Jumpdrives & Cantrips

The Family Trade
February 17, 2008, 2050
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The Family TradeCharles Stross is best known for science fiction, and in the last few years has published quite a few award-winning books. But The Family Trade is not a science fiction book. It is a fantasy novel at its heart, one which reads much the same as more mainstream suspense novels. Stross sticks parallel world stories, Cinderella-esque inheritance transformations, and The Godfather in a blender and pulses liberally.

The story begins when Miriam, a journalist who covers the tech beat, does two things that change her life. The first is pitching an article about a massive organization-wide cover up that includes money laundering–unfortunately by the same firm that pays Miriam’s wages–and ends with a security escort from the building, pink slip practically stapled to her forehead. The second involves discovering her heritage as countess when she finds out her mother’s locket enables her to travel to a parallel universe. The aristocracy of the new world happens to be deeply entrenched in the organized crime Miriam discovered earlier, and desperate to maintain their world’s non-modernized status quo to maintain their power via the inter-world drug trade.

Stross credits Roger Zelazny’s Amber books as a partial inspiration for this book, and the influence is obvious. However, the family politics and worldbuilding fall flat in comparison to Zelazny’s, which had more kick. I was most fascinated with the hereditary nature of world-walking (the locket simply enables the ability), how Stross portrays it as influencing social relations and how it creates a need for a violent family monopoly. Given the dire warnings that various characters give her and the amount of times people try to kill her, I was surprised that Miriam emerged unscathed. The politics themselves seem clumsy for a family supposedly involved in organized crime and perpetual behind-the-scenes in-fighting.

The Family Trade also has a substantial blindspot in the relationships between characters. I didn’t really buy that Miriam (a divorcee and hardened journalist who–by her own admission–is used to being on her own) would jump into bed with a man she was barely attracted to a paragraph earlier. It’s also curious that Miriam doesn’t try to find out more about her own direct family connections between dodging assassination attempts. Stross’ strengths are in speculating on business and economics rather than character interactions, which makes machinations a little one-sided, and tends to leave emotions on the back-burner.

The focus instead is on logistics, plot, and constantly questioning who Miriam can trust. This makes The Family Trade into a fast read, but there isn’t enough action to justify calling it a page-turner except in the last third of the book. Be aware that the story does not end with a feeling of closure, almost feeling like someone chopped the first draft manuscript in half without constructing a proper cliffhanger.

The Family Trade is a middling to good read that plain and simple lacks the heart to match its cerebral nature. With numerous unresolved subplots, I am interested to read more in this world, but I’m just not sure I care enough to bother.

Stross, Charles. The Family Trade. New York: Tor, 2004. 303 pages. Bargain bin purchase at $4.99 (Canadian).


Little Vampire Goes to School
February 12, 2008, 1514
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Little Vampire Goes to School Joann Sfar, unbeknownst to me, is actually quite famous in the world of comic books & des bandes desinées. I stumbled upon Little Vampire Goes to School (again, in the bargain bin) in the children’s books section and thought it was too amusing to pass up. Little did I know that Sfar, born in France, is apparently “one of the most important artists of the new wave of Franco-Belgian comics,” according to Wikipedia. While I don’t always put a lot of stock in Wikipedia, I have passing familiarity with some of his other titles, such as The Rabbi’s Cat.

The little vampire series is meant for school-aged children (around 8-10 years old), but is an engaging and amusing book even for adults. It follows the adventures of Little Vampire and his dog, Phantomat, as Little Vampire decides he wants to go to school to be with children his own age. The ghosts and monsters living with his family help him attend school by making their own night-time school since there are no classes at night. In these classes Little Vampire starts a correspondence with one of the daytime students in the school via his school workbook.

The original, Petit Vampire va à l’école, was published in France in 1999. I suspect the French would be simple enough that it could be good practice if you’re looking for a low-level graphic novel to get your feet wet in the language. As well, the artwork is simple but appealing, and the colouration draws the eye, despite being spare in parts. The monsters themselves are drawn to be cute rather than horrible, making this a good gift for the perky goffs of the world.

