Mike Carey – Felix Castor series

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Rating: 3/5 stars.

***SPOILER ALERT***

There might be possible spoilers in this review, so read at your own risk!

I only read the first two books of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series so far – The Devil you know and the Vicious Circle, so that’s what my review will be based on.

All in all,  I liked the world that Mike Carey created – modern day London with a twist. And the twist is that the dead are coming back for some inexplicable reason. Some come back as mere ghosts, some manage to possess human bodies becoming zombies (not the “Braaaaains” kind, just the slowly rotting but mostly harmless kind), and some possess animals, twisting them into human-like forms and become loup-garous. Some of those revenants are peaceful, some not so much, but all of them raise questions that modern society is not prepared to answer: Do the dead have rights? Is exorcising them considered murder?

While the authorities are struggling with the answers and working on new laws, people who possess the particular talent of exorcising the dead make a good living for themselves. Our protagonist Felix Castor is one such exorcist. And while he is not entirely sure where the ghosts he destroys go (or if they are just snuffed out of existence), his way of making peace with his conscience is to persuade himself that those ghosts are not actual dead people, just memories of dead people, an imprint they left on the fabric of the world before they died. So he is not destroying people, but erasing that memory, which, by all accounts, is just stuck in a repetition of a particular pattern and unable to evolve, think or feel.

But this belief is put to test when a ghost he is sent to exorcise deviates from her pattern and actually saves his life. Now Felix must reconsider his approach and also face the fact that he had been destroying actual souls who could feel and be afraid, not mere memories.

This inner turmoil is explored further in the next book of the series, where Felix is hired by a family to rescue the ghost of their daughter who had been kidnapped by another exorcist. Of course, it turns out there is a lot more to that story then first meets the eye…

And as if ghosts were not enough, the other inhabitants of the underworld are eager to squeeze through the opening and invade our reality as well, like the demon who possesses Felix’s friend Rafi or the succubus summoned to kill him in the first book.

All in all, the world building is great. Mike Carey does a fabulous job describing a London that is and isn’t the city we know and populating it with engaging characters. I particularly loved Nikki, the conspiracy theory geek whom even death couldn’t slow down for long.

Where the book falls short of its mark for me is the main protagonist, Felix Castor. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like the “let’s spit in the face of danger and never give up” protagonists, but in Castor’s case it is taken to the extremes. While I was willing to suspend my disbelief in book one, it got harder and harder to do as book two progressed. I mean, this guy just doesn’t know when to shut up and sit quietly instead of mouthing off and provoking conflict that could have been avoided. I’m sorry, but the chances of survival of a normal man once he managed to alienate several werewolves and make enemies of at least two powerful organizations are next to nil. Going all alone into a church full of Satanists armed only with a gun would also fall into that category. Yet Felix Castor emerges from the wreckage alive and relatively unscarred. This is when I put the book down and say, “I do not believe.”

I know every author likes his protagonists (heck, I love my darlings too), but make them believable! They can rush into the thick of it without thinking or mouth off once, but chances are they will get hurt for doing that, and hopefully that would make them think and change their behavior. It would make them evolve. I think that’s what bothered me the most in those two books, that Castor doesn’t change and doesn’t learn from his mistakes.

I might give this series another chance and try to read book three. Who knows, maybe Felix is just a slow learner? But if that’s not the case, I think I will have to find something else to read.

NaNoWrimo – second week blues

ImageSo remember how a few days ago I said that I had gagged and tied my inner editor in the basement? Well, she escaped and returned with a vengeance. Or maybe it’s just the dreaded second week of NaNo blues.

I woke up yesterday absolutely hating my novel. The plot was not progressing fast enough, the characters were wandering all over the place, but most of all I had the feeling that every single word I had written up until now was absolute tripe. I sad down in front of my screen, opened Scrivener and couldn’t force myself to write. I worked through it, forced myself to put in my usual daily 1700 words, but I hated every single one of them.

So I thought I would use today’s Writing Marathon to power through this block. I even signed up for twitter to participate at the sprints at #NaNoWordSprints… It worked. Well, kinda sorta in a sideways kinda way. I manged to write 2500 words, but instead of progressing with the plot, my Main Character decided that now was the time to sit down and bare his soul and tell his back-story to the enraptured audience of one aka yours truly. I tried to nudge him towards action and getting on with the case on hand, but he just ignored me.

So I now have 2500 words of back story that might or might not make it into the final draft. But on the plus side, I think I managed to lock my inner editor in the bathroom, so onward with the story!

How is everyone doing with their novels so far?

NaNoWriMo – half way through week one.

ImageThe first week of NaNoWriMo is not over yet but I have broken the 10k words mark today. That’s one fifth of the goal done. I think I will allow myself a glass of wine tonight to celebrate.

Between bouts of frantic writing this weekend, I have noticed several things.

First of all, tying and gaging my inner editor and shoving her in a dark closet for the duration of NaNo had been strangely liberating. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be to just put words on paper (or on the computer screen in my case) without worrying about bad grammar, spelling or lack of style. Yes, it might look like a smoking pile of manure, but it moves the story forward, and anything is better than a blank page. Manure I can work with later and grow beautiful polished prose with, blank – not so much.

