Finding the floor: Out of the Dark by David Weber

Finding the floor … my ongoing project to tackle the teetering tower of terror, otherwise known as the to-be-read pile. Up this time is Out of the Dark by David Weber.

This one was actually a loving wifely purchase for my beloved. He loves David Weber. Lots of battles, aliens, guns galore. But the blurb on the back sounded interesting so I snitched it off the pile and read it before him.

And then I had to wait for him to read it so I could fully express my outrage at the BIG FAT CHEATING CHEAT of an ending.

Ahem. Anyway, as I was saying, the blurb sounded interesting. Earth has been conquered by aliens, and a few pockets of survivors are putting up what resistance they can. Many of these we only get to know briefly before the aliens stomp them out of existence. Resistance is indeed futile, if glorious, in most cases. Sergeant Steve and a small band of soldiers are trying to organise survivors in the Balkans. Back home in the US, former marine Dave and his brother-in-law Rob, who must surely be the most insanely well-prepared-for-the-apocalyse guys in the history of the universe, are building a network of resistance across the southern states.

So far so bleak for the human race. The aliens are extremely advanced, though they almost call off the whole invasion on arrival when they realise how advanced humanity’s technology is. Their last intel was from the Battle of Agincourt, and things have changed just a little since then! They aren’t allowed to take over worlds as advanced as Earth, but fortunately for the story the alien leaders are crooked enough to ignore the galactic rules and so the battle begins.

The only saving grace for the humans is that since the aliens are used to fighting savages with spears, their armour isn’t built to withstand modern weaponry. And boy, what a lot of modern weaponry there is. Weber frequently stops the action for long – as in two pages long – descriptions of weapons. Every new gun, tank, whatever, gets described in exhaustive and loving detail. It’s like weapons porn for gun enthusiasts.

No problem there – I just skimmed through these bits and got back to the story, which was highly involving. Certainly a page-turner! The action built and built, the stakes got higher and higher, and I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how the hell the humans were going to avoid total annihilation, and then …

and then …

Well, I don’t like to give spoilers. The back of the edition I read certainly didn’t give anything away, but let me quote you from the blurb on the hardcover, which I found online:

“[things] look bleak. The aliens have definitely underestimated human tenacity–but no amount of heroism can endlessly hold off overwhelming force.

Then, emerging from the mountains and forests of Eastern Europe, new allies present themselves to the ragtag human resistance. Predators, creatures of the night, human in form but inhumanly strong. Long Enemies of humanity… until now. Because now is the time to defend Earth.”

You can probably guess from that, right? (And what sort of blurb gives away a Major Major Plot Point like that??) When the first vague kind of off-hand reference to something paranormal came up I ignored it. Nope, not going to happen. You’re imagining things. This is not that kind of book. This was late in the story, and it had been straightforward, real-world, shoot-em-up stuff all the way. No way was it suddenly going to jump the shark and veer completely off the road into the paranormal underbrush.

Except it did.

I still can’t decide whether it was a brilliant move or a terrible deus ex machina. But it certainly felt like cheating at the time. I thought I was reading science fiction, and all of a sudden I wasn’t. Your mileage may vary, of course. The Carnivore had no problem with it, though he was surprised at the change of direction. He thinks I’m too critical.

Perhaps I am, but a lot of the problem has to do with expectations. You don’t expect paranormal elements to suddenly crop up near the end of a straight science fiction story. It feels like cheating to fix a “real-world” problem by whipping out a magic wand. If there’d been clues earlier on that such things were possible it wouldn’t have felt as if it were coming out of left field so much. Maybe that’s why the hardcover had that spoilery blurb, to try to overcome that feeling. But it would have been better to address the problem in the story rather than on the back of the book.

Finding the Floor: Chasing Odysseus by SD Gentill

Remember Finding the Floor, my project to read my way through my terrible tottering tower of a to-be-read pile? I’ve been working on it, just a little slow to report on my efforts.

One of the first books to make its way out of the pile was Chasing Odysseus by SD Gentill. The author is a friend of one of my oldest and dearest friends, so I was keen to read it. It’s exciting when someone you kinda sorta almost know actually gets published – Look Ma! Real people can make it in the publishing world! I had a sneak peek at the first few chapters when Sulari had it posted on Authonomy, and thought the premise was a good one.

Basically, it’s the story of Odysseus’ famous journey home from the Trojan War, but told from the perspective of four siblings who are chasing him. They are herders who kept the Trojans supplied through the ten-year siege, but are now fighting to clear their tribe’s name after the fall of Troy. The surviving Trojans assume the herders betrayed them, so now it’s up to Hero and her three brothers to find Odysseus, the real villain behind the fall of Troy, and force him to claim responsibility for his act.

And so we have a wonderful demonstration of the difference that point of view can make. Seeing Odysseus’ well-known adventures through the eyes of Hero and her brothers puts an entirely new slant on them. Needless to say, Odysseus doesn’t come off as quite the hero Homer makes him out to be!

Each chapter starts with a quote from The Odyssey. It’s great fun to see these familiar episodes transformed by the “real story” of Hero and her brothers. I particularly enjoyed the part on Circe’s island. In the Homeric version Odysseus is saved by divine intervention. In fact it’s the quick thinking of Machaon, one of Hero’s brothers, that frees them all from the enchantress’s clutches, in a way that makes Odysseus look a complete fool.

