The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes
Joe Abercrombie

My husband read Best Served Cold last year and his response was favorable: “this is [bleeep!]’ed up…  I like it”. Now The Mister has been working his way through Abercrombie’s backlog. As a result, I’ve been meaning to try this author, even though I had a vague idea it meant lots of violent action which isn’t usually what I gravitate towards. When Orbit offered a finished copy for review I took the chance to try something new.

The Premise: The southern Army (aka The Union), are fighting for the King against the Northmen horde, led by it’s leader. Minor skirmishes between Union divisions and the Northmen in other parts of the country have culminated in a battle over a small patch of land near the town of Osrung and a ring of standing stones called The Heroes. Over three days the outcome of the war will be decided.

Read an excerpt of The Heroes here

My Thoughts: You know the how often in an epic fantasy series, we follow one or many characters in their adventures and the culmination of the tale is often a big battle between the armies of good and evil? Well, chop off the parts before and after the battle, take out any sense of who are good guys or bad, magnify and expand that, and you have The Heroes. This has the feel of fantasy, but from a new perspective — it’s all about the battle and only the battle, and its third person narrative that hops from one character to the next highlights a dizzying mix of violence, terror, anger, boredom, and insanity brought on by war.

The story focuses on many characters. Some are followed only for a page or two before we jump to the next one, but others we come back to often. We get perspectives from both sides of the battle. There is no main character, but there are characters who we spend a little bit more time with than others. These are Curnden Craw, an old-timer and leader of a dozen, with decades worth of fighting under his belt (a Northman); Prince Calder, the son of a disposed King of the Northman, and known for his aversion to fighting (a Northman with little loyalty to the current leader); and Colonel Bremer dan Gorst, disgraced ex-King’s Guardsman who was appointed “Royal Observer of the Northern War” (a Union man). To a lesser extent the story also spends time with a couple of people with relatively smaller roles in the battle – Beck, a farmboy who joined the Northmen with delusions of grandeur that are soon shattered, and Finree dan Brock, daughter of the Union’s Lord Marshal, and ambitious wife of one of it’s Colonels. There are a lot more characters, but I’ll stop there. I didn’t have trouble with the multiple names, but there’s an “Order of Battle” at the front of the book is very helpful in keeping them straight (additionally, there are maps of the terrain as the battle progressed).

In this story, no one is particularly brave or heroic. Even if they manage to kill many of the enemy, their thoughts are not of great deeds, but of staying alive and maybe advancing their situations in the process. Many of the characters have petty or cowardly thoughts so they may not be particularly likable, but that’s life. Everyone has flaws and issues — some more than others. I found Colonel Bremer dan Gorst and his silent seething anger on the disturbing side even though his fighting skill was unmatched. Calder is a cowardly schemer, but he has a quick wit which balanced that out. I felt similarly about Finree. She has a sharp ambition which tramples over her thoughts for others, but she was smart under pressure. I didn’t really feel that connected to any of these characters though. There was something about each of them that made it difficult. The only character I liked was Craw, because he wanted to do the “right thing” even though this rule of conduct had it’s holes. Maybe it’s his straightforwardness amongst so many characters who are not, that I liked most (whatever that says about me).

Remember The Princess Bride, when the grandson asks his grandfather accusingly, “Is this a kissing book?”. Well, there was a little girl inside me, with her arms crossed and the opposite sentiment about The Heroes. To be fair, this feels like a matter of personal preference – this is just not the book for me. I want to feel a connection to characters when I read a book, and didn’t really find that in The Heroes. On top of that, war stores are pretty much the opposite of what I usually go for, and 541 pages of men killing each other pushes my boundaries. We all bring our histories with us when we read, and I grew up somewhere in the midst of civil war. That dampens my interest in reading about it. On the plus side, the writing was good.  Yes, there’s lots of flying body parts, but there’s always something happening and an underlying black humor about it all. I enjoyed some of the lighter moments in the story and in following the unexpected interactions between characters. Small things can have unexpected consequences, and there are brilliant intersects between characters (the last one hundred pages was particularly well choreographed). In the end I may not have been won over, but I’m glad I challenged myself to read this. I would read other books by this author, but perhaps not ones where the focus is on the battlefield.

