Book Review: The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Fiction: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Considering that The Mars Room is on the short list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and that author Rachel Kushner has twice previously been nominated for the National Book Award, there may not be much left to say in praise of either the book or the writer. The Mars Room is extraordinary. The plot is straightforward enough, but the characters are rich, deep, compelling, and the voice telling their story (sometimes first person, sometimes an omniscient narrator) is honest and unsparing.

 

Romy Hall is in prison for murder. She murdered a man who had followed her from her home in San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she had fled with her young son to escape his attentions. Despite the stalking, the jury only heard about a young woman beating a physically challenged man to death with a child nearby. Romy was sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars, her mother was given custody of her son, and the story begins with Romy on the bus heading to prison.

 

The Mars Room is the name of the strip club in San Francisco where Romy danced and where she met Kurt Kennedy, the man she would eventually kill. The book shifts perspective often, from Romy’s flashbacks to her present situation to other inmates to acquaintances and victims and accomplices of those other inmates and even to Kurt Kennedy in the days prior to his death. Throughout, Kushner is neither judgmental nor particularly sympathetic. Her characters are who they are, they did what they did, and whether the reasons behind the crimes matter is up to the reader to decide. The result is a haunting book that reminds me in weird ways of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Mars Room has nothing directly in common with The Grapes of Wrath (apart from being set in California), but the unforgiving yet nonjudgmental voice telling the stories of people with no legitimate reasons to hope has antecedents in literature. Kushner just does it much better than most other writers.

 

Romy tells about her broken family. Her troubled, immigrant mother. The father she never knew. The child she had to leave behind. The men she spent time with, including the one who sent her fleeing to Los Angeles and whom she later killed. She does want some measure of understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, but has learned not to hope. After her mother dies and her son is made a ward of the state, Romy does hatch some desperate plans to try to “save” him. She recognizes the plans are foolish and hopeless, but does not let that stop her from trying to implement them. Despite her situation, she is a mother who feels compelled to save her son. Yet as her situation may indicate, her judgment and decision-making are not always the best. Kushner lets Romy make her choices, lets those choices play out, and the reader sees how the consequences affect the characters. It is sometimes harsh and there is no “and they lived happily ever after” but the result is a powerful and moving novel that speaks to the heart.

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Book Review: The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty

Book Review: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty

Fantasy: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass is as lush a story as you will find in modern fantasy. S.A. Chakraborty has somehow managed to create a world that is as magical as Arabian Nights with characters that relate to a very modern mindset. The result is beautiful, rich, and promises much more to come.

 

This debut novel was nominated for both a Locus Award and a World Fantasy Award, and has been recognized by several journals as one of the best books of the year. Filled with characters that are both heroic and flawed, the story follows the lives of two characters who live very different lives. Nahri is a thief and con artist who does not believe in magic. She lives by her wits in Cairo, convincing people that she can heal them in exchange for money. Oddly enough, though she does not believe in magic, she actually can heal people. She can also understand any language she hears. Those two talents come together unexpectedly and horribly when she tries to heal a girl possessed by an ifrit, and finds that she can understand the demon inside the child. This leads to a harrowing confrontation, where she is unexpectedly saved by the appearance of a djinn. He takes her on a long and dangerous journey to the city of Daevebad, where they hope to find answers to the questions raised by her extraordinary talents and her lack of memory.

 

Ali is a prince in Daevebad, torn between his love for his family–especially his older brother, who will someday become king–and his pity for the oppressed in his city. When he tries to help the people of his city, he is unwittingly betraying his father, the king. But when he fulfills his duties to the crown, it often comes at the expense of the most vulnerable within the city. These tensions are not eased by the arrival of the mysterious Nahri and her ancient companion, a historic enemy to the throne returning at perhaps the worst possible time.

 

Chakraborty does a masterful job of creating a world that is filled with terror and wonder, danger and delight. Her descriptions of the desert are compelling and real. The heat and dryness, the contrast with places of oasis, the vast distances (even by air carpet) that separate city from city, all carry echoes of other stories set in the desert yet are uniquely her own. The confrontations with the ifrit are terrifying, truly the stuff of nightmares. You can almost taste the dust of Cairo, feel the heat of the desert, and hear the bazaar of Daevebad. I almost felt like wiping the blood off the desk after reading a fight scene between two of the characters. Love and betrayal and kindness and cruelty are the coin of this realm, and Chakraborty’s characters spend all they have and more to reach their goals.

