Thursday, September 14, 2017

Timing (Far from the Spaceports #2) by Richard Abbott

Hi all! Briefly coming out of hibernation to post a review of the sequel to Richard Abbott's Far from the Spaceports.
book cover for TimingWhen quick wits and loyalty are put to the test...

Mitnash and his AI companion Slate, coders and investigators of interplanetary fraud, are at work again in
Timing, the sequel to Far from the Spaceports.

This time their travels take them from Jupiter to Mars, chasing a small-scale scam which seems a waste of their time. Then the case escalates dramatically into threats and extortion. Robin's Rebels, a new player in the game, is determined to bring down the financial world, and Slate's fellow AIs are the targets. Will Slate be the next victim?

The clues lead them back to the asteroid belt, and to their friends on the Scilly Isles. The next attack will be here, and Mitnash and Slate must put themselves in the line of fire. To solve the case, they need to team up with an old adversary - the only person this far from Earth who has the necessary skills to help them. But can they trust somebody who keeps their own agenda so well hidden?


It was good to get back to Abbott's Far from the Spaceports series. In the first book, we're introduced to Mitnash and his AI companion, Slate. They work for the financial regulatory body ECRB (Economic Crime Review Board) and are periodically sent off-world to investigate financial shenanigans. I found Abbott's world-building solid and his take on AI refreshing (full review here).

This book adds more of the travelogue aspect of this series. Abbott sends his duo to Phobos and Mars before their return to the Scilly Isles, a cluster of settlements in the asteroid belt that was the setting for the first book. Abbott provides more detail on life on Phobos, demonstrating how the geology of the fragile moon has shaped the culture of the settlements there.

Abbott also delves more into the characters' relationships. Mitnash struggles with maintaining a long distance relationship (astronomical units!) while a local woman intrigues him. And it's not just Mitnash's relationships, but Slate's as well. I don't know how we'll imbue emotion into AIs, but in Abbott's universe, it happened and each AI has a unique personality. With their consciousness capable of living the human equivalent of decades in a fraction of the time, they seek out relationships with other AIs, hoping for a match. Mitnash is put into a situation where he has to consider that Slate's feelings are no less valid than his.

While the story remains non-violent, save for a couple of off-camera incidents, Abbott manages to build tension, primarily through the "old adversary" mentioned in the blurb. Mitnash is slowly learning that life (on multiple fronts) is seldom as simple and straightforward as it seems. There are complications during the investigation, and Mitnash finds himself in a predicament that isn't easily remedied and will hang over his head as his story continues.

4.2 out of 5 stars. I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.
Just to be clear. This book was not submitted to us. I went out and bought it on my own. Now, back to hibernation!

\_/
DED

Monday, January 9, 2017

Suspended Animation

Fry in cryofreezer.
Image courtesy of Futurama Wiki
Back in March of 2010, I submitted my novel Armistice Day to this blog in hopes of scoring a review. I was a newly minted indie author with a box full of copies that I bought from my printer (Lulu). The book was several years in the making. I'd attended the local adult ed writers workshop for several semesters, had the book professionally edited, sent out dozens of agent queries, and after realizing I had to publish it myself, commissioned a freelance artist to make the cover. It was now time for marketing.

I figured the easiest way to get my name out there was to submit my book for review to whichever blogs would take it. I don't believe in spamming people, so I carefully researched for the right sites. At the time, indie authors were treated like vermin. Scant few blogs would review indie authors, and only a portion of them reviewed sci-fi. This blog was one of the few. In fact, it was dedicated to self-published authors.

The blog's owner, Podler, agreed to do it, but he also invited me to join him in becoming a reviewer of the blog in order to review more indie authors who deserved to be recognized. The mission was to remove the stigma associated with indie authors, just as Girl-On-Demand had done with her PODdy Mouth blog (long since retired, but still linked to way down on the right-hand column). I was flattered to be invited and immediately accepted, for I was a true believer in the cause. I joined S.B. Jung and Libby Cone, other recent invitees who'd accepted. He told me that other authors who'd been invited just didn't have the time. I didn't realize at the time how true those words were (are).

In June, after I'd had my first review published for the blog—and my book reviewed—Podler disappeared. After transferring ownership of the blog to Libby and me, he deleted his blogger account and corresponding email address, taking many book cover images with him. He left no note. There were no warning signs. He was just gone. And since he'd used a pseudonym, we had no way to track him down. All of a sudden, we new recruits were put in charge.

