I just read: Scythe

Scythe has one of those crazy, young-adult-sci-fi premises that you just have to check out. More unlikely than ‘Uglies,’ more convoluted than ‘The Maze Runner,’ there were several times when the world built by Neal Shusterman had me rolling my eyes and saying ‘There’s no way this would EVER happen!’ But every time that happened, Shusterman quickly amped up the plot with a swerve or kick-ass surprises to overcome my disbelief and keep me chugging along with the story.

Let me go thru the bonkers premise first. The main characters, Citra and Rowan live in a nearly perfect, nearly deathless society. A benevolent AI runs everything (truly benevolent, no twists there, unless they come in the sequel), and death has been ‘cured.’ People are rejuvenated before they can die from old-age. If they fall victim to accidents then they are resurrected. And suicides are not allowed , although there is such a thing as ‘splatting.’ (You might be able to figure out what that is. It’s one of the many cool ideas that Shusterman comes up with while exploring his post-mortal world.)

A society of ‘Scythes’ have been created to control population growth. Although the AI runs everything else in the world, the stakes of human mortality are considered too weighty for its impersonal, computer brain. So the people who are chosen as Scythes have free reign to kill whomever they want, in whatever method they want.

Wai… wha?

So why would a perfectly utopian AI delegate such a dicey, utterly-permanent task to humans, when it is controlling everything else? If society is concerned about population-control, why wouldn’t they try contraception, as opposed to widespread assassinations?

Listen, you just got to go with it…

OK, but there’s one more weird thing… and if you read a lot of YA, you might be able to predict what it is… The Scythes become fully-legal assassins as teenagers. OK, so they can’t rent a car, but they can kill people with samurai swords and flamethrowers?

Needless to say, there are some Scythes (both younger and older) that let their power go to their heads. And Citra and Rowan quickly get sucked into their schemes. As they struggle against these sinister, blood-thirsty Scythes (and as Rowan struggles against his own emerging blood-thirsty urges), the plot takes some interesting twists, and the story reinvents itself with about three shifts in the status quo before it’s done. Which is pretty impressive, considering the book is only 450 pages long.

I’ll also give the author credit for not pushing his male and female protagonists into a full-blown romance—these teen’s lives are intense enough without everything going hormonal. With that said, there is some romantic tension. But that tension is nothing compared to the fact that Rowan and Citra eventually find themselves forced into a sadistic and arbitrary predicament where, in order for one of them to live, the other must die. How does Neal Shusterman get his two protagonists out of this particular conundrum? If I told you that, I’d be spoiling the ending. But let’s just say Shusteman wraps up his final chapters as deftly and as dramatically as he handles the rest of his book. I’m looking forward to checking out what happens in Book 2!

I just read: The Scorpio Races

I’ve never read one of Maggie Stiefvater’s novels before, and I thought The Scorpio Races would be a good place to start. It is a standalone book, and I’ve always been a sucker for books set on beaches.

The setting here is intriguing and quite unique. It’s an island called Thisby that I pictured as being a lot like a British isle in the 1950s. It’s hard to draw a bead on when exactly the story takes place. There’s mention of old beat-up cars and chainsaws, but no mention of TV or phones. So I suppose the story could be taking place at any time between 1930 and 1980. There’s a lot of talk about tradition and ‘women knowing their place,’ which also makes me think it was set in the mid-1900s.

I suppose the murkiness of the era is part of the charm here, because Thisby is unquestionably part of a fantasy world. Its shores are prowled by carnivorous water horses called capaill uisce. For most of their lives, the capaill uisce swim in the sea, but in the Fall, captured water horses are harnessed and raced on land by the island’s bravest men. Racing these oversized, feral horses is very dangerous, and every year men are killed in the race. The winner walks away with an impressive cash prize.

Enter the two main characters. Puck is a young woman who becomes the first female rider in the history of the race. Her family is in desperate straits, and she wants to win that purse. But considering the fact that she’s never been around capaill uisce, and that she’s never trained as a jockey, she seems like an extreme long shot. Add to that the fact that she decides to ride a normal horse in the race (in other words: not as large or technically as fast as a capaill uisce, but more manageable to ride). The other character is Sean—a young racer and trainer who has already won the Scorpio Race several times in his short career. Definitely not an underdog, but he is living under the thumb of the island’s requisite crotchety millionaire.

Sean develops a fascination with Puck as he watches her train. She helps him realize that he doesn’t actually like racing—he just loves the bond he shares with his water horse, a red stallion named Corr. But Sean will lose his stallion forever if he cannot win this year’s race, and therefore obviously crush Puck’s own dreams.

So there’s the conflict. Two protagonists who are friendly with each other (aww, who am I kidding, you know they end up becoming more than ‘friendly’ by the end of the book), but whose aspirations are diametrically opposed. What happens? I was pretty pleased and satisfied with the resolution. So nice to read a fantasy book where you’re introduced to a world, meet friends and villains, establish a conflict, and then see it all wrapped up tidily in 400 pages. And a story about horses… it’s almost not fair, it’s like a story about a loyal dog or a sick toddler… you know eventually it’s going to pull at your heartstrings.

