Review: ‘Invasive’ by Chuck Wendig

Hannah Stander is a consultant for the FBI—a futurist who helps the Agency with cases that feature demonstrations of bleeding-edge technology. It’s her job to help them identify unforeseen threats: hackers, AIs, genetic modification, anything that in the wrong hands could harm the homeland.

Hannah is in an airport, waiting to board a flight home to see her family, when she receives a call from Agent Hollis Copper. “I’ve got a cabin full of over a thousand dead bodies,” he tells her. Whether those bodies are all human, he doesn’t say.

What Hannah finds is a horrifying murder that points to the impossible—someone weaponizing the natural world in a most unnatural way. Discovering who—and why—will take her on a terrifying chase from the Arizona deserts to the secret island laboratory of a billionaire inventor/philanthropist. Hannah knows there are a million ways the world can end, but she just might be facing one she could never have predicted—a new threat both ancient and cutting-edge that could wipe humanity off the earth.

I read (ok, listened to the audiobook of) Invasive just after finishing Zer0es, because I wanted more. Not necessarily more of the hackers from the first story, but more of that weird parallel Earth with its almost sci-fi tech and its Hollywood-esque storytelling.

It’s fortunate that I didn’t go into Invasive expecting it to be about the hackers from the first book, because it wasn’t (although Wade does get a brief cameo, and Agent Hollis is a secondary character). It was closer to single POV — the main character is Hannah, and although we get chapters from other characters, they are interludes rather than whole chunks of the story.

I loved Hannah. She’s a futurist who gets anxiety attacks about the direction humanity is heading in, the child of doomsday preppers who absorbed what they taught her but didn’t subscribe to their beliefs about the futility of trying to improve the world (except maybe in her nightmares). She’s good with people, good with tech … but not so perfect as to be super-human and unbelievable.

Did I mention that I love her?

Like Zer0es, Invasive is fast-paced. Unlike Zer0es, it has a lot more gore. If this were a movie, it’d have an MA15+ rating (an R rating in the States) for the gore alone. The blurb mentions weaponising the natural world, and one look at the cover will tell you which part of the natural world. Let’s just say that I wasn’t scared of ants before I read this book, but … well, I won’t be walking past a trail of them any time soon. Urk.

Still, I actually think this is a better book than Zer0es (which I loved). Having less POV characters gives it more focus, makes you more invested in the action, because a lot more is riding on Hannah’s perspective and efforts. In an ensemble cast book like Zer0es, the characters feel more … disposable, almost?

I don’t know if there will be more stories in this world, but I really, really hope there will be.

 

 


Review: ‘Zer0es’ by Chuck Wendig

Five hackers—an Anonymous-style rabble-rouser, an Arab Spring hacktivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll—are detained by the U.S. government, forced to work as white-hat hackers for Uncle Sam in order to avoid federal prison. At a secret complex known only as “the Lodge,” where they will spend the next year working as an elite cyber-espionage team, these misfits dub themselves “the Zeroes.”

But once the Zeroes begin to work, they uncover secrets that would make even the most dedicated conspiracy theorist’s head spin. And soon they’re not just trying to serve their time, they’re also trying to perform the ultimate hack: burrowing deep into the U.S. government from the inside, and hoping they’ll get out alive. Packed with electric wit and breakneck plot twists, Zer0es is an unforgettable thrill ride through the seedy underbelly of “progress.”

This is a very different read (or listen) than the last audiobook I devoured. Zer0es is a techno-thriller, and not a genre I normally read, but I love Wendig’s urban fantasy and, to a lesser extent, his Star Wars books, so I figured, why not? It’s the sort of book that you can’t help picture as a Hollywood movie even as the story progresses — car chases, action scenes, witty dialogue — but with lashings of dystopian future tech that about halfway through take us into the truly bizarre.

The bizarre, and the supernatural, in our own world are my jam. It’s why I love urban fantasy so much. So I loved Zer0es. (Note: this isn’t a supernatural story. But some of the tech could be described as “science magic”.)

The characters are archetypes in many ways, but Wendig does his damndest to undermine the tropes as their stories progress. In particular, Reagan, the self-described troll, goes from utterly detestable to, well, unpleasant but sympathetic (even as I didn’t want to sympathise with her!). Wade, the scruffy vet conspiracy theorist, is probably my favourite character. Either that or FBI agent Hollis Copper.

