Posted on Fri 24 July 2015

books that don’t stink

  • Patrick Lee, Signal
  • Ernest Cline, Armada
  • Max Gladstone, First Last Snow
  • Dan Wells, The Devil’s Only Friend

Quality is strange. By quality we mean a difference that we can sense but not count, something continuous and analog rather than discrete and digital. It does not directly map into happiness. Quality carries connotations of both the singular taste and the popular fashion. It places different items together in categories that may not easily be described.

Today’s books share the quality of being, in my opinion, books that don’t stink. This is not a very high bar…

Signal is Patrick Lee’s fifth novel, his second in the presumably continuing adventures of Sam Dryden: action hero. Sam does not seek out adventures; rather, they come to him. In Runner, adventure came in the form of a teenaged girl being chased along the boardwalk (he hides her, then runs with her). The instant adventure appears as a woman with an odd electronic box. Now, Lee’s first book turned out to be the first part of a trilogy, a story satisfyingly wrapped up in that initial volume and then revealed to be an integral part of a much, much larger tale. I am wondering if something like that is going on here, as Sam encounters a science-fictional plot device which is not related to that of his previous novel. The coincidence, it is too much. Something must be going on. In the meantime, there is action both physical and cerebral. I found it entertaining.

Ernest Cline’s second novel, Armada, proves that his obsession with geek trivia was not a one-time affair. Unfortunately, the plot here is highly derivative of The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and other stalwarts of the genre in which humanity is saved by an awkward teenager with a single special gift. The fun is in playing spot-the-reference, if you think that’s fun. I usually do.

First Last Snow is the first book of the Craft Sequence by internal chronology. It visits the city of Dresediel Lex, which is somewhere between the New York of RENT and the Paris of LES MISERABLES. The focus is on three characters whom we have seen before (will see later): Elayne, a Craftsperson (magician/lawyer) of some reknown; The King in Red, a Craftsperson who has transcended death, flesh, and humanity; and Temoc, last Eagle Knight, priest of the old gods and father-in-fact to Caleb and father-in-spirit to the working class people of Skittersill Square. The triangle is unstable. Peace talks commence, are concluded… and get complicated.

There has long been a division among literary fans as to whether books should be read in their publication order or their internal order. First Last Snow is, I think, not a compelling story without the support of the reader’s knowledge of what will come to pass. Read the Craft Sequence in publication order.

Dan Wells’ The Devil’s Only Friend is the fourth book narrated by John Wayne Cleaver, a man destined to be a serial killer. It turns out that there are literal demons walking the earth – this is only a bit of a spoiler for the first book – and John exercises his aggressive tendencies by hunting the demons down. That’s all the description you should need to figure out whether these books will appeal to you: they are competently written, tell self-contained stories, and are full of violence and gore.


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