Foreign Devils by John Hornor Jacobs

Foreign DevilsA steampunk science-fiction fantasy set in a world that draws some uncomfortable inspiration from our own, Foreign Devils is the sequel to John Hornor Jacobs’ The Incorruptibles and follows the adventures of Fisk and Shoe – two would be mercenaries making their way through a world of demons, feral elves and worse. The story is told in a suitably gritty first person narration from the recollections of Shoe – the dwarf.

The second book picks up from where the first book left off, with Fisk and his new wife Livia. Both are sent on separate missions and so the book’s narrative divides, although we continue with Shoe as primary narrator and Livia’s recollections are sent to Fisk via the Quotidian, a blood enabled personal communication system, and he provides an edited version to Shoe, preserving his partner’s role as the journal keeper.

Hornor Jacobs expands his canvas by sending half his cast to Tchinee – the analogue of China in his fantasy world. Livia’s petition on behalf of Rume is to secure their support in the oncoming war against their Medieran enemies, whilst Fisk and Shoe continue to hunt down Beleth, the rogue demon engineer.

Hornor Jacobs’ world of Occidentalia is a fusion of western, steampunk and old religion. The religious language is much more closely related to our own world than many fantasy authors choose to tread, with Hornor Jacobs’ demons very much unwashed from their satanic origin in the way the characters discuss them and other references are much closer to home than we might be accustomed. The starkness of The Incorruptibles is muted somewhat in this sequel and some of the unsettling culture parallels of prejudice and class from the first novel are less pronounced. In some ways this is a shame as we are less inclined to reassess our own legacy. The direct correlation is retained and used when exploring the nature of slavery from a personal standpoint and we do see characters demonstrating the kind of filtering needed to endure the ways in which their supposed superiors treat them as objects. In the early chapters, some of the principle characters – particularly Livia – are starting to connect their own unconscious mistreatment of those considered beneath them with the blatant denigration performed by others.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Foreign Devils concerns itself more with the hunt and the introduction of the new Tchinee culture. We do get an interesting interlude related to the downtrodden Dwarves who are gradually coming to resent their oppression and this bodes well for a further installment that might explore praxis. The book is much longer than its predecessor and the diverging plot lines means it is less of a page turner. However, the world devised by Honor Jacobs is unique and interesting with its developing mythology, technology, demonology and dark magic. There is substantial grit to the writing throughout and Hornor Jacobs does not compromise in his description of events. There are surprising twists and turns, with characters murdered, kidnapped and tortured as the writer requires, the conclusion of both quests providing revelations in equal measure.
If you’re seeking a gritty steampunk series, which offers interesting characters in an analogous real world setting, you’ll find plenty to like in Hornor Jacobs’ series.

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Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

 Wolfhound CenturySet in an alternate Russia the novel tells the tale of Investigator Vissarion Lom who is summoned by the head of the secret police to Mirgorod (the capital) in order to catch a notorious terrorist; a “home grown” insurgent who has been eluding the state and undermining their totalitarian regime. Being an “outsider” with a sliver of angel stone embedded in his head, Lom is seen as the perfect choice to confront this menace.

This is a state that has been worn down by an endless, brutal war and Lom quickly discovers that it’s also a country more corrupt that he could have imagined: a hidden world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.

What follows is an incredibly rich, rewarding novel that has an amazing feeling of depth. The use of an alternative noir-tinged Russia complete with the authoritarian, iron-fisted and deeply corrupt bureaucracy works brilliantly with the plodding world-weary gumshoe narrative and bleak, angel-wrought alternative world. It’s the first time I’ve read anything approaching “soviet noir” and it’s a perfect fit – the immersion is absolute, carried forward by the rich quality to the prose that borders on the poetic in places.

I was reminded of China Mieville’s linguistic style on occasion – especially his The City & The City, along with that of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama however what mostly sprang to mind was one of my favourite novels – The Man in the High Castle – even the ending seemed to be somewhat of a salute to that classic.

