Dispatches from the Goodread’s Reading Challenge Wasteland: Jonathan Maberry’s Extinction Machine

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

extinction machine

What’s funny is that, as I write this review, I’m nearing the completion of the sixth book in the Joe Ledger series, Code Zero.  Why the delay? Partly because I’m slowly working my way through various deadlines, but also partly because the last book Assassin’s Code was like the last book of a long-running storyline, and I gotta admit, I was sad to see it go.

For the TL;DR crowd: Extinction Machine, the fifth book in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series is probably the best opening for new readers to the series, aside from the first book, Patient Zero, itself.  Chock full of the quick-draw action, thumbnail depictions (or reminders) that are vibrant enough to get into and root for the characters, Machine also balances all its backstory from previous novels the way a standalone novel would and a newer reader wouldn’t have to play catch-up to enjoy this one.

Anyway.

As opposed to the previous entries, this is only my second time reading Extinction Machine.  Up until a few months ago, it was the most recent Ledger novel I owned.  Every time I acquired a new one, I would re-read the previous.  With that in mind, you can guess how often I’ve read the other books.

Because of that, I found that I’d forgotten huge swaths of the novel; whereas I could count on the beats in the other books, having read them so often, coming back to Book 5 was like reading it again for the first time.  I was good at remembering everything up to the introduction of Junie Flynn, a supporting character who becomes (for now) a series regular, but everything after was just…blank.

Okay, here come the deets: Extinction Machine takes on the idea of aliens.  When the president is abducted from his bed in the dead of night without a single alarm being tripped, Joe Ledger and his Echo Team are rolled out to stop the clock on the ransom that, unmet, could trigger one of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit the planet.  Also, aliens and cyberattacks.

What’s funny, for me, about Extinction Machine is that it goes right up to the line of “plausible” science fiction (technically, all the other stuff in the other books is “possible” if you had trillions of dollars, no laws, and no moral code or timetable), but doesn’t cross it.  A yeoman when it comes to research, Maberry has always striven for novels that are as grounded as zombies, genetic monsters, and vampires with nukes can be.  But it’s hard to bring in aliens without people wanting to bring in the tinfoil hats and Richard Dreyfus.  To that end, Maberry leaves the issue…ambiguous.  While he’ll go nitty-gritty about T-craft and the current scuttlebutt on the UFO community (he didn’t talk with Tom DeLonge, formerly of Blink-182, but that’s probably for the best), he leaves the actual topic of alien visitation as a “they’ve probably out there, they’ve probably visited, but I’m gonna keep them as indirect as I can within the framework of the story.”  If you’re hoping Ledger uppercuts a Gray, check that expectation at the door.

Because, to Maberry (as far as I can see), the point isn’t the aliens but Ledger’s reaction to the crisis–namely, getting the president back through a ransom payment.  I know the Ledger series is marketed as “sci-fi thriller” but that always seemed backwards to me; these are thrillers with elements of genre–whether they be SF or horror.  You don’t need the nitty-gritty on T-craft or gene therapy or prions to enjoy the story; they’re there if you want them, but what Ledger’s doing is always going to be more interesting than a paragraph on how usable a crashed UFO engine is.  However, “thriller with elements of genre” is hard to market and too wordy.

But, reading this, I was a little sad.  All the backstory–which Maberry gets better at with each book–is presented perfectly for new readers…and that’s because all the plot lines from previous books, really, are over.  The villain from Book One is in Book Three, but that’s done.  Same with the mastermind behind Book Three and Book Four.  With those novels, the backstory recap felt a little weighty because those elements still had repercussions within the new stories.  Here?  Those villains are gone, a status quo has been established as much as it can, and the series can, for now, present situations that new readers can dive in.

