Monthly Archives: April 2018

Review: “Down The Dragon Hole,” by Morgon Newquist

Title: Down The Dragon Hole
Author: Morgon Newquist
Series: The School of Spells and War #1
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Silver Empire, 2016

If you’re looking for a quick, fun read, might I suggest giving Morgon Newquist’s Down the Dragon Hole a try? It’s not a full novel, clocking in at only about forty pages, but it’s definitely entertaining and I plan to read the other four novellas currently in existence. You can find it on Amazon for $2.99 as of this writing, or you can sign up to write a review through BookSprout and get a free ARC copy if that’s your thing. (EDIT: This was a limited-time offer, apparently. I missed the chance to read the next several of these for free.) It’s possible that the couple typos and errors in word choice I ran into are fixed in the Amazon version, but I can’t verify that one way or the other.

Alis is a librarian in the magical side of the legendary School of Spells and War. It’s a quiet existence, doing what she’s good at and not putting her in any undue danger of adventure…until the day she tries to make an idiot warrior stop standing on her shelves yelling about a dragon. Not that Cahan hurt her – he’s far too honorable for that, or for her liking. It’s just that he was right. Before Alis can finish reprimanding him, the wall explodes in dragonfire. Alis and Cahan find themselves trapped, with nowhere to go but out the new hole in the wall. Now Alis is trapped outside the school (which has gone into bunker-mode) with the idiotic warrior who she grudgingly has to admit is not at fault for the dragon’s arrival. That doesn’t mean she has to be happy about his company…but with nothing better to do, she agrees to help him solve the mystery of why a dragon from the age of myth is suddenly flying around the countryside. Unfortunately, the dragon isn’t the only magical monster to return from the depths of myth…

This first entry in the series isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be. The world the author creates here is as of yet a fairly generic fantasy world – there’s magic, but for some reason magical creatures have largely been relegated to the days of old…until now. Then there’s the school, old enough that it was the only school around when it was founded, not really needing a name and so now just referred to as the School of Spells and War. Bit of a trope, but these things are tropes for a reason. The noble warrior Cahan and the timid but surprisingly brave and capable wizard-librarian Alis are not at all static characters, as Alis especially evolves and comes out of her shell over the course of the story, but they are straight out of central casting. The dragon is pretty standard, though the Formless are less common. Maybe a D&D thing? I haven’t had the chance to explore that the way I’d like. Are all these stock elements a problem? Not for me. I expect to get to know these characters a bit more in the future chapters of their story, and like I said, tropes serve a definite purpose. I enjoyed this little romp, and I can’t wait to revisit this world.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can remember. Mild violence and peril. Mild sexual innuendo (Alis announces that she’s not having sex with Cahan immediately before agreeing to help him figure out what’s going on, for example). And in case you didn’t pick up on this, there’s magic of the standard fantasy variety, nothing remotely resembling the occult.

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Review: “Star Wars: Leia, Princess of Alderaan” by Claudia Gray

Title: Leia, Princess of Alderaan
Author: Claudia Gray
Series: Star Wars (Canon)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Disney Press, 2017

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Star Wars geek, and thus it was practically inevitable that I would read this book. Almost as inevitable that I would like it. I’m easy that way. Even so, this is a high-quality Star Wars book, and a must-read if you want more of an insight into Leia’s character. As part of the lead-in to The Last Jedi, it also drops some hints about characters and locations that we would later see onscreen–most notably the abandoned Rebel base on Crait and the character of Amilyn Holdo. Is it essential for that purpose? Not really. We barely see Crait in the book, and the differences between sixteen-year-old Holdo and the character she would grow to become onscreen are very stark (which isn’t to say that this isn’t relevant to the events of that film – more on that below). It was fun to get a glimpse of a younger, less-sure version of Leia, however, and there are several moments that really add to the characterization of both her and her parents. As part of discussing this book, there will be spoilers for The Last Jedi. Sorry, but that’s unavoidable. Go see it already!

We meet Leia as she turns sixteen, formally taking up her role as crown princess of the planet Alderaan. In order to take up that role, she has to perform three challenges – one for her mind, one for her body, and one for her heart. This proves to be harder than she thought, however, as the galaxy is becoming an increasingly scary place. Her challenge of the mind is to serve in the apprentice legislature on Coruscant, vital training for taking up her father’s role as Senator, but it soon becomes clear that the tasks the Empire funnel their way will have dire consequences for innocents across the galaxy. Her challenge of the mind is to fund philanthropic mercy missions to those in need, but those in need are often those being oppressed by the Empire, and the Empire doesn’t take kindly to her meddling in their business. With her parents increasingly busy and distracted with affairs they refuse to discuss with her, Leia feels alone and lost. Her challenge of the body proves a welcome distraction from these weightier issues, however, as she trains with a group of fellow delegates her own age to climb the mountain overlooking the palace. Leia particularly becomes friends with Amilyn Holdo, a somewhat loopy young woman obsessed with astrology and death, and Kier Domadi, a shy but handsome fellow resident of Alderaan who wants to be a historian. Will Leia be able to navigate the intricacies of Imperial politics without either destroying the lives of innocents or being accused of treason? Will she somehow manage to restore her close relationship with her distracted parents? Will she find love? Read on to find out!

This was, in a word, excellent. Claudia Gray has a lock on Leia’s character, as revealed both here and in her previous Star Wars novel, Bloodline. Anyone who is interested in getting a better look at Leia’s formative years should look no further. We get an early look at the icy calm that falls into when things go badly (turning her icy calm following the destruction of Alderaan into character development, not a fault in the script for the original film), explanation of Vader’s comment about mercy missions, and the beginning of her animosity with Tarkin. Also explored is the early days of the Rebel Alliance, with Bail and Breha Organa, Mon Mothma, and others all striving to shape the policy that will define their movement. This is a transitional period between the collection of senators we see meeting in Revenge of the Sith and the nascent Alliance featured in Rebels and Rogue One. 

Will this appeal to folks who aren’t fans of Star Wars? Frankly, no. The book relies on you knowing what has come before in several scenes, and what will come later in others. You need a solid grounding in the movies, at least the prequels and A New Hope, and Bail Organa’s character will have more depth if you’ve seen The Clone Wars as well. Plus, the whole fact that this is somewhat laying the groundwork for The Last Jedi. There’s foreshadowing and dramatic irony galore, from the heartbreakingly ironic final line of the book (I won’t spoil it) to a moment that calls back to the end of The Phantom Menace to nearly give a side character a heart attack for reasons that are a complete mystery to Leia but are quite clear to anyone willing to connect a couple dots. Holdo largely exists here to backstop her character and help explain why Leia trusts her so much in The Last Jedi, but she also has a central role in some of the events of this tale. Unlike the icily serene presence she will grow into, however, here Holdo’s characterization is basically Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series – loopy, obsessed with things like astrology and mortality, and dressed in the most ridiculous manner possible. New character Kier Domadi, on the other hand, is introduced here to contrast Leia’s eventual romance with Han Solo. Domadi is the “anti-Han,” polite, refined, humble, and respectful. The only thing they have in common is that they would die for Leia with no hesitation. Given that he appears nowhere else, I’ll let you guess how that romance turns out. Bottom line: this isn’t going to reveal any secrets you can’t live without, but it will help you better understand the characters and events of later stories.

CONTENT: Mild innuendo – there’s some kissing, maybe an implication that things go further, but this is a YA novel. It’s not at all explicit. Mild violence, never gratuitous, though occasionally heart-wrenching emotionally. PG-grade profanity.

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Review: “Altered Carbon,” by Richard K. Morgan

Title: Altered Carbon
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Series: Takeshi Kovacs #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2003

This is probably the most interesting idea for a science fiction story that I’ve encountered in quite a while, and if you can handle all the grimy, squalid detail of this cyberpunk masterpiece, I heartily recommend it. On the other hand, this is pretty solidly in the noir category, so if the staples of that genre are going to put you off, maybe give this one a miss. And yes, I did go find a copy of this as a result of seeing trailers for the Netflix series. I’d never heard of it before! Not sure how that happened, but I’ve rectified it now.

