Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Declan Finn's Murphy's Law of Vampires

(Author's Note: I will be on Declan Finn's podcast The Catholic Geek on Sunday April 2 from 7 PM till 9 PM. You can look for my review of Love at First Bite, the sequel to Murphy's Law of Vampires at about 9:05 PM that night. So tune in, or log on or whatever it is you do with podcasts and it'll be an awesome time.

Also, for the record, this is the second book in the series. I did review the first one.)

Way back, in the Late Pleistocene Era,  I went to high school with a guy named Brandon, but we all called him Monk. I still do. Monk is now married to the greatest sister in law of the heart EV-AR Melissa and has three young boys who I miss dearly since my move back home to Michigan. He has since cured himself of the malady I am about to discuss. His timing was epic.

I know it's weird, and most of you won't get this, but I can't help think of him while reading Declan Finn's Murphy's Law of Vampires  because the main character, Marco Catalano, is a lot like Monk was in high school: He knows an awesome girl. He loves the awesome girl. He hangs out with the awesome girl. He just can't work up the gumption to tell the awesome girl how awesome she is and that he wants to be her man. Back in high school, and into my early twenties, I called this maneuver "Pulling a Monk." Marco appears to be a natural. And he's Catholic too. I wonder if he needs a nickname...

The thing about Marco is he's kind of like a Monk crossed with a Chuck Norris and a little bit of Buffy thrown in. Yeah, he's a physical bad ass but he's scared of a woman. Marco kills vampires in hand to hand combat using skill, brains and luck, along with the occasional assist from his friends and comrades. Monk, uhh...played football and baseball, but vampires? Not so much. At any rate...

I really like Marco as a character. Like, I want to hang out with the guy sometime. I know he doesn't exist, but Finn does a good enough job with the character that it's like being in the same room with a real person. Catalano has enough foibles to make him believable and enough confidence to make him worth reading. He's a really good guy with a really dark streak that he's not really comfortable with. I don't blame him. He fights for what's good and right but sometimes he has to kill vampires. He sees them as people and he struggles with it.

Marco's I-wish-she-was-my-girlfriend is named Amanda. She's a vampire, but this is where Finn turns vampirism on its head.  Amanda is a good vampire and a good Christian. She is a bloodsucker, it's true, but she is neither evil nor a sparkly emo whiner. Amanda is a hard-nosed, very intelligent and a good warrior in her own right. She faces down some men who give her problems because of her incredible good looks without breaking a sweat. She's just as gutless when it comes to talking to her I-wish-he-was-my-boyfriend but she's hardcore when it comes to everything else.

The book sizzles. The action sequences are impressive. Finn obviously spent hours mapping out the best way to do violence to vampires and other things before writing this. He has very carefully choreographed the fighting in this book. It's impressive. Marco and company are smart and dangerous. Catalano knows that he has to out-plan his enemies and he does so well. The action is so well described that I found myself moving in my seat along with the movements in the fighting. It was exciting. I had my adrenaline going. I wanted to kick ass along with him. It's probably better that I didn't though. I'm a three hundred pound man. I would have gotten in the way.

Something I've often commented on is the need for an epic villain. Finn delivers. Given the fact that the characters in the book can't figure out what Mr. Day is, I won't spoil the fun. But he is pure, unadulterated evil for a reason. He is deadly and vicious. He has a very interesting back story. He's the kind of guy that REALLY REALLY REALLY deserves every terrible thing that happens to him. He's tough as hell and smart. This is no Cobra Commander making stupid mistakes. Day is smart and savvy. He makes chaos because that is his nature. He is cocky but he's damn near indestructible so he should be. But Day does what he does in a logical manner. I wouldn't want to take this guy on.

Finn is a man of both religious and political conviction and it comes through in his writing. Marco, though a New York native, ends up in San Francisco. He is less than impressed with some of the antics of his neighbors. It's obvious that his beliefs belong not just to him but to Finn as well. I was okay with it because I share most of the same beliefs but if you find yourself on the more liberal and/or non-Christian end of the spectrum you may find some of the book to be a bit grating. Rest assured it's no worse than what us rightists feel when we're reading works by Scalzi, but  you guys aren't as used to it. Buck up though. The story is worth it.

I do have one gripe: One of the side characters, whose name I have refused to remember, is stumb as a dump yet she manages to kill vampires. She is, in terms of intelligence at least, the antithesis of the rest of the team. She should be dead but she's not. I don't get this character. She shouldn't be here. She's a bit too obvious. I'm kind of hoping that she's a mole somehow. She's a little too out there stupid. It makes sense if she is playing stupid as a form of camouflage but that's the only way it makes sense. She shouldn't be able to work her way through a brawl without screwing up. It threw me a few times. This chick is just terrible. Then again, it's not a world ending error and I really did like the rest of the book.