This is a book that does not insult the intelligence of children, but encourages self-reliance and self-reflection. When the daytime student, Michael, gives an oath to protect the dead, the Captain of the Dead notes his oath will be more effective if he makes the sign of a cross. Michael refuses, and has a discussion with the Captain about his thoughts on religion, where the Captain encourages him to think about things a little more. When Michael and Little Vampire discuss this, neither can really figure out what the Captain means, and then abruptly the conversation turns to toys. It’s not all that often that questions of religious belief and philosophy pop up in popular children’s literature, making this a notable book.

While the price is a little steep unless you are fortunate enough to find this in a bargain bin like I did, it would be worth the cost if you have an interest in graphic novels. However, as an adult reader, I did find parts of the translation stilted and the story itself resolved too quickly to justify a full price purchase in my opinion.

Sfar, Joann. Little Vampire Goes to School. Trans. Mark Siegel and Alexis Siegel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. 30 plates, full colour. $20.95 (Canadian), or $3.99 in the bargain bin if you’re lucky…

Iron Kissed
February 11, 2008, 2314
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Iron KissedPatricia Briggs is an amazing writer: not one of her books has been a dud (granted, I did not read her first novel, Masques, but none of the others have been duds), and each one steadily improves upon the last. Her Mercy Thompson series is no different. And this series has spent substantial time on the New York Times Bestseller list, with a spin-off series in the works. No surprise there, as urban fantasy seems to be the “subgenre du jour” and getting a lot of attention because of it.

In Iron Kissed, our favourite coyote shape-shifting VW mechanic enters the Walla Walla Fae Reservation after her mentor Zee secures her help to find a murderer amongst the Fae community. When the murderer is found violently killed by inhuman means with Zee on the scene, Mercy feels obliged to clear her friend’s name. While dealing with human anti-Fae groups and immortal Fae Lords who don’t take well to curious coyotes, Mercy also must juggle her relationship woes. After all, it’s not easy having two extremely dominant, territorial alpha werewolves vying for her love.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that the love triangle is handled somewhat anticlimactically. That said, it is refreshing to see Mercy have the chance to be self-aware enough to analyze her feelings without a) both relationships going to pot and b) having a massive possessive werewolf love showdown. If Patricia Briggs is exceptional at one thing with urban fantasy, it’s taking the genre expectations and looking at them from another perspective. Having the relationship issue decided is a relief in the series, and it will be nice to have a character that can move on to other worries.

There is no end of worries for our heroine, who already had panic attacks relating to the trauma she suffered at the hands of vampires and demons in the previous novel. Near the end of the story a character violates Mercy so completely that it is a wonder she doesn’t go to pieces permanently. Since this is the third book, it makes you wonder how much worse things can get by the time the seventh book rolls around (Briggs is currently contracted for a total of seven Mercedes Thompson books according to her site). This part of the story is handled in a sensitive and honest manner, which impressed me. It’s not often a character’s emotional and thought processes unfold so organically and as deftly as Briggs does with Mercy.

Iron Kissed has a lot of history from the previous two books in the series influencing it, so while it’s possible to read as a stand-alone, there are subtle things that get glossed over without context. But then, I’ve never really been able to start in the middle of a series without being a little cranky about it. Readers of the other two books will notice a notable absence of vampires in this book. This makes me curious what the league of bloodsuckers will do next, as I’m pretty certain they’ll play a central role in the next book.

It’s unfortunate that Iron Kissed flows so naturally from the page; this makes it a quick read, and one that I didn’t want to put down once it finished.

Briggs, Patricia. Iron Kissed. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 287 pages. $10.99 (Canadian).

