The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 7: Michael Stackpole

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Looks like he’s going to a convention. Which he probably is.

I have a thing for licensed fiction. There’s something about crafting a well-written story within an already defined and structured universe that makes it seem like more than half of your work is done for you, its true. And yes, the fan-boy rocks do occasionally fly. But I imagine contributing a piece to a much larger canon still feels worthwhile, and may even be more satisfying if its a license you love.

Michael Stackpole has made a career out of this. And a very lucrative career at that.

A life-long RPG nerd, my first contact with Mr. Stackpole came in the form of the beloved Rogue Squadron series, a set of four incredibly fun novels featuring Wedge Antilles (Please remember him from the first movies. If you don’t I’ll feel old) and the elite pilot team interspersed through out the trilogy, the literary canon, and several memorable video game titles. At the time of their release (mid-late 1990’s) Star Wars was hitting a bit of a renaissance with the much-anticipated release of volumes 1-3. We all know how that went. No need to walk across that particular bed of shattered dreams here.

We’re on the cusp of yet another Star Wars theatrical renaissance here in 2015, and it looks like the results might be a bit better this time around. My only hope (rimshot) is some of the top-notch Star Wars books may get an injection of interest, and Stackpole’s name should be at the top of the list. Hence, this recommendation. He’s also written books in Battletech, World of Warcraft and Shadowrun settings as well, all very fantastic and good reads.

He’s not just a nerd putting words on paper, however. Stackpole has a talent for developing interesting and in-depth characters, or in many cases accurately expanding upon characters you already know. Three main reasons you should check out both Stackpole’s licensed work and his original inventions, both graphic and prose:51gl85BSDeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_513176

  1. Characters – Hands down he creates or expands on some of the best protagonists and antagonists in science fiction history. Even fan favorites liked Wedge Antilles take on a life of their own in Stackpole’s narrative. They feel real, flawed, and interesting without sacrificing any of the cool we love so dearly.
  2. Fantastic Detail – This guy can paint a picture with his words. A key asset for any science fiction writer, he manages to create and describe unique settings and established ones with equal precision. The galaxy far, far away in Rogue Squadron  and the fantastic pseudo-America from Crown Colonies both feel equally real and tangible
  3. Fun – The plots aren’t overly complicated, the twists and turns aren’t exactly hidden or unexpected. He lets the characters come to the forefront and drive the story, and takes the reader along with them. Sometimes, that simple, straightforward text is just what we need for a 350-page vacation from the real world.

I like Stackpole a lot. Between Rogue Squadron and Battletech he wrote some of the coolest stories I read as a burgeoning sci-fi nerd. I’m a bit older now and realize his books don’t exactly stack up to Gatsby or War & Peace, but that’s ok. He’s an enjoyable read when you want to spend some time away from reality.

Signing Off.

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The Mongoliad Book One: A Review

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As you can see from the picture here, this book was written by lots of people. The only one of the six I’d ever heard of before picking The Mongoliad up was Greg Bear, a fairly strong Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer (with an awesome name) with about 30 books published. No Asimov, but a good solid read all around. What originally made me want to pick this up (Grabbed it at a library book sale for $1.50) is the collaborative nature of the book. I know for my own writing, having one other person contributing opinions can be a bit of a challenge, much less five. The narrative follows 2 (and sometimes 3) separate groups, one in Karakorum (The Mongols HQ), and one group of knights based in a Monastery that splits a few times to explore the Steppes, Kiev, or fight in a gladiatorial-type circus. Oh yes, a lot happens, and it happens quickly. I’ll summarize the plot colloquially:

Within these groups there’s about three or four key characters who take turns narrating (two of which, interestingly, are strong female characters).  We’ll start with the Karakorum crew. Gansukh the steppe warrior is learning  the perplexities of social combat as he tries to save the Khagan (think Khan of Khans) from being a drunken idiot and ruining the entire Mongol empire, which essentially covers the Asian continent and at this point is spreading into Eastern Europe. Then we have Lian, a Chinese slave tasked with teaching Gansukh the ways of the court. Surprise, she wants to escape. Double surprise, she kind of wants to bone Gansukh. And he kind of wants to bone her. Awkward sauna encounters and archery lessons ensue.

