Promise of Blood

Thoughts on Brian McClellan's Promise of Blood

Powder mages in Brian McClellan’s debut novel Promise of Blood are finesse bad-asses.  They can magically ignite gunpowder from a distance, which makes challenging a powder mage to a pistol duel a foolhardy endeavor.  They can expend gunpowder to adjust a shot’s trajectory mid-flight, so they could probably plunk a bullet-dodging Neo.  They can inhale gunpowder to enter what they call a powder trance, a state of being during which the powder mage enjoys heightened senses and extraordinary strength.  However, a powder mage can overindulge, causing a debilitating state known as powder blindness.  One of the four primary point of view characters, Taniel, a skilled powder mage in the Adro military and my favorite character of the novel, tends to overdo it now and then.  He is a flawed character, but heroic.  If there is any single character with whom I could identify, it is Taniel.  He is troubled.  He is fiercely loyal to those he loves and is protective of his comrades in arms.  He yearns for parental approval – don’t we all – yet endeavors to establish himself as a dependable and independent.  Despite this, he is also borderline dependent on powder, constantly using it to resolve or escape difficult situations.  Taniel’s story is of a young man at war with himself as well as with the neighboring nation attempting to invade his homeland.

Powder mages aren’t the only ones with special ability.  Adamat is a retired police inspector, working as a private detective to maintain a living for his family.  His is the Raymond Chandler private eye, dirty underbelly of the city kind of story.  He has a Knack, a lesser class of magical ability, but useful if one knows how to use their Knack.  Adamat has a perfect memory, quite a valuable trait for a detective.  Like these detective stories tend to go, Adamat is working against forces unseen, dangerous and deadly.  In over his head and constantly under threat of harm to himself or his family, he has to work the angles and do what he needs to do to get the job done.  Not bound to anyone but himself, his motive is preservation of self and family, not duty to king or country.  His is the perspective of the regular citizen caught up in the machinations of his nation.

Field Marshal Tamas, an aging powder mage and a commander of the nation’s military, begins the novel having just executed a successful coup d’état, putting the king and the nobility beneath the guillotine’s blade.  It is a brutal act, but necessary.  Right?  His story revolves around the aftermath of his coup as he deals with the fallout of his decisions.  Morality ambiguity is touched upon, perhaps to be further explored in books two or three of this trilogy.  When the life of one’s entire nation is at stake, how far can one go to protect it?  Is executing hundreds morally wrong when those hundreds could put your entire plan at risk?  What if you are wrong?  But aren't the lives of millions worth the lives of hundreds?  Nation leaders across our globe struggle with that question on a daily basis.

There is a fourth P.O.V. character who I feel was under-used.  Nila, a young laundress to a noble family before the coup, is only seen a few times throughout the novel and is present to provide the point of view of those victimized by the coup.  Tamas thinks his coup benefits all, but Nila is proof that it does not.  During the coup, she is attacked by a squad of Tamas’s soldiers and nearly raped. Her employer is executed along with the rest of the nobility so she is left homeless and jobless.  Her story could have been much more effective had more time been spent exploring it.  Perhaps she makes a more meaty appearance in the second book of this trilogy.

I would like to highlight the cover art designed by Lauren Panepinto with photo illustration by Gene Mollica and Michael Frost.  This is one of the most beautiful and story-appropriate covers I have ever seen.  This is Field Marshal Tamas at the very moment the reader opens the book to read chapter one.  He has overthrown the king, the battle is won.  He sits on the throne in the dark, his flintlock rifle across his knees, disheveled graying hair across his downcast eyes.  He slouches in exhaustion and sorrow. He doesn't wear the crown.  It sits on the floor beside him in a pool of blood, bathed in a single ray of light.   It is night and the room is dark so what is the source of this light?  If it is divine light, then Tamas has more than just angry citizens loyal to the king to deal with.  Simply beautiful artwork.  I adore it.

Promise of Blood is so much fun, fast-paced, and creative.  The supporting characters are well-realized and intriguing, particularly Taniel’s ward, Ka-poel, a young savage with a mysterious and powerful ability. Now I am suffering an OCD struggle. My copy of Promise of Blood is the trade paperback version.  The second book of the trilogy, The Crimson Campaign, is available now in hardcover and isn't available in paperback until 2015.  I want to read book two now, but can’t allow myself to buy it because it will be the hardcover version – which I always prefer – but it will not match the version of book one have on my shelf.  Books in a series have to match, don’t they?  No, it there is no question.  One simply cannot have a trade paperback version of book one, a hardcover version of book two, and a mass market paperback version of book three.  It wouldn't look right.  Back me up here, folks.  Maybe if I snort some gunpowder, I will be granted the superior mental clarity required to think through this dilemma.