The only divine intervention we see in the novel is by Pan, god of the Herdsmen, who provides a magical boat for the siblings. None of the main Greek pantheon make an appearance, though I hope that may be coming in the next books, since Hero spends such a lot of time praying to them. Her excessive devotion to prayer annoys her brothers, and I grew a little tired of it myself, so I hope it will prove to have a purpose later on.

What the next books in the trilogy will cover I’m not sure, since the story is satisfyingly complete in this book. But that’s a good thing. Too often lately I’ve been reading merrily through a book, only to have that sinking feeling hit me: Oh noes! There aren’t enough pages left to wrap this up – another case of storius interruptus!!

I know some authors and publishers think it’s the kiss of death to put “Book 1 in the Such-and-such Trilogy” on the front cover. What if people don’t like Book 1 so they avoid Book 2? What if they see Book 2 on the shelf but they haven’t read Book 1 and it’s not there so they don’t buy Book 2? What if – gasp! – they won’t buy any of them till the trilogy’s complete because they can’t stand waiting a year between books?

While I can see the validity of these concerns, as a reader I hate realising when I’m almost finished a book that there must be others to come. Not that it makes any practical difference; it’s more an attitude thing. If I know going in the story won’t be finished at the end of the book, I’m prepared. If I assume it’s a standalone and it’s not I feel ripped off.

Ahem. I’ll just hop off my soapbox now. Back to Chasing Odysseus … None of that applies in this case, since the cover announces it’s the first in the Hero Trilogy. Plus – Bonus Points!! – the story arc is actually complete in this book. Complete story + promise of more goodness to come = happiness all round.

One thing I did wonder was: why three brothers? One was the sensible eldest brother, one was the wild and reckless brother, and one was the … well, just the other brother. He didn’t seem to have a lot to do, and what he did could have been combined into the character of one of the others. Perhaps he has a bigger role in the later books. I did sometimes forget which was which, since they were all rather alike. Still, that’s a small quibble; the kind of thing the writer side of my brain thinks about even as the reader side is getting swept along by the story.

Chasing Odysseus is great fun for someone familiar with the events of The Odyssey. For someone who isn’t it would be a good introduction to the world of the ancient Greek legends. Sulari writes well and keeps the story moving along. I just hope she also writes quickly – I want to know what happens next!

Finding the floor: Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

Finding the floor … or tackling the teetering tower of terror, otherwise known as the to-be-read pile. First it was a shelf, then two, then a neat pile stacked against the wall. Now there are tottering piles thirty books high. There must be hundreds of books there, cluttering up my floor and my life.

Hi, my name is Marina and I have a book-buying addiction. I can hear the authors among you yelling hoo-RAH! Bring on the book-buying addicts! And as addictions go it’s fairly innocuous, I admit. But it will take me years to get through that many books. Some have been there years already – some so long I’ve lost all desire to read them, which is crazy. I couldn’t even tell you what was on the bottom of some of those piles. Yes, I love books, but this is getting ridiculous. Time to tackle that monster!

Hence my new project – finding the floor in that scary corner of the room. Whittling down that overblown pile by reading one a week and reporting my progress here. Accountability is such a good motivator!

And to kick off the project, a book that spent barely any time on the pile, Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris. (That’s part of the problem – always reading the latest acquisitions and never getting to the older stuff – but I reserve the right to read in any order that takes my fancy.)

Dead in the Family is the tenth in the Sookie Stackhouse series about a telepathic waitress in small-town America and her continuing adventures with vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures. I’ve mentioned before on the blog how much fun this series is, and I dived into this one with every expectation of my usual huge enjoyment.

Let’s just say that Dead and Gone remains my favourite of the series. This one was very slow to start. Almost half the book passed in small incidents and recapping previous events. Halfway through I was wondering “when is the Big Thing going to happen? Where is the main storyline?” Sookie seemed to be spending a lot of time thinking, sunbaking, going to work, having lunch with friends and family – all the things that make up her regular life – but without any underlying storyline driving the plot along. Something did eventually happen, but it wasn’t really big enough to hang a whole book off. So instead of one main plot and several subplots, it felt like there were just a lot of subplots.

All this sounds as if I didn’t enjoy it, which is not the case. It still had a lot of elements I love about the Sookie novels, particularly Sookie’s pragmatism and the juxtaposition of her nice Southern gal manners against the monstrous misbehaviour of almost everyone around her. That’s the undead for you. No social skills. There’s humour in the way she stands up to the monsters and scolds them into better behaviour, but a serious side too. She forces them to remember their long-lost humanity.

Harris has Sookie in an uncharacteristically sombre mood for most of the book, which affects the overall tone. Bad things happen in most of the books, but usually Sookie retains her innate optimism. This time she’s still recovering from the terrible events of the previous book, and it seems to have changed her character. I guess it’s a good thing for the protagonist of a long-running series to change as the series progresses, otherwise the series can stagnate. But now there’s a manic feeling to her bubbliness, and she’s changed to the point of trying to organise the death of a vampire who’s causing trouble for her boyfriend. A rather different Sookie to the sunny character of the first books. It will be interesting to see how far Harris takes her.

So yes, I’m still looking forward to the next one, even though this one felt more like the characters getting their breath back from the last one than a whole new story. I think there’s still plenty of places Harris could take this series – I just wouldn’t recommend starting with this one.