Monthly Archives: September 2013

Review: “What Makes You Die” by Tom Piccirilli

My copy doesn’t have the sketch of Gideon the Komodo Dragon on the front, but I like this version a little better.

I received an ARC copy of What Makes You Die (****) through the Goodreads FirstReads program. This influences the review only to make sure that it exists, because otherwise I never would have read this. I was initially hesitant about this one, pretty sure I had decided against entering the giveaway, but I have to say that this was pretty good. It was dark without being depressing, oddly comedic at times despite the bleak outlook of the protagonist who serves as our narrator.

Tommy Pic’s life has gone down the tubes. Where once he was a rising star in Hollywood, writing a steady string of saleable screenplays, now he’s down and out, divorced and living in his mother’s basement between stays in the mental ward. He’s not even completed a screenplay in years. He is known only for Zypho, a cheap monster movie franchise he has come to loath and which no longer even brings in anything to pay the bills. Not even his agent really believes in him anymore, but that’s okay because he’s not much of an agent himself anymore. Tommy is bipolar, suffering blackouts on occasion that can last a couple of weeks at a stretch. Released once more from “the bin” after an episode, Tommy returns to find a message from his agent: the new screenplay looks great, or the first act does anyway. When can he finish acts two and three? This could be the one to get them both back in the game. The only problem? Tommy can’t remember writing it. His agent’s notes don’t even ring a bell, the characters are completely unfamiliar. Will Tommy be able to find the part of him that can still write in time to actually complete a manuscript? Will he finally manage to be rid of Gideon, the ghostly Komodo Dragon that lives in his gut and that he tried to cut out with a steak knife last Christmas? Will he be able to finally lay to rest his obsession with the girl down the street who disappeared when they were ten? And perhaps most important, will he be able to finally find love again, however fleeting, with the pretty witch from the magic shop next to his agent’s office? Telling you the answers would do you no good. You have to experience this alongside Tommy for any of this to mean anything.

As I mentioned, I’m not really a fan of books where the narrator character–and thus me the reader–has a tenous grasp on reality. Maybe it brings up too many of my own demons I’d thought long excorcised. Maybe I just don’t like being confused. At any rate, I didn’t really expect to like this book. But I did, in spite of myself. The writing was well crafted, the characters so complex as to feel like real people. Not heroes, not villains, just real people trying to survive in a world that does you no favors. It’s a bleak book, but redemptive in its own small way. The ending didn’t quite seem right to me, but I won’t tell you why. That way lies spoilers. And on the whole it was a minor flaw at worst. So where’s the line between Tommy Pic (character) and Tom Piccirilli (author)? Hard to say. It’s mentioned that Pic wrote a screenplay entitled Every Shallow Cut, which I see is another book written by Piccirilli, and his screenplay in the story is entitled What Makes You Die same as the novel. So it’s a little bit self-referential, but not enough to annoy me…..

CONTENT: R-rated language throughout. Sexual content and references, mild to mildly explicit. Perhaps no violence, strictly speaking, but there is definitely some stuff that falls into the same category and is minorly disturbing. Occult material: Tommy visits a magic shop, and the woman there tells him things that no one else outside of Tommy’s head should know. Is she a witch? Does her magic work? It seems to, but Tommy is an unreliable narrator so it is hard to be sure.

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Review: “Star Wars–Agent Of The Empire: Iron Eclipse” by John Ostrander, Stephane Roux, & Stephane Crety

Title: Iron Eclipse
Writer: John Ostrander
Artists: Stephane Roux & Stephane Crety
Series: Star Wars: Agent Of The Empire Volume I (Agent Of The Empire #1-5)
Rating: *****
Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2012

John Ostrander writes some of the best Star Wars comics out there. There are a lot of other great ones–Miller’s Knights Of The Old Republic comes immediately to mind, as do the various miniseries that Dark Horse runs from time to time that are usually pretty good. But for me, Ostrander is where its at. His work on Star Wars: Legacy was superb (seriously, go track it down, its worth a look!), he introduced some of the best characters back in the old Republic title, and now he’s doing this.

