The Human Division Listen-A-Long: Episode 2: Walk the Plank by John Scalzi

25 01 2013

The Human Division Episode 2: Walk the Plank by John Scalzi

Read by William Dufris

Audible Frontiers

Length: 39 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Grade: B+

As part of The Human Division Listen-A-Long, hosted by The Audiobookaneers, I will be posting my thought on each episode on the Firday after release. If you are involved in the Listen-A-Long, or Read-A-Long, or just posting your thoughts each week, feel free to leave a link to your post in the comments and I will add it to my weekly roundup of post.

Episode 1: The B-Team
My Review
The Audiobookaneers
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com

Episode 2: Walk the Plank
Stainless Steel Droppings
Tor.com

Walk the Plank is told as a recording of an interview of an injured member of a Trading ship after it’s boarded by an unnamed enemy (Space Pirates!) and escaped to the planet surface of a Wildcat Colony. It’s a quick tale, coming in a sparse 39 minuets, and its style leaves little room for developing of characters, or any in depth world building. Yet, Scalzi does manage to do a good job in the time he has to show the tenuous nature of an unsanctioned Colony while creating distinct personalities for his characters. So many novels involving Colonization gloss over the numerous incompatibility issues that Humanity will have to deal with when attempting to settle new worlds, and how one little snafu could doom the entire project. Yet, Scalzi doesn’t take the easy road, creating a world full of hostile fauna and flora, and where one missed shipment could be the difference between success and failure. Set within the Universe Scalzi has created the idea of colonization is even more daunting due to the political instability the Colonial Defense Forces and the hostility of alien cultures. I think it was an interesting and risky move for Scalzi to make this the second episode in the series. If this was a typical novel and the readers moved right on to the next chapter, Walk the Plank serves as good background. Yet, in the episodic style of this story, having the second episode be a complete departure from the first can be a bit disconcerting. On its own, it’s a great story, and I am fascinated with how this will play into the whole of the tale, yet it felt like watching the second episode of a TV show, and none of the characters from the pilot are in it and the setting is totally changed.

I thought this story was well handled by William Dufris. This style doesn’t always play out well in audio. With the constant use of dialogue tags, like in a screenplay, it’s hard to capture the natural rhythms of the writing. Dufris handles this well, and while it felt clunky at times, it wasn’t too distracting to the overall story. Dufris talent for voices helps this along, allowing the listener to blot out the dialogue tags relying more on the narrator to delineate the characters. One thing that excites me about this project is the ability for Scalzi to blend different types of storytelling into the overall narrative and with a talented narrator like Dufris who can capture the cadence of well told story and create solid characters, it should pay off in audio as well as print.





Audiobook Review: The Chronicles of Amber Books 6-10: The Merlin Cycle by Roger Zelazny

3 12 2012

When I discovered that Audible was releasing the entire 10 book Chronicles of Amber series, I knew I would have to start hording some credits, and take advantage of a some sales in order to re-experience nearly 60 hours of one of my favorite Fantasy series in audio form. While I considered reviewing each book separately, I decided that due to the nature of this series, full of twists and cliffhangers, I had to listen to each cycle of stories together, instead of one at a time. The overall series is broken into two cycles, the first being the Corwin Cycle, which I reviewed earlier this year. The Corwin Cycle is a wonderful mind bending Fantasy experience, and I loved listening to each audiobook back to back. Yet, I was a little hesitant about the next 5 books, which follow the adventures of Merlin, Corwin’s son. When I originally read this series, I found myself a bit let down by the latter 5 books. Yet, this series of novels was narrated by Wil Wheaton, so, I decided to give it a chance.

When I first read The Merlin Cycle, I had many issues with the overall tale, yet most of it came down to one issue, I found Merlin incredibly naive. Now, in the Corwin Cycle, there is some of this naiveté, but there are reasons essential to the story that make Corwin this way. In the Merlin Cycle, I found that the naiveté was a part of his character, in general. Now that I have experienced this series again, I come away with a new perspective on Merlin that totally enhanced my impression of the series. What I believed to be naiveté in Merlin, I see was more a sense of strict focus. Merlin came at things from an entirely different perspective than his father. There are many reasons for this. The is an essential difference, with Merlin being of Amber and Chaos, but I think most of it comes from his earth bound education. Merlin, in his Earth Shadow persona, if a computer designer, and approaches things in a more analytical, yet dispassionate manner. Also, not being raised with the potential for the Throne, gave him a less paranoid nature. Understanding this allowed me to enjoy the sporty more finding a new beauty to Amber, Chaos, and the Shadow worlds through this shifted perspective.

