Review of 14 by Peter Clines

SFFaudio Review

Cover of 14 by Peter Clines14
By Peter Clines; Read by Ray Porter
Audible Download – 12 Hours 42 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2012
Themes: / Mystery / Science Fiction / Horror

As you might be able to tell from the diverse yet vague range of themes listed above, 14 is a difficult book to classify or review. Much like The Matrix, you can’t really be told what 14 is; you simply have to experience it for yourself. The blurb–or perhaps the term log line would be more appropriate–reads:

There are some odd things about Nate’s new apartment. Of course, he has other things on his mind. He hates his job. He has no money in the bank. No girlfriend. No plans for the future. So while his new home isn’t perfect, it’s livable. The rent is low, the property managers are friendly, and the odd little mysteries don’t nag at him too much. At least, not until he meets Mandy, his neighbor across the hall, and notices something unusual about her apartment. And Xela’s apartment. And Tim’s. And Veek’s. Because every room in this old Los Angeles brownstone has a mystery or two. Mysteries that stretch back over a hundred years. Some of them are in plain sight. Some are behind locked doors. And all together these mysteries could mean the end of Nate and his friends. Or the end of everything….

Aside from giving off a subtle Stephen King vibe, this synopsis doesn’t much help categorize the book either. And yet, in precisely the way book cover pitches are supposed to do, it offers just enough tantalizing hints to draw you in. If I had to pick a single overriding genre for the novel, I would choose mystery. There are indeed some strange goings-on in the Kavach Building, which houses the novel’s motley assortment of tenanets as well as the eponymous apartment number 14. Some of these things are creepy, hence the horror; some are paranormal, hence the science fiction. But ever driving the plot forward is protagonist Nate Tucker’s desire to get to the bottom of it all. The mystery theme is underscored by repeated, almost overdone, references to Scooby Doo. But in terms of literary and historical allusions Scooby and Shaggy are kept good company by the likes of Nikola Tesla and H. P. Lovecraft. Yes, the book is that weird.

What makes it all work and flow so smoothly is Clines’s knack for characterization. The listless protagonist Nate Tucker, the artist Xela with nudist tendencies, the Hindi hacker Veek, the hardcore Christian Andy, and virtually every other character, major or minor, are people whose stories are minor mysteries in their own right. When, pardon my French, shit gets weird, you’re always anchored by this (mostly) likable ensemble. Clines’s writing is also excellent. His background in Hollywood is evident in the novel’s setting and characters, and the third-person narration is likewise cinematic in pacing. It would be easy to see 14 adapted into a movie or, preferably, a miniseries. The novel excels, as a good mystery should, in dropping tantalizing plot hints, only to cut away to more chapters on characterization, spurring the reader to read on and find out what happens next. In the hands of less capable writers this technique can feel like a cheap trick, but fortunately Clines doesn’t overdo it.

The diverse cast of characters poses a potential challenge for narrator Ray Porter, from the feminine cadence of Veek’s Indian accent to the clipped, harried German accent of Oskar the building manager. Fortunately, Porter is mostly up to the task. He handles these characters, as well as a broad range of accents from our own continent, nearly flawlessly. With a few exceptions near the end, his narration manages to feel unobtrusive, almost as if there were no narrator at all and the listener is simply telepathically absorbing the words from the page. I don’t believe I’ve listened to Ray Porter’s work before, but I’ll certainly watch for him from now on.

The book puts a neat little bow on most mysteries, but there are still a few loose tendrils that could serve as springboards for another novel in the same universe. It really was difficult to say goodbye to the characters and the world. In his review for Fantasy Book Critic, Mihir Wanchoo draws several apt comparisons between 14 and the television series Lost. The resemblance is indeed strong. If you enjoy strong characterization and a whirlwind of genre-bending mysteries, you’ll probably love the hell out of 14. And–sorry J.J. Abrams et al.–Peter Clines actually knew where the plot was going.

Posted by Seth

Review of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

SFFaudio Review

Cover of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
By Robin Sloan; Read by Ari Fliakos
Audible Download – 7 Hours 41 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: 2012
Themes: / mystery / technology / cerebral / singularity / metafiction

Every once in a blue moon, a completely off-the-radar book comes zooming in out of left field and smacks you upside the head. I love books about books and bookstores and bibliophiles, so even reading the title was like swallowing a long, curved, gleaming fishhook. The tagline yanked the hook up into my soft palate and began reeling me in:

A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life – mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore.