In the Company of Ogres
February 10, 2008, 1856
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In the Company of OgresA. Lee Martinez seems to be carving out a niche for himself by taking familiar tropes of genre, trying to turn them on their head, and tossing in some laughs. This worked well in his first novel, Gil’s All Fright Diner, which was an amusing and weird little story that massaged vampires, werewolves, zombies, and cthulu together in one. It hasn’t worked well in his second book, In the Company of Ogres.

In the Company of Ogres follows Never Dead Ned–not called so because he never dies, but rather because he never stays dead. Ned would rather die, especially after being transferred from his comfortable accounting job for Brute’s Legion, a massive mercenary organization. Now he’s been made commander of the rag-taggle Ogre Company, whose poor discipline and lack of profitability make them the bottom of the barrel, and has 6 months to whip them into shape–or else. Of course, Ned also has to find out why a magical being called the Red Woman keeps raising him from the dead. Once he does, Ned realises it might be important to not die again as the existence of the world just may depend upon him.

But I didn’t really care about any of that. While the story isn’t such a bad premise for a genre-buster, it isn’t funny. It keeps trying for funny, but the comedy just isn’t quite there. I realize a lot of other reviewers out there thought this book was a side-splitter that left them rolling on the floor beside their overstuffed reading chairs. For me? Not so much. I found it a hard slog to actually finish the book. The humour constantly tries, pushes, prods; to the point where I felt it picked itself up, thrust itself into the air, and attempted to beat me over the head. And it just never got there; it was only able to flutter piteously at eye-level, sometimes veering towards me like a drunken moth. I felt sorry for the poor thing, which isn’t a good relationship for a reader to have with a novel, much less its comedic bent.

So many authors with vastly more experience have already tackled genre-busting stories in fantasy literature that Martinez would almost have to make meta-jokes to succeed with a story like this one. There are no meta-jokes, there is no driving “funny” that kept me reading, and while written with nice prose, it’s just not enough.

And in fact, everything to do with the book is just not quite enough. Martinez’ characters resemble the depth of the rabbi, the priest, and the duck once they decide to head into a bar. They have stereotypical qualities that get locked in place once a pre-programmed situation starts playing out. If they aren’t stereotypical, they are the opposite. It’s really a pity, because these characters, if handled with a little more finesse and black humour might have been extremely subversive. The plot is much the same as the characters. If you’re an astute reader of genre, you probably know where the plot is headed the moment you get tossed a few hints.

I see no point in buying In the Company of Ogres unless you are a massive fan of comedic fantasy. Here’s to hoping Martinez’ next novels have a little more edge to them.

Martinez, A. Lee. In the Company of Ogres. New York: Tor, 2006. 318 pages. $8.99 (Canadian).

Very Bad Deaths
February 6, 2008, 0006
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Very Bad Deaths
I have to confess: I am a horrendously huge fan of the bargain bins at large booksellers. I always check them, and I nearly always come out of the section with some kind of treasure. The last bargain bin binge I went on, I found a copy of Spider Robinson’s Very Bad Deaths. I generally enjoy Spider Robinson’s writing, with the exception of the Callahan series, which simply wasn’t to my taste. His writing is exceptionally distinct, and has an identifiable voice. So identifiable, in fact, that if you are familiar with any of Spider Robinson’s books, you can probably spot one without anyone telling you who wrote it.

His works share a few characteristics: some mention of marijuana, free love, music, puns, and communes (generally in that order). But the most important is a sudden revelation, usually by one character regarding another character that the latter is either a) a time traveler, b) a telepath/empath/etc., or c) an alien. Sometimes this revelation makes no sense to the reader and seems vaguely like a MacGuffin attribute, existing only to move the plot forward (or create a pun, if the piece is short fiction).

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost like stepping into your most comfortable pair of shoes, or your favourite pair of jeans that have been worn in for about 4 years but aren’t yet worn out.