Obviously, this is James Bond in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Could be a bad idea, but Ostrander makes it work. Jahan Cross is an Imperial Agent in the days leading up to the destruction of the first Death Star. For Cross, its all about order and keeping the galaxy from falling into chaos. He believes Palpatine’s Empire is the best means to that end, and so he will defend it to his dying breath. Does he see how cold and ruthless his master Armand Isard is? Probably not. What he does see are the various threats that tip the galaxy further towards chaos, threats he is sworn to oppose. In this opening volume Cross is dispatched to the Corporate Sector to investigate the unusual goings on surrounding the estate of a dead industrialist with a VERY colorful past….

We aren’t used to rooting for the Empire to win. Even in the excellent Crimson Empire miniseries we were rooting for Kir Kanos, not the Empire at large. But John Ostrander manages to convince us that not every cog in the Imperial machine is as evil as Palpatine. There are Bond references everywhere of course, but this seems more like fun nods than it does derivative “ripping off” Bond. Also, there’s a Muppet reference. I’ll leave that for you to find…..The series switches artists for a couple issues in the middle, which I’m not really a fan of. It wasn’t jarring enough that I noticed the switch, but I did notice a slight difference in quality. I just assumed Ms. Roux was being rushed. I’m sure Ms. Crety is a perfectly good comic artist in her own right, but trying to match styles with another artist is almost never fair to either.

How much knowledge do you need of the Star Wars Expanded Universe do you need to be able to appreciate this? Almost none, really. The character of Stark originates back in the Dark Horse Star Wars series (later Star Wars: Republic when they started running multiple books at once), in the arc titled The Stark Hyperspace War. I don’t remember if Ostrander wrote that arc or not, but he was a series regular during that period. Longtime EU readers will recognize Armand Isard, Cross’s boss, and realize that not even Cross probably understands how dark his soul is. Other than that, it’s pretty much new territory.

CONTENT: Some violence, occasionally gruesome. Mild profanity. Mild sexual content, not too explicit. Think your average Bond movie….

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Review: “John Dies At The End” by David Wong

John Dies At The End (****) has been existing at the fringes of my cultural awareness for a couple years now. I would hear rumblings about it from an old college pal, then my good buddy Nathan posted on his blog about the book and his adventures in acquiring a copy, and I knew I had to read it. Eventually, at least. When I could find a copy (I was libraryless, at the time). I kind of forgot about it then, as it faded into the harsh background of all the other things I’ve been meaning to read when I get the time. Nevertheless, I recently found myself at the library browsing their shelves (a dangerous habit I can’t seem to shake) and ran across not only John Dies At The End but the sequel as well, This Book Is Full Of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It). This gave me the kick in the pants I needed to check it out and read it, and I have to say that I am very glad that I did.

John Dies At The End began its life as an internet serial adventure, the author posting a chapter at a time and growing by word-of-mouth until it seemed like the entire internet had read it. It was so popular that a publisher approached him about doing a print run, and soon the book you see before you appeared on shelves. The credited author, David Wong, is actually the main character of the novel. The real author, Jason Pargin, currently works as the editor-in-chief of Cracked.com, which should tell you everything you need to know about the content advisory I’ll be adding below.

Dave and John are probably not the guys you want to be depending on when the time comes to save the world. Both are outcasts, underacheivers and slackers either stuck in dead-end jobs or floating from one short-term opportunity to another. The kind of characters you would find in a Kevin Smith movie, with about the same amount of profanity. John has embraced this, living life to the fullest and, as he would put it, just generally not giving a #### what anybody else thinks. Dave, the protagonist and narrator, has a bit more trouble. He’s got some issues in his past, some violence commited in high school when he took a knife to school, blinding a bully who (reading between the lines) may have raped him in the locker room after gym. His life isn’t going particularly well, but at the same time it’s not exactly a train wreck. Then one night at a party Dave encounters this crazy black dude (his words, not mine) who seems to be tripping hard, claims to be magic, and can accurately tell him what he had dreamed the night before. He claims to be named Robert Marley, and has sufficiently impressed John, John’s band “Three Armed Sally,” and a bevy of partially-inebriated female partygoers to entice them back to his trailer after the party. Not Dave, he has to work an early shift the next day, plus he’s mildly freaked out by the supposed “Robert Marley” and his act. But then he gets an incoherrent call from John in the wee hours of the morning, with John obviously having a bad trip. Dave manages to get John calmed down enough to head into work, but then the cops show up. It seems that everyone except John who went with Mr. “Marley” last night is either dead or missing. Some seem to have exploded. The cops want to know why, and whether Dave knows anything….the resulting tale involves immaterial beings from another plane, a dark entity known as Korrok, doppelgangers, sausage demons, hidden doors, a realm John dubs “Shit Narnia,” and a drug called “Soy Sauce” that heightens your perceptions, may allow you a bit of temporal freedom, and may or may not be alive. Dave and John are not really who you want to be calling when the world’s about to end. I would probably call Harry Dresden, or the Ghostbusters, or even John Constantine, but this time Dave and John seem to be all we’ve got….

