Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Zero Sum by B. Justin Shier (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Read FBC’s review of Zero Sight
Read FBC interview with B. Justin Shier
Order the Book HERE
Read an Excerpt HERE (Amazon) and HERE (Barnes & Noble)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Brian Justin Shier was born in New Jersey, grew up in Las Vegas before attending college in St. Louis. He then relocated to California wherein the medicine bug struck him and he’s now a third year medical student. He was inspired by J. A. Konrath to go the indie route and has had quite a response to his debut novel. He is currently working on the third Zero Sight novel tentatively titled Zero Tango.

OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS: My name is Dieter Resnick. I was planning to turn eighteen in May, but I don't think I'm gonna make it. I've just been drafted into a war. And this war isn't usual. It's kinda sorta fought with spells.

Six months ago today, I was my high school's valedictorian. Now I'm Elliot College's newest combat-certified mage, and one of the few to survive a Talmax raid. I've got a weft-partner named Rei Acerba, whose hobbies include flaying the skin off her foes and perusing the sunscreen aisle. I've got a tutor named Jules Nelson, who spends her evenings talking to trees. And I've got a friend named Jay Dante, who tends to vanish when I need him most.

We're all part of a team called Lambda, and we've been ordered into the middle of a battle between North America's magical factions. The warriors of Talmax are surging up from the South. The Department of Mana Affair's once omnipotent DEA agents have been left cowering behind their wards. Our job is to reveal the enemy's secret weapon--before they take ownership of the entire West Coast!

FORMAT/INFO: Zero Sum is 450 pages long divided over three titled parts and twenty-two numbered and titled chapters. Narration is in the first-person, solely via the protagonist Dieter Resnick. Zero Sum is the second volume in the Zero Sight series and has a standalone plot and while it can be read on its own, it would be preferable to read it after Zero Sight to better understand its nuances & plot points.

November 22, 2011 marked the self publication of Zero Sum by the author. Cover design is done by Jordan Kimura.

CLASSIFICATION: Combining the maverick humor of the Dresden files by Jim Butcher with the school settings of the Harry Potter series, Brian J. Shier’s books can be summed up perfectly as Harry Dresden meets Kvothe Kingkiller with just a generous helping of the Harry Potter charm.

ANALYSIS: Brian Justin Shier’s debut was an eye opener in terms of surprises & debut books. I was truly astonished to see how well written it was and what it hinted about the saga to come ahead. Going into the sequel, I had very high expectations and was waiting to see how it would measure up against its predecessor.

The story begins almost immediately after the events of the climax of Zero Sight. However before the journey begins, we get a crucial glimpse into Dieter’s past which I believe shows how mentally strong Dieter is and how events such as the one shown will play an important role in the future events of his life. The climatic events of the previous book heavily factor in to the start of this book wherein we are introduced to more about the geo-political nature of the current power struggles in North America. Dieter’s unit, the Lambda squad gets outfitted as an attack squad due to the potential of its members. They go through a grueling but short training period wherein they are told of their objective and then broken into smaller groups and sent to Las Vegas to unsettle Talmax and its operatives.

The settings of this tale follow almost the reverse order of Dieter’s journey in the first book and this was a very cool antithesis planned by the author. As with the earlier book Dieter is the sole narrator of the story and once again the reader is regaled by his witty observations, teenage inexperience and overall die-hard nature which makes him the special fool that the readers know and love him to be. One of my points I had raised in my previous review that amongst the cast of characters present in the book, none had been featured very vividly. Well the author has nicely remedied this front as we get to know more of Rei Acerba Bathory, Jules Nelson and a few other members of the Lambda squad. Characterization as with the last book is still a strong point and in this book we get to see more of the people around Dieter and their thoughts & opinions. Some characters from the past book also make an appearance and we learn more about them but the center stage is shared by two of his close friends (Jules & Rei) and Dieter’s bonds with both of them will surely be one of the major plot points of the future books.

The infectious energy of the first book is still present and makes this read an ultra-entertaining one again. Another electrifying feature of the story is that the world is expanded as is the magic system, this particular aspect of the saga is something which is particularly mined in this book and it proclaims the epic-ness of the story rather strongly. The action and intrigue in this story have been escalated as per the direction which the plot is taking and all of this doesn’t seem forced at all. Another particular point which I though was excellent was the usage of a particular point in US-Mexico relations. The author masterfully utilizes history to lay down the entanglements of this particular story and I haven’t seen use of such history in the many urban fantasy novels read. This not only raises the reader’s interest but also raises the question as to what all events in the past will come in to play with the future of this series.

And with everything going on, this time around the climax is a powerful one with several twists to it. Not only does the author end it on a strong note but he manages a poignant one. The particular climatic events not only give us a dramatic feel but raise several questions about the main protagonist and his familial genealogy. Combined with the ending and all the revelations present in this book, Zero Sum manages to overcome reader expectation completely and one-up its predecessor in almost all categories.

With this book I had almost next to nothing to nitpick about its contents, while the last book had a rather weak ending. That situation has been remedied precisely in this book. Maybe some readers would find a few points to nag about when in the middle of the book, certain events occur which can seem like a lull however I believe they stand crucial to the plot and hence add to the strength of the story.

CONCLUSION: A remarkable story in itself and the superb sequel to one of my favorite debuts of this year and it managed to overcome all of my anticipation. Expanding the world and adding depth to the story, Brian has to be lauded for delivering a rich story without shedding its earlier uniqueness. Zero Sum continues the magical journey undertaken by Dieter and beckons the reader to come along and enjoy what is to be, an urban fantasy series to rival the best amongst the ones out so far.

