September 2008

Dante “Danny” Valente is a Necromance in the Saint City. Her job is to bring back the sprits of the dead for a final chat. Her patron god is Anubis, she carries a katana, and her face bears the tattoos and the jewel of her trade. She’s also a bounty hunter and is known to be one of the toughest in the business.

The setting is a far future Earth where some, rare, humans have started to manifest psionic powers. In addition to speaking with the dead, some psions can heal or use sex for magic. There are also Magi who cast spells and try to communicate with demons. Shamans seem to be similar with Necromances except that they have a loa or two as their patron god(s). The psionic gifts are noticed very early, during a person’s childhood, and apparently then a psion’s destiny is sealed: he or she will serve according to his or her strongest talent or maybe has to become a breeder or is sold in a black market.

The world is high-tech but it’s a technology which does essentially the same things as today but only fancier: hovercrafts for helicopters and airplanes, datalinks for computers etc. The one thing which is different are the slicboards which are essentially skateboards with antigravity tech. Otherwise, the world is pretty much modern USA: everything costs money and everyone’s lives revolve around earning money one way or the other. Even the Mob is still around. The only thing that seems to be really different are the religions: apparently, Christianity lost a lot of followers during and after the Awakening when the psionic people were officially acknowledged to exist.

Both the setting and the characters have a lot of attitude and style which seems to be the main point of both. However, the story is also quick paced and has a few quick twists. Dante herself seems to have more attitude than brains and more luck than skill. She’s very angry or frustrated or generally in a bad mood all the time and still has to relay heavily on her friends.

Dante’s morning doesnät start well. A demon, Jaf, comes to her house and forces her to a meeting in Hell with Lucifer himself. Lucifer has a job for Danny. One of his demons has escaped and taken with him the Egg which could bring about the end of world. Lucifer wants Danny to find both the demon and the Egg. To her dismay, she finds out that the escaped demon is someone she knows: Santino, a serial killer who killed Danny’s best friend, Doreen, a few years ago. Danny agrees to do the job and Lucifer gives him Jaf as a familiar to “help” Danny in her job. Danny, of course, isn’t happy.

Jaf reveals that he’s Lucifer’s personal assassin and could therefore be quite useful to her. He isn’t happy about being tied to an uppity mortal, either. Jaf, or Japhrimel, is the quiet and strong type. In fact, he rarely volunteers any information at all. Danny contacts old friends in order to first track down Santino and then to fight the demon. Her current best friend is Gabriele “Gabe” Spocarelli who is a police officer even though she’s very wealthy. She’s also a Necromance. Despite Danny’s protestations that she works alone, both Gabe and her boyfriend dirtwitch Eddie invite themselves to her hunt. Gabe was the officer in charge of Doreen’s security when she was murdered and Gabe was also Doreen’s friend.

Together the three psions and the demon find out that Santino has moved to another city, Nuevo Rio, where Danny’s ex-boyfriend Jace Monroe lives. Jace is also a Shaman. Nuevo Rio is a Mob city. Danny doesn’t have any choice; she has to follow Santino and avenge her friend.

Danny is such an unlikable character that I’m amazed how she can inspire such friendship and loyal as she does. She’s suspicious of even her friends, acerbic, and crude. But she’s a very interesting main character and proactive which is always a plus. I was also quite intrigued by the changes she goes through and I hope they aren’t going to be just quickly reversed in the next book.

I was a bit disappointed about how Jaf’s and Danny’s relationship evolved. That was way too predictable. I’m also a bit weirded out by this trend (okay, maybe two books aren’t yet a trend :)) of using a species called “demon” and then insisting that demons aren’t evil. Or deceptive. Or out to get human souls to Hell. If you just want an exotic, mythical race which isn’t evil, maybe you could, you know, use some other name for it…? Maybe it’s another twist on using blood-sucking fiends as romantic leads?

This isn’t your average space opera. It does have interesting characters and space ships but also has fox-hunting with horses. The first half of the book is slow paced and introduces the characters and the setting. After about the half-way point, the pace really quickens and more point-of view characters are introduced. Oh, and the main character Heris Serrano is in her forties and has brown skin, despite the young, white woman in the cover.