We scrambled to right the ship. We created a new email address for submissions, tracked down the broken book cover image links, and found the email addresses for the authors left adrift in the slush pile. I think we did a fine job.

As time wore on, real life caught up to S.B. and Libby, and I assumed administrative control of the blog (slush pile, rejection notices, etc). We invited people to join us. Reviewers came and went. We reviewed a lot of great books (and a few that fell short). We expanded the blog: links to other blogs designed to help indie authors, a list of editors, and a list of affordable cover designers. We hosted cover reveals, sample chapters, kickstarters, and author news. One author even credited us with helping her land a book deal with a publisher because of the review we gave her book. While I don't know if that's even remotely true, it was a wonderful thing for her to say, and it made me feel like we were accomplishing something. Just seeing the public's attitude about indie books change overall was great. Successful indie novels have been scooped up by major publishers and even made into movies! These days, a well produced indie novel is indistinguishable from the traditionally published.

As I came upon my sixth year on the blog and considered adding a paid review format (whereupon those that paid would get a one week turnaround while everyone else had to wait the typical amount of time), it dawned on me that it had been six years since I published my novel and the sequel was only 20% done. Yeah, I published my short stories in an anthology, but the grand series that I'd envisioned was going nowhere. Fellow indie authors that I'm friends with had each published several books in that time, and I was still working on my second book. I'd spent the last six years promoting the work of other authors instead of writing and promoting my work. This wasn't what I signed up for. I'd meant to be a reviewer on the side while I wrote, not the other way around.

As you know, there are only so many hours in a day. There's also a finite number of days in this life. Please excuse me for sounding maudlin, but 50 isn't that far off for me. I've always been haunted by that line from "Time" by Pink Floyd.
And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun
Something has to give. I'm sorry, but I can't run this blog anymore. I have to focus on my writing now.

So what does all this rambling mean after the walk down memory lane? It means this blog is going on an indefinite hiatus. There's no one available to take over as administrator, so we're closing up shop. It might not really be the end though. Richard has expressed a desire to have an outlet to publish reviews for indie books that he comes across. That seemed reasonable to me (I might do the same) so I agreed. But it definitely means that we're not accepting anymore submissions for the foreseeable future. Like poor Fry, the blog is going to be cryogenically frozen in a way. But unlike Fry, we might be unfrozen from time to time for a review. Then again, maybe it'll be frozen for a thousand years, at least until Google's server farm bites the dust.

I'd like to thank everyone who's worked on this blog with me over the years. While part of me resents Podler for abandoning us, the opportunity has enabled me to make many new friends that I never would have otherwise. And for that, I am blessed.

See you around,
\_/
David "DED" Drazul

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Best of 2016

Each year, the reviewers here at the New Podler Review of Books pick the book (or books) which we feel are the very best independently published (or small press) works. The only other requirement we have is that the book was reviewed here on the blog during the calendar year.

Book cover for Madam TulipHere are the winners for 2016:

Bertha Thacule: "I chose Madam Tulip. Its eccentric characters and witty observations make this an immensely enjoyable contemporary mystery/thriller set among denizens of Dublin's theater, art, and entertainment worlds. Fans of the first novel will be pleased to hear that a second installment in the series, Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts, is now available."

Book cover for The ColonyRichard Abbott: "The Colony, by RM Gilmour, gets my vote for 2016. It is primarily a story about travel between parallel universes, but with enough plot twists and variations that you're not always sure which way events will turn. I found the central characters compelling, and also the basic premise of why The Colony was there in the first place. The closing words suggest that there will be a follow-up novel at some point—I certainly hope so as I'm keen to find out what happens after the events at the close of this book."

Book cover forDED: It took me a while to decide which book to pick for best of 2016. There were a few contenders, so I had to go back and revisit them all. After weighing the strengths and flaws of each, I finally reached a conclusion. My pick for best of 2016 is The Silver Mask by Christian Ellingsen. Yes, I was critical of the cover (I hope that Mr. Ellingsen invests in a better one), but the story was great. Ellingsen made use of a well developed cast of characters and excellent world-building to blend murder mystery, political thriller, and flintlock fantasy together to create a superb tale.