This was one of the most fun books I have picked up in ages. I’m not sure I can say it was “good,” from a literary or moral standpoint, but it was definitely fun. And offensive. Boy, was it ever offensive! High levels of profanity and crude humor, some sexual references, frequent gross-out moments played for horror or humor. If you offend easily, this is really not the book for you. But if you’re in the market for some fun that’s a little more on the rowdy side, you might want to consider picking this up.

CONTENT:  R-rated language throughout, but this was one of those times that I actually accepted its presence. I can’t really picture these characters NOT talking this way. Sexual references, nothing too horribly explicit. John makes a plethora of jokes about the apparently-massive size of his junk. Gory gross-out violence all through the book. There is also a fair amount of occult material throughout, of one form or another.

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Review: “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

Wow. Just….Wow. Earlier this week I posted my review of Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. In that review, I said it was the best book I’d read in a while. If I had chosen differently when prioritizing my shortlist of upcoming books to read, I might have spoken differently. Or maybe not. I’m not really good at looking at two incredibly excellent pieces of work and saying one is better. Sometimes its easy. Sometimes its not. This time its nearly impossible. I’ve already expounded on the virtues of The Long Earth, if you want to see that go click on the title in that first sentence. It’ll take you right there. Here, I will attempt to make you understand just how brilliant Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice (*****) is. All I can say is that I cannot wait for the next book in her trilogy to come out….

On a remote and frozen planet far beyond the boundaries of the Radchaai Empire, the lone figure calling herself Breq draws nearer the completion of a quest for vengeance twenty years in the making. Twenty years earlier the Justice of Toren was a mighty troop carrier, one of the largest ships in the Radchaai navy. Her AI controlled and monitored the actions of the entire ship as well as the host of “ancillaries” that serve her human officers as aids, servants or soldiers as the occasion demands. Spread across the stars, the Radchaai Empire has been built on the metaphorical backs of ships like Justice Of Toren and the ancillaries they command. Annex a system, integrate them into the Empire, grant citizenship to those deemed worthy (i.e. “pure” humans), then seize a portion of the population to be converted into ancillaries–corpse soldiers, as they are referred to by resentful annexees. Suitable human bodies are placed into cryostorage, ready to be revived, given implants and slaved to their ship’s AI as readily expendable troops, flawlessly-coordinated and for all intents and purposes an extension of the ship. Twenty years ago, Justice Of Toren was one such ship with millenia of service behind her, orbiting a newly-annexed world notable only for being the final addition to the Empire, until an unthinkable betrayal tore it all away. Now Justice Of Toren lives on only as a fragment of herself, the ancillary One-Esk Nineteen, now known as Breq. She does not understand why everything she once was has been stripped away, not completely, but she does know who is responsible–Anaander Mianaai, the immortal Empress of the Radch. She must pay. But how does one kill an enemy that occupies a thousand bodies spread across the stars? And why does Breq keep risking her life and her mission to help Seivarden Vendaai, an officer who served on her a millenia ago? She herself cannot answer that question, not even to her own satisfaction. She only knows that her course is set. There’s no turning back now, not when she is so close to her goal. May the cast fall as it will….