Another thing that I learned about my writing – having a pretty good idea of where your story goes and outlining it works wonders. All the other (unsuccessful) attempts at writing a novel started with me having a wonderful idea and a vague picture of the main characters. And I would sit down and happily punch words in for a week or two. Then I would get lost with no idea where my story is supposed to go, or hit a roadblock, or just lose interest and move on to a new shiny idea.

In this case I spent the entire month of October thinking about my story. I wrote the main idea, I thought about the beginning and the ending, I even sat down and wrote a more or less detailed outline. I dived into my world and tried to figure out as much about it as I could. I cornered my characters in tights spaces and interrogated them. So when November 1 arrived, I knew my world and my characters and I had a pretty good idea where my story was going. And guess what – I am still very much in love with the story.

So lesson learned – do not jump right into writing, let the idea sit and mature, poke at it for a week or two and see if what hatches is worth writing about.

Oh and I also found an excellent book by Timothy Hallinan called Finish Your Novel, there is a lot of very good advice and encouragement here, so I definitely recommend it to all aspiring novelists.

NaNoWriMo – on your mark, ready, go!!!!

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So November 1 is officially here and NaNo madness has began. All the brave (and some would say crazy) souls participating this year will have exactly 30 days to produce 50 000 words of text in order to win. And I need to point out that 50k is not the limit, if our novel will be over that amount, feel free to write more (if you can). You also don’t need to have finished your novel by end of November in order to win. But still… 50 000 words is a lot, it really is. In fact it’s like a very scary mountain of words looming in front of me.

But no need to panic, there is a way to accomplish that without a psychotic break at the end (I hope) – eat the elephant in small bites. 50 000 words is 1667 words per day if you write every day in November. That doesn’t look as scary anymore, does it? Well, to me it still kinda does, since my usual daily production is more in the 500 – 800 words range. So I devised this plan that would help me reach my goals – I took a critical look at my usual work day and found out that I have three possibilities to write through the day: in the morning before I go to work, during lunch and late at night before bed (I am lucky to have a laptop and a convenient plug next to my bed). If I write 600 words in each of those sessions, I will get 1800 words per day – that is plenty enough to reach 50k! Now I just need to stick to the plan…

As far as day one is concerned, I think I am doing pretty well. I have 1700 words so far and that’s only after two sessions. I was so scared that I would stare at a blank page and just freeze, but words just kinds spilled out. Planning on using the weekend to up my world count. The goal is to be at 7000 total by Monday. We will see, we will see.

Any other Wrimos out there? How did your first day go?

Book review – Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks

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I absolutely love all of Iain M. Banks’s books in the Culture series and I eagerly await each new installment. But Look to Windward is my absolute favorite – it has a particular place in my heart. I think that’s because this story touches some subjects that I can relate to.

The story is set on Masaq’ Orbital, one of the Culture’s ring-shaped artificial worlds ran by an AI. It’s been 800 years since the Twin Novae battle which ended with the explosion of two suns, the destruction of countless planets and artificial habitats and loss of billions of lives. But the light of this explosion has reached Masaq’ Orbital only now, eight centuries later. So did an unlikely ambassador from another war-torn world, Major Quilan. Quilan’s official mission is to bring a renegade composer back to his home world of Chel. His true mission, kept secret even from him and implanted deep in the recesses of his brain, is to kill the Orbital’s AI. Why kill an AI would you ask? For revenge. Oh, not on this particular AI, but on the Culture in general. See, the Culture tried to intervene in the affairs of the Chelgrian society and, even though they meant well, the result was a civil war that cost their lives to five billion people. And now Chel is sending Quilan with the mission to assassinate Masaq’s AI who is also caring for five billion people placed in suspended animation. To the Chelgrians their death would balance the books. And all this happens when the light of a battle fought so long ago finally reaches the Orbital. In that battle too Culture played a role that, some say, precipitated the disaster.

This is the intrigue (or part of it, because, as in all Banks’s books, there are layers upon layers of intrigue). But what made me love this book so much is the story behind the story, the hidden meanings and hidden feelings of all the characters. Quilan, Zeller and even Masaq’, the AI in charge of the Orbital, are surprisingly human, with their own baggage and skeletons in their closets, with their own nightmares and dreams and feelings of guilt and helplessness. And that makes them particularly endearing to the reader.

In this book, Ian M Banks wanted to explore the consequences of our actions on us and other people and to see how different human beings cope with feelings such as rage, guilt, grief, etc. I think it rings very close to home right now with all that has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan – both those conflicts scared a lot of people, be it the local population of the soldiers that have fought there. How do you continue living when you know that you are partly responsible for billions of deaths? Is anything you do good enough to counterbalance that? How far would you go for revenge?