Out on the steppes, we meet a stalwart group of knights, the Order of the Sacred Virgin, training at a monastery to compete in a tournament held by one of the Khans (who are all sons of Genghis btw), mostly for fun, and plot. And here we meet Cnan, a young lady Binder (read: Guide) who is tasked to help the knights, all of various European descent from Scandinavian to Saracen, and give them intel on the Mongols. Here intel amounts to there are millions of them and they’re going to pillage your countries. The knights will take turns with some brief narration, but we mostly hear about their escapades from Cnan’s point of view. Some stay and fight in the tournament while others go try to kill the Khagan and hopefully save Christendom, guided by Cnan, and they get into fights and hijinks along the way. Also, there’s a night named Percival she wants to bone. Still unclear if he wants to bone her.

That was a little cheekier than I normally go, but I’m feeling a bit cheeky today. I very much enjoyed this book, although the pacing definitely made it apparent this was one work in a much longer series. It effectively set the table for some interesting historical fiction action, and from what little I know of the time period the authors went above and beyond to make their story fairly accurate (at least historically). I’d dive into the second book, but I’ve got a Joe Abercrombie and some HP Lovecraft already in the queue.

I’d recommend this to any fan of historical medieval fiction. The fight scenes and setting felt very genuine and realistic, and the characters are interesting enough to make you keep picking the book back up. It isn’t anything insanely riveting or spell-binding, and if you don’t like swords and horses you probably won’t enjoy it too much.

I give it a solid 3.5 our of 5 peasants, who totally get the shaft (sometimes literally) in this book, and just about any other realistic medieval fiction and just needed to be mentioned somewhere in here.

Signing off with a picture of the six dudes who wrote this book:

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The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 7: Peter Benchley

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We all remember Jaws. The classic movie with Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss struggle to rid a small tourist beach town of a great white shark, navigating small-town politics, fear, and disbelief throughout. It made a generation afraid to go in the ocean, and is still one of the scariest movies of all time, 40 years later. What you may not remember is Jaws was a book first, written by Peter Benchley (he also co-wrote the screenplay). The book was popular, but was well overshadowed by the frenzy for the movie.
Benchley rode the Jaws fame to several other works that were developed into movies on both the big and silver screens: The Island, The Deep, Dolphin Cove, The Beast, Creature (from the book White Shark), and most recently Amazon in 1999. In the case of all of these movies, I consumed the books first and found Benchley to be an underrated writer in many respects. The multi-media success of his novels sometimes diluted their appeal, and the similar subject matter can cause them to be written off as kitchsy genre fiction.
From the well-developed characters, to the dark subject matter, to the artful suspense, Benchley has a lot to offer a reader willing to “dive in” (pun) to the watery subject matter:

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1) Dark Realism – Benchley has a gift for making characters, and the situations they deal with, dark and disturbing enough to feel real. If you read Jaws, you’ll notice a few key details I won’t spoil here, but believe me, it gets much darker. The Deep and The Island in particular are borderline depressing in some moments. A theme of powerless people struggling against forces bigger than themselves, from the esoteric to the more intangible, pervades all of Benchley’s works. It doesn’t always translate in the visual mediums, but it makes his books feel more authentic and enjoyable.
2) Suspense – Surprisingly, the author of Jaws isn’t exactly a master of suspense. I’d much prefer Stephen King or Michael Crichton for realistic science fiction thrillers. So why is it a reason to read his books? Because it’s a key element of everything he writes and you can see Benchley develop a knack for suspense as he progresses. The difference between how he captures and holds your attention in White Shark versus Jaws is a stark contrast, and if you read them back –to-back you can see how he’ adjusted his style to feel more suspenseful in the later works. If you’re strictly looking for suspense, don’t go with Benchley, but he does leverage it effectively if not artfully in all of his books, and doesn’t distract from the prose.
3) The Smut – While not Romance-novel level, Benchley finds a way to include a healthy portion of smut into his books, and he does have a talent for writing it. Much like the darker subject matter, the inclusion of more graphic sexual scenes gives his works a bit of realism sometimes lacking in the sci-fi/horror genre (at least in book form; in horror movies it’s like rabbits locked in a cage to the point of un-believability). The Island in particular is super-smut packed, and I happened upon this book when I was 11 or 12 years old. It was…educational to say the least.
If you’re a fan of Jaws, or creature movies in general (or even if you aren’t) give Peter Benchley a try.He is an expert at crafting believable characters in a dark, authentic setting that will keep you turning the pages and asking for more.