Congratulations to the winners!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Silver Mask (The Vasini Chronicles #1) by Christian Ellingsen

book cover for The Silver MaskThe gods are dead, killed two hundred years ago. With their destruction the moon split apart, the sun dwindled and the land was devastated. Civilisation has re-emerged from the carnage, but twisted creatures still prowl the savage Wildlands between the city-states. In the skies above the city of Vasini, a falling star, a fragment of the dead moon goddess Serindra, heads to earth.

In the Palace district, Dame Vittoria Emerson, darling of the city, has been found dead. As Captain Marcus Fox of the Inspectorate hunts the killer, Dr. Elizabeth Reid searches for the remnants of Serindra determined to make sure the poisonous quicksilver it contains is not used. With Vittoria's death threatening to draw the city's political elite into a war of assassins, Fox and Reid must rush to expose the secrets that lie within Vasini before they tear the city-state apart.


The cover looks like a photograph of a museum piece. While accurate, I don't believe it's enough of a draw to pull in a reader. If this was non-fiction about said mask, maybe it would be sufficient. But even so, the lighting is too dim. The color chosen for the title font is muddled. It should stand out more, like the byline actually does. The typeface is fine. Still, there's so much going on in this novel that the cover should have been a scene from the book rather than the mask, which plays such a minor role in the book that I'm thinking the title should've been something else: City of the Dead Gods? Alchemy of Resurrection?

The chapters are broken into scenes which are occurring simultaneously, rather than devoting a single chapter to a character and his/her POV. It was a little confusing and took a little bit to get used to it and the characters sorted out. However, the opening chapter gave me the impression that a lot was happening on several fronts and thus drew me in. After a while I was able to discern the personalities of the major characters and what roles they played in the city of Vasini.

Ellingsen has invested a great deal of effort in developing the world wherein this story lies, but he doesn't drown you in backstory. It starts out with the familiarity of a mirror Earth and then the differences are sprinkled into the story. The culture of Vasini draws heavily upon the French—many French words frequent the manuscript—but there's a dead pantheon of gods that is complete fiction. There are sub-humans that live among the Vasinians as servants to the wealthy and strange monsters in the woods. And it rains all the time, which might be attributable to the heavily damaged moon in orbit.

To help the reader become more familiar with the city of Vasini, its inhabitants, and surroundings, Ellingsen has placed images of random documents highlighting Vasini's religious, philosophical, and cultural history between chapters. When I could read them, they were a nice touch. Unfortunately, I don't know how to enlarge images embedded in books on my Kindle Fire (just the text) so some of them were illegible.

Captain Fox and his assistant, Sergeant Locke, are the detectives charged with solving Emerson's murder. But as the investigation plays out, they discover that there is much more going on underneath the surface. Not only is Vasini a city that is divided between rich and poor, but the wealthy are bitterly divided into factions (Fishers and Scarlets) that manipulate the masses. Emerson's murder is the spark that sets off retaliatory assassinations on either side of the political divide. Reid and her friend, Catherine, are conducting their own investigation in parallel to Fox and Locke, for their own reasons. They're clearly in over their heads, and it isn't until Reid joins forces with Fox that they're able to see enough pieces of the puzzle to figure out how to solve it.

Christian Ellingsen has created a rich world within The Silver Mask, and despite 400+ pages of exploration, I feel like he's just scratched the surface. He carefully juggles a large cast of characters with ease, and it shows when we're afforded time to read from so many unique points of view (some extensive, some just a pivotal moment). While the mystery seems so Byzantine that Fox and Reid always seem to be three steps behind the antagonists, it only makes the resolution that much more satisfying.

For more information about The Silver Mask, please visit the author's website.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Too Wyrd by Sarah Buhrman

Sarah Buhrman’s Too Wyrd offers a welcome twist on the conventional fantasy protagonist who embarks on a quest.  As the story begins, Nicola Crandall is plucked from the comfort of home by a late-night summons for help, and she readily places her life on hold to combat a supernatural menace. But in this urban fantasy set in Indianapolis, the supernatural exists side by side with real-world problems that take the greatest toll on the most vulnerable.  So in addition to confronting otherworldly abominations, Nicola comes face to face with regular people scrabbling to survive on the fringes of society, and proves to be their staunchest defender. On the whole, her capacity for empathy and inclusiveness is what makes her a compelling hero, more so than her courage or resourcefulness when under threat.