Heris Serrano is a former military ship captain. She has recently retired in disgrace and wants a new, civilian command as soon as possible so that she can get away from her previous life. Lady Cecilia, who is an old, single, rich woman, hires her to captain her luxury yacht, the Sweet Delight. Soon, Heris finds out that Lady Cecilia’s previous captain hasn’t just been negligent about discipline aboard the ship but also involved in criminal activity. When the ship’s life support system starts to misbehave, it’s clear that the previous captain hadn’t even bothered to keep the ship in good shape. Heris is forced to head towards the closest space station and so disappoint her new employer. The crew or the passengers aren’t delighted about the emergency drills, either. However, during the voyage Heris and Lady Cecilia become friends and Lady Cecilia invites her captain to participate in the fox-hunting on horse back which is a passion and a pastime for some of the more eccentric nobility.

During her younger days, Lady Cecilia was a highly respected and successful event rider. She’s still passionate about breeding horses and riding in fox hunts. Much to her disgust, her sister’s son Ronnie has been forced upon her. Ronnie was involved in a scandal in the court and his parents thought that it was best if he disappeared from the court for a year. So, they decided to send him to the fox-hunting planet and talked Lady Cecilia into taking him there. Lady Cecilia doesn’t expect much from her new captain either, but to her surprise she finds out that she likes and even respects Captain Serrano. So, when things start to go wrong Serrano is the only one she can turn to.

Ronnie is a young man who has been spoiled his entire life by his parents and life as a rich noble. He hates horses and riding, and is convinced that he’s going to be bored out of his skull with his withered aunt. So, he brings with him his equally spoiled and bored friends. Captain Serrano’s arrogant air and especially her middle-of-the-night-drills, which have been of course designed especially to annoy him, infuriate him. He decides to strike back at her through influencing the ship’s systems to go haywire. A bit of harmless fun during a boring flight…

Most of the characters in the book are delightful but I would have wanted to see more of the world. Now we see only tantalizing bits and pieces which aren’t really different from other space opera settings. The one exception is aliens. There was no mention of aliens at all. There was maybe a bit too much attention to details such as riding instructions and ship repair.

Booking Through Thursday

What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read, or was the only book available on a long flight… whatever? What (not counting school textbooks, though literature read for classes counts) was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?

And, did you like it? Did it stretch your boundaries? Did you shut it with a shudder the instant you were done? Did it make you think? Have nightmares? Kick off a new obsession?

Hmmm. I don’t think that I’ve read anything too out of the ordinary lately. (Maybe that’s a bad sign. I should probably read more out of my usual genres.) The book that really opened my eyes to a wider reading world was Roger Zelazny’s Great book of Amber. At the time I was a teenager getting a bit bored by epic fantasy and I had no idea that fantasy could be something else. So, Amber was like a bomb that rekindled my love for the genre. Ever since that I’ve gone to the way of different fantasy and haven’t regretted it. Oh, I read the occasional epic when they catch my eye.

I’ve also had to read some “Finnish classics” at school and it was pretty clear that they really aren’t for me.

This is a fun book. It’s set in China, in the future, and has Chinese demons and goddesses.

Detective inspector Chen works in Singapore Three which is one of the franchise cities in China. The city is huge and bustling, and has also quite a lot of supernatural activity: ghosts, demons, manifestations of goddesses, exorcisms. Chen is the police officer in charge of investigating the supernatural. Unfortunately, most his fellow officers don’t believe in the supernatural and so Chen is shunned by them and even his superior officer doesn’t really trust him.

When a wealthy industrialist’s wife comes to Chen telling that her daughter’s soul hasn’t reached Heaven, Chen takes the case even though his superior stresses that it must be kept quiet. Soon, the industrialist Tang himself phones Chen and Chen agrees to meet him. When the inspector comes to the industrialist’s house, he finds out that a demon has taken over the wife. When the police department’s exorcist, Lao, has banished the demon, the wife lays dead and her husband has fled. Chen suspects that the man knows far more than he tells. He traces Tang to an interdimensional nexus where Tang is keeping the soul of one unfortunate dead girl. There Chen also meets Zhu Irzh.

