Review of The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

SFFaudio Review
Magician's LieThe Magician’s Lie
By Greer Macallister; Performed by Nick Podehl and Julia Whelan
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication date: 13 January 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours

Themes: / magician / illusion / crime / unreliable narrator /

Publisher summary:

Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel in which the country’s most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband’s murder—and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence. The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear. But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free…and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.

The description for this book says it’s a blending of Water for Elephants and The Night Circus but I really get much Night Circus from this. It really was more The Prestige (movie version) in a Water For Elephants setting because it’s all about a traveling illusionist. The description had me expecting more in the realm of fantasy but I still enjoyed it over all. While not a big part of the book, this isn’t for the squeamish as there were a few moments that I almost turned it off because of some sadistic/masochistic moments and female assault in the book.

Why is this book more like The Prestige than The Night Circus? The Night Circus had fantastical, unexplained magic happening while The Prestige is all about illusionists who are competing for audiences. There are several illusions described in this book that got me thinking about The Prestige. Another big element in here was the unreliable narrator. Much of the book is a frame story told from the perspective of the main character in the first person so you are often wondering if what they’re telling is true…just like in the movie version of The Prestige (the book was a bit different).

As for the audio side of things, the narrator performance was passable but nothing fancy. Julia Whelan has a neutral, flat tone that I didn’t like so much at first but I acclimated to as the book went on. Nick Podehl did a good job but wasn’t what I hoped for from him compared to others I’ve heard him narrate. I could go either way on recommending this for audio or paper, but the usage of two narrators for a frame story is pretty nice; especially since each part is from a different persons perspective so that the voice of the narrator is essentially their voice.

Posted by Tom Schreck

Review of Plague Year by Jeff Carlson

SFFaudio Review

Plague YearPlague Year (Plague #1)
By Jeff Carlson; Performed by Jeffrey Kafer
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 9 hours
Themes: / plague / disaster / nanotechnology / survivalists /

The nanotechnology was designed to fight cancer. Instead, it evolved into the machine plague, killing nearly five billion people and changing life on Earth forever.The nanotech has one weakness: it self-destructs at altitudes above ten thousand feet. Those few who’ve managed to escape the plague struggle to stay alive on the highest mountains, but time is running out. There is famine and war, and the environment is crashing worldwide. Humanity’s last hope lies with a top nanotech researcher aboard the International Space Station—and with a small group of survivors in California who risk a daring journey below the death line.

The first half of Plague Year grabbed my attention thoroughly. The plight of scattered survivors, barely eking out an existence on mountaintops after a plague has wiped out 99% of human civilization, fascinated me. Carlson described material and psychological conditions with great clarity.

It was also a very disturbing, sometimes horrific first half of a book. The first line welcomes us to cannibalism, and we move on to a variety of privations, torments, and deaths. Shifting perspective from a California mountaintop to a clutch of astronauts in orbit only heightened the sense of agony. This is no cozy catastrophe.

The setting alone would have been compelling, but Carlson adds hefty plot drivers to haul us along with even greater assurance. Our peak survivors learn of another group, and have to work out how to respond. The astronauts might be able to solve the plague, if only they could descend. And one survivor seems to know an awful lot about the end of the world.

The second half advances these plots, yes, and knits them together. But then Plague Year becomes a different book. Things shade from horror into action, from survival to small unit tactics. A political plot arises, but never really receives its due. And then we have a series of gunfights, standoffs, and problem-solving scenes which end up far too optimistically for what I expected. I did enjoy the expansion of the science plot, verging into hard science. But I missed the initial horror, and even the ongoing torment of one character, Sawyer the nano co-instigator, didn’t slake my awful appetite. Heck, I like playing The Long Dark for pleasure.

I listened to this book instead of reading it, and commend the reading by Jeffrey Kafer. He read the novel with mordant intensity, a splendid voice for bitter action. I’d be happy to hear Kafer read noir fiction or, well, anything bleak.

So I recommend listening to this, if possible. If your tastes are as Grand Guignol as mine, focus on the first half. If you are gentler than I, dear reader, rest assured that things do get better.

Posted by Bryan A.

Review of Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

SFFaudio Review

Cover of Steelheart by Brandon SandersonSteelheart
By Brandon Sanderson; Read by Macleod Andrews
Audible Download – 12 Hours 14 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Published: 2013
Themes: / Dystopia / Apocalypse / Superheroes / Revenge

Brandon Sanderson, best-known for putting the finishing touches on Robert Jordan’s sprawling Wheel of Time series, has also crafted several fantasy epics of his own, including the Mistborn trilogy, Warbreaker, and the ambitious Stormlight Archive saga. Now, with Steelheart, he tries his hand at near-future dystopian fiction for young adults. Begin customary blurb. I don’t normally post the entire synopsis for a novel, but I feel this one encapsulates the themes and tone of the book rather neatly.