With that said, new characters–like the new members of Echo, or Junie Flynn–are brought in and they get a chance to stand out and introduce themselves.  Flynn is interesting.  With Book Four, Maberry toyed with giving Ledger another love interest, but didn’t.  Here, he makes it blatant–Flynn is a viable partner for Ledger.  This is interesting, because the situation with the almost-love in Book Four is still around.  It could be all melodramatic and panting, but isn’t (mostly because the action moves too fast to pause like that) .  I’ve always had problems with how the first relationship, between Ledger and Major Grace Courtland–Courtland was a great, well-articulated character that felt ill-used by the series trope of the tragic love (she wasn’t “fridged”, but the roll out of her from beginning to end always bugged me)–went, preferring how Maberry wrote the developing relationship between supporting characters Rudy (Ledger’s therapist friend) and Circe (Ledger’s boss’s daughter).  Here, though, we get another well-articulated character, a person in her own right (some series have love interests just to have them, it seems), who can be a partner to Ledger and it doesn’t feel forced.  I dug that.

Saying that, though, as the cast of characters grows, less and less time can be spent on them unless they’re top tier supporting.  In the early books, there was much to the interactions of Ledger with his top two guys, Top and Bunny, with a lot of great chemistry and naturalism.  As people come in, we get less of those moments–they still exist, but not as often or as deep.  With the newbies, they’re not cardboard, but it takes a moment to get to know them–two books in the case of characters like sniper John Smith.  As the books become more ensemble-like in its cast, Maberry’s having to work harder to get these characters breathing–the quick sketches that worked so well in the early books don’t have time here.  Not a critique or a praise, but more of a note.  Book 5 is halfway through where Maberry is now–writing Book Ten–and I’m curious to see how that develops.

So, there you go.  Aliens.  New loves.  What felt like less focus on science–or it’s the same and I just didn’t notice–and more on action.  A good intro book for anyone who doesn’t necessarily want to start from the beginning.

Next, the return of zombies.  I can get behind that.

#SomeoneElseSaturday: Mercedes Yardley & John Skipp

NOTE:

Yes, I am a day late on my very own thing – #SomeoneElseSaturday.  Never call me punctual. 

I actually had to think about this one; for the previous versions, I just recommended the shit I had been reading.  The most recent one was Jonathan Maberry’s Assassin’s Code (and I still need to write something on Extinction Machine).  However, I didn’t want to do two consecutive #SomeoneElseSaturdays on Maberry, as good as he is (and, for any newbies to Maberry and his character Joe Ledger, the fifth book is an excellent place to start).  I wanted to be as wide-ranging as possible when trying to get this thing going.

So, as I sorted the family laundry, I studied my book cases for inspiration.  And found two:

Mercedes Yardley & John Skipp.  Specifically, their short story collections.

As should come as a surprise to exactly no one, I love short stories.  During one of my bookcase organization binges (like Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I rearrange my books like Rob rearranges his records–when he needs to think things through and give himself a “fresh start”), I had a bookcase and a half of just anthologies and collections.  I admire a writer who can take an idea and crunch it down to one solid punch; novels are like extended wrestling matches, and there’s skill there, but there’s a special skill in order to launch and land a fight-ending punch.  A lot of writers don’t write shorts, or profess to not like them, and, to my mind, that’s an extremely narrow and limiting view.  If you can’t, or don’t want to, get a reader to care and react in under 10,000 words, you’re kinda dicking the reader around (that might be an unfair statement; if so, I’ll own it).

There are two short story collections coming out in 2016 I’m ridiculously excited about, one I read in manuscript form, and one I just wanna get my grubby hands on: Cry Your Way Home by Damien Angelica Walters and 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod.  But, since neither is in print yet, I’ll keep it to two others.

So!  Let’s talk short story collections from two seemingly disparate sources.

beautiful

Beautiful Sorrows by Mercedes M. Yardley

Mercedes Yardley, a mother out of Las Vegas and the nicknamed “Ms. Murder”, offers a slim volume of cuts that straddle the line between whimsy and pitch-black dark fantasy.  To me, these read like fairy tales for grownups, and I mean that in the best possible way.  The tales are short, incisive, and to the point.  Not a word wasted.

artofhorriblepeople

The Art of Horrible People, by John Skipp

In a volume just as slim as Mercedes’s, Skipp’s The Art of Horrible People goes in the opposite direction, presenting stories that have both feet firmly planted in the here and now and then sprint into the world of the outlandish.  Skipp got his start with former writing partner Craig Spector and wound up founding one of the most misunderstood movements in horror, splatterpunk.  Still, for as bugfuck as the Skipp & Spector novels could and did get–and, with novels like The Bridge, that’s saying something–there’s a goofy insanity to these stories that can’t be matched, even in the supposed “quieter” ones, like “In the Waiting Room, Trading Death Stories”.

