Review of Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic

April 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J. SchwartzGooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib
By David J. Schwartz; Narrated by Janina Edwards
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 21 October 2013[UNABRIDGED] – 12 hours, 11 minutes

Themes: / urban fantasy / mystery / community college / magic / secret agents /

Publisher summary:

Meet the newest professor at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, Joy Wilkins. She may suffer from face blindness, but Joy can still recognize people by reading their auras — a skill that comes in particularly handy for her real work as an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs. Her mission: to discover the source of weaponized demons being trafficked through the quaint school on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and to locate her predecessor, the school’s missing History of Magic professor. But just as her investigation gets under way, the brutal murder of Joy’s handler — and mentor — sets her on the trail of a secret society known as the Thirteenth Rib. With the clock ticking down to the next attack, Joy will have to find new allies and uncover ancient secrets if she’s going to have any chance of defeating a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the entire world.

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib (hereafter referred to as Gooseberry Bluff ) is a book that had a lot of good ideas, but suffered a bit on execution. I was originally attracted to it because it seemed like a cross of modern urban fantasy with mystery–and in many respects, it was just that. The issues I had with it are more about how it wrapped up the various plot lines, and what was left to the imagination.

The premise is simple: Joy Wilkins is the new professor of history at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic (GBCCoM), but she’s also an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs (FBMA). Joy’s job as an agent is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she has face blindness; luckily, she is very good at reading auras, so her disability isn’t the end of the world. Very few people (relatively speaking) are good at reading auras. She is assigned to GBCCoM ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of the previous history professor, Prof. Drake, and to investigate the source of demon trafficking within the school. There are some other side stories in the book, and some character- and world-development that is done through the course of the narrative.

The characters are rather interesting and varied. Schwartz emphasized diversity in his characters, something relatively few authors seem to feel comfortable with, and that’s to his credit. The characters–whether they’re the narrator (Joy, the face-blind African American woman who’s also an agent in the FBMA), Andy (the transgender assistant who is biologically a male but self-identifies and dresses as a female and prefers to be referred to with feminine pronouns), the gay president of the college, the Indian FBMA case handler, or the (apparently stereotypical white male) FBMA case handler, to name a few–are all believable and deeply developed. On the one hand, it felt like Schwartz may have been trying “too hard” to be SO DIVERSE but on the other, the diversity and the character traits opened up by this diversity were well-handled; rarely did it seem like a character was diverse just to be diverse.

The world didn’t need much development in general, given that the book takes place in modern-day “Gooseberry Bluff, MN” (a city on the St. Croix river). The rules for the various types of magic weren’t particularly well-defined, but this book wasn’t as much about the magic as it was about the mystery, so that can be forgiven. When needed, such as when explaining the demon-summoning, the rules were at least internally consistent.

The biggest issue I had with the book is that it had a lot of plot lines, and they weren’t all wrapped up particularly well. In addition, perhaps because of all the parallel plot points, the wrap-up to the main story line felt rushed. Some of the plot lines were:
-The main plot line, Joy trying to solve the disappearance of her predecessor at the school and the demon-trafficking
-Related sub-plots of assassination attempts and trying to determine why Joy’s FBMA case manager is trying to keep her off the job
-The president of GBCCoM’s time away from the school
-A romantic relationship between two other professors at the school
-A student (Margaret) who is very strong, magically-speaking, but very novice
-Another professor at the GBCCoM trying to bring back her sister’s soul

In the end, the main plot line was wrapped up but the sub-plots weren’t particularly discussed. I was left thinking that the case manager is just a jerk (he was certainly painted that way), but a lot of time was devoted to him. The main plot line was wrapped up, though with a lot of things falling into place “at the right moment” or Joy “figuring it out” suddenly at the end. The other plot lines were not specifically wrapped up–in fact, one of them was left wide open (the last one I listed). It seems like Schwartz spent so much time doing the world-building, that by the time he needed to wrap up the story, it felt rushed. I wasn’t exactly sure how Joy connected the dots or what exactly happened.

The narration by Janina Edwards was pretty good. There were a few times when I had to back up my recording and re-listen to a few sentences, but I think that was more attributed to awkward phrasing or unusual words than the actual narration. When I closed my eyes, I could see a confident African American woman as Joy–I actually had the picture of my 7th grade reading teacher in my head (thank you, Mrs. Barrett!). If you’re one who likes to listen at greater than normal speed (1.25x, 1.5x, 2x), you might have a hard time–I did. But the book was short enough that I didn’t mind listening at 1 or 1.25x speed.