In Very Bad Deaths our main character is Russel, an American ex-pat and writer of an op-ed column for a national newspaper who lives on a remote island outside Vancouver. The realization comes earlier than usual–if you read the summary printed on the book this is no spoiler–that Russel’s old college roommate is a telepath, so sensitive that it hurts him to be around people. And he needs Russel’s help to stop the very bad deaths of an innocent family from a serial sadist, since he can’t get near anyone except Russel. This ends up creating our odd couple within the trio: Russel who tends to fly by the seat of his pants and Nika, the perfectionist police officer, a token officer stuck in the public relations division despite her talents for law enforcement.

Once the set up is taken care of, the book turns into more of a suspense novel with a little police procedural flavour tossed in for good measure. This is not a hard SF book, and in fact, the only thing that separates in from mainstream suspense is the telepath–and even then they can pop up on occasion.

But the beauty of the story is Spider Robinson’s deft writing, engaging characters, and compassionate humour. Robinson is one of those rare authors who can truly craft a gut-wrenching, laugh-out-loud moment on paper and does so frequently. His writing is a joy to read, his description is precise and evokes immediate imagery. As in most of his novels, Robinson provides a book that is an astute commentary on humanity.

In Very Bad Deaths, Robinson is at the height of his form, which is tall to begin with. I suppose I can’t lay the blame on him for fueling my bargain bin addiction, but he certainly hasn’t helped.

Robinson, Spider. Very Bad Deaths. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 2004. 271 pages. $5.99 (Canadian) from the bargain bin.

The Cipher
February 3, 2008, 2029
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The Cipher

It took me some time to work up the guts to grab this book from the shelf. The back of the book looked so good, with so much potential, and a nice cover (the heroine eerily looking like Julia Roberts). It was that exact veneer of goodness that made me question my choice. I read Diana Pharaoh Francis’ previous trilogy (the Path Series) and the first book was very good. But with discontinuous characters and a storyline nearly at odds with the first book’s plot, the whole series fell flat about midway through the second book. So you might understand I have a little anxiety about the follow-through in the coming books in the Crosspointe series.

Even if the next two books don’t deliver, I can say The Cipher gives us a fascinating world with an interesting magic system. Lucy Trenton, a customs inspector who is a minor member of royalty, starts off as a polite law-bound character and comes out of the story as a magical wildcard. Her secret stash of ciphers (objects with magical properties that sometimes curse their finder) and ability to sense magic only add to the conflict inherent to her character. I found the cast of characters interesting, but found myself almost cheering more for the backseat characters than Lucy and Marten, the ship captain with a gambling problem and debt past his eyebrows–and Lucy’s main love interest.

The Cipher doesn’t really start off with a bang despite major events occurring within the first few chapters that stretch your comprehension. If you stick through the disorienting beginning, though, the book has several major turning points that help to maintain interest. Diana Pharaoh Francis definitely takes world-immersion to heart, which is a good thing once you find your footing as a reader. While the kingdom of Crosspointe is fascinating and well-constructed, the invasion of the Jutras is regrettably made into a simplistic moment of antagonistic contact with “the other.” This immediately dehumanizes the entire Jutras culture without giving enough context to justify why to the reader.

There are also some awkward moments; this is exemplified in a scene where Marten does something I consider unforgivable to Lucy in order to exploit her both bodily and otherwise made me cringe throughout the novel. The theoretical repercussions based on Lucy’s character only partly materialize, and I can’t fully believe her acceptance of him later in the plot. However, the ending point still leaves room for her secondary love interest, who is a much more engaging character. If the author didn’t constantly dangle carrots in front of me, I might have given up hope after this first book.

Despite the problems inherent in The Cipher, Diana Pharaoh Francis did a good job of making me ask more questions than I received answers. And while Lucy & Co. manage to save the day, it is a precarious rescue that I doubt Lucy fully understands herself. That is exactly the way to get me interested in the next books, and I’m certainly waiting for publication of the next Crosspointe Novel, The Black Ship.

Pharaoh Francis, Diana. The Cipher. New York: Roc, 2007. 402 pages. $10.99 (Canadian).