Peace Talks – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Back in 2018 I did a review of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files urban fantasy series.  In that review I enthusiastically recommended the series but noted that the last installment was released back in 2014.  This year Butcher published the sixteenth and seventeenth volumes in the series, “Peace Talks” and “Battle Ground.”  Somewhat unusually these two books comprise a single story.  So that means that the ending of Peace Talks is a great big “to be continued” notice.  Normally that would be extremely annoying but because the two books were released back to back it’s tolerable.  Another unusual situation is the fact that I haven’t read a Dresden Files book in several years.  For that reason, I’m having trouble deciding if the “voice” of Harry in the book is the same as it used to be.  I’m going to say that it isn’t the same.  Part of this may have to do with the changes in Harry’s status since his last story.  Now he is the “Knight” for Mab the dangerous Winter Queen and also the father of a young girl, Maggie.  I’ll have to go back to the previous book but I believe they have tamed down Harry quite a bit.

If you haven’t read the earlier books then you don’t want to jump into the series at volume sixteen.  Read my review of the series and decide if you want to start up with this very long but very good urban fantasy series.  If you have read the earlier volumes then I’ll report that the series is shaping up to be just as chaotic and crazy as ever.  As is Butcher’s way, the story starts out with an existential crisis developing in Harry’s life and then blossoms into the apocalypse.  Whenever something really bad happens the scramble to avoid catastrophe leads to a crisis that is orders of magnitude worse.  I will say that the pacing of the initial crisis seemed a little slow in spots based on my memory of how Butcher did these things.  And maybe that has to do with this being a two-book story.  But by the end of the book things were falling apart very nicely and Harry was right in his sweet spot, trying to save the world without any reasonable hope of even saving himself.  All his enemies were his only possible allies and all of his friends were alienated and hostile.  I won’t throw in any spoilers.  All the old characters are back and we see some of the damage done in the last book is still haunting the characters here.  Murph is seriously injured in a leg and arm.  She is no longer with Chicago PD and is awaiting additional surgeries and rehab to partially recover from her injuries.  Molly Carpenter is now the Winter Lady, Mab’s lieutenant and she has used her connections to provide Harry and his daughter with a home.  It is an apartment that is contained within a sort of embassy building owned and run by the Svartalves (dark elves) who are very serious about security.  This was necessary because in the last book the Red House Vampires finally burned Harry’s crummy home to the ground.  And his Volkswagen Bug was also finished off.  Now he’s driving a reconditioned and ancient hearse that he calls the Munstermobile.

I will say that the annoyance of having the book end in the middle of the story is acceptable because having Harry back is worth it.  I expect really good things from Battle Ground and if you’re a Dresden Files fan you have no choice but to jump in and enjoy the wreckage that Harry drags in his wake.  Highly recommended.

Warbound – Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles – by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction-Fantasy Book Review

Warbound is the third and the (currently) final volume of Larry Correia’s Grimnoir series.  And as such it ties together the threads from the earlier volumes, Hard Magic and Spellbound and provides the resolution of the story lines for the main characters Jake Sullivan and Faye Vierra.  These two are powerful “actives,” possessors of magic abilities in one or several categories working for the Grimnoir Society.  Jake is a Gravity Spiker with the ability to alter gravity at will while Faye is a Traveler, someone who can teleport from one location to another.  Both have been tested during the crises in the earlier books when they faced off first against the Iron Guard actives of the Japanese Imperium and afterward against rogue actives in the US intelligence agencies that were attempting to blame the Grimnoir Society for magical attacks by other forces.

But now the whole planet is threatened by an alien creature that preys on the entity that produces the magic.  The knowledge of what is at stake produces some strange alliances that alter the dynamic that the earlier books portrayed.  And despite the war footing that the book details Correia is able to mix just enough humor and other character driven interest to allow the pleasant juggling of a large number of characters.  One of the features of this historical fantasy world is the introduction of historical figures often possessing magic themselves.  Blackjack Pershing, J. Edgar Hoover, Buckminster Fuller, even FDR make longer or shorter appearances in the books.

