Review of The Corpse-Rat King

December 27, 2012 by · 1 Comment
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SFFaudio Review

The Corpse-Rat King by Lee BattersbyThe Corpse-Rat King
By Lee Battersby; Read by Michael Page
1 MP3 CD / 10 CDs– 11 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio from Angry Robot
Published: 2012

Themes: / Fantasy / Undead / Kings / Mistaken Identity /

Marius dos Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead.

Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King — after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are.

And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.

Just as soon as he stops running away.

I made the mistake of going into this book with too high expectations. It was a comedy fantasy with a criminal protagonist and was narrated by Michael Page. I was hoping for another The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s not. Despite this, I was nearly won over.

This is the tale of the merchant’s son turned-bad Marius. He is a master at assorted cons and gambling. Yet he has nothing to show for his talents. He has picked up, almost by accident and certainly against his better judgement, a dimwit of an apprentice. Surprisingly death seems to bring out the best in Gerd and he is a much more intelligent character after he dies. Whether this is intended I’m not sure, as he is only criminally dim until the point when he dies.

The middle of this book takes Marius on tour of assorted locales, including the delightfully and accurately named Dog Crap Archipelago, before closing in on the target of his quest. As entertaining as parts of this journey were, it felt almost random and aimless. I’m still not sure what they contributed to the whole of the story to justify their presence. Marius is no-doubt meant to grow from these encounters, but it was done far too subtly for me to follow.

The story has a stronger finish as Marius and Gerd embark on a caper to steal a corpse and then escape.

A good concept with great wordsmithing. Sadly the character growth and sense of the world were only given lip service. The plotting and resolution came together more because that was how the story was to finish than that it was where the story actually led. In short, this book needed a few more times through with an editor to tighten up a pretty, but weak story.

Michael Page is a delight to listen to. His characterisation is rich and plummy.

Posted by Paul [W] Campbell

Review of Tales of the Red Panda: The Crime Cabal

December 23, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Tales of the Red Panda The Crime Cabal by Gregg Taylor

Tales of the Red Panda: The Crime Cabal
By Gregg Taylor; Read by Gregg Taylor
Publisher: Audible
Release Date: October 17, 2012
ISBN: 9780986856334
Playing time: 5 hours 53 minutes [UNABRIDGED]

Themes: pulp / heroes / depression era / gangs / zombies / bombs / hypnotism / secret identities / roof tops / grapnel guns

Depression-era Toronto is the setting for Gregg Taylor’s pulp hero The Red Panda and his sidekick The Flying Squirrel. The novel opens with the last of the big gangs in the city being brought to Justice; Police Chief O’Mally railing against the masked vigilantes at loose in his city. While the Press love the hero: defender of the weak, the poor and the downtrodden of society.

Out from the ashes of the many gangs that our hero’s have crushed rises a new gang, The Crime Cabal. This new gang knows that for them to flourish, they must deal with The Red Panda once and for all. But there is more behind the Cabal than a simple gang. When the hulking enforcers of the gang turn out to be zombies it’s clear that this is no ordinary gang.

The Tales of the Red Panda: The Crime Cabal is the first novel set within the same setting as the podcast audio dramas, also written and produced by Gregg Taylor under the Decoder Ring Theatre banner. There is continuity between the podcast and the novel, but the novel does stand on it’s own, even providing an origin story for one of the long running supporting characters. The setting and characters are all introduced with enough background and flare to be fully formed within the novel alone.

Gregg Taylor does a commendable job with the narration and the characters. Of note are the character voices especially as I’ve listened to the audio dramas for some years. Taylor captures the essence of the voices of the characters as they have been portrayed by other actors. For several years in some cases. So, even if you have listened to the podcasts you won’t be disappointed by the the portrayal of familiar characters, and if you haven’t then they come out fully formed characterizations.

My only niggle is that in the first few chapters the narration feels just a little rushed in places, but this passes.

