Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: "Darklandia" by T.S. Welti

Review of Darklandia by T.S. Welti

There are a number of dystopian YA novels on the market these days, using a number of different approaches in terms of how the bleak futures might be achieved and what form they might take. The best known, of course, is The Hunger Games, in which the future is presented as an openly oppressive regime stifling prosperity and doling out punishment in the form of a fight-to-the-death televised tournament amongst children. Another lesser-known series, which starts with Matched, presents a near-opposite view of a seeming utopia: clean and pristine living, plenty to eat, and no death tournaments. That shrouds a society in which all true freedom - and thus all true living - is stripped away, decisions such as career and mate chosen "scientifically" by the "friendly" government. Naturally, in both series, the rebels want a change, which seems intelligent to the oppressed in the first series and absurd to those in the second.

Darklandia takes something of a hybrid approach. Sera Fisk lives in a future New York City in which water is scarce and rationed, and all citizens must spend an hour a day immersed in a virtual reality game called Darklandia, in which players are forced and encouraged to act out their most violent urges and tendencies before returning to the real world. Mad at your boss? Kill them in the game. Annoyed at your spouse? Have a fling in the game. The game was created in response to a massive, decades-long drought which made water scarce and necessitate the banning of alcohol production; without this game, people acted out these urges in the real world. Eventually, a government formed around the use of the game and rationing of water, as well as the selection of careers and mates. Life is wonderful, of course.

Sera figures out, with the help of the dying words of her "darkling" grandmother, that something's not quite right, however. Over time, she learns of a society that oppresses its people through drugging the water supply to deaden emotions, pain, and the ability to sense reality. "Suffering is optional," they say, so long as you take those rations as prescribed. (If you don't, you'll be "purified" or "raptured.") Words which might provoke questions of the government and its Felicity are expunged; all problems are blamed on the evil darklings - like Sera's great-grandmother and missing father - and their creation of the drought and constant war that turns parts of New York City into a war zone. As Sera wakes, with the help of rebel leader Aaron, she starts to realize that she's never truly lived.

This is a well-written, thought-provoking story that will leave you asking questions about human nature and what we might expect in a future world, and I definitely enjoyed it. I thought Sera fought off her lifelong conditioning a bit too easily, and the ending was definitely not something I would have predicted or expected. Still, this is an enjoyable read for dystopian novel fans, and I encourage such readers to check it out.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review: "First Shift - Legacy (Wool #6)" by Hugh Howey

Review of First Shift - Legacy (Wool #6) by Hugh Howey

There are several marks of a good storyteller. If you finish a work satisfied with the story just ended, yet desperately wanting more - not feeling cheated, yet not feeling as if you've gotten your fill - you've found a good writer. If the plot twists and turns keep you guessing, and thinking, and completely caught off guard without tricking you via deus ex machina or other bizarre machinations, fool you yet leave you realizing the clues were there in plain sight all along - you've found a good writer. And thankfully, there are plenty of men and women able to provide quality reading experiences in meeting these criteria.

What Hugh Howey has managed to accomplish with the first installment of his new Wool / Silo trilogy provides yet another attribute that designates a skilled writer - he's managed to create suspense and tension with a story in which devoted readers of the first five Wool stories (the Omnibus) know, in some fashion, the ending. The dystopian future world of underground Silos, the only thing protecting humanity from air and earth poisoned beyond livability, had to come about in some fashion, and the latter volumes in that series give enough clues that we know what must happen at the end.

Yet the exact nature, the why, is still a mystery, and that is what draws us in.

First Shift: Legacy tells us the story of Troy, one of the earliest leaders of Silo 1, as he awakens from cryogenic sleep to live in and lead this core Silo, the one all the others turn to for advice, guidance, and orders. His is a life of routine, of scripted days and more scripted responses, and many pills provided by doctors. Somehow, Troy feels an emptiness, a need to rebel, a need to chase the vague hint of a memory to find a mystery that haunts his waking and sleeping hours.

