Series Review: The Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson

14 04 2014

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading

Macmillan Audio

Length: 45 Hrs 37 Min

Genre: Fantasy

Grade: A+

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading

Macmillan Audio

Length: 48 Hrs 15 Min

Genre: Fantasy

Grade: A+

Big sweeping epic fantasies and I don’t always mesh well together for many reasons. First, magic tends to annoy me. I think it can be all kinds of cool when some crazy old sorcerer unleashed hellfire and damnation down upon the wicked, but when every problem is solved by a twinkle of the nose or some demon released from the nether regions, and magic becomes more important than characters, I lose interest. And while I love characters, after the 300th one appears in their cardboard cutter glory, and they are all named, Taragon, Sharagon, Sh’othan, Larry of the Sharaghon Forrest, Troctadon, Bill, Z’Atmothathalogabn, and… I WANT THEM ALL TO DIE. Also elves. OK, in the right context, elves can be sort of fun, but when they show up in their Tolkenesque glory in the first five friggin’ minutes of a book, I tend to want to scream GO BACK TO MIDDLE EARTH YOU POINTY EAR BASTARD! Maybe I’m speciest, I just don’t trust them. Yet, when I do fall for an Epic Fantasy, I fall hard. I fall like a YA protagonist after just meeting her first Vampire. I lie awake wondering if the book will call me the next day. I wonder if I read the book too much it will think I’m creepy, but still go back to it over and over again. I have spent months, reading and rereading Fantasy series. I have spent hours refreshing author’s websites when they are supposed to announce when the next book is coming out. This is why I am often hesitant to jump into a big fantasy novel. It becomes either my bane or my existence. Luckily, this is why god created other awesome people to motivate you into important life decisions like dedicating 100 hours of your life to listening to the AWESOMEST SERIES EVER. So, yeah, thanks. You know who you are.

So, what is The Stormlight Archives series by Brandon Sanderson about. Well, I’m not going to even try. If I could do justice to a summary that would truly give you an idea of the nature of this book, I would be a much better writer than I am and probably should concentrating on trying to fuck with people’s brains they way Sanderson did with mine. I think often, especially with hard core readers, there is a sense when reading where you think… “You know what… I could do this.” With Sanderson my reaction was “How in god’s name did some human being imagine this with his brain thing than manage to transport it from the twisted regions of his mind to words on a page. WHAT FOUL MAGIC IS THIS?” Truly, Sanderson has created a world that is truly breathtaking. From the otherworldly creatures that react to the emotions of the people, to a shattered land serving as the field for a massive battle. It’s full of dark beauty, fascinating magic, deep secrets and something tickling along the edges of the narrative letting you know there is even more than you can possibly imagine. Yet, the true beauty of this novel is the characters. Sanderson tells the traditional fantasy origin story in an entirely unique way. He creates a character, strips them down to their core, then builds them back up piece by piece. Along the way, they become real to you. Not just some powerful mage, or savvy political leader, but a real broken person, with flaws who manages to pull you entirely into their world. Sanderson surrounds his key players with an assorted menagerie of colorful characters, allowing you to see the growth of his protagonists through how they affect those around them. Bridge 4, a collection of slaves forced to carry bridges in suicidal battle runs, is one of the most wonderful group of characters I have read in a while. Their transformation from beaten down slaves, to an effective unit is so brilliant, it makes you almost want to to start running these death marches yourself.

Then there is the action. Holy shit, the action. There were moments where I just had to stop where I was and absorb some scene of pure baddassery. I became so mesmerized, I ignored those around me for the much more interesting people performing crazy ass action in my brain hole. I’m lucky I was never in the middle of traffic when these scenes came, because it’s hard to finish listening to a book after a F150 runs you down. The Stormlight Archives is the rare fantasy novel that is about war, but never glorifies it. Sanderson allows us to accompany his characters into the battles, giving as an intimate look at chaos, letting us see the full horrors of these event. Yet, there is some level of hope at play within the context of the team, and the players assembled. These are characters that make each other better, that build each other up, become a true family of choice, setting the basis to allow the events to build. The individual fight scenes rivaled the visual splendor and choreography of the best superhero films. These fights go beyond the “so and so punched so and so in the face” battles, but took place in multiple dimensions that break the laws of physics, yet never become muddled or obfuscated. Sanderson creates a vivid conflict in your head, and leaves you breathless as you follow each movement, each action and each new mind bending discovery.