The story is told from the perspective of down-on-the-heel design school graduate Clay Jannon, who lands a graveyard shift gig at the titular bookstore. Mr. Penumbra is an archetypically mysterious bookstore. Jannon soon discovers that the bookstore is merely a front for a lending library catering to a strange cult-like group of readers. Unable to contain his curiosity despite warnings from the proprietor, Clay investigates, aided in his quest by his artistic roommate, his Silicon Valley love interest, and a host of other quirky and likeable characters.

I know what you’re thinking: mysterious books, ancient cults, and a quest for eternal life–sounds like a Dan Brown novel. Not so! Where Brown’s prose is ponderous, even pompous, Sloan’s writing is equal parts wit and vigor. It often reads like early Neal Stephenson or, at its best, a timeless Neil Gaiman. Many superficial elements bear a resemblance to Brown’s work, but in the end this is a Brownian novel for true geeks. Brown’s wild, far-fetched car chases through Paris streets are replaced by equally far-fetched but far more satisfying night-time raids into a secret library with a DIY book scanner and an epic set piece data visualization scrum which takes place at Google headquarters. The novel explores areas as esoteric and diverse as typography, cloud computing, and archaeology. The real engine driving most modern mystery thrillers is action, but ideas fuel Mr. Penumbra.

Even readers like me who prefer fantasy to future tales will find something to like here, since the bibliographic mystery ultimately hinges on a trilogy of fictitious epic fantasy novels, The Dragon Song Chronicles. To say more would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that even the most die-hard D&D player wouldn’t put down the book wholly disappointed. In one scene, the protagonist obtains a recording of the trilogy read by the author on cassette tape, and, in a nice touch that mirrors the novel’s preoccupation with metafiction, Macmillan Audio renders those particular passages in scfratchy, low-quality audio read by a narrator who stepped right out of the 1980s.

And speaking of narration, Ari Fliakos does a fine job with Mr. Penumbra. The novel is rife with obscure terminology drawing from a diverse wealth of linguistic sources, yet Fliakos makes few if any slips. His youthfully exuberent Clay and his tremulously throaty Mr. Penumbra fit the characters perfectly, as do the voices he selects for most of the other characters. A part of me wishes that Jonathan Davis had narrated this novel, since it then would have felt almost like a more upbeat Snow Crash. But that’s only wishful thinking on my part and not at all fair to Mr. Fliakos. A bad performance could have ruined this otherwise outstanding novel, but his performance does it justice.

The book isn’t perfect. The plot, while engaging, is fairly predictable and formulaic at times. I often found myself easily predicting the next twist. As so often happens in these novels, the romance didn’t quite come off as natural to me, although one could make a strong argument that Sloan intentionally made the love interest ambiguous. These are minor quibbles, however. If anything in this review strikes you as remotely interesting, you should read this book. You won’t regret it.

Posted by Seth

Review of Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

SFFaudio Review

Cover of Quicksilver by Neal StephensonQuicksilver
By Neal Stephenson; Read by Simon Prebble and Kevin Pariseau
Audible Download – 14 Hours 48 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2010
Themes: / Natural Philosophy / History Of Science / Historical Fiction

Let me begin this review by saying that anyone with the cajones to write historical fiction on this scale deserves mad props. Quicksilver, being the introductory volume in Neal Stephenson’s epic Baroque Cycle, spins a dizzying tale of science and adventure on the colorful canvas of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Christendom. Like Stephenson’s massive World War II yarn Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver blends erudite discourse on the nature of the world with high drama and hair-raising adventure. The story sometimes takes a back seat to the intellectual ideas under discussion, but readers not afraid to apply a little mental elbow grease will find a lot to enjoy.

Before diving into an actual review, a note on this audio edition is in order. Audible Frontiers has elected to split the three massive print volumes of the Baroque Cycle into eight audiobooks. They haven’t just taken a metaphorical paper knife to the series, though. They’ve worked closely with Neal Stephenson to ensure the audio volumes have their own cohesion and progression. Neal Stephenson also lends his voice to a brief audio introduction preceding each volume. Thus, this audio performance of Quicksilver comprises only part of the print volume of the same name. I’ve not read the print edition, so I can’t draw any further comparisons.

In typical non-linear Stephenson fashion, Quicksilver narrates the pivotal events in the life of Puritan-turned-scholar Daniel Waterhouse. The story jumps between his youth in the mid-1600s and his later life in the early 1700s. Readers of Cryptonomicon will be familiar with this technique. They’ll probably also recognize our protagonist’s surname, as the Waterhouse family plays a pivotal role in the aforementioned novel. The ageless enigmatic Enoch Root also makes an appearance early on in the novel. Stephenson, to some extent, seems to be following the example of James Clavell, whose Struan family formed the backbone of his Hong Kong novels through different time periods. Having said that, one certainly doesn’t need to have read Cryptonomicon to appreciate Quicksilver.

The similarities between Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver also extend to theme and writing style. Stephenson takes frequent detours to explain the dynamics of a sun dial, the optics of a telescope, or the physics of eighteenth-century seafaring vessels. The digressions feel appropriate to a tale that features the likes of Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, and Gottfried Leibniz. Indeed the title Quicksilver, the common name for mercury, serves as a metaphor for the transition in modes of thinking and reasoning that the novel is trying to highlight. Daniel Waterhouse witnesses the nascent days of experimental science as we know it. The erudite dialogues and monologues sometimes made my eyes glaze over, however, and I was yearning to return to the story.

What saves Quicksilver from sometimes devolving into a mere lecture on the history of science is Neal Stephenson’s vibrant prose. Stephenson writes with the exact precision of a philosopher, but with an eye for earthy metaphors and a sensitivity towards the modern reader. I might quibble with occasional use of language that wasn’t current in the seventeenth century, but must concede that these (usually very minor) transgressions make the work far easier to read and digest. As a lover of language for language’s sake, I found Quicksilver a philological joy to read.

The colorful prose is brought to life by Simon Prebble’s artful narration. Narrating historical fiction can be almost as monumental a task as writing it. How does one lend a voice to the intellectual magnificence of a Newton or a Leibniz? Simon Prebble does a magnificent job, aided by Stephenson’s written cues, of bringing real life and character to most of the novel’s characters. The cast of Quicksilver encompasses a vast ethnic background, from British to Dutch to German to the New World, and Simon Prebble juggles this diversity with ease. Kevin Pariseau narrates only the epigraphs beginning each chapter, which are usually apropos to the following content.

One last observation about Quicksilver: it isn’t really science fiction. Okay, if you want to get pedantic, it’s actually the purest form of science fiction–fiction about science and its development. But the novel certainly isn’t science fiction in the modern genre sense. The ageless (immortal?) Enoch Root figures into the tale, and there are certainly themes reminiscent of science fiction (what is real? how does the world work?), but listeners casually browsing the science fiction portion of Audible hoping for a straightforward science fiction story will be disappointed. Like so often happens in publishing, I assume that the categorization was a marketing decision, by analogy with Stephenson’s more strictly science fiction work like Snow Crash. Still, fans of science fiction with an open mind will find lots to appreciate in these stories.

I’ve begun listening to King Of The Vagabonds, the follow-up volume to Quicksilver. The story shifts gears abruptly in both focus and tone, turning its attention now to the homeless beggar and thief Jack Shaftoe (another familiar name to readers of Cryptonomicon). Clearly the Baroque Cycle has a wide array of stories to tell, and I’m looking forward to following its tangled webs.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

SFFaudio Review

The Bade Itself by Joe AbercrombieThe Blade Itself (The First Law: Book One)
By Joe Abercrombie; Read by Steven Pacey
Audible Download – 22 Hours 18 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Published: 2010
ISBN: 9781409111443
Provider: Audible.com
Sample |MP3|
Themes: / Fantasy / Sword and Sorcery / Dark Humor / Revenge / Violence /

For a couple years now, Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy has been at the top of my to-read list, but as I’m a slow print reader, the series inevitably yielded to more readily available audiobooks. Imagine my delight, then, when I recently realized that Orion Publishing Group had published the series in audio last June. The wait was worth it. The opening volume, The Blade Itself is a darkly humorous tale full of antiheroes and intrigue. Abercrombie’s strong writing and wry wit set The Blade Itself a cut above other novels in the reactionary subgenre of fantasy spawned by George R.R. Martin.

At first blush, the world of the First Law Trilogy looks like your average fantasy world. The bulk of the action takes place in Adua, capital city of The Union, a land with a dotard king facing imminent war on two fronts: the newly-unified North and the Gurkish Empire to the South. The city, and especially its central citadel the Agriont, is teaming with ambitious councilman, posturing soldiers, and brutal inquisitors. The North, as one might epect, is a sparse unwelcoming land peopled by warrior clans recently unified under the iron fist of King Bethod. In The Blade Itself we see only snatches of the Gurkish Empire, but it follows the usual desert formula for southern kingdoms. (Why do most fantasy series seem to be set in the Northern hemisphere?) This opening volume hints at an intricate magic system that underlies and informs the world, but so far it’s rather underdeveloped.

The viewpoint characters bring this seemingly run-of-the-mill fantasy world to life in vibrant color. Each character is an antihero, in some sense of the word. Like George R. R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, and other recent writers, Abercrombie is writing against the tropes of the traditional good-versus-evil format of epic fantasy. Unlike some other writers in this vein, though, Abercrombie rarely seems too self-conscious about what he’s doing. Logen Ninefingers, dubbed the “bloody-nine” in the North, does not read like an anti-Aragorn, nor does Bayaz, First of the Magi, read like an anti-Gandalf. Rather, they’re fully developed characters in their own right.  Then there’s San dan Glokta, survivor of a horrible ordeal of torture at the hands of the Gurkish Empire who has in turn become a torturer for the inquisition. Rounding out the cast is Jezal, a headstrong noble youth determined to win the year’s fencing contest. With the exception of Jezal, these characters have endured tremendously hard lives, so naturally their thoughts aren’t filled with sunshine and butterflies. This is a dark book.

The fun lies in watching these characters come together and interact with one another. As in any good book, too, it’s fun to watch these characters, who we’ve come to empathize with even if we don’t actually like them, overcome their internal and external challenges. The most obvious case is Jezal and his fencing contest, which is brought to a most satisfying concentration. Then there’s Glokta, trying to stay afloat in the political post of Inquisitor, all while struggling merely to get out of bed. Then there’s Logen, fleeing his reputation as the “bloody-nine.” And at the heart of it all is Bayaz, First of the Magi, whose story hints at the direction the series may ultimately take. Bayaz, though not a point-of-view character, drives the plot in many ways, either subtly or overtly manipulating events to suit his needs.

If the book has a weakness, it’s the ending. Endings are always tricky things to pull off, especially in the first novel of a trilogy, where an author must bring the present volume to a satisfying conclusion while enticing the reader to continue with the series. Unfortunately, Abercrombie leans too far towards the latter. While the last hour or two of audio will be a treat for fans of vividly-depicted action sequences, they’re light on any satisfying story development. The ending certainly isn’t bad, it just left me a bit disappointed. On the other hand, it also did its job in whetting my appetite for the next volume.

As alluded to earlier, the standout character in The Blade Itself is perhaps Abercrombie’s deft writing style. Admittedly, it took some getting used to. I remember complaining on Twitter back when I first had a go at reading the print edition that the book was too full of sentence fragments and “said bookisms.” I stand by that complaint. The thing is, the style really fits the world and especially the characters. The dialogue reads like you’re sitting in on the conversation, especially under the standout narration by Steven Pacey. And while I’m not personally a fan of long action sequences, there’s no doubt that Abercrombie writes them masterfully. You can feel every bone-jarring sword blow and taste the tang of blood in the air.

I approached this audiobook with some hesitation. I feared that no narrator could match Michael Page’s performance of Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. At best, I feared, I’d be disappointed; at worst, I wouldn’t even be able to listen to the book in its entirety. Fortunately, Steven Pacey is equal to the task of narrating such an ambitious work. His narration walks the fine balance of capturing the characters’ voices–literally and figuratively–without calling too much attention to them and thereby detracting from the story. The toothless Glokta, for instance, speaks with just a hint of a lisp, a slight slurring. Every now and then, his narration moves a touch too far toward the dramatic, but for the most part it’s spot on.

The Blade Itself, if it were a film, would carry a solid R rating, and therefore isn’t for everyone. Strong language and violence abound. Under its dark veneer of brutality, however, the novel shines with complex characters, compelling writing, and a story that, though not yet fully baked, promises to yield great rewards in subsequent novels.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Free Exerpt of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way Of Kings

SFFaudio Online Audio

The Way of Kings
By Brandon Sanderson; Read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading
Listen Online at tor.com [EXERPT]

Brandon Sanderson’s star has been on the ascent ever since he was tapped to complete Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series. The success of his own Mistborn trilogy, along with the strong reception of The Gathering Storm, have given Sanderson the opportunity and confidence to bring to light a new world that he’s envisioned for years. The Stormlight Archives, of which The Way of Kings is the first volume, may well become Sanderson’s magnum opus, his Lord of the Rings or indeed his own Wheel of Time.

