Review: First Lord’s Fury, by Jim Butcher

This is the culmination of the Codex Alera series, and it goes out with a bang. Tavi is coming back to Alera leading a most unusual army, only to find that his fellow Alerans are up against the wall with the merciless Vord crushing their greatest strongholds and killing their strongest furycrafting lords. At least by this point, Tavi is finally coming into his own furycrafting strength, but even he is no match for the might of the Vord. Then again, Tavi has always been smarter than he was strong, and he makes good use of that in this final war.

In addition to Tavi and his crew, we see some fine performances put in by the remaining furycrafters. Even Aquataine puts in a good show. But nothing compares to the rabbits Tavi’s uncle Bernard manages to pull out of his hat. Much of those particular tricks had their origins as wild ideas from Tavi years before, but Bernard has taken them to their most impressive ends. Perhaps the most world-shattering moment comes at the command of Bernard, as a hundred commoners throw down a demonstration of power that would completely spend a High Lord’s power… and then do it again the very next minute, and the next, and the next. It was one of those moments where even as the reader you stick her head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

I won’t spoil the end, but I’ll just say that it was quite satisfying. Just about everyone got what they deserved, in one flavor or another. In particular, the epilogue was good, tying up a number of loose ends and giving some hint about what was to follow in the years and decades ahead. As one character said, the interesting times were definitely over, and yet it felt the new story of Alera was just beginning.

So, if you’re contemplating this series – particularly if you’re struggling through the slow first book, Furies of Calderon, give it a shot. The road to the payoff is long and fun, and the payoff is definitely worth it.

Review: Captain’s Share by Nathan Lowell

This is the fifth in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series, following the life of Ishmael Wang as he rises through the ranks of merchantmen. As the title suggests, this is the book where Ishmael finally becomes a captain, but that’s not all that happens.

It’s been a long gap since we left Ishmael in Double Share where he had gotten his first posting as an officer. In fact, it’s been over ten years, and while some things have remained the same, quite a few others have changed. While Ishmael is still on the same ship, now he’s first mate, and back on station, he has a wife. Pride and Prejudice fans should enjoy the opening homage.

Like all of the Solar Clipper series, this is not a tale of gripping adventure or thrilling crisis. This is the work-a-day world of a guy making the system function, day after day. Strangely, Lowell turns what some would call a detraction into an asset. If you’ve ever wished you could live on a starship, then this series is pure wish-fulfillment. If you’re that kind of reader, then even the routine things will fascinate you.

For this particular book, there are some rather dicey moments before Ishmael makes captain where he has to do a salvage operation on a dead ship. What is particularly chilling is that had Ishmael not made the choices he made back in Double Share, this was precisely the kind of fate that awaited him and his crewmates. Sloppiness kills in space, and this was a gruesome object lesson.

Once he becomes a Captain, of course, he had all new troubles. He was given the runt of the fleet, complete with all the problems you can imagine: rebellious crew, lazy and crazy officers, crappy ship performance, and poor profits. As always, he tackled them straight on. He made a few missteps along the way, but as always, Ishmael found his way. I had expected a bit more pushback from the crew and officers on this, but it seems they were desperate for any improvement.

So, if you’ve already been reading the Solar Clipper series, you probably already have this. If not, check it out.

Summer Writing Schedule

writing_iconI thought I’d take a few minutes to update you about what I’m working on this summer.

Hell Bent is officially in beta. I handed it off to the bulk of the beta readers in the last few days, and I’m working out a handoff for the last one today. Hopefully I’ll get all that feedback by mid/late July and then do my edits in August. If I can get it to the copy editor in the September time frame, I might manage to publish it in November.

Debts of My Fathers (the sequel to Ships of My Fathers) is still in pre-edit limbo. I have the printout ready and waiting, but I haven’t looked at it since I wrapped it up last November. I will very likely do my initial edits to it this summer with an eye towards getting it to beta readers in the early fall. Publication is targeted for around New Years, but at this point, it’s hard to nail it down.

But for now, I’m starting to draft new work. In fact, I’m planning to draft two new novels this summer, if time and brain allows. My goal is to draft two new novels this year, with some hope of stretching that to three, and here I am with the year almost half-gone and not a single one written. Time to dig in.

shattered_vaseThe first one, tentatively titled Shattered, is quite the departure for me and might actually be a throw-away novel. Why? It’s a mystery, something I’ve never written before. Then why am I writing it, especially now when I should be trying to establish a rhythm in my publishing career? A couple of reasons. First, my mother is not a sci-fi or urban fantasy fan, and she keeps asking when I’m going to write something she can read. Well, I’m going to indulge her and try to write a mystery.