 

Chakraborty also rejects the temptation to answer every question, leaving much to address in the sequels to come. She lets her characters face temptation and fail. Nahri is human–or is she? Ali is loyal to the crown–or is he? Is Nahri’s rescuer a hero or a monster–or could he be both? These are among the questions that are asked, then answered, then have the answers revealed as inadequate. Without revealing too much, I will say that the characters we meet and think we know at the beginning of the book are very different by the time we reach the end of this story–and I cannot wait until the next book comes out in January. (I have already requested it from our local library, so hopefully I am first on their list when it arrives!)

 

Despite occasional scenes of violence, this is a beautiful adult fantasy that would capture the imagination of younger readers as well. Nahri is as well-crafted a heroine as you are likely to find. Ali is the warrior/scholar that many young men might dream of being. Though neither character is as good–or bad–as they may seem at any given point of the story, both are intriguing and unique and delightful and infuriating and so well written. If you like great stories, if you like beautiful settings, if you like fascinating characters, and if you like really good novels, The City of Brass deserves a place on your shelf.

Book Review: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty

Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove Saga, J.D. Barker

Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker

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Fiction Horror: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker

 

Indie published in 2014, J.D. Barker’s debut novel Forsaken exploded onto the literary stage. Nominated for the Bram Stoker award for best new novelist, Barker was invited by Stoker’s family to cowrite a prequel to Dracula using Stoker’s own notes! Stephen King gave Barker permission to use one of his own characters (from Needful Things) in the novel. Barker has continued writing, moving from his initial foray in the horror genre to less supernatural but equally creepy thrillers in his 4MK series of books, two of which have been published as of 2018.

 

Forsaken does not read like a debut novel. It is crisp, with well-defined characters and a compelling story line. Thad McAlister lives with his wife Rachael and their daughter Ashley in a home purchased from the proceeds of his best selling novels and the movies they generated. He has just finished his latest book, one which he believes will be his best work yet. His agent has not even seen the book yet, but already the movie rights are in demand and Thad is summoned to New York to meet with his agent and a studio representative to tie things up.

 

Unknown to Thad, though, dark events are happening within his own home. Rachael is awakened by a mysterious old woman who lays claim to her soon-to-be-born child. Ashley carries on disturbing conversations with her invisible friend Zeke–a friend who has uncanny knowledge of coming events. Just before Thad leaves, they discover that their lawn and trees have died, suddenly, overnight. And along with the mysterious events facing his wife and daughter is a strange thing Thad has not dared to tell anyone: this latest novel of his almost seemed to write itself.

 

Barker moves the plot along by shifting perspective between Thad, Rachael, and Ashley, occasionally bringing in other characters as well. He also weaves in chapters from Thad’s unpublished novel, revealing the source of the darkness that is connecting his family to events of long ago and an evil that was thought vanquished a quarter of a millennium before. Like his later crime-novels, the technique of moving from character to character and including “written” work from one of the characters is done skillfully and keeps the reader on edge and guessing. Even as the basic core of the plot is revealed, Barker saves some surprises for the end. This is not a horror novel where the good guys clearly win and evil is conquered until next time. Neither, though, is there a clear victory for the forces of darkness. Rather, both sides come away damaged and plenty of room is left for further creepiness to come.

 

I do not often choose to read horror novels, but I made an exception because the author is visiting my hometown of State College, PA, soon. (November 13th, at Schlow Library.) I have plenty of respect for the genre. Maybe too much respect: they tend to creep me out. If you enjoy horror, you will love Forsaken. It is well-written, full of twists and turns and darkness, and the ending will leave you breathless. Witches and monsters and things that go bump in the night fill this novel. I only hope they don’t fill my dreams tonight!