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The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 5: Warren Ellis

EllisOkay, you may have heard of this guy. He’s pretty famous. What I’m endeavoring to do is introduce you to his prose work. Eventually. So bear with me. Please.

To say I’ve been waiting since this blog’s inception, that quite possibly the only reason I started this blog was to write this post, would not be inaccurate. I am so in the bag for Warren Ellis it borders on embarrassing. I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid, all sorts of superhero stories with the same uber-stretchy plots, and sub-par writing (I’m looking at you Spider-Man: The Clone Saga…looking at you and choking down vomit). Warren Ellis was a part of some of this: He wrote some Excalibur back in the day, kind of a British version of the X-men.

He was the first graphic novelist I picked up post-high school that pulled me back into the world of graphic novel geekdom. He wrote a 10 volume ditty call Transmetropolitan, a sort of futuristic fictional meta-biopic of Hunter S. Thompson, that has stuck with me for years, given me warmth when I was cold, and made me smile when I was sad. I really, really wish I was exaggerating. The complex story, the writer-writing-about-writing angle, the over-the-top dialogue that has influenced my own writing, it all adds up to awesome. I’ve read everything (just about) he’s writtien, from lesser-known indie and underground titles like Lazarus Churchyard and Switchblade Honey to the DC-Marvel works like Thunderbolts and Justice League.

Alright, the fan-boy portion is finished. Promise.

Ellis is a bit on the cutting edge of literature. Or he was. Might be a bit of an old curmudgeon now, but about 10 years ago he was at the forefront of social media interaction. A pioneer in the world of online integration with his writing, his availability and interaction with his fan-base may be part of the reason he’s gained a modicum of popularity, particularly in the “underground” of the graphic novel scene. He also wrote a very dark, gritty short graphic called Red that was (very) loosely the basis for the movie and the sequel of the same name. Hopefully he got a check from that.

He also has prose, which as promised, is what I’m going to focus on here. A hilarious private eye story, featuring all sorts of terrifying glimpses into the seediest, most shadowy nooks and crannies of American society (One word: Macroherpetophelia). It’s called Crooked Little Vein, and I highly recommend it. His second, and maybe a little more professionally fleshed out, is called Gun Machine, a bizarre serial-killer story based in New York.

I recommend you read both of them, and here’s why:

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1) Dialogue/Monologue – As with most graphic novelists, the verbal interaction and internal monologue of Ellis’ characters is by far the most compelling facet of his writing. From the gloriously insane to the darkly direct, he has a way of spinning very far-out ideas into often-hilarious diatribes that run inside his character’s heads or spills our of their mouths. What makes his work supremely unique is the dialogue is not the main driver of the storyline, yet as a side-facet it grabs you immediately and makes you look forward to the next profanity-laced exchange between his characters. You’re taste needs to slant towards the…ahem, “unique” to fully appreciate a lot of his writing, particularly in Crooked Little Vein. Gun Machine is a little more controlled, and I’d probably recommend trying that one first. If you’re into it, then dive into Vein and have your mind blown.