Masaq’ Orbital AI is a perfect example of that – 800 years ago he was the AI of one of the warships that participated in the battle and he witnessed firsthand the explosion of the two suns. The guilt had been haunting him ever since, and now, when the echoes of this battle finally reached the Orbital, he wants to make amends. How? By asking composer Zeller to create a beautiful symphony that would honor the souls lost in that battle, but also by not stopping Quilan from fulfilling his secret mission… And these are all the spoilers I am going to give.

I love the world of Culture – it is incredibly complex and so well-detailed that it feels real. Every book in the series just adds a new piece to the puzzle, slowly building a beautiful picture of a star-dwelling civilization. Buy it, read it, enjoy it, pass it on.

Two days to NaNoWriMo – panic attack.

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It is officially two days till NaNoWriMo starts. I have been ready for at least a week  and oh so excited to dive into my novel. But now that November 1st is almost around the corner, the doubt is setting in. Will I be able to pull it off? After all, 50k words in one month is a lot of ink to put on paper – it’s 1667 words per day, every day in November. Or what if I get stuck in my story and I hate what I write, or if the characters stop speaking to me half way through? This is stuff nightmares are made of!

It’s funny, but this situation brings me back to my college days (darn, am I that old already?) and my pre-exam jitters. This is absolutely ridiculous because this time my grade doesn’t depend on the result, I don’t owe anyone anything, and the world will not stop turning if I don’t reach my goal. But the fact still remains – I am scared. I think it’s because this is important to me – I need to prove to myself that I can write consistently for a prolonged period of time. I also want to prove to myself that I can actually finish a manuscript, go through the whole first draft from “Once upon a time” to “The End”. So yes, there is a lot of pressure on my shoulders and this wait is absolutely killing me!

Come on November, get here already, let’s stop waiting and start finally writing…

Review of “Grass” by Sheri S. Tepper

ImageEver since I was a child, I’ve had a particular love for science-fiction and fantasy books. Sure, I have read my fair share of non-fiction and there are a few classics that I love deeply, but give me a good fantasy book, and I am lost to the world. There are, I think, three reasons for that.

First of all, those books give me a chance to explore totally new worlds that the authors created. Places that are either years in the future or not even in our universe. Places that do not exist and never will, but if the author is good, they still seem so real that you can see and smell, and taste them.

The second reason is the characters. Most really good science-fiction and fantasy books have very compelling and memorable characters. Sure, they can be over the board and larger than life sometimes, but you remember them, you sympathize with them and that’s a good thing. After all, they will be your companions on the journey through this new and strange world that the authors have created.

And lastly the book needs a good plot. For the world building and tri-dimensional characters can’t keep my interest for long if the story isn’t getting anywhere. Something needs to happen, the characters need to face and overcome obstacles and evolve.

When it comes to “Grass” by Sheri S. Tepper, the book left me with very mixed feelings.

I really loved the world Sheri Tepper created. I could really visualize Grass: I could see the multitudes of colors and textures of the grasses that constitute the only vegetation of the planet. I could hear the sound of the wind rippling through them, the cries of the peepers in the roots and the rhythmic dances of the Hippae. The ecosystem of the planet is also fascinating – it’s like a serpent biting its own tail in a way – everything evolves and mutates into something else along the food chain.

So as far as world building is concerned, “Grass” delivered, at least for me. It’s the characters that I had a problem with. As I said, I like well developed, tri-dimensional characters that I can empathize with. Sadly, in this book there is only one such character – Lady Marjorie Westriding. You can tell that the author took time to work on her background and motivations. She feels real and alive; I can understand the reasoning behind her actions and choices. Most importantly, she changes and her point of view evolves during the course of the book.

Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are not as lucky – they felt like cardboard cutouts to me. They move, they talk, they act, but they don’t provoke any emotional response from me. Simply put, they are not fleshed out enough for me to care about them. If they had been a bit more memorable, I think I would have reacted differently to the problem of possible imminent extermination that awaits them.

But if you can get past that lack of characterization, the premise is interesting, the plot moves along at a nice pace and the author manages to tie everything neatly together.

While the rest of the colonized planets are not described in as much detail as Grass, the picture the author paints is still convincing, though very bleak. There are several colonized planets, but progress and expansion are at a standstill because Sanctity, the predominant religious order of the star-traveling humanity, forbids it. So the reader is witnessing the slow degradation of a once formidable race. And as if that degradation wasn’t killing humans quickly enough, there is a mysterious but deadly plague that swipes from world to world and for which there is no cure. All the planets are infected. On all of them humans are dying. Except Grass – there is no plague here. Why? If this question is not answered and a cure is not found, Grass might become the only place in the entire galaxy where human life still exists…

But Grass is far from being a bucolic and worry-free haven. Dark tidings are afoot here too. Danger lurks in the shadows. And when hounds are barking and mounts are ready to hunt foxen, their riders are given very little choice in the matter.

To sum it up, I would definitely recommend this book, even with the lack of characterization. Read it for the story, or just read it for the pleasure of walking in the grass gardens of Klive or watching the grasses paint the prairie in different shades of purple when spring finally comes on Grass.

My dreams and stories. The life of a writer.

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