One of my favorite aspects of the Merlin Cycle is the totally craziness of the plot.  Zelazny layers conspiracy on top of conspiracy on top of a struggle between the very nature of the universe itself. As the plot progresses from one book to the next, nothing stays static. You very worst enemy from one book becomes you greatest enemy, and visa versa. Any assumptions you may have made about the very nature of Amber, Chaos or Shadow is stripped away. In many ways the physics of the universe that Zelazny creates become even greater characters then the players on the board. It’s mind numbingly complex, yet Zelazny manages to keep it all together in a plot that works. I have always been disappointed that a third cycle was never completed. While the overall story is wrapped up well in Prince of Chaos, it leaves so much left to be explored. I know there were some shorts written by Zelazny and a prequel series written by another author, but I have been scared top give them a try. For now, I think I will stay with what I have read, occasionally letting my mind wander through shadow for what could have been.

Narration:

After experiencing Alessandro Juliani’s wonderful narration, Wil Wheaton had the much more difficult job of making Merlin’s story just as engaging. Wheaton is a skilled first person narrator, bringing humanity to the characters he portrays. When paired with the right protagonist, his readings come alive. In The Merlin Cycle Wheaton gave me a new perspective on Merlin. I think imagining Merlin more as a geekish character as opposed to his more Alpha male father really opened the story up for me. Wheaton found the right mixture of humor and angst in Merlin and actually made me like the character much more than I did when reading the print version. There is an almost old school quest style video game feel to some of the books within The Merlin Cycle, and it works to have an iconic voice leading you through it. There are some small issues with the production. One of them is the vast number of characters who appear throughout both segments of the series and the fact that many of these characters are very similar, being they are all part of the same family. Wheaton uses subtle changes in his characterizations. He doesn’t have the wide array of character voices as some narrators, and this makes some moments of dialogue a bit confusing, particularly when jumping between Merlin’s fist person inner dialogue and another character talking in the first person. There was quite a few moments where I had to figure out exactly who was saying what, and whether is was spoken or thought that I was taken out of the story for just a bit. Yet, this is more then made up for my by Wheaton’s impeccable sense of pace that gives the story a real feel, while moving it forward. While I loved The Corwin Cycle, and enjoyed Alessandro Juliani’s narration, this was expected. What surprised me was that a combination of me being a bit older and the excellent narration by Wil Wheaton made me enjoy the Merlin Cycle more that I did when originally reading them.

Trumps of Doom by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 5 Hrs 34 Min

In Trumps of Doom we meet up with Merlin, son of Corwin, living on the shadow earth, working as a Computer Engineer in California. Despite his status as a son of both Amber and Chaos, he’s living a relatively normal life, except for one thing. Every year on April 30th, someone tries to kill him. Determined to find out the mysteries behind these attacks, Merlin is lured to an ex-girlfriends house, who he finds dead at the hands of a strange creature. As he investigates this further, he discovers that people know more about him than he expected, including his real name. Betrayed, and not knowing who to trust, Merlin must head back to Amber, with his troubles following behind. Trumps of Doom starts this series off with a bang. Its sets the deck for the series introducing us to new enemies, and allies, while building on the foundation set in the Corwin books.

Grade: B+

Blood of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 6 Hrs 37 Min

While Blood of Amber suffers a bit from the problems many second books in Fantasy series seem to have, it also pushes the mythology of the series in an interesting new direction. Here Merlin is unsure of who to trust, with several key people seeming forgetting their past encounters with him. While dealing with this, Amber and Merlin get a history lesson of a near Shadow Kingdom where the past indiscretions of the Princes of Amber in the past contribute a lot to the current issues facing them today. This novel tends to be heavy on the exposition with Zelazny creating interesting ways to dump info on the readers. This causes the pace to suffer, but asks a lot of questions whose answers will be vital to the rest of the series. Despite any problems, Blood of Amber is full of stunning imagery and ends with one of the most creative cliffhangers of the series.