I won’t go into a detailed plot summary because I don’t want to spoil the story.  Suffice it to say I’m giving it a very good rating.  And I’ll finish off by saying a few things about Correia’s story writing.  Without a doubt Correia is one of the best sf&f authors around today.  Going beyond that I’ll say he compares well with the older authors back in the heyday of the genres.  He writes good heroes and good villains.  He has a good ear for dialog and he can even inject humor into the story in a natural way.  One of his favorite types is a variant of the competent man but instead of Heinlein’s omnicompetent type Correia’s hero is usually a working- or middle-class guy who is good with his fists and guns and adheres to a code of conventional morality.  And as an added bonus his heroes are actually likable.  Even his villains are interesting.

And there’s one final bonus with Correia that is refreshing to see in today’s social justice infused entertainment industry.  There won’t be a single character thrown in just to earn intersectional social justice brownie points from the pink science fiction crowd.  Just regular people with super powers fighting super villains without having to worry if any of them is being oppressed by the really evil cis-het white man.

So far, I’ve read all Correia’s Monster Hunter books and now the Grimmoir books.  I’ve also enjoyed his comical Tom Stranger audiobooks and I follow his website for his take on the latest outrages by the pink science fiction scolds.  Next, I’ll start his epic fantasy series “Saga of the Forgotten Warrior” without bothering to check reviews because I’m already sure it’ll be excellent.  And in today’s science fiction and fantasy environment that’s pretty rare.

Spellbound – Book II of the Grimnoir Chronicles – by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction-Fantasy Book Review

“Spellbound” is the second book in this series.  Obviously since I am reviewing this second volume, I enjoyed the first installment “Hard Magic” (see my review of it here).

In this story the main characters Jake Sullivan and Faye Vierra are once again swept along in the cataclysmic ricochets of real magic altering the world of the early 20th century.  It’s 1933 and FDR is coming into office and one of his priorities is dealing with the ‘Actives.”  This is the term for humans that have major magical powers.  This includes “Brutes” who are inhumanly strong, “Travelers” who can teleport, “Healers” who can cure almost any disease or injury and numerous other special types.  In the first book we learned how the Japanese had harnessed Actives as a spearpoint for their war machine in Asia.  And we met Jake and Faye.  Now they are veteran “knights” in the Grimnoir Society, sworn to use their powers to protect the innocent and destroy those using magic for evil.

But forces within the United States government are conspiring to discredit the Grimnoir and turn the American public against the Actives through a series of false flag operations.  This book is the story of the Grimnoir fighting against that operation.  But it also builds on the conflict with the Japanese Iron Guard, (enhanced military Actives) from the first book and then clarifies the nature of the forces that had originally unleashed magic into the world and how that will threaten the whole world in the very near future.

Okay, so that’s the setup.  Larry Correia is a very good story teller.  He paints a very rich picture with his characters and the action of the plot.  Even the villains are well written and the story is peppered with historical personages like J Edgar Hoover and Buckminster Fuller who are adapted to fill their roles in this alternate universe.  Each chapter begins with a quote from some person, mostly historical, saying something that illustrates how real magic has impacted the alternate universe of the story.

I find this alternate world very entertaining.  The Jake Sullivan character is one of Correia’s competent man heroes.  He is a brawler who has been treated badly by the world but refuses to abandon the good.  Even his enemies have learned to respect his abilities and this allows him to form alliances that otherwise would be impossible.  Faye is a powerfully gifted “Traveler” who possess abilities that far exceed what other Actives can do.  She is also a very young woman from a sheltered small-town environment who is still trying to figure out how she fits into this strange world she finds herself in.

These two characters are the twin focuses around which the other characters and the plot revolve.  The whole story is a straight forward action adventure.  There are plenty of good guys, bad guys and even some good bad guys and bad good guys.  It’s a combination of Buck Rodgers, The Untouchables and H. P. Lovecraft with some film noir thrown in for good measure.  If that sounds like something you might like then pick up the first book Hard Magic and start at the beginning.  If you’ve already read it then know that the series is still getting better in book two, Spellbound.