From the number-one New York Times best-selling author of the Mistborn Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, comes the first book in a new, action-packed thrill ride of a series – Steelheart. Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.

But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.
Nobody fights the Epics…nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart – the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning – and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He’s seen Steelheart bleed.

And he wants revenge.

How well does Sanderson make the transition from fantasy to science fiction? Unsurprisingly, spectacularly well. This is for several reasons. First, Sanderson is a professional writer par excellence. I may not like everything he writes, but I can’t deny that it’s all of the highest quality. Second, his elaborate, sometimes byzantine magic systems, with their complex rules, exceptions, and counter-exceptions, are more akin to science. To invert Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom, any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Likewise, Sanderson’s complex magic systems are distinguishable from the impressive technologies of Steelheart in name only. The novel’s villains, the superhuman Epics, would be at home in many of his worlds. Finally, Sanderson has experience writing for a younger audience, so he knows how to shape a story to the tastes of youth.

But don’t let the YA moniker fool you; Steelheart is a deeply emotional, nuanced, and grown-up book. Only its pared-down vocabulary, simple structure, and quick pacing belie its target audience. The stakes are high. I would compare the book’s overall feel to the last few Harry Potter books. Both feature a rag-tag group of misfits fighting against unimaginable power, impossible odds, and the darkest corners of human nature. Yes, the supervillainous Epics, like most supervillains, are a cipher for the worst human qualities: arroagance, anger, deception, and hate.Any young reader who thoughtfully finishes this book will be forced to confront very grown-up questions of right and wrong, friendship, loyalty, faith, and revenge. These themes might be more boldly drawn than they would be in a work for adults, but they’re not so boldly drawn as to stray into the dangerous realm of caricature or didactic.

I have only one minor but frequently recurring complaint about Steelheart. As a disciple of Robert Jordan, Sanderson likes to use elements from the world as curses and expletives. So, the characters are frequently heard to exclaim “Calamity!” after the red comet hovering in the sky. “Sparks!” is another oft-repeated expletive. In my view, Battlestar Galactica‘s “frak” is the only expletive to pull the effect off convincingly. In Sanderson’s works, as in Jordan’s, the device feels contrived, and jolts me right out of the narrative. The only thing that makes this offense remotely excusable is that the book is intended for the innocent eyes and ears of younger readers, but I still think Sanderson could have found a better way.

Macleod Andrews makes Steelheart a joy to listen to. He flows effortlessly from the youthful voice of protagonist David, to the gruff voice of the Prof, leader of the Reckoners, to the booming voice of Steelheart himself. Some audiobook connoisseurs might find his narration a tad melodramatic, but I can imagine younger readers reveling in Anderson’s adrenaline-fueled rendition of the action scenes. He also lends a light air of levity where it’s appropriate, counterbalancing the novel’s dark themes and bleak setting.

Steelheart is the first novel in a projected series, but Brandon Sanderson’s a busy guy with about a dozen anvil-sized irons in the fire at any given point in time. So I don’t know when a sequel will be forthcoming. While Steelheart neatly wraps up the main questions raised in the book’s early chapters, it still leaves plenty of room for exploration. What is Calamity? Was it really responsible for the rise of the Epics? What’s happening elsewhere in this wide, newly-devastated world. I can’t wait to find out.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of The Gunslinger by Stephen King

SFFaudio Review

*Introducing one of our new reviewers – Rob Z. While he waits for his first audiobooks to review for SFF Audio, we thought we’d tide you over with one of his favorite audiobook reviews.*

The Gunslinger by Stephen KingThe Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1) – revised and expanded ed.
By Stephen King; Read by George Guidall
Publisher: Penguin Audio, now available on Audible
Publication Date: 6 October 2003
7 hours, 24 minutes [UNABRIDGED]

Themes: / fantasy / parallel worlds /

Publisher summary:

Eerie, dreamlike, set in a world that is weirdly related to our own, The Gunslinger introduces Roland Deschain of Gilead, of In-World that was, as he pursues his enigmatic antagonist to the mountains that separate the desert from the Western Sea in the first volume of The Dark Tower series. Roland, the last gunslinger, is a solitary figure, perhaps accursed, who with a strange single-mindedness traverses an exhausted, almost timeless landscape of good and evil. The people he encounters are left behind, or worse, left dead. At a way station, however, he meets Jake, a boy from a particular time (1977) and a particular place (New York City), and soon the two are joined, khef, ka, and ka-tet. The mountains lie before them. So does the man in black and, somewhere far beyond…the Dark Tower.