So, there you go: a day late on #SomeoneElseSaturday, but with double the fun.

Who would you recommend this week?

(Also, go buy my short story collection Bones Are Made to be Broken.)

(#SomeoneElseSaturday Crossover!) Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands: Jonathan Maberry’s Assassin’s Code

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

assassin's code

I actually finished this, like, a week ago, but I’ve been struggling to find time to write the review.  A part of it was daily life–the husband/father/teacher bit–a part of it was starting a collaboration with another writer on a project (I’ve never collaborated, so it’s terrifyingly excited and I spent each interval between messages neurotically wondering, “They didn’t realize I suck, did they?”); another part was trying to meet a couple of deadlines creeping up on me.

But, hey, it worked out that I’d post this on Saturday–which means #SomeoneElseSaturday!  (Right?  Has that become a thing yet?  Y’know, where you go and praise someone else’s work and hashtag it #SomeoneElseSaturday?  No?  Fuck.)

Oh, and if you’re reading this, I get spoiler-y–but, to be fair, I find the people who tend to cry “Spoiler!” the loudest are kinda spoiled to begin with.  (Man, I’m so loving and agreeable.)

In any event, here we are–Book Four of the Joe Ledger series, Assassin’s Code.  This is my third time reading the book over the years–as I collect each new (or, given the fact that I’m slow on buying, new-ish) installment, I go back to the beginning and re-read.  (Case in point, I’m re-reading Extinction Machine right now, but because, until recently, it was the last book I had, this is only my second time and I’m startled by how much isn’t familiar to me.)

For the TL:DR crowd–to me, this is the funnest of the Ledger books out of the first four (ignoring the novelty of the concept in Book One, Patient Zero) and, here, the characters–Ledger, Top, Bunny, Church, Vox, Ghost the Dog, Rudy, Bug (Bug!)–come into their own and run, fucker.  I’m a character reader, so everything hinges on the characters playing true to the demands of the story.  Alfie Bester, writer of The Stars! My Destination, is quoted as saying, “The book is the boss,” and that’s always meant, to me, that the characters–the people of the story–demand certain things. Assassin’s Code is a goddamned fun book because of this idea.

Anyway, when last we met our lovable series character, the Captain of an ultra-elite and top secret group called the Department of Military Sciences (the DMS, for short, and led by the enigmatic Mr. Church), in The King of Plagues, Ledger was still mourning the loss of his colleague and…girlfriend? (the term feels really out there to me, given the context)…Major Grace Courtland, at the end of Book Two–The Dragon Factory–when he gets yanked into a countdown of the modern Ten Plagues, initiated by a secret society that had, in its membership the Big Bad of Book One, Sebastian Gault, plus a man who knows the ins and outs of the DMS, plus Mr. Church–Hugo Vox.  We also got an introduction to, now, series regular Circe O’Tree (I’m at the end of Book Five as I write this).

But, here in Book Four, it’s all about vampires with nukes, baby.  Seriously.  Ledger and Echo Team are in Iran on a deep-cover assignment that’s just wrapped up when, in the middle of getting coffee, someone puts a laser sight on his balls and gives him a phonecall.  From there, it goes downhill as Ledger, a mysterious female assassin named Violin (I’ll get to that), and Echo Team try to stop a number of–and I’m not joking–vampires from setting off strategically placed nuclear weapons in an attempt to bring about perpetual night.