The Dresden Files – A Fantasy Book Review

Technically I guess this is a book series review.  Jim Butcher has produced fifteen books in his Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels.  Starting in 2000 he published about one a year.  The series follows the career of Harry Dresden, a Chicago wizard who consults with the Chicago PD whenever a vampire, werewolf or other evil magical being invades his territory.  Butcher provides back story on Harry’s relation to the various hierarchies of supernatural beings starting in the first novel Storm Front but one of the very impressive aspects of the series is just how complex the interrelation between the various fantasy elements of Harry’s environment becomes.  In addition to the wizards that he is nominally a member of, he has varied bad relations with the Three (Black, White and Red) Houses of vampires, the Summer and Winter Queen’s faerie realms, an assortment of demi-gods, several types of lycanthropes, zombies, ghosts, Christian Knights a Chicago Mafioso and any number of demons and devils.

And in addition to the growth of the fantasy landscape, Harry himself grows in the telling.  He starts out as an almost ridiculous figure of fun who barely survives only because he heals very well.  But across the series of stories he takes on the characteristics of a hero.  He loses those he loves and sacrifices his own well being to protect his neighbors and innocents who are often thrust into the jaws of death by proximity to Harry’s homicidal enemies.  And we see Harry’s relationship with Lieutenant Karrin Murphy of the Chicago PD evolve.  They start out as uneasy allies.  But owing to the impossibility of reconciling the requirements of human law enforcement with the reality of battling supernatural monsters they often found themselves as adversaries.  Over time they become as close as family and Karrin ends up as probably Harry’s closest friend on earth.

We meet members of Harry’s bizarre extended family including a half brother who is part vampire and his god-mother who is a powerful faerie in the Winter Queen’s Court.  And Harry even becomes a father although under very tragic circumstances.

This is all just a rambling miscellany of some of the elements of this series that come to mind.  No new volume has come out since 2014 so my memory of it isn’t crystal clear.  But what is certain is that this is a fantastic series of urban fantasy books that entertains on multiple levels.  The story telling is compelling.  The characters are memorable and interesting, the evil ones no less than the good, and Harry most of all.  And Harry Dresden becomes a familiar and likable friend whose acquaintance you look forward to renewing in each book.  The whole series is a first-person account in Harry’s voice.  You laugh as his crappy Volkswagon Beetle gets smashed for the hundredth time by some monster and has to be repaired on the cheap again because Harry is always broke.  You recoil in shock when Harry’s pathetic unheated basement apartment, so often attacked by supernatural forces, is finally burned to the ground.

I’ll cut this short here.  I highly recommend the Dresden Files novels.  I haven’t read any of the independent short stories that have been added to the corpus recently so I won’t vouch for those.  I’m hoping someday Jim Butcher will give us more of the series.  They are excellent.

Southern Dust – by Caspar Vega – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

Caspar Vega must be an interesting character.  His books are a bizarre mixture of fantasy/horror and crime drama.  Many of his characters are not the kind of people you’d want to live next door to or even meet.  They range from anti-social to sociopath to worse.  And his books are never linear.  They track back and forth in time and place and skip from voice to voice in unexpected directions.

I’ve read and reviewed two other books by Caspar Vega, “The Pink Beetle” and the “The Eclectic Prince.”  And after each one I confirm both to myself and to my readers that Mr. Vega’s stories are way outside my wheelhouse.  Not that I only read or enjoy light-hearted fare.  I enjoy horror and even crime drama.  But there is something nihilistic about the atmosphere in these stories that is off-putting for me.  I must be getting old.

But here I am again.  I decided to try out Southern Dust.  The premise of the story is that in the near future the Democrats assassinate a Republican president and install one of their own through chicanery.  In response, a revolt in Alabama breaks the state away from the Union.  And in short order a good number of other states also declare their independence.  This story follows the fates of three individuals that collide in this strange new world.