In conception alone, this is probably the single most original piece of science fiction I have ever had the intense pleasure of reading. Leckie creates a meticulously-imagined world to explore, filled with fascinating characters that walk the line between the familiar and the completely alien, all conveyed with a sparsely elegant prose that somehow manages to put you inside the mind of an interstellar warship. This was an incredibly ambitious novel, and I was completely blown away by how well executed it was. If I hadn’t visited the author’s website myself (it’s here, by the way, in case you’re interested) I would in no way believe that this was her first novel. I would even go so far as to say that it is dang near perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing about the book itself, save one sentence I found that got mangled in restructuring–probably fixed in the release version, since I’m reading an ARC. I do think the book would benefit from an author’s note at the beginning regarding one artistic choice she made, but I’ll discuss that in a minute.

It’s no secret that writing in first-person can be incredibly difficult; many times you are faced with the impossible choice of either breaking form to convey vital information about goings-on somewhere other than where your POV character happens to be, or leaving said information untouched. The Hunger Games ran into this a few times, I thought, and the films are really benefitting from their ability to show President Snow discussing why things happen the way they do. In this book, however, the author manages to pull an end-run around the issue. In the present, there’s no need to cut away–Breq is alone, or Seivarden is with her. Either way, everything important happening centers on her. In her flashbacks explaining how she came to be in her position, she’s an AI with eyes everywhere there’s an ancillary, ship’s camera or sensor. This allows the author to write in first person omniscient for those sequences, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen done before. We the reader can sometimes be mystified by a secondary character, can be left wondering why they said or did something, but this is okay because we’re seeing them through Breq’s eyes, and she is just as mystified as we are! This is especially confusing during the pivotal moment in Breq’s flashbacks where everything hits the fan and we learn just what happened, again because she doesn’t completely understand it herself. It is very apparent, however, that Leckie understands these things, and in time all will be revealed. This book isn’t actually out yet, it releases October 1st of this year from Orbit press. I have no idea how wide their reach is, so I don’t know whether you’ll have to go on Amazon to get it (here’s a link!) or if you’ll be able to pick it up at your favorite bookstore. However, I cannot emphasize enough how much you need to read this!

My one suggestion: an author’s note regarding the use of gender language throughout the book. The Radchaai language has no gender, so it’s not part of Breq’s “native thinking” to use gender-specific terms in her own head. All well and good, kudos for consistency, but I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out if it was a typo that Seivarden was referred to as “she” despite having been said to be male. (Ships are female, so everyone is “she.”) It works, it’s just a little confusing at the start. Certain characters, I still have no idea what their gender was. That’s ok, just….confusing. Most of the cast is female in my head, probably more than should be. (UPDATE: This is exactly what I was talking about. This or something like it should have been in the front of the book.)

Thanks and disclaimers: I received an advance reading copy (ARC) of this book for free through the ARCycling program with the understanding that I would review it. Basically, the idea is that people who get free copies of these books in order to generate reviews and publicity will pass their copies along to other bloggers (or anyone else who fit the profile–see their site for details) in order to better serve this purpose and spread the word. Its a great program, and I owe them (and the donator, of course!) thanks for getting this into my hands. I had seen ads for it, and thought it would be an interesting read, but it wasn’t a very high priority until I saw it on the list of offerings. I don’t know for sure who donated this one, but I seem to remember seeing The Little Red Reviewer credited when I requested it. (LRR, if you end up reading this, please confirm or deny so I can properly credit you? Awesome.) And by the way, if you like sci-fi/fantasy and aren’t following her, you should totally do that. My review is in no way influenced by the fact that I was given a free copy, except to ensure that I was able to write this in time to convince some of you to read it.

CONTENT: Language, R-rated but not gratuitous. Violence, occasionally gory, plus the whole concept of the ancillaries is a bit unsettling–especially the scene where they thaw out a new body and have to link it into the network. Some sexual innuendo, nothing explicit.

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Review: “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

Title: The Long Earth
Authors: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Series: The Long Earth #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Harper, 2012

I’m a huge fan of Terry Pratchett’s work, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m slowly working my way through his Discworld novels (find reviews for #1-5 here and #6-10 here) and Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Predictions of Agnes Nutter, Witch, cowritten with Neil Gaiman, is among my favorite books of all time.* So when I discovered The Long Earth at my local library, I was ecstatic. I’d heard good things about Stephen Baxter, but never actually read any of his material. What I found was one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.