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Book Selection: Forsaken: Book One, The Shadow Cove SagaJ.D. Barker

Book Review: Orleans, Sherri L. Smith

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Science Fiction: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were only the beginning. Sea levels rose, hurricanes came with increasing force and frequency, and by the mid-2020s New Orleans and most of the south had been abandoned. Then came the plague, Delta Fever, which forced the remainder of the United States to build a wall enforcing the quarantine of the south. Within a generation New Orleans was gone, and what was left, Orleans, was violent, disease-ridden, and divided by gangs of angry, desperate, often bloodthirsty survivors. Into this lost world, a baby is born.

 

Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans tells the story of Fen de la Guerre, a teenaged survivor who is part of the O-positive tribe. Delta Fever follows different disease arcs based on a person’s blood-type. Type Os are the most resistant to the disease and suffer the least from its ravages. Fen was not born in the tribe but her blood-type has made her welcome, and she repays that generosity by serving as the protector and guard for the tribe’s leader. Lydia is very pregnant, but is still determined to lead her people into a peaceful alliance with the other type O tribe, the O-negatives. When their parlay is interrupted by a violent attack, though, Lydia goes into labor and dies giving birth. Fen is entrusted with guarding Lydia’s baby, and hopefully finding a better place for her to live.

 

Daniel Weaver is a scientist working on a cure for Delta Fever. He is close, but the engineered virus he has created not only kills the fever but also the host–the person–carrying it. Needing samples and data from affected areas which are still quarantined and off limits to everyone, Daniel dons protective gear (which he can wear for days on end) and sneaks into Orleans.

 

Fen and Daniel meet and soon develop an uneasy alliance with each other. Daniel realizes that he needs help to get the information and samples he needs, and Fen recognizes that Daniel gives the best hope for the baby to have a life outside of Orleans. Dangers mount as their journey progresses. It may no longer be part of a country, it may no longer have as many people as it did, but Orleans has no shortage of ways to kill you.

 

Orleans is very well written. Fen and Daniel are both compelling characters, and their journey together is revealing. Fen is the daughter of scientists committed to finding a cure for Delta Fever, scientists who gave their lives while seeking that goal. As such, she is a bit cynical of Daniel’s ambitions: seeking the cure killed her own parents, after all. Daniel is sincere in looking for a cure to the disease that killed his little brother, but he has no idea about the conditions in Orleans. Without Fen, he would have been killed soon after crossing the wall.

 

The world built by Sherri L. Smith is ugly, deadly, and brutal. This is a compliment to her writing. Flood waters have transformed New Orleans to a landscape where people can walk across grassy areas that can collapse under your feet because the grass is actually growing on the rotting roofs of abandoned houses. If you know the pattern, you can walk on water to a statue of Jesus–a statue standing in the middle of a lake where cars have been parked to form a walkway that is still invisible but safe to use during low tide. Orleans has been abandoned to tribalism and violence by the rest of the country, and the pressures of plague, climate, and anarchy make for a dangerous and imaginative world.

 

Smith is African American, writing about African American characters living in a landscape that is barely recognizable. Her Orleans reflects the impacts of a series of hurricanes, rising ocean levels, and a plague. The good news is that it is speculative fiction. The post-Katrina/Rita hurricanes listed in the book have not happened. Given the recent news from the UN climate report, though, perhaps that good news should be tempered by saying that it has not happened, yet.

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Book Review: Heroine Worship, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Fantasy: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Superheroines of color must represent. And Aveda Jupiter does. Having realized that she was more than a bit of a diva in Heroine Complex, she is determined to be new. Different. She is, after all, super. She can do this! She can be the superheroine that San Francisco needs. She can be the friend that her buddy and superheroine bff Evie Tanaka needs. She can move beyond her diva ways and be the person she wants to be. All she needs is for some demonic attack to come so that the new Aveda Jupiter can display her new character. That, and for her mother to leave her alone!

 

Sarah Kuhn has written a delightful sequel to her book Heroine Complex. Heroine Worship changes the narrator from Evie Tanaka to her best friend Aveda Jupiter, aka Annie Chang. Annie and Evie became inseparable in kindergarten, where they were the only two Asians in the class. Now superpowered adults, they are trying to figure out their new relationship where they are equals and partners in the business of saving the world. Annie/Aveda had been the center of the superheroine world with Evie as her faithful assistant. When Evie’s powers blossomed, a new relationship was needed–and Aveda needed to chill out. But she can do this. She’s super. She’s Asian. She’s in control.