Overall: This is a book about the kind of war that is face-to-face and hand-to-hand. As can be expected, the plot is grim and violent, but at the same time it has the same characteristics of anything in life, like tedium, humor, and bureaucracy. I’d recommend this book for readers looking for that conveys human flaws and the ambiguity and messiness of real life. I think I can appreciate the strengths of this book but I am a romantic when it comes to my reading, and this is clearly the antithesis of that.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Fantasy Faction – 8.5 out of 10 stars
Grasping for the Wind – highly recommended
LEC Book reviews – 4.5 out of 5
Genre Reader – DNF for now?

Other links:
Orbit Podcast w/ Joe Abercrombie

Killbox by Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre

This is the fourth book in the Sirantha Jax series, which is a wonderful space opera I’m addicted to. Another one I would have read sooner if not for the self-imposed book buying ban (which I’ve now completely given up on, the TBR wins).

Here are my reviews for the earlier books:
Book 1: Grimspace
Book 2: Wanderlust
Book 3: Doubleblind

**** Spoilers for the first three books from this point on ****

The Premise: After her job as a Conglomerate ambassador to Ithiss-Tor, Sirantha Jax and her crew finally have the time and the resources to work on some of their ultimate goals. The most important of these is to fight against the Morgut – terrifying, worm-like aliens who feast on the flesh of humans and who have been decimating outskirt planets and stations. Unfortunately, the random Morgut attacks begin to look less random, particularly in recent weeks.

Read an excerpt of Killbox here

My Thoughts: It kind of amazes me how much was packed into this book. The story starts right after the trip to Ithiss-Tor. Jax, March, Vel, Dina, Hit,  Doc, Rose and Constance are on their way back to Emry Station to meet up with their friends and decide what to do next. Along the way they have an encounter with some slavers, and the experience serves to highlight how much criminals have been taking advantage of the lack of policing now that Farwan is no longer in power. When Chancellor Tarn asks March and the crew to build an armada of spaceships to keep slavers and piracy down, they agree. In the meantime, Jax is working on the goal of teaching those with the J-gene how to navigate ships without the structure of an academy. And then the Morgut become a problem that the newly minted armada cannot ignore.

That’s three big things right there – training jumpers, creating a space armada and fighting the Morgut. Three impossible things before breakfast as they say. You do have to put on a little bit of a suspension of disbelief because Jax and her friends tackle all of these in one book. In each aspect, Jax demands miracles from her crew and they deliver. Now, this is not something new in the series: Jax almost died when she overextended herself in grimspace, and Doc was able to do some amazing gene therapy combined with Jax’s unique ability to repair her brain at the expense of the rest of her system, but in Killbox, the medical genius is asked to do at least 3 new and unprecedented procedures. Dina, the resident mechanical genius is also asked to work on something that no one has ever done before with jump drives. You have to just accept that Jax has the vision to be right about what her crew can do, and that Doc and Dina are just miracle workers, and I think that this is something where your mileage may vary.

This suspension of disbelief is probably my biggest problem with this installment of the series. Otherwise, I think it does quite a bit to move the story forward and it is a book which ties in all three previous installments. Characters we haven’t seen or heard about since the first book make appearances. I had to refresh my memory about them, but they do contribute to the plot and where the series as a whole seems to be going. It was nice to be pleasantly surprised by their reappearance, and I liked that there was the feeling that every character had an important role in the story. And as I’ve come to expect from this author, these characters are three dimensional.