As I’ve said numerous times, Maberry’s strength as a writer comes from his ability to use this.  He might plot and chart like a motherfucker, but it doesn’t feel that way.  Ledger’s reactions feel organic to the demands of the events surrounding him.  That’s a trick a lot of writers can’t pull off consistently, let alone in a goddamned series.  Maberry can;  Ledger, our hero of the series, has changed over time, but it doesn’t feel like it’s due to, say, Jonathan Maberry forgeting something about him.

But, that’s me, and literally everything else gets pushed to the backburner.  As the series has continued, Maberry’s acknowledgement pages have grown longer as he’s gone further and further in terms of researching this tech or that biological element or–hey–what about Roswell (that’s a part of Book Five).  Maberry has always done yeoman’s work when it comes to research (most of us Google some shit and then make the caveat, “If this wrong, blame me, not whoever I asked”) and then taken those answers to whatever fictional place his imagination made for the info.  Even something as ridiculously B-movie sounding as zombies, clones, aliens, or–in Assassin’s Code–vampires comes from an attempt to learn as much science to ground it.

If you’re that kind of reader, you love Ledger for that reason (example: the super-computer MindReader in the series means as much to me as the answers it provides Ledger; to the more science-based crowd, they’ll love wondering how close actual tech is to that type of system).   But, you don’t have to love–or even, really, pay attention to–the science in order to get into the book(s).  I am not a hard SF fan–just never turned my dials–and any SF-flavored story I’ve loved has either been decidedly soft or used to form a foundation of the story but not be the story.

Maberry’s writing never lets the science–the novelty of a writer going “Look what I learned!”, which, with other writers, bores the hell out of me–do anything but what it’s supposed to do: offer a grounding for his characters to move.

I had quibbles with previous books, finding Courtland’s death in Book Two problematic, and the reveal of Hugo Vox in Book Three fairly panting, but here, we’re just going along for the ride, riding the wind with the characters and–whee!–that’s where I like it.  The cribbing of history–there’s a lot of the Crusades here, but it works–aside, we’re in the moment as Ledger tries to insert himself into a metaphorical shoot-out between two different sides and fuck their days up in the name of saving the rest of the world.

Now, there’s always been a pulp edge to the Ledger series–well, more of a blade than an edge–and, man, does Maberry go full-tilt-boogie on that motherfucker in Assassin’s Code.   This is action/thriller/balls-to-the-wall insanity–pick your term, it’s all fun, popcorn reading–the kind that makes getting back to the book kinda like being able to press PLAY on the film or show you’ve been dying to catch up on.

The propulsive writing and action; the thumbnail characterizations that completely work with the players; the goofy science  (I suppose it’s possible; I also suppose the highest grade I ever got in any science course was a gift C-average, so don’t trust me on the science stuff, okay?  Go read the acknowledgements page)–all these elements are on display and they ramp up the “fun” factor hard.

What’s also a relief is that, four books in, Maberry’s gotten a handle on how to get backstory and Ledger’s fractured psyche across gracefully.  Up until this book, it’s always felt like he has to essentially stop the action dead to talk so that new readers don’t feel so completely at-sea.  This makes sense–series can get more than a little convoluted–but it always made me think, “Fuck, just do a ‘Previously…’ section prior to the start of the novel.”  But, in Assassin’s Code, he’s got the hang of it by now and I’m glad; his explanation of past events and Ledger’s past trauma come off the most fluid here, which gives those hypothetical new readers something to hang onto to keep from being lost.

My only “Really?” moment came in the errant times when Ledger thinks he hears Courtland’s voice.  I have my own problems with the idea of a book series, and this is one of them–things popping up later on in the series that would’ve made more sense in earlier books (for example: in Book Three, Echo Team is fully fleshed out and there are flashbacks to previous events to introduce the new members, but the timeline’s wonky because when these characters came in, they should’ve been in Book Two, but weren’t).  I get it–things occur to the writer that fit, but you can’t go back and revise a previously published book just for the fuck of it.  In Book Three, Ledger’s still mourning Courtland, but he doesn’t hear her voice.  Now, in Book Four, we hear her voice.  Um.

A near-miss is Violin.  There’s a backstory on her that could make it’s own review, but, upon introductions, we “know” we’re seeing the setup of Ledger’s next love interest.  Except…it doesn’t quite come.  Courtland’s introduction, in Book One, was, to me, fairly clumsy and heavy-handed and action-movie-trope-y.  With Violin, it’s like Maberry realizes that it just wouldn’t work in a traditional way and to force it (as Courtland felt vaguely forced) would be to fuck it all up.  He doesn’t, and the book is better for it.

On another note, this book is actually kind of sad–we see the end of any lingering villains.  Except for Book Two, we saw updates on a number of villains.  Hugo Vox plays a big part in Book Four, but there’s a resolution there.  When we get to book five, The Extinction Machine, it will have all new Big Bads in it.  That’s both a relief and a regret.  I liked Vox.  He was a motherfucker of a high order.  Still.

So, Assassin’s Code.  Vampires with nukes.  Some religious history.  Hugo Vox.  Enough pulp to make a gallon of natural orange juice seem filtered.  All so good, friends.  Ledger’s the reason I actually started to like the idea of a book series.  Without Maberry, I never would’ve bothered with Wilson’s Repairman Jack or Kadrey’s Sandman Slim and I’d be poorer for it.

Next, aliens.  Oh yeah.

Thirteen Days to the Suicide Woods: Day 1 — The Call of the Void

Go check this out, friend-Os (and thanks for Jessica McHugh, since I just appropriated that term): Bracken’s my main man–I lavished praise on his novel STRANDED in my last post–and he has his own collection coming out this month: 13 VIEWS OF THE SUICIDE WOODS. (We promised each other that our next collections will have sunnier, if still evocative, titles). Over the next few weeks, he’s going to be giving some inside-baseball on the stories, which is something that I always wanted to do, but I’m lazy. Bracken is not lazy. Bracken is the main man. Go dig in.

Everyone's Devil

I love to get a peek behind the scenes of creative work. I read liner notes on albums, I listen to movie commentaries, and I especially love when they release those “P.S.” editions of novels with questions and interviews with the author at the end of the book. This blog series over the next thirteen days is going to be my attempt at a P.S. appendix of my upcoming short story collection from ChiZine Publications, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods.

Along the way, I’m going to relate a few little details about individual stories in the collection, my motivations and intentions, and background about choices I made, all while trying not to spoil anything for you. For those of you like me, who like to read the liner notes, I hope you enjoy it. 

Since we’re barely on the way, I’ll start with the title. Our first stop on the road is,

View original post 425 more words

Let’s Start a Thing: Someone Else Saturday (Chrome-embossed cover first edition in tri-color format)

Don’t look at me like that about the title of this post; I was a comic book kid of the ’90s.

Anyway.

Unless you’re an iconic writer whose every word gets adapted into a film that’ll at least make its budget back, you’re on social media, whorin’ yourself out like your pimp is three seconds from going Wayne Brady on your ass.

If you have any kind of soul, it feels kinda icky, like binge-watching Toddlers & Tiaras (don’t ever watch that).  Also, it might not be all that effective–people get numb to your constant Amazon linking, the Facebook algorithm laughs at your puny attempts of outreach and you only get “liked” by your grandmother–who would never, ever actually read what you’re posting (let alone the book itself).

I’m not immune to the icky feeling, nor Facebook laughing at me.  I’m fucking proud of Bones Are Made to be Broken (buy it here), but I hate it when authors ask me three seconds after accepting their friend requests to “like” their page; and I hate their bot-like posting of their fucking book; and their “sponsored” ads, with their “in the tradition of Stephen King” (spoiler alert: no, it’s not).  I recently posted the picture below:

blurb-ad-pic

…and that’s enough whoring myself for now.

You know what works, though?  Beyond press in high-traffic areas and sites (those help; don’t ever get me wrong on that)?

Word of mouth of other books.  Things you’ve read.  Things you’ve liked.  Everyone dismisses you singing your own praises, but they cock their head when you rave about someone else.