Along with the other suppositions of this world are super soldiers, vampires and black magic.  But the mainstay of the story are the characters.  And they live up to the type that I remember from Mr. Vega’s earlier books.  Even the good guys are very troubled individuals.  The criminals on the other hand can be at least somewhat sympathetic but brutality is their stock in trade.  Murder for hire, framing up ex-girlfriends and bounty hunting all occur but brain-washed undead is probably the weirdest plot device you run into.  And even when one of the characters tries to do a good deed it boomerangs back on him in the classic no good deed  goes unpunished catergory.

I’ll finish my review of this book much as I’ve done with its predecessors, with a mixed message.  This is an interesting book.  But it’s not for everyone. It’s for those who like gritty crime dramas with a staccato, post-modern, minimalist writing style.  Your call.

Monster Hunter Siege by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review

Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series has been a fun experience for me.  His stories feature heroic monster hunters battling the unalloyed evil of the world’s varied monster population.  The Shacklefords and their associates have turned wholesale slaughter of the undead into a lucrative enterprise but one that has taken its toll on the family.  Included in this attrition are three recent victims who have been turned respectively, into a werewolf and two master vampires.  But what makes it a pleasure is that none of the monsters and none of the hunters ever seem tempted to wax poetic on the need to increase the world quotient of social justice.  The diversity of the characters is measured in species of monsters dispatched or the variety of allied supernatural creatures such as trailer-park dwelling elves, death-metal loving orcs and gangsta gnomes who get featured in a story.  Correia never once discusses the need to ascertain the correct gender fluid pronouns of any zombies before blowing their heads off with a rocket propelled grenade.  So, the books are very much action oriented.  Shooting monsters is their forte.

But I am happy to relate that Larry’s storytelling abilities are definitely becoming more nuanced.  In Siege one of the highlights of the book is a sustained dialog between the protagonist (Owen Pitt) and his nemesis.  In this scene Correia gives the devil his due.  In fact, I think his evil character may actually seal the show.  Of course, there is still plenty of combat and monsters being blown up.  And Larry further clarifies the mythology of his universe.  So never fear, there’s plenty of explosions to warm the heart of all Monster Hunter fans.  But Larry is definitely steering the series into a more complicated plot.  Larry has shown that he is not averse to killing off some of his characters.  And some of that goes on in Siege.  But what is also clarified is that he is braiding at least five separate strands of supernatural intervention and even some of the “good guys” may not get along together.  So, we shouldn’t expect any imminent resolution of the larger threat that has been growing in the background.  If anything, the details at the end of Siege further complicate the future for Owen and his family.  But that’s alright.  Larry seems in control of his material and expanding the scope of the story to epic proportions.

So, if you are already a Monster Hunter fan then the good news is that Siege is a very worthy successor to the series.  And if you are new to the series then rest assured that your investment will pay off with an already good number of sequels to satisfy your monster killing quota and with every indication that Larry will continue to expand the Monster Hunter saga into an urban fantasy franchise comparable in size and quality to Jim Butcher’s Dresden files.  The only shortcoming to the story is that the only mention of Agent Franks is retrospective to the previous book.  We’ll have to wait for the next book to see his smiling face.

For you Monster Hunter Intl. Fans, Larry Correia Has Posted Part X of his Annual Christmas Noun Saga

Larry was the guiding spirit behind the original Sad Puppies campaign and the author of the best-selling Monster Hunter International series.  He’s also an extremely amusing fellow and his Christmas Noun parody is a yearly institution on his site.  The earlier installments are linked there and provide background on the various goofy story conventions involved in the tale.  And it’s free.  Enjoy.

CHRISTMAS NOUN X: THE GHOSTS OF DIE HARDS PAST

2017 Dragon Awards Winners Announced

The results have been announced and just as with last year, the Hugos have been shown once again to be way outside the mainstream.  Of course, not everything I voted for won.  But enough did and enough other stuff that did win was at least recognizable as SF&F.  Sure, there’s some stuff written by SJW allies but at least it was stuff people actually buy so the really egregious stuff was passed over completely.  Here’s the complete list:

http://awards.dragoncon.org/2017_winners/

Kudos to the winners and especially to Larry and the other puppies, sad and rabid, for starting the fire in that dumpster known as the Hugos.  Like anything that’s been shown defective the Hugos have been replaced with something that actually works.