The pace is set just about right, achieving a nice balance between world-building and story development and this is assisted by short chapters and changing perspectives. The book is very easy to read, like Mieville and Tidhar the narrative feels very much within the literary style that just happens to feature elements of science fiction; fallen Angels providing a solid sense of the alien are at war with the forests and reality itself seems to rebel against this violent invasion. The action sequences are dramatic and are assisted by the gritty realism that pervades the novel, the creation of tension at these times is almost tangible. It is important to remember that this is the start of a series though otherwise you could be a bit shocked by the abrupt ending – which is doubtless very effective as a draw to read the next.

Opinion:
Four star
Four stars
I absolutely love this book, it’s got everything you could hope for in a classic (and yes it does feel like a classic), literary allusions, a dynamic narrative that works on many different levels and a well structured story that keeps moving forward and keeps you guessing. A gritty noir-tinged feel and characters that appear to have a life of their own all combined into a novel That’s completely unique – I cannot recommend this highly enough.

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The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

The Dark ForestDefeatism, Fatalism; these are universal, recurrent maladies that everyone experiences at points throughout their lives. Even if one moves forward – how do we find meaning in such a vast, uncaring universe?

Only here, the universe isn’t uncaring, it’s quite pointedly predatory. These are the central themes that China’s foremost hard sci-fi writer Liu Cixin wraps up in an elegantly written, surprisingly humorous and ultimately humanistic sequel to The Three Body Problem. Cixin plays around with a number of dense, speculative science and technology concepts which wonderfully underpin the dramatic action and very rarely obscure the action. In the interests of not spoiling them, and word-count, this review might have to simplify a few of the more pertinent ones.

The events of the first book concern a Chinese budding astro-physicist named Ye Wenjie whose spirit and faith in humanity is utterly broken by the Cultural Revolution. She takes a kind of refuge at a military facility secretly researching how to contact alien races and discovers a primitive method to do so. She thus accidentally gives away Earth’s location to a civilization four light-years away known as the Trisolarians – whose own incredibly volatile planet is under risk. They launch an invasion fleet and work with Ye to establish a secret movement to obstruct humanity’s technological progress in preparation.

The Dark Forest picks up after the pro-invasion organization on Earth have been largely exposed and defeated and with approximately 400 years left until the Doomsday Battle. The UN proposes an unorthodox plan necessitated by the ‘Sophons’, essentially intelligent protons developed by the Trisolarans to spy on humanity and interrupt/sabotage research into frontier physics. It’s deemed ‘The WallFacer Project’, and tasks four individuals with coming up with audacious strategies, the true intent of which is known only to them. They’ll be given almost limitless resources and the option to hibernate for decades, or centuries at a time to see their plans through to fruition.

Cixin’s style is expansive, imaginative and at times intensely personal. The cast is larger than usual and so inevitably a few of them don’t get quite as detailed treatments as the Wall-Facers or crucial characters in and around the Chinese Space Force. However, when Cixin does delve into the inner workings of a character, it’s transportive and utterly believable, even amidst the atmosphere of inevitable cataclysm and high-concept speculative science.

Nor does Cixin shy away from the inner workings of the science itself. He’s clearly a gifted thinker and he’s done his research – topics and technology that are by no means glossed over include: neural-networks and mapping of the human brain; a variety of possible space propulsion drives; socio-economic and cosmic-sociological theory; and at one particularly dense point a treatise-like chapter on how slowing the orbit of a planet would affect the entire galaxy.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Although for some these segments could break immersion, I found them digenetic enough and actually fascinating in their rationale. Be warned, this is definitely rock hard sci-fi.
The Dark Forest then is a wonderful conceit with a foundation of exceptional writing. Again skirting spoilers, the stakes and conclusion are much higher than The Three Body Problem and I’m intrigued as to where exactly the final volume in the trilogy will actually pick up. There is the odd pacing problem and the final few chapters feel slightly rushed after hundreds of years (and pages) of build up, but they’re all minor gripes set against Cixin’s ambition and talent.

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Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

Ben Elton is a talented individual. His humor is often satirical, off-the-wall and almost always makes me laugh.
The only novel I’ve read of his prior to Time and Time Again, is Stark — an early example of modern environmental fiction and a book that feels a lot like the love-child of Douglas Adams and Grant Naylor. I like Time Travel novels, there have been some great examples fairly recently. Last year we had the stand-out example The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August — we also saw the release of Jerry Cornelius: His Life and Times — by the legendary author Michael Moorcock.