2011 Goodreads Choice Winners and a Review of my Predictions (by Liviu Suciu)

Goodreads has just announced the winners of their third annual Goodreads Choice Awards. You can find all the books, numbers, etc at the link above but the growth of the award compared with the 2010 edition is just staggering. Looking at the results, Fantasy, YA sff and UF are the leading categories in popularity among the heavy book readers that are on Goodreads, while a bit sadly though not unexpectedly adult sf is quite away from these genres as numbers go.

I talked about eligibility and process in the post about the first round HERE, the semifinal choices have been covered HERE, while the final round with predictions have been discussed HERE.

As in each category the number of votes for all the books considered has been posted, there are a few interesting things that come out, most notably how much bigger the voting turnout has been for the winner of the fantasy and YA sff than for any other category except of course the main one, overall Favorite Book, though I would note that UF got a lot of votes too with the top four over 5000, while in YA sff numbers drop dramatically faster.

The other thing that struck me was the quite high number of votes for the winners in most categories, with 8000+ votes in fantasy and 4000+ in sf say and with runners up quite close; compare for example that in the Hugo award, the winner typically gets 2-300 votes before the redistribution.

Note also that Goodreads is a place for book lovers with most members posting ratings of hundreds of books and many posting thoughts on many of them, while voting required registration, so I would say these choices are as informed as in any book award out there and I would also say that they reflect quite well the overall preferences of people who are heavy book readers.

In addition to the 4 main categories for me for which I will discuss my predictions below, my choices were:

Historical Fiction (Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran) - surprisingly respectable fourth with 2196 votes, some 1000 less than the winner.

History & Biography (In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson) - a somewhat expected second with a very good 3128 votes as the overwhelming winner has never been in doubt for me or I guess for anyone paying attention to what makes waves (the Steve Jobs biography with 5463 votes).

Middle Grade & Children's (based on my son's reading and what I glimpsed from the books myself, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick) - came in fifth with 1990 votes and far from the Rick Riordan juggernaut that took 1/2 with ~4000 votes each; I was a little surprised that the latest Wimpy Kid installment came only #4 but very happy that Shel Silverstein who is a huge favorite in our family as we own a considerable number of his books was #3.

Here I am familiar with all the top five above, though my son is only a mild Riordan fan but a huge Wimpy Kid and Shel Silverstein fan while enjoying the wonderful Selznick offerings to date too, though I think that The Invention of Hugo Cabret is still unparalleled.

1: Favorite Book of 2011

A YA title outvoted my choice and prediction ADWD which came in a respectable third with 7617 votes to the 10159 of the winner. As mentioned below I have no idea how the very popular YA sff field shakes out as I rarely read YA books, so I would not say the result is a surprise.

Also a UF book came second and that is another hugely popular genre I stay far away from so the result is a good indicator how genres stack up against one another.

The rush of many authors who previously wrote serious fantasy or sf to publish YA and/or UF is quite understandable given the above numbers and in a way the review requests we get here where the YA and UF outnumber the rest by a lot also prove that these two genres are still in bubble mode, though market saturation should be reached at some point.

"Voted: A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin
Second Choice: none
Prediction: I have no idea how the non-adult_sff titles stack up but I would say that the extraordinary mainstream success of the awesome HBO adaption of Game of Thrones that raised GRRM's profile from a fantasy superstar to an all American one, will propel A Dance with Dragons to victory."

2: Best Fiction of 2011

My prediction was dead on the money with my choice 1Q84 winning with 4107 votes against the 3948 votes of the second place which however was not the book I expected based on Goodreads statistics. Happy also that my second choice, the wonderful David Levithan novel about which I talked a little here too, got a respectable fifth place with 3000 votes.

"Voted: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Second Choice:
The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan
I have no idea how most of the titles stack up in popularity and the Goodreads number crunching indicates the Ann Patchett book is the most read one, though of course early vs late release dates make this a little unreliable as true popularity goes.
I would say that either 1Q84 wins based on the author's huge world following and reputation or State of Wonder wins for the reasons above."

3: Best Fantasy of 2011

Actually after I did the last post, it also struck me that The Night Circus as the only non-traditional fantasy out of the ten choices, might get a lot of votes from the non-genre/non-epic reader and sneak out in front while Martin and Rothfuss battle it out, and I was quite right though Martin still won by a mere 11 votes (something like a tenth of a percent) with 8530 for against 8519 for the wonderful Erin Morgenstern debut.

I was a bit surprised that Rothfuss came a distant third with only some 5000 votes though I will note that this number is higher than what most other categories winners got and I think that ADWD's winning came to the fact that Martin still turned to be way more popular than Rothfuss and got enough votes from the epic readers to barely edge the one popular non-secondary world choice.

My second choice came 9th with a decent 1391 votes, just ahead of the surprisingly popular debut Prince of Thorns.

"Voted: A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin
Second Choice: Naamah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey
Goodreads numbers and all I said above strongly favor Martin, but I think that Rothfuss will give him a tough battle; still the HBO series puts GRRM well deservedly on top."

4: Best SF of 2011

Again a good prediction as Stephen King's popularity gave him the first place with 4429 votes - considering that his novel has been published in late November that is impressive - while the second place was taken by the nostalgia favorite Ready Player One with 3402 votes.

Sadly but not unexpectedly my choice was last with 897 votes, while my original choice - The Clockwork Rocket - got only 32 votes showing that the threshold to get into those five extra semifinal spots was pretty low, but still higher than 1!

Voted: Leviathan Wakes by James Corey
Second Choice:
Embassytown by China Mieville
Goodreads numbers and what I glimpsed from sff sites I read, strongly favor Ready Player One, while the close competition seems to be Robocalypse; I would say also that Stephen King must always be considered a favorite too based on his huge popularity and release dates skew numbers here like in the Murakami case above. Going with numbers and the favorable reviews here, so I predict Ready Player One will win.