 

I am not Asian American, but I married into that culture more than 30 years ago. Kuhn somehow manages to find every single stereotype of Asian Americans and weave them into her books while skewering them, mocking them, and deflating them. Annie/Aveda is a success–but the wrong kind of success. She is not a doctor, like her cousin Sophie, so she is a disappointment to her parents, especially her mother. (Or is she?) She is not quiet or demure or shy or retiring. She is flashy and flamboyant and likes clothes and enjoys the spotlight. I have been told by other white people that Asians were a lot of things–things that I knew from my own experience as the husband of an Asian American were ridiculous. Now, in print, an Asian American author is taking those same stereotypes and demonstrating how hilarious they are.

 

Good for her!!!!!!

 

Fortunately for Aveda, if not for San Francisco, there is need for superpowered assistance. And, fortunately for the mission of becoming the best friend possible, Evie gets engaged and asks Aveda to be her maid of honor. How Aveda handles the responsibilities of friendship, leadership, and kicking demonic ass makes for a delightful novel and makes this reviewer eager to see how his new favorite Asian superheroines continue to represent in the third of the series. Heroine Worship is a terrific, funny story that does not take itself too seriously, but for the reader is seriously fun!

Book Review: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Fiction: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Ava wants a child. Desperately. Achingly. Approaching her late 30s, married for many years to Henry, all she can think about is how much she wants to become a mother. Sylvia, Ava’s mother, misses her son Devon. Desperately, Achingly. In her 60s, separated from her children’s father, Don, all she can think about is how much she wants to connect with her absent son. These two women, both focused so intently on the children who are absent from their lives, are the central figures in Stephanie Powell Watts’s novel No One Is Coming to Save Us. And their stories, mother and daughter, inseparably woven together, make for a compelling and beautiful work filled with heartache and longing and compassion and love.

 

Ava should be happy. At least, that’s what her mother thinks. Married to a beautiful (looking) man, with an excellent job, living in the house where she grew up, she has everything she needs to be happy. But what she wants most is a child. Sylvia should mind her own business. At least, that’s what her daughter thinks. But Sylvia insists on interfering in the lives of other people, still coming to Ava’s house to clean (and meddle) and talking on the phone to Marcus, a young inmate who reminds Sylvia just how much she misses her son Devon. Sylvia manages to see Ava’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain–and Ava manages to see Sylvia’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain. Then, JJ returns.

 

JJ Ferguson. The boy who made it. JJ had been the orphaned foster child who lived nearby. He knew Devon, befriended (and loved) Ava, and adored Sylvia. He had been gone for years, made some money, and was now coming home. He built a large house on the top of the hill, bigger than the houses of the white folks, nicer than the houses of the white folks, the local boy who did well. And in coming home he is bringing the echoes of a lost past, the mists shrouding paths not taken, and the dreams of a future that may never come.

 

Watts tells the story of these women and the men in their lives: the beautiful but dissolute Henry, the cad Don, the absent Devon, the once absent and now present JJ. She reveals their sharp edges and their lost dreams, their failures and their ambitions, their longings and their realities. She neither judges nor exonerates. They are who they are, warts and flaws and lusts and longings and fears and joys. And as they rub against each other, often rubbing raw and leaving each other bruised and bloodied, they reveal the painful humanity that unites us all. These characters may be African Americans struggling to make financial ends meet, but their desires and depths are common to people of all ages and races and strata. Watts’s characters are both black and universal, both poor and universal, both coastal Carolinian and reflective of people from any place and any time.

 

And her language sings! Even in her descriptions of incidental characters, she uses words to paint frescoes. On a single page, two little girls are said to be taking “small bites that might register under a microscope. It was clear to anyone who had ever been a child that they hated everything on their plates.” Weren’t we all those little girls, once? I remember plates like that, and I’m a middle aged man! Later in that same paragraph, those girls’ father and grandmother are described. Their grandmother “spit out” their father “identical to her and slapped a big porn star-approved mustache on. Never have you seen two separate people more alike. Both happiness killers. If they came close to a flicker, a spark of happiness, they’d stamp it out quick before it spread.” I know I’ve met those same people. Most of us have. We just didn’t know the right words to describe them, until Stephanie Powell Watts did it for us.