We are also shown the story of Donald, a twenty-first century member of the US House of Representatives, who is elected to Congress on promises to clean up corruption and conspiracy, and immediately finds himself drawn into the greatest in the nation's history. He becomes part of a team designing a solution to the nation's nuclear waste problem, a means of safely disposing of fuel rods now depleted yet dangerous, a project directed by the powerful Senator Thurman from Georgia, a man undergoing regular nano-bath designed to repair his aging body and extend his lifetime far beyond historical standards. Donald's job: as a former architect, design self-sustaining structures that personnel working at the containment facility can live in for a year or more should the containment system fail. The buildings are massive, 150 stories high, and come with a strange requirement: build them down into the ground, not up into the sky. Fifty are built, one per state. The project brings him into contact with Anna, the Senator's daughter and Donald's one-time love interest, much to the chagrin of his patient wife, Helen. By the time Donald realizes what's going on, what the Senator and Anna (among others) truly have planned, it's too late.

Howey's ability to bring characters to life, have them struggle internally to find answers that lead them to the truth they seek, is truly memorable. You'll leave this book not only with a deeper appreciation of the depth of the Wool / Silo world, but a desire to read more about Donald, Troy, Helen, Anna, and others. You'll want to go read Second Shift: Order, right now, because though First Shift ends as a complete story, you're left wanting more.

And that's the sign of a truly great writer.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: "Aurora: CV-01 (The Frontiers Saga #1)" by Ryk Brown

Review: Aurora: CV-01 (The Frontiers Saga #1) by Ryk Brown

Ryk Brown's debut novel in The Frontiers Saga shows tremendous promise and compelling, engaging story that will draw readers in.

The premise: On a future Earth recovering centuries after devastation, a Data Ark is uncovered which reaquaints those on Earth with the technology advances of the long-forgotten past, including the secrets to interstellar space travel. In that distant past, humans had traveled to, and populated, several remote planets.

Alas, a conglomeration known as the Jung Dynasty has become a militaristic force, devouring and conquering those remote planets. It won't be long until they set their sights on the remote planet of Earth. Senator Dayton Scott announces his candidacy for the presidency on a platform of non-confrontation, just as his son, Nathan, is accepted aboard an experimental spacecraft called the Aurora, a move at odds with his father's pacifist leanings.

The story quickly moves away from the potential family feud to focus on Nathan's efforts to make his own name aboard the Aurora, which is home to father-daughter team of experimental physicists using the ship as a testing ground. Their invention? Nothing less than a device that will provide Earth with its only chance for survival against the Jung, who have made it clear that they have no intention of allowing Earth to stand independent.

In the course of testing out the new device, tragedy strikes, and Nathan finds himself in an unexpected position of authority, in which his moves no longer determine who wins a training game, but who lives and dies. The growth and maturation of Nathan through the book are an enjoyable sequence to watch, as are his evolving relationships with those who started as friends and peers but who became the crew looking to him to make the decisions they'd need to survive, and to give Earth its best shot for survival as well.

I'd not rank Brown's prose as the most extraordinary out there, but he has an exceptional ability to tell a story. Once the action moved onto the ship and into battle sequences, I had a difficult time putting it down.

I'm looking forward to reading Episode 2 in the near future.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: "It's In His Kiss" by Caitie Quinn

It's In His Kiss by Caitie Quinn

As a reader, I strongly gravitate toward science fiction and fantasy, and all the various variations. The books that most resonate tend to be those which make me think, whether because a tremendous observation about life in general comes through in the writing, or because the concepts explored provide great brain fodder as the peruse ideas about space travel, technology, aliens, or, yes, werewolves and vampires and the like.

It's perhaps surprising that someone with that reading preference is reading and reviewing a romantic comedy. Or perhaps not. Because at the end of the day, I don't read books as textbooks, taking copious notes for a future test. Rather, I read to be entertained. The points listed above are a form of entertainment for me, and skilled writers can pull me into another world of ideas that makes my imagination sing. Yet there's another way that a book becomes entertainment and enjoyment for me. Comedy. Laughter. Smiles.

And I found that in Caitie Quinn's short novel.

Jenna, you see, is a writer, and her editor has informed Jenna that her popular teen character needs to develop a love interest in the next book and experience her first kiss. Long past the first kiss stage and coming out of a difficult relationship, Jenna realizes.she can't possibly portray in writing the emotion that comes with a first kiss without (re)experiencing it for herself. Her friend, a gorgeous head-turned named Lisbeth, demands Jenna accompany her to a bar to see if Jenna can make that happen.

