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Book Probe: Talon, Sexbot, English Ghost Story
Reviewed by Joe Crowe, @revolutionsf, © 2014

Format: Book
By:   Various artists
Review Date:   October 30, 2014

Book Probe finds books that have dragons, ghosts, robots and more excellent things. Links are in the title. If you don't buy them, someone else will.

Sexbot by Patrick Quinlan

I wasn't sure what this was. With a title such as "Sexbot," readers will come in with a certain expectation. When you name something provocatively, you have to show the, pardon my French, money shot quickly. This is not futuristic porn (not that there's anything wrong with that). It's an action flick in book form, set in a gritty near-future in which the book's hero avoids bad guys by uploading herself into a sexbot. Naturally, hijinks ensue.

The quick read contains betrayals, conspiracies, narrow escapes and tense action. There's some sex. But there isn't nearly as much as you might imagine if someone were to tell you the hero is a robot built for sex. The story reminds me more of Robocop. That's one of the highest compliments I can give.

Steampunk City by Manuel Sumberac & Benjamin Mott

This is an art book for the little ones of all ages. It features the alphabet in steampunk form, with cute images for every letter, full of gears and brass. The images are intricate and will spark the brainwaves of anybody who gives it a look.

If youíre looking for steampunk-related words to fill up an alphabet, already you know, going in, that you have S and Z, steam and zeppelin, taken care of. But the other 24 must have given the writer fits. Much respect to Benjamin Mott for Metrocore and Questorium. But most of all, for the amazing word Xebec. Google it. Itís a Mediterranean sailing ship. He could have gone for ďX-tra gogglesĒ and called it a night. But instead: Xebec. Thatís a sure sign of top-drawer steampunksmanship.

Stories of the Raksura by Martha Wells

A collection of short stories about life amid a non-human race is a hard sell, but Martha Wells makes it worthwhile. The writer puts forth a challenge: These people are not human or on Earth, and they donít encounter any human-type for us, the readers, to view them through. Itís all on us.

And it works. The stories run the gauntlet from love to war. At times they remind me of Elfquest, other times Bone. Only one thing pulled me out of the story: Constantly, sometimes more than once per page, a characterís reaction is described as ďtheir feathers glistened.Ē

I get it. Theyíre not humans and we need to be reminded. But to them, this is a normal reaction. Books with humans donít mention every eye-blink and twitch. Well, most of them donít, he said, as the coverings over his eyes quickly closed, then opened again.

Stories of the Raksura has moments of fascinating looks at an alien race, without delving into the hard sci-fi of it all. And it has no time for annoying humans. Honestly, Iíve had about enough of them. Every book needs bird people.

Cypulchre by Joseph Mackinnon

Beside the bone saw, the orangutan breathes shallowly.

A bone saw and an orangutan in the first sentence of a book? The writer sets a really high bar for himself, right there.

This one is clinical and cynical. Itís what would happen The Matrix was written by a brain surgeon.

The aftermath of the creation of the Matrix (ish) thing drives the story. Then the sci-fi terms and concepts really kick in, and itís Cyberpunk all over again. This is a compliment.

The story deals with the issues of having mind-filking tech available to the public. Itís social media times 1,000 and the story delves deep into that topic. But then the discussion stops and itís a good guy and a bad guy fighting as avatars in cyberspace. As I read, I expected a more cerebral ending, I guess. I was pleasantly surprised to see a big olí fight. Cypulchre teaches us to live our virtual lives in moderation, and to settle our grudges with old-fashioned, good-time violence.

The Tree of Water by Elizabeth Hayden

ďThrum is the special vibration that comes from each creature, each thing on earth. Land- livers donít know about thrum.Ē

The Tree of Water starts out with a map of a fantasy world, which always earns huge points with me, because it shows the writer did more than just bang out a lot of words on paper. The writer thought about the depth of what of the world she was writing in.

She is mentioned in the preface as ďattending a yak-milking seminar in the high peaks of Katmandont.Ē Thatís silly. I dig it.

Itís a fantasy-world quest, words that go great together. Itís also the latest chapter in a series, which I did not know until I was about five chapters in. So itís OK if you havenít read the others yet.

The fantasy world in question is underwater, and Haydon takes advantage of all the fertile territory down there that looks alien and weird. There is so much raw material; Haydon makes customs, cultures and societies out of most of it.

She didnít have to make up much. There really are clownfish. Haydon says in the story they are not technically as scary as land clowns.

Fun. Thatís what this is.

A Thousand Pieces of You

I love parallel universes, and I also love love. I donít know which I love more. A Thousand Pieces of You gives me both.

The hero is a daughter of two scientists who invent a gadget that can travel between dimensions. After a murder, she pursues the main suspect across alternate Earths by leaping into the different versions of herself.

I am totally impressed by the first chapter. In one chapter of internal monologue, the plot launches and the characters are introduced. Itís barely five large-spaced pages. Itís a thing of beauty.

Itís an easy book to jump into. The learning curve in time travel stories is sometimes steep, but the Quantum Leap traveling style helps. Donít be afraid!

Using alternate-Earth versions of the same character adds extra spark to relationships. The reader becomes accustomed to characters acting one way, and then they jump to a parallel Earth and everything changes. Because of the story, not lazy writing.

Itís a murder mystery and a search for a maguffin, all interwoven with emotional family stuff. The jumping from alternate Earth to alternate Earth is just a bonus that Iím pretty sure writer Claudia Gray put in just for me.

