Much too good to sell this damn bad
This book review blog is devoted to finding and promoting obscure but wonderful sci-fi and fantasy. I focus on recent, self-published ebooks that have sunk to the lowest depths of Amazon's worst-seller list. If it's in Amazon's top 100,000 and has ten reviews, it's too posh for this humble reviewer.
Why? Because bestsellers already have buttloads of reviews, and I'm discovering so many nifty books this way. I think the biggest problem for self-publishers as a whole is that readers have no way of discriminating between the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Note: You'll almost never see me pan a book here. The books I'm looking at are so obscure that you don't need to be warned away from them. Exceptions may be made for books that are so unbelievably awful that readers can take perverse delight in them.
"Why does everyone think there's going to be trouble?"
Captain Grif Vindh and the crew of the Fool's Errand have just pulled off the heist of the decade. They've stolen some incredibly valuable medicine belonging to a top secret facility. Upside: they're all very rich now. Downside: they've pissed off an entire empire of religious fanatics.
For a while it looks like the crew will be a victim of its own success. Their gunner announces his plans to part ways: he has his eye on his own ship.
But the Alliance has caught wind of their epic heist against their enemies, the Radiant Throne. They need something else stolen from the Radiant Throne, a thingy that happens to be located at Ur Voys. You know, the aforementioned top-secret facility? Who better to break in than the people who already broke in once?
By appealing to Captain Vindh's patriotism---and when that fails, freezing his accounts and threatening to haul him off to jail---they recruit the crew for an encore heist. The only problem: Grif has no idea how he's going to break into Ur Voys.
This book has outstanding "production values", with delightful cover art, solid writing and editing, and no noticeable formatting issues (on my Kindle, at least). It's very well edited. I'll admit, I did notice a few subtle editing issues, but only because my brain is stuck on permanent editor mode.
But let's talk about the story itself.
Wright has done a great job with his worldbuilding. He sets his story in a complex, dangerous political climate without overwhelming the reader with history lessons or noun salad.
His characters may be a little stereotyped. You've got the tough and embittered captain who isn't afraid to run afoul of the Law or booze his way into a coma. There's the sardonic Amazon warrior woman as first mate. You'll of course have a big, violence-prone gun nut as weapons officer. And if you're going to have a chief engineer, of course he's going to be a three meter-long space mantis with a gambling problem and an exoskeleton that doubles as a spacesuit. So there's no real innovation in the cast of characters.
But put them all together, and something surprising happens: the banter flies, the characters become interesting and likable, their backstories deepen. You can tell they've been through some close calls together, that they've bonded. A lot of the reviews draw favorable comparisons to Firefly, and it's no wonder. Watching them prod each other is hilarious and a little heartwarming.
Another strong feature of the book: there is a savviness to his handling of science and technology, which comes as both a surprise and a relief.
At one point, Grif and two other crew members need to "hack a system" to get a message back to the ship. Most books, this would lead to a technobabbly, 24-style montage of typing and glaring at the screen. "Chloe! He's encrypted his IP! You have to crack it before those packets make it to the DCHP server in Russia!" "Jack, this is the most sophisticated ciphertext virus I've ever seen. It'll take days just to parse through all these RSS feeds... oh wait, I just cracked it by being awesome!"
That stuff bothers the hell out of me. In most "hacking" scenes, the author only vaguely explains the problem, then presents its resolution with maximum dramatics and minimum specifics. The author/reader relationship becomes akin to making babytalk noises at an infant: the words aren't supposed to make sense, because the entire meaning is carried by the tone.
But Wright handles it masterfully. The scene is tense, the stakes are high, and yet by the end I felt like I knew what the hell had happened, why it had been so tricky, and how they'd managed to pull it off.
I can't tell you how seldom this happens in fiction. But this is just one of a laundry list of problems and solutions, try-fail cycles, etc., that occur throughout Pay Me, Bug!, and each time the characters solve their problems in clever, plausible ways.
Also, we learn that writing a 3D, zero-G, multicombatant fight scene is really, really hard. I don't think that particular scene works in the end, but I want to give him a sixth star just for making the attempt.
Through the eyes of a California teenager, we watch the collapse of the world into silence. The plague is fast and thorough, leaving Scarlett virtually alone in Los Angeles. The early part of the book does a great job of capturing her confusion and isolation, first as the plague picks off her friends and family one by one, then as the eerie calm settles upon a depopulated metropolis.
It's hard to explain the plot further without giving away major spoilers. All I will say is, she starts meeting other survivors, and things get a whole lot worse.
