Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Guest Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Today's review comes to you from Jason Letts, author of the Powerless series and The Inevitable Trilogy. I thank him greatly for contributing this review.


The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is a rich dystopian fantasy that seemed to sit perfectly at the intersection of a number of interests near and dear to my heart.

To understand everything going on in this story of power and survival, a reader must have a hand in a number of different pots. In the near future, the world has coalesced around Bangkok as its thriving epicenter. Those familiar with current events will know that Thailand is tagging along with India and China as a surging developing country, and so it’s interesting to think about how it could have not only leapt ahead but flourished while current economic powers decline. Despite an acknowledgement in the end notes that this is not the case, future Bangkok seems an awful lot like present Bangkok, the crazyness of which compelled me to leave it after just one day while traveling the country. Poverty and commotion at the bottom compete with warring government agencies at the top for the prize of which aspect of society is the least stable. It’s a wonder the country managed to peak at all, but apparently they found a way.

Much of this has to do with the growth of genetic manipulation as an industry that both combats and creates a number of futuristic plagues: cibiscosis, blister rust, Nippon (Japanese) genehack weevil. These words complement a textual language that is both challenging to grapple with and sometimes slow to trudge through. Language fans will encounter a handful of Thai and Japanese words, travelers will meet with Thai names and places that must either be looked up or glossed over, science buffs will face some scientific concepts concerning calories and joules that add depth to how society functions, and everyone will have to slog through noticeable typos and errors that occur way too frequently (I read the Kindle version). Altogether, the thick prose always gives you something in the way of color and only occasionally drifts into the realm of over-writing.

Because of plagues that lead to famines that lead to starvation, the creation of new food sources is critical. At the beginning of the story, Anderson, an American businessman operating in Thailand, wants to get his hands on the next big genetic creation.

The story shifts between several points of view, and a lot happens before we finally meet the title character, Emiko, a Japanese “Windup.” The fun for the first quarter of the book was trying to figure out exactly what she is. Where is the line between machine and human? But figuring out what she is occurs simultaneously with severe scrutiny over what she stands for. Emiko is essentially a sex slave, which to a large degree is the purpose of her creation. Maybe it’s just because I lived in Japan for two years, but I think there’s a very special place in the Western consciousness for Japanese women as sexual objects. The author does a good job of linking cultural perspectives to characters, but I found more to resist in the insistence that we feel sorry for her. She is obviously the crux of the story, and her growth constantly comes in conflict with the premises for her creation and behavior. Although I could go along with most of it, I’m sure there’ll be more than a few readers for whom she slides into contradiction or cliché. She is the most problematic part of the story, but if you can buy her (no pun intended) then everything else will work great.

I did have a wonderful time with the story, which was both elaborate and expansive. The characters were interesting. I felt invested in the unfolding plot even though there were still some things that went over my head. I’m satisfied with the ending. Overall, a good reading experience.



Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: A Sliver of Redemption by David Dalglish

Rating: 5 out of 5

This is a special review, so let’s start things off with some reflection.

I first reviewed The Weight of Blood by David Dalglish in July of 2010. It was my first foray into fantasy in years, and I didn’t know what to expect. I walked away from the experience in a state of wonder. I didn’t know that a world populated by orcs, elves, and dark magicians could be so captivating, could mean so much. I immediately fell in love with the characters. I understood their background, their point of view, and found it to be, overall, a much more than solid (not to mention valiant) story.

From there I went on to The Cost of Betrayal, and if I hadn’t fallen in love with Dalglish’s unique voice before, by the time I reached the end of that second novel I was hooked. The emotion was palpable, the plot complex, and the message was clear.

This was a story with something to say, and it did so in spades.

The following two books, The Death of Promises and The Shadows of Grace, I plowed through. Though very well done in their own rite, they never quite reached the very high bar that Dalglish set with Betrayal. Not to say they weren’t fantastic stories – they were – but there was just something special about that second book, something that grabbed hold of me and took me down a path that made me care about these characters – their actions and contemplations, their failures and victories – more than any reader really should. By the time I wrote the review for Grace, I’d made up my mind that as talented a storyteller as David Dalglish is, there was no way in hell he could top what he’d achieved so long ago in a book that at the time I stated was one of the five best books I’ve ever read.