As such my expectation was high for this book, a time travel story with the infamous wit of Ben Elton. I was hoping that Time and Time Again would perhaps be a satirical romp through time or at least with a thick vein of the author’s humor running through it. Unfortunately it’s largely devoid of both.

Instead it’s much more main stream and feels diluted so as to appeal to the masses. There is a good story though, revolving around an ex-SAS soldier who is chosen to go back in time and prevent the first world war — the argument being that preventing the first world war would prevent the second and bring an era of peace our world hasn’t known. Of course anyone who has seen or read a time travel story knows that it’s never as simple as that.

The story moves between the past and present, the former being described in great detail — such that it almost feels like you are there. The authors intelligence and talent as a writer really shows here however without his more absurd humor it does feel a little too serious. The protagonist Hugh Stanton is a grieving widow who takes some convincing to become a time-traveller but the grieving widow thing does feel a little overplayed and part way through the book I did feel like telling Hugh to get a grip on himself, he is though all action hero and the depiction of his legendary combat prowess and abilities are also a little over-the-top — one of the weak points of the book.

The other issue is one of balance. Yes we’ve got the wonderful ambience of the early 20th century but partly as a result and partly due to the plot being sidelined a few times the last 50 pages seem so much more weighted to moving the story forward and time travel related shenanigans’ have to say when it does pick up it works well and the last part of the novel is, clever, inventive and quite mesmerizing.

It has to be said though that the history aspect is superb and the author must have carried out a great deal of research to get the level of detail he has. A large part of this exploration involves that spark that ignited the powder keg that led to war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, itself leading to World War One. That is of course the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Principe (part of a secret society known as the Black Hand). It is quite fascinating and the author presents a plausible argument for alternative events.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Despite the pacing issues and too-good-to-be-true action hero, Time and Time Again is a good book. It’s got its fair share of the moral dilemmas that are faced by fellow time travelers, a detailed look at the historical events the book makes use of and a strong ending, rewarding ending. Just don’t expect the author’s trademark humor.

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The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

The Gun SellerThe story follows the wayward character Thomas Lang, a hired gun that is a lot nicer than he seems. When he is approached to assassinate a businessman he decides instead to warn the target. No good deed ever goes unpunished however and he quickly finds his life spiraling into increasingly dangerous situations.

The natural charm and casual wit of Laurie clearly shines through and reading the story you can easy imagine him narrating it to you himself — there is so much of the author’s personality contained. The protagonist also shares some of the author’s charms and is a likeable, engaging fellow. Thomas is also cynical, sarcastic and quite self-centered — although not at the same level as House. He’s part spy, part hard-boiled gumshoe and part anti-hero.
The writing is great and deeper that it first appears with lots of little quips:

“Having a vote once every four years is not the same thing as democracy.”

There is also a quite brilliant bit about the way you should break someone’s arm:
“Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.

Right or left, doesn’t matter. The point is that you have to break it, because if you don’t…well, that doesn’t matter either. Let’s just say bad things will happen if you don’t.

Now, my question goes like this: do you break the arm quickly — snap, whoops, sorry, here let me help you with that improvised splint — or do you drag the whole business out for a good eight minutes, every now and then increasing the pressure in the tiniest of increments, until the pain becomes pink and green and hot and cold and altogether unbearable?

Well exactly. Of course, the right thing to do, the only thing to do, is to get it over with as quickly as possible. Break the arm, ply the brandy, be a good citizen. There can be no other answer.
Unless.

Unless unless unless.

What if you were to hate the person on the other end of the arm? I mean really, really hate them.”

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
The prose is witty and charming just like the author. Pacing is steady, there is little wasted space and the story moves forward with little attention given to retrospection or exposition. As a result it’s an easy, enjoyable, effortless read and one that doesn’t take long to get through.

The Gun Seller is wildly entertaining, light-hearted and one of the funniest books I’ve read in quite some time, highly recommended and is definitely worth the space on your bookshelf.

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Tin Men by Christopher Golden

Tin MenIn the near future, the world is falling apart. Wars, unrest, economic collapse and ecological disasters plague the globe – as it tries to hold the pieces together, the US deploys a new weapon, the Tin Men. They are remote controlled drones piloted by American soldiers who have their minds virtually transported into the machines while their bodies rest back at base. At least that’s the theory, but when an electromagnetic pulse traps their minds inside their robot bodies all the rules go out the window.

Tin Men is a great blend of military action and sci-fi elements; it barrels through an action packed storyline in a hail of bullets, while still managing to showcase some very human feelings despite its characters’ robotic appearance. There is an incredible realism to the scenes and locations that would fit perfectly into a piece of contemporary military fiction. The action scenes with the Tin Men are particularly well written, serving to evoke the proper atmosphere for a warzone. The entire book in fact does a good job for atmosphere, with the opening of the novel heralding a great catastrophe; the subsequent chapters do a good job of showing the consequences, worthy of any disaster movie.

The story jumps between selections of very different characters, each showing the effects of the catastrophe from a new perspective. In the Tin are Danny and Kate, two soldiers with very different views about their new situation, the awkward relationship between the two is handled well and makes for an interesting sideshow as the story goes on. With a more human face is Alexa, an ambassador’s young daughter carried along for the ride and forced to come to terms with the harsh realities of her situation. Back at base is the tech Aimee, while she’s not dodging bullets there are plenty of problems to keep her occupied. Rounding out the group is Felix, acting as an aide to the president he is swept along in a rush to escape the chaos while half the world tries to track them down. There is also the interesting P.O.V of Hanif who provides a counterpoint to the western characters, showing a different ideology and helping to give the enemy side a face.

There are plenty of twists in the plot, giving it more depth than your standard action thriller, the fast pace of the writing quickly moves the story along as you begin to care about the characters. In places the development of some of the protagonists felt a bit rushed but the book does cram a lot into the space. There are touches in the world that highlight the near future setting, but I think more could have been made of the Tin Men in the narratives. Aside from a throwaway line about targeting systems or repairs there’s very little that differentiates the Tin Men from regular soldiers, other than the amount of punishment they can take.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
The book does deliver a good read, the separate plot strands all progress well and tie in together nicely. The characters quickly establish themselves but do lack detailed development. Tin Men does keep the reader interested, revealing just enough to leave you wanting more and rooting for their armored heroes. I would recommend it to a military or sci-fi fiction buff. It is definitely worth the space on your bookshelf.

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Roboteer by Alex Lamb

RoboteerAlex Lamb’s Roboteer paints a picture of a future that in the political climate of today, feels far too possible.

In this book, a war rages between two sides of humanity, two different and opposing ideologies and lifestyles. One side, combining genetic and induced mutation with advanced technology, just to survive and grow, the other dealing with overpopulation, presumably low employment and the idea that someone is better off than they are.

We see how people have manipulated propaganda about the other side, merely to increase their own personal influence. Politics and religion are just tools in their hands, flags to wave to unite to a cause, with little evidence personal belief or morality.

As all of the religions have been loosely brought together, it becomes clear that it is not belief that unites them, more political expediency. The actual tenants of the official religion have been manipulated to allow them not to be against any of the existing faiths and become a self fulfilling cycle that the religion itself is the basis of the religion.

Accusations of “genetic fascism” are put forward by the Earthers as a criticism of the Colonials, but generally this is a trait we see in the characters who make this accusation loudest.

Most of the perspective of the book is from the Colonial point of view and we have more sympathy for their cause, it is only when we stop and think that we see the cracks in their own society. Through their perspective we see the downsides of deliberate mutation for specific skills, without environmental factors to even out selection, behaviour traits of obsessive compulsive disorders and autism become common.

We also get a glimpse of the fact the ability to live in a “virtual reality” gives some characters the choice of whether to opt out of “live” social interaction, creating a two tier society and creates as situation where the Captain of a ship is surprised by the genuine grief for someone who is “only a roboteer”. This is reminiscent of John Scalzi’s Locked In but with a different plot reason for the condition. For some people the roboteer is “other” and possibly even sub-human.

Overall the book warns of the danger of the “end justifying the means” with the threat that the morality of any given situation, and the ability to enforce this, may not sit in human hands. On both sides we see people willing to do anything for a cause, but also individuals whose actions progress a cause that they deep down disagree with and how the results of this do not turn out well. This is shown on the personal scale, when an individual betrays his friends for a bigger cause and they and their cause suffer for it, and on the species level when humanity might be judged for its actions by an external set of values.

It ultimately concludes that without the ability and willingness to adapt to our environments, we can only take from the resources around us. If we do not aspire to create, we can only destroy a chilling prediction perhaps.

Opinion:

Five Stars
This book is much more than an entertaining tale of spaceships, warfare, technology and an occasional alien presence, although it has all of those. It is a book designed to really make you

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Inish Carraig by Jo Zebedee

Inish CarraigA dystopian future novel set in Belfast after an alien invasion is a premise that immediately appeals and suggests a whole host of imaginative ideas.

Inish Carraig is the second book from Jo Zebedee and sets humanity as a conquered plaything between two space faring alien civilizations; the Zelotyr and the Barath’na. With the events of the book set where they are the opportunities for a District 9 style allegory are clear right from the outset, particularly as the opening scenes are of scavenging teenagers John and Taz forced to work to feed themselves and their families.

The book doesn’t play this card as well as it might, but instead we have a robust dystopian story that sticks with its underclass characters for the most part as they struggle against the circumstances thrust upon them. John is an unwitting rebel who may have doomed humanity to never recover from the devastation of invasion. Taz, an ignorant victim of trying something he shouldn’t and Josey, an unwilling captive of consequence.
Joining these is Inspector Carter, a policemen forced to collaborate with both aliens in turn as the jurisdiction of Earth changes hands. Carter’s position of power is revealed as powerless owing to his own inability to take risks as much as the ‘middle management’ confines of his role, but ultimately he finds courage and opportunity to take matters into his own hands.

The Zelotyr and Barath’na are less well defined than the human characters, the former having invaded Earth owing to environmental problems with their own planet and failing to recognise the intelligence of the indigenous species, the latter seemingly a neutral arbiter between invader and victim, although the relationships between the three are clearly much more complex than this, as we find out.

The Inish Carraig of the title is a hastily constructed prison, built by the Barath’na for malcontents and revolutionaries, again, something that could offer more of a real world allegory. The pacification of its inmates through drugs administered by implant, along with the threatening carnivorous presence of the Barath’na themselves implies a more sinister motive to everything which bears out as we learn more of the wider political games being played.

There are one or two bumps in the narrative; a ‘galactic council’ of two struggles to live up to the name and the use of robot companions as a plot lever might be considered a little bit obvious, but neither are story breaking and the perspective is kept tight and dramatic throughout.

Opinion:
Four star
Four Stars
Inish Carraig is a gritty post invasion novel. There is a tense realism to the key scenes of conflict and some supporting cast manage to maintain a position of ambiguity right up until the end of the book. Scenes in the dark countryside where life becomes a desperate struggle from one moment to the next are chillingly real. The truest monsters in the text are particularly awful examples of humanity.

Occasionally events seem to move forwards from off stage, which is a little confusing to the reader who might be used to their viewpoint characters adopting a more driving role, but this echoes writers like H.G. Wells in some ways, where the main character is not always the changer of the macro plot.

The conclusion of the book is nicely brought together, but does make the reader reflect on what we have gained. In many respects, our analogue – humanity, under an oppressive alien government has not changed its fate, but made its future worse, although, the individual characters have escaped the cold endings that awaited each of them.

Inish Carraig is a good alternative take on the dystopian novel and establishes an intriguing premise that may be worthy of Zebedee exploring further in the future.

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A Planet for Rent by Yoss

A Planet for RentYoss is one of the most controversial and successful of Cuba’s science fiction writers. As well known for his rock-and-roll style as he is for his portrait of Cuba under Communism, his work is modern, dynamic and yet deep and thoughtful. A Planet for Rent is set in the near future where Earth, wracked by environmental and ecological problems is “rescued” by Aliens.

