Book Review: Embers of War by Gareth Powell

“Embers of War” by Gareth Powell is one of those books I have long meant to read and finally got around to doing so. About time, too; it’s going to be produced as a TV series at some point. It’s a first-class space opera that hooks you from the start with multi-dimensional, flawed characters; and one of the most interesting things about it is how it juggles all their points of view into one cohesive, fun universe. 

The book opens with a flashback, a battle scene on board the Scimitar Righteous Fury as Captain Annelida Deal prepares to do her duty and massacre the sentient forests of Pelapatarn to deliver a decisive end to the embittered conflict between the Conglomeration and The Outward, warring human factions. Then the story jumps to the bridge of the Trouble Dog, a former war horse (not the same one) turned salvage ship which has dedicated its life to redemption as a member of the peace-faring House of Reclamation. Their medic is attacked by a strange creature and is killed on the rescue mission, just as they receive a distress call from ships stoking the embers of another conflict in a distant part of space. And so the adventure ensues. 

What makes this colorful cast of characters unique is that all of them, from the ship whose brain is built with human stem cells, to Captain Sal Konstanz, all have something to prove. They start off flawed, making sometimes terrible mistakes, and, wracked by guilt and inevitability, they seek to atone for those tragedies. It’s a study in ethics, morality and duty as each grapples with difficult choices and errors in judgment. 

It could be argued that their mistakes are gray areas and the level of responsibility owed to them is at issue – for example, Captain Deal was just following orders and doing what she thought was right; the creature acted too fast for Captain Konstanz or her ship to react, even though she did not follow procedure; the spy Ashton Childe was simply trying to fulfill his mission, even though a system full of drugs led him to make poor choices. Speaking of, this crew has some simply fantastic names. 

Duty, honor and redemption are themes that play out throughout the book as we switch between the viewpoints of Nod, an alien mechanic; Trouble Dog herself; Ashton Childe; and Captain Deal, now in hiding and posing as the poet Ona Sudak. With such an expansive universe, this technique allows us to get on the side of all these characters and dig in deep with the universe. Soon you find yourself rooting for this ragtag yet duty-bound crew on their missions of honor, overcoming their troubled pasts in blazes of reckless glory. 

At times the writing style got a bit bogged down in technical descriptions of equipment or the science behind space travel, but I liked the constant viewpoint switching and the short chapters; it kept the pace up and kept me reading more, turning this into an exhilarating ride through a strong universe. And I definitely stayed for these wonderful characters and the ethical choices they had to make. I would read the rest of this series. 

Book Review: Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

It is probably my love of comic books that allowed me to suspend disbelief for this bizarro yet delectable adventure ride of a book. “Beneath the Rising” by Premee Mohamed is the stuff of comic books and superheroes, grand global thrillers and Indiana Jones, ancient gods, secret societies and occult terrors. It’s a buddy tale that becomes something darker, more devastating; a tale of kids thrust too soon into a world of adults and grown-up decisions and challenges, but this is no chummy YA story with black and white fault lines. 

This is the story of seventeen-year-old science genius Joanna “Johnny” Chambers and her sidekick, Nick Prasad. Get ready for the improbable to start right away. First Johnny is inventing solar panels and Alzheimer’s drugs at age six. Then there’s how this inseparable pair meets – a terrorist attack in which they both got shot and had to undergo surgery to survive. It hits you with one absurd premise, then another in a freight train of bombastic thrills until you become so used to the absurd that you don’t even blink at the next ridiculous moment. But I couldn’t put it down. 

I loved this for the same reason I loved the absurdity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; that show was such a well-defined supernatural universe explained by its own rules that was equally improbable, and yet the tone was absolutely pitch-perfect and ultimately pulled it off with triumph. Normally I like my supernatural to be subtle; I like to always be wondering, is this psychological trauma, or is this a ghost? But with Buffy, I accepted each in-your-face monster because of the tone. A kind of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, a hint of absurdist irony, an irreverence even when dealing with serious, dark topics. Snappy, witty dialogue. Like Buffy, but more sophisticated, “Beneath the Rising” was a page turner. I wanted to gallop through this adventure, equal parts hollering, laughing and whispering, and then I didn’t want it to end, even as I shook my head saying “No way, the writing didn’t just do that, go there.”