The trouble begins when Nicola’s friend Joseph arrives at her door with worrisome news. Her half-sister Muriel, who has spent time living on the street, has been taken in by a cult that dabbles in magic. Nicola’s help is needed to extricate Muriel both because of Nicola’s skills as a magical practitioner and because one of the cult leaders is her ex, Keith, who is also the father of her child. Nicola and Joseph soon discover that Keith has become involved with very old magic connected to Norse mythology. Nicola and her allies must puzzle out Keith’s intentions and determine the source of his new powers and how they relate to the demons who keep materializing.

In keeping with Nicola’s compassionate nature is the type of magic that she practices. Rather than using magic for aggressive ends, she employs it to assess and affect others’ psychological states. In one scene, Nicola and Joseph use magic to calm an unruly crowd.
I quickly reached for the emotion I wanted: laying back with a cool drink in the shade of an umbrella, with a warm breeze, the soft roar of ocean waves, and the warm colors of a tropical sunset. It was calm, content, and sedate. I sent that feeling into our combined energies and projected it out in a broad arc over the crowd.

The result was subtle but quick, taking hold in a matter of minutes. People who were hyped up and bouncing on their toes, stepped back, rolled their shoulders and relaxed their stance. The crowd stopped its steady press forward and, after a momentary hesitation, began shuffling towards the doors. Instead of the aggressive shoving, people began to display more courtesies, letting people go before them, saying “thank you”.
But make no mistake, Nicola is no weakling. She pushes back hard against anyone who tries to prevent her from attaining her objective, whether it’s an old adversary out for revenge, a police detective trying to connect her with a crime she didn’t commit, or Keith confusing Muriel with glib obfuscations. In the latter instance, Nicola relentlessly interrogates Keith in hopes of getting at the truth.
“What about telling us who’s giving you this ‘truth’ that you’re calling destiny?” I said, pushing our advantage of having surprised him.

Keith frowned and took a step back. “I cannot reveal the name.”

“Because you don’t know?” Joseph asked, pressing forward at my side, “Or because no one would believe you?”

“Or because it’s just you making shit up?” I added. “Must be nice to have your life funded by the people you’ve conned with your line.”

I realized I’d made a mistake in my assumptions when Keith’s shoulders relaxed and he smiled. He shook his head and tsked.

“Nicola,” he drawled out my name. “You’ve grown so bitter and cynical…”

“I’m not bitter,” I continued. “Just because I don’t buy what you’re selling? That’s not bitter, that’s having half a brain.”
But in the end, Nicola is most admirable for the way she treats others.  While tracking down Muriel, she gets a tip that someone who frequents a local soup kitchen might have information. Nicola decides to combine her investigation with providing some much-needed volunteer help at the kitchen.
I talked Mercy into helping us convince some of the Bridge Kids to come with us to the city mission for supper. I knew most of them could use the meal, but the walk was too far for most of them to make the effort. Plus walking meant taking the risk of running into trouble with a capital fist to the gut…

At the mission, a flustered woman thanked us for our help and gave us our assignments… I was put at the end of the food line, helping people with walkers, wheelchairs and kids get all their silverware, food and drinks to their seats. I smiled and chatted up the guests, knowing that half the reason they came to the kitchen was for the small degree of human interaction they got.
Nicola ultimately manages to find the answers she’s looking for and faces down her enemies in a rip-roaring confrontation. However, her quest will continue. According to the author’s blog, she is writing a second installment in the Runespells series. The sequel would benefit greatly from more development of the secondary characters, many of whom are interesting, but lack sufficient depth and backstory. For example, two pivotal characters in Too Wyrd turn out to be not what they initially seemed. But their reversals are, for the most part, inexplicable and leave the reader longing for a greater understanding of their motivations.

At its core, Too Wyrd is an engaging adventure, propelled by a strong, eminently likable lead character. Sarah Buhrman has created an immersive fictional world that skillfully encompasses both the magically sublime and the poignant struggles of everyday people.

For more information, please visit the author's website.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Speck by L. Marshall James

book cover for SpeckA dark speck slips from dormancy, where it has been trapped for millennia. It is utterly alien, singularly enthralling, and devastatingly lethal. What follows in its wake are chaos and death.

There will be no escape.


The opening strikes me as a mashup of the first third of King's Dreamcatcher (the good part) and an incident that took place near the end of Koontz's Watchers. James offers us a lovely picture of an idyllic natural setting and then unleashes his "speck" upon a hapless marmot. The speck has the ability to control minds in close proximity through suggestion at the most primal level. As the speck grows in size, it gains strength and sophistication. Things spiral out of control, leaving the reader to hope that someone can get the speck under control before its destruction reaches catastrophic proportions.