Bottom Line: 4.5 out of 5 Test Tubes Full of Holy Water

Murphy's Law of Vampires
Declan Finn
Self-published, 2016

Murphy's Law of Vampires is available at the link below:

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Michael Z. Williamson's A Long Time Until Now

Once in awhile a book comes along out of nowhere and hits you with a setting that you weren't quite expecting. I mean, think about it. We're Science Fiction and Fantasy fans. We've been on a million starships, seen a million alien worlds. We've walked through the gates and into the throne rooms of more medieval kingdoms than we can even count. Each is unique and special but it's all been done and even the surprises really aren't that surprising. As exciting as the action and the characters can be, settings are just regurgitated tropes. Well, unless you're reading A Long Time Until Now by Michael Z. Williamson. Then things get different in a hurry.

The story opens with convoy in Afghanistan. Then there's a noise. The next thing we know, everything has changed, only nothing has. Our heroes (several members of the Army who were part of the convoy) are sent hurtling back in time to, well, we're never really certain when. Call it a few millennia give or take. That part is fairly standard. What makes this different is mix of peoples that show up. Prehistoric Afghanistan becomes a mixing bowl of people and time periods. We're treated to dealings with prehistoric cultures from two different places and eras, Roman legions with Indian allies from a later period and visitors from our future.The Americans are at the top of the pile due to their technological advantage right up until they're not. I don't want to give too much up here, but things do get rather interesting in that regard.

The interesting part here, to me at least, is that Williamson freely acknowledges the humanity of his characters. The young woman who decides all the men are going to rape her because she's the only woman around is believable and even understandable. The older characters (in their thirties and forties) and their aches and pains. Several have medical problems that require medicines that aren't manufactured in ancient Afghanistan and have to figure out how to take care of themselves. It's not always easy for our lost soldiers and then it gets, well... not worse, but weirder.

Dealings between cultures are always going to be weird. It's all well and good to respect someone else's culture. It's even good to try to adapt to other cultures when necessary. It's never easy though, and it gets worse when the two sides don't even have a language in common. Mad Mike nails it though. His characters are smart enough to know that they don't know how another culture works. The try to figure things out. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they fail miserably. Fortunately, they have a linguist with them that can help figure things out.

The amount of research that went into this book is unreal. Williamson is able to take us through the construction of an eighteenth or nineteenth century wilderness fort step by step using modern tools. He acknowledges a lot of organizational issues and addresses them. Unlike a lot of others, this book makes sense. The fort is produced by work. The tools are what the troops could reasonably expect to have. Food is gathered or hunted for by people who are aware that they are going to run out of rounds eventually. Their personal hygiene supplies run out and people get bummed out about it. It just works.

In any story, the characters are what hold interest. Williamson does a damn good job with those.  There were times in the story where I wasn't sure if I wanted to hug these guys or get them good and drunk, but they were all people I could get along with. They were well trained and motivated, yes, but they reacted right in other ways. I have a vision of a writer out there somewhere working on something similar. In this alternate story though, the people who get marooned just embrace the suck and get the job done. Williamson's characters do get the job done, but they do it while acting like real people. They mourn for their lost loved ones. They have porn downloaded to their phones. (Yes, there is a realistic way to charge them.) Life sucks when they first get there because the food is bland. It all works together. These characters live and breathe.

That brings me to my first complaint. It's not the first time I've written this. Sometimes it seems just a bit too coincidental that a group that gets lost has an exact mix of the bare minimum in skills needed to survive. I get that it's necessary for the story but for me it stretches the bounds of believability when every skill you need is present and there are no slackers around. Seriously Mr. Williamson, where is the shitbird? Every unit has one. Even more than that though, we get a lecture on how the Roman legions were so fearsome because they were so well organized and then find out that the person giving the speech has an MBA. Don't get me wrong. I'm not some idiot leftist who thinks that the only reason people enlist in the military is because they're too stupid to realized that they could get hurt in a war. But that doesn't necessarily add up to a ten man element having an organizational expert, an expert in husbandry, an expert in botany and someone who knows how to forge metal into tools in it. I know it fits the requirements of the story and it doesn't really pull me out of the story when I'm in it. A Long Time Until Now is a good book though, and I found myself thinking about it when I wasn't reading. The effect was that it took me longer to get back into the book when I picked it back up than I would have otherwise.

My only other whine is about the ending. It's plausible per the standards of the story, but if feels a bit deus ex machina to me. I know that there was no way the characters were going to find their own way out of the problem given their technical know-how and what they had available but it seems like a bit of a stretch to me. All whining aside though, this was a damn fine book. I'm looking forward to Williamson's next one.

Bottom Line: 4.5 out of 5 M4 rounds

A Long Time Until Now
Michael Z. Williamson
Baen, 2016

A Long Time Until Now is available at the link below: