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Review: “Control Point” by Myke Cole

“Control Point” is Myke Cole‘s debut novel, and can be described as military fiction with magic (though that doesn’t really do it justice). From the publisher’s website;

All over the world people are ‘coming up latent’ – developing new and terrifying abilities. Untrained and pan­icked, they are summoning storms, raising the dead, and setting every­thing they touch ablaze.

US Army Lieutenant Oscar Britton has always done his duty, even when it means working alongside the feared Supernatural Operations Corps, hunting down and taking out those with newfound magical talents. But when he manifests a rare, startling power of his own and finds himself a marked man, all bets are off.

On the run from his former colleagues, Britton is driven into an underground shadow world, where he is about to learn that magic has changed all the rules he’s ever known … and that his life isn’t the only thing he’s fighting for.

Since my current project took a slight turn towards military sci-fi, I figured that this would make for useful reading (it also helped that Howard Taylor’s review, where I first heard about it, was so glowing). Of particular note is the fact that the author has a military background, so he writes from his own experience. However unbeknownst to him, I read this immediately after Patrick Bury’s “Callsign Hades” and Patrick Hennessey’s “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club” – both non-fiction accounts by British officers who served in Afghanistan, both excellent, moving and terrifying accounts of life in the armed services during conflict. So how would “Control Point” compare? As it turned out, very favourably indeed. It’s one thing to experience something, it’s another to be able to write about it coherently and engagingly, and the author’s portrayal of an alternate military works very well.

“Control Point” starts just as the action is about to kick off, but then instead there being a lull, maybe some exposition and some build-up,  we’re propelled through more action, danger and anxiety – just like the back of the book promised. Eventually there’s a break for us to catch our breath, but by that point I was thoroughly invested both in the world and the characters – I needed to know what would happen next, and that’s about the best thing an author can do.

The characters are well-developed. Possibly the protagonist swings a little too much between serving and rebelling, but then considering what what he does and what he has done to him in a very short space of time, expecting him to always be calm, considered and rational simply isn’t realistic. Real people change their mind. Real people think something is great one day and awful the next. Real people deliberate and agonise about what the best – or least bad – thing to do is. Real people make mistakes – terrible mistakes – and still try to keep going and recover. (Hint – terrible things happen.)

The magic system is polished. Some of it I’ve seen before in one form or another, but it’s well written and more importantly, thoroughly thought through in terms of its impact not only on civilian and military life, but also on indigenous peoples. As you’d expect, this world building adds crucial depth and believability. It also has limitations, or rather, it can be limited, which has some interesting consequences in the book.

Sequels are in the works – a cause for relief and great joy.

Learning Points

Pacing: in several sections the action is relentless in the best possible way. Pacing is essential for any book if you want to carry the reader through all of it, but I realised after reading this that pacing isn’t just about keeping up momentum but building it up in the first place. Maybe that’s obvious, but seeing it demonstrated never hurts.

World building: the author has used the classic technique of starting each chapter with a quote, and in this case they’re from fictional U.N. reports, or interviews with soldiers with an opinion on magic, its uses or its users. Even though they’re part of the fiction, they help to flesh out the world. The point is that if you take the modern world and add a complete game-changer – magic in this case – you need to think through the implications. I think this is probably the most important part of world building, and the author has done an excellent job.

Characters: real people make mistakes, change their mind, all that stuff. We don’t want our heroes to be just like us, but a “perfectly heroic” hero just wouldn’t be believable either, and frankly wouldn’t be very interesting. No problems, no story – whether that’s within the character mind or in the outside world.

Review: “Peace and War” by Joe Haldeman

“Peace and War” is an omnibus collection of related works by Joe Haldeman. I’d picked this volume up as I was looking for good examples of military sci-fi. From the publisher’s website:

Together in one volume for the first time ever; his classice novel of epic future conflict, THE FOREVER WAR, its sequel FOREVER FREE, and the companion novel FOREVER PEACE.

William Mandela is a reluctant hero, drafter to fight in a distant interstellar war against unknowable and unconquerable aliens. But his greatest test will be returning to Earth. A few months of his tour of duty equate to centuries on his homeworld, during which he becomes increasingly isolated from the world he has been fighting to protect
Mandela returns home for the last time – to find humanity has evolved into a group conciousness which excludes him. Alone, alieneated and missing the certainties of combat, he and his fellow veterans search for an escape – and finally look towards space.
A war is raging, fought by indestructible machines operated remotely by soldiers miles away – and for soldiers like Julian Class, war is truly hell. So when he and his companion, Dr Amelia Harding, uncover something which could take the universe back to square one, the prospect isn’t so much terrifying, as terrifyingly tempting…

Since there are three parts to the omnibus, I’ll break up the review to match.