Zhu Irzh is a detective from the Vice Department from Hell. He got a wind of a smuggling operation from Earth to Hell: someone has been taking the souls of recently dead young girls who should be going to Heaven and snatched them to work in Hell’s brothels’. Vice is interested in the case because it could impact on Hell’s relationship with Heaven and because the brothels’ owners’ aren’t paying their taxes. It’s easier for both Chen and Zhu Irzh if they work together on the case although Zhu Irzh isn’t convinced that the girls’s souls should be sent to Heaven. The industrialist Tang manages to escape and make enough ruckus that the authorities summon an expert to the scene: the demon hunter No Ro Shi. This is, of course, a bit inconvenient for Chen since he happens to be married to a demon.

Inari, Chen wife, is a demon who managed to escape Hell and an arranged marriage with a high-ranking minion in the Ministry of Epidemics. However, she must keep her true nature a secret from everyone on Earth and also evade all attempts by Hell to capture her. She and her familiar, a teakettle which can turn into a badger, usually keep in Chen’s houseboat. But when the demon hunter comes calling, they must flee. Unfortunately, Inari is then captured by a demon and dragged back to Hell.

Meanwhile Chen and Zhu Irzh find out that there’s much more going on than a simple smuggling of souls. Zhu Irzh is temporarily employed by the First Lord of Banking to look into the matter while Chen decides that it’s best if his demonic “partner” doesn’t know much. But when Chen finds out that Inari has disappeared, he follows her to Hell.

The book has a complex mystery story with settings in both Earth and Hell. The world is a very interesting place. Even though most people don’t seem to really believe it, when human souls (or at least the souls which lived and died in the Chinese culture because there are hints that European afterlife is somewhat different) go the Heaven or Hell according to how well the surviving members of the family have dealt with the Celestial and the Hellish bureaucracy. If the right permits are signed and offerings made, a soul should go to Heaven. However, it’s also possible to get special visas for a living human to visit Hell. Chen has one.

There are places that act as nexus between the worlds. Where it’s possible to come from Hell (or Heaven) to Earth and vise versa. Most temples seem to be these and so are funeral houses.

Hell itself is, well, hellish. It’s a bureaucracy which has been divided into several Ministries: Vice, Epidemics, War… The demons work in terror of their superiors and in hope of getting a better job. The overwhelming majority of workers (except for secretaries) seem to be male and the most successful ones have several wives, whom they don’t seem to like much.

While Hell has demons Heaven has gods and goddesses. Chen’s patron goddess is Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion. She demands honesty from her followers which is difficult for Chen in his profession and even more difficult as the book progresses. Kuan Yin considers Hell and demons her enemies so Inari is somewhat of a sore point between her and Chen. Kuan Yin has helped Chen in his previous battles but has grown tired of Chen’s deceptive ways and their relationship is strained at best.

Earth seems to also have more sophisticated technology than our current one. The newest craze is biotech where humans are the central processors of a sort for cell phones and internet connections.

The book has a fairly leisurely pace which fits both the tone and the story. In addition of Chen, Zhu Irzh, and Inari, there are two other point-of-view characters but they come along a little bit later.

Contains Annihilation: Silver Surfer 1-4, Annihilation: Super-Skrull 1-4, and Annihilation: Ronan 1-4.

The second book follows the adventures of three different characters: Silver Surfer, Super-Skrull, and Ronan (the former Accuser). I’m somewhat familiar with the Surfer, mostly from the pages of Fantastic Four, Infinity Gauntlet, and other cosmic comics but Ronan I’ve only seen as the Avengers’ enemy and Super-Skrull as the FF’s enemy.

The Surfer encounters a world which has been destroyed and starts to look for the destroyer. He finds Gabriel, another former Herald of Galactus, who is fighting Annihilus’ Seekers. The Seekers’ job is to find and capture the former Heralds so that they can provide more power to Annihilus. Surfer, of course, fights back. Meanwhile, another former Herald of Galactus, Terrax, is attacked by another group of Seekers.