The adventure unfolds as Johnny’s latest invention, a clean reactor that could solve the world’s energy problems, unwittingly unleashes dark, primal forces from which only two teenagers can save the world. A hilarious, brilliantly twisty merging of magic, retold ancient legend and physics ensues. This is a story of doorways, of locks never meant to open, of covenants and temptation, of power, lurking underneath the absurdist premises. It’s a story of friendship and trust and different kinds of love, loyalty and betrayal. In short, this is hands-down one of the best books I’ve read all year. Just when I thought only comic books could surprise me anymore with their innovative storytelling suited only to that medium, a book like this comes along, an unsung gem that blows me away. I’ll definitely be buying the next book in the series. 

Graphic Novel Review: Home Sick Pilots Volume 1

Lately I have found myself devouring Gothic literature and haunted house stories, out of a love for the genre and the atmosphere, but also consistently finding myself disappointed. This particular genre is filled with so many tired tropes and common motifs, that eventually, all stories start to seem redundant, like an endless cookie cutter copying the plot from Jane Eyre and The Haunting at Hill House and other mainstays. A young woman with a traumatic past moves into a spooky old house and there are ghosts and sometimes they are evil and sometimes they help heal and sometimes there are unresolved tensions with the supernatural, you’re never sure if it’s the ghost or the trauma. There’s a mysterious brooding man about, there’s fog, there’s a downtrodden countryside in the middle of nowhere. Blah blah blah.

“Home Sick Pilots” breaks that mold in a surprising, refreshing way, splattered with ectoplasm and teenage angst. This graphic novel published by Image Comics is brought to us by writer Dan Watters and artist Caspar Wijngaard. It tells the story of the Home Sick Pilots, which was the brainchild of foster child Ami, a troubled kid who wound up in the foster system after her mother died. She feels lost, unwanted, unmoored, until she meets disaffected stoners Rip and Buzz, who have a begrudging appreciation for her love of the Ramones and bring her in their orbit. With her in the picture, their band becomes something special, the three of them against the world.

One night they go to see a lame band called the Nuclear Bastards. Then Ami gets it in her head to host a gig at the infamous Old James House, said to be so haunted that it trapped the last person who visited it and they were never seen since. That leads them down a dark and twisted path that is part redemption arc with a flavor of Stockholm Syndrome, taking the haunted house trope and morphing it into a superhero thriller with X-Files spice. 

I am so tempted to give spoilers, but man, that ending is something else. It just keeps taking you down corridors you don’t expect. The lost, traumatized girl becomes a badass piloting her own destiny, but she still wants the band back together, the thread that binds her back to a reality that she thought she wanted to leave behind forever, despite reality turning its back on her.

The art was really well done, complete with an interesting technique when the scenes segued into new chapters; taking a completely black background, interspersing the absolute negative space with black-on-white thought bubbles exploring Ami’s successive psychological transformations. It had a wonderful dark, moody vibe throughout. 

Loved this book so much that I already pre-ordered Volume 2, and I hardly ever continue on in a series – too many good books out there to stick with one author or creative team. But I wanted more of this universe; it sunk its spectral teeth into me and pulled me along for the ride.

Looking at morally grey characters through the lens of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns

Instead of book reviews of traditionally published mainstream books, since there are plenty of those, I decided I would engage in a bit of literary analysis. I picked up “Prince of Thorns” by Mark Lawrence because it is a classic of the grimdark fantasy genre, and it did not disappoint. At first glance it seems like your typical revenge porn that relies on a dark, violent landscape to drive the plot. Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, driven by the desire to avenge his murdered mother and brother and prove himself to his cruel father, leaves the castle as a teenager on a bloodthirsty rampage with a gang of bandits. But as it turns out, this is not a typical revenge porn fantasy, because Prince Jorg is a morally grey character.

The literary world loves morally grey characters but naturally there is no common definition of what they really mean. Bad people who are really good people at heart who do bad things? People who are depraved who regardless have some sort of moral compass, like Breaking Bad’s chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer Walter White? Most of us aren’t murderers, meth dealers and hit men, though; we’ve done bad things, said cruel things to people, regretted our behavior, but we’re also good people trying our best, because people are complicated. Isn’t, then, a morally grey character just a complicated character? 