The story starts with a universal omniscient narrator but switches to third person subjective once humans get involved in the story. The narrative is relayed through several characters, primarily those that encounter the speck. Characters are only given a chapter to carry the narrative, but James has them make the most of it. I never got the impression that these were disposable characters. James invests the time to develop them, although their appearance on stage is brief. If the book had been a novel instead of a novella, I don't see any reason why the characters wouldn't be any to carry the story further.

But the length of the story is also something of a negative. The story reaches a point where the reader says, "Oh crap! What now?" The fast pace of the story comes to an abrupt halt. The ending comes as a bit of unsatisfying diabolus ex machina, which is followed by an epilogue that struck me as an outline for how the story could've carried on from novella to novel. I feel like the author hit a wall and either couldn't think of a way to continue or didn't want to (hence the epilogue).

Although only a novella, Speck demonstrates an author with a talent for creating believable characters, setting a good narrative pace, and establishing a realistic setting. He understands King's idiom that "bad things happen to good people" and handles it well. As James continues to develop his craft, I have no doubt that his potential will be realized.

For more information about Speck, please visit Goodreads.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Interview by Damian Bruce

book cover for The InterviewIn a city racked by poverty and discontent, twelve people arrive for an interview with the all powerful Frontline Corporation. The successful candidate will trade hunger and hardship for a life of luxury and excess. However, it quickly becomes clear that the interview is nothing like they expected. Who will survive the brutal waiting game that unfolds? To what lengths are the candidates willing to go to secure the job? And what secrets are they hiding from one another?

Let me deal with the obvious: This is a terrible book cover. If I saw this in a book store or it came up on one of my recommendation feeds, I'd chuckle and move on (fortunately, I don't look at the covers for submissions). And that's too bad, because Bruce has written a good story. But this cover does nothing to support the blurb or hint at the content within. Please, Mr. Bruce, check out our list of book cover designers and invest in your cover.

Now onto the review.

There are two threads running through this book: the narrative of the interview and backstory chapters. The chapters alternate. First we have Edgar's narrative of the interview as it happens, and then the next chapter details the backstory of the interviewee that was just eliminated. But only the reader is aware of these backstories; Edgar is ignorant, free to reflect on his insecurity and low self-esteem. Tension is low at first, but as the more timid interviewees give up and depart, people come to realize that their odds of winning have improved and tensions rise. The longer the interview carries on, the more desperate everyone becomes.

One prize not mentioned in the blurb is that the winner of the interview will get to meet the "company alpha", Elise Villette, who has succeeded her recently deceased father as leader of the Frontline Corportation. Meeting Villette is more than just a formality; it becomes the goal of those involved.

We learn through the first few character backstory chapters about the background of this city-state that Frontline controls. Initially, I felt that these chapters were a distraction from the interview narrative. But over time, as more interesting characters were eliminated, they revealed that more is going on in this city than plain vanilla oppression. A revolt is brewing, born from the ashes of a failed one years ago. But the old leaders have split into two factions. One believes that the security forces can be defeated if the seemingly omniscient leader of Frontline is assassinated.

The other faction believes that peace is the answer. This faction is aware of an assassin but not his/her identity. The company already provides essential, albeit meager, services, and this infrastructure needs to be preserved. Villette just needs to change her tack from the oppressive stance of her father to benevolent leader. The peaceful faction attempts to contact interviewees to persuade them of the importance of their mission. They even try to get put their own people in place for the interview.

While I only found a handful of typos, comma punctuation was lacking. The book needs a lot more commas. They were left out of dialogue the majority of the times. Too often a sentence like this: "Where are you going, Harry?" was written as "Where are you going Harry?" If that doesn't bother you, then ignore me.

The Interview proves the adage that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I know people will, and that's a shame. This is a well-crafted story with an assortment of characters with hidden agendas. Whether their goal is to escape poverty or transform the city from the top, the stakes couldn't be higher for the twelve assembled. What starts out as a simple dystopia gradually evolves into an intriguing game of "guess the assassin." Just when I thought I had it figured out, Bruce surprised me. So if you think you've got this book figured out from the cover, you're in for a pleasant surprise.