So here we are now, and I’m going to tell you that he has surpassed himself. The list has changed, folks, for the narrative that unfolds in A Sliver of Redemption, the fifth and final novel in the Half-Orc opus, is second to absolutely none, including that aforementioned special second book. Hence, it has replaced Betrayal on my list of great novels.

The story of Redemption begins, as always, with the resolution of the cliffhanger from book four. The god Thulos has been released into the world of Dezrel, and he’s in a sour mood. His arrival forces our heroes to retreat and regroup, as they now find themselves faced with the nearly insurmountable odds of having to fight not only the followers of Karak, the god of order, but also an army of demons with a War God on its side.

Qurrah, the miserable half of the brothers Tun, continues on his quest for salvation, which began halfway through The Shadows of Grace when his batty girlfriend Tessanna gave birth to their stillborn child. His doubt in himself only grows here, as he’s forced to confront not only war demons but those inside himself, as well. This is a man who’s inflicted immeasurable horrors upon the world, a man who’s slaughtered the innocent, including (in a roundabout way) his beloved brother Harruq’s own daughter. He doesn’t understand why Harruq should forgive him. Hell, he doesn’t know if he could ever deserve forgiveness. And yet forgiveness is what he’s given, and this turns out to be the impulsion for him to look deeper into himself than he ever did before. What we have here is Qurrah stripped of all pretenses as to who he is. For the first time in the entirety of the series he’s naked, and what he sees in himself he loathes.

As for Harruq, our big lug of sanctity continues on his own quest for forgiveness. What Qurrah fails to realize is that Harruq forgives him because he’s been forgiven, as well. It doesn’t matter that Harruq’s transgressions all occurred four books ago, that his personal body count is thousands upon thousands less than his brother’s. Murder is murder, sin is sin. Just because one individual carries this out on a large scale and another on a much smaller one doesn’t matter. Harruq understands this, and he gives his brother the grace that his understanding (and integrity) demands.

The forces of good hunker down for the coming fight. There are new allies made and old allegiances rekindled, all while Thulos is hard at work recruiting added reinforcements to his army, for the portal to his own world is closed and cannot be reopened. These scenes in between battles are actually the best in the book until the end, as this is where the seeds of Qurrah’s redemption are planted. We get to see all the characters come to grips with their love and loss, we get to see them hesitant and doubtful, we get to see them as real people with the weight of the world on their shoulders. No one is spared from this – not the wizard Tarlak, not paladins Jerico and Lathaar, not Deathmask or Veliana. Not even King Antonil himself is spared. They all have their moments of weakness, and we’re left hanging as to whether the choices they make end up being the correct ones.

The groups end up separating, with most heading up to Mordeina to reclaim the city from Karak’s followers. Qurrah stays behind with the army from Omn, to protect the Bloodbrick Bridge. This is one of many battles that take place in the novel, but it gets special mention here, because this is where Qurrah earns his redemption. It is also, without a doubt, the most perfectly illustrated action (or chain of action) sequence that Dalglish has ever written.

The fight is long and drawn-out, with Velixar guiding his undead, the human army Thulos gathered, and the demon army. It is rife with ingenious strategy, drawn-out stalemates, and edge-of-your seat action. This may sound like a contradiction, but even the sluggish procession of time held me rapt at attention. There are twists and turns, times you feel the heroes will fail, times you think they’ll win, and then it seems certain they’ll fail once more. All this is encapsulated in what might be the most breathless sequence of events I have ever read.

And yet through it all, the entire battle – and I mean all of it – is encapsulated by Qurrah. Finally, after more than four hundred thousand words worth of him faltering and hating his own existence, he shows the intestinal fortitude to sacrifice himself for his fellow man. He wears himself to the bone and refuses to quit defending his charges, even when things seem most dire. When the battle finally ends, when he’s given everything he can (and then some), he goes on to offer up the last gift he has left. It is a moment of selflessness five books in the making, and he goes about it with reserve and respect, much like a hero should. Some would say, “finally!” to that. This reviewer, understanding the nature of his character and the unfortunate circumstances of his life, simply let out a cheer and said, “YOU ARE FORGIVEN.” This was Qurrah’s moment of glory, his chance to not repeal all his transgressions, but pay for them. And pay for them he does.