Another fascinating element that Sanderson sneaks into the plot is the self defeating nature of isms. His society is built on highly structured class-ism based on the arbitrary physical attribute of eye color. The division between the Noble Bright Eye class, and the peasant dark eyes, creates levels of conflict that plays out in multiple ways throughout the tale. Sanderson shows how such and arbitrary class structure creates self defeating scenarios and ingrained suspicions among people who are essentially good and should be allies. It adds a level to the tale, that while on surface seems almost cliché, yet Sanderson subverts the clique effectively making it unique in his hands. Also, I found the division of labor between the sexes to be quite interesting. Men have deemed reading, writing and scholarly pursuits to be feminine qualities, when they focus on the more physical. So, while women are viewed as subservient, they control the knowledge, and well, we know what that means.

This is my problem with reviewing something like the Stormlight Archive. I just want to scream, AWESOME! READ THIS NOW. There is so much here that I simply loved about this book, that I can’t even scratch the surface. I want to yell “Dalinar is such a badass” and you just understand what I mean. Or, THANK GOD SHE ASKED HIM ABOUT POOP and you just shake your head knowingly. Because, there is so much here. So many aspects that I want to frantically point out to you like a frat boy looking at Christmas lights while tripping on LSD. And what’s the hardest thing to reconcile, is I may never have read it. So, if you even think you might possible like Epic Fantasy, read this.

If you can listen to two people read a book for almost 100 hours and not once want to stab yourself in the ear with a rusty fork, then those narrators are doing something right. At no point did either Micheal Kramer or Kate Reading make me want to stab myself in the ear with a rusty fork, in fact, their reading made me want to protect myself from any sort of rusty fork in the ear related injury. These two talented narrators brought this story alive in a brilliantly vivid way. I love how you could hear the character development in their voices, with Shallan going from a seemingly flighty naïve girlchild, to, perhaps, the pivotal character of Words of Radiance and Kalidan developing from a man with nothing to live for to a leader of men. Kramer does a wonderful job guiding us through this brokenness and rehabilitation of Kalidan as well as showing us the turmoil of Dalinar’s struggles with his own sanity. Plus, his Bridge 4 character never failed to put a smile on my face. One thing I especially liked about Kramer is he gives his characters a wide range of exotic sounding accents, without falling back onto the annoying Elizabethan feel that many people seemed to think fantasy novels require. One of the problems you face with two different narrators is the dissonance of shared characters. This isn’t too much of an issue here. Sure, Kramer’s Shallan sounds a bit more imperious than Readings, and Reading’s Kalidan a bit younger than Kramer’s, the two POV’s don’t really come together to late in the series and by that time the narrators have had such a strong grasp on the material, you are fully engaged in the story. So, yes, The Stormlight Archive is now my newest Fantasy obsession, so please forgive my creepy book stalking during the wait for the next book in the series.

Audiobook Review: Fever by Wayne Simmons

23 10 2012

Fever by Wayne Simmons (Flu Series, Bk. 2)

Read by Michael Kramer

Tantor Audio

Length: 8 Hrs 51 Min

Genre: Zombie Apocalypse/Pandemic

Quick Thoughts: Fever is a brutal, frightening, kinetically paced apocalyptic thriller that takes it cues from some of the greatest works of the genre, yet Simmons keeps it feeling fresh and new. Combined with Flu, Fever is one of the notable entries of Zombie literature of 2012, and very well may find itself achieving classic status among fans of the genre. If Flu left you unsure of Simmon’s world, Fever will eradicate any doubts.

Grade: A-

I have to admit, I was a little unsure about Fever by Wayne Simmons. I enjoyed Flu, the first book of the series but I also said that my overall impression and its place in the pantheon of great zombie literature was highly dependent on where Simmons moves the series. Then, of course, I made the rookie mistake of browsing some reviews and summaries of the book before listening. Nothing specific in the critical analysis of the novels had me worried, in fact most were positive. What concerned me was that people were calling Fever a prequel to Flu. Now, I have nothing against prequels, but my concern was that I was interested in seeing where Simmons was taking the tale, and not how it began. Sure, I love a good zombie outbreak and pandemic novel, but Simmons already had me pretty well sold on the characters and left us with a significant cliffhanger. I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Second novels in series are already problematic to begin with. Typically, it involves the expansion of the world, and is often a bridge novel to further entries in the series or setting up a conclusion. It is rare for a second novel to be better than the first. It has a role to play, but either some of the shine is stripped from the original, or it is so preoccupied with its role that it neglects any sort of congruent story telling. Yet, when people were calling Fever a prequel, it really did have me concerned. Luckily, I discovered that Fever isn’t a prequel novel, in the strictest sense, but an all encompassing tale that bookends the occurrences of Flu, giving us more back story on the world, introducing us to new characters all while picking up the ends of Flu tying all the pieces together seamlessly.

Fever is a novel told in three main parts. The first story gives us a glimpse at the original outbreak within a shadowy government lab in Ireland. This part is a claustrophobic, yet moody psychological zombie thriller full of danger and betrayal. On its own devices, the opening works as a short story, while creating more depth to the world Simmons is building. Then Simmons moves is into a pandemic tale reminiscent of the opening sequences of Stephen King’s The Stand. Here Simmons introduces us to a bunch of new players, struggling in a world or paranoia and obligation. The strength of this part of the story is the relationships between the characters. Simmons relationships are always complicated, creating tension that only explodes within the high stress environment of an apocalyptic event. While many of these relationships are untraditional, like a deaf man dealing with his unfaithful wife and her overbearing father, and a homosexual man trying to find safety for himself and his ex-wife who still feels betrayed by his coming out, there is at essence a recognizable humanity to all these characters that isn’t always easy to watch. As we move into the thirds part of the novel, where Simmons begins to blend the new characters in with the retuning players from Flu, we are thrust into a violent zombie apocalypse that bears a likeness to Brian Keene’s The Rising, one of the classics of the genre. It’s fast and furious, and no characters is safe as the one group tries to keep themselves safe from zombies and a corrupt government agency, all while trying to untangle the secrets to the outbreak. Simmons offers a lot of game changing revelations in this part, yet never allows the pace to slow in order for you to contemplate the implications until the novel comes to its brutal conclusion. What Simmons does is highly impressive. He not only expands his world, but takes the potential of Flu and increases it exponentially. Fever is a brutal, frightening, kinetically paced apocalyptic thriller that takes it cues from some of the greatest works of the genre, yet Simmons keeps it feeling fresh and new. Combined with Flu, Fever is one of the notable entries of Zombie literature of 2012, and very well may find itself achieving classic status among fans of the genre. If Flu left you unsure of Simmon’s world, Fever will eradicate any doubts.

Like Flu, I am still not 100% sold on Michael Kramer’s narration, but it is professional, well paced reading and his signature voice adds a tone of creepiness to the overall tale. While Kramer doesn’t really enhance the experience of the novel, neither does he distract, which is saying a lot because Fever definitely has its challenges for a narrator. One of the biggest challenges is bringing Shaun’s voice to life. Shaun is a deaf Irish man whose voice often was something others either ridiculed or used as an excuse to diminish or simply dismiss the character. At first, I found Kramer’s interpretation a bit robotic. While I struggled with the chosen voice for Shaun early, I thing as the character began to crack under the pressure, Kramer did a great job presenting the emotional turmoil of the character while staying true to his chosen voice. While I still feel I would have liked an Irish narrator, or at least one who could give the prose an Irish lilt, Kramer did a good job with the challenges presented.

Note: Thanks to Tantor Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for Review.