For more information about The Interview, please visit its page on Goodreads.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Sickness in Time by MF Thomas and Nicholas Thurkettle

Cover: A Sickness in Time
THE MOST DANGEROUS OPERATION

In 2038, the human race is in a death spiral, and most people do not even know it yet. Technology that was supposed to make us better and stronger instead is birthing a strange and terrible plague we may not be able to stop. When the young daughter of Josh Scribner, a wealthy tech entrepreneur, starts to succumb to the illness, he dedicates his fortune in a desperate effort to save her life. Working with a friend & celebrated physicist, Josh develops the ability to send objects back through time. Their goal to recruit an agent in the past who might change our fatal path.

In our present day, a broken and traumatized Air Force veteran finds a strange message in the woods, drawing her into an adventure spanning decades. All humanity is at stake, as she and her small group of friends become the unlikely heroes taking up the secret fight against our future doom.

MF Thomas and Nicholas Thurkettle, authors of the acclaimed sci-fi thriller,
Seeing by Moonlight, are back with this time-twisting adventure that asks if our own destiny can be healed.

A Sickness in Time, by MF Thomas and Nicholas Thurkettle, is set in two time periods: one in the present day and one in 2039. It is a time travel plot with carefully defined limitations around what can be sent and how far back. The constraints are, of course, what makes the plot interesting. There can be no free-for-all in which the timeline gets increasingly muddied, but the various characters have to plan out very precisely what they intend to do. And the nearness of the two time periods—under twenty years—is very intriguing. There is no grandfather paradox here: the overlaps are much more immediate.

But before you reach the time travel elements of this story, and running along in parallel with it, is a plot dealing with the crossover between human and artificial intelligence. In this case, the artificial part takes the form of augments to human capability, rather than alternatives. The book's title refers to the discovery that the augments have a shadow side, the extent of which is largely unknown. They are not the unequivocal benefit first assumed, though puzzling out what the problems are takes a lot of time.

This story really worked for me. I liked the interplay between the different periods and the gradual alteration of the future line in response to successive changes. It's hard to tie up all the loose ends once you invoke time travel, but the authors do a convincing job. Inevitably, well before the halfway mark, you find yourself wondering how the tangle is going to resolve. Without giving anything away, the resolution had a clever twist. Every reader will—like me—wonder if that was the best choice to make, but it has certainly been done creatively.

There are two pairs of main characters, one pair in each of the two periods. But the pairs are contrasting in several ways rather than parallel. The authors do a good job of exploiting these contrasts. I found all four of the protagonists very credible, and quite individual.

In short, A Sickness in Time is well thought out, well planned, and well executed. If you like science fiction which doesn't just tell a story, but probes the difficult interface between scientific, social and ethical areas, this could be the book for you. I certainly really enjoyed it.

The book's website can be found here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Kingdom's End by Charles D. Blanchard

book cover for Kingdom's EndIndio, a wise blind mole rat, has led a prosperous colony of sighted rats in the ruins of an old, abandoned movie theater for most of his thirty years. But the head of colony security, an ambitious Norway rat named Matthias, thinks he can do a better job and schemes to make a power grab. Meanwhile, the city recognizes that it has a rat infestation problem and decides to wage war on them, ultimately setting its sights on the theater.

Blanchard dedicates this novel to Richard Adams for writing Watership Down. While that book got people to look at cuddly rabbits in a new light, Kingdom's End attempts to take an animal often looked upon as vile and detestable and shine a more favorable light upon it. He makes no attempt to gloss over the rats' culinary preferences or nesting habits, but through anthropomorphization he imbues some of them with more admirable qualities of honor and service to community.

The story starts off with a group of rats out on a foraging mission. We start with one rat, then segue over to another rat, who then meets up with another rat, and so on. The focus of the story shifts from one rat to the next as Blanchard introduces us to parts of their world. Some rats that appear early in the story don't re-appear until much later. It's a bit dizzying as I wasn't sure which rats were important to the overall story and which weren't.

The story is told from a universal omniscient POV, which goes above and beyond third-person omniscient. Not only do we know what all of the rats are up to, but the nameless humans they encounter as well. Blanchard tells us everything, relevant or not to the adventures of the rats. I found it odd that we would be told a human character's backstory but not their name. And there's a lot of telling that goes on with this form of narration. The foreshadowing comes in the form of prophesies from an old rat that lives near the river. We know what's going to happen, it's just a question of when. I realize that this is a more traditional form of storytelling, but I find that it goes too far and leaves less for the reader to discover on their own.