2) Characters – Another big strength of many graphic novelists dabbling in prose work, Ellis creates people and puts them in places that captivate. They tend toward the insane end of the spectrum, but he makes them relatable enough that you don’t have to be a nutter yourself to appreciate them. In both works he challenges himself by writing from the perspective of an American. It kind of gives both books an “American from the outside looking in” perspective,as Warren himself is staunchly British. Staunchly. This makes the characters a bit…exaggerated, but still thoroughly enjoyable. And it’s something you don’t see everyday. Or Read.

3) Weirdness – He’s just out there. No other way to put it. He doesn’t write in a weird Joyce or Thompson-esque stream of consciousness; its all very understandable stylistically. He just likes the weirdness of the world, and sharing it with the uninformed. It can be a bit jarring at times, but I promise you’ll never read about a lot of his subject matter in any other place. And his gift of taking this weirdness, and spinning compelling, page-turning stories around it, is what makes him an incredibly unique writer. He can take the fantastic, the oddly scientific, the weird fact, and make them relevant to everybody, not just super fan-boys like me.

You can check out Warren Ellis here. Yeah. He blogs.

I cannot recommend this guy enough. If you are looking for a great graphic novels, look under E for Ellis. Do the same thing if you want some mind-altering fiction.

And please try not to judge for the rampant fawning.

Signing off.

The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 4: Joe Abercrombie

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I first picked up a Joe Abercrombie book mostly due to the pressures of metadata (Amazon and Barnes Noble telling me “If you like this then you might also like…”) and the placement of his works so close to Dan Abnett on the shelf at the book store. One of the few times metadata actually brought something positive into someone’s life.

I Digress.

Basically the universe twisted my arm until I picked up a copy of Best Served Cold, looked up at the ceiling and said “Fine, happy now?” then paid the slightly wary cashier. For once, universal bullying led me to find something good. Joe writes with a reckless abandon that’s refreshing to find in the Fantasy genre. Most Fantasy feels very controlled and directed, but with Joe you never know what’s happening next.
Best Served is a prime example because it features a female protagonist, with a bad-ass streak a mile long, barreling through assassination attempts and rebellious uprisings, all the while displaying a Porter-esque (That’s a Payback reference in case you missed it) devotion to the simple goal of revenge. He had me hooked from the first chapter.

Most of what I’ve read from Joe takes place in the First Law universe, a fantasy setting of his own design. First Law is a trilogy, but many of his works (Best Served and The Heroes) take place within it. It’s a dark, angry little place filled with interesting places and captivating characters. Many are crossed-over or at least mentioned in the many different titles. If you’re a super-dork like me and have a penchant for getting addicted to well-crafted world from another writer…this one is as good as any.
Here’s why Joe Abercrombie is for you:

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1)      Action – While he doesn’t quite have Dan Abnett’s gift for precision, Joe moves through action sequences at breakneck speed, and takes a quantity over quality approach. You get an explosive combination of action spread across a group of characters that gets resolved simultaneously. He’s also got a talent for inter-relating several fight scenes that happen at once, a simple feat in visual medium but potentially complicated in prose.
2)      Style – Gritty, raw, and unapologetic are three words that would not quite do justice to Joe’s writing style. It’s refreshing to read fantasy where the author isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, or roll around in the mud like an enraptured pig if need be. Lots of authors glorify the warriors and knights fighting for hands of fair maidens. Joe gives the fantasy setting a stark dose of reality by delving into the worst parts of a medieval world – filth, disease, and the gritty aftermath of melee combat, right down to the screaming wounded and clouds of corpse flies.
3)      Characters – He brings the aforementioned grit and reality to all his characters, main and supporting. From Black Dow to Monzcarro, they all have a very striking effect on the reader. He masterfully creates these men and women so they’re fleshed out and whole, but makes them unpredictable. I’m never sure what anyone’s going to do in any of his works, and that keeps it exciting.

Overall, Joe is a breath of fresh air in the Fantasy genre. Even if that fresh air is a bit fetid and reeks of dead bodies and pig shit. That’s what makes it so refreshing. Let me beat metadata and the universe to it, and peer pressure you into trying one of his books. So do it. Go try one.
Signing off.