But the other reason is that a number of SF writers recommend that every writer should write a mystery at some point in their career, the earlier the better. Apparently, there’s something to be learned from the way a good mystery lays everything out and yet keeps the reading from seeing the resolution until the characters wrap it up all together. I’m also going to try a few experiments with additional prep work. I won’t say I’m going as far as the dreaded outline, but I’m at least laying down a few details before I type “Chapter 1”.

The second book I hope to draft this summer is the sequel to Hell Bent, tentatively titled Stone Killer. My general goal in writing series is to draft the sequel before publishing the first, or to generalize it, draft N+1 before publishing N. I figure that improves my odds of fixing continuity problems before they go to print since it allows me to spot a problem in N+1 and fix it in N before it’s too late. So, since I hope to hand off Hell Bent to the copy editor around September, that means I’ll want to draft Stone Killer before that.

But if you do the math, you’ll see that’s drafting two full novels in the next two and a half months. Even considering that one of them is a mystery (typically a little shorter, targeting 65-75,000), the total for both novels will be in the range of 140-160,000 words. That’s about three NaNoWriMo’s worth in less than three months, while also trying to wrap up edits to Hell Bent and making my initial edits to Debts of My Fathers.

I honestly don’t know if I can do it, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

Review: Lieutenant, by Phil Geusz

This is the third book in the David Birkenhead series. I reviewed the first two books already. It’s the story of the apparently epic career of… well, a rabbit in the royal space navy. More specifically, he’s a genetically engineered rabbit-human crossbreed, raised as a part of a slave race but elevated to the status of a free person in reward for an act of bravery.

Lieutenant picks up David’s story as he gets his first assignment following his graduation from the naval academy. Just as plenty of people tried to push him down in the academy, the defenders of the status quo intend to tuck him out of the way, never to be seen again. So, instead of the ship engineering position he desperately wanted, he is posted to graves registration, seeing to the collection and proper burial of the humans who have fallen in service to the king.

Disappointed, he does what he can to perform at his best, but he is starting to accept that he will never escape this dead-end job and will simply have to serve out the remainder of his term before trying to find his way in the civilian world. But then, as plot contrivances would have it, he finds himself out on assignment collecting bodies from an old battle that sparks back to life. Left in command by acts of foolishness and desertion by his superior officers, he has to face impossible odds, resigning himself to die in a hopeless cause.

To some extent, this is young Birkenhead facing the Kobayashi Maru challenge from Star Trek, deciding how to face death and lead his fellow officers and rabbits willingly to it, but much like James T. Kirk, he does not believe in the no-win scenario, and woe be to the enemy who expects him to lay down and die peacefully.

So, in that respect, it’s a great bit of space opera worthy of any of the better known authors and universes. But I still have to admit, it’s this rabbit thing that makes it both really weird and strangely compelling.

In many ways, Birkenhead’s status as a free rabbit acts as a placeholder for any groundbreaking career officer, perhaps the first black officer or the first female officer here in the U.S. He faces many of the same challenges that they would, from the prejudices of his fellow officers to the outright hatred of those who must defend the status quo against the inevitable pressures of the future. On top of that, he is dealing with both the admiration of his fellow rabbits as well as their own preconceptions of subservience and inadequacy.

And yet he is also dealing with many problems that are unique to being a rabbit instead of a pure human. He eats different food, so he’s not necessarily welcome in the officer’s wardroom. He’s covered in fur, and that makes a difference in some of the special engineering suits they require. And for that matter, his feet are enormous by human standards, so his dress uniform is decidedly lacking in the polished boots department. So, all of that keeps this from being a simple proxy for the standard “first minority officer” story, and that combination, as I said, keeps it both weird and compelling.

The title of the next book hints at his continued rise through the ranks, and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’d rip right through the whole series, but I’m trying to pace myself.

What do I call the series?

I am about to self-publish the first book in a five-book series. The second one is already drafted, and I have some notes on the final three. I say this to show that this is not merely a book with an open ending, but that for once I actually have a plan for how the rest of it will go.