Bookthump Bits

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  • Check out the author's blog at  He has interesting things to say about online juggernaut Amazon's feud with Brian's publisher Hachette.
  • Brian isn't just supporting his fictional world with traditional novels.  He has written a series of self-published novellas set in the Powder Mage universe, all of which are available for download on your Nook or Kindle or what-have-you.  I don't much care for reading books on a computer screen so my hope is that Hachette will purchase these works and publish them in a collection I can buy at a bookstore.

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  • The author stopped by Sword & Laser for a video chat: 
Uploaded by The Sword and Laser on 2014-02-19.

The Martian

Thoughts on Andy Weir's The Martian

When I was a little boy, I wanted to be an astronaut.  Well, first I wanted to be a fire truck but then astronaut.  As I grew older, it became clear that my brain is not wired for the maths so my toddler dream of becoming an astronaut was quickly scrubbed.  Space exploration still fascinates me from a dreamer’s perspective and this is probably why I appreciate science fiction and speculative fiction so much.

I imagine the pitch room logline for Andy Weir’s debut novel The Martian probably was:  Robinson Crusoe on Mars.  Then the publisher said something about there already being a movie with that title and the agent deftly redirected with a “yeah, but…” statement.

Like Robinson Crusoe, this is a survival story.  An accident leaves astronaut Mark Watney stranded alone on Mars.  Even on Earth, where we have all of the breathable atmosphere we need, people die when stranded in unfamiliar territory.  Either they lack the skills, the intelligence, or the willpower to survive.  Mark Watney possesses all three in abundance.  Despite numerous setbacks (I could swear Watney was being followed around by Joe Btfsplk), he has to use his vast NASA brain to figure out solutions to problems that would probably kill anyone else.

Watney’s story is told via first person journal entries.  Normally, I do not care for diary/journal-style narrative, but I liked this over a first person continuous narrative because it caused me to wonder if I, as the reader, could possibly be playing the role of a person reading the posthumous account of Watney’s life on Mars.  During each event, I was left to wonder if this was the obstacle that would kill him.  Watney is a brilliant man, but Mars is a hostile environment.  After all, how many disasters can one man survive before his luck runs out?  Andy Weir's use of the journal-style narrative effectively increases the tension.

Mark Watney is a fun, likable character.  He possesses genius-level intelligence, but talks like a regular person.  When he describes the science of what he is doing, he does it in a conversational way, as though he is talking to a group of normals at a cocktail party.  I worried that The Martian would be too hard SF for me, but Andy Weir’s and thus Mark Watney’s skill at describing brainy science hoopie-doo in a way even a nit like me could understand was much appreciated.  Watney also possesses a wonderful sense of humor.  He’d have to, I suppose, to be able to maintain mental stability during such an ordeal.  I would probably lose my mind and panic.  This guy starts ruminating on 70s television while trying to figure out how to grow potatoes in space.  I rooted for him.  I desperately wanted him to live because the world needs more people like him.

The Martian is a great adventure story.  I enjoyed every page and look forward to Andy Weir’s next book.  My mom liked it, too.  I bought a copy for her and we read it together.  She is generally more of a contemporary fiction – Grisham, Patterson, Robb – kind of gal, but she raved about The Martian and about Andy Weir's excellent storytelling.

While I am still not an astronaut, my current vocation does involve lots of math.  I mean, like, I do complex calculations on paper with a pencil and stuff.  It is nothing like what astronauts have to do just to empty their space toilet though, so I’ll continue living vicariously through speculative fiction, especially when it is as good as Andy Weir’s The Martian.


Thoughts on Cherie Priest's Boneshaker

Steampunk intrigues me.  I enjoy imagining a speculative world built upon steam-powered technology instead of the electrical technology we take for granted today.  I like the chunky, mechanical look of the equipment and the Victorian-inspired attire with its myriad straps and buckles.  I have always appreciated the genre from afar though, having never read, watched or listened to any Steampunk-related media, so Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is my participatory introduction to this world of clockwork mystique.

