Category Archives: Science fiction

Interview with Sci-fi Author Timothy James Dimacali

I don’t often see space opera and indigenous resistance standing side by side, which is why Sky Gypsies, a short story in Philippine Speculative Fiction III, captured my imagination. The story is told from the point of view of Badjao indigenous characters and explores their relationship to space, interstellar mining and state power. I’m grateful to be joined here by the author, Timothy James Dimacali.

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Sky Gypsies Timothy James DimacaliCaroline: I hear Sky Gypsies is being read in some high schools and colleges, congratulations! I’m impressed by how much world-building you’ve fit in seven pages. I’m also intrigued by the concept of a sea-faring Filipino/indigenous people becoming spacefaring cheap labour, and inspired by how you’ve conveyed their enduring strength and resistance. Where did the inspiration for Sky Gypsies come from? And are you developing this world further in another story?

TJ: Thanks for the kudos! I’ve always been a fan of space operas and I wanted to see something like that for ourselves, from a Filipino standpoint.

I chose the Badjao because I wanted a space opera that didn’t have clunky space suits in them, with characters that were more in harmony with their environment.

In most space operas, the characters’ relationship with space is really very Westernized: there’s a sense of conquering, of dominance and mastery of nature. I think it’s a throwback to the age of Western expansionism and the pervading philosophy of scientific reductionism that went hand-in-hand with it.

But elsewhere in the world, in Asian and Polynesian cultures in particular, you see a different world-view, a different sense of relationship with the physical world around us. Sky Gypsies was an attempt to project that zeitgeist, if you could call it that, into the future.

It’s been said that all good scifi, no matter how far into the future it’s placed, is still a projection of contemporary problems. I think that’s what Sky Gypsies is. It wasn’t a conscious thing for me at the time, but I think that’s how it turned out.

I was gripped by the idea of the Badjao, who live almost their entire lives at sea and yet are, even today, sometimes seen as foreigners and are ostracized outside of their own seaside settlements. I liked the idea of being naturally at home in this fluid place that, to everyone else, is strange and unfamiliar.

Writing Sky Gypsies was an interesting challenge, because I strongly wanted to be respectful of our collective culture (in general) and our indigenous cultures (in particular).

This was a problem because I felt like a stranger to our own indigenous cultures, in a manner of speaking: I’m a third-generation Manileño, born and raised in the urbanized capital.

There was the urge to want to completely submerge myself in research, to learn all I could about Badjao culture that I could —to actually live there, if possible. But my resources at the time were very limited, and I also realized that nothing I did short of being born a Badjao would ever make me understand the culture in its entirety.

Plus, of course, the fact that I had to get on with writing the story. And so, armed with what little knowledge I felt I had, I plunged headlong into the work. I just kept reminding myself to at least try to be respectful.

Since it was published, I’ve been deeply surprised and touched by people who come up to me and tell me that the story is being read in high school and college literature classes, both as an introduction to Filipino indigenous culture and the concept of “otherness”.

It’s also been adapted into a gorgeous comic by John Ray “JR” Bumanglag, a very talented young artist whose work is very innovative yet satisfyingly reminiscent of Filipino komiks masters like Francisco Coching and Larry Alcala.
 I’m currently working on a continuation of the story and will be working with JR on turning it into a full graphic novel.

I find the interesting challenge, at this point, is looking at how the little details that I wrote into the original story will unfold into the larger story arc (which I actually already have plotted out).

I feel like I somehow managed to cobble together a working clock. Now I’ve wound up the spring and am eager to find out what each cog does.

I already know how it’s all going to end, but it’s getting there that’s the challenge.

Caroline: Yeah, I love space opera too, and I also can’t get past some blind spots the genre has, especially with people’s relationships to resource extraction and development in space. How do you feel about having your stories published in books that are specifically for Filipino speculative fiction? Do you think there is a similarity of subject matter or themes between Filipino spec-fic authors? And what audience are these stories geared towards?

TJ: Those are interesting questions.

As a professional writer, I’ve always believed that you should target a specific audience with your writing; you should have a clear idea of who you’re talking to, and shape your words accordingly. This jives well with what I learned in advertising about the “unique selling point”: understanding that a good product or idea will always have many things going for it, but you should focus on one particular aspect that makes it stand out and resonate with your target audience.

But all of that, of course, begs the question: Who is the target audience of the PSF books? I can’t speak for the PSF anthology’s editors, Dean and Nikki Alfar (and Alternative Alamat’s Paolo Chikiamco), but I do know that they’ve always been passionate about promoting speculative fiction to Filipino readers, on the one hand; and to make international audiences aware that Filipinos can write stellar speculative fiction like the best of them, on the other hand.

I think it’s a dilemma that every Filipino author in any genre has to face on their own, but I personally erred on the side of addressing a primarily Filipino audience, regardless of geographic location.

I was driven by the understanding that there’s a very real need for us Filipinos to have our own speculative fiction —science fiction, in particular.

Here’s why:

It’s a fact that we don’t yet have the means to produce our own high technology, and won’t be capable of doing so for at least a generation more to come, if at all.

This means that we’re completely at the mercy of whatever technology lands in our hands from first-world countries. Sure, they’re built and assembled in Asia, but the basic construction paradigms and even the basic marketing strategies stem from people who are of a different cultural milieu and world-view than ours.

And yet, we’ve proven time and again that we are capable of adapting these technologies to suit our needs and to use them in ways that the original designers never even thought of.

This happened a decade ago with SMS, and now with social media. But all of these are after the fact, merely reactionary to the arrival of foreign technologies.

So that’s where speculative fiction —particularly SCIENCE fiction— comes into the picture: it’s a way for us to dream our own future, to empower us with a vision of what we can become. So that we’re more than just blind adopters of foreign technologies.

Caroline: That’s a really fantastic point—that’s quote worthy! You’ve mentioned to me in an earlier discussion that there seems to be a zeitgeist in Filipino speculative fiction, there’s significantly more visibility for the writers and there seems to be far more interest from readers (both domestic and international). What would you say is the cause for this? The internet? Digital publishing? Demographic trends? Is there also a decolonizing process at work here? So do you think that the stigma against Filipino literature is still there, and if so, do you think it’s changing, and why is it changing?

TJ: Certainly, the internet and digital publishing have opened the floodgates —or, at least, lowered the barriers— to Filipinos wanting to get published. But there’s a lot going on under the surface.

Philippine speculative fiction seems to be at the same stage of development that Filipino literature in English was at in the middle of the previous century. Then as now, the challenge is to come to terms with ourselves and our collective identity even as we are learning to do so in a foreign language.

The crucial difference is that the struggle now has less to do with the English language per se and more with the conventions and paradigms of science fiction and fantastic fiction —both of which had a long time to develop in Western cultures.

So for us, on the one hand, there’s a sense of treading a well-worn path but, on the other hand, also the growing confidence that we’re doing it in a way that hasn’t been done before.