Chimera Brigade

"There are quite a few here who donít fear bullets.Ē

This is one of the best superhero stories I have read in ages. All-Star Squadron, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the role-playing game Godlike are some of my favorite things, and this reminds me of all those.

It was first published in France in 2009 and 2010. Now Titan Comics is releasing an English translation. Just like All-Star Squadron, the story puts fantastical storylines in the middle of actual World War II history. Just like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it teams up pop-culture characters from that era. Like Godlike, itís a new history of World War II with super-people in it.

Some characters are clear references to well-known heroes. Others may be references to French characters that I donít know or just brand-new. But that question is moot, because one of them is a tiger-man.

Super-people have taken over Europeís capital cities to keep them safe from bad guys, and naturally, things arenít going well and the Nazis are coming. I canít wait to read more.

Talon by Julie Kagawa

Dragons are cool. This is a fact. Talon does a different thing with dragons and theyíre still cool. The story is about dragons in the modern day as they shapeshift into humans and blend in, so they can escape from dragon slayers. The story divides in half and shows point-of-view of both the dragons and the dragon slayers.

Writer Julie Kagawa describes herself as a gamer, and that inspiration is obvious in the intricate details, just like Dungeons and Dragons dragons.

Kagawa makes dragons into unlikable heels as the authority figures who force the teens into toeing the line. Theyíre just like standard-issue authoritarian bad guys, but more threatening because they breathe fire.

Talon contains inventive action with a smidgen of teen melodrama. Come to the book for that, but stay because dragons.

Talon introduces a carefully constructed backstory and setting, then has fun taking it apart. Teen angst is here in heavy portions. The hero is a girl dragon in human form, and she gets herself plenty of angst. So be ready for that. Itís easy to digest, though, because the book spends more time discussing dragon society and how tough it is to be a young dragon in todayís world. These are important issues.

It Waits Below by Eric Red

The winner for best title goes It Waits Below, which tells you everything you need to know and offers a clear warning. Itís waiting below. So donít go below. Naturally, like in every good or bad horror flick, everybody then proceeds to go below.

The story is undersea treasure hunters who really use the term ďDSVĒ to describe their deep-sea vehicle, which made me go ďWheeee!Ē in a 90s TV flashback. The crew is indeed on a sea quest. Sadly, there are no talking dolphins.

It has some dull moments when it spends too much time with humans, but thatís true about every book with a monster in it.

This is a horror flick in book form. Itís rated R like any self-respecting horror flick, complete with naughty words and a gratuitous sex scene, plopped in out of nowhere, um, so to speak.

The incredible cover art looks like an old VHS tape box cover, and that complements the tone of the book precisely.

Yesterday's Hero by Jonathan Wood

I laughed so hard at a line in this book. Iím not telling you what it is, because you need to buy this thing, but my goodness. Most of the time comedy in books makes me say ďHmm,Ē or ďUgh,Ē or at best, ďThatís funny.Ē But this time, I laughed aloud in public. I liked the book up to that point, but that sent it out of the park.

Yesterdayís Hero is about secret agents who fight bad guys. Standard stuff. But then, the first-person narration turns the whole thing from standard sci-fi action into sarcastic documentation of the heroís experience during the events.

The bad guys are Russian cyborg wizards. The hero encounters a zombie T-rex. Thatís just the first chapter.

Then he asks himself, ďWhat would Kurt Russell do?Ē, and now I want everyone to read it. Itís just goofy fun.

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

ĒXhea watched the City man make his awkward way through the market, dragging a ghost behind him.Ē

If I said this book starts the ďTowers Trilogy,Ē it would be the height of cheesiness to tell you to get in on the ground floor.

So get in on the ground floor, because this series is the start of something neat.

The setting is a place where everyone can use magic, except the hero of the story. But she can see ghosts, so thatís something. And the ghost is powerful herself. Sheís being used as a battery. Thatís no fun.

This story is equal parts high adventure and coming-of-age story. Magic is an integral part. You couldnít tell this story without the fantastical elements of it. I feel like the writer is just scratching her own surface. Um, so to speak.

An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman

I wonder what this book is about.

Spoiler! Itís an English ghost story.

I have to say, putting the truth right there in the book title is a risky proposition. Some people may be scared away by an English ghost story if they know what it is from the outset. I would rather pick up a book, get into chapter 3 and go ďG-g-g-ghosts!Ē then make a writer-sized hole in the wall as I run away.

A familyís adventures in a new house is the framework, and itís broken up by note-perfect new stories in the style of old-timey ghost stories. One of the titles is ďWeezie and the Gloomy Ghost.Ē

This book is heartwarming. Itís a moving, pleasant story of a family that struggles to survive, and itís not cloying or ironic. I hope that doesnít scare anyone away.

Northern Star: Civil War by Mike Gullickson

Explosions! Fighting! Cyborgs! These three things are what you get in Northern Star: Civil War, and thatís plenty.

Future soldiers are turned into fighting cyborgs, and their humanity is put at risk. The weapons and armor and battles are super-cool and the sci-fi cyborg setting and descriptions are good reading.

But as fun as that is, when the fighting stops, the drama is absolutely gut-twisting.

Family tragedy for the storyís characters gets in the way of the coolness of the cyborgs and the fighting and the explosions. When the fighting starts, itís blessed relief. Some books offer fun catharsis from your real worries. This book offers a fun catharsis from itself.

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