Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: Dead City, by Joe McKinney

"These aren't your mother's zombies!" cries the tagline on the front of Joe McKinney's 'Dead City.' Which leads me to believe that reading the book is not actually a part of a tagwriter's job description. To me, 'these aren't your mother's zombies' is a way of saying, 'check it, these zombies are new and different and unlike the zombies of your mother's day.' Except that I can't remember the last time I encountered a zombie story as old school as 'Dead City.' These are your mother's zombies. Your mum went to high school with these zombies, and when she sees them in the supermarket she stops to catch up for, like, hours.

But it's not a bad thing! In fact, the "tradionalness," if you will, of Dead City was probably my favourite aspect of the book. It seems that as zombies have grown increasingly fashionable authors have been trying to put a new spin on them. It's like zombies alone aren't enough any more, it has to be steampunk zombies (Boneshaker), or blogger zombies (Alison Hewitt is Trapped) or thinking zombies (Warm Bodies) which is fine and good, but you know, sometimes you just want to read about zombies.

And on that, McKinney delivers. The book is set in San Antonio and follows policeman Eddie through the first night of a sweeping zombie invasion. He wants to get back to his wife and kid, and there are a bazillion zombies to get past first.

What can I say about this book? If you like zombies, you'll enjoy it. If you're sick of zombies, you probably won't. McKinney's skill lies in writing tense and effective action scenes. He doesn't fall into the repetitive traps of some zombie novels, instead he thrusts Eddie into a number of different situations that keep things interesting and exciting.

McKinney is also very, very skilled at scene setting. He has that rare ability to paint a detailed mind picture in your head with just a single sentence. I can't remember the last time I encountered such vivid scenes in any book. McKinney has a knack for capturing quiet moments amidst all the zombie carnage, I really can't praise his descriptive skill highly enough.

He's less skillful when it comes to dialogue. Nothing the character's said ever rang entirely true, and he had a habit of using characters as an excuse to launch into hamfisted philosophising. (Are zombies people too? Did mankind bring them on themselves? Blah, blah, get to the brains!) There were also some inconsistencies in his plotting. Some things just seemed too convenient or easy, there were a few ideas that just didn't go anywhere, and the ending was way sudden.

Really, the ending didn't seem like the end of a book so much as it did the end of a really long prologue. Which normally I would hate like nothing else (it's the reason I never read beyond Charlie Higson's 'The Enemy...'), but by the end of Dead City I found myself more intrigued than annoyed and I can easily see myself picking up the next book in the series.

McKinney may not has written a book that offers a new twist on zombies, but that's exactly what I liked so much about it. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.

This book: I bought

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: The Second Sons Trilogy, by Jennifer Fallon

It pleases me to see that Australian author Jennifer Fallon is slowly starting to receive some well deserved international attention. Her recent ‘Tide Lords’ quartet garnered a couple of positive reviews, and I’ve seen some blogs posting about her latest series ‘The Undivided.’

But I want to talk now about one of her older, less known, set of books; The Second Sons trilogy, comprising of 'The Lion of Senet,' 'Eye of the Labyrinth,' and 'Lord of the Shadows.' It’s a shame that these books haven’t received a lot more attention, because they’re really pretty great.

The title "Second Sons" is a clever little play on words. The trilogy concerns it self with the second sons of two powerful families, but the plot also hinges on the second sun in the world's sky. Ranadon has two suns you see, a large one which sets like ours, and a second one which never sets. Except for this one time when it did. A generation or so ago the second sun set, ushering in a disastrous dark age. And here’s where things get interesting. A super genius dude was able to predict when the dark age would end (with the power of maths!), and he told his priestess friend. She uses this information to convince the big ruler dude, aka The Lion of Senet, to sacrifice his son to end the dark age, and because she knows the time it will end it appears the goddess was talking through her.

But (the plot thickens) the super genius dude didn’t just predict when the dark age would end, he predicted when the next one would start. And priestess girl, who’s now insanely powerful high priestess lady, kind of needs that info to maintain her credibility. (It would be bad for her health if the ruler found out he sacrificed his first born for nothing…) Too bad super genius guy hasn’t been seen in decades.

But! There is another young lad with the brainpower to figure it out. This is Dirk, one of the "second sons" in the title. He and the Lion of Senet's son Kirsh are the main tagonists of the books. Not a typo. Tagonsts. It's a word I just made up. They're not protagonists (good guys), they're not antagonists (bad guys) they're just people. They do good things, they do shitty things, and believe me when I say they'll break your heart. This true for most of the characters in the trilogy. There is no black and white here, trust me. The Lion of Senet, in particular, is very well done. It would have been easy to make him a straight up villain, what with him killing his own son and all. But Fallon makes him a far more complex character than that. He’s fanatical in his his religious views, and a lot of the plot is driven by this. But what choice does the guy have? To admit that his religion might not be all-knowing would be to admit that he sacrificed his son for nothing. It makes for compelling reading let me tell you.

And the ending. Ah, the ending. It’s one of those ends that hits you like a punch to the gut, that stays with you for months or years or hell, probably the rest of your life. Years later and I find myself thinking of these books at odd times, running over in my mind the course of events that made things in the final volume play out the way they did. There is nothing so impressive as a book drawing to a perfect and inevitable close, with all the small pieces set in place over the three books leading to one magnificent finale.

They're not perfect, I'll admit that. These were written early in Fallon's career when she was still smoothing out her prose a little. She gets a bit heavy with the adverbs (he said sadly, she yelled angrily, he sighed ecstatically, and so on) but it's certainty not enough to ruin the enjoyment of the story.

So, just in case you couldn’t tell. These books: I recommend them. (And I bought them.)