The Forever War

This book’s concept is fantastic: humanity has faster-than-light travel, but a few months in transit can mean centuries elapse back home. With every mission, the protagonist find himself further and further away from the civilisation he’s trying to protect, in a war without any particular purpose, against an enemy with which no one has tried to communicate. The senselessness of the conflict plays off powerfully against the feeling of being adrift in time; a relic of the past to his own people. The lens through which the reader experiences this is Mandella’s growing relationship with one of the other first recruits from the start of the war, who goes through the whole conflict with him – right up until the end, when orders take them in different directions, and consequently towards different centuries.

I enjoyed this book very much. The concept behind it meant that the only constants are the protagonist and the war, the aptly-named Forever War. Despite the story spanning thousands of years and even the witnessing of humanity’s evolution in the process, the author keeps us with the protagonist, as he inevitably experiences disorientation and as he clings to his lover. This is also his motivation through the book – survive, and stay with her.

Forever Free

This is a rather curious follow-up to The Forever War. The majority of the story concerns the protagonist and a rag-tag bunch of humans, seeking to escape from their dreary existence into the future in the hope that it will somehow be better. This is a rather lengthy build-up to what we assume will be the main event – seeing the future about which  Mandella has been dreaming throughout the book.

What actually happens is a little bizarre – they are forced to abandon their trip through time after it has barely begun and to limp back home, only to find that everyone – everyone – has disappeared. This necessitates a trip back to Earth to try and find the cause of the mystery.

I didn’t feel that this book delivered on its promises. After so much build-up to Mandella and the other humans taking this trip through time to see the future, the book instead delivers a few chapters on surviving in an abruptly abandoned colony and then a trip to Earth where the cause and the solution to their problems is – literally – deus ex machina. Admittedly, it’s a moderately interesting version, but I just felt that the story went in an abruptly different direction to what I expected, and then had an ending forced upon it. No foreshadowing, no plot twists – just a twist, that has no actual relevance to the rest of the book. Frustrating.

Forever Peace

I enjoyed this book more than Forever Free, but it has several problems for me.

Firstly, the point-of-view switches between first person and third-person omnipotent. This was jarring the first time it happened, and while I did get used to it (since the switches happened with increasing frequency), it made for a strange read. One moment I’m in the protagonist’s head, the next minute I’m not only viewing the story from without, but I’m being given information that the protagonist can’t know. It feels clumsy after The Forever War (written entirely in first).

Secondly, there are no chapters in this book. Scene breaks, sure – but no chapters. Initially I couldn’t work out why this bothered me, but then I realised: I wasn’t getting any sense of progress. I didn’t feel like I was progressing through the book, but simply moving from scene to scene. Maybe this was an intentional effect on the author’s part, but once I’d noticed it, I didn’t like it.

Thirdly, the plot of this book was also somewhat marred by its execution. There are some great ideas here, and some excellent writing about the effects of war on its participants – even those who are only present through “soldierboys”, remotely controlled units whose operators have had “jacks’ installed into their brains. However, the actually arc of the story only seems to start halfway through the book, and again without foreshadowing. I suspect the author was trying to build a picture of the protagonist’s mental state of mind before commencing with the plot, but I consider this an error. The author’s writing kept me interested in the world and in the protagonist, but not because the plot was advancing.

When finally the plot gets moving, the book suddenly kicks up a gear. However, it suffers a similar problem to Forever Free, in that the ending comes about quite suddenly. There is at least foreshadowing, but perhaps not enough.

Although…maybe I’m being unfair. On reflection I think that this book is, at its heart, about the internal struggles of the protagonist and the horrors of war. I can’t help thinking that this would have come across more strongly without large swathes written in third person. The power of the book was sacrificed for plot, and both suffered as a result.

As A Whole

This is an omnibus of highs and lows. Good characterisation, inconsistent plotting. Excellent concepts, flawed execution. The author excels at putting feelings into words, but his story arcs left me unsatisfied for the most part.

What Can We Learn?