Grade: B

Sign of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 5 Hrs 53 Min

Signs of Chaos is the transitional novel of the series, tying up most of the human based conflicts. Amber is embroiled in a diplomatic and military conflict with one of the Shadow worlds, and Merlin must join up with past enemies to find a way out of the situation. While this is happening, Merlin finds that he may be a pawn in a battle for the balance of the universe itself. Yet, before he can deal with this, he must defeat and reveal the masked sorcerer who has been plaguing his every step. As an uneasy alliance forms, new characters reveal there nature, and old rivalries turn deadly, and Merlin finds that with each problem solved, new ones spring up in it place. The novel leads to a great confrontation, a splendid magical battle and a shocking reveal, and changes the scope of the entire series.

Grade: B

Knight of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 6 Hrs 3 MIn

Knight of Shadows is my favorite novel of the series. It has strange, steam of consciousness style that has Merlin involved against his will in a quest style mission through the essence of shadow itself. Here, the very nature of everything is challenges, with the inanimate taking on personality, forces revealing their sentience, and the images of the players of the game becoming mere tools in a battle between Order and Chaos. It is perhaps the most lyrical and darkly beautiful tale of the series, where nothing that is shown can be trusted. As Merlin is being manipulated in taking sides, with his choices having the potential to change everything, each decision he makes has epic consequences. Merlin must find a way to change the rules of the game, and take control of his fate, knowing that he will conflict with the greatest powers in the universe.

Grade: A-

Prince of Chaos by Roger Zelazny

Read by Wil Wheaton

Audible Frontiers

Length: 6 Hrs

Not only does Prince of Chaos bring together the wildly converging plot into a satisfactory ending, but it gives us the best look at the Court of Chaos. You can just tell how much fun Zelazny is having playing with the very nature of the expected physics of the world, shaking them around in the heart of Chaos. Merlin is now returned to the place of his upbringing, only to discover that the elaborate game of thrones has left him in with a possible claim to the Throne. Yet, he also discovered a conspiracy to turn him into a puppet leader. With his greatest enemies, now allies, and those he believed he could trust plotting against him, Merlin must decide whether or not he wants the offered power. While being pushed by family, friends, and perhaps even god himself, Merlin must rely on the tools he has, an artifact of power, the erratic AI he created and the few people he trusts to overcome the plot against him and keep the universe in balance. Prince of Chaos is a wonderful conclusion to this great series that ties up all the ends delivers a stunning final battle, and left me wanting more.

Grade: A-

In Conclusion:

I really enjoyed listening to this series, and was quite glad I decided to do it in two chunks. Both narrators working on this series gave excellent performances, and the productions were top notch. Fans of fantasy series who want to relive one of the classics and those who have yet to visit Amber, I totally recommend giving this a listen. It’s quite a commitment in time and credits, but it is one worth taking.





Audiobook Review: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

30 11 2012

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

Read by Ben Rameaka

Audible Frontiers

Length: 8 Hrs 27 Min

Genre: Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: The Long Tomorrow is a novel that will make you think, without ever forcing what you should think onto you. It’s an interesting blending of neo-luddite science fiction and a coming of age tale that fans of Post Apocalyptic novels should definitely have in their library. While it can be dated at times, it contains many issues that are relevant to our era, which are still being explored in modern Apocalyptic fiction.