However, this being a David Dalglish novel, Qurrah’s work is not done, and neither are his trials. After all, this guy did bring about virtually every hardship the peoples of this world experienced. You’d be kidding yourself if you thought the author would take it easy on him.

In the end, the city is retaken and a final, massive battle is waged at the gates (and above) Mordeina. I said the battle of Bloodbrick was the most perfect battle Dalglish ever wrote; if that is true, the siege of Mordeina is by far his most epic. There are uprisings and mythical creatures, both heavenly and not. There is heroism aplenty and seething vengeance to be had. This all plays out over only thirty pages, and yet it seems so much bigger than that. The writing here is amazing. There are no wasted words, no extraneous descriptions. Everything just flows. The whole series has boiled down to this very moment, to the time when the cruel forces of Karak, now joined by Thulos, face off once and for all against the magnanimous armies of Ashuur. The payoff is brilliant, and also foretold. If anyone remembers the stand at the gates of Veldaren way back in book three, it serves as the perfect presage to what happens next.

I’m tempted to say that words can’t describe how good this book is, but of course I’m now writing a review, so that in and of itself is a lie. But trust me, it’s wonderful, the best Dalglish has ever written. The emotional threads aren’t only equal to those in The Cost of Betrayal, but actually surpass them, which I thought impossible.

And yet it is not sorrow that I felt as I swallowed these themes. There were no tears of mourning shed, no shudders while I held my family close. Instead there exists a pervasive sense of kindship, of hope, both for the loved ones now passed on and those whose lives we’ve written off as worthless. There is one particular scene towards the end that brought real tears to my eyes, for it is among the most beautiful and bittersweetly hopeful events I’ve ever read in literature. It made me think of my own past, my own lost loves, and wish I would have the opportunity to relish in their presence once more, if only for a moment. In a real way it is confirming the importance of our lives; in a selfish way, it allows us to feel wanted, to feel that we’ve done well with what we’ve been given, and gives us the confidence to move on.

In the past, when writing reviews of these books, I’ve gone out of my way to describe (sometimes in annoying detail) the religious premises presented within. On this occasion I will only say that good wins out over evil, though evil as Dalglish describes it is sometimes hard to define. There is not a single character that has no virtues (well, maybe one, but I’ll just forget about him). Even Velixar, the prophet of Karak and the biggest antagonist in the novel, is in many ways a sympathetic character. He has given his life (and unlife) to the one he believes in, and he actually believes he is doing the right thing.

Here’s the conundrum; both major religions of the realm are incomplete. Both have positive and negative points. Sure, the positive is exaggerated in Ashhur’s followers and the negative in Karak’s, but let’s be frank here – both sects have their failings. The truth of the matter is, there needs to be order, even in forgiveness, and there has to be mercy in ardor. This is why I have a sneaking suspicion that the tale of these two opposing gods is nowhere close to being finished. I hope they someday do find a resolution, because honestly, when and if they do, it might be the most perfect belief system ever created.

But that’s almost beside the point. This story – hell, this whole series – isn’t about warring gods, even though that was the backdrop. No, it’s about two underprivileged kids who go in opposing directions. It follows their failures and triumphs, their mistakes and good decisions. It’s about love, family, friendship, trust, and sacrifice. Though disguised as a work of dark fantasy, I don’t think I’ve ever read a series that ended up having such a positive message as this one. It’s a triumph of literature. I tell you this much in complete honesty. And A Sliver of Redemption is more than a final novel; it is, in many ways, a philosophical text, a learning tool. Through it one can learn of the goodness, the beauty, the love that exists in the world, even through layer after layer of ugliness. We can examine our relationships and see that there is no correct way to go about it, be it the idealized bond between Harruq and Aurelia, the journey of pain and loss between Qurrah and Tessanna, or the call to righteous duty that both joins and divides Lathaar and Mira (Tessanna’s twin goddess). And what is the one thing that binds them all together? Love. Love allows them to overcome the greatest of odds, to make the difficult decisions, to look past each others’ failings and choose the path most righteous. Yes, my friends, at the end of the day it is love, between lovers, brothers, family, friends, and allies, that wins the day.