  1. Mixing perspectives is to be undertaken with the greatest of care. Done poorly, it can ruin the reader’s experience.
  2. Plot twists should, upon reflection, make sense. It’s unsatisfying to have a story suddenly lurch off in an unexpected direction without explanation through plot or character development.
  3. Deus Ex Machina. Just don’t. If you’re going to use this, please disguise it well.
  4. Story, story, story. It’s like a shark – it has to move forward or it dies. If you’re a really good writer, then maybe I’ll come with you for half a book while your protagonist goes about his business and is tortured by what he has to do, but eventually I’m going to get tired of waiting for something to actually happen.
  5. Don’t break your promises. If you spend half the book saying, “We’re going to do X whatever happens!”, at some point you’d better take the reader to X, and preferably before the end of the second act.

If it seems like I’m being harsh of the author, it’s only because The Forever War set my expectations so high. If you pick this up, consider skipping the middle book and you’ll probably be reasonably satisfied.

Film: The Raid

I am literally just back from the cinema from watching “The Raid“, just released in the UK. Wow.

I’ve seen a lot of martial arts / action movies. Some old, some new, some classic, some total garbage. There are some of which I have sung endless praises and held up as examples of how heart-pumping action should be done; “Ong Bak” springs to mind, for example.

“The Raid” has eclipsed them all.

It’s not just because the action and choreography is visceral, fluid and all-too believable either. It’s because the director knows when to pause and build tension. He let’s it build, build, build, then it explodes with a ferocity I’ve seldom seen on screen. Then we pause again to catch our breath before the next wave.

The plot is non-existent, the characters are forgettable, and none of that matters. Instead it’s a kaleidoscope of stylish violence, set to an appropriate (and well-produced) soundtrack that knows exactly when to shut up for tension’s sake. It’s a film where less is more, and more is more.

Speaking of sound, the film actually made sparing and interesting use of surround sound. I urge you to see this in the cinema, but prepare to squirm in your seat, to wince and briefly look away from the scene. Then, at the end of it all, you’ll leave the cinema breathless, exhausted and damn well satisfied.

Top marks, Mr Director. More please.

Review: “The Name Of The Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss

I’ve been meaning to pick up “The Name Of The Wind”  by Patrick Rothfuss for some time. I’d heard that it was written in first person but framed in third, and that it was just brilliant in general. But would it live up my expectations?

Yes. Oh yes indeed.

I could summarise the story as; young boy’s family and community are wiped by out by demons. Wizard school follows with promises of revenge, plus love interest.

I could do this, but I really, really don’t want to because it would be slanderous to the author. Even the suggestion makes me ashamed.

Therefore, instead of such a sub-standard synopsis, here is the back cover blurb;

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.

The back cover and the first chapter promise much, and the book goes on to deliver in spades.

First, there’s characterisation. Rothfuss’ characters live and breathe. I felt as though they really had lived their own lives; they had their own perspectives, their own agendas, their own demons. For a book written almost entirely in the first person, this is quite a feat.

Second, there’s worldbuilding. Rothfuss is a master of subtly here. Careful thought has gone into every aspect of the world, but because it all seems so normal to its inhabitants and because the interesting elements aren’t being thrust in your face, the details sink in gradually over time.

Third, there’s plotting. The protagonist’s behaviour, desires, and solutions to problems are entirely consistent with his life experience. So consistent, that someone reading with a writer’s eye might think it a little convenient. That suits me just fine, though – if the protagonist were to pull something out of nowhere, and it was just because of a hole in the plot that needs patched, then I call that plain lazy. My guess is that Rothfuss agrees, eschewing patchwork storytelling for weaving the narrative well to begin with.

Fourth, there’s the craft. The third-person framing around the main story appears only very occasionally, yet the tone and style of the main piece reminds you that someone is actually relating this tale. This could have been done poorly, but Ruthfuss has a deft touch. His protagonist will agonise over words when trying to describe his lost love, and occasionally glosses over details that aren’t relevant to his delivering an autobiography. The frame and the picture are not separate, if you like, and again this draws in the reader.

The end result is a story that’s desperately beautiful, even when the protagonist has hit rock bottom for the umpteenth time, especially then, and all the time you’re aware that the tale is building, and building. In Rothfuss’ world, his hero is the subject of many tavern tales, but none are as exciting as the hero’s own biography.

Patrick Rothfuss has me under his spell. You owe it to yourself to read this.