Prince Jorg throws that idea on its head. If you take a look at the definition of what it is to be a “moral person,” it is a person’s standards of behavior or beliefs that is acceptable to them. Morally grey, then, is someone who stands in the middle of that, in the murky areas between what is good and what is bad, what is neither good nor bad. Start off with Jorg’s first mission. He frees a black Nuban man from torture in his father’s prison, and the rest of his Brother bandits. He discards his tutor and does not care if he lives or dies. He’s single-mindedly focused on revenge and he thinks the bandits will help him in this task. But first he, a ten-year-old boy full of anger, must earn their trust. 

Over four years fighting along their side, killing them at times as well as killing their foes, he improbably does just that. He’s not just some spoiled, angry boy; he does not judge them, and he fights like a seasoned man, with the same lack of fear for death. Sometimes you wonder why they follow him; one small wrong move and they could meet the sharp end of his temper. But then when a fellow brother falls to his death off a cliff in pursuit of necromancers, they swap memories of him in memorial, even though he was a cook and they didn’t care for his food. 

Soon, you are alongside Prince Jorg, rooting for him too, because you see the human side of him, the fallible side. The side of him that thinks he might still win his father’s love, the side of him who is frustrated to have been manipulated by magic in the Hundred Years’ War. He is a complicated character, yes; but he’s also clearly a bad guy, and he also has very human flaws and ambitions that earn your respect, too. He’s not likable, far from it; but respect isn’t always about liking someone. Through the layers of darkness, beyond the squalling boy who doesn’t understand the war games that adults play, you see his soul. That’s just a good character, but a morally grey one, too. 

Book Review: All About the Benjamins by Zev Good

When you first start reading “All About the Benjamins” by Zev Good, you think it will be a heartfelt character study about the agony and joy of coming out later in life as a gay Jewish man after a lifetime spent burying one’s true self, a lifetime full of the little regrets for the petty, snippy comments you dealt out, even to your own gay son, to hide your real identity. This is the story, initially, of Joel Benjamin, an English literature professor reeling from the loss of his wife Susan to cancer, and his guilt over finally being able to live his formerly secret life out in the open now that she was gone. 

Then as you peel back the layers, you start to realize this is not a story about one man; as the title would suggest, it is instead a family story, a gentle, authentic rendering of the grief of the Benjamins – Amy and Adam, Joel’s kids, as they come to understand what life is like without Susan in it, all of them left unmoored in the shocking absence of her stabilizing presence. 

At times the pacing is bogged down by long, rambling passages of interior monologue, but that is also perfect for indie literary fiction; by the end of this book I was laughing and crying along with the Benjamins, rooting for them, feeling like I was having a glass of wine at the dinner table with them, griping, “She said what?” and blushing. If this were commercial fiction, I could see an agent asking for a full request because the writing voice is so strong and then demanding the author cut large portions of the interiority bits so that it would fit a commercial market’s whims. But then all the charm would be rubbed out of it, in the vain hope that the rights could one day be sold so that it could become a drab sitcom about a dysfunctional Jewish family who nonetheless loved each other. 

In the end you realize that’s what this book is about, really. It’s not about being gay, or coming out, or being Jewish, or identity, even though all those things are an integral part of the plot, of who these characters are; but those aspects of their identity do not define them. This is a story about love and the ties that bind, about what brings families together in times of tragedy, about the Brady Bunch house to which we add a fresh coat of paint after 40 years of sameness and the secrets everyone knew but wouldn’t admit or the precious illusion would be shattered, and the flower garden that was always only an idea in the gardener’s mind but only ever became a reality after the would-be gardener was gone. At its heart, this is a story about a family, and the journey they go on to realize that all they have left is each other, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

Author’s Website

Book Review: In Solitude’s Shadow by David Green

I’ve found indie books I’ve enjoyed lately but not loved; “In Solitude’s Shadow” by David Green, published by Eerie River Publishing, breaks that pattern. I received it as an advance reader copy from the publisher for an honest review. 