The story is multi-POV, which I know some people find divisive, but I don’t mind that. Likewise, Wendig isn’t afraid of “the swears” and has a love affair with the grotesque … so if you’re squeamish, maybe give him a miss. But if you love high-speed apocalypses, conspiracy theories and tech gone wrong, then definitely check out Zer0es.


Review: ‘Atlanta Burns’ by Chuck Wendig

atlanta-burns-cover

You don’t mess with Atlanta Burns.

Everyone knows that. And that’s kinda how she likes it — until the day Atlanta is drawn into a battle against two groups of bullies and saves a pair of new, unexpected friends. But actions have consequences, and when another teen turns up dead — by an apparent suicide — Atlanta knows foul play is involved. And worse: she knows it’s her fault.

You go poking rattlesnakes, maybe you get bit.

Afraid of stirring up the snakes further by investigating, Atlanta turns her focus to the killing of a neighborhood dog. All paths lead to a rural dogfighting ring, and once more Atlanta finds herself face-to-face with bullies of the worst sort. Atlanta cannot abide letting bad men do awful things to those who don’t deserve it. So she sets out to unleash her own brand of teenage justice.

Will Atlanta triumph? Or is fighting back just asking for a face full of bad news?

Atlanta Burns is a kind of YA contemporary that is dark — so dark that the world in which the titular character exists is almost a caricature of itself. I’ve seen the book described as noir, which is something I usually associate with detectives in oversized coats, but that works here in the sense that Atlanta’s world is bleak. Almost everyone is corrupt, incompetent, or outright evil. The handful of characters that aren’t evil are damaged as a result of being the victims of those who are. These include Atlanta (mostly) and the two boys she befriends at school, Shane and Chris.

It’s a tough read. One I enjoyed, but at the same time — oof.

Firstly, if you are triggered by any of the following, this isn’t the book for you: rape, child abuse, torture, suicide, animal harm, homophobia and violent racism. 

Also, if swearing and drug use bother you, again, maybe don’t go here.

(I told you it was dark.)

Atlanta is the survivor of childhood sexual abuse — a situation she extricated herself from by buying herself a secondhand gun and shooting the perpetrator. She was then sent away to therapy for either six months or a year (my copy of the book says both — oops). The story opens up two weeks after she comes home to a mother that seems to be terrified of her and former best friends who don’t even want to make eye contact.

Atlanta suffers PTSD and panic attacks, but her particular coping mechanism whenever she’s bullied, or sees anyone else being bullied, is to confront the bully with extreme prejudice, cans of mace and her trusty shotgun — generally without thinking anything through in advance. She’s quite fragile beneath the bluster, and afterwards she suffers, but in a crisis she is as hard as nails. Maybe this reaction is a result of the same personality trait that made her buy the gun in the first place, or maybe it’s a result of therapy gone awry. It’s unclear.

Of course, given the world Atlanta lives in, there’s no shortage of opportunities for her to leap in and make things worse. Which, given her fire and lack of planning, she generally does.

In many ways, Atlanta Burns was a satisfying read. As a reader, nothing frustrates me more than when I see a character that is sufficiently evil get away with their evilness. And I’ve learned I’m kinda sorta bloodthirsty (as a reader, honest!), in that I love to see the bad guy get comeuppance at the hands of the good guy. Atlanta’s lack of impulse control and readiness to resort to violence meant I saw all sorts of bad guys get hurt. It was very satisfying!

Where it got a little unrealistic was when the bad guys didn’t seem to strike back as hard as I thought they would or should given their other behaviour. Atlanta does quite a few things to goad people without actually killing them, and their reactions don’t seem to match up to their apparent level of evilness.

The other thing that bothered me was that I kept trying to apply my understanding of the real world to the situation, and Atlanta’s world clearly wasn’t like mine. In the world of this story, the police can’t be trusted and the only adult in her life is her useless, timid mother. The teachers are largely non-entities. I realise that Atlanta going all vigilante defender of the weak does require a corrupt setting (in the same way that Batman needs his Gotham City) but at times I did raise an eyebrow at her thinking she had no other alternative but violence.