March and Jax… what can I say? I continue to love them. At this point in the series, they’re in an established relationship. It’s nice to see them together and working as two parts of a whole. I don’t feel any loss of chemistry between the two of them when things are going well. They’re very grateful for one another. Of course, there is something of a separation that they have to deal with in Killbox. The reason for their problems is one I understand, and it adds some worry about their relationship, but even when things look bad I believe in these two. I don’t think there is anything insurmountable, and I see Jax and March putting aside their personal feelings for what they believe in. If they can do that, they can find themselves back to each other. That’s what I held on to while I read the book. On the other hand, I can see the relationship drama added to the story as something some people may have an issue with. I did not.

P.S. The ending is a bit of a cliffhanger but I was actually OK with where it ended.

Overall: Out of all the books, this one feels the most like it’s about the universe and Jax’s effect on it rather than it being a story about Jax herself. It has the biggest scope so far, with space battles and discoveries that will have far reaching consequences. The threads of earlier books start coming together in Killbox, and the ultimate battle between the Conglomerate and the Morgut is one step closer. Weaving among this, as always, is the complex, ever-changing, ever-human relationship between Jax and her crew. I think that despite a problem with believing how much was expected from the resident miracle-workers, this installment is as rich and varied as the others. And I don’t know many books that could keep me reading till 5 o’clock in the morning.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Calico_reaction – Must have.
Mardel (Rabid Reader) – a very positive review “better and better with each book”
See Michelle Read – positive review
Fantasy Cafe – 8/10
Dreams and Speculation – 8/10
Smexy Books – 5/5
Lurv a la Mode – 5 scoops (out of 5)
Literary Escapism – positive review
Tempting Persephone – positive review
The Book Pushers – 5/5

Made To Be Broken by Kelley Armstrong

I can see the Nadia Stafford series as a tv show. It falls into the same category as a crime drama like CSI – shot mostly at night, but it also has the action of a spy thriller like Alias or La Femme Nikita. Despite this Armstrong series not being urban fantasy like her Otherworld books, I think it still has Armstrong traits – a smart heroine, a dark but not too dark storyline, plenty of action, plus some romantic elements. It's one of my favorite series out right now.
The basic background is this: Nadia is an ex-cop who left her law enforcement career amidst a very public shaming for killing a suspect in her custody. Knowing the the deepset trauma in her childhood that Nadia had never been able to come to peace with, her reasons for the killing become obvious. Of course, growing up in a family of cops, Nadia finds herself alone after this act because none of them agree with her method of justice. Now Nadia's the owner of a hunting lodge and channels her passion into a secret side job as a the contract killer "Dee". "Dee" works for one mob family, earning extra cash to keep her business afloat, but she only kills people who got away with some crime that deserves punishment.
Surrounding Nadia is a small group of people. Her hunting lodge employees on one side, her mentor Jack and a few people in the hitman business on the other. So when the teenage girl who Nadia has been paying to work part-time at the lodge disappears along with her baby, despite the town's belief that Sammi just ran off, Nadia decides to find out what happened.
I am not feeling very coherent right now so I think another bullet list would be best:
  • I have a lot of the same comments as with the first book as this one. The characterization stays consistent between the books. My review of book 1 (in which Nadia and her fellows track a hitman turned serial killer) is here, and reading it I agree with myself there for this book too:
    • "Almost everyone in this book: is the strong silent type. Even Nadia." – Nadia is pretty quiet but her mentor takes it to another level. He barely speaks in full sentences until he's putting on another persona. So background information comes in crumbs and it is fascinating to find out details about the characters.
    • "The whole profession: REALLY interesting to read about." There is so much secrecy to keep their identities secret from each other – after all they're all killers. Nadia's identity is known by Jack and Evelyn only as they sought her out first to get into the business.
    • "this book was delightful because I like a smart heroine. And Nadia Stafford is a smart woman; she has to be, she's a hitman."
  • Again this book is told from the first person viewpoint, and this time we don't shift focus away from that.
  • Nadia is very smart and good at what she does, but because she's "the strong silent type", she can be a bit oblivious about relationships. As is her mentor Jack. It amused me no end that another character, Evelyn, gets exasperated by it.
  • The love triangle I thought there were hints of in book 1 begins to take shape in book 2. But of course, Nadia being dense doesn't really see it. So this has romantic elements because of it, but it's slow moving.
  • The culmination of the missing teen case was quite good. I liked how it was handled and how Nadia took care of herself quite easily in the situation she found herself in.