So!  Here’s a thing: Someone Else Saturdays (#SomeoneElseSaturday, which you should totally do in line with #FridayReads).

Link to the good shit you’re reading, or have read.

To start us off, here are mine:

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Paper Tigers – Damien Angelica Walters

This was my favorite book last year and was so fucking good.  Walters takes the tropes of haunted possessions, sordid pasts, and broken protagonists (and, in horror, those are pretty trope-y tropes, if we’re being honest) and inverts and twists and messes with them to create such a goddamned great masterpiece.  It’s the book that’s on the tip of my tongue whenever someone’s just thinking of asking for a book rec.  Walters has a short story collection coming out, called Cry Your Way Home, and she’s just as good in the short form.

stranded

Stranded – Bracken MacLeod

I just read this one and was blown away by how seamlessly MacLeod was able to transition from a standard feet-on-the-ground thriller and go total Outer Limits.  I’m seriously struck dumb by that motherfucker of a feat.  So good.

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The Green Kangaroos – Jessica McHugh

When I want to read something fucked-up and out there, I go to Jess.  This futuristic story on drug abuse and the lengths people will go to kick addictions was cringe-y (if you’re a dude, you shoot up by injecting in the balls–just typing those words makes me cross my legs) but awesome.

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Another Day in Paradise – Eddie Little

This was my introduction to true crime fiction–not mysteries or “capers”, but down and dirty crime.  It follows the loss of innocence of Bobby Prine–a stand-in for Little, since a lot of this was twisted autobiography–as he goes down the path of addiction and robbery.  So goddamned good.  This book led me to guys like Shane Stevens and Jim Thompson, who I think of even before Elmore Leonard or Richard Stark.  This book was followed up by Steel Toes, but then Little died of a heart attack, and the trilogy was never finished.  The prose is clunky but crackles with nervous, shooting-speed energy.  I love it.   {This book’s out of print, but you can probably find it at Abe’s Books, or something.}

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Brothel – Stephanie M. Wytovich

I read this in manuscript form and I loved it right away; erotic and charged and propulsive, every verse just yanks you along down darker, more intimate corridors.  I envisioned these poems as the nightly journal entries of someone who works in a brothel–just because I liked that idea.

So!  Let’s make this a thing–every Saturday, link to a book you liked that you didn’t write and you weren’t obligated to say you like (which is kinda like kissing a sibling on the cheek).

#SomeoneElseSaturday

brokenhousehome

Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wasteland: Jonathan Maberry’s The King of Plagues

(QUICK NOTE THAT I BEGIN EVERY WASTELAND DISPATCH WITH:

(Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to.  No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book.  I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game.  Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.

(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.

(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)

king-of-plagues

So I’m back in the Joe Ledger game with the third book in the series, The King of Plagues, as I work my way up to the new Ledger books in my TBR pile that I haven’t read: Code Zero and Predator One–the problem of reading a series one by one, at least for me, is that I have to go back and remember all that backstory.

Last time, I’d said that the second book, The Dragon Factory, felt like Maberry was struggling with finding the rhythm of a series, trying to push against the limits of the format, and, in one case, lapsing into standard trope with the “love interest”.  It’s not a bad book, but, to me, it’s the weakest of the five I’ve read.

Here, in the third book, Maberry says, “Fuck it,” and goes for the throat, telling a story that yanks the viewer along at greater speed than even the first book, Patient Zero (it’s a pace he’ll keep up with the fourth book, Assassin’s Code, as well).

The hero, Joe Ledger–former Baltimore detective, former Ranger, former boy-band member, most voted to overwhelm an open mic night (two of those things might not be true)–is unofficially retired from the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), after his superior and girlfriend, Major Grace Courtland, was killed at the end of the last book (I had issues with that).  Prior to the novel’s beginning, he’s hunted Grace’s killer and brought rough justice and is now in London, laying low.

Until DMS head Mr. Church (not his real name) pulls him back, investigating the bombing of a London hospital and thus begins a race against the clock to stop the modern recreation of the Ten Plagues as perpetuated by shadow group the Seven Kings.  There are one of two major surprises in this novel, plot-wise, one of which is a spoiler I won’t ruin; the other is the return of Book One antagonist Sebastian Gault as the new King of Plagues.

