Monday, March 24, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, First Round :: Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele vs. Blood Zero Sky by J. Gabriel Gates

Our last first round match of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books features Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele versus Blood Zero Sky by J. Gabriel Gates. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Apollo's Outcasts: Pyr Books, November 2012, 307 pages, cover illustration by Paul Young. Allen Steele is an American science fiction writer. He's written around 20 novels, including the Coyote series. He has won three Hugo Awards for his short fiction.

Apollo's Outcasts begins near Washington D.C. in 2097. Jamey, who is sixteen and physically disabled, is woken up after midnight by his dad and told to get dressed. He'd rather sleep, but he gets moving with the aid of his "mobil" device. Jamey has weak bones due to Lunar Birth Deficiency Syndrome. His seventeen year old sister, Melissa is awakened by their older sister, Jan. They are told to pack an overnight bag. They are going on an unexpected trip, and are not given any explanation.

Their dad, Dr. Stanley Barlowe, sneaks their van out of their neighborhood. On I-95, he doesn't switch to auto as required. He has replaced the van's traffic control and GPS chips to hide their track. Hovertanks and troop carriers pass them on the highway. Jamey and Melissa are informed that the President is dead, and their dad is going to be arrested for signing an ISC (International Space Consortium) petition.

They drive to the space launch facility at Wallops Island in Virginia, where Jamey meets his best friend, Logan, whose dad is also an ISC senior administrator. Another man is there with his wife and two kids. The parents are sending their kids on a cargo shuttle to the moon, to protect them. When they are about to board, a black government car arrives. The parents talk with the driver. Inside the car is a girl around Jamey's age, who needs to go on the shuttle, even though that means leaving one of other kids behind.

Blood Zero Sky: HCI, October 2012, 371 pages, cover illustration by Joshua Mikel at Sharkguts Design. J. Gabriel Gates has also written a teen horror novel, and is the co-author of the Tracks Series, a YA supernatural trilogy.

Blood Zero Sky is a dystopian novel set in the not-too-distant future. It begins with two peeks of things to come. The first scene features a young woman (probably May) who just shot someone outside N-Corp headquarters. The second scene introduces a group called The Protectorate, ready to do battle for freedom in a second American Revolution.

May Fields is the 25-year-old daughter of the CEO of N-Corp, the company that runs half the world. She works marketing N-Corp products. There are no competing products, but they constantly advertise to make people desire those products, such as on The Jimmy Shaw Hour in Christ. Earlier, May promoted the mandatory IC/Cross interface which requires a black, cross-shaped, cheek implant. The Cross, which is wired into the brain, allows people to control electronic devices with their thoughts, and, apparently, also influences their thinking.

Cities have been renamed as numbered N-Hubs. Almost all people are in debt to the Company. Those whose debt load is too high can be "repossessed" and sent to a Company work camp.

Randal, an old friend of May's, is working with her on a report for the board. Randal is on a neuro-enhacement drug that makes him a genius, but he stutters, can't sleep, and works 21 hours a day. Randal's revenue projections, which they double check together, show something terrifyingly unthinkable, that Company will lose money this year.

The Battle: This match-up features a YA science fiction book with political intrigue versus a dystopian novel with an oppressive ruling corporation.

Apollo's Outcasts begins with a sense of urgency and building tension. It isn't stated why Dr. Barlowe and his fellows at ISC fear being arrested, or what was in the petition they signed. The president's death appears to be part of a plot by the vice president to declare a national emergency.

Jamey is a likable teenage boy character. But Melissa seems to me to be a bit of a teenage girl stereotype. She lives in her own world of clothes and boys. She whines about having to leave home suddenly. Melissa's "pad" is taken away so she can't inform her online friends. Their older sister, Jan, seems relatively bland.

Blood Zero Sky tells of controlling technology and a repressive society. The setting achieves being unsettling. News stories point to the horrors of N-Corp, but most people don't care. It's not hinted yet why, or how, America went this far down this path.

I found it hard to emotionally connect with the protagonist May. She belittles the server at a coffee shop, and seems bothered even by her friend Randal. I have no problem with May apparently being a lesbian. But I would have liked to see more from her point of view. Maybe a tidbit of her back story would have helped to make her a more relatable character.

After 25 pages, both of these books have something to offer. But I'd rather read the book which I think is better written, and seems to be going somewhere faster.

THE WINNER: Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele

Apollo's Outcasts advances to the second round to face The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, First Round :: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross vs. Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon

Our seventh match-up, and second to last, in the first round of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books features The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross going head to head with Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Apocalypse Codex: Ace Books hardcover, July 2012, 255 pages, cover art by Mark Fredrickson. Charles Stross is a well-known Scottish science fiction author, who has written around twenty books. The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth book in his Laundry Files series.