Grade: B+

As the temperature begins to drop, and jolly fat men with bells replace Cheerleaders and Girls Scouts standing outside of retail establishments asking for your money, you know the year is coming to an end. 2012 was a great year for fans of classic post apocalyptic audiobooks. We saw the release of one of the all time classics, Stephen King’s The Stand released in its fully unabridged glory, as well as some of my all time favorites, like When Planets Collide, and MK Wren’s beautiful and heart wrenching post nuclear classic, A Gift Upon the Shore. While I was quite aware of the impending release of The Stand, many of Audible Frontier’s Post Apocalyptic novels came as a pleasant surprise to me. A few weeks ago, another surprise Post Apocalyptic favorite of mine appeared on the digital Audiobook shelves of Audible, Leigh Bracket’s The Long Tomorrow. The Long Tomorrow was first released in print in 1956, just as the Cold War, and the politics of mutually assured destruction were beginning to cement itself in our culture. I read The Long Tomorrow about 20 years ago and it was the first novel I remember that explored a post nuclear neo-luddite society. In Brackett’s vision, the cities are destroyed by Nuclear War, changing the balance of society to one favoring rural groups used to supporting themselves. Religions form, many based on Mennonite philosophies, which teach that God destroyed the cities and any attempts to revive technology was an affront to god. The government passed laws limiting technology, the size of settlements and regulating trade to prevent central hubs which eventually morph into population centers. People who embrace technology are banished or worst.  Then, Brackett places within this society, two young boys, fascinated by stories of the past, with natural curiosities that could get them killed.

Len and Esau Coulter, two young boys being raised in the New Mennonite Church, just wanted a bit of excitement. They slip away one night to see the radical preacher and his congregation, who have been known to speak in tongues and roll around on the ground. Yet, when a man is accused of being from the mysterious Barterstown, a supposed city of technology, he is stoned in front of the two boys. Rescued by a kindly trader, the boys find a small box, they believe to be the radio their grandmother had spoken of. When caught with the technology, and some hidden books, and severely beaten by their fathers, the two boys run away, in search of Barterstown and knowledge. When I first read The Long Tomorrow, I was fascinated by the world Brackett had created. The Long Tomorrow was one of the first Post Apocalyptic novels I had read, and since then, I have read hundreds more. So, I was pleased that many aspects of the novel still stood out. While definitely dated, many of the issues Brackett tackled are still relevant to today, and are still being explored in Post Apocalyptic fiction. The story itself has a very cyclical nature. The progression of Len and Essau often reflect the progression of the world they inhabit. Although they are in a search for knowledge, they are also products of their environment, with the ingrained mistrust of technology. This leads to some interesting situations as the two boys attempt to find a place within two divergent worldviews, neither of which they are comfortable with. Brackett did a wonderful job with these characters, providing an outsiders view to key moments in the world’s development. It’s definitely a coming of age tale, particularly for the main perspective character, Len. I think if The Long Tomorrow was written today, it could easily be marketed as a young adult novel. The novel itself never attempts to force feed you any sort of ideology. It handles many interesting ideas, like Xenophobia, religious intolerance, blind acceptance of the status quo, understanding your history so as not to repeat it, and nuclear paranoia, in a manner that leaves it up to the reader to figure out where their morality and ideology fits in a vast spectrum. My only real issue with the novels is it’s technology, particularly in regards to computers and processing is almost laughably dated, but for a novel written in the mid-1950’s this is no surprise. The Long Tomorrow is a novel that will make you think, without ever forcing what you should think onto you. It’s an interesting blending of neo-luddite science fiction and a coming of age tale that fans of Post Apocalyptic novels should definitely have in their library. While it can be dated at times, it contains many issues that are relevant to our era, which are still being explored in modern Apocalyptic fiction.

I really enjoyed Ben Rameaka’s reading of The Long Tomorrow. Nothing he did really blew me away, he just gave a straight forward reading, with strong characterization. He did a good job giving Len and Essau young voices, without making them sound like annoying petulant teenagers, even when they were acting like annoying petulant teenagers. Rameaka reads the story with a nice, modern tone, that smoothed over the dated feel of some of the parts of the novel. At first I struggled with some of his female characterizations, but as the novel progressed these definitely improved.  I don’t think he reading will stand out as one of the great performances of the year, but it was solid, and he did his job. The Long Tomorrow plays out nicely in audio form, and I highly recommend it to people who love classic Post Apocalyptic science fiction.

Note: This review is part of my weekly Welcome to the Apocalypse series. Click on the banner below for more posts.