Review: “Bad Luck And Trouble” by Lee Child

I bought “Bad Luck And Trouble” by Lee Child quite by accident, at Waterstone’s West End in Edinburgh were offering it as some kind of branded reprint for a few quid. A novel featuring an ex-military protagonist fitted my project plans, so I decided to buy it for research. (Note: support your local bookshop!)
I’d never read any of Lee Child’s books, but the praise for the character and the book was high indeed. So, did the book deliver on its promises?
Kind of.
Plot-wise, at the end of the day it was well-crafted, with some twists and turns that kept me guessing. I did find it a bit slow to get going though, which surprised me. I think it was because for the first chunk our hero, Reacher, was getting his gang back together. Maybe if I’d read more Reacher beforehand, this would have been really cool, but for it wasn’t addressing the plot. I was reading through it to get to a point where things would start happening.
Character-wise, I found Reacher a bit flat. Not in terms of history—I thought his back-story was pretty good, although fir me his post-service history was less plausible. I mean, seriously? The guy has a bank account but he doesn’t even have a rucksack? He isn’t even prepared for inclement weather, despite his army training and mentality? It felt contrived, like the author wanted Reacher to be a drifter but still needed a way for people to contact him without involving something like email.
Actually, I think I found the ex-army characters all a bit too polite. All the ex-servicemen I’ve met (and I admit it’s not many, but it’s more than none) weren’t exactly silver-tongued cavaliers.
Setting-wise, I rather liked some of the touches where Los Angeles and Las Vegas are described. Having never been to either, I still felt that I had a good sense of each place.
Overall, I think this book could have been made punchier by cutting down what I felt was an intro. It had some good elements, and when the plot got going it was rather exciting, but perhaps the author found it difficult to fill a whole novel with it. I can see how on paper the plot would look like a single piece, but I found that once the main threat was identified, I didn’t care about what had come before, like it had just been preamble. I almost feel guilty for being down on the book, because I did enjoy it, but I was promised a roller-coaster ride a tough, uncompromising protagonist, and I’m afraid I didn’t really feel like it got that.
Take-home point: make sure the plot elements at the start of the book still feel relevant at the end, and that it doesn’t fee, like they could have been summarised in a couple of chapters.

Review: “The Allow Of Law” by Brandon Sanderson

I had the pleasure of meeting Brandon Sanderson at a reading in Edinburgh, and I’ll be honest, I’m a fan. This isn’t really an impartial review, therefore, but more a description of what I enjoyed in Brandon’s latest novel in the Mistborn series, “The Allow Of Law“.
I was intrigued by the idea of a fantasy universe which had been allowed to evolve after the (first) trilogy had concluded. The story could be labelled as a western, and it’s interesting to see how the events of the trilogy have become mythology in the “aftermath”, and how the various magic systems have Integrated into a society with firearms and steam engines. I can easily imagine this being done poorly, but in this case the transition is seamless. The theme of metals being important to magic comes through strongly—you feel that it’s part and parcel of everyday life, from slang terms through to someone running an election campaign on the basis of their immunity to emotion-altering magic!

So the message here is: it’s all about the worldbuilding. Irrespective of time period, if you admit magic into your world (and actually this applies to sufficiently advanced technology as well), what are the ramifications? If there aren’t any, then the magic or tech risks being irrelevant. Worse still, the story could veer into deus ex machina territory, and that is rarely (if ever) satisfying. Also, the ramifications can manifest in subtle ways as well as the obvious. Actually, it’s an automatic source of conflict—between the haves and have-nots, and conflict is the life-blood of writing.

The book also has a “surprising yet inevitable” climax. I saw the foreshadowing of what would happen much earlier, but was so swept up the action that I completely forgot about it. That takes skill, and it true was a forehead-slapping moment for me. Satisfying.

If I have a criticism, it’s that I’m not aware of Brandon having plans for a sequel, and the ending had me begging for a sequel. Maybe that’ll happen with the next trilogy, when that happens.

Review: “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Ok, this is hardly a new book, but I only just got around to reading it. The concept is simple: take Jane Austen’s classic “Pride and Prejudice” and add zombies to jazz it up.

From A Reader’s Perspective

This book could so easily have gone down like a lead balloon. Not only does the idea of melding a country-wide zombie plague with historical English fiction about high society seem ridiculous, but the Bennet sisters are changed to be schooled in martial arts.

Incredibly, the execution actually works very well. I confess I haven’t read the original, though I have seen the BBC adaptation, and it appears that large swathes of the story remain unmolested. Thus we have the classic prose and the story of Elizabeth and Darcy, and only occasionally do the modifications the the story come through. Their comic value is increased by Grahame-Smith’s restraint.