The start of an epic journey. Or is it? The start I mean.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

Why? To what purpose? How long has he been chasing him? Ah my friends, these are but a few of many questions.

The journey is the key, and here we throw our lot in with the Gunslinger as he speeds towards his goal. Will we ever reach it? One must continue the journey with Roland to find out. And so I have. Again.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book. It’s probably my least favorite in the series, and yet it contains some of my favorite moments.

The glimpses into Roland’s childhood that are a large part of what makes Wizard and Glass one of my absolute favorite books are present in this book with much smaller doses. The story of Roland’s coming of age in particular is one I could listen to again and again (and so I have, say thankee-sai).

Another particular favorite of mine is Tull. It gives us a glimpse, and it just a glimpse of who the Gunslinger really is.  It is here that Mr. King makes a revision in a scene I’m not sure I agree with.  It’s not a “Han Shot First” re-write for me, but one I felt un-necessary that tries to offer some forgiveness for Roland’s actions.

That said. I love this book. The original book is actually a collection of  5 stories that were published in a magazine over the span of about 3 years. Mr. King revised the book in 2003.

For the most part, the revisions help to fill out the story and clear up some continuity issues that Mr. King hadn’t worked out when he first wrote them. You could maybe call it ret-con, but I really consider it more of clarification of detail that was lacking.

I’ve always wondered why so many people don’t like this book. My friend listened to it with his brother. He almost quit the series right there. His brother did. I’ve seen many people recommend skipping this book outright and coming back to it at the end. I suppose that would work, but the need for it is beyond my comprehension.

I thought maybe this re-read many years since my last around the time of the final 3 books release in the mid 2000s would shed some light on it. It did not.

Maybe it’s a sense of nostalgia. Maybe because I first read this book before many of the long sprawling epics I’ve tackled since. But their are certainly other books I enjoyed as a younger man that I no longer enjoy as an adult.

This book isn’t one of those. To me it offers you a glimpse and a promise of all that is to come. For that I must again say Thankee-sai to Mr. King.

I listened to the audible version of the revised edition of this book. The reader is George Guidall.

He was enjoyable enough, and his voice seems suited to the tale. I opted to do an audio-book re-‘read’ of the series as my friend has been experiencing it for the first time and I find my memory of it lacking.

One of the things lost by doing the audio however is the artwork. I have 1-4 in trade paperback by Plume (with both the original text and updated version that this audiobook contains) and the original hard cover releases of 5-7. The Plume editions contain some, but not all of the artwork contained in the original hard cover releases.

Some may not welcome the art, as they prefer to let their own imaginations paint the pictures, but I’ve always been lacking in visual imagination so I welcome the inspiration to help my brain fill in the rest. I plan to make it a point to re-visit the art at some point as my re-read continues.

Review by Rob Zak.

Recent Arrivals: The Woodcutter by Kate Danley

SFFaudio Recent Arrivals

Woodcutter by Kate Danley

The Woodcutter
By Kate Danley; Performed by Sarah Coomes
Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 7 discs; 7 hours, 46 minutes

In her first foray into fiction, Kate Danley was awarded with the Garcia Prize and an Indie Book Award for The Woodcutter.  The description makes it sound like it will slip right into our current fascination with fairy tales retold and retooled:

“Cinderella is dead and one of Odin’s hellhounds has gone rogue. The Woodcutter, protector of peace between the Twelve Kingdoms of Man and the Realm of Faerie, is charged with finding the beast and returning him to the Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, it seems the forces of evil have other plans. It is a race against time as the Woodcutter travels east of the sun and west of the moon, up beanstalks and down to the bowels of the earth to unravel a mystery that can only be described as Grimm.”

Posted by Jenny Colvin

Review of Legend by Marie Lu

SFFaudio Review

Legend by Marie LuLegend
Written by Marie Lu; Read by Steven Kaplan & Mariel Stern
9 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Published: November 2011
ISBN: 9781611760088
Themes: / dystopia / thriller / romance / YA /

A dystopian novel set in a future where The United States of America is a forgotten memory, Legend is part science fiction, part thriller, and part romance aimed at young adults.