Audiobook Review: Devil’s Wake by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due

11 09 2012

Devil’s Wake by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due

Read by Emily Bauer

Audible Frontiers

Length: 8 Hrs 19 Min

Genre: Zombie Apocalypse

Quick Thoughts: Devil’s Wake is a fast paced, often terrifying Zombie tale with Young Adult elements, but strong enough to keep an Adult Zombie enthusiast interested. While not a groundbreaking novel of the genre, the author’s do add some interesting twists to the end that make the series potential great. The true strength of the novel is its characters, and I look forward to seeing where they go in the future.

Grade: B

I was recently involved in a friendly debate over at Kristilyn’s Blog called Reading In Winter. Kristilyn was taken part in Zombie week, but in her feature discussed how she preferred Vampires to Zombies. Now, followers of this blog know, I am a avid supporter of Zombie fiction. This year alone I have listened to close to 30 Zombie novels. As a supporter of the undead I felt a need to come in on the side of rotting shamblers. Yet, I feel what the issue came down to was a fundamental difference in what people want from their monsters. I am an old school horror guy. I want to be scared by my monsters. Alone in the dark alley, late at night, when I encounter a monster, my impulse will to be run screaming into the night, or at least take up arms are destroy that which wants to devour me. I want no distractions. Specifically, I don’t want to pause for a moment and considerer the romantic possibilities that I might have with the monster. Kristilyn is quite right when she says that zombies are rotting, smelly, ugly creatures with decaying limbs, and that this makes them utterly undatable. Yet, for her this is a negative. For me, it’s a matter of survival. I am a typical male who is highly influenced by the attractiveness of the opposite sex. If zombies were not the putrid, disgusting bags of human waste they are, I may be momentarily distracted by their physical attributes, and end up locked in an embrace, with said zombie pulling out my entrails for a tasty hors d’oeuvre. It seems that monsters are no longer evaluated by their menace to our personal safety, but whether or not they are sexy. Vampires, werewolves, merman, and fallen angels definitely seem to achieve sexiness. Zombies, well, not so much. Yet, when the dead began to rise, with their putrid smell and decaying limbs, we may very well be happy that they have lost the sexy.

Kendra has lead a pretty sheltered life. Her parents have protected her from most of the nasty experiences in her life. Yet, when a freak interaction between the flu shot and a new weight loss gimmick leads to a devastating disease, and when those who die from that disease begin to rise up and attack the living, Kendra is no longer protected. Eventually, Kendra is on her own, until she meets up with a group of juvenile offenders who served there sentences working as camp counselors. Together they travel a nightmare journey through a changed world looking for a rumored safe haven in California. I went into my reading of Devil’s Wake pretty cold, based more on the reputation and past works of the authors then the synopsis of the story.  It really wasn’t what I expected. First off, Devil’s Wake was definitely more Young Adultish then I had expected. I don’t mean this as a criticism, just a note on the style and theme of the novel. The focus of Devil’s Wake is on the young characters, and even has a bit of that teen-angsty romance. This is something I enjoy, when done well, but some people may find this aspect frustrating. Luckily, Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due, do this pretty well. The highlight of this tale for me was the characters. The authors bring together a strong cast of diverse characters, unlike what you see on most Zombie novels. I found it refreshing to have authentic portrayals of characters of color, yet, without the authors needing to beat you over the head with it. These were simply real characters in a horrible situation. Barnes and Due’s zombie outbreak scenario was pretty boilerplate for the genre. Long time zombie apocalypse fans won’t find to much groundbreaking in this area of the book. Yet, the authors throw in some interesting twists in the evolution of the zombies that while only briefly explored in this novel, offers a lot of potential for future editions in this series. Yet, this is a series. My major criticism of the novel is that I felt no sense of closure with the plot. I expect novels in a series to have an open ended ending, but I always like some loop closed in each book. Here, the book simply ends, with not much accomplished. If this is something that frustrates you, you may consider waiting until future editions of the series are released. Luckily, the next book in the series is released early winter 2013, so no need to wait too long. Overall, Devil’s Wake is a fast paced, often terrifying Zombie tale with Young Adult elements, but strong enough to keep an Adult Zombie enthusiast interested. While not a groundbreaking novel of the genre, the author’s do add some interesting twists to the end that make the series potential great. The true strength of the novel is its characters, and I look forward to seeing where they go in the future.