From A Writer’s Perspective

Grahame-Smith hasn’t inserted the new elements willy-nilly, and this makes a big difference. More often that not, the zombies are referred to as the “unmentionables” or the “dreadful”, and that matters because it helps to keep the reader in the story. Similarly, though frequent mentions are made of characters having trained in China or Japan, their skills are consistently referred to as the “deadly arts”. In taking the time to cast the new elements in the light of the original time period, Grahame-Smith avoids jarring the readers from the story.

I consider it a lesson is choosing your words carefully. If a writer is trying to represent a time period other than the present day, then often that period will have its own language conventions or vernacular. The author must be sensitive to this or risk jolting the reader out of the story. In a similar vein, people read fantasy in order to escape from the present, if only for a little while, and language has as much to do with this as setting, magic or funny clothes.

On reflection, what Grahame-Smith appears to have done with/to this book is not so much to insert extra elements where he saw fit, but to ponder how the society of the time would be affected if the dead really were to rise. That in itself is a lesson in world-building.

Review: “Then” by Julie Myerson

I read this book almost accidentally, since my partner picked it up in a 3-for-2 offer. Still, the premise held enough of a fantasy / sci-fi edge to get me interested. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher’s website;

It was 9.22, the moment when everything stopped. First there was the burning air, then came the darkness, the fire, and finally the frost.

Now, in a frozen, wasted London, a woman – uncertain even of her own name – is fighting to stay alive. Along with a small group of fellow survivors, she takes refuge in an abandoned skyscraper in what was once the financial centre. But spectres stalk the empty offices and endless corridors, and soon visions of a forgotten world emerge, a world of broken love and betrayal, and horrific, shocking mercies – a world more traumatic even than the desolate present.

Then is a novel of singular invention and bravery. With it, Julie Myerson has created an echo chamber of the heartbreaking and the terrifying, and an enduring apocalyptic vision.

From A Reader’s Perspective

I read the whole thing in pretty much two sittings, which says a lot. You really get a feel for the desolation and loneliness of her post-apocalyptic London. No explanation is offered for the disaster, and none is required because really the main thrust of the story is its female protagonist. I won’t name her because you don’t find our her name until probably two-thirds of the way through. Somehow it’s not relevant until them, and it wasn’t until I found out her name that I realised I didn’t know it.

There are two strands to the story – the protagonist’s life before and after the disaster. Myerson skilfully brings both these threads together as the book moves inexorably towards its conclusion. It starts off with a linear structure, but that starts to break apart as things progress, echoing the protagonist’s fragile mind and the way in which her memories drag her back to pre-disaster times, or even mingle with the present.

Despite the confusion this brings to the reader, it works to underpin her situation, helped by the straightforward but compelling writing style. Through the tangle of lost and found memories, the reader discovers the protagonist’s heart-breaking story pretty much as she does. The book climaxes with the real tragedy of her life, brought about by the disaster but essentially the product of a mother’s sheer desperation.

I was left feeling pretty unsettled by this book. I don’t think it’s the sort of novel that you can enjoy per se, but I felt compelled to read the whole thing through.

From A Writer’s Perspective

This book doesn’t employ quotation marks for speech. Not a single one. All the “said”s are there, just not the quotes. This is initially rather strange, but you soon get past that and see how it has the effect of weaving speech, thought and action into a single continuum. When it becomes apparent that the protagonist is essentially under siege by her own mind, the effect is enhanced significantly, making the reader (or at least me) feel pretty firmly embedded in the protagonist’s head. This tees you up for maximum effect during the emotionally charged scenes later in the book.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I’d recommend the technique. I haven’t read any other Myerson so  don’t know if she’s done it before, but I can imagine it getting annoying in other books. I suppose if the story will support it and it helps, rather than hinders, then fair enough. I don’t expect I’ll try it anytime soon—I personally prefer italics for though segments.

The non-linear style of this book works because it reflects how the character is experiencing the world. Although you could call it flashback, it’s not as simple as that. Again, his could easily have become just confusing, but Myerson keeps everything working in concert, despite the disjointedness of it. It’s quite a feat.

I did almost think that there was a shade little too much ‘What? / You know what’ in the dialogue, but given the character’s memory loss, Myerson gets away with it. The dialogue is never laboured, so actually such lines do feel like real speech.

Overall, the book blends some potentially troublesome mechanics and meshes them expertly together. It’s a great example of how to do the above things well.