4.19.2009

City of Thieves, by David Benioff

City of Thieves
City of Thieves
I'm not sure why, but I'm strangely drawn to novels set in Russia during World War II. City of Thieves, by David Benioff, is short novel set in and around Leningrad during its horrific siege by the Nazis. While Benioff was born and raised in America, City of Thieves has all the hallmarks of a Russian novel, as I've come to know them. It's vuglar and absurd, heroic, and laced with references to Russia's cultural heritage and Soviet life.

The novel begins with a brief prologue, where the "author" sits down with his grandfather and talks him into telling his story about what happened to him during the war. We get dropped into the middle of the siege with him, as he watches a frozen German paratrooper fall from the sky. After that, Lev keeps ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gets caught as a deserter and taken to the Leningrad NKVD headquarters. Here's where the absurdity comes in. The colonel in charge is willing to let Lev and his cellmate Kolya go if they can get him a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. This is a nearly impossible task given that there is so little food left in the city that people are boiling down book glue to make "library candy." No one has seen an egg in Leningrad in months. If they can't provide the eggs within a week, they'll be shot. Benioff is such a convincing writer that you just go with it, no matter how odd it sounds in retrospect.

The story really takes off once Kolya and Lev decide to try and go to a poultry collective in Mga, a town behind the German lines. Lev continues to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and gets caught up in a quest with local partisans to take out a sadist Einsatzgruppe Sturmbannfuerher. I couldn't put book down for the last fifty pages, it was that exciting. I hate to give it away, so I'll quit talking about it before I spoil the ending. This book was so fantastic that I was up until 1:00 last night finishing it. I couldn't go to sleep until I knew how it all turned out.

I think what I like most about this book is the way that Benioff portrayed the war that the regular people experienced. They were caught between the Germans--whose high command thought that Slavs were sub-human--and their own State police who could shoot them for any offense. Personally, I kept waiting for a bomb to fall on that NKVD colonel's head to let Lev off the hook. As it was, the resolution of that little mission was poignant and perfectly aggravating (for Lev). And, on top of it all, the siege itself. I don't think any work of fiction can really illustrate what happened during those three years. This book doesn't try. It's about Lev, and how he becomes a man in the space of a few days.

I highly recommend this book, especially for fans of Russian novels and Russian history. The book is pitch perfect and, like I said, I would totally have believed that Benioff was a born and raised Russian if I didn't know better.

4.05.2009

Rogue Mage Trilogy, by Faith Hunter

Faith Hunter's Bloodring, Seraphs, and Host read like one novel split into three. (I suspect that's because it really is one book split up.) The action flows from book to book. If you have the opportunity to read them one right after the other, like I did, it really seems like one story. All the action from the end of one just sets up the action for the next. And the ending in Host, the last book, is absolutely spectacular.

Bloodring
Bloodring
In Bloodring, Hunter introduces us to Thorn's world. When I first picked up this series, I was a little nervous because of the covers and because of the main character's name. It sounds a lot like a soap opera character, to be blunt. At any rate, Thorn's world is based on ours, but it in a post-Apocalyptic ice age. In this world, the Apocalypse was a no-fooling show down between Good and Evil, angels and devils. But, unlike in the stories, the world didn't come to an end. Thorn is a stone mage, one of a new race of people that cropped up after the beginning of the big war to everyone's surprise. Thorn is hiding in plain site in a town in what used to be North Carolina, but gets outed as a mage after she gets involved in her ex-husband's kidnapping by dark creatures. Bloodring sets the stage for a huge plot that spans the other two books in the series. Thorn comes out on top in this one, but it turns out to be just the first round.
Seraphs
Seraphs

Seraphs, book two, clues Thorn into the fact that the Darkness she faced in the previous story was something much, much scarier than she had realized. She also learns that there were more captives held than just her ex-husband: a seraph and his cherub. While trying to figure out how to free the angel and his mate and keep her skin intact. Meanwhile, she has to deal with the prejudice of a good half of her town, orthodox types who harbor a deep, deep hatred of mages. Thorn also learns that she has a lot more power than she realized. She has power over the angels themselves, and can use a cherub's wheels (see Elijah in Kings for a description). While she manages to defeat the creature under the mountain this time, now Thorn has to watch out for the seraphs, who will kill her if she steps out of line.

Host
Host
 Host brings it all together. The book only spans a few days, most of it the big showdown between Thorn, her allies, and the Big Bad. It's almost on the scale of the end of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It almost makes me wish I could have seen it, instead of read it. It turns out that she's facing Azazel, a fallen angel really high up in the hierarchy, right up there with Lucifer. While most would probably have turn tail and run for the hills, Thorn stays at her post, gathering allies and working on a plan to save her town. There's so much going on that it's a little hard to keep track of everything, but it was a ripping read.

There are quite a few loose ends at the end of the book, which makes me wonder if Hunter is going to revisit Thorn's world. But how do you top the end of Host, with Thorn and the angels, etc., taking on Azazel?


Patient Zero, by Jonathan Maberry

Patient Zero
Patient Zero
Another great zombie novel! I must be on some kind of streak. Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero combines the best of Tom Clancy with the zombie genre. In it, we tag along with Joe Ledger, a Baltimore cop, who gets recruited to work for a government agency that protects the US from threats that Homeland Security and the other alphabet agencies would brush off with a laugh.

There were so many ways that this book could have gone wrong. Terrorists. Mysterious manipulated diseases. Macho men with guns. A government agency with outrageous technology, unlimited funding, and legal carte blanche. But the care that Maberry took with his research and his characters saves the novel from turning into "Hulk see terrorist! Hulk smash!" You can see this care especially in the characters. You get to see their ideals, their fears, and the motivations. They aren't just stock characters, especially with Ledger. Being able to peek inside his head saves him from being a he-man knight-in-shining-armor cardboard cut out.

The other potential stumbling block is the zombie disease itself. Rather than being some mystical mojo or an undiscovered disease. The zombie disease here is based on prions that have been manipulated and molded into something that turns its victims into creatures that definitely match the criteria: aggressive, unreasoning, impervious to pain, and generally refusing to die. Because prions are so little understood, Maberry was able to make this whole zombie thing kind of plausible because we just don't know what they're capable of.

My big question is, if Ledger returns, will he face this sort of horror-movie threat again? Or will the series become more of a traditional sort of espionage thriller? I sincerely hope that Maberry keeps up his blending of science and the supernatural. Patient Zero was a lot of fun to read.