At least, I sincerely hope that there aren’t really places like the town where Atlanta lives in the world. 😦

Atlanta Burns is a hard read, but I loved Atlanta as a character. I’m sure I’ll go back for the next book, but I couldn’t read the sequel back-to-back. I need something a bit lighter to cleanse my psyche first!

atlantaburnskatniss

Four stars


Review: ‘Life Debt’ by Chuck Wendig

life-debt_cover

“It is a dark time for the Empire. . . .”

The Emperor is dead, and the remnants of his former Empire are in retreat. As the New Republic fights to restore a lasting peace to the galaxy, some dare to imagine new beginnings and new destinies. For Han Solo, that means settling his last outstanding debt, by helping Chewbacca liberate the Wookiee s homeworld of Kashyyyk.

Meanwhile, Norra Wexley and her band of Imperial hunters pursue Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and the Empire’s remaining leadership across the galaxy. Even as more and more officers are brought to justice, Sloane continues to elude the New Republic, and Norra fears Sloane may be searching for a means to save the crumbling Empire from oblivion. But the hunt for Sloane is cut short when Norra receives an urgent request from Princess Leia Organa. The attempt to liberate Kashyyyk has carried Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a band of smugglers into an ambush resulting in Chewie s capture and Han s disappearance.

Breaking away from their official mission and racing toward the “Millennium Falcon” s last known location, Norra and her crew prepare for any challenge that stands between them and their missing comrades. But they can t anticipate the true depth of the danger that awaits them or the ruthlessness of the enemy drawing them into his crosshairs.

Life Debt is the second book in the Star Wars: Aftermath series, set between Return of the Jedi and the new movie franchise. I reviewed the first book here.

You don’t have to be a huge Star Wars fan to enjoy these books — it’s been years since I saw any of the original six movies, and I think the only thing I really missed as a result is that I didn’t always have that ingrained knowledge of what a particular alien race looks like. Also, if you’re an audiobook fan, I strongly recommend listening to them as Marc Thompson, the voice actor, did an amazing job!

One of the beefs some people had with Aftermath was that there wasn’t enough of the primary Star Wars characters — we catch a glimpse of Han and Chewie, and that’s about it. Almost all of the story focuses on the events around former rebel pilot Norra and what eventually turns into her crew. Life Debt definitely makes up for the absence of main characters, as the crew from the first book are contracted by Leia to find the missing Han Solo.

Since I loved Norra, ex-Imperial loyalty officer Sinjir and bounty hunter Jas, I was really happy to catch back up with them. I even found Temmin, Norra’s son, less bratty in Life Debt (with one notable exception that he got over fairly fast). Sinjir is so delightfully sarcastic that he’s my stand-out favourite, though Jas is a close second. I’m also a big fan of Rae Sloan, despite her being the bad guy (at least, as far as Norra and co are concerned). Sure, she’s well and truly onboard with the whole “Empire” thing, but I could see the appeal of order over chaos.

There’s some lovely, tantalising foreshadowing of events in The Force Awakens, as well as the promise of backstory — I for one am keen to know Kylo Ren went so badly wrong. (That hair. Seriously?)

The main reason this is four stars for me, rather than five, is that it sometimes felt a bit like I’d dropped into the middle of a TV episode — for example, I felt the resistance effort on Kashyyyk could have sustained a novel all of its own, and I left wondering if I’d missed a bit at one stage. Still, I love Wendig’s frenetic, visceral writing style and will definitely read the third book.

Four stars


40 Revolutions Around the Sun

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Off and on at the blog I mention Chuck Wendig — not only have I read, reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed a bunch of his books (the most recent of which was Aftermath, his first Star Wars novel), but I love his writing advice posts and his hilarious, often profanity-riddled style.

One thing about Chuck is that he and I were born only a few days apart. That’s right, we’re practically twins! And this week he posted an epic list of 40 things that he has learned after four decades of life. You should go read it.

Yes, this is my round-about way of telling you I also turned 40 this week.

Earlier this year, I felt vaguely uneasy about my impending birthday. I mean, 40. I wouldn’t be able to say I was in my 30s anymore — as though that one day between 39 and 40 would make a huge difference, be somehow transformative. But it’s all a bit of a lie that revolves around us humans placing significance on certain things, like round numbers, multiples of ten: a number we’ve chosen to obsess over presumably because of our (traditional) number of fingers.