Book excerpts: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Countdown by Michelle Maddox

Countdown (SHOMI)
Michelle Maddox

Michelle Maddox is the pseudonym for Michelle Rowen. Under Rowen she who writes quirky paranormal books. Countdown is the first book for her Maddox identity.

This is another Shomi book, which makes it 4 for me! I quite like futuristic romances, which is pretty much what this imprint does. As usual the cover has a manga-like look, but I have to say the expressions on the faces of these people are very wooden! Actually, the people at genrereviews had more to say than I did about the cover.

Moving on. Countdown starts with our protagonist Kira Jordan waking up in a dark room, handcuffed to a wall. Then she realizes someone is in the room with her, and he's not happy about it either. He's Rogan Ellis, and he admits he was convicted of murder, and he signed up to play a game called "Countdown" – if he wins, he can go free instead of sitting out his 500 year sentence, but losers die in this game too. Kira has no idea what's going on, she never signed up for any game, but very soon she realizes she has no choice but to work with Rogan. If they are more than 90 feet from each other, implants in their heads explode, and if they don't work together to get to the end of 6 levels, they die. Meanwhile they are doggedly pursued from one level to another by floating cameras and a gameshow announcer's voice who cheerily describes what's going on to the rich subscribers of the game.

This is a standalone book with a first person point of view. Kira is constantly trying to figure out both how to survive and whether she can trust Rogan. Is he really a murderer? The people running the game want her to think so, and will lie to them to add to the overall watchability of the show, but Kira has an ability and reads Rogan as a good person. She's not sure what to believe and goes back and forth. Meahwhile she feels attracted to him in the middle of all that they're going through.

Overall: This was an action filled book that reminded me of a sci-fi movie from the 80s. Sort of Mad Max and Tank Girl with a mix of Running Man thrown in. Michelle Maddox admits that Running Man was an inspiration. I thought that overall it was a fast, escapist read. Perfect for when you aren't really in the mood for something heavy and just want to read something fun. It has a few bits I found a little cheesy, but I still enjoyed it for what it was. It succeeds in entertaining the reader, and I thought that there was just enough to make the plot interesting - the game, their budding romance,  their pasts, what each is hiding from the other (what he know's about the game, her mild ability to "read" people) -  things keep moving along and keep the pace of the story going.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Wanderlust by Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre

This is book 2 of the Sirantha Jax series, book 1 is Grimspace, which I reviewed here.

In this series, our flawed heroine Jax is a jumper, someone with a special j-gene that allows her to navigate ships through grimspace. As with all jumpers she's addicted to the thrill of grimspace but knows that her life expenctancy is low - her next jump could fry her mind and be her last. This has made her rather devil-may-care and self-serving until she is the sole survivor in a horrific crash, and March finds her under arrest by the Corp.

In Wanderlust, Jax is past much of the problems she dealt with in Grimspace, but, as her luck would have it, she runs into another set. Now she discovers that because she was briefly declared dead, this lead to her accounts being frozen and right now she's broke. This means she needs a job, and what's being offered is an ambassadorship to Ithiss-Tor. That's the planet Vel, her would-be assassin-turned-friend came from – where the inhabitants are human-sized insects that can produce a camoflage layer of skin to blend into other societies. Jax and her motley group of friends decide to take the job, but there are other groups around them with hidden agendas. Some want Jax to go and do a good job, some want her to go and fail spectacularly, and some just want to kill her. Action and space opera ensues!

I found a good review of this book, which I agreed with (that also has more detail about the plot, so don't click if you don't want to know) , here at LJ's genrereviews community.