I say “growing” because there are still some birthing pains that need to be overcome, not the least of which are those echoes of colonialism that won’t just go away.

The bookstore layout that you mentioned is just a physical manifestation of this. On a deeper level, I remember Gaiman himself expressing surprise during one of his trips to the Philippines at the sight of so many people coming up to him and asking him to write about aswangs and kapres and manananggals and what-have-you.

To his credit, he politely declined, saying that Filipinos can do a far better job than he could —because it is, after all, our culture.

So here we are, in an age of literary exploration, slowly getting our sea legs in the wide specfic ocean. It’s important for would-be writers to just jump in and get their feet wet, and that’s where digital publishing comes into the picture: it makes that first dive if not more inviting then at least less intimidating.

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Thanks to TJ for the wonderful interview! Sky Gypsies can be read in Philippine Speculative Fiction III, the comic adaptation is available as free download from Flipreads, and you can follow TJ on Twitter and Facebook

Checking out the city’s first major comicon at Fan Expo Vancouver

FanExpoVancouverAs a sci-fi/fantasy geek in Vancouver B.C., I’ve envied the conventions that take place in the rest of North America.

We have some small scale events here, but they’re pretty low-key and mostly entail browsing through the stock of the local comic book stores. I like them, but I’ve also been craving the big con experience, along with the cosplays, chaos, and big media consumerism. I finally had a taste of it at first Fan Expo Vancouver.

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Badass Cosplayer. Photo by Rick Chung. (www.rickchung.com)

It took place this past weekend, April 21-22, at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The line-up outside was insane, eventually spanning several blocks. I purchased my ticket in advance, so I was able to go inside immediately, but even then, it still took 45 minutes of lining up inside. It was that packed.

Damn, there were a lot of geeks, so many that I’m sure that many were from outside of Metro Vancouver. The scifi/fantasy media represented were mostly film, TV shows, video games, and comic books. Guests included the original Batmobile, Adam West & Burt Ward (Batman), Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Andromeda), Marina Sirtis & Michael Dorn (Star Trek: Next Generation), and Kristin Bauer (True Blood). Canadian author Spider Robinson was pretty much the only one repping SF literature. But where was Vancouver homeboy, William Gibson? Perhaps cons aren’t his thing.

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The original Batmobile. Photo by Rick Chung.

Comic artists/writers included Pia Guerra (Y The Last Man), Greg Rucka (The Punisher), and Whilce Portacio (The Hulk, and he’s Filipino-American). English voice actors represented the anime area (none of which I recognize, not my scene, although Anime Revolution hosted some panels), and several folks behind ReBoot were there.

Just some quick background–ReBoot is a 3d animated series from the 1990s, and a favourite amongst many Canadians of my generation. It was the first of its kind and produced from Vancouver, paving the way for the city’s animation industry. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen a single episode. What the heck was I doing back then? I think I was watching Cybersix and reading Dragonlance. Anybody have episodes to lend? I need to fill the hole in my Vancouver geek cred, quick.

I also had a nice chat with comic artist/writer, Nina Matsumoto, i.e. Space Coyote. She’s most well-known for her comic art for The Simpsons. She also illustrated the comic prequel to the Last Airbender film and is the creator of Yōkaiden, an original English manga published through Del Ray.

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Nina Matsumoto/Space Coyote

I actually haven’t read any of her more recent work, because I knew her from her Saturnalia webcomic, before she became famous with her Simpsons art. She’s busy with the Simpsons series, but she said that if she were to return to Saturnalia, she’d like to work on a prequel. Nina is also a Vancouver-based artist. She went to a high school that I know several people from, and we also went to the same art school, but at different times.

My favourite part of Fan Expo was the Artist Alley, checking out the goods by local comic artists. I read indie SF literature all the time, but what about indie SF comics? It’s a scene I’d like to explore further. I procured some merch to facilitate further research.

VancouverFanExpoSwag

My Canadian comic bounty

My research materials into the Canadian comic scene consists of two fancy comic books, and one badass print of a flapper with a Tommy Gun. Awesome. Oh yes, apologies for the bad photo quality. Despite the fact that I am part Frida Kahlo and part cyborg, I still use a Nikon point and shoot from 2005, and I don’t have Instagram pro skills. Consider these previews of the real thing.

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Flapper with a Tommy Gun by Craig Wilson

My photo doesn’t do this art print justice but I swear, it’s gorgeous. I don’t think this lady is in a comic, but she should be. She’d probably fit into Art-Deco-Noir Strange Aeons webcomic. But yes, this print is made by Craig Wilson, who is a Vancouver comic artist man of mystery, who probably likes snowboarding or storyboarding because his online pseudonym is BoardGuy, but that’s all I could find out about him. Craig, where I can I find the rest of your stuff outside of your blog? Do you have an online shop? When’s your next con appearance? And if you’re reading this, can you please make a 1930s action comic where the ladyfolk are armed to the nines? You can collaborate with Jordan Boos of Strange Aeons, or compete against him, I don’t care! I need to see that flapper in an action sequence set inside the Marine Building, and causing the whole thing to collapse unto itself and burst into flames.

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Like this.

Next up is Lords of Death and Life, a Mesoamerican historical fantasy comic by Jonathon Dalton.

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Lords of Death and Life by Jonathon Dalton

Jonathon lives in Abbortsford (a city just outside of Metro Vancouver) and he has some ongoing free webcomics on his website. I browsed through them and he seems into historical fantasy set outside of the usual European/Western tradition, and I completely approve.

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Inside

This was the first time I’ve seen his work, but the premise and the beautiful artwork drew me in.

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Lords of Death and Life Back Cover

You can’t really read it, but this is what it says:

Imagine a world with powerful empires, huge cities built on trade, and three thousand years of recorded history, but one in which even the wheel doesn’t exist. It is a world where heroes step in and out of legend and magicians transform themselves at will.

Mol Kupul lives in this world. When he travels to the city of Xicalango in search of someone to interpret his strange dreams, he instead finds trouble brewing between the city’s Mayan and Aztec populations, and supernatural forces at work beyond his worst nightmare.

And with some commentary from Scott McCloud:

Jonathon Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life is an intoxicating fusion of ancient design and modern imagination. A fresh and enjoyable read.

Between those is a scene of a lone person wandering though the underworld, and beyond him is a skeleton with a spear to the skull–sold. I can’t wait to read it. If you can’t wait either, you can purchase the paper book from one of the listed retailers on Jonathon’s website, or as an ebook on The Illustrated Section and Graphicly.

Last but not least is Exploded View, a sci-fi comic anthology from the Vancouver-based Cloudscape Comics.

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Exploded View from Cloudscape Comics

I’ve never read a comic anthology before, but it has stories from 25 different creators, so that should be interesting.

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Inside

Dialogue from Aquanaut Zero by John Christmas:

“Government issued sake sucks. It’s the first thing you learn in Aquanaut training. This still hasn’t stopped Takashi from complaining about it. We’re explorers on imperial science vessel 00119 on a mission to the heart of the ocean.”

