Figure 1 – James Alan Gardner

Full disclosure: James Alan Gardner was one of the co-editors of Tesseracts 20: Compostela, from Edge Publishing (and available from your local independent bookstore as well as from Amazo… well, you know). The other co-editor was Spider Robinson; I had the honour of being included (for the first time) in this volume of forward-looking SF/F that came out earlier this year. Just in case you doubt me, let me make it clear—when I read the book I’m going to review in this column, it didn’t for one moment cross my mind that he had co-edited Compostela. In fact, I forgot, believe it or not. I haven’t seen Gardner in person for a number of years, so when I thought of the new Tesseracts, I mostly thought of Spider, whom I see fairly often—though not as often as I would like. (In fact, Spider was supposed to play in the Beatles Singalong at VCON this year, with Tam Gordy, Randy Reichardt and me, but he was too ill to attend.) So there is no favouritism or even favour-currying involved in this review.

When I got this ebook out of my “Free Books to Review” folder on my I:\ drive, I didn’t immediately twig to who the author was. I’m usually behind on my ebook reviews, because like many of you, I tend to read the physical books first… there’s something about holding that bound stack of paper in my hands. I do read both ebook and paper book with equal ease… but I’m a book collector—a physical book collector—at heart. This book, by the way, is from TOR, not Edge.

Figure 2 – Explosions cover

And the title—just to start—was pretty funny, I hope you’ll admit. You can visualize the protagonist of the book, even without reading it, as standing sheepishly in front of an interrogator, hat in hand and eyes downcast, saying the title. “It wasn’t me, mister, honest!” So that was my first clue that this book would be amusing—and amusing it was!

I laughed, chuckled, or (ahem!) giggled all the way through this romp of a book. Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun with a book for a while—it’s harder than you’d think to write a genuinely fun and funny sf/f novel; Steve Davidson would probably call this one “science fantasy”—parts of it are science-based, but mostly it’s fantasy. I’m going to try to give you the gist of it without spoilers.

It’s a parallel universe—don’t we all believe, secretly, in the Multiverse?—where the Dark Gift has been offered at a hefty price to humans. In this universe, there are such things as vampires, demons, werebeings—not all are wolves—ghosts, goblins, and things that go bump, boom, bang and wheeze in the night. But as I’ve said, at a hefty price.

In 1982, the Elders of the Dark realized that they had a marketable asset in the Dark Gift; they placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal and other high-end money publications, offering immortality (or nearly so) as a “bad guy” for a mere ten million bucks. By the current date (which is, I believe, the same as ours in this universe), most of the world’s rich had become vamps, were-whatevers, and so on.  Because the powers given to these people who signed the Dark Pact were so formidable, the Pact had to include something to protect the “ordinary” people. And it did.

The Dark gained thousands of adherents who no longer had to worry about age or infirmity, who had—within certain limits—free rein to enjoy the power they had lusted after their whole mortal lives. The Light—that universal force that opposes The Dark—needed to balance the equation somehow before the whole universe collapsed into chaos. So The Sparks were born.

A Spark is an emissary of the Light just as one of the Darks is an emissary of the Dark. You can become a Spark in a variety of ways: you can be hit by lightning, fall into a vat of chemicals, find a magical artifact, and in most cases, be a victim of Coincidence. (Coincidence plays a large part in that universe.) Although the Dark’s people have well-defined Powers (traditional ones for vampires, ghosts, etc.) and limitations; the Sparks’ Powers are limited to science-based ones. (And in a couple of cases, pseudo-science satisfies that as well.)

Here’s one of the things that makes this book so much fun: the narrator/protagonist is one of four University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) roommates—more about her later—but she breaks the fourth wall a lot and talks directly to you, the readers, whom she reckons are not in her particular universe. I like that a lot. And when she’s telling you about how the balance of Light and Dark comes about, she says that a certain caped farmboy Boy Scout has to be first in every universe, before the Light (and the Sparks) can make its appearance. (With a very specific example; one that made me laugh.)

By the way, Gardner is, in case you haven’t already guessed, Canadian. This book (and, I presume, the following books in this series) is set in Waterloo; his protagonists are Canadian. That shouldn’t bother anyone; I promise you, it’s as funny as—or funnier than—most books written by non-Canadians. And as far as I can recall, he doesn’t use specialized Canadian language—even French—so the book’s accessible to even non-Canadians.

Here’s a short description—remember, I promised no (or at least very minor) spoilers—of the book. The protagonist, as mentioned before, is one of four University roommates: she’s four feet ten inches tall (yes, very short), female, Asian, named Kim. A couple of vampires, a couple of demons, ditto werewolves, are attempting to do something nefarious in the science labs of the University over the Christmas holidays (all the roommates are staying in town). Through a series of odd coincidences—because coincidence is one way the Light gets things done in that universe—all four of these roommates become Sparks, with super powers. (The word “superhero” was apparently trademarked by one of the Dark people.)