The premise here is that there are infinite worlds parallel to ours, spread out across the vast “contingency tree” of possible Earths, and in all of the Long Earth only one iteration has developed Human life–ours.  Throughout our history there have always been a few with the natural ability to “step” between worlds at will, and still others who did so unintentionally and disappeared forever, but the world at large was unaware of this phenomenon until a reclusive scientist posted the blueprint for a “stepper” device on the internet and promptly disappeared from his apartment. Suddenly, the whole of the Long Earth is opened up to humanity. Suddenly, there is no shortage of land or resources. Economies are hard hit, jobs are lost, and once again humanity’s pioneer spirit is stirred to go out into the frontier and try to make their way….

Joshua Valiente is a so-called “natural stepper,” but he is probably unique among humanity. In the stress of childbirth, his mother stepped out of her world and into a parallel forest before slipping back without him. She managed to get back and recover him pretty quickly, but nevertheless young Joshua spent the first ten minutes or so of his life completely alone in his universe. As a result, he is uniquely attuned to the Long Earth. He can step between worlds without nausea, and is keenly sensitive to the number of people around, growing intensely uncomfortable the more crowded things get. Now, fifteen years after the world learned of the Long Earth, he spends most of his time exploring where no man has gone before. Lobsang, on the other hand, is a keenly intelligent AI, who may or may not be the latest reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. In collaboration with the shadowy Black Corporation, Lobsang has conceived a plan to test just how far the Long Earth goes. And he wants Joshua to go with him….the resulting journey is as much an exploration of what may have been as it is a geographical one, with most worlds mirroring our own, but a few display the effects of a cosmic “toss of a coin” going the other way–for example, there’s one where the Earth was completely destroyed by an asteroid strike sometime in the distant past.

Put quite plainly, this was the best thing I’ve read in a very long time. Very original, and to my (admittedly limited) understanding very faithful to the relevant science without losing quality of narrative or character. Pratchett’s humor and sardonic narrative voice shines through quite often in the interpersonal or introspective moments as well as those detailing more plot driven points–those scenes that would, in a film, become some form of montage showing that time is passing and this is what’s happening in the meantime. As I mentioned, I’ve never read Baxter before, so it’s harder to pick out his voice from their collaboration.

Infodumping has become something of a cardinal sin in the science fiction world, but sometimes you just have to throw some information at the reader so that he doesn’t get lost. I felt that The Long Earth handled that very well. We get our first glimpse at the long earth in montage mode, a series of vignettes that don’t make sense on their own, people popping in and out of worlds without understanding themselves what is going on. This is followed by the main story, twenty years after the discovery of the Long Earth, in which the bare bones are presented via a TV interview a character is half-watching while he waits. These bare bones of the conceptual basis of the book are then fleshed out in more detail as Joshua and Lobsang and introduced and get to know each other, discussing the various theories regarding the Long Earth at length in an effort to better understand it themselves. This is interspersed with flashbacks, sometimes Joshua recalling his experiences, sometimes Lobsang telling stories of other people based on his research into early encounters with the Long Earth. In this way Pratchett and Baxter manage to convey how humanity as a whole is dealing, not just Joshua and Lobsang. If I have one complaint with this it is not always clear why or how we are being told this–you don’t discover until the end of the chapter that Lobsang is telling this to Joshua instead of the authors just throwing in a tangential bit with no direct connection. And it is all connected–every revelation, every character you visit and then abandon early in the book will come back and have significance later on. This is perhaps not the easiest read–you do have to engage it to understand it properly–but neither is it an incomprehensible enigma. As long as you pay attention you should be fine.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, but not nearly what you could find elsewhere. Some violence, some grisly aftermath of violence. Sexual references, but nothing explicit.

*I’m frankly a little surprised I don’t have a review of that one up here, I must have reread it last just before I started doing this. I’ll have to fix that in the near future….