And Takashi behind him shouts, “My dog drinks better sake!”

You can buy the ebook and paper copy at the Cloudscape Comics store.

VancouverComicArtsFestival

If you Vancouver folk want more comiccon action, there’s the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo next weekend from April 27 to 29 (only a 13 hour roadtrip!) and the Vancouver Comic Arts Festival (VanCAF) from May 26 to 27 (a Skytrain ride away). The latter takes place at the Yaletown Roundhouse and it’s free to attend. I’m totally going to VanCAF. By then I’ll be caught up with my ebooks and comics, and ready to take on more.

I found out all about this awesomeness through Fan Expo Vancouver. So let’s do it all again next year! What say you?

Interview with Speculative Fiction Author Jeff Pearce

Bianca: The Silver Age is sexy superhero/urban fantasy set in the future, and it’s one of the most unique books I’ve encountered recently. I love the world-setting (futuristic urban fantasy with alchemy!) and how it fearlessly tackles themes that other superhero fiction would shy away from. I’m pleased to be  joined here by the author, Jeff Pearce, as he talks about superhero fiction, being a Canadian spec-fic author, and e-publishing.

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Frida: What was the inspiration for Bianca: The Silver Age?

Bianca: The Silver Age by Jeff PearceJeff: I have to back up, way back, to answer your question.  I grew up reading superhero comics—Batman, Superman, all the DC greats, and I still adore them.  But it’s extremely hard for a writer to break into mainstream comics.  The way to do that is usually to hit the conventions and show your work, but I’ve never had the bucks or days off to do that, and the big companies don’t take unsolicited scripts.  So what do you do when you want to write about superheroes but you can’t write about their superheroes?  Invent your own!

A few years ago, I was writing erotic thriller novels under pseudonyms, and fans responded to my character, Teresa Knight, who’s a sexy sleuth, a gal who’s smart and can handle herself.  One reviewer called her a “feminist icon,” which put me over the moon.  The books are still around through Random House reprints, but my character was “orphaned” because my original publisher went under.   I’ve always wanted to take the best of what worked with Teresa—her brains, her feistiness—but jettison the more gratuitous sex elements I was under pressure from certain editors to add.  I suppose that statement’s kind of ironic in that Bianca is a succubus, but she’s very much the descendant of my original heroine.

In the beginning, Bianca and her whole Paladin world were supposed to go into a graphic novel, but that fell through.  I still wanted to develop the concepts, so my natural instinct was to novelize them.  Now putting heroes in panels is one thing, but a novel doesn’t have that visual shorthand that comic book readers accept.  “Oh, the guy flies,” or “Okay, he shoots his gadget gun.”  In a novel, your suspension of disbelief insists on more.  I wondered how I could get this stuff to make sense, because to me, you need more going on.  It just falls apart if you say: The world is realistic like our own, but you’ve got heroes with it.  Uh-uh.  Bzzzz, wrong.  The world itself has to enable this, and that got me thinking how the urban fantasy genre is perfect for bending the rules of physics and chemistry…

I have to laugh at myself for being such an arrogant idiot in trying to invent a whole new superhero universe as the backdrop to her story and any sequels.  I mean after all, both DC and Marvel developed with multiple contributors over more than half a century.  What the hell was I thinking? The good thing is that with all their creations out there, it forces you to come up with something original or at least a new take on an old theme.  But I’m sure readers can recognize certain archetypes.  Clerfayt’s a detective avenger, and he’s rich.  I know, I know, who does that sound like?  But then you find out how he gets his wealth, and it’s unusual—and it works in urban fantasy.

Frida: I haven’t been exposed to much superhero fiction outside of mainstream comic books (DC, Marvel) and old pulp masked heroes (e.g. Zorro, The Shadow). What struck me about the Paladins, the superheroes in this world, is that their actions have consequences on world politics. It’s not to the same extent as say, the alternate history in The Watchmen (with superheroes getting involved in Vietnam), but it still runs counter to the way mainstream superheroes treat superhero activity as a non-political and non-historical thing.

I especially liked how the superhero/vigilante in Sudan (the Bandit Queen/Makeda) and the rest of the Paladins actively negotiate their working relationship, because intervention is never a simple non-political thing without ethical dilemmas. As Bianca reflected in a scene, “It bothered her that Makeda Falosade had made them all feel like intruders, not saviors. Maybe they were intruders.”

Did you intentionally set out to explore certain themes in superhero fiction, or did they just develop naturally as you wrote the story?

Jeff: Oh, the intention was always there.  To be honest, I’m not crazy about other attempts at superheroes in novels—they’ve really disappointed me.  Marvel and DC both put out paperback novels that read like shallow film novelizations even when they’re original stories, and that’s ironic, because the actual comics can have real depth.  The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller explores themes that make it literature.  When Marvel did its whole “superhero registration act” storyline, it was a mess, but it aspired to greatness.  But in novels, some writers still treat heroes like Freudian head-cases, or their novels get kitschy and self-referential.  For them, it’s a literary stunt.

I wanted to get back to the tone of superheroes as larger-than-life figures and play it straight, instead of winking at the reader.  If you’re a fan of the Justice League cartoon series, you know that one season had this fantastic story arc about how the U.S. government and ordinary people start to get scared over heroes having all this power with a satellite base in the sky…  Adult themes and issues.  That’s the feel I’m going for.

I see my Paladin world as perfect territory to ask some hard questions.  There are still so many ideas that can be explored in novels, while up to now the comics have been doing the heavy lifting.  The movies only flirt with these issues.  For instance, remember Superman Returns?  I always thought they wimped out on that.  What they should have done is not dance and hint around the issue, but have Superman flat-out in context of 9/11.  Bring it right out in the open, and have him fly over the rubble of Ground Zero.  Have people ask: “Why didn’t you stop this?  Why don’t you go get this guy?”  Of course, he can’t, we know he can’t, and it would be preposterous if you even tried to suggest he’d do it as the end credits roll—and yet he’s Superman, he could and maybe he should.  Or shouldn’t.  Either way, you then have a real story, because you have stakes that really matter.

So the international issues the Paladins struggle with are ones many of us in the real world feel are overwhelming.  You mentioned intervention in Africa, and that’s one. In Bianca’s second book, Mask of Anarchy, which I hope to bring out in the summer or early fall, she’s forced into a no-win situation where she can’t just go in and kick ass.  The country this time is a quasi-Vietnam-Cambodia-Burma nation where the people believe in non-violence.  Okay, what do you do if you’re a superhero?  The strategy of non-violence works on shame.  But the brutal regimes of Syria, of Iran, of Burma today don’t feel shame.  They don’t give a shit.  You have all these powers but if you use them arbitrarily like a god, you’ll undermine the self-determination of the very people you’re supposed to be “saving.”  What do you do?