The rest of the book is them, trying to keep the Dark at bay. This book is full of in jokes for SF/F readers and movie/TV buffs, comic readers, cosplayers, and con-goers. It’s as enjoyable a book as I’ve read in a long while (and in case you don’t know, reading for pleasure is much less pleasurable when you have to read for review. It’s like a busman’s holiday—not as much fun as a real holiday); I will definitely look for the rest in what’s sure to be a series. Rating: four and a half thingies! ¤¤¤¤+

Figure 3 – At This Hour Cover

Last week I told you about Mark Rounds’ “Plague Years” series, starting with Hell Is Empty And All the Devils Are Here. Well, son of a gun if he hasn’t already completed the series! I was in the middle of writing a review of book #2, At This Hour Lie At My Mercy All Mine Enemies (remember what I said about long titles?) (Figure 3); and I noticed that the last one in this series—but I’d bet not the last one about the Plague—was published, and available both as paperback and ebook. It’s called This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine (Figure 4). Both books are available from Amazon; probably not from your local independent bookstore.

What do I think of the second and third books? Well, the storylines are still good; I’m not really sure the characters are well-enough delineated to stand by themselves, but Mark is a good enough storyteller that if you are not put off by the writing flaws (which I’ll address in a minute), you will probably enjoy these books.

In the second book, Chad Strickland and crew are headed for Southeastern Washington and the neighbouring state of Idaho; to be specific, Moscow, Idaho and Pullman, Washington—both areas I used to be very familiar with, as I lived in Pullman. Both towns—about 23-30K population each—are home to universities: Pullman hosts Washington State University; Moscow has the University of Idaho. The towns are about seven miles apart and connected by highway 270 running east-west. Mark Rounds now lives in Moscow—though I believe he lived in Spokane when I was in the area.

In Book 1, the group was stranded at Vantage, Washington, which is right where the highway crosses the Columbia River; in Book 2, they make their way—aided by a group of non-infected bikers (motorcycle riders—a club called “Bikers Against Child Abuse,” or BACA)—to Moscow, fighting off bands of infected people.

Figure 4 – This Thing of Darkness Cover

The Plague, in case I wasn’t clear last week, is a weaponized virus that was deliberately spread across the world by a group we learn little of; their agent is a very old person—because if you fight off the plague long enough to go into remission (which people seldom do; as far as most people know, to catch it is to die), you can live an extremely long life with enhanced muscular strength and mental “powers.” Their agent in this particular fight is a man named Nergüi; and he, in turn, has an Infected agent named Macklin, whom he controls by feeding him doses of a drug called “Slash,” which can negate the effects of the Plague for a short time.

In Book 4, the Strickland group, with the remnants of the US military, led by General Antonoupolous, attempt to kill or capture Nergüi while fighting off the bands of Infected roaming the Palouse countryside (which is what that area is called). Nergüi himself can control the Infected to a degree; at least to the extent of making them attack the strongholds of the non-infected.

The series comes to a satisfactory close, though all the threads are not resolved, which is why I believe Mark plans to continue. And if you have attended either university or have lived in that area, you’ll find it fun to visualize where the action is taking place—I like this sort of thing—I even found it fun when Jack Reacher went briefly through Eastern Washington. And Mark knows the area better than Lee Child did. (By the way, speaking of the Beatles singalong as I did in the first section, Mark is also a folk singer.)

There is a fair amount of military and weapons-related jargon in these two books; I would normally make a disparaging remark about that—because frankly, even though I’m familiar with most of the military jargon (Mark is ex-Air Force, I believe, while I’m ex-Navy), and many of the weapons used, I don’t think that in most of this sort of book it’s terribly germane to a fight for survival against hordes of infected zombie-like people. But in this case, the calibres and sorts of weapons used are mentioned often to show that one kind of ammunition will not fit another kind of weapon. Maybe there’s a bit too much of that sort of stuff, but not enough to really bother me. There are lists of the various weapons and military personnel in appendices and forewords, for those who care.

Now to the part that keeps this from being a four-star review: the writing. Mark informs me that he now has editors, which I’m assuming means both writing advice and copy editing. In some ways it shows; in others, the errors are just as egregious. You, dear readers, know that I am extremely picky about grammar, spelling and punctuation. Probably more so than whomever Mark has copy editing his books. He’s still in need of a good copy editor to prevent run-on sentences and comma splices, incorrect homonym usage (i.e., “lead” instead of “led”), and the like. The books are worth reading for fans of apocalyptic SF/F—especially at the price point of $3.99 for an ebook!—but I can’t rate ‘em higher without that editing. I give all three of them three whoosits, with a plus thrown in because of slightly better copy editing on the last two. Rating: ¤¤¤+

Please comment on this column. You can comment here or on Facebook. I welcome your comments whether you agree with me or not; my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week (Ghu willin’ and the crick don’t rise)!

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