 

No One Is Coming to Save Us is beautiful, with memorable characters who are as universal as they are unique, and with language that appeals to all the senses. Read it–and keep a tissue box handy.

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

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Urban Fantasy: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

October Daye is part human and part fae. A “changeling,” she constantly lives with one foot in the mortal world and one foot in the fae kingdoms. After years of trying to balance between these worlds, she finally sees hope. Her love, Tybalt, King of the Cats, plans to marry her. Her friends are near and safe. She even gets to attend her own bachelorette party. Everything looks amazing, until her oldest and possibly deadliest enemy resurfaces: her mother.

 

The request itself is not unusual for a private detective: find a missing daughter. But August has been missing for more than 100 years. And Amandine does not simply ask. She demands. And to make sure October follows through, Amandine kidnaps Tybalt and Jazz, another friend of October. What follows is a dangerous journey through fae and mortal lands looking for someone who may not be alive, relying on an old enemy to provide assistance, and facing challenges that force October to confront questions about who and what she is, and just where she belongs.

 

Seanan McGuire is one of the hottest writers in science fiction and fantasy. She is a 2018 Hugo finalist for another series she writes, Incryptid. She also writes under the name of Mira Grant, and has had multiple works nominated for the major awards in science fiction and fantasy under that name as well. She won the John W. Campbell award for best new author in 2010, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2013 for her novella Every Heart a Doorway, and also in 2013 became the first person ever to appear 5 times on the same Hugo ballot. Despite her amazing output–or maybe because of it–her writing is crisp, exciting, and full of characters that are deep and surprising.

 

McGuire’s characters leap fully-formed off the page. They are passionate, infuriating, terrifying, tender, brave and cowardly. They are gay and lesbian and straight. They are human and inhuman. They are like anyone you might meet and unlike anyone you will ever know. October Daye is probably her best known character at this point, and in every book she grows and matures and becomes something new and something more. Some writers might lose their edge after 11 books. If possible, McGuire seems to be just hitting her stride.

 

McGuire’s plots also challenge. No one escapes a Seanan McGuire novel unharmed–especially her protagonists. She demands a lot from her characters, and she is not afraid to kill even major characters to tell the story.  (Fortunately, she usually doesn’t kill all of them. Well, except in Rolling in the Deep. Spoiler alert: it gets ugly.) The Brightest Fell has sacrifice and redemption, and in a major twist on an ageless theme, in this case one precludes the other. Normally sacrifice consecrates redemption. Seanan McGuire just doesn’t do normal.

 

You might be able to jump into the series with The Brightest Fell. McGuire is able to backfill the story without getting pedantic. But you will be rewarded by going back to the beginning and catching up. October Daye grows as a character throughout the series. And it is fair to say that Seanan McGuire grows as a writer through the series. Reading as a character matures and as a writer hones her craft can be a very rewarding experience, and the October Daye series is a delightful way to watch both happen.

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Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and Findings, Mary Anna Evans

Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

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Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

 

Artifacts is a solid debut novel from Mary Anna Evans. Originally published in 2003, this introduction of the character Faye Longchamp won some awards and began a series that continues still.

 

Faye Longchamp is a mixed race woman trying to make ends meet. She works part time at an archaeological dig near her Florida home, not so much for the money as for the hope that she will find a way to continue her collegiate studies in the field. Her former professor is leading the dig, and this is her way of trying to help. Longchamp, though, needs much more money than a low wage part-time job would provide. She has inherited a large home on a barrier island, one that is in poor repair and is far behind in tax payments. Needing money to refurbish and keep her home, she engages in a legally questionable side job–selling artifacts she finds near her house on the gray market. She knows enough and cares enough to avoid contaminating significant sites, but some of her finds are on public lands and therefore legally cannot be sold for personal gain. Her desperation, though, makes her willing to break the law.

 

During one of those illegal digs, she unearths a body. Clearly not recent, but not from the far distant past either, she realizes that she has stumbled across a murder victim whose murderer may still be alive. The next day, two of the other assistants at the dig are murdered. Though a relationship between the two crimes is not obvious (since they are in different locations), the timing can hardly be coincidental, and Faye finds herself swept into the middle of finding justice for her two colleagues and for a teenager killed forty years earlier.