The story is set sometime in the future in what is now California. The USA is apparently long-gone and instead, North America is divided into The Republic and The Colonies, which seem to be at odds. Generally it seems that The Republic is the western part of the US while The Colonies are the eastern part. From clues in the text, the reader is also lead to believe that The Colonies have more technology than does The Republic, at least in terms of weapons and possibly medicine. The reader doesn’t learn much else about The Colonies in this book, since the story is centered on two youth in The Republic. However, it is the first in a planned trilogy and it’s possible that future books will explore The Colonies more.

The Republic seems to be a militaristic state. The poor are looked down upon and the “rich” seem to be the ones running the police/militia. Through context clues, we find that nobody–not even the “rich”–are safe from government snooping. There is a plague that seems to mostly impact the poor; the rich get vaccines every year for protection. As a result of the plague, there are regular inspections and “plague checks” of those in the poor areas of town. There are also a lot of natural disasters. Hurricanes occur quite frequently, with co-commitant flooding. Earthquakes are also somewhat regular happenings. Most of this, though, forms the background for the main story.

The bulk of the story surrounds two youths, Dey and June, who are on opposite ends of the class spectrum. Relatively early, we learn that all youths have to go through “The Trials” at age 10. These trials affect ones position in society. Those who do well are allowed to go on to high school and a sort of college, to become leaders in politics and the military. Those who do average are given blue-collar jobs. Those who fail become wards of the state, destined to do menial tasks for their government. Dey failed his trials. June is the only one known to have aced them. Rather than be resigned to his fate, Dey has escaped from the government and spends his time as a bit of a loner, working to help the poor–in particular, his family–by stealing from the military/government. He’s particularly good at this and is actually the most wanted criminal in The Republic.

The story itself builds in a rather predictable fashion from there. Dey’s family is marked as one that gets the plague. Realizing this, Dey decides to steal the necessary antidote from the hospital. As he escapes, he ends up killing June’s brother, Metteaus. June, a top student in the militaristic school, is graduated early and put on the case to try to catch her brother’s killer. While trying to find the murderer, June goes undercover and ends up getting rescued from a fight by Dey. At this point, she doesn’t realize that Dey is who he is, and they strike up a sort of friendship. Eventually, June figures out Dey’s identity and aids in his capture by the police. However, having spent time with him, she has a hard time believing that Dey killed Metteaus. She ends up doing more investigation and learning many uncomfortable truths about The Republic and many of her long-held beliefs are called into question. I won’t spoil any more plot details here…

Legend is a fairly typical dystopian novel. It centers on an oppressed lower-class in society and a privileged upper class that mostly is kept in the dark about how the society works and what is really going on. As with many books like it, the protagonists (June and Dey) are resourceful and intelligent…and to some extent, rebellious. Lu doesn’t explain all of the mysteries in this book. At one point, a character calls “The United States” a legend of the past, and the reader isn’t told how society has gotten to the state its in. It seems reasonable, though, to assume that most of the society doesn’t know its own history, since they barely know the reality of the current state of affairs.

Fans of The Hunger Games will recognize key elements common to both books/series. That’s not necessarily a bad thing…while Legend is fairly predictable, it was still enjoyable enough. This is a science fiction novel aimed at the young adult crowd and isn’t particularly deep on ideas. Lu wraps themes common to the genre in a fast-paced plot. There’s nothing groundbreaking, but fans of the genre probably won’t mind. That said, I’m not sure I need to read the rest of the trilogy. It will be interesting to see where Lu takes it.

I listened to the audio version of this book. There were two narrators. The book is written from the viewpoints of Dey and June and alternates between these viewpoints. Mariel Stern read the parts from June’s point of view, Steven Kaplan read the parts for Dey’s. The reading was fine, though nothing particular stood out. Where some narrators do a bit of voice acting, trying to put more emotion into the voices and use different voices for each character, neither Stern nor Kaplan seemed to do that here; it was a more flat rather than dramatic reading. The only “excitement” in the narration came during the climax, where it seemed that Stern read more quickly, as if her reading speed was trying to keep pace with the story. The “flatness” of the reading doesn’t detract from the story, though. In fact, it can be far better than the alternative, as sometimes narration can be distracting if too much acting is done.

All in all, this wasn’t a bad book. Sure, it could have gone more deeply into the ideas instead of focusing so much on the plot…but that’s OK. Not every book needs to be deep. This one was decent and an enjoyable enough quick read. Young adults (and not-so-young adults) who enjoyed The Hunger Games will probably enjoy this one as well.

Review by terpkristin.