Frida: I’m really impressed by the world-building in Bianca. I love how the setting is a mash-up between near-future sci-fi and early 20th century-inspired urban fantasy, and some flourishes of Victorian England and earlier with the use of alchemy and such. Could you elaborate more on this? I’m intrigued how the fragmented nation-states came to be, and why everyone is so stylishly dressed.

Jeff: Hmmm… That’s a very difficult question for me because I don’t want to give away a lot.  You’re right in that it’s very much a “ten minutes into the future” mash-up world where you’ve got Maglev float-bikes but also alchemy, which of course is proto-chemistry that goes back to Newton and Paracelsus.  I had to build things that way because the Paladins themselves are a mash-up team, just as superhero teams always are with DC and Marvel.  Here you’ve got Thelonius Minh, a master of combat yoga who has a unique origin, working with Makeda Falosade, who’s brilliant at physics and engineering but who also knows African magic.  And they’ve got to work with Plague Man, a completely bat-shit unstable entity who’s so full of human rage and grief, but who can become a cloud of mustard gas or make himself into a neurotoxin in seconds.  They have to live in a very interesting world.

As for the nation-states… I’ve deliberately kept the political back story a submerged iceberg, at least for now, because this is the one thing to me that readers will go along with in a novel, in terms of suspension of disbelief, in the same way gadgets and powers are often accepted without question for superheroes in film.  If Bianca were a movie, I think we’d have the reverse challenge.  She’d be stronger than most regular humans, and Clerfayt would simply arrive wrapped in mist.  If you wondered how he makes his gadgets, you answer that in a 10-second montage.  But in a 300-plus page novel, you have to go into the actual details.  In a film, we wouldn’t sweat the mechanics—instead, we’d very much care how our guys got into their situation.  It’s why you always get those white-on-black expository intros in SF movies or somber narrations.

Bianca: The Silver Age was always intended to be ambitious, to kick off a multi-strand series of novels, each book featuring one or two individual Paladins, such as say Clerfayt with Hawkwood showing up, or Makeda Falosade on a solo adventure.  I wanted to create a world in which other writers can hopefully contribute when Gallivant Books is in a stronger position to commission talented authors.  So I haven’t locked in too many fine details of how the world got into its mess, and that’s so others can play in my sandbox.  Here’s hoping they will.

As for their outfits…  It’s nice you call them stylish!  I was actually trying to come up with alternatives to the old cape and tights clichés.  I’ve always dreamed (sometimes in a ruthlessly commercial sense) of the franchise possibilities of the Paladins, and if they’re to work some day in comics or by some miracle, wind up in a movie, they need to be distinctive but not ludicrous.  A hot chick in a bolero jacket and a hakama kicking your ass has to be taken seriously.  A guy in a fisherman’s cap and a dark coat in the shadows can still look menacing.  A guy in vagabond rags who suddenly turns into a cloud of disease is fucking scary.

Frida: As a genre writer based in Canada, what are your thoughts on the publishing landscape for genre fiction and for Canadian literature? What do you think of the concept of the Sci-fi Ghetto? I just wanted to bring that up because out of all the Canadian speculative fiction authors I’m aware of, the only one that gets attention from national media is the one that claims that her works aren’t sci-fi (ahem, Margaret Atwood).

Jeff: Yeah, I’m disgusted by the fact that when the BBC asked Atwood about science fiction, she took offense and called it “talking squids in outer space.”  Her comment really captures the snobbery here regarding literature.  The contempt is quite baffling and downright silly—I mean you have Robert J. Sawyer who’s won virtually every SF award you can think of, you have Guy Gavriel Kay, Tanya Huff, so many others.

The truth is that Canada’s literary stars make their living off books sold overseas.  They’d starve if they had to depend on home sales.  The whole publishing industry here is heavily subsidized by the government, and so much of it never has to prove itself commercially.  The really sad thing is that we don’t have a viable SF imprint or mystery imprint that can make a big splash nationally and internationally.  We don’t have a Tor or a Baen Books of our own, which is part of why I started Gallivant Books, though if GB survives and thrives, it’ll be years before it reaches that scale, if ever.

That leads into the issue of the Sci-Fi Ghetto.  For us in Canada, the ghetto is all too real, but in the U.S., I wonder if the ghetto really matters or exists anymore.  One of my heroes, Harlan Ellison, has a gem ranked in The Best American Short Stories for 1993.  How many Philip K. Dick movies are there?  I’ll take their ghetto any day!

Here it’s awful, but I’ve realized lately that my defensiveness makes me sound bitter.  Many of us sound like we have a chip on our shoulder.  And we do.  I’m trying to adopt a new attitude this year, because in the end, science fiction and fantasy are called a genre, they’re a “category,” not simply because of their subject matter, but because we have discerning readers.  We may never get massive fan bases, and that’s okay, too.  If we do it right, the work lasts.  When I checked out your link on the “ghetto,” it mentions the old saw about how so much SF is “poorly written rubbish,” and to that, I say, remember Sturgeon’s law.

Read Somerset Maugham.  Stylistically, his stuff can be terrible, full of clichés and sloppy phasing, which is why they won’t put him in literature, only fiction.  I love so much of his work.  His narratives grab you, and they’re still adapting his books for films.

Think of all the literary crap that is so crushingly dull and forgettable—I was forced to read Malamud’s short stories in college.  They’re root canal to me.  Does anyone really believe Updike’s stuff will last?  Ten minutes into the future, we’ll still have Maupassant’s Bel-Ami and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.  But we’ll also have Shogun and Tigana and The Demolished Man, which is one of the most overlooked fantastic novels ever, and Stranger in a Strange Land.  I have no clue whatsoever if people will be reading Reich TV or The Karma Booth.  I can only hope so.

Frida: What are your experiences with independent e-publishing so far? Are you planning to publish other books through a traditional publisher, or do you plan to go with independent e-publishing all the way? What will the world of publishing look like in future?

Jeff: It’s been a hell of a ride.  I’ve been a magazine editor and a freelance book editor, so I had some experience to help guide me.  Many folks don’t realize e-publishing still involves all the grunt work of regular publishing.  Getting ISBNs, meeting deadlines… I’ve had to commission cover art before, check galleys, etc.  I’ve been lucky enough to have sold novels to a start-up British imprint, but have also had those books sold to a major publishing house for reprints, and I’ve also had success in regular non-fiction.  So I arguably knew more than others going in, but still nothing really prepares you for the slog you’ll take upon yourself with starting your own imprint.  Gallivant was never intended to be just “Jeff’s Novels”—I wanted and still want to make it into an SF, fantasy and thriller version of Ellora’s Cave or Dreamspinner, which are ebook imprints with multiple authors, a whole list of them.

But I’m behind schedule on that.  The print books look quite professional and we’re getting into great online distribution channels, but there’s so much content out there that marketing is the biggest challenge.  I have a cool marketing strategy I want to execute, but we’ve had some setbacks.  My cover artist is taking time off for family this year, which she’s certainly earned, and I love her stuff so much, it’ll be hard to replace her.  And of course, there’s still that snobbery over e-publishing, there’s snobbery if you dare use Lightning Source, which is stupid because they do great work, or you run into attitudes if you dare publish your own work.  Never mind the fact that Kipling did it and Orwell nearly published Animal Farm himself because he got rejected so many times.

It’s funny.  When I did erotica, I’m sure what really drove sales was the word of mouth in reviews, and Random House quoted Coffee Time Romance and one or two others right on the front page and the covers.   There’s only been one review ever of the Teresa Knight novels in a mainstream venue, Publisher’s Weekly; the rest were all online forums.  Well, I’m still doing the same thing, I’m still writing genre novels.  But in e-publishing, you get that whiff of “you’re not real” from some people who don’t bother to read the blurbs, or check out the professional production work or the fact that we’re in Kobo, Kindle, Waterstones, practically everywhere.  The Karma Booth got a critic’s praise in Australia.  So are novels from Gallivant Books “real?” I think they are.

But I’ll always be more of a writer than a business person.  I’m still flogging certain books at traditional publishers.  I even want to get over my bitterness at the Canadian literary scene, so this year I’m trying a new strategy of “If you can’t beat ‘em, infiltrate ‘em.”  I’ve actually applied for a couple of Writer in Residence gigs, which I never thought I’d do because I’ve always associated them with the whole grant dodge.  But Vancouver was smart enough to have Spider Robinson as a Writer in Residence.  That would be good company to be in.

As for publishing in the future: we’ll always have books.  Think of those great Dorling Kindersley volumes on everything from science to gardening.  People will still want those.  They’ll still want beautiful thick tomes with uneven cut cream-cloth pages.  But in the future, maybe we’ll have new technology that can give us the feel of texture while also being multimedia.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  (And oh, yes, I’ve put that into the Paladins’ universe and a couple of other spots).

Frida: What can readers expect in the sequel to Bianca: The Silver Age? Are there upcoming sequels for your other books?

Oh, Mask of Anarchy has a lot going on!  I’ve already mentioned the theme of non-violence, but other ethical issues are explored, too.  And new Paladins are introduced.  The ones in Silver Age—Plague Man, Orson Hawkwood, Clerfayt, Thelonius Minh, the Bandit Queen, Bianca—are the “top guns.”  But now the landscape opens up a little, and you meet other Vigil-ebrities and get a sense of the pecking order of the heroes.  Bianca’s now far more confident in her abilities and much more a leader.  In fact, how she handles leadership is a major through-line of the book.

Initially, I intended to write novels for the other characters after Bianca had three of her own, but I’m anxious to get cracking on a book for Clerfayt, which has the working title, Clerfayt: Arch of Terror.  Each novel in the Paladin series, assuming things go well, won’t be a cookie-cutter pattern.  By that I mean Clerfayt’s novel won’t be a “team” book like Bianca’s—his story is very much a noir-ish detective story where you learn more about the Allied Zones of Paris.  But there will be a team-up, and readers get to discover more about his working collaboration with Orson Hawkwood.

I’ve got a third novel plotted and waiting to be done that focuses on Plague Man, which surprises me because… Well, from how Plague Man is in Silver Age, I wasn’t sure for a while if he should get a book of his own.  Dig into the mystery too much, and you destroy what makes the character interesting.  But I think I’ve figured out how it should work.  In Plague Man: Time Itself Will Burn, Volker Sharf has to really come to terms with his rage and impetuousness because everyone else is counting on him.  That’s a novel where readers will get really juicy back story details on certain Paladins.

Reich TV by Jeff PearceThat should be plenty enough to keep me busy, but I’ve been working as well on a sequel to Reich TV, a book I never thought at first should have one.  For your readers who don’t know it, Reich TV explored how television could have changed the course of Nazi Germany.  When Steve Jobs died, I started to roll around in my head certain themes about early computer tech the same way that early television haunted me, so now anyone who liked the first book has a big hint about the sequel, which has the working title, Nixon’s Web.  George Orwell is back, but this time he’s in America.  And he has a rather interesting supportive cast like last time.

And if that’s not enough to keep me busy, I’m hoping Gallivant will be able to bring out a hard SF novel, plus a couple of thrillers, plus a young adult fantasy novel in the near future.  Right now they’re each in different editorial stages, and I think I’m going to be busy.  I just hope people like the books.

***

Man, all those sequels look juicy. And I’m really looking forward to Nixon’s Web; I gave Reich TV 5-stars after all. Alternate history George Orwell + political conspiracies + technology on stereoids? Yes please!

Thanks to Jeff for the interview! You can follow Jeff Pearce on Facebook and Goodreads.

Tritcheon Hash by Sue Lange (2011)

Tritcheon Hash by Sue LangeSmashwords / Amazon / Book View Cafe

4/5 stars

Description:
Tritcheon Hash is a test pilot in the year 3011. She’s got it all: brains, guts, and a fast jet. But can she survive a mission to the most frightening place in the galaxy, the planet Earth?

Review:
Tritcheon Hash is a comedy with a funny take on both space opera and feminist science fiction. Tritch lives in the all-female planet, Coney Island, as women left Earth in the 22nd century from rising levels of violence. Coney Island is a lesbian vegetarian commune utopia (which is cozier and more suburban than the one in The Female Man), while Earth has gone on with its wars, environmental degradation, and carnivorous ways. There has been minimal contact between the two planets aside from an annual baby exchange, where the Coney Island representative would hand over the boy babies in exchange for fresh-frozen sperm. But there’s been talk of reunification, and Tritch is sent to spy on the Earth men.

It’s not the kind of book that had me laughing out loud, but I grinned with every page. Tritcheon Hash pokes fun at space opera and gender tropes, but it does so in a good-hearted fashion, with the kind of humour that comes from love of the genre, comparable to the way the movie Galaxy Quest plays with Star Trek.

The flippant prose zips through pseudo-technical jargon in deadpan (“The lighterator wouldn’t be fully tested until she got into space, but it had to be checked off now, as later would be too late. Obviously. No sense in flying off into the wide-open vacuum if the ol’ lighterator couldn’t lighterate. Right?”), reveals Tritch’s midlife crisis with her socialite wife, and makes note of Earth’s strange creations (such as their leather composite food utensils—“Tiny bits of animal parts are compressed and glued together. Like how sawdust can make particle board.”).

Here’s a further taste of the book’s wisecracks:

To prepare mentally for her upcoming trip to the other side of the Haze, Tritch took a couple of sessions with a hypnotherapist. She programmed Tritch to be able to recall everything she’d be experiencing in case she lost her pad and paper, and the subcutaneous black box recorder installed when she’d first been licensed as a test pilot failed. Then a separate therapist programmed her to forget all the stuff she’d been programmed to remember in the event she found herself interrogated by an enemy. Only a secret password would bring it all back to her. They wrote the password out in longhand, base 5, superscript cipher, on a piece of muffin wrapping paper in invisible ink, backwards, so you could only read it in a mirror, and only if a candle was placed beneath it. The password was then locked in a safe, which was plunged into five-square-feet of wet plastoset that, when dry, was guarded by a couple of six-foot-tall plants known as Penis Fly Traps.

