Category Archives: novels

Hickey of the Beast

A couple years back, I posted about a really fun zombie story by Isabel Kunkle, who I’ve since had the pleasure of meeting. I’ve just discovered that Izzy’s new book, Hickey of the Beast, is being serialized by Candlemark and Gleam, an intriguing e-book publisher.

Here’s the description:

Bad dreams? No big deal. After all, Connie Perez is starting her first year in the prep school her mom runs. Anyone would be a little stressed, right? When she starts dreaming about strange creatures and places that don’t make sense, she doesn’t think much about it: there’s other stuff on her mind. Then she starts noticing that the people she dreams about get sick right afterwards.

Then everything gets weird.

There’s something bad on the campus of Springden Academy. Something that feeds on students and warps their minds. And, as Connie and her friends try to figure out what’s going on, it starts to look like she’s the only one who can stop it.

Freshman year was hard enough without having to fight evil after class.


You can sample the first chapter here.

I enjoy Izzy’s writing, but I’m also interested in Candlemark and Gleam’s approach. They’re selling a basic subscription to the serial for $5, but then they offer a variety of bonus packages. Many of them include bonus stories, but the Plutonium package takes the cake: for $25, you get the subscription to the book, the bonus stories, an iron-on patch, and a custom one-shot tabletop RPG scenario written by Izzy. You can choose whatever RPG system you want.

I bought the Plutonium package just to make Izzy work 😉 — but seriously, I am not sure how sustainable that is. I love the concept of subscriptions with bonus features. I think that’s very clever, and probably the way you have to do things these days. On the other hand, I hope the custom RPG has some sort of formula that makes it easy to put together. It seems underpriced to me.

Authors already have to work very hard for very little money, unless they’re JK Rowling. I am a little worried about setting a precedent for that degree of personalized attention for the price of your average hardback.

As far as logistics of distribution go, I found Candlemark’s system a little confusing. They’re linked to PayPal, which is good, but require you to make your own account for their site, which I don’t love doing. If I didn’t know Izzy, I might not have gone through with that. After I bought the book, I received a confirmation e-mail right away, but it actually took me a while to figure out where to read chapter one, and I’m not sure how or when I’ll get the rest of my stuff.

My verdict on Candlemark’s approach is that I’m totally intrigued, but I think it needs more polish. I love the idea of bonus material, but I worry about placing too much burden on the author.

But enough geeking about e-book distribution! Go read the first chapter!


What is a Wovel?

Simon Drax’s “wovel,” Exit Vector, started today on the Underland Press site. First, I have to admit that I find the word “wovel,” which stands for “web novel,” incredibly irritating. That said, it’s an interesting experiment.

Exit Vector is essentially a serial, except that readers vote at the end of each segment about what should happen next. From what I can tell, Underland has published one previous wovel, though I can’t find an archive on the site, and I can’t figure out if the resulting novel will be published in print.

I’m not sure how much reader control a wovel will actually give. It didn’t seem to me that the choice at the end of the first segment would necessarily impact the plot to a large extent, but this was only the first installment.

So far, the story is about a drug-soaked teen who looks like she’s about to embark on some sort of noir/steampunk mystery quest. Pulpy, which can be a good thing. I’ll keep reading for now. I’m curious to see how the (possibly false) sense of control affects the reading experience.


Speaking of hard SF, I’ve been reading Robert J. Sawyer’s Rollback, a novel that came out a couple years back. There is much to learn from Sawyer’s style. Here’s the jacket copy:

Dr. Sarah Halifax decoded the first-ever radio transmission received from aliens. Thirty-eight years later, a second message is received and Sarah, now 87, may hold the key to deciphering this one, too . . . if she lives long enough. A wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback–a hugely expensive experimental rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. The process works for Don, making him physically twenty-five again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties. While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between him and his wife, Sarah struggles to do again what she’d done once before: figure out what a signal from the stars contains.

I often hate jacket copy, but I knew I had to buy the book as soon as I read this. The blurb promises a lot of hard SF–an experimental rejuvenation procedure as well as the effort of decoding an alien transmission–and he delivers. The book has the “scientist must solve a hard problem plot” as well as “people must deal with the unintended consequences of experimentation” plot. What really elevates this book, in my opinion, is that, ultimately, it’s the story of Sarah and Don’s marriage. The story wouldn’t be happening without all this science, but the science doesn’t get in the way of Sawyer telling a personal story that feels relevant in a general human way (that transcendent quality that I talk about sometimes).

I read Sawyer’s newest novel, Wake, when it was serialized in Analog late last year, and that novel, too, had this transcendent quality. Sawyer’s published so many books that I’m surprised I wasn’t aware of him until recently. He’s definitely on my shortlist now.

John Scalzi Is Ruining My Life

… by writing books that I can’t put down. And I have deadlines, people.