This rescue however turns the planet into a tourist attraction and humanity little more than slaves, dispossessed from their own planet. The aliens have undone many of the man-made disasters humanity subjected the Earth to but the people don’t get to be a part of this new society. They are denied access to the superior technology and live in poverty, not even able to leave the planet unless they get sponsorship from an affluent alien. Some turn to crime, others hire their body as a host to alien consciousness for those who want to holiday but can’t or don’t want to appear physically. As you can imagine most feel envy, anguish and anger over the injustice; the unfairness perpetrated by the new owners of Earth.

The book is a collection of short stories, all themed around this premise and the format works well. There is a dark, almost bleak tone to the novel but with small sparks of hope, along with a good deal of dark humor. It is of course an allegory of Cuba in the 1990’s (the stories were originally written back then) and more broadly an allegory of Communism in general. You can feel the frustration and sometimes the anger the author must have felt living in such a regime.

It’s wildly inventive, imaginative fiction, with a real edge to the writing — there is energy to the prose that is almost tangible and to get all this through a translation is nothing short of remarkable. It’s great to be able to finally see fiction from other cultures without the language barrier and Restless Books are leading the charge in this regard.

Opinion:

Five Stars
A Planet for Rent is a window into a different world in many respects. It’s bold, beautiful, brash and bizarre but above all its science fiction at its best. These stories will definitely make you look at planet Earth in a moment the light not to mention. We evaluate your place in the food chain, the entire time you’re reading, and you will never look at your summer vacation. The same way again.

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Wick by Matt Doyle

WickA futuristic science fantasy based on a nineties card game tournament with the monsters, maneuvers and spells depicted in a huge seemingly holographic light show, Wick is certainly a vivid visual feast when it comes to the battles.
The book is structured in a multitude of first person narratives, depicting the experiences of the contestants in the tournament. First person perspective and present tense always establishes a closer relationship between character and reader. However in Wick, this multiplicity of perspectives is problematic at first when read cold and in novel form, as it becomes difficult for the reader to distinguish each context and might work better as separate strands written towards the events.

Doyle switches to neutral third person perspective and present tense (omnipresent viewpoint) when describing the interviews with the characters and the battles themselves. The writing in the latter is a wall of descriptive text, accurately written and interspersed with commentary dialogue. This betrays the interest of Doyle, who plays with WWE showmanship into his contest, complete with fixed matches and false narratives. However, the reader is given no quarter with the repetition of the format or the detail of the game play and this makes the scenes drag down the rest of the story, when they should be its highlight. The commentary and omni-view weaken the reader’s emotional connection with the characters for the duration of these scenes. However, to a point, this also serves to hide their outcome. Because of the wide focus and array of characters, there are few clues for the reader to guess who will win and afterwards the take up of the first person narratives gradually narrows.

The agendas of the participants gradually become clear in this process and the major characters rise out of the confusion of multiplicity. Some are here to win the tournament, others have different goals. After the first round is completed, these agendas become the priority and the book becomes more interesting. We learn more about the spark form combatants and how they can exist outside of the battle-zone. We discover they aren’t actually holographic, but feel different to real people.
The story concludes as a part one, with a long character background and a cliff-hanger twist.

Opinion:

Four star
Four Stars
Wick is certainly an interesting idea. Matt Doyle confesses in the afterword that this wasn’t the book he intended to write and reading it confirms his assertion. The priorities of Doyle’s game and anime ideas and the needs of a story appear to be in conflict. Plot compression is sorely needed and less of an emphasis on minute detail would vastly improve the pace of a number of scenes. The magical card game tournament premise certainly has its appeal, but needs to be thought about in the context of telling a story. What keeps the reader interested is that there is a really good story lying under and in between the dry scenes and painstaking descriptions. Some of the characters, such as Connor Ford and Fahrn are excellently drawn; Ford in particular works really well, despite the fact that he seems to be a supporting character.

As a book, Wick appears to be fighting its author in a far more difficult battle than any depicted in the tournament. Hopefully Matt Doyle will surrender in the sequel and just let the story flow.
This book is definitely worth the space on your Kindle as it has all the elements necessary to become a classic. Any true science fiction and fantasy fan should find time to read this book.

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