When I was a kid and the various adults in my life would ask me, on the day of my birthday, whether I felt any older. I’d always feel like the answer should be yes, but it was always no.

I do feel older now, but it’s a feeling that’s been creeping up on me for a while. I have a smattering of silver hairs that I’m rather fond of, mainly because they are politely behaved; in contrast, I also have a handful of weird, crazy white hairs that refuse to obey trivial things like gravity. My knees have have started to crunch like a pepper grinders when I walk up stairs. And my optometrist assures me that bifocal glasses are in my near future (she’s mean like that).

Still, there are upsides to being 40; to me, they are mostly about having a better sense of perspective. I was talking to a friend today about how when you’re in your teens and 20s you (and by “you”, of course, I mean “I) care way too much about what others think. Not just people who are dear to you, but random strangers. People you go to school with or work with but to whom you’re not close. There are probably sound evolutionary reasons for it — if you’re too different from the herd, you might get driven out, be unable to find a mate.

(Hehe, she said “mate”.)

Although I doubt I’ll ever be able to completely dismiss others’ unsolicited opinions, they don’t mean as much to me as they used to. If someone thinks my comfortable shoes are daggy, or raises an eyebrow at my geeky t-shirt, so what? If they don’t like a book I wrote and leave a negative review, then eh, they are entitled to their opinion.

So was turning 40 traumatic? No, actually, it was kinda cool. I had a variety of tasty meals with different groups of friends and family over the course of this week, got to catch up, had a few laughs. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to have an EPIC BIRTHDAY EXTRAVAGANZA — setting too-high expectations and then being disappointed is another thing I’d like to think I left behind last decade. I got hugs and warm wishes from people that mattered.

I wouldn’t be able to come up with a list of 40 things I have learned, partly because Chuck stole all the good ideas already. But there are a few things I’d add, random pieces of advice I’d give to younger-me if I could:

Unfriend or otherwise cast off toxic, judgemental people from your life. They aren’t worth the stress and grey hairs, and they definitely aren’t worth the crazy, gravity-defying white hairs.

Be prepared to make sacrifices to do the thing you want to do. I’m not much of a risk-taker and I’m definitely not saying you should quit your job to write your magnum opus, but maybe you could watch a little less TV?

Find something physical that you like doing and then actually do it. Regularly. Even though my knees were mostly fine till I started karate, I’ve felt a lot better about myself since I joined.

Wear sunscreen. It’ll mean less wrinkles (and also less chance of skin cancer) when you’re older.

Be kind to yourself. All those people who say that one day you’ll look back on photos of yourself when you were young and realise you were hotter than you thought at the time ARE RIGHT. The bastards.


In case you missed it, earlier this month, over at Aussie Owned and Read, I blogged about Four Awesome Writery Rewards for Good Behaviour.

AussieOwned_Contributor


Review: ‘Three Slices’ anthology

Three Slices

Three Slices presents three novellas by modern fantasy writers:

A Prelude to War by Kevin Hearne

After an old friend is murdered in retaliation for his mercenary strikes against the oldest vampires in the world, Atticus O’Sullivan must solicit the aid of another old friend in Ethiopia if he’s going to have a chance of finishing a war he never wanted. Meanwhile, Granuaile MacTiernan starts a private war of her own against Loki, the lord of lies, and if it brings Ragnarok early — so be it.

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys by Delilah S. Dawson

The number one rule of the circus? Don’t kill your volunteers, even accidentally. That’s how young magician Criminy Stain ends up on the run in a forest, where he meets a beautiful woman holding a bucket of blood. But is Merissa the answer to his prayers — or the orchestrator of his ruin?

Interlude: Swallow by Chuck Wendig

Miriam Black is back. Miriam is tired of her curse and finally believes she knows how to be rid of her ability to see when and how other people die. She follows a lead to the mountains of Colorado, where she believes she sees signs of a serial killer she thought she already killed. (Set between THE CORMORANT and THUNDERBIRD.)