We are oft cautioned not to judge a book by its cover, but that should not stop us from appreciating an exceptional one.  Jon Foster’s illustration on the 2009 TOR paperback edition is attractive and succeeded in drawing my eye to it on the bookshop shelf in the midst of hundreds of others.  We see an extreme close-up of a young woman’s face as she gazes skyward, herself colored with a muted gray palette while her bulky metal goggles are colored gold and reflect the giant, wire-frame zeppelin that has drawn her eye just as it has ours.  Is she looking at the zeppelin in excited anticipation or is it a threat to her?  The goggles hide her eyes so we don’t know.  I don’t often lose time staring at cover illustrations, but this one captures my imagination completely.

Even the color of the text in the book was an interesting artistic choice.  Instead of the standard black print, the text is sepia.  I don’t recall ever seeing a book printed in anything other than black.  It is a neat choice and fits the genre and time period of the book well since it brings to mind sepia photographs from the late nineteenth century.

Boneshaker is not merely a Steampunk novel though as it also includes zombies, or “rotters” in the parlance of the denizens of this cursed version of nineteenth century Seattle.  While this is my first experience with the Steampunk genre, I am an unabashed appreciator of zombie fiction.  Priest’s alternate history version of Civil War-era Seattle has been walled in to protect those outside from The Blight, a noxious yellow gas that corrodes material and turns those who breathe it into groaning, shambling cannibal terrors.  This awful gas infecting the city is the result of a pre-narrative accident, the test of a drilling machine gone awry.  The conductor of the test, the brilliant inventor Leviticus Blue, supposedly perished in the accident but questions remain.  Sixteen years later, Ezekiel Wilkes, the teenaged son of Blue and his widow Briar Wilkes, decides he wants to learn the truth and sneaks into the walled-off part of the city seeking answers.  When Briar learns what her son has done, she goes in after him.  What follows is a fun adventure tale as mother searches for son in a dead and deadly city.

Boneshaker is full of great atmosphere.  Priest does a wonderful job of describing how the thick-as-pudding blight gas has corrupted and corroded the buildings inside The Wall, how the sun never really seems to provide enough light, how the rotters’ moans and groans unsettle one’s nerves.  It is an oppressive setting and it effectively filled me with dread.  Priest takes her time establishing the setting, peppering in action scenes with character-developing walk’n’talk scenes.  Chapters switch between Zeke’s activities and those of his mother and occasionally I had difficulty reconciling when one person’s scenes took place in relation to the other’s scenes.  Ultimately, it all works out but I felt like I spent too much time trying to figure out if I was reading simultaneous or subsequent action.  The pace of the story is generally slow until the exciting and satisfying conclusion.

While Ezekiel and Briar are sympathetic characters, they frustrated me.  I found Ezekiel to be obnoxious, foolish, and smart-mouthed, all of which I was as a 15-year-old boy so I suppose Priest wrote him quite accurately, but I didn’t like myself when I was fifteen either.  I forgive Briar for her occasional brash and rude demeanor due to the stress she was under, but her behavior in some situations still baffled me as she acted in the complete opposite manner I would have expected.  Still, she is a strong woman and not a damsel in distress so for that, I commend Cherie Priest.  As in her debut novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds (which I reviewed here ), Boneshaker is full of strong female characters.  There are too many stories in all media wherein the women are either window dressing or quest rewards.  Cherie Priest’s heroines are a nice change of pace.

The supporting cast interested me much more than the two protagonists and while we do learn a bit about characters like Lucy and Angeline, I wanted to know so much more about the backstories of Swakhammer and the zeppelin crew.  A novel detailing the origin story of the antagonist would be particularly interesting.

As a first experience with the Steampunk genre, Boneshaker did not disappoint.  This is the second Cherie Priest novel I have read and I enjoyed both of them so I think I can safely put her on my author watch list.

Downbelow Station

I love C.J. Cherryh's style, but this is not a novel to be read casually. I recommend you carve out decent chunks of time to absorb this book, concentrate on it. Chapters are divided into sections and each section is told from the third-person point of view of a different character so if you pick at this book over the course of several weeks, you could get lost, forget what who is who and what they've done or had done to them. Cherryh packs a lot of information in tight spaces, sometimes sneaking into the heads of her characters and coming out with a sentence fragment of just a few words but that is intended to convey a thought process, a reaction to events, emotion. It happens quickly and if you aren't paying attention, you can miss these flavorful moments.

There is a large cast of characters in this novel and in the hands of lesser author, many of them could have easily been copies of one another, but Cherryh manages to make each of them distinct and clearly establishes their reason for existing in the story. Some are motivated to do what's right, some by personal gain, some by something they haven't quite figured out.

