Review: All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All The Old Knives is a masterfully plotted psychological spy thriller. Henry, a CIA operative, and Celia, and ex-CIA analyst, are reunited six years after a disastrous terrorist operation which was never fully resolved. Henry seeks out Celia to find clarity in the events which lead to 120 civilian casualties, her resignation from the CIA, and the end to their romantic relationship. Over the course of a single dinner the novel alternates perspective to tell their individual accounts of the events, both then and now.

This was my introduction to Olen Steinhauer’s writing which combines complex four-dimensional characters with riveting intrigue. I was impressed with the composition of the operatives in the Vienna field office. Each character had a clear role, personality, and flaw. The interior dynamics of the team was rendered deftly to provide for each to contribute, reveal their allegiances and weaknesses. The humanity and vulnerability of the agents sets this apart from so many other books in this genre. Both cinematic and intimate All The Old Knives earns a solid recommendation.

I received this book free from the publisher, Minotaur Books, which is an imprint of MacMillian and St. Martin’s Press through NetGalleyAll The Old Knives will be released for purchase on March 10th, 2015.

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Review: Trees, Volume 1

Trees, Vol. 1 (Trees #1- #8)Trees, Vol. 1 by Warren Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of confidence in anything by Warren Ellis. He has proven to be a keen observer of society and can create worlds and characters although warped and twisted to reflect ourselves like a funhouse mirror. He has opened up dark places within his characters and revealed a sympathetic link to a little bit of darkness we recognize. Trees, Volume 1 introduces a world, much like our own, only the question of the existence of intelligent life in the universe has been answered, at least for humanity. Immense alien bio-mechanical structures have landed on Earth. The distribution seems arbitrary situated in Manhattan, Mogadishu, Rio de Janeiro, near Shu in China and Svalbard. For ten years they seemingly do not move, do not communicate, do not acknowledge us at all. They stand motionless as trees.

What does change is us. Many flee the shadow of these colossi, others are drawn towards them. They are studied by scientists, philosophers, politicians and artists. The rest of the world carefully tries to ignore the behemoths; to pretend they do not exist – or have always existed. The trees seemingly exert influence over those in proximity simply by their presence. Warren Ellis sets up this tension; a tension which has existed in this world for ten years, but plants the seeds for eminent communication between our species in future volumes.

While Warren Ellis is working as subtly as I have ever seen him, Jason Howard is bold and impressive. His illustration excels in all aspects. Through his scratching short strokes he conveys huge landscapes, expressive characters, organic and technical detail, and kinetic action sequences with equal confidence. He expertly reveals the “trees” from distant shadows and incomplete forms to eventually describing texture and patiently waiting to unveil the view of them in their entirety. He has the unenviable task of working in huge shifts in scale, but through color and composition he translates the action with clarity and emotion. It is truly stunning work.

I received access to a digital copy of Trees, Volume 1 from NetGalley. The collected trade paperback will be released by Image Comics on Wednesday, February 11th, 2015.

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Review: Half the World

Half the World (Shattered Sea, #2)Half the World by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Half the World picks up two years after the events of Half a King. Where the first book was told from the first person perspective of Yarvi, here we have alternating perspectives between two new characters, Thorn and Brand. Our new narrators are young outcasts both training to join Gettland’s army as it prepares for raids against its increasingly aggressive neighbors. Thorn, a young woman, has been touched by Mother War and is an aggressive fighter with few friends. Brand, a physically dominating young man, is a promising soldier touched my Father Peace who prizes justice over conquest. Their journey reunites us with Yarvi and several other familiar characters on a mission to find allies for Gettland for the coming war against the High King.

Joe Abercrombie is a great storyteller. He is more reserved in his literary flourishes then some of his contemporaries, but displays impeccable character development and pacing. He understands the rhythm of the reader and delivers character and humor with seeming ease.

The old woman scraped a spatter of fresh bird-dropping from a post, tested its texture with her thumb, smelled it closely, seemed on the point of tasting it, then decided against and wiped the mess on her ragged cloak.
“Inauspicious,” she grunted.

Unfortunately this character introduction brings me to one of my criticisms in the author’s worldbuilding. The character in the passage above is named Skifr. We also have another character named Safrit and the two are in close proximity for the majority of the book. As different as the two names sound they are annoyingly close in structure and break the rhythm of reading for disambiguation. Yarvi’s father and uncles’ names are similarly vexing, but that is more understandable. Skifr and Safrit are from entirely different cultures and have nothing in common.

While his character naming struggles, his character building is superb. Like Yarvi in the first book, Abercrombie hones Thorn and Brand through the actions we witness. They earn their skills, friendships and scars, and each builds upon the previous into a person we identify with, root for and fear for, and with good reason – the action is, as you would expect from Joe Abercrombie, kinetic and violent. These deadly stakes are offset by subtler moments created by the author’s incredible patience to reference lines hundreds of pages or even books apart; which while impactful in their immediate context, are amplified when reunited in the readers mind. One beautiful example is when Brand and his sister Rin individually reminisce about their mother, each admitting that they have no direct memories, but their sibling does. Both scenes resonate with additional meaning by Abercrombie’s faith in the reader to recall and interweave these moments.

Half the World is thrilling, heart-felt, satisfying and highly recommended.

Half the World will be available for sale on February 17th, 2015 from Del Rey. I received an uncorrected proof version of this book through a Goodread’s “First Reads” giveaway. You can read my review of the first book in the series here.

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Review: Personal

Personal
Personal by Lee Child

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a Goodreads First Read book for me, and the second Jack Reacher novel I have read. (The first being Killing Floor (Jack Reacher, #1)). Over 19 books Lee Child has become efficient at giving you the pertinent information and backstory of his character; a character I like with a plausible set of skills and point of view. It is unfortunate for the reader that Jack Reacher is so stoic, calculating and fearless because we are introduced to the world through his eyes, but not very deep in his thought process. The lack of emotion and fear separates the reader from the empathy necessary to truly care for the characters. There is some attempts to reflect on a lost friend/colleague which is unfortunately jarring because her last name is too close to the antagonist’s name. It is also disruptive when reading about his new colleague whose last name is Nice and creates unnecessary turbulence in the flow of reading. I rarely like to be conscious of the fact I am reading, especially in a thriller which should be a taut cable pulling you through the story. But, Lee Child can right action. The kinetic energy, and descriptive proprioception translate into satisfying sequences. The overall plot line is compelling and the stakes are high. Jack is positioned outside the protection of laws and government, exactly where you want him, and he delivers.

From here on I will be discussing direct plot points, spoilers beware.

In a book about a sniper I would have hoped for a scene where Jack has to navigate under the direct threat of the sniper. There is a lot of assumed danger, and one brief scene where the sniper does make an attempt, but it would be immeasurably greater to have both combatants aware and actively subverting each other. Their stand off is anticlimactic. We never actually see the sniper’s face except in a shadow or through the crack of a door in the dark (which is probably a spoiler for a future novel). Without absolute knowledge that the sniper is actively hunting you the fear is vague, back ground noise. The panic inducing fear, knowing the shot is coming and weaving through the field of vision would be thrilling and the absence is noticeable. Perhaps if the caliber were reduced slightly the scene could have been incorporated. A sniper with a pistol and a distraction is a let down. I also wish the “three second” concept were not treated like a big reveal because I think most thoughtful readers were asking that while in the debriefing after the balcony in Paris. The implications or interpretation can wait to be revealed at the end game, but feeling like you are ahead of “Sherlock Homeless” is not a great feeling in a book like this.

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