The quirky humour propels the story forward, but when it switches gears to its character-driven conflict, it’s surprisingly touching. Who knew that a test pilot’s midlife crisis could be so heart-wrenching, when her grand mission-of-a-lifetime brings her further away from her family? It’s the kind of conflict that doesn’t sound very exciting when I try to explain it, but when I read it, it felt like a punch in the gut (in a good way). Lange balances the comedic and serious aspects of the story excellently, and the contrast adds to the story rather than detracts from it, and I must praise her skillful writing. My only criticism is that sometimes the POV threw me off. It occasionally breaks away from third-person limited, but it makes sense with the playful prose style and intertextual quips.

I highly recommend Tritcheon Hash to sci-fi readers, as long as one expects a space opera comedy rather than a space opera adventure. Read the sample first to see if the humour is up your alley.

You might like this if you like…
Feminist science fiction, humour, lesbian commune utopias

If you buy the book from Book View Cafe, 95% of the profit goes directly to the author. Support the book co-op!

Tritcheon Hash was also listed on Kirkus’ Best Indie of 2011.

If you want to learn more about the author, you can follow Lange on her blog and on her Twitter.

Bianca: The Silver Age by Jeff Pearce (2011)

Bianca: The Silver Age by Jeff PearceSmashwords / Amazon / Barnes and Noble

4/5 stars

Description:
It’s the Age of the Paladins, the age of the so-called “Vigil-ebrities” who fight crime and protect the innocent as the world tries to recover from economic collapse. And on the streets of Bohemia, Bianca is trying to find answers to her unique chemistry. She’s a succubus, forever trapped in a cycle of lust and violence that affects her very survival.

But when she looks into the murder of a chemist responsible for the latest addictive gel, the trail leads to exotic cities, new allies and sinister criminal enemies, and a corporate conspiracy that threatens everyone on Earth. By the end of her journey, Bianca will join the ranks of the most famous Paladins in the world: Orson Hawkwood, the leader of Defenders Without Borders, the enigmatic Clerfayt, detective avenger of Paris, Thelonius Minh, the peculiar “shrink to the stars” and master of combat yoga and the creepy, disturbingly powerful Plague Man.

Enter the Silver Age and join a unique heroine on her first exciting quest!

Review:
Bianca: The Silver Age is a sexy piece of superhero fiction. Bianca is a bisexual succubus, stalking through the streets of Bohemia in hakama pants and a bolero jacket with nothing but a bra beneath. She has super strength, healing powers, and shapeshifting abilities, and she’s on the quest to unravel a corporate conspiracy to find the truth about her origins.

I adore the world; it’s best described as an urban fantasy that takes place in the future. It’s enchanting and cosmopolitan, and this is reflected in both the prose style and the characters. One noteworthy superhero is Orson Hawkwood, who is essentially a cooler Bruce Wayne if he were a famous tech and PR savvy journalist:

Millionaire philanthropist. Muckraking reporter and blogger. Paladin. His working clothes had become almost a signature uniform: the light linen suit with the classic suspenders, the double hourglass of the bowtie never tied around the open collar, as if he were fresh from a formal dinner party.

He’s also in charge of Defenders Without Borders, an organization of  “doctors, nurses, lawyers, child psychologists and social workers—all trained by the UN before its collapse—made up a task force of muckraking reporters and investigators.” And these Defenders run around in understated 1920s business suits. I don’t know about you, but I’d take them over Bat Family any day.

Another strength of this book are the links it makes between the criminal and the political. When their investigation leads them to Sudan, Orson resists involvement in internal politics. A local superhero, the Bandit Queen, criticizes him. “Same old Orson. You think you can show up, blow a police whistle and go after a mugger while the real pirates go merrily on with business.” It’s refreshing to see these concepts explored so courageously.

I have a number of criticisms. I was skeptical of the alchemy science (magic) in this book. Magic systems don’t need to be elaborated with overwhelming detail (in most cases, under-explaining is better than over-explaining). I didn’t find the alchemy-related explanations believable and yet they affect large portions of the plot. It sometimes felt arbitrary and it took me out of the story. Bianca’s motivation for her quest could have been more convincing, and it was difficult to follow the investigation—hampering the reading experience.

My favourite part of the book was the beginning when Bianca works solo while meeting the other heroes. Unfortunately, when she begins to work with them, she is often overshadowed by her colleagues. It she didn’t lose out in the superpower lottery and she’s good at beating up the bad guys, but much of the progress of the investigation depends on the deductive skills of others—and she ends up playing an oddly passive role for a book named after her. There’s nothing wrong with that dynamic if this is about a superhero group, but this book is supposed to be focused on her, and she should have sat in the driver’s seat more often.

While Bianca is seductive in some ways, it was an uneven experience and I wasn’t captivated by the main storyline. It’s not the greatest read, but the promising world-setting and the ideas that it explores within the superhero genre makes it stand out. I recommend it to readers who value innovative concepts over a tight plot, and can suspend their disbelief for the fantastical pseudo-science that often comes with superhero fiction. I’d consider checking out the sequel coming out this year.

You might like this if you like…
Highly original superhero fiction, urban fantasy, bisexual succubus action girls, sensual scenes, unique cosmopolitan settings

This is the third book I’ve reviewed by Jeff Pearce, after Reich TV and The Karma Booth.

Morgan’s Choice by Greta van der Rol (2011)

Morgan's Choice by Greta van der RolSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

3/5 stars

Description:
He will use force if necessary to remind her of her place…

Autocratic, aloof, Admiral Ravindra wants to use the strange alien female and her gifts in his battle against an unknown force threatening to annihilate his worlds. Born to rule, a man of wealth, power and privilege, he will have what he most desires.

She will use courage and independence to carve a new future…

Morgan Selwood is a Supertech, bioengineered from birth to stand against the horrors of the Cyber Wars. Her abilities and appearance are the stuff of legend, exactly what the resistance needs to throw off the yoke of millennia of oppression. Caught in the crossfire Morgan must choose sides.

Together they will face a threat beyond imagining.

Review:
Cyborg meets alien admiral; space opera meets romance. This results in an awesome premise with twice the pulp, as if the half-naked guy in front of a spaceship didn’t already spell that out for you. There are space battles, insurgent separatist movements to throw off the yoke of a caste system, and sexual tensions of the you’re-hot-but-you’re-kinda-the-enemy! variety. Morgan’s Choice has the makings of an action-packed space opera adventure (with all kinds of action).

The prose is slick and easy to get into, and the story wastes no time in piling up the conflict. Morgan finds herself being used for the military and political factions of an alien world, because her Supertech abilities make her a powerful weapon. She can compromise security systems, fly enemy spaceships, and pretty much hack everything. But it’s difficult for her to figure out which side she should be on, especially when things heat up with the Admiral.