Macmillan Audio has made three chapters available through tor.com.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Warbreaker and The Hero of Ages comes THE WAY OF KINGS (Macmillan Audio, On Sale 8/31), the first volume of The Stormlight Archies: a monumental ten-volume epic fantasy saga in the tradition of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. Macmillan Audio is publishing the audio edition simultaneously with the hardcover from Tor Books, and fans can now preview Chapters 4, 5, & 6 of Sanderson’s anticipated release exclusively at Tor.com. Tor.com previously posted the first three chapters in print, and we are excited to extend this exclusive preview by providing the next three in audio format.

The book is read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, whose voices also bring the Wheel of Time series to life. Registration at tor.com is required to listen, but it’s free and easy.

Hype surrounding The Way of Kings has reached mammoth proportions, but Brandon Sanderson has the writing chops to make good on the promise of another engrossing and innovative epic fantasy.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

SFFaudio Review

Little Fuzzy
By H. Beam Piper; read by Jim Roberts
Audible Download – 6 hours 45 mins [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Jincin Recordings
Published: 2010
Themes: / science fiction / philosophy / extraterrestrial / sentience

Little Fuzzy is a poor man’s, a thinking man’s, Avatar. It tells the story of a capitalistic corporation exploring a far-off planet with a classical name, Zarathustra. While harvesting the planet’s unobtanium brightly-colored sunstones, prospector Jack Holloway discovers a stange new species, and makes it his life’s work to defend the new creatures. Missing are Avatar‘s flashes, bangs, and rich world-building, but the novel more than compensates with intriguing storytelling that both challenges the mind and touches the heart.

Events in Little Fuzzy take place on the planet Zarathustra. The Chartered Zarathustra Corporation owns the world in all but name, and harvests its resources for trade on the intergalactic market. The world itself is poorly realized. Apart from anti-gravitational devices, hovering cars, and super-advanced CCTV lie detectors, very little in the novel suggests a science fiction setting. Guns, paper, and cigarettes predominate. The novel hints at a rich and storied history of the galaxy with its mentions of the Atomic Era, but these allusions never find ample explanation. The novel does take place in Piper’s Terro-Human Future Universe, however, so readers eager to learn more can probably do so in other novels and short stories.

The major exception to the book’s lack of world-building is the wild flora and fauna on Zarathustra around which Little Fuzzy ultimately hinges. Prospector Jack Holloway finds one of the titular foot-high golden-furred creatures, and soon realizes that the fuzzy fuzzy Holloway Zarathustra (yes, that becomes its official classification) exhibits behavior that may point to sapient consciousness. One of the fuzzies soon meets its demise at the hands of a Zarathustra Corporation agent, and Jack Holloway kills another agent in the ensuing scuffle. The rest of the novel explores the question of consciousness through the narrative framework of a criminal trial. Like the works of Isaac Asimov, Little Fuzzy abounds with cerebral dialogue that, at times, reads like a philosophical proof, but never drones on long enough to become monotonous.

The real show-stopper is Jack Holloway’s emotional connection to his newly-discovered species. At various points he fulfills the roles of teacher, champion, and father to the beleaguered little fuzzies. Thiis emotional power pulls the reader by the heartstring’s through the book’s one or two bare spots to a satisfying conclusion.

Little Fuzzy is also a brilliantly-written novel. Some of the fathers of science fiction appear to take themselves far too seriously, but this certainly can’t be said of H. Beam Piper. While the novel hardly qualifies as a comedy or satire, colorful splashes of humor indicate that, though the book addresses intriguing intellectual issues, at the end of the day Piper is having fun as a writer and a storyteller.

Jim Roberts’s performance of Little Fuzzy for Jincin Recordings won’t win any awards, but his tone fits the mood and content of the novel. His reading is strong enough that even the book’s few tedious passages won’t put the listener to sleep.

Originally published in 1962, just two years before H. Beam Piper’s suicide, Little Fuzzy was written at the zenith of his writing career, and it shows. As a proof-of-concept novel about the nature of consciousness, the book could have easily crossed the line between fiction novel and science lesson, as do some of the other science fiction novels of Piper’s era. Sprightly writing and emotion that almost, but not quite, verges on sentimentality make Little Fuzzy a stand-out novel of its time, and indeed for all ages.

As a footnote, John Scalzi recently announced that he’s written a reboot of the series with the blessing of the Piper estate, dubbed Fuzzy Nation, and that he’s currently shopping it around to publishers. The franchise is certainly in capable hands.

Also be sure to take a look at Jesse’s review of the Audio Realms edition of Little Fuzzy

Posted by Seth Wilson