The Old Man’s War series is an example of the holy reading grail for me–the books are page turners that have a lot to say about the human condition. For some reason, my personal experience is that science fiction is the genre most likely to achieve this sublime combination.

When a book is ruining my life this way, sometimes I just give in. I allow it to keep me awake at all hours, and I eat bread and peanut butter for dinner because I can for the most part prepare that without having to, you know, close the book. I like it when this happens to me, though it’s also a little weird to feel like I just need to finish this great book already so I can talk to my family again.

Probably, nobody needs me to tell them that Scalzi is good. Check the Hugo finalist list and his many other accolades. But just in case.


I’ve been reading a lot of tie-in novels to Wizards of the Coast’s Eberron world, largely because it’s an enjoyable way to gather source material for the Dungeons and Dragons games I run in Eberron — especially compared to the alternative of reading encyclopedic source books. For a long time, I had a prejudice against these kinds of novels, expecting them to be lower quality than straight genre fantasy novels. I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read, and was very impressed with the writing in some of them.

Though it’s been out for a while now, I wanted to give a special mention to Marsheila Rockwell’s Legacy of Wolves. Rockwell clearly paid a lot of attention to characters, and I noticed that her female characters in particular were much better developed than the female characters in many fantasy novels I’ve read. Distraught mothers have some depth to them beyond their grief, the main female character has a broad range of motivations, and the romantic tension in the story is fueled by more than two hot people sleeping in nearby bedrolls. That said, Rockwell doesn’t sacrifice action at all. One of the big pleasures of these gaming novels is that they’re littered with awesome fight scenes, and she certainly doesn’t stint there.

For those unfamiliar with Eberron, it’s an interesting world. It’s extremely magical, but the magic often powers devices that bear similarities to modern technology, such as airships and a lightning rail. It’s also meant to have a noir feeling, and Legacy of Wolves is essentially a mystery novel. It was by far the most satisfying Eberron novel of that type that I have read. Rockwell sets up an interesting scenario: serial murders that seem to be getting blamed on the wrong people. Then, she throws out lead after lead, all of them plausible. It was a lot of fun to work on untangling these leads along with the characters, and to discover in the end that she played fair — the true clues were there all along the way.

I did think there was a bit of a stumble at the end [SPOILER — since I’m talking about the end, I may give something away now]. One of the main characters is gravely wounded in the last fight scene, to the point that I thought the character might be dead. The epilogue made it clear that the character lived, but that character doesn’t appear again onscreen, so to speak. I’ve come to feel that it’s necessary to actually bring a nearly-dead character before the audience in the end to give a satisfying feel to the fact that he or she survived.

I’ve seen Rockwell’s work before — I read a short story she published in Space and Time about a year ago, called “Lab Rats” (print only, as far as I can tell). After being impressed by this novel, I decided to look her up, and was very impressed by her blog [linked to her name above]. She tracks submissions, rejections, acceptances, and a variety of stats, out in public, in a disciplined and focused way. I admire the guts involved with making all that public, and I admire what it says about how she approaches writing and publishing. I’m personally rooting for her to publish another novel. I look forward to reading it when she does.

A Giant’s House

Some time back, I posted about Elizabeth McCracken’s short story collection, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry. Though I’m far more likely to read short-form work than long-form, I liked McCracken’s collection enough that when I came across her novel A Giant’s House, I picked it up.

I’m glad I did. One thing I liked in McCracken’s short stories was the way she handled the weird. While obviously fascinated by odd people, McCracken always takes care to make her characters human. When she writes about circus freaks or lying old ladies, she does a great job handling the interplay between humanity and oddity. The novel is mostly about a boy, James Carlson Sweatt, who is a giant (as in, he grows abnormally tall), and a librarian, Peggy Cort. Both of these characters are deeply weird — James because he’s physically weird and Peggy because she so adamantly refuses to participate in life the way others do. I think what I liked most about this book was that McCracken gets the reader into these people so well that I ended up in their world, perceiving the normal people as weird.

There’s a great scene where James tries to appear as part of an advertising campaign for a shoe store, but puts them off when they discover his feet are terribly infected. The infection has come about because James can’t feel his feet and doesn’t take care of them. Peggy tries to wash his feet and take care of him. The scene is great because it brings James’ situation so clearly to the forefront. He’s just a boy, but he’s terribly sick, and Peggy’s best efforts really aren’t good enough.

I find it harder to take excerpts from novels, but here’s a little one:

Ordinary-size people, they don’t know: their lives have been rehearsed and rehearsed by every single person who ever lived before them, inventions and improvements and unimportant notions each generation, each year. In 600 B.C. somebody did something that makes your life easier today; in 1217, 1892. Somebody like James had to ad-lib any little thing: how to sit, how to travel.