Overall, I found that this book was slower-paced than Grimspace in a good way. Things feel like they take the right amount of time. I don't think the story needs to have constant action, and it was good to have some lulls (resting between battles, a non-eventful space trip once in a while, more planning, more quiet moments). There is still plenty going on of course, lots of suspense and action, its just not all of the book. This was a good thing.  

Besides Vel, March, and Dina who were introduced in Grimspace , a couple new people join their crew – Hit, a skilled fighter and pilot, and Jael, an ex-mercenary. Both with complicated pasts, as with everyone in Jax's circle. Hit and Dina get along very well, and there are hints at a blossoming relationship between the two women – I really liked how this was written – like they fit together easily, without much fuss or fanfare, but still it seems like something special. Meanwhile March and Jax's relationship continues to evolve, and it's not easy for them. Aguirre throws an interesting wrench into things, and I'm waiting to see how it gets resolved in later books. I've been quite pleased with the writing in terms of the snappy dialog between people, and the growing friendships in the crew. The characters in the book all intruiged me, not just Jax and March. Even Jax's personal assistant 245 interested me! So - I felt totally satisfied after reading this book because – I still want to know what happens next, which is what you want to have when you know there's another book coming along. And I think my interest will probably last until the next book comes out. Plus, it felt like a great escape to read the book. Good space opera fun.  

Wanderlust comes out on August 26th, 2008.

Here's an excerpt.

Book 3 and 4 are contracted and tentatively (?) will be called Doubleblind and Killbox.  I believe there is going to be a book 5, but that has no title yet.

Aguirre also has an urban fantasy series in the works, about a woman who finds missing people with her ability to touch things and know what it's history is. The first book is Blue Diablo and is out April 7th, 2009, and book 2 is Hell Fire, which comes out sometime at the end of 2009.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Ready + And Able by Lucy Monroe

Lucy Monroe
And Able
Lucy Monroe











To be honest, the only reason I picked these two books up at a thrift store was that I was pretty sure I could swap these on paperbackswap. So I admit I wasn't really into these from the get go, but I do like to give things a chance, which is why I read them. What ended up happening is I read about 25% of the book, then skimmed, read a bit more, skimmed on till the end.

Conclusion – If you want a not-serious read, with lots of sex and some cheesy bits, this is for you. I can see these as books someone would find fun, but that just don't do it for me.

I would say that I found small redeeming parts to both books. Ready started off interesting but after chapter one it went downhill. This was about Lise Barton, an author of "kickass women's fiction" who is being stalked. She was afraid her stalker (who calls himself Nemesis) was going to hurt her brother's family so she left them without a very good explanation and moved to Seattle, where her stalker kept up his disturbing game until our hero Joshua Watt shows up to ask why she won't see her family for Thanksgiving.  And Able is the third book in the series and focuses on a friend of the hero in book 1 (Ready) – Brett Adams. This time Claire Sharp, a poor part-time student and worker at an assisted living facility is running into problems when someone broke into the house she was renting and tried to kill her. Brett is a friend and feels like he must protect her and find out who is behind the attack. This one had a pretty decent sparring between the two main characters in the first part but it sort of went away.

I guess the problems for me are the following. And here I get pretty bitchy. Look away if you liked these books because it's not pretty:

The main characters are cliched. The men are "badass mercenaries" who have some silly reason for not wanting to be committed, but everytime they see the heroine, their peni get all hard and they are suddenly unaware of their surroundings because they are so into the woman that they just forget their basic training. The women are loners with hardly any friends who need protection and for some reason the police aren't helping/helpful, and the women are unaware of their sexiness because they are insecure. Also even though the women are in their mid-twenties they aren't that experienced with sex and are amazed they feel anything with the mens. And the mens are of course full of experience but it was never like this with anyone else. Yeah. And they explain to the women what the names of the thing they just did was (deep throat) and how they read it in a book but never tried it before. These sex scenes are about 20 pages or so long. I was bored. 20 pages? On and on.. still having sex.. I guess I'm not in the target audience because long sex scenes do not thrill me at all. Also there are sex scenes in water which I'm always disturbed by because I think – urinary tract infection, and that must be uncomfy!! Also the men call each other by code names even though they have known each other for years and years. Code names which are pretty silly – Wolf (tactics), Nitro (bomb expert) and Hotwire (computers). They are very serious about the code names. These are not tongue-in-cheek at all! Wolf has a bedspread on his king sized bed of a wolf that was painted by Hotwire. Also not tongue-in-cheek! But in the book, it's sexy because when Lise first sees it she thinks it's beautiful and is amazed that the wolf on the bedspread looks like Joshua. HUH? How does a man look like a picture of a wolf, even in the eyes? I had a really hard time believing that. Actually a whole bunch of things I just talked about I found hard to believe.