Although I must admit I was worried when I read the subtitle, which is “In Solitude’s Shadow: First Draft,” I wondered if I was getting a rough draft of a novel, and this turned out not to be the case, thankfully. Solid plotting and good editing awaited. 

“In Solitude’s Shadow” is a deliciously grimdark joyride through a dark empire filled with blood rage, dark magic, and genocide. It features an intriguing, well-developed cast of characters who begin to question their loyalties and deeply held assumptions. This is the story of Solitude, a fortress guarding the north from the land of evil creatures known as the Banished, who haven’t been seen for thousands of years. It’s a place where misbehaving Sparkers, as wielders of magic are known, are sent to be exiled. Even the magic system is intriguing; magic users tap into energy inside themselves and gather natural energy around them in order to cast spells, a detail which turns out to be foreshadowing. 

The main characters include Zanna, a powerful Sparker, who mentors a half-elf, half-human boy named Arlo, who is beset with prescient nightmares and possesses a power far greater than any of them. Arlo’s father, Kade Besem, formerly a government official, is a spice-addicted idealist with a heart of gold and a soft spot for the plight of the elves; he thought to send armies to defeat the Banished at Solitude’s gates, and in the end he sent himself, in a compelling twist. Zanna’s daughter, Calene, and her mother are estranged since Zanna Eviscerated Calene’s father, a desperate act for which Calene never forgave her. Calene, formerly an agent of the empire, now travels with a ragtag crew of misfits, including an elf and a Banished. 

In this world, Haltveldt is ruled by an Emperor who sees danger outside and within his borders. He aspires to rule with an iron fist and to do this he needs an easy scapegoat to unite the people in hatred; the elves are convenient. But a greater threat awaits, and history will repeat itself time and time again. As an aside, I did wish there was a map to help me get the lay of this land, but perhaps that will appear in the proper book for general readers. 

The political machinations in this story are so well done. The evil characters are not evil for the sake of being evil; they are driven by complex, and still nefarious motivations. I found myself rooting for the main characters not because they were good people with perfect intentions, but because they were flawed, complicated individuals who still wanted to do the right thing. 

I loved this book, and I’m eagerly awaiting the rest of the series. 

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Graphic Novel Review: Dreaming Eagles, published by AfterShock Comics

“Dreaming Eagles,” written by Gareth Ennis, art by Simon Coleby, published by AfterShock Comics, is historical fiction that tells of the drama, trials and adventures of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Corps – men who fought both the Nazis in World War II, and discrimination at home. It tells their stories through the eyes of one of their own, veteran Reggie Atkinson, who opens up to his son Lee after a father worries for his son fighting his own battles in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. 

Overcoming his initial reluctance to talk about his wartime experiences, Reggie soon sees it as a chance to connect with his son about shared pain and hope for a better future. Over beers, Reggie spills it all, telling the tale chronologically of his time in the squadron through several years of war. The story is slow paced without a traditional narrative arc, but that suits the meandering thrust of the story, a father talking to his son on a warm evening on their porch. And at times the writing gets too caught up in the technical engineering specifications of the aircraft; sometimes this brings history to life, and sometimes it gets a bit dry. Those were my only criticisms, however; overall I really enjoyed this book. 

The writing was good, the art was strong, and the story did a great job of personalizing a pivotal historical time that needs more intimate attention than history textbooks can give. The graphic novel is the perfect medium for this. The book is at its best when it gets into character development and the captivating cast of characters that made up the squadron. I really got a feel for the time period and both the casual and overt bigotry that these men faced daily.

Even after they proved themselves, flew more missions and made more kills than their white commanders predicted, and came home decorated soldiers, they still had to keep proving themselves. But something changed after the war, after they saw how their courage and dedication kept them alive. They had fought, despite the hate, for an America that they believed was better than what Nazi Germany had to offer; but they also believed America could be better than what it gave them, if only it let herself, if only it acknowledged it could be better.

This is a beautiful book, and I felt like I was having a conversation with Reggie right there on the porch with him – the joy and the pain felt so warm and so real. Published in 2016, this story is just as prescient now as ever, and just as important to be heard.