I don't know if many people will get past the ick factor to follow Blanchard down into the grimy world that the rats live in. When I described the book as "Watership Down for rats" to my wife, that's how she replied. We like rabbits; they're soft, cuddly, and cute. It isn't hard to make your reader care about their fate. That's far from an easy thing to do with rats. Blanchard succeeds to some extent; I felt pity for the rats that were cruelly struck down by the hazards of urban living, and I rooted for the good and honorable rats. But too often a misapplied narrative focus and the deafening foreshadowing cut into my entertainment of the story.

To learn more about Kingdom's End, please visit the book's website.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Quest for Kriya by Rahul Deokar

Cover image - Quest for Kriya (Goodreads)
Haunted by tragic loss in the 1993 India earthquake, a broken Shakti with a tenuous hold on life is sheltered by her soul-sister Kriya. But when Kriya vanishes without a trace, Shakti is unwittingly swept into a cataclysmic vortex of greed, lust and betrayal. Shakti meets Shiva, a struggling Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and discovers that love is an enigmatic cosmic force.

Shakti and Shiva are thrust on a frantic race against time through the dark Mumbai underbelly, forbidden Thailand islands, and treacherous cliffs in the Andaman Sea, where danger lurks in every shadow. As they get closer to the truth, they realize that millions of innocent lives are at stake.

Quest for Kriya is an epic saga of love, friendship and sacrifice. The journey is incredible. The emotions are real. The transformation is eternal.

I was drawn to The Quest for Kriya by the names of some of the protagonists—Shiva, Shakti, and so on. I had imagined that it would explore deep issues, and make interesting mythological or religious connections. The preview passage that you get to see on Amazon and elsewhere tends to support this idea. The opening chapter, set around one person's terrible experiences of the 1993 Latur earthquake in India, was very successful at drawing me in and built up a lot of promise.

But we then jump to what might vaguely be called an earthquake-like change in another character's life in the United States. The parallel was loose, seeing as how the person concerned only lost their job, and was therefore motivated to start something new. Compared to losing one's home, family, friends and neighbours, suffering betrayal, and having to relocate to Mumbai, this seemed kind of lightweight, but I think the purpose was to set up friendships and enmities which would persist through the rest of the book.

From here on, though, the story suddenly diverted into a long, complex plot all about crime syndicates and drug dealers in India and nearby countries. Our two protagonists manage to break all this up almost without meaning to, by successfully threading their way through a series of amazing coincidences. Their rather bumbling approach to the whole affair mysteriously carries the day, aided by timely intervention from friends and well-wishers.

The plot is suspended between two cataclysms—the above-mentioned Latur earthquake and the 2004 Asian tsunami—and this basic device worked very well. But I got a bit lost in the intervening drug dealer story and didn't find the rather gooey romance between the male and female leads very believable. They seemed never able to get beyond a kind of adolescent idealisation of each other into a more credible and adult relationship. Insofar as the characters developed at all, they basically learned to conform to a set of behaviours and expectations set up by others. This is not a story of individuation or self-actualisation, but rather it is one of submission to external norms. As a result, everyone's emotional responses are very muted, as they increasingly take on board the philosophical position that nothing should disturb one's equanimity, and in the long run over many lifetimes everything will pan out for the best.

On the plus side, the book has been extremely well and carefully prepared, and for all of its heavy reliance on coincidence, the plot does keep moving along. I couldn't say if it accurately reflects police practice in the various countries, but to a casual reader it seems credible. And the basic structural device of hanging the story between two Asian natural disasters was a really compelling feature.

I guess my main difficulty was the mismatch of expectations. If there are parallels with any of the original tales of Shiva and Shakti, they are extremely well veiled. You will find little of the lively and authentic passion of the Khumarasambhavam, for example. The protagonists' potential for spirituality or real emotional engagement seems to be increasingly marginalised through the story, rather than liberated. I felt let down by the ways in which these two protagonists conducted themselves, given that their names hold so much mythological weight.

So, if you go in expecting a pacy crime plot set mostly in Asia, you will probably enjoy Quest for Kriya. If, like me, you were looking for something with more cosmic depths and resonances, it is best to revise your expectations and just go with the flow of what's there.

The author's website can be found here.