The Super-Skrull is looking for a way to stop the Annihilation wave from reaching the Skrull home world and killing his only son. However, his current employer who is one of the many Skrull warlords fighting for dominance doesn’t agree. The Super-Skrull is forced to fight his way out the warlord’s star ship and flee. One the fleet’s young technicians rescues him into a stolen ship and together they head towards Earth. The Super-Skrull knows the Annihilus is behind the destruction and reasons that Annihilus must have quite a few enemies on the Negative Zone and some of them might want to help Super-Skrull defeat Annihilus. To reach the Zone Super-Skrull needs, of course, Reed Richard’s machine so they promptly break into FF’s headquarters.

We also find out that most Skrulls despise the Super-Skrull because “backward humans” have defeated him so many times. Super-Skrull is therefore a mixture of angst and old warrior.

The third part centers on Ronan who has been tried and convicted of treason. So, he’s an outcast. He has a recording of the trial and is hunting for the witnesses so that he can interrogate them about why they lied about him. He tracks the third witness to a planet where he encounters other outcast Kree who are trying to start a new life. However, Ronan refuses to join them and prefers to continue his quest to clear his name. They are promptly attacked by two women who call themselves the Graces. The women are a part of the local warlord’s band of enforcers. The warlord in question is Gamora.

For some reason, I didn’t like this trade as much as the previous one. Maybe it’s because I don’t know much about the characters and the overall plot didn’t really seem to go forward. I’m also more familiar with Gamora since I’ve read the Infinity Watch than any of the main characters. However, I thought she was clearly out of character; she used to be a good guy and here she is, trying to prove that she’s still the “Deadliest Woman in the Universe” (I can’t really articulate how ridiculous I find that title…) and carving a bloody place for herself. The band of women, however, was clearly in her style. On the plus side, there’s a woman is full power armor! Probably a first for Marvel.

Surfer had completely new enemies who where ridiculously overconfident. I was rather intrigued by the Surfer’s story’s ending, though.

Booking Through Thursday

Autumn is starting (here in the US, anyway), and kids are heading back to school–does the changing season change your reading habits? Less time? More? Are you just in the mood for different kinds of books than you were over the summer?

As I said before: no.

I’m listening (once again) through my audiobooks of the Vorkosigan saga and decided (finally) to write a review of them. It’s really a shame that the two prequels to the series, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, aren’t available on audio. Warrior’s Apprentice is also the first book in the collected edition of Young Miles.

The Warrior’s Apprentice is the first book to feature Bujold’s perhaps the most famous main character: the ever-energetic Miles Vorkosigan. He was subjected to a deadly toxin while still in his mother’s womb and because of that he’s very short and has very brittle bones. Yet, he’s a very charming and engaging character especially because he comes from the culture from the planet Barrayar which is very dedicated to the military service and health. Many view Miles as a mutant and spit on him (some quite literally). Miles is also the only son and heir of the second most powerful man on the planet (after Emperor Gregor) which makes his deformities very visible. Miles wants very badly to live up to his father’s reputation as a both military and political genius.

So, despite his physical handicaps Miles has determined to get into the Barrayaran Imperial Military Service. He has passed all of the written exams with flying colors and the only thing left is the physical exam. If he can at least complete it, he’s going to be a new cadet. Unfortunately, he lets the other candidate’s taunting get to him and ends up breaking both of his legs in the obstacle course. After a sever bout of depression, he has to think of something else to do with his life.

Shortly afterwards, his grandfather dies and during the funeral Miles gets the idea that he should stop being an embarrassment to his father (as Miles himself sees it), at least for a while and leave the planet to see his mother’s mother on Beta Colony. He should take, of course, his scary, border-line psychopathic but unwaveringly loyal bodyguard Bothari with him. Miles also insists on taking Bothari’s 17-years old daughter Elena who is Miles’ good friend and the object of his day dreams. Bothari has planned out his daughter’s life for her: a dowry, a respectable marriage with a military man… Miles rather disagrees with that.