In the prologue Bob Howard, the protagonist of the series, introduces himself. Bob is a computational demonologist working for an ultra-secret agency of the British government called the Laundry, which cleans up and defends the realm from occult, Lovecraftian threats. It's been nearly a year since Bob's last dangerous mission. He's only now recovered and returning to the job.

Chapter one begins with Persephone Hazard and Johnny McTavish secretly parachuting at night into Bavaria. They land on the roof of Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle which inspired Disneyland's Castle. They break in and drill through the parquet floor. Persephone creeps into the space between floors, and returns a jeweled, occult amulet to its rightful place and removes the forgery from the display. Meanwhile, Johnny deals with a deadly, dog-like entity which enters their warding circle.

In chapter two, Bob Howard is being sent by HR to attend a week-long management training class for the civil service. Never mind that Bob works for an ultra-secret agency, he's given the cover story that he's a network security manager working on unpopular vehicle number-plate (license plate) recognition.

Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia: See Sharp Press, June 2012, 303 pages. Zeke Teflon is a pseudonym of a nonfiction writer and performing musician. This is his first novel.

Free Radicals is set in the not-too-distant future. It's twenty years after the Troubles when EMP bursts destroyed electronics, including people's high-tech implants. Nano buildings have collapsed into ruins. Floating billboards show Uncle Sam urging the reporting of suspicious activities, and advertise emigration to the stars.

Kel (Kelvin) Turner wakes up surrounded by empty beer cans. He discovers that he has a wound on his head. Only after listening to his messages does he recall what happened. Yesterday Kel went to see Mig, his girlfriend, carrying a bottle of vodka. Mig was out. Kel got drunk with, then intimate with, Mig’s roommate. Mig is extremely pissed off.

There's a flashback about Kel's ex-wife. She got full custody of their young son and Kel didn't even get visitation rights. Twice after Kel merely tried to find out about his son, he was attacked by thugs.

Kel and several musician friends play a gig at Retro, an old-fashioned club. Kel is a guitarist. Mig comes in disguised as a "diesel dyke." The audience is unappreciative of their music. Drunks start calling for "Free Bird" and other oldies. A trio of Homeworld Protectors walk into the club and brutally haul off Kel. Apparently Mig reported Kel as a terrorist.

Kel is sentenced, without any defense or jury, to be deported to Extrasolar Penal Colony Number Three. Kel is put into cold sleep and shipped in a coffin-pod. He is one of thousands transported. Upon arrival, techs revive Kel and the other surviving prisoners.

The Battle: This match-up features an occult science fiction British spy thriller going up against a science fiction as social commentary misadventure.

The Apocalypse Codex is written in a sharp and witty manner. The characters seem to act and interact intelligently. What the occult amulet does isn't thoroughly explained. So far, Bob Howard is only dealing with the civil service bureaucracy. But Bob's office job can be curiously odd. In the preface, Bob says he's tasked to "keep an eye on some departmental assets that are going walkabout." No specific occult danger has been revealed, not yet anyway.

Free Radicals tells about Kel, a middle-aged man who has been screwed over in life, especially by women. This story line didn't play that well for me, but may work better for a male audience. The cynical, dark humor made this readable, for example, the song lyrics for "Abductee Blues" about extraterrestrials with a rectal probe.

There was more violence and sex than I needed, but it didn't seem gratuitous. Kel gets beaten up more times in the first 25 pages than I think any protagonist deserves.

The dialect of the judge who sentenced Kel to deportation, apparently a Black American, struck me as too politically incorrect, such as calling Kel Turner "Mistah Turna."

After 25 pages, I'm not sure where either of these books will go. But I know that I'd rather read about the clever characters fighting some occult threat to the world.

THE WINNER: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex advances to the second round to face either Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele or Blood Zero Sky Coin by J. Gabriel Gates.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

"Bedtime Story" by Rhonda Parrish :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "Bedtime Story" by Rhonda Parrish, from the anthology Tesseracts Seventeen.

"Bedtime Story" is a simple tale of a young girl huddling in a closet, as an old doll of her mother's named Laura tells a chilling story of evil vultures and goblins. As much fun as the story itself are the audience reactions:
A brown slipper, dog-chewed and ratty, hopped out of the shadows and pressed itself against my side. I felt it trembling, and stroked its nappy surface. "It's all right." My voice sounded loud compared to Laura's creepy whisper. "Sometimes the stories have a happy ending, don't they, Laura?"