I said, early on, that Maberry in this series is writing pulp–check-your-brain-at-the-door popcorn fiction.  He works his ass off and the stories are good, but he’s not trying to replace Jonathan Safran Foer, or anything.  He comes into his own here, going full on supervillain with Gault and the Seven Kings.  It’s fun.

But it does have it’s drawbacks, stemming–and this sounds familiar–the handling of Grace Courtland.  Maberry is an excellent characterizer–no, it’s not a word, and, fuck you, I’m using it, anyway–never settling for cardboard cutouts.  Thus, Courtland’s death in the last book bugged the ever-loving fuck out of me because it was so pat; of course our hero would lose his love at the climax of the final battle, just as the story’s been signalling the entire time.

Here, in The King of Plagues, the problem lies with how Maberry allows Ledger to deal with it.  As readers, we loved Courtland in the first book and were rightfully pained when she died in the second.  We want her killer, the cloned assassin Conrad Veder, to get what’s coming to him.  And, in the beginning of the book, we discovered he did.

And it happened off-fucking-screen.  We do not see Ledger get the beginnings of closure; we the readers don’t get the closure of seeing the guy skinned alive (or, y’know, whatever Ledger did to kill him), and that’s a missed beat for me.

Moreover, if Maberry had included it, he would’ve had a nice bit of symmetry.  Throughout Plagues, he sketches out Gault’s motivation for going all Dr. Doom on everything by stemming it at how hollow and wounded he felt by the betrayal of his love Amarah (I might have spelled that wrong) at the end of Patient Zero and he’s going to kill all emotion by killing everything else, essentially (there’s more to it than that, of course, but go read the goddamned book for the blow-by-blow).  On the other side of the scale, Ledger is driven to stop Gault and the Plague while being haunted by Grace.  C’mon, it’s a layup so easy my cat could make it.  Maybe it was spacing, maybe Maberry didn’t want to do it (or thought it stupid, which I guess is possible), but I would’ve loved that balance.  The King of Plagues *could’ve* been a book about being haunted, which would’ve been a nice subtext.  It doesn’t and, for some, that’s going to be a let-down.

For others, you get to see Bono make a piss-poor cup of tea for Ledger.  That’s okay, too.

In the next book, we’ll have nuclear weapons and a pseudo-rational explanation of vampires.  It’s kinda balls-to-the-wall.

This Is Not a Playlist

About a week ago, the redoubtable Adrian Shotbolt (aka The Grim Reader; he also threw Bones Are Made to be Broken a good review last year) asked me about how music influenced my writing and I jumped at that topic in half a minute.  Music is huge with me, to the point that for a significant portion of my teens and twenties, I was an insufferable prick about it.

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Don’t worry–I’ve gotten better.  (“At being a dick, Anderson?” someone yells in the back?  Like, dude–what are you even doing here today?)

Anyway, I won’t rehash all that here, because you should really go read the article over at Adrian’s page; it’s top-notch writing, the best, the best there is–also, he writes really awesome reviews.

What I am going to do is pull the songs for the stories I referenced because, fuck, I love those songs.

1 – “Passive” – 44 Lies by 22 Liars

This is the most straight-forward of the stories, a flash piece I wrote on a whim one night when I was avoiding working on something else.  The “wake up and face me” part pretty much nails it, but I, when hearing the song, saw this one-sided friendship, so lopsided that the “higher” person in the partnership is like this benign villain, fucking things up for our “hero” through nothing but simple existence in the hero’s orbit.

2 -“Crawling Back to You” – Savage Beasts (Grey Matter Press) / Bones Are Made to be Broken

The penultimate track of Tom Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers, I’ve loved this song since I first heard it on the highways of Ohio back in 1996.  I’ve talked a lot about that song over the years; there was a reason I used “Crawling Back to You” to kick off the stories in Bones Are Made to be Broken.

When it came to the story, I wound up mixing the wariness and weariness in Petty’s lyrics with the nihilism of Near Dark (I’m writing this on the day I learned of Bill “Severen” Paxton’s death, so, yeah, that hurts).  Something about the relationship between a vampire and his familiar struck a cord with me; relationships are fucking hard, gang, and anyone who’s been a successful one (platonic or intimate, I mean) can tell you that.  When the relationship is toxic and near-eternal due to circumstances, you have a fucked up situation.  I wanted so much for Patty, the protagonist in the story, to succeed, if only because I’ve known people like her in real life, people who you know have the common sense to get the fuck out, but just can’t.

3 – “The Universe Is Dying” – You, Human (Dark Regions Press)/ Bones Are Made to be Broken

Quick trivia – the version of “The Universe Is Dying” in You, Human and the one that appears in Bones Are Made to be Broken are different.  I took all the stories I reprinted through a revise and/or slight-rewrite, but I was never happy with the ending to the original version and agonized over the last paragraphs for far longer than I should.  I ultimately got it (he says, nervously), so  when I think of “Universe” in “official” terms, it’s the reprint in Bones I think of.

On the surface, “Jimmy” is the biggest influence–two characters named Jimmy, a location in Ohio, the past calling back to the present–and “A Long December” is explicitly named in the story.  I based the story’s emotional heft off the death of my own grandmother in December of 1996 (in the story, the death is my wedding anniversary–don’t read too deeply into that), which hit me hard, not because it was my first experience with death, but because my grandmother was one of my biggest influences growing up (my jet-black gallows humor comes from her and her side of my family).  So, a lot of the story–including the town, house, and hospital, are actually landmarks in Oil City, Pennsylvania, with a name-change.

Because of that “Happy Anniversary” is the biggest influence when you go deeper.  When Pierre sings, “I can feel it in my bones tonight” and “Send the kids my love, happy anniversary”, it rocketed me to the hospital room I was writing about, and holding that hand with the paper-thin skin.  In fact, I’d had the rough idea for “Universe” for years, since first hearing “Jimmy” in 2000, but I needed “Happy Anniversary” to get me in the emotional groove.

4 – (Bonus) “Bones Are Made to be Broken” – Bones Are Made to be Broken

I’ve written before on how seeing illustrator Pat R. Steiner, juxtaposing my toss-away title Bones Are Made to be Broken with the image of a woman in the water jumpstarted the idea for the novella, mixed with my own experiences growing up in the early-1990s with a single mother and a bad divorce.

I wrote the story, but it was a shallow novel–meaning, the first draft totalled 59,000 words, but didn’t have the punch I wanted it to; it felt more like a poke.  I knew I was going to have to rewrite.

When I started rewriting, I happened upon this song because I follow Pierre on Twitter–and I immediately knew what I had been trying to talk about.

“Bones Are Made to be Broken” is horror to me although there are no monsters or killers and even the villain, the ex-husband, is not particularly villainous and you can see where he’s coming from.  It’s about a single, broken person, charged with not damaging their child.  Fuck, it’s mainstream.  I make the joke wondering when the Lifetime channel is going to option the fucking thing for a Movie of the Week.

But it is horror, and a gut punch, and about the lengths we will go to to protect our children, even when dealing with mental illness and nervous breakdowns.  When I heard “Everything That Hurts”, that subtext finally articulated itself to me (I’m one of those who see stories as found things, and it’s a writer’s talent that pulls it from the mental soil like an artifact).  I wrote the chorus at the top of the document and rewrote the story from scratch, not once looking at the first draft, and managed not only to add and revisit scenes with greater clarity, but also bring the fucker home at 20K fewer words than the original version.

All because of that song.  Thanks, Justin.

So, there you go.  Enjoy the tunes.

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You can get the eBook and paperback of Bones Are Made to be Broken on Amazon.

You can pre-order the deluxe and expanded (by about 10K, roughly) limited hardcover at the main Dark Regions Press site.

You can add Bones Are Made to be Broken to your Goodreads shelf:

Bones are Made to be Broken