Ray Bradbury – An American Original – Part 2 – The Short Stories

In the first part of this post, I’ve given a little background on how I became introduced to Ray Bradbury’s stories.  After detailing Dandelion Wine, I feel talking about his shorter works is the next order of business.  I own a collection of these called “The Stories of Ray Bradbury” which includes what Bradbury considered his best 100 short stories.  I went through these today and picked out my favorites.  I feel it’s necessary to qualify that statement.  There are more than a few of Bradbury’s best stories that have become components of the longer work Dandelion Wine.  Since I’ve already reviewed that work I’ve left these short stories out of this selection process.

Here are my selections for the best of the best in the same order as they appear in the book:

  1. The Crowd
  2. The Scythe
  3. The City
  4. There Was an Old Woman
  5. There Will Come Soft Rains
  6. The Veldt
  7. A Sound of Thunder
  8. Invisible Boy
  9. The Fog Horn
  10. Hail and Farewell
  11. The Great Wide World Over There
  12. Skeleton
  13. The Man Upstairs
  14. The Jar
  15. Touched with Fire
  16. The Town Where No One Got Off
  17. Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!
  18. The One Who Waits

Now here’s the thing.  I could easily have added double this number.  Almost all the stories are good.  But these are the ones I especially like.  So, this selection probably says more about me than it does about Bradbury’s best of the best.  But that can be said about any critic’s choices.

An interesting fact I discovered after making this list is that there are at least three stories in this list which I don’t think have any SF&F content in them whatsoever.  They are just studies in human nature.  And yet they appear on this list.  Which I take to mean that Bradbury finds people interesting and knows how to make them interesting to his readers.  Now, that may not seem remarkable, but look at the people writing at the same time as Bradbury.  Let’s take Isaac Asimov.  If you read Asimov’s long or short fiction what you will find is that he is a purveyor of ideas.  But his characters, even his protagonists are ciphers.  There isn’t any emotional content worth mentioning.  And that even counts the scenes where the action is dependent on an emotional response from one of his characters.  He could just as well have been describing billiard balls ricocheting around a pool table.  You might even see the psychological logic of the emotional response but you won’t experience empathy or interest in the character as a human being because of it.  It’s just a plot device.

This was why Bradbury was different back then.  He wrote people in SF&F stories as if they actually were people.  Better writers back then were also doing this to some extent.  Heinlein’s characters displayed more individuality than the average and this is one of the reasons why he is still enjoyed.  But Bradbury brought this to a much higher level.

What else can be definitely said about Bradbury’s stories?  I would say that he almost exclusively deals in the foreground of the picture.  By that I mean that his subjects are almost always face to face.  If Arthur C. Clarke were describing a nuclear holocaust you would see it from orbit.  You would see the ballistic paths of the ICBMs and you would be at the top of the parabola when one missile starts to descend.  And you would see the individual nuclear ignitions across the face of the globe like some fireworks display.  That’s not Bradbury.  With him you’ll see the aftermath of a suburban home on the edge of the kill zone.  You’ll see the toaster in the kitchen and you’ll see the shadows of the family imprinted onto the side of the house facing the gamma ray flash.

Even when Bradbury does write a story of aliens invading earth you are not going to get War of the Worlds.  You’ll get that same suburban neighborhood with husbands and housewives and little Jimmy working on his hobby in the basement.

So now I’ve said a bunch of words about Bradbury’s short fiction.  If you’re looking for hard-core technical sf or even just plain old amusing space opera do not stop at Bradbury.  Move right along.  There’s none of that here.  But if you want to delve into the mysterious world within a world that is the human soul take a trip with him.  It might strike a resonant chord.  Or it might not.  Either way you’ll learn something.

Ray Bradbury – An American Original – Part 1 – Dandelion Wine

 

When I was a kid back in the third quarter of the twentieth century I came upon science fiction in the children’s section of the Brooklyn Public Library.  And so I read Heinlein’s and Asimov’s juvenile sf stories.  As I got a little older I was able to borrow from the adult collection and soon discovered all the golden age authors and some of the newer, edgier writers.  But at a certain point I discovered Ray Bradbury.  I remember he had two collections called R is for Rocket, S is for Space.  But when I read them I found out he wasn’t writing space opera.  In fact, some of his stories didn’t seem to be science fiction at all.  At the time, I didn’t know what fantasy was.  They just seemed to be strange stories.  Later on, I found some of his stories showing up on “The Twilight Zone” TV series and this helped me categorize them as something weird and fun.  But whatever I called him Bradbury was different from the other writers I knew.  Each of his stories had to be evaluated on the merits.  Some of his stories lacked fantasy plot elements and at the time these stories seemed lacking in interest.  Others were almost horror stories and these kept my attention best.  Even his most externally identifiable science fiction stories, “The Martian Chronicles,” didn’t feel like other science fiction stories.  Even if there were ray guns and aliens and space ships it didn’t seem as if these were the point of the story.  They were more like parables or morality tales.  And to a kid this was perplexing.  But I always considered Bradbury as something worth reading.  He was high value.

Fast forward twenty years.  It was the late nineteen eighties.  I was in an old used bookstore in Boston during my lunch hour from a design engineering job I had.  I hadn’t read any science fiction in a while.  I was browsing through a pile of books that had been displayed earlier in the year as summer reading.  There was a used hard cover book with a mylar library-type jacket cover on and a cover painting of a little blond haired boy virtually covering the pavement with his chalk drawings of lines and shapes.  The book was called “Dandelion Wine” and the author was Ray Bradbury.  It was a novel length book and it surprised me because I didn’t remember Bradbury writing many novels.  At the time “Fahrenheit 451” was the only one I could think of.

On a lark, I bought it.  I put it on my bookshelf and figured I’d get to it when the project I was on slowed down.  Well I forgot all about that book and before that project slowed down I had changed jobs and was too busy for reading.  It was about nine months later in July, when I picked it up again.  I was going on vacation with my wife and kids to Old Orchard Beach, Maine for a week.  It’s a very working class old beach resort where middle class people go to sit by the ocean and let their kids dig sand castles and swim.  And later on, you can go down to the pier and buy bad pizza and ice cream for your kids and let them get fake tattoos or go down to the amusement park and watch them be centrifuged in the dozen or so kinetic devices that are used to extract dollars from parents and regurgitated food from kids’ stomachs.  The several years I brought my young family there are among the happiest memories I have.

Anyway, when the family settled in the beach house at night and the kids settled down to reading or watching the TV I picked up Dandelion Wine.  And I was surprised to find I had already read it.  But wait, not really, I’d read parts of it.  What Bradbury had done was patch together a number of his older stories along with transition scenes that tied them together, and make a narrative about a summer for a boy and his family and neighbors in Green Town, USA circa 1928.  What it really was, was an ode to the boyhood Ray Bradbury had lived and imagined in Waukegan, Illinois.  He used the memories of his childhood home and passed them through the story writing algorithm in his head and invented a world that struck me as remarkable.  Here were the mundane short stories that as a kid didn’t click with me because there were no monsters or space ships.  Now they were knitted together to talk about what was magical about being a twelve-year-old boy in a small mid-western town in the early twentieth century with three months of summer vacation ahead of you.  They are stories about family and friends and growing up and living and getting old and even dying.  And they are mostly about being a kid.

Since that summer I’ve re-read that book a dozen times in whole or part.  I mostly read it when I have some vacation time in summer.  This year I’ll be sixty.  When I read that book I’m not even sixteen, I’m twelve.  It’s remarkable.  I didn’t grow up in a small town.  I grew up on the relatively mean streets of Brooklyn, NY.  And I was born forty years after him.  But I can understand what he’s saying and feeling in his alter ego character.  He’s captured the essence of boyhood in its quintessential form, summer freedom.  And the setting is a simpler time and place.  It’s idyllic.  Not realistic but almost archetypal.

I imagine there are many for whom this type of story has no appeal.  It’s not high adventure or technical fun.  But if any of this strikes a chord try the book out.