I really enjoyed Levesque's previous book, Strictly Analog. This book is very different, certainly more reminiscent of dystopian YA than William Gibson. I'm not a particular fan of YA, and The Girl does rely on a couple of tropes that I think plague the genre. The main character, while likable, is portrayed as surprisingly competent and resilient (unrealistic, but practically necessary for this sort of story). Scarlett's thoughts also seem very advanced for her age, almost as though she were in her mid-twenties. Here Levesque sacrifices a little bit of plausibility for a lot of interestingness, which I guess is a good trade.*
The Girl at the End of the World is good dystopian, with a dark, gritty feel and people pushed to the brink (and beyond) by fear and hardship. The collapse is depicted with the inevitability and violence of rolling storm, leaving silence and death in its wake. You get a real sense of Scarlett's terror: the lonely nights, the fear that nobody is out there, the fear that somebody is out there. She lives in terror of the known and unknown dangers that lurk outside her door, and that fear is made worse by the fact that there's not much to do to keep her mind off her worries.
It's hard to discuss the rest of the book without giving away major spoilers. But it kept me hooked right up to the end. The book is well written, with interesting, complex characters. The book may be a little harsh for YA's intended audience. Or I might just be overprotective, in which case I think teenagers might really enjoy it.
[*] Actually, there's a bit of a spoiler-alerty reason for the apparent maturity of the narrator, but I'd rather not get into it.
The book is woven from three separate threads from three very different times.
The first takes place soon after the dawn of human civilization. A young woman named Kere lives in a sprawling port town. She has a powerful healing gift and the love of an earnest young man who is far too poor to impress her uncaring, greedy father. Her father will earn greater wealth by selling her and her gift into servitude as a priestess at a local temple.
The second thread takes us to the city of Seattle during the Great Depression. There, a struggling artist and handyman creates beautiful paintings, but can barely afford to buy painting materials. He does maintenance for a local performing arts theater. He buys a ticket for an evening performance -- he usually watches from backstage -- and finds himself smitten by a talented violinist. They meet, and she asks him to paint her "as she used to be." Their romance is cut short by World War II.
The third takes place in modern-day California, where Jake -- a research professor -- is slowly-but-surely losing control of his lab to the ambitious, weird, overcompetent Amanda, whom he's hired as a grad student. He's working hard in pursuit of tenure, and his relationship with his wife, Elyse, is suffering. Meanwhile, Amanda teams up with another professor to study a Bronze-Age port town circa 3000 B.C.
Though the three threads are introduced early, it's not clear that they're meant to tie together in a meaningful way until about two-thirds of the way through the book. Patience, gentle reader.
I started out thinking I was going to hate it. For the first page-and-a-half, I thought it was going to be a death march through a thousand miles of purple prose. The prose is lush and ornate, especially in the scenes about Kere, the Bronze-Age woman. I've been trained by hours reading bad fantasy books to expect this sort of prose to become tiresome, self-important dreck. But it's actually quite beautiful, if you have patience with it. On rare moments, I did find myself thinking, "Okay, that sentence got away from him. Coulda used an editor." But for the most part, Weaver has a gift for striking just the right note, choosing just the right word, and creates something unexpectedly beautiful.
In the second scene of the book, when it first switches to Seattle, I had an uncomfortable moment of uncertainty. It took longer than it should have to nail down the setting. That's definitely a tweak I'd like to see him make.
The three threads do tie together, but they do so rather late in the book. When they do, the tone shifts somewhat, and the pace of the book picks up. Sad, sweet tales about people separated by vast gulfs of time suddenly shift into fast-paced supernatural horror. I can't say much without giving away the whole of it, but Weaver tied it together in a way that really worked for me, but might not work for others. The last tenth of the book is fun in a very different way than the rest, and the ending was pretty awesome.
I always recommend reading the sample before buying. In this book's case, that might be more important than for most books. I soon grew to like Weaver's style, but you may have a different reaction.
Meet Ariel. Ariel likes video games, but makes pony-based video games that only ten-year old girls like. In his spare time, he blogs about games that are way cooler than the games he's paid to work on.
Meet Constellation. Constellation is an anarcho-syndicalist confederation of dozens of alien races. They've just taken up residence on the Moon, and are trying to make first contact with the monkey people down below.
Meet the BEA, the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Affairs. The bureau was slapped together out of spare pieces cut from an alphabet soup of US government agencies. They're dedicated, paranoid, and working hard to contain a situation that is quickly spiraling out of control. Let Ariel show you why:
He asks the bug-eyes (via email) if, somewhere in their hundred-million year history and culture they've invented any cool video games. The aliens are initially reluctant, given that most of the "games" they play are basically sentient AIs. So he asks about retro gaming, and after some negotiation and data exchange, the aliens fire a game console -- called the Brain Embryo -- down from the heavens and into Ariel's front yard.