I enjoy Cherryh's vision of the future. It is messy, hazardous, lived in. Conditions on the station and on starships feel cramped, sweaty, and uncomfortable. These are not crisp, clean places with flawless machinery and on-station shopping malls full of viewing decks with gorgeous views of the stars. People die and when it happens it is quick and without fanfare. There is no slow-motion scene of them falling to the ground while those around them scream "Noooooooooo!" It just happens and that's that. And I love Cherryh for it. Her world feels real.

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was

When the village of Ku-fu is struck by a mysterious plague, the exceptionally strong but not particularly bright Number Ten Ox recruits the help of Li Kao, an elderly scholar "with a slight flaw in his character", in his quest for the Great Root of Power, a legendary ginseng root with the power to cure any ailment.  During their quest, this odd couple will encounter a wide variety of strange characters, many of whom are more caricatures, and will get themselves wrapped up in more trouble than they have any right to survive.  Their adventures are outrageous, told in a lighthearted and sometimes humorous tone.  A couple of scenes had me laughing aloud and these are the highlights of the novel for me.  The often ridiculous nature of the events had me imagining this novel as an animated film in the visual style of 2003's The Triplets of Belleville.

I found the supporting characters more interesting than the two main characters, though Li Kao is the more entertaining of those, but I think that is the very reason I did not enjoy this novel more than I expected to.  Number Ten Ox, the narrator of the story, was plain and uninteresting to me.  He seemed only to exist in the story to carry Master Li from place to place and to serve as a reasonable introduction to the character of Lotus Cloud.  Other than that, he could have been omitted from the book and the story could have been told from the perspective of Master Li instead.  Perhaps the point of Number Ten Ox's existence is to be the perspective of the reader, the normal person who is experiencing the magical and supernatural elements of this ancient China that never was with as much wonder and awe as the reader is meant to feel.

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was is an interesting book.  I have never read anything quite like it.  I am not sure I will seek out the rest of the trilogy but I am grateful for the experience.  Enough people seem to really love it that I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasies and is looking for something a little different from the standard swords and sorcery stories.

Old Man's War

Thoughts on John Scalzi's Old Man's War

Old Man's War  is my introduction to John Scalzi and it has one of the most interesting first lines I can ever remember reading:

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.”

Hooked! My first thoughts were, “Aw, that’s sad” followed immediately by “What the? How can he?” I had to know more. The explanation of how and why the main character could enlist in the army as a septuagenarian pulled me into the story and Scalzi’s ability to tell a story where awful things happen in a humorous way kept me there. The action reminded me of the movie “Starship Troopers” in that is it violent and gory but presented with a humorous tone. His writing style is comfortable, easy to nestle into. Reading this book is almost like coasting a bicycle down a hill. You start under your own power, then physics takes over and you squint into the wind, letting gravity do the rest until the hill flattens out and you come to an easy stop, satisfied with the ride. Part III adds some heart to the story that I thought was sweet, but that also gave me some concerns about how the story might end. I am pleased to say that Scalzi surprised me.

After finishing the novel, most readers will be considering whether or not they would enlist. I’m not sure I would but I can certainly understand why so many in my book club would jump at the opportunity. I will, however, jump at the opportunity to read the next Scalzi book I find.

The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again

Thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

Tolkien's original cover design

Tolkien's original cover design

This is my second attempt at reading The Hobbit after extreme boredom with the story ended my initial effort when I was in college.  I was inspired to try again by the forthcoming film and by my participation in the 

Sword & Laser Book Club, of which The Hobbit is the December selection.  Having finished the book this time, I am pleased to add my name to the list of people who have read this classic, though I was terribly disappointed by the novel itself.

The main reason for my disappointment is the writing style of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I found meandering and far too whimsical for my taste.  I fully understand why this is such a beloved book, but I was not able to whip up even a fraction of enjoyment that my peers seem to have gained from the same experience.  I felt Tolkien lingered too long on uninteresting encounters and completely rushed through the scenes that I found myself enjoying.  The story itself is entertaining, but my enjoyment of it was marred by the writing style.  I feel badly about that, as though I've completely missed the point. 

I do appreciate what I feel is one of the lessons of The Hobbit, which is that with the right coalition of allies, you can overcome overwhelming hardship.  Tolkien learned this lesson personally as a soldier during World War I.  It is an important lesson, but I wonder if the children who were the original target audience of this story would see it.  Despite my disappointment, I am glad I read The Hobbit.  It has informed so much our current popular culture since its publication and will surely again when the films are released.