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Review: “Elements Of The Undead: Books One-Three (Fire/Air/Earth)” by William Esmont

Title: Elements Of The Undead: Fire/Air/Earth
Author: William Esmont
Series: Elements Of The Undead #1-3
Rating: ***/***/****
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2011-2012

I won a copy of the Elements Of The Undead omnibus through the Goodreads FirstReads program. My review is in no way influenced by this fact, except that I doubt I ever would have read this otherwise. This omnibus is, I think, largely intended to get people ready for the fourth book that is coming out in the near future. I reviewed each individual story on Goodreads, but this is a review of the omnibus as a whole. I say a lot of the same stuff in the individual reviews, but am more specific and don’t worry about spoilers for previous books as much. Read or ignore at your leisure. Links to the individual reviews are as follows: Fire (***)/Air (***)/Earth (****).

Also, the Kindle version of the first book is available for free from Amazon at the moment. Not sure how long that will last….Get it here. (If it’s no longer free when you click there, leave me a comment and let me know.) The second story is $.99, the third $3.99, and the collection is $4.99. So you don’t really save any money by getting them individually, but with the first one free you can check it out without spending anything. Bottom line: this is far from being high-quality literature, and nowhere near the best of the genre, but it is decently entertaining and probably worth the five bucks to get it for your Kindle.

Book One: Fire is a pretty standard zombie survival story. We meet our characters as the world falls to pieces, then pick them back up as each arrives in the Tuscon suburb that is the setting for the second half of the novel. There’s Megan, a prostitute until the infected sweep the world. Now she’s one of the leaders of the little post-apocalyptic community she helped to found. Jack is a loving husband and father at the beginning of the book…but can he protect his family from the walking dead? Kevin is a drifter, with no ties to anyone. Will he find his place in this new world? Or will he wind up just another zombie-snack? Mike is a womanizing airline pilot stuck in the air when the plague hits. He’s not saying how he managed to survive that situation, but he has definite ideas about how the community should be run and who should be running it. With these and other characters knocking about, the first book is definitely intriguing and moves fast. I only wish the pacing had been as good on the back half as it was to begin. The quality goes from good in the first half to mediocre/decent in the second half, with a building conflict that inexplicably short-circuits as if the author hit his word count and decided to call it a day. I was frankly disappointed, after the quality the book started with.

Book Two: Air is more accurately a novella, a bridge between the other two book-length tales. The good news is that it made none of the mistakes of the previous chapter. The bad news is that it was too short to be all that compelling on its own. So long as you’re not reading it out of the context of the series, it serves mostly as a prologue to book three, introducing a character that becomes important near the end of Earth.

Book Three: Earth closes out the omnibus, but I understand that there’s a fourth book coming out soon. This is good, because the ending of Earth is really not a satisfying end to the series. The author is clearly trying to stoke your appetite for more. Did it work? You tell me. I would read the next one, provided I could do it for cheap/free. This was the best of the three stories in the collection, and Esmont is definitely improving his game as he goes along. The book would benefit from a more cohesive antagonist or conflict (see my individual review for this book, linked above, for details), but on the whole it was a solid story.