How does a government agency control the flow of information when the aliens are doing things like that? But God bless 'em, they try.
Back to Ariel and his 90-million-year old gaming console. The games aren't translated, and were written by a relatively solitary race of androgynous mole-people called the Farang (read: no two-player mode). But they're charming, and Ariel feels the project is genuinely important. When he fails to get corporate backing for his plan to port extraterrestrial games to human consoles, he quits his job and strikes out on his own. He makes friends among the aliens, goes to the frikkin moon for a visit-slash-video gaming binge, and suddenly he's deemed a "person of interest" to the BEA.
The stakes are high, with the aliens playing the role of semi-incompetent-but-benevolent overlords who wish to nudge us in a direction away from extinction, and the BEA playing the role of semi-incompetent-but-well-meaning-but-not-really antagonists who fear the aliens' "true motives" and try to coerce Ariel into spying for them.
Ariel and his friends, human and alien alike, are caught in the middle, fighting to save humanity. Mostly by playing video games. Really, you have to read it for that to make sense.
The plot isn't much to look at, and that's not a bad thing. This is more one of those books where you're hit full in the face by an ion storm of energized idea particles and wackytrons. The writing is glib, self-effacing, and quick with the funny, making for a pleasant yet consuming reading experience.
Much of the book comes to us in the form of Ariel's snarky blog posts about his life and his video games. Usually this mechanic is perfectly suited to its task, other times it's a bit distracting.
The book feels like hanging out and playing video games with a group of quick-witted, weird, underachieving friends. If you like sci-fi, and you like video games, you'll find this book very engaging. If you don't like those things, then keep your emptors well-caveated.
The book violates my reviewing rules all over the place. It's small press rather than self-published, and right now it's nearly... check that. It was hovering on the precipice of the top 1000 in the Kindle Store. Maybe the Boing Boing bounce is wearing off, because it's fallen to #7000.
So fleeting is glory, my friends. So fleeting.
The point is, this book was fun, inventive, and worth squandering a few of my indie cred points.
Update: Ooh! Bonus stories! Try before you buy, my little Internet word-mooches.
Word Count: 80K
Words per penny: 201
Ted Lomax is a down-on-his-luck private investigator eking out a living in the independent, corporate-run state of California. He lost his eye -- and gained a daughter -- in the Battle of Las Vegas during the war. His disability keeps him from using "iyz," the ubiquitous wearable Internet interfaces that keep everyone else connected.
Lomax has turned his disability into a competitive advantage. He conducts his investigations off-the-grid, away from the prying eyes of CalCorp and their Secret Police. He also relies on connections to the Internet underworld, including a disabled uberhacker named Philly, who spends her days in a combination wheelchair/spider-exoskeleton.
When his daughter Amy is arrested by the Secret Police for the murder of her boyfriend, Lomax will do anything to clear her name. This pits him against Amy's father-in-law, the head of the Secret Police and her dead boyfriend's mentor. His leads take him to the "mix clubs" where young people go to get their synesthesia highs, then out into the tattered fringes of California in a search for a piece of stolen tech.
Even though I'm not a fan of the mystery/detective genre, Strictly Analog really worked for me. The gritty, corporate dystopia had a bit of a Snowcrash feel to it, and the world is painted in stark, black strokes. From the Midwest dotted with slave labor factories that build goods for a wealthy China, to decaying libraries that double as homeless shelters, this is a scary, dangerous world. California is an isle of relative stability and prosperity; exile to Arizona is their version of capital punishment, and it seems that true execution would be more humane.
The world and the technology perhaps overshadows the story. At least I found the story taking a backseat to my curiosity about Levesque's post-secession Golden State. But if you're looking for a hard-boiled detective story, don't worry: Lomax gets chased, shot, pistol-whipped, and threatened the way any good detective ought to, and there is plenty of mistrust and misdirection. That's all par for the course, if I understand the detective genre.
Strictly Analog is a fun, fast-paced adventure. The writing is strong, and Lomax's narration is suitably jaded and exhausted. There were a handful of typos (I'm sending some corrections the author's way), but they're rare. The author is an English professor, after all. By the way, Levesque is on the webbynets at http://richardlevesqueauthor.wordpress.com/.
I keep saying that there are a lot of great, worthwhile self-published books out there. I'm throwing this sucker in the evidence bag.