Posted by Paul [W] Campbell

Review of The Fat Man; A Tale of North Pole Noir

December 22, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir

The Fat Man; A Tale of North Pole Noir
By Ken Harmon; Read by Johnny Heller
1 MP3 CD / 5 CDs – 5.5 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Audio
Published: 2010

Themes: / Fantasy / Christmas / Elves / Santa / Noir / Murder / Reindeer / It’s a Wonderful Life /

If you’re looking for a holiday story that’s not yet another retelling of The Christmas Carol, then pick up Ken Harmon’s The Fat Man. Gumdrop Coal is framed for murder after being ousted from the Coal Patrol and he’s out to clear his name.

Fired from his longtime job as captain of the Coal Patrol, two-foot-three inch 1,300-year-old elf Gumdrop Coal is angry. He’s one of Santa’s original elves, inspired by the fat man’s vision to bring joy to children on that one special day each year. But somewhere along the way things went sour for Gumdrop. Maybe it was delivering one too many lumps of coal for the Naughty List. Maybe it’s the conspiracy against Christmas that he’s starting to sense down every chimney.

Take all the Christmas references your sweet tooth can stand and keep going, add in an embittered and betrayed Elf from the Coal Patrol, Reindeer with the panache of top gun fighter pilots, and a spunky girl reporter, Buttercup Snitch, who either only has eyes for Gumdrop or is in on the frame job.

The story is told by Gumdrop Coal, leader and founder of the Coal Patrol, in a wonderful hard bitten noir style. Gumdrop is used to dealing with some nasty customers (children). The Coal Patrol are the guys who work from the Naughty List. After it’s been checked, twice.

Set in Kringle Town with Santa and the Elves. Filled with characters you will have heard from assorted Christmas Fairy. But they aren’t all as you might expect.

It isn’t all candy and Christmas trees; there is also a dark side to Kringle Town. The other side of the tracks: Potterville. If you’ve ever watched It’s a Wonderful Life you should recognise that name.

Gumdrop doesn’t believe Naughty Boys and Girls should be treated the same as their well behaved siblings. That smothering all children in gifts regardless of merit lessens both the gift and the child.

Johnny Heller tells it in a wonderful straight-up noir-style, even when doing the high pitched elves.

Posted by Paul [W] Campbell

Review of The Magician King by Lev Grossman

July 12, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Fantasy Audiobook - The Magician King by Lev GrossmanThe Magician King
By Lev Grossman; Read by Mark Bramhall
13 CDs – Approx. 16 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Published: 2011
ISBN: 1611760259
Themes: / Fantasy / Magic / Wizard School / Alternate Worlds / Gods /

What does it mean to be the Hero on a Quest? What does it cost? Perhaps this is something you might want to find out before you go looking everywhere for one.

It is two years since the final scene in The Magicians (Read the Review). Quentin Coldwater is now one of the Kings of Fillory, that Narnia-esque fantasy land from the series of books he read as a child. Fellow King and Queens are fellow Brakebills Academy graduates Elliot, the self-obsessed fop, and Janet with whom Quentin had a very brief dalliance, with tragic consequences. There are to be two Kings and two Queens of Fillory with Quentin’s pre-Brakebills friend Julia taking the fourth crown.

Quentin is still emotionally scarred from the tragedies of the first book and is struggling to find a reason in his life. Again this leads him towards a search for a Quest. Despite being a King in a magical realm where you would have to go far out of your way to prevent the land from producing a bountiful harvest. It still isn’t enough, Quentin feels the need to be doing something important. One thing the Fillory was good for in the books about it that he read while growing up, was that the Chatwin children always had a quest to complete when they visited.

After a false start on a quest involving a madly thrashing over-sized clock-tree, Quentin embarks on a trip to the most remote island of the realm of Fillory. To collect on unpaid taxes. He was getting desperate to find his quest and this come up at the wrong time. Never mind that the cost of outfitting the ship and getting there would out strip the value of the unpaid taxed several times over.