P.S. Wolf = Joshua (book 1 – Ready) , Hotwire = Brett (book3 And Able).  Book 2 was Willing, which stars Nitro and which I didn't pick up.

Another problem was that the books focussed so much on the interaction between the two main characters I just felt bored after a while. There were too many contrived scenarios. The scenes weren't that interesting – someone's house most of the time. The bad guys weren't interesting – crazy one dimensional baddies who got caught pretty easily. Then to top it off, the two main characters weren't that interesting either.

The author also kept breaking up the chapters in the weirdest places – mid conversation. Why?

Finally – I guess this is a spoiler for both so behind a gray block, select to read it:

In the end of BOTH BOOKS – the happy ending involves pregnancy. Ug. Sorry, I guess this is just the ultimate cliche for me. And of course this man who has so much trouble admitting to wanting to commit is overJOYed over a kid!? Seemed strangely easy after the fuss through the whole book.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Exit Strategy by Kelley Armstrong

Ah.. this book was delightful because I like a smart heroine. And Nadia Stafford is a smart woman; she has to be, she's a hitman. People just don't last long in that business without a brains. Either you get caught or you get killed.

Nadia, or "Dee" (as she is called by other assassins who don't know her real name), was once a cop, born into a family of cops. After a traumatic childhood event, all it took for Nadia to take things into her own hands was one criminal scumbag who had hurt a young girl. Hardly any of her friends and family stuck around her after that. She had to leave the force, and now runs a hunting lodge, secretly making money on the side for killing people who deserve it. Clearly she has issues brimming under the surface, but it may be her passion that makes her a good hitman. In Exit Strategy, her talent catches the eye of others. Her passion is also what makes her agree to join a team of other hitmen who are going after one of their own. A professional killer has turned into a serial killer, and it has caused a shakedown from the law against the whole profession.

Lazy bullet time:

  • This is NOT a paranormal, even though Kelley Armstrong is well known for her paranormal series, the Women of the Otherworld. I looked at the author's website and book 2 *looks* like it is coming out in September this year and will be called Made to be Broken. I'm not sure about this because Amazon UK has a whole list of authors under that title; maybe it's an anthology?
  • Almost everyone in this book: is the strong silent type. Even Nadia. When she's chattering, she's usually playing a role. It's interesting how subtle the communication is between assassins. Facial expressions and head movements mean more than words. Actions speak loudest.
  • The whole profession: REALLY interesting to read about. Especially things like trying to retire or having a family. No one trusts anyone, everyone has a hidden real identity, everyone's motives are suspect.. most people never retire: they die. And almost no one has a family, they are all loners – trying to have a family never seems to work out. So passing things along to the new generation usually happens in a mentor-mentee relationship, not through children.
  • The book is in a mostly first person point of view, with the attention mostly on Nadia. But sometimes the focus shifts to the killer or his victims. This could fall flat, but in Exit Strategy, it was powerfully done.
  • Finally, there is a very subtle hint of a romance (I am thinking love triangle) in this book. It is barely even there, it's all in the silent communication. One of the men is clearly interested, the other one is so subtle about it that even smart Nadia is oblivious. That's my take. I really want to know what happens in book 2.
  • Excerpts: Chapter 1, Chapter 2

Read and post comments | Send to a friend