So, I’m thinking it terms of branding the series with a common look for the covers, similarly structured titles, common font choices… everything that you expect to see in a series, and one of those things is that little splash of text on the cover beneath the title, proclaiming it to be Book One of the Impressive Series Name.

But just what do I call the series? Sometimes these are named for the protagonist like “The Dresden Files” or “The Honor Harrington Series”. Other times it’s the setting, like “The Hollows” or “Chronicles of Narnia”. And then there are enigmatic elements from the tale itself, “A Song of Fire and Ice” or “His Dark Materials”.

How do I pick one? I’m asking both for some general guidance, and I’m also going to try out a few on you and see what you think.

These books are space opera, and they deal with a 17-year-old boy growing into adulthood after the death of his adopted father. Part of the deal with that, though, is that he didn’t find out about the adoption until after that death, so there are all kinds of father-son issues going on here. The first book is titled Ships of My Fathers, and all the rest will be similarly titled, i.e. [Nouns] of My Fathers.

Common elements across all five books include the protagonist, the ship he inherited from his adopted father, and a shadowy villain who is tied up in both his past and his future. My instinct is to name it after one of those elements.

For the character, it would be: Book One of the Michael Fletcher Saga
For the ship it would be: Tales from _Sophie’s Grace_, Book One
For the villain it would be: Book One of the Father Chessman Saga

I’m not particularly married to the “Tales from…” or “Saga” aspects. It’s the other words that I’m struggling with. Naming it after the rather plain-named Michael Fletcher seems boring. I like the ship one better, though that particular ship is actually sidelined for most of the first book. And that leaves me with my current favorite, “the Father Chessman Saga” since it sounds all impressive, but I feel weird naming the series after the villain. It would be a bit like calling the Harry Potter series the Lord Voldemort series.

So… reactions? Advice? Mockery?

Review: Cold Days, by Jim Butcher

This is #14 in the Dresden Files series, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting it for over a year. Combine that with the fact that the last couple of books (particularly #12, Changes) were so mind-blowingly awesome, and you can imagine that this one came in with some pretty high expectations to meet. It did pretty well, but it fell just a little short of meeting those expectations. Had it been just some random book by another author, I’d probably be raving all about it. As it is, I find myself bouncing between loving it and feeling a little disappointed in it. Or maybe that’s just the post-high blues settling in.

So, what can I say about a book and series with so many big reveals without actually spoiling it? A friend and I were jokingly messaging each other while reading it, saying things like, “Just wait until Harry and some other character do that thing in the place… you know, with the other guy.”

So yeah… it’s kind of hard to say much without getting all spoilerific, but here’s my best attempt at being specific enough to review it without being so specific as to spoil it.

While the first eleven books were about Harry’s adventures as Chicago’s only professional wizard and all the complications that entails, book #12 (Changes)… well, you know, changed things. Book #13 was mostly about the aftereffects of that and attempting some notion of recovery.

Cold Days picks up after that and shows Harry settling into something of a new role. Then he gets his first job in that new role, and it’s a doozy. In fact, it’s virtually impossible. But Harry’s life has never been as simple as presenting him with a tough problem, so it all gets much more complicated with struggling loyalties, questionable allies, plots within plots, and a world-ending timebomb ticking away. And of course, Harry saves the day with his usual wit and well-earned angst. The ending was bittersweet, with victory being filled with loss, but when did Harry every have a truly happy ending?

About the only nit I have to pick was that Butcher did a bit of preaching in the middle of the book. It happened to be a message I wholeheartedly agree with (i.e. homosexuals are OK, and even if you disagree you should adopt a live and let live approach), but it kind of stuck out from the surrounding material as the author preaching at us rather than Harry Dresden dishing out his own irreverent attitude. It did not blend in with the rest of the story and felt kind of tacked on. If Jim Butcher really wants to communicate that message, he would be better off writing a book where he showed it to be true rather than taking a five-minute break to hit us up with a public service announcement.

Still, it was good to see many of the old gang, but we didn’t see everyone. The world has certainly changed since Changes, and not all for the better. Mostly though, Cold Days revealed more about the dark subtle forces moving through the world and set up the shape of the background conflict for the next several books. I’m sure there will be diversions and unrelated struggles, but I think this set up the main storyline for the next dozen books.