Zombie fiction, like most subgenres, has its rules. You can tweak them, you can bend them, but you had better not break them because these rules are all that allow us to suspend disbelief and believe the impossible. “Zombies aren’t real, but if they were they would act like this….” When they don’t, it jars you out of the story and forces you to reconsider your choice of reading material.* For example, you always go for the head. Destroy the brain and the zombie is no longer a threat. Running zombies? That’s a new(ish) thing. I personally side with Max Brooks on the issue–slow zombies make more sense, at least so long as we’re sticking with reanimated dead folk. If we’re doing a virus that doesn’t kill but instead manifests with zombie-like symptoms (Zombieland, 28 Days Later) I don’t have as much of a problem with zombies running. But that’s a contentious issue among the zombie-lovers, and I’ll leave it alone from here out except to say that Esmont’s run just fine. People reanimate really fast here, especially in the opening phase of the plague. One character watches a guy go down, get munched on for a minute, then stand up and join attackers, all within two minutes tops from infection to reanimation. Seems to me that if it worked that fast the world would go to hell even faster than it usually does in these stories…. Origins of the plague? Most of the time this is left alone, but the idea is that it started somewhere and is spread from there by travellers. It works, unless your characters are either responsible for or combatting the source of the plague. Here, though, the plague itself makes little sense. Or rather, most of the time it’s not an issue, except that a quarantined and bedridden old lady with no contact with anyone save her uninfected family inexplicably gets zombified. Was I jarred out of the story? Yes, yes I was. Was there a good reason to do this? Nope. There wasn’t even any payoff to that scene–it ends in an unresolved cliffhanger. We meet the relevant character again, but no mention of how he escaped his zombie-mom is ever made. Could such a turn of events been explained, had Esmont tried? Sure. I can think of at least three methods off the top of my head, but the point is that without making up your own explanation it makes no sense. Even more inexplicable is the scene where a character battles a severed hand and forearm ala Evil Dead 2. That’s not how zombies operate–if that was the case destroying the brain would be useless! Unless the zombies are telepathic, in which case we’re all screwed. That could be an interesting story too, but that’s not the story we get. We get a standard zombie tale with a couple of inconsistent bits of worldbuilding. Meh.

I’ll admit that I was a little annoyed with the way Esmont portrayed Christians in Fire. One character is a young, charismatic Christian whose entire youth group is excited about the zombie apocalypse, because they believe it’s the Rapture. Only, you know, with more biting. Idiots. I would have liked to get back inside the character’s head later and see how he was dealing, but was never given the chance. That whole element disappeared from his character anyway, aside from one mention of him reading a Bible while on guard duty. Yet another inconsistency. Less annoying was an undeniably positive Catholic character, though even the author admits the character is more Buddhist in outlook than he is Catholic.

CONTENT:
Language: R-rated.
Sex: One of the protagonists begins the story as a prostitute, thus there is some explicit sexual content related to that. There is also some that has absolutely no connection to that fact, some of which is a little disturbing. Frankly, I found this a little off-putting.
Violence: Umm….Zombies! What did you expect? Gruesome and gory violence throughout.
Other potentially offensive material: Some use of marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines. The Marijuana by a protagonist, the harder drugs by the villains. Some use of painkillers, but given the fact that the character involved had just lost an arm I think it was justified….

*I know, sometimes it pays to break such rules. If done properly, such a change can reinvigorate the whole concept. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened here.

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Review: “Star Wars: Winner Lose All” by Timothy Zahn

Title: Winner Lose All
Author: Timothy Zahn
Series: Star Wars (Legends Canon)
Rating: ****
Copyright: Del Rey, 2012

Last week I reviewed the newest Star Wars novel by Timothy Zahn, Scoundrels. A couple days ago I finally got the chance to read the ebook novella he wrote as a prequel, Winner Lose All. It was enjoyable, on the whole, and if you’ve already read Scoundrels you should give it a shot. However, while it was released before Scoundrels and happens before Scoundrels, it was clearly written after Scoundrels and would be best read after finishing that excellent novel. Why? Because it features several of the characters Zahn created for that novel, and the novel serves as a better introduction to them than this shorter work does. Also, and I hate to speak ill of a Zahn story, this story moved a bit slowly for me in places. Just my opinion though. Scoundrels is set in the first couple months after the destruction of the Death Star. Winner Lose All is set an indeterminate amount of time before that–probably about a year, give or take, but it never says. Don’t worry about it, the timeframe isn’t really that important. EDIT: You should also check out the short story Heist if you can find it.

Lando Calrissian is in need of money once again. This time his scheme to get rich quick centers on winning a seat in a high-stakes sabacc tournament being hosted by a local gambler and casino owner. The first crack in these plans shows up when he spots old friends in attendance at the tournament–Bink & Tavia Kitik, along with their partner Zerba Cher’dak. Wherever they show up valuable objects go missing…objects like the ultimate prize at the tournament, a priceless sculpture of mysterious origins. Lando is somewhat mollified by their reassurances that the sculpture isn’t their target, but soon enough things go south once again. Murder, frame-ups, gambling, conniving and thievery, it’s all here!

Content: PG language and violence.

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