Soon enough they land in Beta Colony where Miles promptly rescues an intoxicated pilot and ends up buying the pilot’s star ship. Unfortunately for Miles, he doesn’t have that much money but manages to scam long enough. In order to actually buy off the ship, he takes up a valuable cargo into his new ship and blasts off just before the outraged former owner can press charges. Unfortunately, the cargo is valuable because it has to be delivered into a war zone. Miles’ biggest problem is the mercenary fleet which is blockading the wormhole his ship has to jump through.

Warrior’s Apprentice is a very fast-paced space opera. While is does have it’s own share of technology, such as space ships which jump routinely through wormholes, it concentrated on the more human side of things: characters, their interaction, culture clashes… The tech isn’t the main point and the book is very much character centered instead of plot or setting centered. While Miles, as the only point-of-view character, hogs the center stage most of the time, the other characters are very interesting as well. Sergeant Bothari with his life-long traumas (which the readers of the prequels know about far better than Miles) and his obsession to make his daughter the quintessential Barrayaran maiden. Elena who wants to please his father but also to have a life of her own. And many others. Some of them will become recurring characters in the later books and acquire more depth and history.

This is first in the Jani Kilian sci-fi series.

This was a rather enjoyable surprise. First, Jani is in her forties. Second, she suffers from back pain and stomach problems so she seems more, well, human than most heroes.

Captain Jani Kilian is a woman on the run. She has been hiding in the furthest planets from the nexus of the galactic Commonwealth. Years ago, she was involved in the try out for humans moving in to one of the cities of the alien idomeni. While the idomeni look very much like humans, their culture and behavior is quite different. The idomeni desire order above all and they consider lying abhorrent. They consider humans to be both chaotic and deceitful but where persuaded into trying co-existence. Unfortunately, the try out ended in a blood-bath and all of the humans involved are thought to be dead. Jani is the last of them and she is still wanted for multiple counts of murder by both humans and the idomeni.

Even though the try out was a failure, currently some humans and idomeni do live in the same cities but in different parts of the cities and their relations as strained at best.

Jani had been hiding successfully for many years but her time is slowly running out. She was very seriously injured in the fighting in the idomeni city and her left arm and leg had to be replaced with synthetics. The synthetics are almost numb and she has developed a limp and back pains because of the false leg. Also, her brain has been augmented for survival and human brains haven’t been designed to withstand that. Usually, an augmented person has to go through check ups every couple of months and a mental purging annually. Jani has started to develop hallucinations about her dead underlings and sometimes her augments don’t kick in when they should.

Because she has to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice and be on guard against attempts to capture her, she has to work for low pay and can’t really develop friendships.

Evan van Reuter, Jani’s former lover and now the Interior Minister of the Commonwealth, has managed to track her down and is offering a job for her. Evan’s wife died three years ago and there are still persistent rumors that Evan himself was behind it. Evan wants to hire Jani in her role as a documents technician to go through the files and to clear his name. At the same time he tries to woo her back him. Jani isn’t too thrilled about either of the prospects but agrees reluctantly to look into Evan’s wife’s death. Unfortunately, that means going back to the very heart of the Commonwealth, Earth, and right under the very nose of the police forces looking for her.

When Jani finds out that her old idomeni teacher is the idomeni ambassador to Earth, she almost changes her mind. But it’s too late: she has already been introduced to Evan’s chief aides and a very nosy butler who turns out to be a spy. Jani enjoys foiling his attempts to get information from her during the trip. Later she encounters him in a very unexpected place.

When they come to Earth, Jani finds out that nothing about the job is easy. There are more secrets than she ever would have believed connected to the death. She also has to confront her bloody past and what she had to do in the idomeni planet. And to make things worse, there’s a virulent disease spreading around the colonies and Jani’s stomach has been upset for some weeks now.

The idomeni ambassador is the second-point-of-view character and he has his own designs about Jani’s future.

The book is very fast paced. I had some trouble with how quickly people started to trust Jani and agree to do even illegal jobs for her. Then again these people weren’t exactly the most law-abiding people around in the first place.

The cultures in the book have been well done. There’s the elitist Earth who is trying to control the much more numerous colonies on other planets while looking down on them. The idomeni are disturbed by the human’s chaoticness and only the charismatic influence of Jani’s former mentor can convince the idomeni to continue to keep in touch with the humans at all. And yet even he is a former criminal and apparently many idomeni consider him to be tainted by the humans. I’d love to see more of the cultures involved.

