuin.

This was a pretty high-concept book, and the style was more literary than I’m used to seeing. In some cases, however, I felt it was more literary than it needed to be. Specifically, the author got into a habit of telling events out of order – not because of any time travel, but just because he felt like it. That got a little old, but it was not prevalent enough to make me stop reading.

So, all in all, it was okay. I liked the concepts involved, but the telling of it was not to my taste.

Review: Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein

This was one of Heinlein’s juvenile books from the 1950s. It’s the tale of a young slave, Thorby, rise from the very bottom of society – a beggar’s slave – to the pinnacle of corporate wealth and power. I confess my motivation for reading this was that someone compared a bit of my own work to it, so I thought I would go check it out. I hadn’t read any Heinlein in perhaps 20 years, so I figured it was time to look again.

It was okay. Mostly, it simply didn’t age well. Maybe it was that it had been written as juvenile, which back in the 1950s was aimed quite a bit lower than today’s Young Adult fiction, or maybe it was merely that SF and narrative styles have changed a lot in 60 years. There were a number of sociological ideas that were belabored in a “Hey, look at my cool idea” way. That was fairly common in the early love affair between science fiction and libertarianism, but it’s kind of dated now. Also, the narrative style was a somewhat clutzy omniscient POV, which has fallen out of favor in the last few decades. As such, it robbed the story of the kind of punch-in-the-gut immediacy that I’ve come to enjoy in current fiction.

Nonetheless, it painted a broad canvas for humanity, and took our young Thorby through quite a bit of it. It did, however, end on something of a cliffhanger. Sure, things are more or less resolved, but there’s this big, fat challenge sitting out in front of our hero, and then the tale ends. As far as I know, he did not write a sequel, so it’s just left hanging.

So, I think that for its intended audience of kids in the 1950s, it was spot-on. Today, less so.

Review: WWW: Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer

This is the second in Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, where we see the world wide web emerge into a conscious entity, making first contact with a blind girl whose sight has been restored through a computer implant along her optic nerve.

Now in the second book, we have young Caitlin deciding who to trust with the knowledge of the Webmind and what to do about it. Meanwhile, the story of the sign-language chimp finally connects properly with the rest of the story, and some of the world government’s begin to take notice of what’s going on.

I found this book more grounded and believable than the first. The way various people reacted was pretty much spot-on. The optimistic people imagined the possibilities. The paranoid people saw the danger. It was very much a first-contact situation with the full spectrum of reactions.

I’m definitely looking forward to the conclusion WWW: Wonder, but I’m pacing myself.

Review: This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman

This is one of the annual Edge Question books, where the Edge website asks several prominent thinkers an interesting question. The result is a collection of short essays answering that question. Past questions have included “What do you believe but cannot prove?”, “ What have you changed your mind about?”, and my favorite so far, “What are you optimistic about?” The question that spawned this book was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Like most of these Edge books there were a few answers that were thinly veiled screeds against religion, but for the most part, the answers were pretty good. They included things like the Pareto Principle (aka the 80-20 rule), the idea of positive-sum games, that you can demonstrate danger but cannot demonstrate safety, that correlation is not causation, and black swan technologies. There are about 150 in all, and they give good food for thought.

My recommendation is to read this a little bit at a time, perhaps an answer or two each day. It takes a while, but it keeps the brain from getting numb.

Review: Thor 2: The Dark World

I saw Thor 2: The Dark World over the weekend. It was pretty good, and I had a good time. I know Loki probably had the biggest expectations, given what a stud Tom Hiddleston has turned out to be, and he certainly delivered in my opinion. He got to be both good and evil, and I think his motivations for each were more understandable than for the earlier two films.

My only complaint was that I felt a little misled by one of the trailers. I don’t want to say how I was misled because that would include spoilers for the film, but the trailer I remember most strongly led me to think there would be a couple of specific plot threads that were simply not in the film. The film was plenty strong without them – stronger, I think, for the absence of one of them – but I still came away a little disappointed in not seeing them.

Oh, and if you go, stay until the very end, like when the lights come up and the ushers come to shoo you out of your seats. Like most of these Marvel films there was an extra bonus at the end. This one had two or three, scattered through the credits. One was the typical teaser for some future film – and that one might have technically been before the titles – but the other two were major plot points for the resolution of the film. Had I skipped out when the credits rolled, I’d have felt cheated that those had been left hanging. So stick it out, no matter how much you’re regretting your choice of the large Dr. Pepper.

Review: Princep’s Fury, by Jim Butcher

This is the fifth book in Butcher’s Codex Alera, where a nation of elementalists is struggling through war, infighting, and a difficult succession. In this installment, Tavi is across the sea helping his new allies deal with some problems of their own, while things actually go from bad to catastrophic back home. The First Lord fights a losing battle against the Vord, while others uncover some secrets about what started the whole problematic succession in the first place.

As much as I enjoyed the earlier books, this one rose to the challenge and raised the bar even further. Tavi, who grew up as a poor child without any command of the elements (aka the “furies”), has spent a lifetime learning to adapt. Instead of overpowering his enemies, he has had to outthink them. His talents shone here more than ever before as he faced down the implacable Vord. Even the First Lord Gaius Sextus – the most powerful man in the world — found himself wishing for Tavi’s insight back home.

The ending, while resolving things for the moment, was also an excellent cliffhanger. It would seem that all the cards are now on the table. All the last-ditch heroics have been done. It’s all down to Tavi to rise to the occasion and… well… save the world is not exaggerating. I will be diving into First Lord’s Fury very soon.