And thus the comedy, laughs -- and smiles -- begin.

Whether it's the highly scientific approach to finding a "victim" for her experiment (which amounts to brute honesty about what she wants and why), or the two good-looking guys who manipulate her into bringing the crowd-pleaser Lisbeth along to an alternate location, or Jenna's secret talents or name... you'll find yourself laughing out loud at the sheer inanity of everything that happens. (I laughed at one point and snorted Diet Coke out of my nose. We don't have Diet Coke in the house. True story, I swear.)

What's great about this story, for me, though, was not the laughs and the silliness. It's that, at the incredibly satisfying end, I simply could not stop smiling. For hours after. Or humming the title song.

Life can present us with plenty of dismal stories and unhappy outcomes, and literature and media can provide us with plenty of examples of the same. It makes the happy endings that much more special, and I think that's where the appeal of this story lies. It's as it we're finally allowed to see someone achieve a goal or a dream, to see the bad guy shot down (figuratively or otherwise), and conclude that justice was done. It appeals to our sense of right and wrong, that a good person can win.

I can finally cheer for the good guy (girl) and see them succeed in the end.

Rating : 5/5 stars

Review: "Empire (In Her Name: Redemption #1)" by Michael R. Hicks

Review: Empire (In Her Name: Redemption #1) by Michael R. Hicks

I've been waiting for a while to read Michael R. Hicks' work, and finally had the opportunity to begin through Empire, the first book in the In Her Name: Redemption trilogy.

We are introduced to the primary character, Reza, as he is witness as a young boy to the death of his parents through the invasion of the Kreelans, and ancient and powerful warrior race now clashing with humanity. Somehow, in the process of trying to escape, Reza manages to come face-to-face with their warrior priestess, and in his defiance and will to live, he manages to slash at her with his lone knife. This act of defiance manages to convince the priestess to allow the boy to live.

Years later, Reza is an orphan living on an agrarian planet utilizing "free" orphan labor to handle manual chores such as removing rocks from soil to provide more arable ground. Now twelve years old, Reza saves the life of a girl named Nicole from the treacherous advances of an adult overseer, and finds himself with his first true love interest. But the Kreelan presence is felt again; they come to the planet to collect the children for an experiment, and Reza is allowed to live, for among those in the invasion party is the priestess who spared his life years earlier. Many others are not so lucky; the Kreelans thoroughly destroy the planet once they leave with their human cargo.

Reza, like the other, younger orphans, is part of an experiment by the Kreelans: do these lowly animals, known as humans, possess souls? Are they worthy of inclusion in The Way, the Kreelan religion? The human children are thrown into the Kreelan warrior boot camp and given a chance to show themselves worthy. Naturally, only Reza survives long at all.

The true heart of the story, however, begins at this point, as Reza fights for acceptance on a world and in a culture and society which believes everything about him - including the fact that he is a "him" - is wrong. He is thought a mere animal, lacking the blue skin and talons of the Kreelans. He is male in a society in which males have been discarded and hidden away. And, in the ultimate insult, his blood does not sing, the Kreelan means of detecting a soul. He is smaller, weaker, slower, and ill-trained. And his trainer/keeper, a girl named Esah-Zhurah, holds all of these prejudices against him.

We see in Reza's story the spirit of those who fight to survive, and even thrive, against great odds. Reza is fighting not just for his survival, but for acceptance and respect. He must learn to fight, must learn societal customs and mores, must learn The Way, and must learn to see the Kreelans as something other than the monstrous creatures who left him orphaned and apart from his first true love, even as he fights for the reputation of humanity among those who would see humanity destroyed. In the process, he may well find his true calling and his true home, as well as his own true love. And he may well have to decide exactly what he's willing to sacrifice to be true to his own nature, as he discovers what that truly is.

I found myself saddened when the story ended, wishing it had continued, and pleased to know that there are two sequels and even other trilogies set in this universe. Thus, more enjoyable reading awaits. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

Rating: 5.0 of 5 stars