She was silent for a long while, and turned to stare at a spider scuttling its way up the wall. In profile her shadow was strangely flat and misshapen. "Sometimes. Sometimes."
Tesseracts Seventeen was published in Canada last Fall, but is just hitting American bookshops this month. The Tesseracts anthology series from Edge Publishing highlights Canadian SF/F authors like Rhonda Parrish. Parrish has been publishing since 2006, with emphasis on poetry and flash fiction.

"Bedtime Story" is a wonderfully written story, which challenges adults to remember how magical and frightening the world can appear to a child. Is a child's view of the world around her truly any less real than an adult's? Does it matter?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, First Round :: The Path of the Fallen by Dan O’Brien vs. Quantum Coin by E.C. Myers

For our sixth match in the first round of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books we have The Path of the Fallen by Dan O’Brien going up against Quantum Coin by E.C. Myers. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Path of the Fallen: self-published, September 2012, 602 pages, cover photo by John Allan. Dan O'Brien is the author of around a dozen self-published books.

Fe'rein, a half-man (or cyborg) goes to the space station. He tells a human military man that no peace is possible between humans and enhanced humans. Then Fe'rein goes on a fiery, murderous rampage. The last survivor, a brave girl, tells Fe'rein that he was not meant to have the power of the Believer. He angrily kills her by throwing her out into space. With a surge of his power, Fe'rein disintegrates the space station.

Next, the setting changes to Culouth, a domed city floating above Terra. E'Malkai, the young lord of the House Di'letirich is escorted to a meeting by his guardian, who is a giant creature called an Umordoc. There's concern that E'Malkai and his mother could be targets of the Resistance, since E'Malkai is Fe'rein's nephew. Even E'Malkai considers Fe'rein to be a monster in ways. E'Malkai is asked to begin the trials of Tal'marath, which is a great honor.

High Marshall Kyien, perhaps Fe'rein's Master, privately tells Fe'rein that his mission to the space station was successful but sloppy. Kyrien didn't want the space station destroyed. Kyrien and Fe'rein argue, and Fe'rein uses his power as mion to intimidate Kyien. Councilmen Augustine arrives and informs Fe'rein that his nephew will undertake the trials.

Quantum Coin: Pyr books, October 2012, 331 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. Quantum Coin is the sequel to Fair Coin, which was E.C. Myers first novel. Fair Coin was in our Summer 2012 bracket of Battle of the Books.

Ephraim Scott is a high school student. Last year, as told in book one, he acquired a special quarter coin that propelled him on a dangerous adventure through parallel universes. After that, Ephraim decided to stay in his own universe.

Ephraim is at Senior Prom. His date, Jena, and her twin girlfriends take an extended trip to the ladies room. While waiting, Ephraim talks with his geeky friend Nathan, who has been filming impromptu videos. When Ephraim and Nathan spot Jena, she looks frantic and she's no longer wearing her Prom dress. Ephraim goes to her, and she kisses him. Then Ephraim realizes that she is not Jena at all, but Zoe, an analog of Jena from a parallel universe. Ephraim met Zoe last year.

Jena returns, with her girlfriends, in time to see Ephraim and Zoe kissing on the dance floor. Before the two twin Jenas attract more attention, Ephram suggests that they leave, and all six of them go somewhere more private to talk.

Zoe has a controller device, which looks like a flip phone, that works in tandem with Ephraim's coin to shift realities. Strange things are apparently happening in the multiverse. Nathan's video camera captured ghostly double images from a parallel universe.

The Battle: This match-up features an epic science fantasy book going up against a YA science fiction book.

The Path of the Fallen may have a story to tell, but the way in which it was told was, in my opinion, difficult to follow. At times, I had to reread paragraphs. Some of the problem, I think, was due to an overabundance of adjectives. The word "dark" seemed to be overused.

I would have liked to see more of the big picture. This book is apparently set in Earth's future, but when is vague, perhaps a thousand years from now, and where is unspecified. Something happened to change "Terra," but there are no hints of what yet. There's little explanation of the cybernetic body enhancements.

After reading the first 25 pages of The Path of the Fallen, I didn't feel like I really knew any of the characters and I didn't truly understand their motivations.

Quantum Coin is told in an entertaining, readable style. The characters realistically interact. I liked how they joked with each other, even Ephraim and Nathan's "scatological repartee."

I think the author did a good job of incorporating references to what probably happened in book one. The information didn't come off as info dumps.

It was funny that the powerful controller device was pieced together with duct tape and superglue. I appreciated that the Morales twins were named Mary and Shelley. I liked that Shelley accepted the idea of the multiverse because Nathan was lending her comic books. I approved of Jena's disbelief that Zoe used ham radio to contact someone in another universe.

After reading the first 25 pages of Quantum Coin, my interest was piqued, and I'd like to read more.

THE WINNER: Quantum Coin by E.C. Myers

Quantum Coin moves on to the second round to face Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.