 

Mary Anna Evans has written many more books in this series. So far, I have only gotten to read one other. Findings is a few years later than Artifacts. Longchamp has secured some funding streams to restore her beloved home, Joyeuse, and to pursue doctoral studies in archaeology. She is in a relationship with a lawyer from Atlanta who would like to see things progress further. Faith is now pursuing more academic and legitimate archaeological work. Many of her findings go to the Museum of American Slavery, run by her friend and mentor, Douglass Everett. On the night when she discovers an exquisite emerald hidden in a box of otherwise worthless junk covered by dirt, Douglass is murdered in the basement of his own museum. The emerald is not taken, having been hidden by Douglass in his last act before his brutal murder. Later, an old associate of Faye’s from her free-lance archeology days is also murdered, dying in her arms. This leads Faye on a search for buried treasure: the rest of the emerald necklace, rumored Civil War gold, and the buried secrets within her own heart.

 

I liked Artifacts, but I loved Findings. Seeing a writer grow from a first novel is a joy I am beginning to appreciate, and Mary Anna Evans’s skills have grown appreciably. The story is deeper, the characters more evolved, and the descriptions of the Florida coast are more evocative. This is a series worth coming back to, and now there are 11 books to explore and enjoy. Faye Longchamp is a strong woman of mixed race, a characteristic which makes her unusual in genre-fiction. She is also a woman who grows and matures through the series. When we first meet her, she is skirting the law by selling artifacts to make ends meet. Through the series we see her get her academic degrees, become a strong ally of the law, fall in love and get married, and mature as a character. We see her positively change the lives of her friends and loved ones. In short, we see her “grow up.” Often in series a character remains much the same, never aging, never maturing, never learning. This makes for a timelessness which is useful to the author. Having your protagonist change makes life harder for the writer, but is very rewarding to the reader. There is value in reading the books in order (although I admit that is not what I have done). We see the growth in the characters. We also see the growth in the writer. Both of these make for compelling reasons to come back to this series again and again.

 

Artifacts and Findings are both terrific books, and both make me eager to continue with this series. If you are into mysteries, strong female characters, archaeology, and even historical fiction, this is a series worth your attention. It is also one which, although it features adult characters, could be enjoyed by teens who want something a little more mature but who don’t want one with excessive violence or “adult” themes.

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Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

 

Book Review: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

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Fiction Thriller: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Third book in the Orphan X series, following Orphan X and The Nowhere Man

A couple of years ago a fascinating book caught my attention. A thriller about a former government wet-ops agent who now worked secretly helping people who were in desperate situations, Orphan X was well written, had an interesting protagonist and strong secondary characters, and told a compelling story. Its sequel, The Nowhere Man, continued the story in riveting fashion, filling in backstory and introducing new characters to the series.

 

The third in the series came out earlier this year, and it is a thriller reader’s dream come true. Hellbent is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. I finished it in a five-hour straight shot. I made the mistake of starting it after traveling all weekend, and could not put it down. From beginning to end, Gregg Hurwitz takes the reader on a ride that had me gripping the edge of the book with white knuckles. The first two books in this series were excellent, but this takes the series to a new level.

 

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, part of a top secret program that recruited orphans who showed certain useful characteristics into a black ops training program. He was possibly the best of the “orphans,” brilliant, resourceful, and ruthless. His trainer, though, had become like a father to him, and as a father he taught Evan not only how to be a killer, but also how to be a human. Evan was raised with a code, commandments that his trainer instilled within him. “Do not kill innocents” was part of that code, a part that eventually led to Evan leaving the program and disappearing off the grid–which in his case was Los Angeles.