Accompanying Quentin on his fools quest is Queen Julia. In The Magicians Julia was the school friend that also sat the Brakebills entrance exam, but didn’t make the cut. Half of The Magician King is told from Julia’s perspective, as we follow what brought her from failing that exam to where we found her floating in the air beside Elliot and Janet at the end of The Magicians. This half of the book is the more compelling of the two as we learn about the world of Magic that isn’t controlled by the establishment as exemplified by the Brakebills Academy.

The main quest that Quentin and Julia follow, The Search for the Seven Golden Keys of Fillory, inadvertantly takes them out beyond the furthest isle of Fillory and lands them in the one place neither of them ever wanted to be. Back home of Earth. Although Earth isn’t as magical as Fillory, there are still wonders here to be found, such as Dragons.

Julia is the real treasure in this novel. A minor character in the first book, she rivals and surpasses Quentin for the position of protaginist. Although half the book is written from Quentin’s perspective, you should pay close attention to Julia. The two halfs tell of the terrible path that this poor tortured woman drove herself along after glimpsing the secret world of Brakebills. She is a broken and empty shell as Queen Julia, slowly finding parts of herself as she and Quentin struggle to find the Keys that will prevent Magic from dissappearing from all of the different realities. Especially important to Fillory as it can’t even exist without Magic. For the Old Gods have returned. No, not Cthulu. The Gods who created the Neitherlands, and accidentily left open the loophole that allows humans to do magic at all.  Something got there attention and now they know that there is a loophole, and they are working to close it.

Quentin and Julia are both compelling characters. Quentin is still a bit of the Emo kid he was in the first book and his desire to be the Hero teaches him the cost real Heros must be prepared to pay. Julia through the two storylines has a woderful depth to her. She isn’t necessarily likeable, she is even more obsessive then Quentin in the flashback story. An obsession that costs her dearly.

Grossman’s world of Magic, although having some of the trappings of a Narial-like fairytale, it has much more in common with the original dark fairytales before they were sweetened for Victorian children. Magic is powerfull and the consequences, when they come, are swift, severe and utterly pittyless. We do get to see the awesome potential of the Magic that Quentin wields as he finds in himself the real Magician King. What he and his friends had been doing before was just playing with kid-gloves.

Mark Branhall again narrates, bringing out each character well and maintains consistent voices for characters from The Magicians.

This is a more developed narrative than the first book, which stood well on it’s own and didn’t leave you feeling there was a need for a sequel. The Magician King‘s story is also self-contained, but you should have read book one to appreciate it properly.

Posted by Paul [W] Campbell

Review of The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod

April 27, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

AUDIBLE FRONTIERS - The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeodThe Summer Isles
By Ian R. MacLeod; Read by Steve Hodson
Audible Download – Approx. 13 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2012
Themes: / Alternative History / Dystopia / History / Fascism / Homosexuality /

I have always been intrigued by alternative histories. Unfortunately my knowledge of history sometimes limits my enjoyment, being more of an overview of the subject. I often can’t tell if an event has been changed, and if so, whether it is significant or not. In some of the better alternate histories you can get away with not knowing too much about the period and still enjoy the story. Thankfully, in this case, I had recently been reading a history of Europe covering the same period from the early 1910’s to 1940.

MacLeod’s The Summer Isles is set primarily in a 1940 where Great Britain lost The Great War in 1918. America doesn’t enter the war and France makes an appeasement with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany. The result is that Britain, not Germany, is left in a state of shock, feeling betrayed by their supposed allies. A young soldier, John Arthur, rises to power in the bleak years that follow, suggesting a parallel to Hitler, who gets only a single reference, never having the opportunities to gain power that losing the war afforded. The great Empire that was Britain is stripped away in the reparations following the war. That sense of betrayal is used to fuel Arthur’s rise to power as he brings in his political movement “Modernism”. John Arthur’s portrait hangs everywhere, even in the men’s public toilets.

Modernism is a very British take on fascism and drove several of the same horrors that Naziism did in our own history. Jews, homosexuals, intellectuals, the Irish and any and all other ‘deviants’ are persecuted and ultimately removed from the new Modernist society. The Jews in particular are sent to be “resettled” on the eponymous Summer Isles.