By the twenty-fifth century, mankind has conquered death. Everyone on Earth is implanted with a cortical stack, a small disk at the base of your skull that stores everything that makes you…well, you. Your memories. Your consciousness. You. You die, they download your stack and stick you in a new “sleeve” or body…if you can afford it. Most can, at least once, but aging takes a toll. At the end of the day, most people refrain from more than a couple lifetimes. There are, of course, exceptions. The truly rich can afford to clone themselves and keep a small stock on hand for emergencies, complete with a period off-site stack backup in case of catastrophe. These fortunate few are referred to as Methuselahs or “Meths” by the masses, after the biblical figure who lived nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and most view them as slightly inhuman. To be sure, watching a few centuries of history march by does give most of them a slightly different take on the world and society – they tend to disregard the “little people” even more than the rich and powerful here in the twenty-first.  Of course, this societal revolution has impacted literally every element of the world. Travel? Beam yourself across the stars instantly and have them sleeve you in a new body halfway across the galaxy. Or across the globe, if you’re really impatient. Prison? Nope. Criminals are simply stuck on the shelf for the length of their sentence, their bodies sold off as bargain sleeves unless a loved one can pay to keep it mortgaged. Your sentence is over, you get resleeved into whatever is available. You went in as a twenty-year-old black man? You might come out a middle-aged white guy, or vice versa. Murder isn’t as much a thing, since “you” are your stack, not your body, and thus far more durable. Cases of “real death” do occur, but mostly it’s “organic damage” and the victim can be resleeved in time to testify about their own attempted murder.

This is the world of Takeshi Kovacs. Once a crack UN Envoy, specially trained to be sent all over human space to fight minor wars, now Kovacs is a mercenary and a criminal for hire on the fringes of the Protectorate. After dying in a hail of gunfire on Harlan’s World, Kovacs understandably expects to be on ice for a century or two. Instead, he finds himself resleeved on Earth. It seems a Meth, Laurens Bancroft, blew his own brains out a couple weeks ago…or at least that’s what the police report says. Bancroft, now in a new sleeve, doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t remember the night in question, but he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t try to kill himself, and if he did want to kill himself, he’d have done it right so he couldn’t be resleeved. If Kovacs manages to figure out who actually had Bancroft killed, he’s a free man in a designer sleeve on whatever world in the Protectorate he desires. If he fails…well, that’s not a good idea. Kovacs might be inclined to take the police at their word – every single piece of evidence points to Bancroft vaporizing his own head – if not for their stubborn resentment of his presence. Not to mention the hitman who knows his name and (new) face on a world he’s never visited in his life. Someone doesn’t want Kovacs to find out the truth, which means that there’s truth to find. Tipping him off to that fact was their first mistake. Pissing him off was their second. They may not get a third….

As I said before, this book was superbly executed. The worldbuilding is spot-on, and I can’t think of a single arena where Morgan didn’t think through the implications of the tech he was unleashing on his fictional world. There are throwaway lines left and right that hint at a larger world and history at play here, and I want to explore them all! I wasn’t a huge fan of the religious subtext, though. Morgan is pretty anti-religion here, especially Catholicism. The Catholic church has decided that your soul cannot be separated from your body, and so resleeving yourself is forbidden. And since there’s no special provision for an alternative punishment, Catholics that are sentenced to any time in storage – even a week – are as good as dead. Reasonable bit of extrapolation there, given real-world trends in Catholic doctrine, but Morgan (through Kovacs) is really vitriolic on the subject. It’s also a huge plot point, as Catholics make perfect targets – they can’t be resleeved to testify at trial, so you’re likely to get away with whatever crime you commit against them. Thus, there are several brothels that unofficially only hire Catholic girls in case they have to make them disappear. (No word on how prostitution can be made to square with their beliefs.) Protestants aren’t mentioned, though I think that debate within my branch of the church would grow rather heated as well. Muslims don’t come off well either, especially in Kovacs’ flashbacks to the fighting on an Islamic world, Sharya.

CONTENT: Strong R-rated profanity throughout. Graphic violence, including virtual torture where a character is downloaded into a mainframe, in a simulated female sleeve, and repeatedly raped, beaten, and mutilated to death, only to have the system reset. This isn’t described in great detail, but is pretty disturbing nevertheless. Graphic sexual content, including the torture scene described above. Some pretty heavy drug and alcohol use – fictional drugs, not describing the effects of anything that actually exists (to my knowledge), but still. Bottom line: not for kids or the faint of heart.

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