I was also intrigued by some of the technology. For example, the document technicians have scanpacks which are used to verify the validity of the documents. The packs are made from the technicians own brain cells.

After a couple of chapters I wasn’t even bothered anymore by the cognitive dissonance of Jani’s name: Jani is a male Finnish name and her nick name Jan is a Swedish/Finnish male name.

Booking Through Thursday

Today is the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I know that not all of you who read are in the U.S., but still, it’s vital that none of us who are decent people forget the scope of disaster that a few, evil people can cause–anywhere in the world. It’s not about religion, it’s not about politics, it’s about the acknowledgment that humans should try to work together, not tear each other apart, even when they disagree.

So, feeling my way to a question here … Terrorists aren’t just movie villains any more. Do real-world catastrophes such as 9/11 (and the bombs in Madrid, and the ones in London, and the war in Darfur, and … really, all the human-driven, mass loss-of-life events) affect what you choose to read? Personally, I used to enjoy reading Tom Clancy, but haven’t been able to stomach his fight-terrorist kinds of books since.

And, does the reality of that kind of heartless, vicious attack–which happen on smaller scales ALL the time–change the way you feel about villains in the books you read? Are they scarier? Or more two-dimensional and cookie-cutter in the face of the things you see on the news?

Well, I’ve never been really into “terrorists as the main villains”-books, or movies for that matter. So, in that way they haven’t really changed my reading habits. I noticed, though, that I’m also not very interested in books which have no humor or light moments but just endless suffering for the characters.

As for the villains… We don’t really know the reasons why the terrorists do what they do. Oh, we hear the reasons they or their leader mouth, but we can never really know why they themselves do it. Is it because they have been raised to hate certain people (and if so, why don’t everyone raised that way become a terrorist?)? Is it peer pressure? Pressure from family or leaders? Sheer desperation? Or sheer conviction that you *are* right no matter what anyone says? That your or your leader’s interpretation of text, of world events, of other people’s motivations are the only right ones? Or a certain combination? Or something else?

So no, I don’t think the existence of large-scale terrorism (or our grown awareness of it) has changed the way I view fictional villains. Actually reading more and more complex books changes my views of fictional villains. After all, real people are always more complex than fictional ones so they can’t really be compared.

By Busiek, Anderson, Blyberg, Sinclair, Ross

This trade has one long story arc and one unrelated story. Busiek combines many classic elements here: a young man coming to big city and growing up, mysterious hero, citizens and the authorities being suspicious of superheroes, and aliens. He manages to pull it off enjoyably.

A teenage boy Brian Kinney comes to Astro City head full of stories of heroes and dreams. He becomes a waiter and sees the heroes up close in their bar. However, he soon gets a ticket to a more upper-class place where the heroes wear evening jackets instead of masks. When a bitter villain attacks the place, Brian gets a chance to show a little bit of the hero inside him. Soon enough, he is recruited by one of the city’s most enigmatic heroes: the Confessor. The Confessor teaches Brian detective skills of seeing the patterns around him and finding what is out of place. Brian puts the skills to good use as the Altar Boy, the Confessor’s sidekick.

However, soon there’s a tide of suspicions against the heroes. One of them is accused of turning into a villain and another’s anti-religious statements are used against her. Things start to look bleak for the heroes.

While non-powered Altar Boy and his mentor the Confessor battle mostly muggers and looters, there are glimpses of more cosmic and large-scale battle going on in the background. I don’t know whether to be pleased or frustrated by this. 😉 I do like my cosmic battles but then again I don’t like just battles all the time with no character development (hi there, Marvel!).

At first I thought that the Confessor was just a redone Batman and I was mildly amused that his relationship with his sidekick was the opposite of the closeness of Bruce and Dick. Boy, was I blown away when his secrets were revealed! Very nicely done.

Although, I was quite frustrated how very few female heroes this world, too, seems to have when even teenage boys without any powers at all can put on a costume and battle muggers.

Next Page »