The repulsion-attraction dynamics between the two are well-done and manages to avoid major unfortunate implications, which is important given that Morgan’s a prisoner and the Admiral comes from a super patriarchal society. Van der Rol writes Morgan well as a resourceful heroine doing her best in an unpredictable environment. I really enjoyed the first half of this book and would give it a solid 4 stars.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the final portion is as strong. The antagonists are underdeveloped, the chase sequences feel lacklustre, and the world-building around the Supertechs could be clearer. Why could Supertechs only reproduce with other Supertechs? What are the limitations on a Supertech? Morgan’s special abilities are treated like magic without a cohesive rule system. I didn’t have a problem with it early in the book, but as the story went on without these abilities being explained and the Rule of Cool lost its effect, my suspension of disbelief drifted away.

My final criticism is that the romance becomes dreary in the absence of richer character development. One of the most interesting tensions is Morgan’s romantic feelings for the Admiral versus her dislike of his arrogance and being a product of a very repressive and patriarchal culture. This gets resolved, but not in a way I found impressive, because it relies on a formula romance resolution which trivializes the conflict. I think romance readers who want a tidy ending would be satisfied, but I was looking for something more.

If you’re looking for a space opera/romance adventure, Morgan’s Choice serves up some fast-paced pulp, but don’t expect much else.

You might like this if you like…
Action-packed space opera; planetary romance; racing and chasing; cyborg hackers

Readers interested in Morgan’s Choice should check out the author’s other sci-fi books, as they seem to be same vein of space opera crossed with romance.

Fate’s Mirror by M. H. Mead (2011)

Fate's Mirror by M. H. MeadSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

4/5 stars

Description:
Morris Payne is a viker, an elite hacker who navigates the electronic universe as easily as the rest of us walk down the street. While he’s famous in the virtual world, he’s anonymous in this one. Agoraphobia, with its uncontrolled panic attacks, has left him housebound and friendless. But someone, somehow, has done the impossible—connected his virtual life to his real life. Now Morris has to brave physical reality to stop a killer who was never supposed to exist.

Created in a secret government lab, escaped into the world-wide network, an artificial intelligence calls herself the Triple Goddess of Fate. She wants freedom, power, and the assurance of her own safety. But mostly she wants Morris Payne dead.

Her creators can’t even find the AI, much less defeat her. They think Morris can. No one, no matter how well equipped, has survived a confrontation with Fate, and all Morris has are his legendary hacking skills and a virtual pirate ship loaded with the latest in defensive software.

Morris Payne just might save the world. If only he can gather the courage to leave his house.

Review:
The Canary Review describes this book as “Cyber Opera” (cyberpunk + space opera) and I think it’s a fitting phrase. Cyberpunk generally has a focus on “high tech and low life”, but the virtual reality in Fate’s Mirror shares space opera’s delight in the fantastic. Cyber attacks take the form of naval combat in this VR world, resulting in some pretty amusing metaphors:

Icy fear trickled down Morris’ ribs. No ship had sunk under him yet, but taking on water meant the possibility—no, the probability—of viral contamination.

Readers looking for a serious discussion on tech, cybernetics, and AI won’t be satisfied with this book, but if you’re looking for a VR adventure with a unique anti-hero, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything else that compares.

It grabbed me quickly after the first chapter. The plot moves fast, and the problems and intrigue just keep piling on. The prose style is so seamless and consistent that you wouldn’t guess that it was a co-written work. M. H. Mead is a pen name for the team of Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, and I have to commend them both for their excellent writing.

Morris is a snarky anti-hero, but he is a memorable character because of his agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that makes it difficult to do many things. It’s difficult for him to be in crowds, board a plane, eat food he didn’t prepare, and so on. This provides extra challenges for Morris, especially when the book begins with a rogue AI hacking his house’s utility systems–making said house explode in flames. All the racing and chasing forces Morris to grow out of his anxieties, resulting in a lot of character development. The agoraphobia makes things interesting, but it is never melodramatic and it doesn’t solely define him as a character. The other characters are also compelling even if there are only brief glimpses into their lives. I really liked Aidra; she’s Morris’ former boss, a private investigator, and a single mom. Their teamwork on the case advances their relationship past strictly-professional, and Morris’ affections for her makes him more human.

While the characters are great, the exceptions are the artificial intelligences. Their motives aren’t sufficiently explained. They could be fearsome antagonists while still having sympathetic motives, but they seem to be evil for no reason. This is especially noticeable as the AIs are digital reproductions of real people who don’t share their traits.

I have two other criticisms. The chapters jump across more POVs than necessary. Did the reader need to know about a security agent’s former career from his internal monologue? Not really. I also noticed that the female characters are magnets for tragedy to fuel Morris’ angst. It heightens the drama, but it distracted me from the story whenever I became conscious of the Disposable Woman trope being used again and again.

Fate’s Mirror is a fun cyberpunk read. If you like well-developed characters, a fast-paced plot, and fanciful VR worlds complete with pirate ships and naval battles, you’ll enjoy this book. I wished the antagonists had more depth and the Disposable Woman trope wasn’t used so often, but it’s still an entertaining romp and a unique addition to the genre.

Other reviews of this book: The Canary Review, Papyrus Independent Author Reviews

You might like this if you like…
Evil artificial intelligences; fantastical virtual worlds; naval battles as metaphors for cyberwarfare; anti-heroes with anxiety disorders

The authors have a standalone short story with the same protagonist. If you’re interested in a quick cyberpunk read, you can find my review of Good Fences here

Reader Review: NetherWorld by Daniel Pagan (2011)

NetherWorld by Daniel PaganSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

This is a reader-submitted review written by Rick Taylor.

Reader Rating for NetherWorld: 2/5 stars

Description:
A young man opens a door to a world inside his computer while playing a video game. Drawn into this cyber dimension, where green data streams flow from the Silver Forest into the Walled City, he embarks on a journey. His guide, a dizzy blue sphere known as WhizzyWig, helps him reach his destination. He encounters the Duke of Floppys, NazKlan of the Salted Sands, and the Tainted Ones.

Review:
Daniel Pagan’s NetherWorld is a third-person omniscient account that follows Nick through his adventures in a cyber dimension. The omniscient narrator explains the world that Nick is in as he tells the story, and here is where we see Daniel Pagan’s strongest writing skill. He has built a complex world filled with many different races of creatures, and through the use of satire you can see some messages about our society. He even has built up a full caste system and a religious system complete with a holy book, songs, and verses. To help understand this world, Mr. Pagan has included a glossary in the front of the book that gives the reader a jumpstart in understanding the world. I did not read this glossary before starting, yet I was able to follow along just fine. However, if you are not familiar with computers, and especially software development terminology, it might be harder to make the jump without the glossary.

The main character in the book is a teenager named Nick who, for the most part, does nothing of his own accord; instead, the story is about all the things that happen to him. His character does not have any opportunity to grow, and you never get to know him very well. There are a few other characters in the story who control the flow of events. One of them, WhizzyWig, is much more proactive and leads Nick through many of the events that happen to him, but like Nick, WhizzyWig does not grow at all in the story. He has a single focus, and that is to get Nick to Nick’s final destination. In fact, none of the key characters show any depth or growth throughout the story.

The storyline itself is a typical hero tale where the hero must get from point a to point b in a certain amount of time and complete a specific task once he reaches point b to save the world. It is a fairly linear drive from start to finish along that line with almost no distraction or side trials. As typical with this kind of story, along the way Nick is challenged both by the antagonist and by the dangers that are innate to the world that they are in. Mr. Pagan does a good job at keeping things believable and in character with the story. The book does have a surprise ending, which I will not speak on, but it does show nicely that Mr. Pagan can break from the traditional mold and shine if given a chance.

From an editing standpoint the book needs major help. There are whole paragraphs of material that are repeated, sometimes even on the same page. There are several holes in the plot of the story and a fair share of typos. Most of the time I was able to figure out what the author was trying to convey, but there were several times I just had to skip a sentence and move on. Also along these lines, I felt the narrator gave away too much information too early. Overall, I think this book has great potential, and I feel that if Mr. Pagan could arrange a deal with a good editor that he could let his imagination shine through.

I would not recommend this book to anyone that cannot deal with typos, formatting issues, and other problems of that kind. On the other hand, if you love world building and hero stories where the hero is pulled from the least likely among society and treks through the more gritty areas of the world to get to his goal, this might be right up your alley. The story is not deep or complex, so it is perfectly suited for light reading times, especially when you are too tired to track any details from page to page.

NetherWorld is currently a free download at Smashwords.

Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel by Elias Anderson and E.C. Belikov (2011)

Smashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

3/5 stars

Description:
Stanford Parker has a choke-hold on the legalized slave industry. Breeding his brand of clones for whatever horror his clients may have in mind—from hard labor to spare organs—there’s no questioning his product’s quality. But his days may be numbered when someone hires the crew of the airship Masamune to put him out of business. Violet: the gun-slinging airship captain, Moriarty: a disgraced former Inspector, and Tibbs: a genius inventor struggling with a ‘pheta addiction, have a tall order in front of them in bringing down Parker’s heavily defended ranch. They have a plan, but a secret from one of their pasts will endanger the mission; tensions between Violet and Tibbs over differing moral ideals will heighten; and Moriarty’s inquisitive nature will draw him to ask: why haven’t they met their client?

Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel is the first in a series of Steam Punk novellas and stories chronicling the harrowing post-apocalyptic adventures of the crew of the airship Masamune and the lives they touch along the way.

Review:
Though the premise makes it look like your standard-issue adventure fare, Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel plumbs unexpected depths to make the reading experience quite worth your while. The prose is certainly hardworking. It never lets the reader forget its steampunk roots as it weaves generous descriptions and terminologies into the alternative western story. I didn’t feel that there was an excess of information provided; the wordbuilding was on-key. Unfortunately, there are times when the text descends into dry, almost didactic narrative of the tell, not show variety (‘Moriarty now sat down to a hot meal and thought back at that fiery day, seven months ago, when what was now his family, for better or worse, had come together’ p20) and forced sentiment (Violet compares a suitor to ‘a lone rose in the middle of a pallid desert wasteland’ p32). Thankfully, the uneveness doesn’t last long. At 30,000 or so words, things tend to move pretty quickly. Aside from an obligatory origin chapter, the action is managed well, each move calculated, nothing wasted.

I was ready to write this off as a run-of-the-mill action-adventure story when the last few chapters happened. This is when things really get interesting, and it switches the dynamic of the story from a oneshot adventure session into a harsh moral dilemma. Although there are already hints of issues cropping up in previous chapters (most intriguing for me was the Augmentation Society and its implications), what occurs in the last third of the book is a major turning point not just for the story but for the world it inhabits.

I thought the characters here were a mixed bag. Take Violet, the captain. I don’t adhere to the school of thought that to escape female stereotypes, a beautiful woman must be anti-female; in this novella, Violet hates dresses and heels, hates being ordered for, hates being reminded that she is a woman. Even when her past is revealed and in the light of what had happened to her, I believe we can expect more challenging characterizations from our authors than the shopworn variety. I’m also not convinced of Moriarty’s role in this enterprise. I’m guessing his presence in the triumvirate is to be the moral compass, the everyman that may give the readers familiar ground, but so far there is little development in his area. The most intriguing character in my opinion is Tibbs, whom at first I had written off as a mere third wheel. In the course of the novel he had leaped to the forefront as a gamechanger. Most of your questions about the characters are answered by the time the novella closes, and I appreciated that the authors didn’t feel the need to tease the readers more than was necessary.

One thing that greatly bothered me in this book was the way Violet, Moriarty, and Tibbs treated Harris, a secondary character who had the job they needed to fulfill theirs. Suffice to say that it left me just as horrified as what Parker had been doing at his ranch. Whether it had been deliberately made to add to the existing issues of the book or not, it had me reassessing my opinion of the crew.

Let’s talk marketing and branding for a moment. Judging books by their cover is a reader-response that most authors must deal with. Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel‘s own cover is cleanly-executed but it has grim and serious quality to it. While it does echoes the heavier themes that the novella bravely tackles, I also think the tough alternative western, action-adventure aspect of the novella could be further highlighted to draw more interest to the e-book. Another suggestion would be tighter editing. The western slang adds color and can’t be faulted, but the novella could use another editing eye (with careful attention to comma use).

In the end, despite my problems with the uneven prose, I still found this a solid effort and a laudably courageous start. It looks like there is plenty to look forward to — both in action and in character growth — as the rest of the series unfolds.

You might like this if you like…
Steampunk; alternate westerns; action-adventure; Firefly

Free Ebook for October: Stray by Andrea K. Host

Stray by Andrea K. HostGenre: Young Adult Science Fiction

Length: Novel – 102,000 words

Publication Year: 2011

Short Description: In this planet-hopping Girl’s Own Adventure, an Aussie teen must survive a world without technology, and then another with far too much. Rescue is only the beginning of her problems.

It’s free for the month of October!

Comment: We don’t usually feature young adult books on this blog, but what the heck. Stray is part one of a trilogy. Here’s more info on it from author herself in a recent interview with her:

[Touchstone is] a YA space adventure trilogy written in rambling diary form, in “Australian”, sprinkled with Australian slang terms, stuffed with about a million named characters, and happily ignoring established novel structures.

[It] toys with the question of how you decide on a career once you leave school – or perhaps is just about psychic space ninjas, scads of battles with monsters, rather too many hot guys, and the unfortunate matter of the universe tearing itself apart.

It seems to be getting a number of favourable reader reviews, although I’m not sure what the Australian vs. not-Australian reader breakdown is. Either way, it’s different and it’s free for this month!

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