Audiobook Review: Flu by Wayne Simmons

28 09 2012

Flu by Wayne Simmons

Read by Michael Kramer

Tantor Audio

Length: 7 Hrs 52 Min

Genre: Zombie Apocalypse

Quick Thoughts: Flu is a strong opening move, yet serves more as a set up to Simmons world, then a complete tale. The true place of Flu within the genre depends highly on how Simmons follows this up. He has placed many pieces in the right positions, now he just needs to execute. Fans of darker moodier Zombie tales who prefer detailed character psychology over lavish zombie mayhem will definitely want to give Flu a shot.

Grade: B

I have considered many things when contemplating the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse. There are so many factors one needs to consider including location, provisions, routes of escape, climate, weapons, personal tastiness, protective gears, and presidential nominees. All these factors can contribute to your zombie survival game plan. Yet one thing I have never considered was history.  As Americans, we have a much shorter span of history to consider. There are conflicts in America, often down racial, sexual or class lines, but it pales in comparison to the multigenerational century spanning historic conflicts that exist in other countries. How one would go about surviving the Apocalypse in Serbia, where religious and ethnic conflicts spanning centuries are quite different than an American like me whose biggest conflict is with the neighbor who never cleans up his dog crap. While I may not go out of my way to protect this neighbor due to his lack of neighborly consideration, our families have not been warring with each other for longer than my known relatives have been alive. Flu by Wayne Simmons is set in Ireland. History is a big deal in Ireland. Sometimes I think American forget how much strife exist in that one small country. There is a history of mistrust, abuse and violent action that many American’s forget about. So, how would an ex-member of the IRA respond to the governmental attempts to isolate and contain a zombie outbreak? How would a soldier who worked at suppressing the IRA respond during an Apocalyptic scenario to a former IRA member he encounters? Its questions and scenarios like this that adds levels to Wayne Simmons Zombie audiobook.

As someone who consumes a lot of Zombie fiction, it’s really hard to find a totally unique zombie outbreak scenario. Flu starts off with a lot of traditional zombie outbreak scenes. A devastating, completely lethal Flu is spreading across Ireland. The Government responds through quarantine, and creating camps to isolate the uninfected. Yet, when the infected dead begin to rise, seeking human flesh to consume, the country is thrown into inescapable chaos. While a group attempts to survive among the chaos, a shadowy military installation is observing the ruins of their country, searching for a solution, no matter what the cost. It’s all pretty standard boilerplate zombie apocalypse. Simmons throws in a few interesting twists. The Flu itself is more of an ever present threat than we see in many zombie novels. Just because someone has survived to this point, doesn’t mean they won’t come down with it. This element adds a bit of paranoid suspense to the overall mood of the novel. There isn’t just the fear of the undead, or the potential to be infected by direct contact. The Flu could actually be airborne, meaning anyone can catch it without even being bit by a zombie. This piles on the psychological distress of the novel, creating a mood that is more psychological thriller than straight horror. Simmons fills the characters with natural distrust, often pitting unlikely pairs together, like older brutish men with younger women, cops with criminals, then throwing in the historic mistrust of authority of the Irish. With these elements, Flu becomes a broody, moody character study, a dark path through humanities inner most prejudices, complicated by the extreme apocalyptic scenario. The Zombie action itself comes in smaller doses, but well conceived and executed. Simmon’s zombies so far are pretty traditional. There are hints of evolution and some interesting spins, like an obsession with fire, yet for the most part they are the shambling Romero style zombies that I find especially scary. Simmons also has some moments of horrific gore, yet it’s not gore for gore sake, but truly serves a purpose. Each scene is displayed to show the psychological affect on the survivors. One interesting theme Simmons uses with his characters is how a horrific event like this can make a good man do horrible things, plus provide redemption to the corrupt. Overall, Flu is a strong opening move, yet serves more as a set up to Simmons world, then a complete tale. The true place of Flu within the genre depends highly on how Simmons follows this up. He has placed many pieces in the right positions, now he just needs to execute.