It will be interesting to see what (if anything) else Schwartz does with this world. I would like to know how some of the other plot lines wrap up, and why Margaret seemed so “important” in this book. I would hope, though, that in future books, less time is spent on world-building and more time is spent telling the story evenly, so that it doesn’t need to end up rushed as this one did at the end.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of Lines of Departure by Marko Kloos

March 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Lines of Departure by Marko KloosLines of Departure
By Marko Kloos, read by Luke Daniels
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 28 January 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 8 discs; 10 hours

Themes: / military sf / basic training / overpopulated earth / battle armor combat / aliens / marriage / mutiny / mathematics /

Publisher summary:

In the sequel to Terms of Enlistment, a desperate battle for interstellar supremacy pits man against man and humanity against aliens in an epic tale of vicious combat and political deception.

Vicious interstellar conflict with an indestructible alien species. Bloody civil war over the last habitable zones of the cosmos. Political unrest, militaristic police forces, dire threats to the solar system…

Humanity is on the ropes, and after years of fighting a two-front war with losing odds, so is Commonwealth Defense Corps officer Andrew Grayson. He dreams of dropping out of the service one day, alongside his pilot girlfriend, but as warfare consumes entire planets and conditions on Earth deteriorate, he wonders if there will be anywhere left for them to go.

After surviving a disastrous spaceborne assault, Grayson is reassigned to a ship bound for a distant colony—and packed with malcontents and troublemakers. His most dangerous battle has just begun.

In Lines of Departure, Marko Kloos picks up where Terms of Enlistment left off. Earth is overpopulated, various terrestrial governments are still warring with one another in space as people colonize the stars, and there’s a new nearly indestructible alien species that appears determined to exterminate mankind.

The combat scenes are crisp and the action flows at a nice clip. For the majority of the narrative, we tag along with Andrew Grayson as he along with his fellow NAC troopers battle the Lanky, the new aliens on the block. Again we are plunged into a universe where the Chinese, Russians, and North American Commonwealth manage to still fight one another in space as they simultaneously battle the eighty-foot tall Lanky.

Kloos writes a nice sequel, but unlike many others, I didn’t feel that Lines of Departure was as strong as Terms of Enlistment. Still, this is a good Military SF book and worth your time. I like the military hardware, interactions between troops and civilians, and the realistic paradoxical bureaucracy that apparently still plagues humanity’s future.

My favorite scene? Andrew Grayson having breakfast with his mother in a small Vermont diner. I like Military SF combat, and Kloos writes good combat scenes. But the breakfast is something special. Character development happens seamlessly, dialogue feels effortless and natural, and there is some genuine emotional growth occurring. I could almost taste the food, smell the coffee, and feel the heft of the menu and napkins.

The ending is good, maybe not surprising, but it’s true to the story and well written. Nice Job, Mr. Kloos. Thank you for not overreaching. You gave me what the story needed, and you resisted the temptation of adding too many whirly-bangs.

Luke Daniels narrates the audiobook, and turns in another outstanding reading.

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. If you’ve read Terms of Enlistment, you’ll want to give this a go.

Posted by Casey Hampton.

Review of Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

March 5, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Terms of EnlistmentTerms of Enlistment
By Marko Kloos, read by Luke Daniels
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 28 January 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 8 discs; 11 hours

Themes: / military sf / basic training / overpopulated earth / battle armor combat / aliens /

Publisher summary:

The year is 2108, and the North American Commonwealth is bursting at the seams. For welfare rats like Andrew Grayson, there are only two ways out of the crime-ridden and filthy welfare tenements, where you’re restricted to 2,000 calories of badly flavored soy every day. You can hope to win the lottery and draw a ticket on a colony ship settling off-world, or you can join the service. With the colony lottery a pipe dream, Andrew chooses to enlist in the armed forces for a shot at real food, a retirement bonus, and maybe a ticket off Earth. But as he starts a career of supposed privilege, he soon learns that the good food and decent health care come at a steep price . . . and that the settled galaxy holds far greater dangers than military bureaucrats or the gangs that rule the slums.

The genre is Military SF. The year is 2108. Andrew Grayson, a welfare kid from the slums, enlists in the armed forces, and the journey begins.

In Terms of Enlistment, Marko Kloos fails to score any points for originality. But I’m okay with that, and you should be too. Yes, Kloos appears to reboot Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. So much so, that some of the similarities are awkward and eerie (see basic training and the coed showers). The big difference between Heinlein and Kloos is that Heinlein was deliberately hyperbolic, whereas Kloos is not. In Heinlein’s universe, humanity fights bugs. With Kloos, we see an overpopulated Earth, the Chinese and Russians still battle the West, and humans have begun to colonize other worlds; we are the bugs now.

Kloos writes in the present tense, and barring a few anachronistic banana peal phrases, the writing is solid and strikes a brisk pace. I liked discovering a narrative where future humans have shed Earth’s gravity but still cling to terrestrial grudges. Kloos doesn’t write a unified humanity gathered in a handholding sing-along, rather, government’s war over resources, and the only way out is bound to military service or the space colony lottery.

I listened to the audiobook, and Luke Daniels delivers another standout reading. Keep up the good work, Mr. Daniels. Each audio cd begins and ends with a musical track overlay, and while it doesn’t completely ruin the audiobook experience, the music is distracting.

If you’re a fan of Military SF, battle armor, and combat, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. Be aware that this story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which is picked up in Lines of Departure, the second book in this series by Marko Kloos. No spoilers here, but I absolutely love the aliens that Kloos creates.

Posted by Casey Hampton.

Review of The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

March 4, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Emperor's BladesThe Emperor’s Blades (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #1)
By Brian Staveley, read by Simon Vance
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 16 discs; 20 hours

Themes: / fantasy / brothers/ monks /

Publisher summary:

The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, their destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it’s too late.

An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.

At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.

I’m not sure what in the description made me choose this book to review. Maybe it was simply the fact that it was the first in a series. Since doing so I’ve seen a bit of buzz about this book, so I was eager to get my hands on my review copy.

This being the first book of a new series, there is a lot of character development and world building to get through. For the most part I think Mr. Staveley does a good job of this, especially as a first time author. However it does suffer from a few slower parts and some predictable twists.

His characters are interesting and have depth. The lore of his world is intriguing. The prologue seems confusing at first, but later on the reader discovers its significance, so just tuck it away for future reference.

For the most part this is the story of two brothers. They just happen to be sons of the Emperor of the largest nation in the world. First there is Kaden, the heir to the throne who is studying with the monks of the Blank God in an isolated monastery. Then there is Valyn, who is training with the Kettral, an elite military force made up of the best of the best.

Both suffer a bit from some of the fantasy school tropes. Valyn especially has his small group of friends and his rival with his group of cronies. However this being a military training facility, things are a lot more serious than bullying in the hallways.

We also get a few chapters with their sister, Adare, who has remained with their father in the capital. These are short, but politically charged. I hope we see a more prominent role from her in the books that follow.  This highlights the main flaw of this book. Like many fantasy books, the women are mostly relegated to secondary characters. They suffer a bit from stereotypes, but I think he does have some strong female characters that just don’t receive as much focus as I’d like. In general, the secondary characters are all pretty interesting and have enough depth so as not to be interchangeable.

Each brother’s story starts off in very different places but eventually converge with one another at the end. Things really pick up when they do. Strange things are happening around both brothers and they appear to be linked to a conspiracy to kill the emperor and his family. This makes for a lot of politics and conspiracy theories.

One of biggest concerns when reading books in a series is how the author chooses to end it. You need to strike a good balance between leaving the reader wanting more and wrapping up the main conflicts of the book. I think Mr. Staveley does a great job here and I’m looking forward to jumping right into book 2 when it comes out.

I’ve listened to a few books read by Simon Vance now, and I always enjoy his narration. Not only is his normal reading voice clear and easy to understand, but he does a variety of voices and accents. His reading definitely added a little extra something to the book. As a first time author, Mr. Staveley lucked out to get such a quality reader. I plan to continue this series in audio as a result.

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of Geomancer by Ian Irvine

February 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

GeomancerGeomancer (Well of Echoes #1)
By Ian Irvine; Read by Grant Cartwright
Publisher: Bolinda Audio via Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: July 2013
[UNABRIDGED] – 23 hours, 47 minutes

Themes: / fantasy / magic / crystals / visions / aliens /

Publisher summary:

Two hundred years after the Forbidding was broken, Santhenar is locked in war with the lyrinx – intelligent, winged predators who will do anything to gain their own world. Despite the development of battle clankers and mastery of the crystals that power them, humanity is losing. Tiaan, a lonely crystal worker in a clanker manufactory, is experimenting with an entirely new kind of crystal when she begins to have extraordinary visions.

The crystal has woken her latent talent for geomancy, the most powerful of all the Secret Arts – and the most perilous. Falsely accused of sabotage by her rival, Irisis, Tiaan flees for her life. Struggling to control her talent and hunted by the lyrinx, Tiaan follows her visions all the way to Tirthrax, greatest peak on all the Three Worlds, where a nightmare awaits her.

The start of this book was promising, but things went off the rails. Then, just as they seemed to be recovering, I found the end to be awful. I think my main problem this book is the characters and their dialogue. In part one of the book Mr. Irvine introduces us to several characters that I despised almost immediately. In part two he seems to be trying to elicit sympathy from the reader via self-pity from internal monologue and sympathetic back story. It might work for some readers, but not for me. At best instead of coming around to like the characters as complex and flawed, I find myself mostly indifferent about what might happen to them.

The main character is mostly likable, although some of her thoughts rubbed me the wrong way. I assume this is another attempt to give her depth through flaws instead of being a hero trope. Maybe my dislike of almost all the characters is just an inability for me to understand their society, but I doubt it. The most likable characters are minor ones who don’t seem to stick around very long. It’s really hard for me to enjoy a book when I don’t like the people I’m reading about.

The main story is interesting. The world is at war with much more powerful alien creatures. Humanity have built machines called clankers in order to be able to fight back, but they are still mostly outmatched. At first this seems more like sci-fi than fantasy, but the clankers are powered by crystals and there a mostly unexplained magical system based on them and their connection to power nodes around the world. So really it’s some sort of mix that has more of a fantasy feel than science fiction.

There are a lot of political and social issues that play into things. With so many young men dying in a seemingly endless war, everyone is expected to produce children to essentially provide the next generation of fodder. Anyone accused of a crime is sent to one of two places depending on their gender. Males are sent to the front lines where they will likely die in short order. Women are sent to “breeding factories” which are exactly what they sound like. Entirely too much time was spent on the breeding factories, and the notion of a society so desperate to survive they force women to sleep numerous partners in the hopes of producing the most helpful offspring as frequently as possible is downright horrifying to me.

This is apparently the second series of Mr. Irvine’s Three Worlds sequence. Having never read the first (The Mirror Quartet), I’m sure I’m missing some references to things from that series. My understanding is this is set hundreds of years later, and possibly on a different world. I never felt lost but it’s possible I would understand more about the crystals and their powers if I had read that series first.

Overall it wasn’t a very good book and it was not as well executed as I would have liked. I found myself cringing at some of the writing in places, especially the dialogue. The ending of the book really was really off-putting – it felt like a bad soap opera on television.

Grant Cartwright, the narrator, is the only bright spot of the book, and a large part of me being able to get through the worst parts. I’m not sure if he exclusively reads books targeted at an Australian audience, but if so that’s a shame. He does a good amount of voices for the various characters and his normal reading voice is clear and easy to understand. Some of his voices are grating, but I think that’s fitting for the characters he is portraying. Maybe this partnership between Bolinda and Random House will bring more of his work to North America. I’d like to see what he does with a better book.

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of Overdraft by John Jackson Miller

February 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Overdraft by John Jason MillerOverdraft: the Orion Exclusive
By John Jackson Miller, Read by Luke Daniels
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours

Themes: / military sci-fi / stock market / aliens /

Publisher summary:
In the twenty-second century, humanity has journeyed to the stars, and found them open for business. And when it comes to protecting that business, Chief Bridget Yang and Surge Team Sigma—her squad of heavily armed space marines—are up to the task. Unfortunately, Jamie Sturm is one problem they can’t just vaporize. When Jamie’s financial schemes bankrupt their expedition, Bridget and her crew refuse to let the rogue stock trader walk away. To save their jobs, the soldiers drag him out from behind his desk—and onto a seemingly hopeless mission to the frontier, seeking to open the most dangerous parts of the Orion Arm to trade. But in turning over every alien rock looking for profit, the hapless trader and his reluctant protectors uncover something that endangers humanity itself.

You should read this book. You should read this book if you like adventuring soft SF. You should read this book if you like funny adventuring soft SF. You should read this book if you like funny adventuring soft SF that doesn’t take itself too seriously. So, should you read this? Only you know. Choose, but choose wisely.

The premise of Overdraft is rather underwhelming. A greedy twenty-second century stockbroker is caught before his insider trading pays dividends. In a strange twist, the stockbroker is forced into trying to earn one hundred billion dollars in one hundred days by selling wares to aliens. In the twenty-second century, Earth has joined a galactic syndicate based on the buying and selling of goods. Imagine a door-to-door salesman in space. Throw in power-armor wearing bodyguards who dislike the stockbroker, and you get a plot that seems like it should just fizzle and blow away. But it doesn’t!

Of course, anytime you try and slap funny onto SF, you know what happens. Inevitably, it always draws comparisons to that author with the alphabetical-friendly last name. We all know the writer I’m talking about. If you don’t, don’t panic! All I’m saying is that it’s not fair to forever compare humorous SF to the work of Douglas Adams. Adams is in his own galaxy. So can we please, please, oh please stop trying to measure all prospectively humorous SF to Douglas Adams?

John Jackson Miller delivers a fun space adventure that follows a fairly tight point-to-point storytelling. It never tries to be bigger/more than it is, and for this I am grateful. I thought the beginning drug on a little. I also didn’t feel the double agent was necessary to the plot, if anything it detracted from the story by injecting unneeded complication, but perhaps this is merely character maneuvering for future works in this series.

Luke Daniels narrates the audiobook. It was my first time hearing Daniels read and I admit to feeling some early trepidation. I soon stopped doubting Daniels. He brings each character to life with such subtle grace that his voice becomes the story’s voice. When this happens, when a reader just “becomes” what they are reading, it’s special.

If you can watch the original Get Smart television program without griping that it’s not James Bond, I think you’ll like this book.

Posted by Casey Hampton.

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