The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 2: Mike Carey

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If you don’t know who Mike Carey is, you should. And you will. Currently in production for TV development, which will hopefully come to fruition in the near future, is the Lucifer series, a spin-off from the equally as epic Sandman series. Fox bought the rights and put it to pilot. It’s a bit…ambitious for a TV show but has potential. We’ll see.

If you haven’t read Sandman and are interested in trying to or do read graphic novels, go do it. And then read Lucifer. And then send the thank you letters. Both are severely introspective, interesting, and addictive. So graphic crack.

Anyway, back to Mike Carey: Another writer who made his bones in Graphic Novels, Mike’s original prose work is firmly rooted in the Fantasy genre. Very similar to the Dresden stuff, and in my humble opinion a whole lot better. It’s based around a protagonist named Felix Castor, and shall hence be the called the Felix Castor series. There’s currently five books in the series, and we may or may not get a sixth.He’s also written The Steel Seraglio series and The Girl With All The Gifts.

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Here’s why you should read Mike’s prose work:

1)  Dialogue – Another key strength from most crossed-over graphic novelists, Mike excels at the inter-play between characters as a method of advancing the story. He can weave the words from his characters around similar to the way his protagonist spins exorcisms with his music (plot reveal). He rarely tells, and always shows you what’s happening, mainly through dialogue. It’s not sharp and biting the way Warren Ellis or Abnett like to make their character’s words kind of jump off the page. It’s a bit softer, quieter, but no less captivating. If you like reading about people talking…dive into the Felix Castor series with abandon. The inner-monologue for Mr. Castor is probably the high point of the series, and keeps you laughing and thinking all at once. “Poor Bloody Infantry is a State of Mind”, words to live by.

2) Pacing – To the point of frustration, Mike has great control over the pace of his books. It’s the same for his graphic novels as well. He very much keeps an even, steady pace through out; It can be a bit complex during action sequences or higher-adrenaline moments, but the consistency is very refreshing. He takes your hand and walks you through the text, never running, never stopping, just taking you through at the rate he desires. I don’t know if this is British-y or just a nuance of his particular style.

3) Imagination – Der. Can probably apply to every writer, but I pick this one because of the way  Mike imagines everything in his story. It takes talent and patience to make the otherworldly feel very real and tangible especially when the setting is the “real” world.He finds cracks, crannies, and crevices that feel incredibly realistic to fit his underworld of pacifistic exorcists in and shelter them from reality. This is why I would recommend this over the Jim Butcher Dresden Files. Not that they’re bad, I just prefer the subtle, quiet approach to magic in the real world. He also includes enough high-stakes, old testament style demons to keep the stakes high.

Overall, you should give Mike Carey a try if you’re a fan of any kind of magical fantasy or interesting, imaginative fiction. His graphic works are a bit better, and are the true measure of his imagination, but he’s damn good with prose and will keep you turning the pages.

Signing off.

The Best Author You’ve Never Read Vol. 1: Dan Abnett

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As an avid nerd, I read a lot of science fiction, fantasy, etc., particularly in the licensed sub-genre, that maybe the average joe doesn’t really get to. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, some of it I’d rather forget, and some of it I can’t. In both good and bad ways. In this installment I’m endeavoring to point out some of the very good writers you may walk right past just because of the section in which their book (or e-book) is organized. The only thing I’m loosely basing the “aren’t reading” distinction on is bestseller and general knowledge of the writer. It’s all subjective. I’ve done no research, for I am lazy.

I discovered Dan Abnett because I am a pure, unadulterated, and unapologetic pile of geek. He started his work in comic books and graphic novels back in the late 80’s, and that’s probably what he’s best known for. I won’t bore you with the bibliography, I’ll just say this: Did you like Guardians of the Galaxy? If you did, thank Dan. He wrote the comic it was based off of about 5-6 years ago, reinventing all the characters so America could digest them years later. And I don’t think he even got mentioned in the credits.

But comic books aren’t where I discovered him. It’s even worse. In college I got sucked into Warhammer 40K. Since you probably don’t know what that is, I’ll elucidate: It’s a table-top miniatures game from Britain. Books spun off from that game have created an entire universe of literature that’s sold millions of copies worldwide. Still confused? Take Dungeons and Dragons, plus blindingly expensive toys, plus dice, tape measurers, and math, cram it all in a blender and you will create something that even the nerds regard as nerdy: Warhammer 40K.

Dan was a wildly successful author for Black Library (Warhammer 40K’s publisher), and in my opinion their most skilled writer as well. He created two particularly enjoyable series that I’d recommend to any Sci-Fi fan – Gaunt’s Ghosts, a military-based saga of 14 books with memorable characters (that he isn’t shy about killing), A-plus dialogue, and very cool villains. The other is an ongoing set of longer novels, which involves a spin-off, and then a spin-off of spin-off. We’ll call it the Eisenhorn/Ravenor Saga, currently at 7 books and counting. If you like intrigue, sciency magic, illicit affairs, and extended meta-plots, this one’s for you.

Finally, after 400 words, the point: He hasn’t just written nerdy, licensed fiction. He has two stand-alone works, one fantasy, one sci-fi, that everyone should try if you’re fans of either genre. Or both. Or neither:

Embedded—A very cool, science fiction take on embedded journalism. In this case the journalist is literally cybernetically embedded into a soldier to experience and report on an interstellar war. If you like war fiction of any kind, this is for you.

Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero— Little bit of everything, from sci-fi to fantasy to steampunk, regicide conspiracies and a reluctant hero. Might seem like a lot to bite off, but it works. Action and hilarity ensue.

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And here’s why you should be reading these books:

1)      Action – Bit of a weird selling point for an author, but it’s one of Dan’s biggest strengths. He has a talent for describing conflict action sequences, from grand scale battles to one-on-one duels that is unparalleled. I can modestly say I’ve read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction, that depend on combat and physical conflict as major elements of plot. Definitely more than most. I have yet to encounter any author, famous, infamous, classic, or contemporary, that can lay out a detailed description of a fight or a battle so precisely that I can picture it crystal clear in my mind while still keeping the fast, frenetic pace that makes prose combat feel authentic. It’s the right mix of frenzy and fine-pointing that makes him a master at this. I will re-read certain parts of his books when I write combat in my own stories, and I would recommend any other authors do the same. He could teach a class (seriously) on how to pace, when to be short, when to pause, and what kind of details to include. Embedded in particular revolves around the fight scenes, and anyone struggling with how to write firearm combat should check this book out just for learning purposes.

2)      Dialogue—Several of my favorite comic book writers also transition into prose very well, and dialogue is always one of the keys to their success. When you’re used to only having dialogue to express motion and emotion in a story, you tend to focus and develop the verbalized interaction between characters, or even internal monologue, and it’s apparent Dan fits that mold as well. Witty back and forth abounds, particularly in Triumff, which is more dialogue-driven than any other story he writes. Now he’s certainly no Shakespeare, and none of it is exactly deep and thought-provoking, but for pure entertainment it’s a ten.

3)      Character—Dan has a talent for creating some of the most entertaining, consistent characters in this genre. In fantasy and sci-fi, we can kind of gloss over the little details, like believable characters, because the setting is so unbelievable that it seems to fit in. But even if he’s writing an alien, Dan manages to make them all come-off very human. It sets him apart for a lot of the other genre-specific writers, particularly in his licensed works. He lets faults as well as strengths drive their actions and reactions. He’s not afraid to inflict the worst on his characters and make it their own damn fault.

4)      And also he’s bald and has a beard. Gotta help a Brother out.

Hopefully, I will convince someone to pick up one of the books I mentioned here. Because whoever does, they won’t put it down.

Signing off.