The story is told by Geoffrey Brook, a secretly homosexual Oxford history Don, who had some prestige for having been a favourite teacher of John Arthur as a child. Brook is in his 60’s in 1940 when he receives the news that he has at terminal lung cancer.

Brook, in trying to reconcile himself with his past, recounts in flashbacks the one true love of his life that he lost in the Great War. More flashbacks fill in the years before and after that war; several of the scenes flowing together with the present day as Brook’s mind drifts in and out of his reminiscences. Particularly when he visits some of the same locations.

MacLeod’s writing is excellent, at times didactic, as the historian narrator recounts past political and social events, yet by turns touching, confused, detailed and frightened as more personal or recent events are recounted. Slow at times, this fits will with the drifting recollections of the narrator as the hidden story is gradually revealed. The final act of the novel moves at a much faster pace, while still holding convincingly onto the character of the narrator. The Summer Isles was nominated for the John C Campbell Memorial Award, the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and the World Fantasy Award.

The audio narration by Steve Hodson fits the character perfectly. The weariness with life, the broken rapture at prized but lost moments of love and of lust are all perfectly portrayed. He even nails virtually all of the Scottish pronunciations; a pet peeve sf mind, being Scottish myself, with several other narrators.

Posted by Paul [W] Campbell

Review of Out of the Dark by David Weber

October 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Science fiction audiobook - Out of the Dark by David WeberOut of the Dark
By David Weber; Read by Charles Keating
17 hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: 2011
Themes: / Science Fiction / Military / Aliens / Alien invasion / Historical /

No one would have believed in the early years of the 15th Century that human affairs were being watched from the orbiting ships of the Galactic Hegemony’s Survey Force. No-one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinised as the French and English forces advanced towards each other across the field of Agincourt. Few men even considered the possibility of life more vegetarian than ours and yet, from their survey ships, minds immeasurably more craven than ours, regarded this Earth with horrified revulsion. And slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.

David Weber attempts to take the traditional alien invasion and add an unusual twist. The twist, unfortunately, isn’t brought to fruition until very nearly the end of the book, where it clangs into place more like a late addition, a Deus Ex Machina.

Out of the Dark starts as a typical alien invasion: ships arrive in-system, observe us for a while to find where the big cities and military bases are, then strike them from orbit. Wipeout the majority of the population and then attempt to sweep in to rule over the cowering survivors. Shock and Awe. Unsurprisingly the aliens discover how tenacious we humans are. They struggle to comprehend why we are unhappy about having half the population of Earth wiped out in an afternoon. Is there something wrong with us? Are we not civilised?

In the Galactic Hegemony vegetarianism is the norm for intelligent star-faring races. Omnivores and carnivores being too aggressive to develop the required technological base required to reach the stars without wiping themselves out. There is one exception to this rule, the Shongairi, and they make the other races in the Hegemony nervous just by existing. So, in an attempt to weaken the Shongairi, the Hegemony grant them the right to colonise three other worlds, including one discovered some 500 years before. A world that also has the pacifistic Hegemony worried.

According to the Colonisation rules of the Hegemony, any race that has not advanced enough technologically are fair game to be colonised. Naturally their assumption is that Earth, being populated by a crazy race that commits such bloodthirsty battles as that observed at Agincourt five centuries earlier, will still be very low on their technology scale. The Shongairi are then somewhat surprised to find that we have developed so far as we have, indeed possessing some technologies that rival their own. We may still be trapped upon our home planet, but we have advanced computer technology and encryption techniques that make them think we should really be classed at a level where we would be granted a protected status. Considering the expense of the time and resources involved in the launch this offensive, the Shongairi Commander decides to sweep that data under the carpet and hope that no-one notices. Bombing us back to the stone-age to hide the evidence if necessary. And thus the invasion goes ahead and half the world’s population is lost to a kinetic bombardment.

The novel follows several characters, although most are expended showing how effective our weaponry is against an alien ground force that expected to face nothing more advanced than a bow and arrow. They are expended in that they demonstrate, repeatedly, that the Shongairi react with overwhelming orbital strikes. This pattern repeats several times through out the book and does become a little tedious.

The Shongairi alien nature is basically that of a predatory pack animal, almost canine in nature. Their philosophy is that when faced with an overwhelming opponent you surrender. That humans refuse to acknowledge the Shongairi’s superiority confuses them. This mentality reminded me a lot of the elephant-like aliens from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Footfall from the ’80’s.

The characters include Master Sergeant Stephen Buchevsky who finds himself a passenger on a military cargo plane flying over Eastern Europe when the aliens strike and his plane is force to make a crash landing. With only a handfull of other US personnel from the plane he begins gathering locals around him as he becomes their protector. He joins up with a local group who’s charismatic leader seems to be too friendly, helpful and successful at defending against the Shongairi. Buchevsky is a gee-shucks hero doing the best he can.

One of the other main characters is Dave Dvorak. Or, as I think of him, Dave “Mary Sue” Dvorak. Dvorak is one of the most prepared people to hide out in the Carolina hills, in what reads like a palatial cabin with his family and friends. Although he actually does very little plot-wise he becomes a middle-man for lots of other survivors in the area and through these contacts we hear about much of what is happening in the world. When we aren’t watching sacrificial attacks against Shongairi troops. We do get to hear in excruciating detail how, over the previous few years, he and his brother-in-law converted a family cabin in the woods into a home away from home, complete with redundant power generators, hidden food and weapon caches and a huge underground fresh water tank.

We are also shown the invasion from the alien’s perspective. Much of their emotions are expressed in the positioning and twitching of their ears, reinforcing the K-9 impression that their omnivore and pack nature suggests. There is almost no physical description of them, that I remember, beyond this.

The cover blurb talks of the survivors receiving help from an “old enemy”. I’m not going to spoil this aspect of the book, although I guessed it just from reading the blurb and was actually looking forward to it. Other readers have claimed to have been blind-sided by it. I can see why, but only if they simply hadn’t read the book cover. It is not a genre I’m aware Weber has written in before. I was disappointed with the execution of this aspect. The surprise element doesn’t feel integrated into the book as a whole. It really felt like the story had originally been written without it, then realising that he had dug a hole too deep for humanity to get out of, he had to go back and add this in to tip the scales in our favour. The conclusion wraps up very quickly; like a TV series been told they are being cancelled and only have two episodes to wrap everything up. Or he got bored with the story and wanted to finish it and move on to something else.

And yet, this is not the worst aspect of this book for me. I have also been listening to Weber’s Safehold series, but have abandoned it after the third book, in large part due to this flaw. Weber has started writing massive monologues for many of his characters that run on for tens of minutes at a time. They are both internal and external discourses where the characters go into minute detail about what has already happened, their current position, beliefs, expectations and plans. Two or three times per book I could swallow, but this feels like it is becoming Weber’s go-to method of filling out a scene. They feel completely unnatural, especially when it is one character talking at another. In some situations this would be okay, a specific character who was prone to this sort of thing, or that the situation called for the character to speak for such an extended time, without any apparent aide-memoire or time to prepare. Even if it helped to move the plot on quickly, I might be tempted to forgive it, but it seldom does. It is often a repeat of information we already know, explained from the current character’s slightly different perspective. Yet not actually adding anything to the story other than word count. Unfortunately any interruption to my listen during one of these monologues meant that when I returned I had no little or no idea who was talking. I could eventually infer who was talking, after a few minutes, based on the geography and names of characters they mentioned, but seldom from how the character spoke. Neither the writing nor unfortunately the narration had enough colour when it came to most of the character voices.

The narrator, Charles Keating, does well with most of the book, especially the alien lisping Shongairi. Unfortunately he too struggles to bring life into Weber’s indigestible, interminable speeches.

This had the potential to be an interesting hybrid of genres, but really feels like something bolted on at the end. Weber’s editor needs to get tough with him and curtail those endless monologues.

Posted by Paul [W] Campbell