It’s very rare to find an anthology where you’ve read all (and are up to date on the relevant series by) the contributing authors. It’s never happened to me before, at any rate! So of course when I saw Three Slices, which has stories by three awesome urban fantasy writers, I had to buy it.

I maybe should have guessed from the title, but all three stories have one thing in common: oracular cheese. (Yes, cheese.) That element was really cute, and was one of the things that tied the stories together. There were a few other things, some of them more subtle than others — Kevin Hearne gives a nod to Chuck Wendig’s heirloom apple obsession, for example, while Chuck uses the Polish expression that is the title of Delilah Dawson’s story. I loved seeing those little easter eggs sprinkled throughout.

On the stories themselves, I enjoyed all three, although Delilah’s story was probably my favourite, mainly because — of the three of them — it was the one that stands alone the most cleanly. For fans of her Blud series, seeing how Criminy Stain winds up in the circus he’s the ringmaster of in later books is very entertaining, and Criminy is still my favourite smoking hot magician vampire.

Wendig’s Swallow was a little peek at how Miriam is going; the mystery within the story is resolved internally, but does heavily reference previous books. (Also, note that although I enjoy Wendig’s raw style, it may not be for everyone — I shelve this series in “horror” on Goodreads for a reason.)

As for A Prelude to War, I did enjoy catching up with Atticus, Oberon and Granuaile, but this story is the least able to stand alone. If you haven’t read the series up till this point, you will be lost. Still, it was very satisfying to see Granuaile’s interaction with Loki, though.

Very, very satisfying.

Four stars


Review: ‘Aftermath’ by Chuck Wendig

Aftermath

Journey to The Force Awakens.

The second Death Star is destroyed. The Emperor and his powerful enforcer, Darth Vader, are rumored to be dead. The Galactic Empire is in chaos.

Across the galaxy, some systems celebrate, while in others Imperial factions tighten their grip. Optimism and fear reign side by side.

And while the Rebel Alliance engages the fractured forces of the Empire, a lone Rebel scout uncovers a secret Imperial meeting…

I’m not a huge Star Wars nerd. Sure, I’ve seen the movies, but I haven’t read any of the other books. I picked this one up because I enjoy Wendig’s frenetic, visceral writing style and the fact that he makes real, flawed characters. Aftermath delivered on both fronts.

It’s funny. I was going to give Aftermath a miss, just because I have two other Wendig books on my TBR pile (and see previous comments about not being a huge Star Wars nerd). Do you know what tipped me over? The fact that a lot of the negative reviews of the book slam the fact Wendig included several homosexual characters. They complain that they are “divisive” and that their sexuality isn’t relevant to the plot, so why mention it?

(The obvious counterargument is that when you’re building a whole character, there are a lot of elements to them that aren’t relevant to the plot. What they are useful to do is to build a three-dimensional character that a reader can get to know. Not necessarily always like, but at least know and understand. And, whether some folks like it or not, some real people are actually gay. I know, right? Let’s contain our shock and move on.)

So I bought the book, because I actually enjoy reading about diverse characters. This was a case where the negative reviews sold it for me. 🙂

The characters are fun because none of them are perfect (and I’m not talking about sexual preferences here). I particularly liked Norra, Sinjir and Jas. Norra’s son, Temmin, is a bit of a whiny precocious brat, like Anakin was, but I mostly forgave him for his bad behaviour. Maybe I just sympathised with his mother too much. Sinjir is delightfully sarcastic, and Jas doesn’t mess around.

The plot moves along at breakneck speed (a trait of all the Wendig books I’ve read) and is broken up by interludes. These provided a snapshot of what’s happening elsewhere in the galaxy — what happens when a rebellion overthrows an oppressive regime, in all its messiness. Each of the interludes is basically a short story or snippet, some of which may be pursued down the track, either in future books or in the movies. For the most part I really liked the interludes, although I got a bit impatient with one towards the end, because I really wanted to know what was happening in the main storyline.

The only other thing that bothered me was that in a few places there was some assumed knowledge, especially about the appearance of the various alien races. Wendig gave them a broad-brush description, but not really enough that I could picture them. (I haven’t seen the movies for years.) Still, I just let it wash over me as part of the chaos of the galaxy.

Upshot: I really enjoyed Aftermath and will buy the sequel.

Four stars