Monday, June 16, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven :: Final Four

We're finally down to the Final Four in Bracket Seven of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books:

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman
River Road by Suzanne Johnson

Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers
The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

We hope you've enjoyed this tournament so far. This sixteen-book bracket, our seventh, contained books from across the genre. There were science fiction, fantasy and horror books. To get to the Final Four, these books won their first two matches. The other books in the competition, and some of them were quite good, got knocked out of the running by a tough opponent, as in basketball's March Madness.

Judging between books, which can be totally different, based on reading only 25 or 50 pages can be difficult. But our Battle of the Books format allows us to sample and spread the word about many more new books and authors than we otherwise could.

In this bracket, three out of the four books which were "seeded" reached the Final Four. The unseeded book which made to the Final Four is River Road by Suzanne Johnson.

Thanks again to all the authors and publicists sending us great books to consider. If you're an author or publicist, click here for the rules and an address to send your book if you'd like to be included in a future bracket.

We have had a great response to the Battle of the Books format. Several future brackets of Battle of Books are now in the hands of our reviewers, so check back for many more battles to come.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, Second Round :: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross vs. Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele

After some delay, due to issues such as stinking rabbits getting in my basement, here's our fourth and last, second round match in Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books featuring The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross going against Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 50 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. The Apocalypse Codex reached the second round by defeating Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon.

Persephone Hazard and her assistant Johnny McTavish parachuted into Bavaria at night. They carefully broke into Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle which inspired Disneyland's Castle, and returned an occult amulet to its rightful place, and removed the forgery from the display.

Bob Howard is a computational demonologist working for an ultra-secret agency of the British government called the Laundry, which defends the realm from occult threats. HR sent Bob to a management training class for the regular civil service with a cover story that made him hugely unpopular. At a bar, Bob meets an older man, Gerald Lockhart, who is a higher up in the Laundry. Bob will be assigned to Lockhart's department for a project.

Lockhart visits the London townhouse of Persephone Hazard, who is an intelligence officer and witch working for him. Lockhart wants Persephone to take Bob on her next suitable excursion. So they can privately discuss a situation that has come up, Persephone fires up a summoning grid, a "pentacle with attitude", opening a circle in another universe.

The Golden Promise Ministries are somehow involved in the situation. Persephone and Johnny go to an arena-sized evangelical revival service led by Pastor Raymond Schiller.

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 reached the second round by defeating Blood Zero Sky by J. Gabriel Gates.

Apollo's Outcasts is set in 2097. Jamey, who is sixteen and physically disabled due to weak bones from Lunar Birth Deficiency Syndrome, and his seventeen year old sister, Melissa, and are awakened after midnight and told to pack an overnight bag for an unexpected and unexplained trip.

Their father, Dr. Stanley Barlowe, stealthily drives Jamey, Melissa and their old sister, Jan, out of the Washington DC area to the space launch facility at Wallops Island. The President is dead in an apparent coup, and Dr. Barlowe fears being arrested for signing an ISC (International Space Consortium) petition. He and two other parents who work for ISC are sending their kids to the Moon to protect them. The other kids are Jamey's best friend, Logan, and Eduardo and Nina Hernandez. At the last minute, a government car arrives with a teenage girl named Hannah. The parents decide that Hannah must go on the shuttle, but there are no more seats. Jan, Jamey's oldest sister, volunteers to stay.

The kids are quickly examined and outfitted. Jamey is put in a padded cocoon to cushion his body during the high-g launch. The countdown is moved up when federal marshals show up. Hannah says they're after her. The shuttle is launched by magnetic catapult and it outruns several chasing jets. The LTV (Lunar Transfer Vehicle), which they're in, is jettisoned. The LTV pilot, Capt. Gordon Rogers (an homage to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers?), evades an anti-satellite missile, but when the weapon explodes a fragment penetrates the LTV’s hull. The kids race to find and seal the hole before they lose their air.

The Battle:  This match-up features an occult science fiction British spy thriller going up against a YA science fiction book with political intrigue.

After 50 pages of The Apocalypse Codex, we've been introduced to the characters, and they've gotten their assignments to work together. Admittedly, some recap is needed because this is book four in a series. But no immediate, likely supernatural, threat yet been revealed, so the plot hasn't really left the starting gate. Yet the writing is sharp and witty.

On the other hand, Apollo's Outcasts starts fast, with the characters on the run from a threat that becomes very real. There's tension building. But the exact reason why they are threatened, the details of the political conflict, are not yet specified. The former Vice President, and new President, apparently orchestrated a national emergency.

The kids in space in Apollo's Outcasts are a nicely diverse group. Jamey is physically disabled. Eduardo has some sort of mental impairment. The Hernandez kids are Hispanic. Melissa tends to be whiny. Hannah is undoubtedly important politically. Half of the kids are girls. This is looking like a YA space adventure.

In The Apocalypse Codex, Bob is a sarcastic, thirty-something IT guy whose job runs from the boringly mundane to the dangerously weird. In this series, advanced computer science can lead to dark magic. I got a kick out of Bob zoning out during training class and having a song running through his head (four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire; and though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all). Persephone Hazard is a kick-ass woman of many talents, inspired by the British comic strip character Modesty Blaise. I'm curious why they are investigating the American televangelist's church.

For Battle of the Books, I'm not necessarily saying one book is better that the other. I'm picking which book I'd rather continue reading. For this round, I'm judging these books after reading only 50 pages. Both books are good and readable, which made this decision difficult. The battle came down to that I tend to personally enjoy fantasy strangeness over speculative realities.

THE WINNER: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex advances to the semifinal round to face Quantum Coin by E.C. Myers.

To see the whole bracket, click here.