And it is with great love that I call A Sliver of Redemption the greatest book Dalglish has ever written. Hell, it might be the best he’ll ever write in his lifetime. The emotion is real, the cost is high, and the payoff at the end is both satisfying and hopeful.It's the perfect end to a fantastic series, by all means the best set of stories I’ve ever read. In the eyes of this reviewer, it even blows away The Dark Tower, which I adored. And when I say blows away, I mean there isn’t a comparison. None. Nope. Not even close.

I can’t think of a more fitting end to this review than that.

Plot - 10

Characters - 10

Voice - 10

Execution - 10

Personal Enjoyment – 10

Overall – 50/50 (5/5)

Purchase A Sliver of Redemption in the following formats:



Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: Tempest by Holly Hook

Rating: 4 out of 5

There seems to be a growing trend in young adult fiction where the love story is the main crux of the plot. The main characters do grow in these instances, but their growth is charted by their feelings for the “other” in their lives. The hero or heroine therefore becomes defined by this other and fails to be a viable personality any longer. They turn into puppets on the strings of love and lust, and any real change they experience is nullified because the journey isn’t a personal one. Take the fictional example of Hannah and John. Hannah has no self-esteem. She meets John, who thinks she is a fantastic person. Hannah is now filled with pride and a sense of purpose – not because she has done anything to deserve this newfound confidence, but strictly because John says she should. It’s an artificial way to build character, the easy way out. And as it pertains to real life, it doesn’t last.

Because of this, I feel thankful any time a young adult book slides into my inbox that bucks this trend. Tempest, a wonderful slice of innovative fiction by Holly Hook, more than fits the criteria.

Tempest is the story of Janelle, a sixteen-year-old girl whose mother is long dead and whose father has recently moved them from Michigan to sunny Florida. Janelle is a brooding, generally unhappy youth. She misses her friends back home and suffers from a serious lack of communication between her father and her. She seems angry at the world, but in fact this is simply the result of being firmly tied to her convictions. Her outlook on right and wrong is solid in the usual teenage I-know-the-world-and-my-parents-don’t-see way, and she holds tight to these threads of morality like a barnacle clings to a rock.

At the beginning of the story, when a hurricane is plowing along the Florida coast, Janelle is dumbstruck by the fact her father seems wholly unconcerned. She cries out against him, asking why he should seem so cavalier in the face of impending danger, and yet her father offers her no explanation other than to say, “Trust me.” She is understandably flummoxed. His action (or lack thereof) only adds to her distrust, causing her to dive even further into the net of her own principles.

As the novel moves along, and be warned that there may be some **SPOILERS** here, Janelle comes to find out that she is descended from a long line of Tempests, which are basically human hurricanes. There is a list of names, and whenever a Tempest’s name comes up, it is their duty to jump into the ocean, become a swirling mass of destruction, and assist in the regenerative circle of life and death. In other words, these people are living forces of nature. When Janelle discovers this she is horrified – she cannot deal with the prospect of taking life and causing others hardship. So she does the only thing she can think to do – she runs away.

There is a very linear plot here. It surges forward in a straight line and doesn’t let up. We are introduced to the Tempest culture, which is pretty well thought out and quite original. Janelle meets Gary, a waifish kid of her own age and “special talent” who she naturally falls for. (Thankfully, this aspect of the story comes across naturally and is not a driving force.) We meet up with the Tempest leader, a wholly evil woman named Andrina, who has a plan for Janelle and might be much more to her than originally thought. There are attempts at mind control and unsavory plots unveiled, and everyone involved – Janelle, Gary, her father, and a whole host of other characters – must hurry to put things back in their natural order before Janelle’s time comes up.