Another interesting aspect of the Thisby world: Even though it’s set in a quasi-modern time, there are still vestiges of a pagan past associated with the Scorpio Races. The riders tie knots and ribbons into their horses’ manes. They seem to cast charms through hand gestures and totems. And they can earn boons or evoke curses using the old gods. These beliefs aren’t explained too much, and there’s a nice ambiguity as to whether they actually work or if they’re just sporting superstitions. Also I have to admit I had a hard time imagining monster horses that could propel themselves underwater like sharks, or bite through a man’s neck in a split second. I know that real horses can swim, and that horses can definitely kill a person. I also know that there is a British tradition of mythical ‘water horses,’ including kelpies, but I was surprised to see an entire fantasy book dedicated to these creatures. But it was definitely a nice departure from the usual fantasy tropes of vampires or dragons or wizards.

I just read: The City of Brass

City of Brass starts off about a con-artist named Nahri in Napoleonic-era Cairo. Nahri doesn’t know where she comes from, but wouldn’t you know that she eventually realizes that she’s far more than just a rootless street urchin—she’s descended from a noble family of mythical djinn (they call themselves Daeva). The rest of the story revolves around Nahri coming to terms with this revelation, and how she affects the lives of two djinn men in the far-off, secret city of their ancient race.

I always thought of a djinn (or a Daevas, or an ifrits) as a sort of elemental spirit—or shapeshifting demon. Something inhuman. But the author, S.A. Chakraborty, presents the Daevas as very close to humans, both in their appearance, their politics, and their passions. If anything, the djinni here come off as elves, and their fabled city of Daevabad is Rivendell. One major difference to that is that some tribes of Daeva feel spiritually connected to fire, some to water, etc. The intrigues that run between these different tribes are as fraught and as morally ambiguous as anything you’d see in Game of Thrones. And just as complicated!

Nahri finds herself drawn to two Daeva men who are on opposite sides of this political divide. Nahri feels a romantic spark for both of these men. Dara is a hotheaded outsider—and a deadly warrior—who feels rightfully angry at the city’s current ruling family. Alizayd is the second son of that royal family. He is a devout Muslim, and also secretly entwined with an insurgency fighting for equality of Daevabad’s half-human population.

After a stilted and complicated introduction, Alizayd became my favorite character in the book. Because of his religion, he has chosen to remain chaste. At the same time, Nahri has been forced into an arranged engagement with his older brother, Muntadhir. All the same, Alizayd develops a fierce attachment to Nahri, and the best parts of the books are when he’s clashing with Dara—his political and romantic rival—over Nahri. There’s more than meets the eye to all of these characters, and that includes Muntadhir and Ali’s father, Ghassan.

All in all, an enjoyable fantasy read in a setting that you don’t often see. I look forward to reading the sequel when it is released.

(Ground)Breaking News: Cover reveal!

Here’s the cover for Groundbreakers Book One, which will be released on April 17! Yes, that is a giant echinoid in the bottom half of the image. Spooky and spiny!

“The land of Embhra is ruled by magic—and it’s ruining everything.

Gods and sorcerers jealously hoard their power, and innocent people everywhere are suffering for the cause of those who wield magic. Sygne and Jamal are hoping they can change that. She’s a scientist. He’s a former soldier and aspiring poet-singer.

With her brains and his bravado, they might just make a difference. It also helps that they are on course to find a primordial Ancient One that might hold the key to changing the entire world. Not so helpful: both a war goddess and a love goddess want to see them dead!

The ‘Scientician’ and the Singing Swordsman begin their first groundbreaking adventure in this short-length novel.”

(Ground)Breaking News: It begins!

It’s finally almost here!

I’m announcing I’ll be releasing my latest novel on Tuesday, April 17th.

It’s part of a new series that is a bit of a departure for me. After first testing the indie-publishing waters with a horror book called Line of Descent, I then completed a full-blown sci-fi trilogy, Idyll. Now I’m trying my hand at the fantasy genre. And boy has it been a blast!

The series is called Groundbreakers, and it started out as a story about a proto-scientist making it in a world that has been dominated by sorcery. I thought of it as Mr. Wizard meets actual wizards. Or Isaac Newton in the age of Conan the Barbarian. I realize these pitches make it sound like the main character is a man. Actually, the scientist is a woman, and—actually again—there are two main characters. The second protagonist is a cocky, swashbuckling type.

As I said, this was the premise when I started writing the series a year ago, and also the basic germ of the characters I wanted to build my world around. Of course, as I’ve worked on the series, the characters and the themes have evolved.

Still, throughout the process, I’ve tried to maintain a high-spirited, lighthearted tone—which is also a bit of a departure from what I’ve written in the past. I want the Groundbreaker books to be fun, quick reads. If there are a few moments of heaviness or horror, then maybe they’ll have all the more impact because of it!

Anyway, enough chit-chat. Here is a map of the world (I showed a version of this in an earlier post), and a blurb. If you’re interested in an advanced-reader-copy, send me an email! jderrywriter@gmail.com.

The land of Embhra is ruled by magic—and it’s ruining everything.

Gods and sorcerers jealously hoard their power, and innocent people everywhere are suffering for the cause of those who wield magic. Sygne and Jamal are hoping they can change that. She’s a scientist. He’s a former soldier and aspiring poet-singer.

With her brains and his brawn, they might just make a difference. It also helps that they are on course to find a primordial Ancient One that might hold the key to changing the entire world. Not so helpful: both a love goddess and a war goddess want to see them dead! No one ever said change would be easy…

The ‘Scientician’ and the Singing Swordsman begin their first groundbreaking adventure here—in MYTHS OF THE FALLEN CITY!