Michael Kramer narrates Flu, and initially I had mix feelings about this. Kramer has always been a hit or miss type narrator for me. He’s a professional who has a great sense of story, and has a strong, deep voice. Yet, that deep voice limits him in many ways, particular in characterizations. Being set in Ireland, I would have loved to seen an Irish narrator like Gerard Doyle take on this project. Kramer does a pretty authentic sounding Irish accent, but uses it strictly for his characters. The narrative prose is read all in his default, accent neutral voice. Despite this, I though that Kramer’s voice was a decent fit for the mood of the tale. While I would have preferred an Irish narrator, Kramer gave the story a decidedly creepy feel. He reads Flu with a deliberate style that allows the listener to follow the story. His characters were decent. The delineation between characters wasn’t that great. He basically had a pretty standard Irish accent, and softened it, or hardened it, changing cadence and rhythms to delineate the characters, and it worked pretty well. His male characters were definitely better than his female characters, which is expected with a narrator with such a deep voice. While it may not have been the ideal match, Kramer makes it work. Fans of darker moodier Zombie tales who prefer detailed character psychology over lavish zombie mayhem will definitely want to give Flu a shot.

Note: Thanks to Tantor Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

This Review is part of my weekly “Welcome to the Apocalypse” series.

Audiobook Review: Dead City by Joe McKinney

18 06 2011

Dead City by Joe McKinney

Read by Michael Kramer

Tantor Audio

Genre: Zombie Horror

Quick Thoughts: McKinney’s Dead City is a fast paced, real time first person look at a Zombie Uprising, with a realistic and likeable main character.

Grade: B

One of the best things about zombie novels is the vicarious living effect, what would you do if you were in that situation? There have always been a lot of discussions on this topic among zombie fans. The movie Zombieland even presents a list of rules for surviving the Zombie Apocalypse. Yet conversely, it’s also a quite frustrating part of zombie fiction. You know that anytime someone writes a zombie novel, there are going to be tons of reviews and posts by internet know-it-alls about why the main characters were stupid or unrealistic in their actions while attempting to keep from being eaten. Now for me, I know exactly what I would do, I would legally change my name to dinner. You see, us 30 something guys living in a major metropolitan area with a bum knee who neither own nor have ever fired a firearm, well, our best option is to have a variety of dipping sauces available when the zombies come. Personally, I think the internet trolls would find plenty to complain about with that strategy as well.

One of the things I loved about Dead City, the first of Joe McKinney’s Dead World novels, is that the hero, Eddie Hudson, is quite fallible. He makes mistakes, some of them quite stupid. He spends much of the story in a state of shocked disbelief. In the beginning it was quite frustrating, this cop running around in the midst of a zombie uprising, trying to save his family, yet he seems to take unnecessary road trips into danger. Yes, this isn’t the smartest thing to do, but who in their right mind would have their brain firing on all cylinders when seemingly dead people are walking around trying to eat you. Dead City moves in real time, following Hudson as he moves through the city of San Antonio, from one zombie encounter to another. Hudson meets an assortment of characters, some interesting, and some annoying as he searches for his family.  Dead City offers us a perspective that far too few Zombie novels give us. Dead City takes place at the height of the zombie uprising, before the survivors have had a chance to wrap their brains around the situation. It’s this initial terror that is fascinating and McKinney does an excellent job capturing it. This isn’t a novel about seasoned zombie hunters who have it all figured out. So, sure the trolls will probably find problems with Hudson’s decisions, but then again, I’ve heard that Zombies particularly like the flavor of troll meat.

I have to admit, I am not a huge Michael Kramer fan. I often find his narration on the dry side, with his deep tone bordering on monotonous. Here, he does a solid job handling the first person narrative of Eddie Hudson. It wasn’t perfect, I would have loved for him to add more of a southern twang to the character. Some times you can hear a bit of the Texan in Kramer’s Eddie Hudson, yet is comes and goes, but, not really to the point of distraction. Kramer does a good job with the peripheral characters, especially Hudson’s former partner Marcus, who he infuses with an appropriate childlike southern charm. Kramer slow reading works well with the fast paced nature of the book allowing the listener to follow the often chaotic action. What I am truly looking forward to is the next two books in the series which are narrated by one of my favorite narrators, Todd McLaren. Despite some minor issues with the text and narration, Dead City is definitely full of great zombie action and a well realized main character.


Note: A Special thanks to the wonderful people from Tantor Audio for providing me with a copy of this audiobook. You can purchase this title directly from their website