This book deals with some very poignant issues, not the least of which is the danger of secrets. Is withholding the truth ever a good idea, especially when said truth would completely change one’s definition of themselves? When is it harmful? Do parents have a duty to their children to be completely forthright in disclosing information about their history? And, on a greater scale, would the world at large be ready and accepting if they were to find out that there’s a “different” group of people out there, folks with much more power than the normal human could ever experience?

There are no simple answers to these questions, and refreshingly, the author doesn’t try to answer them. Instead she puts the reader through scenario after scenario, showing how this lack of disclosure effects the characters at a personal level, and allows the reader to make up their own mind. This lack of pretension is a most welcomed tool for Hook to use, and allows her work to feel that much more accessible.

The other main thread that weaves through the plot is common to the genre – that of finding oneself. Thankfully, the device implied at the beginning of this review is not present here. Janelle grows on her own, makes her own mistakes, stays true to who she is, and grows naturally (or as natural as one who’s a living hurricane ever could.) Even when presented with the dire facts of her existence, she still goes through the proper channels – anger, distrust, sorrow, and finally acceptance. And it is with this acceptance that she truly shows her mettle, for Janelle is the only true hero in the entire story, the only individual that cherishes all life, even those that may wish to harm her. The others…not so much. The story goes to some surprisingly dark places and makes some very interesting observations about the human existence. One of the questions posed is one for the ages – is the life of one worth more than the life of many? There are righteous answers to both sides, and we see both here in full force.

With all these good things that went on this book, I still have one major complaint. Andrina, the big baddie in the tale, isn’t a well fleshed-out character. There were some attempts made at making her seem like a well-rounded creation, but they fell flat. She talks like a Scooby-Doo bad guy and comes across as more clownish than frightening. If the author had extended the book just a little bit, allowed us to see Andrina in a more vulnerable state, then perhaps this might be different. But as constructed, she’s a one-note character, and simply not up to the standards set by Janelle and her father.

Also, the writing is a bit off at times. The book is written in third person, but told from exclusively Janelle’s viewpoint. We’re so immersed in her that at times the story felt like it was being told in first, which threw me out of rhythm a bit. To my mind, it would have worked much better to either go the first-person route or by limiting the amount of character invasion into the text to italicized sections. Something that can definitely be fixed later on.

And here’s where we get to the crux of the review. Later on. I say that not as if this book needs extensive editing – it so does not – but because I’d like to see this go on as a series. I’d love to see the author grow along with her characters, as she takes them on new adventures and throws new obstacles in their way. With the brilliant mythology Holly Hook invented, there is no limit to the storylines she could incorporate. Now, I’m not sure if this is going to be a series or not, mind you. But it should be.

In all, Tempest is a wonderfully brisk read full of angst and self-discovery. Most of the characters ring true and are decently realized. The innovations are fresh and invigorating. I would most certainly recommend this book to anyone, or to anyone’s teenagers. It’s a good start, and by the end we’re left with

the feeling that things are just going to get better from here.

Plot - 9

Characters - 7

Voice - 7

Execution - 8

Personal Enjoyment – 9

Overall – 40/50 (4.0/5)

Purchase Tempest in ebook format for the:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


We here at the Journal (which is really just me) have a special announcement.

David Dalglish, whose books I absolutely adore, has just released the follow-up to his best-selling novel, A Dance of Cloaks. Go out and buy this book, people! I for one can't wait to read it when it shows up in my mailbox, because Mr. Dalglish never fails to send me review copies of all his work.

Enough of me, now. Read up on this book below:


“Veldaren aches for a purge, and I will be the one to deliver it. Cry out at me if you wish, but it will change nothing. The gold is spent, the orders are given. Let the blood flow.”


It's been five years since Haern faked his death to escape the tyranny of his father. He has become the Watcher, a vicious killer who knows no limits, and whose hatred of the thief guilds is unrivaled. But when the son of Alyssa Gemcroft, one of the three leaders of the powerful Trifect, is believed murdered, the slaughter begins anew. Mercenaries flood the streets, with one goal in mind: find and kill the Watcher.

A DANCE OF BLADES by David Dalglish
Peace or destruction; every war must have its end.

Now available for the Kindle on Click here, or the cover image, to buy yourself a copy. Trust me, it's worth it.