If there is any narrator that frustrates me more than Emily Bauer, I’m not sure who it is. I really like Bauer’s narrations. I have experienced some excellent work by her, and find her pacing to always be spot on. It’s just, she is often miscast in novels. She has a perky, soprano voice that is quite appropriate for novels from a younger teenage POV. In Devil’s Wake, I thought her voice was simply OK for Kendra. Kendra is described as "Disney Channel Black" and Bauer’s voice was fitting, but I thought there could have been better choices. I would have loved a narrator with a little more grit in their voice. While Bauer was OK for Kendra, the other characters just weren’t as effective. I felt the older characters, especially Kendra’s grandfather came off too plain. The teenage boys had a bland quality as well, not as jarring as the adults, but I would have loved more edge to their voices as well. For the average audiobook fan, I think Bauer’s precise pacing and listenability will work well. Yet, for those of us looking for more that just a pleasant voice, but for authentic characters and tones that match the tale, Bauer’s performance won’t be quite as appreciated. 





Audiobook Review: Monster Hunter Vendetta by Larry Correia

14 04 2011

Monster Hunter Vendetta by Larry Correia (MHI, Book 2)

Read by Oliver Wyman

Audible Frontiers

Genre: Horror Fantasy

Quick Thoughts: A smoother, faster Monster Hunter book, with tons of action and another great performance by the narrator.

Grade: A-

Monster Hunter Vendetta is the sequel to Monster Hunter International, an audiobook I reviewed back in March. If you check out that review, you will learn that I pretty much dug that audiobook. As I said before, one of the great things about this series is that there is no deceptive labeling. The title isn’t some fancy quote from a Rudyard Kipling poem or some German Opera. The Monster Hunter series is about Monster Hunters. From werewolves to vampires to trolls to Lovecraftian Squid Monsters, if they are causing problems, the Monster Hunters will kill them. So, if you are looking for a poignant tale of a young boy growing up in the south during the civil rights movement, or a look at the generations of an immigrant family as they deal with life in America, maybe you’re looking at the wrong section. In this one instance, you can definitely judge a book by its cover. If you’re looking for a book about Monster Killers, with a bad ass, but often out of his depths, hero who likes to shout things like, “I totally murdered his ass” well, I highly recommend Monster Hunter Vendetta, and its prequel.

If I could make any complaint about the first novel, it would be that, at times, it got a little clunky. This often happens with first novels, as the author tries to build the world, and introduces us to the characters. There is such a huge cast of characters here that a little chunkiness is understood. Monster Hunter Vendetta doesn’t have this issue. In Vendetta, the plot flows smoothly, although at lightning speed pace. In the first novel, where there were breaks from action for such things as training and more intense character development, in Vendetta, it’s practically action from page one. In fact, in the first hour of the novel, Pitt has to deal with chupacabras, zombies, a necromancer, and corrupt Mexican officials. Vendetta also has one of the most entertaining, thrilling action series taking place at a Death Metal concert. One of the things I really do like about the series is that the hero isn’t the good looking, suave, perfect sort. In fact, ugly “chunky” guys, hippyish nerds, and fantasy geeks are just as much heroes here as bad ass military types. Yet, don’t worry guys, the chicks are hot, and oh, so hardcore. In Monster Hunter Vendetta, Correia outdoes himself, adding more action, unlocking more mysteries, and building more into the mythology of Pitt, and the Monster Hunter International team.

What can I say about Oliver Wyman’s narration that I haven’t already said? If you have a novel with a wide range of characters and creatures Wyman’s your man. I first noticed Wyman’s skills reading Tim Dorsey’s Serge novels, and, in my opinion, he is one of the few narrators that enhances the story through his performance. With the vast number of characters in this type of novel, you would think the narrator would run out of options when voicing characters. Yet, he finds a way to make each character, male, female or other, unique. I truly hope that Audible continues to produce Correia’s work, with Oliver Wyman bringing them to life.