I just hope that the next book picks up the storyline in short order and not two years later… which coincidentally is also when I wish the next book would come out, i.e. in short order.

*taps at veins*

Gotta get more Dresden!

Review: Academ’s Fury, by Jim Butcher

This is the second in the six-book Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher. While this is the first Butcher book I’ve reviewed for this blog, I’ve mentioned before how good I think he is. And yet, the first book of the series, “Furies of Calderon”, left me flat. This one was much better.

Mostly it came down to pacing and already being past the world-building. The events in this one seemed to come much faster, and instead of struggling to understand how the people interacted with their elemental spirits (aka their “furies”), I was able to simply accept it and move on. Also, this one simply felt tighter with fewer extraneous threads pulling me in different directions. I imagine by the time we get to the end, all of those loose threads from the first book will be important, but I’m glad that for this one, we didn’t need to keep up with them.

So, this one mostly focused on battling a nasty spider-like monster that was spreading forth from the nest we saw in the first book, as it spread out, sending its children forth to multiply. It proved quite nasty and its particular powers were pretty squicky – not I-stepped-on-something squicky but please-kill-me-before-the-alien-impregnates-me squicky.

In and around the monster battles, political intrigue advanced, secrets were revealed, and several characters made some hard choices that I suspect they will later regret. Specifically, there was one of those “for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost…” things that probably won’t reach the level of losing battles and wars until book five, but it’s troubling to see that chain of loss start.

Anyway, it probably took me two years after reading Furies of Calderon to give this series another shot, but now that it’s picking up, I’ll probably be back before long.

The Right Order

I recently ran across an essay on the right order to watch the Star Wars films. Rather than settling for release-order or chronological-order, he prefers what he’s calling Machete Order which treats the prequels as a flashback between “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”.

The idea is to tell it as the story of Luke (not Anakin) and then take a time-out in the middle to explain how [SPOILER] came to be. Notably, he also leaves out “The Phantom Menace” entirely, so you can save yourself from Jar-Jar. Go ahead and check out the link above. He makes a convincing argument for that as the best through-line for the story as well pointing out a couple of glitches along the way.

I was originally going to show Star Wars to my daughter in release order, but as she is now freaking out over Empire’s ending, switching over to Machete order might be a good idea. (An official hat-tip to Shanna Swendson for pointing this out.)

This also got me to thinking about the right order to read/view other multi-episode series. For most series it’s a moot point. Release order and chronological order are the same, and other than intentionally skipping a low point (i.e. Rocky 4, Aliens 3, Star Trek 5, etc.) there’s very little to be gained by mucking around with the order. But some series weren’t written in chronological order.

Notably, the Asimov’s unified Robots and Foundation series was not written in chronological order. Much of this was because they weren’t originally the same story, but in time he decided to patch them together. Frankly, I’m not a fan of the patchwork that was done – it has far too many retcon’s for my taste – but if I had to recommend it to someone, I would urge them to start with the original Foundation trilogy (i.e. the collected Foundation short stories & novellas) and then proceed in publication order. Anything else, and too many secrets and surprises are compromised.

Another one was Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai and related novels, a.k.a. the Childe Cycle. They jump forward and backwards in time, and it’s great seeing things from multiple perspectives. Alas, it doesn’t look like he was actually able to finish it before his death, so I haven’t gotten myself to go past “The Chantry Guild”. I think this one should be read in release order, not chronological order, because some of the prequel books make a lot more sense once you know what happens in the later Dorsai stories.

I have been told that Bujold’s Vorkosigan series was written in non-chronological order, but I flamed out after a book and a half, so I don’t have much of an opinion on the proper order to read this one.

There have been a few TV series that have suffered from being shown out of order. Notably, Fox messed around with Firefly, showing the episodes out of order. The Babylon 5 series Crusade was also shown out of order when TNT ordered a new pilot and different sets and uniforms halfway through the aborted first season. I don’t have strong opinions on the order in which those should be viewed.

I recently asked an author friend about his series. Should I read it chronological or publication order? He said his official answer was that it shouldn’t matter, that he worked to make each of the books sufficiently stand-alone that they did not need to be written in order. My disappointment in his answer must have been obvious in my face because he quickly amended it to say, “But the consensus among my fans is that they should be read in publication order.”

So how about the rest of you? What series have you run into that can – or should – be consumed out of order?