 

When Evan’s arch-enemy Orphan Y, the new head of the Orphan program, finds Evan’s trainer and kills him, Evan has a new mission: kill Orphan Y. First, though, he must decipher his trainer’s final message to him. That message leads to a most unexpected package: a teenage girl who was also trying to escape from the Orphan program. Suddenly, the Nowhere Man has responsibilities that go beyond a mere mission. Orphan Y wants to kill her, too. How can Evan keep her alive, go after Orphan Y and his group of killers, and deal with the trauma and drama of a teenager? The result is a fast paced and action filled novel with twists and turns that go beyond the core “how does our hero survive and complete his mission” of all thrillers. It includes the shock and awe of a shopping trip to Target to purchase “female products.” It includes learning how to listen, how to open up, how to become vulnerable without losing his edge. It includes asking a mother for advice on talking to a young girl. And before you know it, you realize you’ve read a complete novel with the requisite body count of a high octane thriller, but with an unexpected and delightful emotional depth that is rare in this genre.

 

Hellbent checks the boxes for a thriller. But what makes it next level is the emotional growth of the characters. We see new sides to some familiar characters. We see Evan needing help and reaching out for it, and we see others stepping up for him. We see a young girl, traumatized and alone, make informed choices that define who she is and who she will become. Throughout we see that characters define themselves by their own choices, who make emotionally difficult decisions that can cost them everything, who confront themselves and challenge themselves to become more than they have been. Hurwitz spins a great story, but more delightfully he draws great characters. Orphan X books will stay on my reading list because of those characters, and I cannot wait to find out what Evan Smoak faces in the next novel of the series.

 

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Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

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Fiction: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first book in the series, “The Books of Babel.” Thomas Senlin and his wife Marya are on their honeymoon. Senlin is headmaster of the school in a small fishing village. He has long studied and taught about the most amazing technological achievement in the world: the Tower of Babel. Newly married, the couple decides to spend their honeymoon visiting this marvel. Almost immediately after arriving, they are separated and Marya becomes lost. It takes Thomas a couple of days to realize this. By the time he does, the trail has gone cold and his only hope is that Marya has successfully made it to their intended destination on the third floor of the tower. Thomas embarks on a journey into the tower. There he finds that nothing is as it seems, no one is who they say they are, and everything he thought he knew about the tower was wrong.

 

Senlin Ascends is set in a dark dystopian world. The tower is a technological marvel, still under construction after 1,000 years. Most of the world has very limited access to technology. Marya and Thomas travel to the tower via steam engine train, and later we see Thomas’s amazement when he encounters electricity for the first time. The tower has access to more advanced technologies, but Thomas finds the rules governing behavior and organization in the tower are unique and often must be discovered by breaking them. Failure to follow the rules can have severe consequences. Failure to know the rules is irrelevant.

 

After spending several days surmounting the obstacles that face travelers on levels one and two of the tower, Senlin finds his first clue that Marya is still alive when he is on level three. Level three, though, is also where he begins to appreciate just how much trouble she–and really, both of them–are in. Their short honeymoon journey is going to be a trial of many months, and there are many challenging enemies who oppose them finding each other. And a mild-mannered intellectual headmaster is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of a world that doesn’t make sense. If Thomas Senlin is to find his beautiful bride, he will have to become something he never expected: a hero.

 

The two journeys of Senlin Ascends are both fascinating. The physical journey through the tower is vividly imagined. Each floor has its own culture, its own set of rules, its own internal logic that must be mastered before one can proceed. There are no shortcuts. Failure to follow the rules means banishment from the tower…or worse. But the rules change on each floor, the people in charge owe nothing to anyone else, and following the rules can require compromising your own ethics. Senlin finds that the price of success, the price of moving forward, the price of finding Marya, gets higher the further he goes. But he has no choice if he hopes to be reunited with his love.

 

The physical journey requires a hero’s journey for the protagonist. Thomas Senlin thinks he knows who he is. Intellectual. Calm. Reserved. A man of peace. The kind of man the tower destroys and spits out before passing the first floor. Senlin discovers that he can become more, but he also discovers that the price is high. The man of peace must seek out confrontation. The loyal husband must walk away from friends. The man who understands the world must understand that he knows nothing about this world. These are not easy transitions, and one suspects that the man who eventually finds Marya inside the tower will not be the same man who lost her outside those walls.

 

The second book in this series is Arm of the Sphinx. The third book, The Hod King, is due out in early 2019. Josiah Bancroft has started an interesting fable with Senlin Ascends, and I look forward to reading the subsequent adventures set in this curious and dark world.

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Book Review: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft