Thursday, September 25, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief Chapters 35 - 44

It's the end! But first, what this is all about: here

Ash gets an assist from Prez to evade the feds, cheat death, and then make a clean break from it all. He chooses to stay and fight for his friends and family. Andres tells Mauricio the story of how they found the Spider and became enchanted by her power, until the brothers' dad took it to stop the madness. Cleo is at her wits end, preparing to go on an all-out assault on Andres, when Ash shows up with one final scheme.  Together, they go to make the trade: Mauricio for the statue--but with an ace up the sleeve. The final showdown ensues and it does not disappoint. Of course the plan goes sideways. Of course there's a muscle car in the action.  It's a hair-raising struggle to defeat a crazed and empowered Andres, and it turns out some forces are beyond control.

First, I would like to get one thing off my chest:  What am I supposed to make of Ash calling a guy Kung Fu Noodle Man just because he's Asian and eats noodles? It just isn't creative or funny, so it does nothing for me. The man has a name. It's the Sweeper.

Anyways! There's a final twist about the Spider that I quite enjoyed, because it finally brought the Spooky. When the science-y stuff about the Spider's origins dropped, I was like "That's it?" It felt like known information and Ash was late to the party. It also felt like a letdown for a supernatural thriller. Then the twist happened and I was like, "Yessss!" Well played, Author. I didn't see that one coming.

The final action scene was riveting, of course, underpinned with Andres's madness, the Spooky, and near-death predicaments. It definitely had a cinematic feel to it.

Everyone wound up pretty much where I thought they would. Even Prez didn't fare too badly.

Aside from my previous exceptions, I'm fairly satisfied with the book and enjoyed the read. Again, I'd recommend the story primarily for the fast-paced plot, the cool action scenes, the engaging narrative, and some of the characters. Not every story is perfect on all points and sometimes you just have to roll with it. If you're like me and this isn't your usual genre, The Spider Thief is a nice change of pace and a good gateway book into supernatural thrillers. You won't be underwhelmed or overwhelmed, but you may be pleasantly surprised.

Have you read The Spider Thief, yet? What did you think?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief Chapters 27 - 34

What this is all about: here

Yes, eight chapters. I tend to read more when I'm dissatisfied. Sigh.

This one is impossible to keep spoiler-light. Suffice to say, everyone gets in major trouble and serious danger, the result of which is Graves being a jerk to Ash, Ash declaring his feelings for Cleo, Cleo making a tough personal choice, and Mauricio being abducted again.

Let's start with the good. That high-speed car chase scene (and the aftermath) was intense!  Everyone is positioning for the final push; Andres will be going down! Cleo has grown on me. These chapters really showcase her drive and motivations, her convictions and internal struggle. She seems real, three-dimensional.

Now, let's talk about the stuff that left me feeling a type of way. First, I understand Cleo's mindset, I do. I think it's perfectly reasonable to walk away from a job that doesn't match your convictions, but her quitting abruptly felt unnecessary, a plot device and not a character development. Could she not quit after the situation is resolved? Sure, things aren't going well professionally, but has her being in law enforcement actually impeded anything she's done thus far? The way it's handled just struck the wrong note, for me.

Second, I know  their friendship is contentious, but I haven't seen any spark between Ash and Cleo, nothing stronger than a general concern for the well-being of someone you used to know. He thinks she's beautiful and stubborn. She thinks he's a troublemaker but a good guy. They share one good memory of prom night. After 34 chapters, that's it. I'm supposed to be rooting for these two, but instead I just hope everyone lives and don't really care if they wind up together. Worse, I think the pairing is lackluster and forced.

Which brings me to point number three. Ash feels like a construct. He has a save the cat moment early on. He has character witnesses. He has humanizing sidekicks. All crafted to make him the Good Guy. He needs some flaws but not too bad, so he's a con but only to other cons. He blames himself for his tragic past, but we all know nothing is his fault, so it rings hollow when he says it is. Just like his "I love you" to Cleo. The only thing I believe about this character is the only thing his POV truly shows, and that's his love for his brother. Other than that and his scheming, there's just nothing for me to sink my teeth into. He's standard action-thriller hero and wants for some spontaneity in his script. I can tolerate prototypical secondary characters and antagonists (Andres, Graves, the Feds, and Prez et al to a lesser extent) but the protagonist?

So, yeah. Those are my thoughts and impressions going into the final stretch. Ten chapters to go. Will Andres successfully indoctrinate Mauricio? Will Ash and Cleo find him (again) in time? Can Prez help Ash bring down Andres once and for all?

Am I being too hard on the characters? Expecting too much?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief Chapters 23 - 26

What this is all about: here

The brothers return to the ruins of their childhood home and find their dad's old safe. Inside is a journal detailing Dad's expedition through the Colombian jungles to a lost city where the Spider was found, but there are pages missing. Cleo pays Prez a visit and he explains how he got involved. He then all but says Ash is The One for Cleo, judging by his actions to protect her.

Okay, wait. Did I miss something? Did Prez mean the original deal or everything that happened after? I have thus far seen no evidence that Ash is doing all of this to protect Cleo, especially, so I'm going to assume he's talking about what we didn't see: the original deal was to protect Cleo somehow. In that case, I called it! Didn't I say there was a personal angle? Yes, I did.

To hear Prez tell it, Andres is a power-mad manipulator who, like the Spider, weaved this web to ruin the lives of our protagonists in particular. Hmm. That's it? Okay, but I'm gonna need something more.

Speaking of power, I likewise see no evidence the Spider grants any. Unless there's some Chosen One stipulation, I doubt anyone will gain supernatural abilities by the end. Andres will probably end up like the Spider's previous victims if he gets his idol.

I have more thoughts on Ash and Cleo but I'll let them simmer for now.

What is Andres's next move? When will he strike? Will Ash and his friends get out of this mess unharmed?

We shall see.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief Chapters 17 - 22

What this is all about: here

A mix of POVs and information. Mostly, everyone is regrouping and catching up, so I went ahead and read six chapters. Ash and Mauricio slip the FBI and determine they must fix the mess instead of running away. We meet FBI special agent Graves who has a history with Cleo, if you know what I mean. And I think you do. They check out the preacher's house where Ash escaped from Andres and his men in he beginning and piece together the events directly preceding the story opener. And, finally, we meet Prez. He calls on a hitman? a cleaner? to kill Andres, who had killed two of Prez's men in the process of abducting Mauricio.

So, like I said. It's mostly downtime and regrouping. Not much more than talking gets done. Most of the prior missing events are filled in. The one thing I still don't get is why Prez had gotten involved. Or why Ash originally agreed to deal with Andres over the Spider at all. I'm pretty sure it was another one of his scams that Prez was in on, but why, given how superstitious Ash had been about the Spider? It's kinda the reason he bailed on everyone he knew, but now he just forms schemes around it, bold as you please? Something's not adding up--like there's a personal angle missing. I would be disappointed if it were otherwise.

A few words on Cleo and Graves. They seem to have chemistry and this reflects well through her demeanor around him--he's the serious one and she tells the jokes. It's nice to see her in conversation with someone as competent and professional about the case as she is, working together and not against. It just makes me feel like Ash still has growing up to do, and he's not emotionally ready for any relationship outside his fraternal one with Mauricio. Did I just psychoanalyze a fictional character? Yes, I did. But we all know the hero gets the girl and you can't always depend on straight arrows.

Oh, and Graves is black. Which officially makes Cleo the only major character to remain ambiguous. Why? I ask the question as a writer and not to be flip. These are decisions we have to make, to effects we don't have total control over. I interpret Cleo as intentionally ethnically ambiguous for maximum desirability. Whatever you want her to be, she is. Someone else might interpret her as Latina, or biracial, or black, or even white, since her skin tone is never stated as has been the case for every single major character. My writer's mind wonders at the reasons for this, or if it just wasn't given as much thought as I'm giving it here. I wonder at my own choices and how I would've approached it. Once you start assigning ethnicities, where can you safely stop?

But let me not give the wrong impression. Race is incidental here. The romance angle is minor, so far. This is an action-suspense thriller with a mildly supernatural mystery, and I actually like it that way. We're nearly halfway through, and I'm not expecting anyone to make out or start shooting lightning bolts from heir fingertips.

Cleo wants Andres to face justice, Prez just wants him dead, Andres wants the Spider, Mauricio wants to just get rid of it, while Ash wants to break the curse and end this whole thing once and for all. The puzzle is coming together, a showdown looms, the suspense is building!

How will it all end?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief Chapters 13 - 16

What this is all about: here

Andres informs Ash that he has Mauricio now and he wants the Spider. Before Cleo can stop him, Ash takes off to rescue his brother. Abandoned Factory Action Scene ensues! At the end of which, another thing I totally called is revealed!

Woot, four chapters of action! Exclamation mark! The scene setting is impeccable. I can see everything clearly and feel the blasting heat of the sun, the stark contrasts of light and shadow, the looming of the hulking factory. I've never been inside an abandoned factory, or to Colorado, but this story takes me there.

I laughed out loud at this exchange:
Ash nodded. "I'll go up first. You cover me."

Mauricio watched him climb. "What does that even mean, 'cover me'?"

Ha! Like I said, their relationship is one of the highlights of the book.

Poor Mauricio. Andres really is fanatical about the Spider and "her" powers, and he's now adamant that Mauricio should join his little cult. This dynamic becomes more interesting with the revelation that Andres first found the Spider in Colombia, but the brothers' dad betrayed Andres, presumably making off with both the Spider and Mauricio's mom.

Add to that a little doomsaying that Ash really is cursed to death and Mauricio may turn and be the one to kill him, and I officially cannot wait to see how this all turns out.

Do not disappoint me, Spider Thief! Spoilery discussion welcome in the comments.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief Chapters 9 - 12

What this is all about: here

Ash and Cleo wait out the rain at her mom's house. Naturally, Mom's out of town. Through their conversations, we learn the truth about the house fire that claimed his parents and Cleo's dad, who was the responding officer. The next morning, they discover the Spider's location. (I totally called it!) Meanwhile, Andres has caught up to Mauricio and reveals a disturbing connection. (Nooo!)

Honestly, I think I like Mauricio best out of the POV characters. He's endearing, relatable, and seems to have more unique traits than either Ash or Cleo. Ash and Cleo are serviceable as leading protagonists--smart, active, determined, emotional baggage, tragic pasts--but not much more than the plot requires, as yet. Even Cleo's odd hobby of collecting spider paraphernalia is because of the Spider's 'curse' from when they were kids. I presume the same is true of her career choice.

Moolah, Ash's dog, tends to make scenes more dynamic by breaking up serious discussions or tense moments, so I like him. Speaking of which, he got the name because he can sniff out money anywhere (important detail.) Sidebar: how can a smart investigator think Moolah is an African name, of all things?  She seriously never heard the word before?

So, about that romance angle. Haven't I seen this movie before? Yeah, the two teens who were in love and talking about getting out of their lame town, when something bad happened and one (usually the guy) took off without a word, leaving the other (usually the girl) to hate him. Then years later he resurfaces for a fraught reunion of mixed emotions. Then they get caught in the rain and must take shelter in intimate spaces, and since they are both soaking wet they will have to strip or use each other's body heat for warmth, or both! Okay it leads to nothing like that, but I did get a chuckle out of the setup.

Moreover, it added to this nagging feeling that aside from the Spider, it all feels...ordinary, familiar. That's not inherently a bad thing; the lack of zomg-extraordinariness in the description is what attracted me to the story, and the basics are there to be built upon. Thus far, I think the author has built something entertaining, so I'm rolling with it.

What does Andres want with Mauricio or the Spider for that matter? Will Ash and Cleo find him in time? Can the Spider's curse be broken?

We shall see. Spoilery discussion is welcome in the comments, if you've read The Spider Thief, are reading along, or are just curious.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief Chapters 5 -8
What this is about: here 

We meet Cleo, Ash's childhood friend. She's a gun-toting investigator of some sort, looking for Andres. She and Ash get caught up in another clash with Andres's men on the highway. We next meet Mauricio, Ash's half-brother, and we learn the last time he saw Ash was when Ash met with Andres to setup a deal: the Spider for one million dollars. There's a third party involved, a guy named Prez, whose motives are yet to be revealed.

Now things are tying together, though I still don't know why a whole two weeks are missing from Ash's memory, but it probably isn't significant. Once again, the chase scenes are the highlight. When it comes to muscle cars and car chase scenes the author sure knows how to choreograph around the machine's strengths and weaknesses.

Ash's got more personality, now that he's interacting with friends. He likes to joke but they don't seem to think he's terribly funny. Clearly, among the three friends, he's the unserious risk-taker. I still would like to see more from his POV.

I like what we've seen of the brothers' relationship. It seems to be a caring and daring one, but Ash, according to his brother, is never around for very long. A tragic past has something to do with that, the Spider and its 'curse', a house fire, and death. Oddly, I can't tell who's older.

And now for a sidebar.

The POV switches are how we learn Ash is white. It wouldn't be notable if not for the categorical ethnicities of the rest of the cast. Mauricio's mother is Colombian. Andres and his gang are Latino. Prez and his gang are black. No idea what ethnicity Cleo is, though her hair curls in the rain from its previous "straight" and "professional" state. There's nothing unusual about these choices (the gangs members seem typical, the hero is white, the love interest is ethnically ambiguous ), just that they are not left up to the imagination, which takes a conscious effort many authors shy away from. That's not insignificant.

Anyhow, I'm intrigued and looking forward to where this goes next. Spoilery discussion is welcome in the comments, if you've read The Spider Thief, are reading along, or are just curious.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief Chapters 1 - 4

What The Spider Thief is about: here.

What I've read: Ch. 1 - 4. I'll try to minimize spoilers, but, you know, beware.

Ash wakes up on the floor of an old, dusty shed with his worried dog, an old muscle car, the keys and some cash in his pocket, and no memory of how he got here. He soon finds himself going up against Andres, the Big Bad of the story, and Andres's goons. They want a mystical golden spider statue that Ash last remembers seeing when he was a boy. With his dog Moolah, Ash makes a daring escape from their clutches and drives off in the stolen car to get in contact with his brother who confirms it has been two weeks since this whole thing started--two weeks that Ash doesn't remember.

They say not to start your story with your protagonist waking up. They say waking up with amnesia is an even more egregious cliché. The Spider Thief does both and does it well, partly because Ash doesn't have time to languish in confused introspective and partly because I'm a sucker for a good mystery.

So it doesn't exactly open with a bang, but the bang comes relatively quickly and it's fantastic. The action scenes are the best part so far. They are kinetic with a crisp narrative and vivid details of the car, the terrain, and each dangerous setting.

Ash is as yet defined by his interactions with his dog and other hints that he's the Good Guy. His personality is obscured by the heightened state of urgency which necessarily reduces him to just adrenaline and survival instinct. At this stage, the plot is moving him instead of the other way round.

The clues about how he got in this mess are piling up, and I'm just letting most of them lay where they landed until we get more information. As for the Spider, we know touching it results in amnesia and a skin rash (which Ash has on one hand.) So, Ash must've had the spider recently. Where is it now? What else can it do? What does Andres want it for? And how did Ash get caught up in this mess?

We shall see. Spoilery discussion is welcome in the comments, if you've read The Spider Thief, are reading along, or just curious.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Spoilers! The Spider Thief by Laurence MacNaughton

I'm about to do this thing!

So, I took advantage of two giveaways and got the first part free, read it, and then got the entire omnibus free. It's been sitting on my Kindle since, unfinished.

The thing I'm about to do: finish it! And blog as I go in ten or so parts roughly 4 chapters each, at least.

What The Spider Thief is about:

All of his life, Ash has been haunted by the ancient curse that killed his parents.

From the cobweb-choked ruins of a lost city in the Amazon emerges a gold spider statue with flashing emerald eyes. If the legends are true, the gold spider has the power to erase the past . . . change the future . . . perhaps even grant eternal life. But touching the spider will steal your memories -- and then your life.

For centuries, men have killed to possess the gold spider. Like the man who murdered Ash's parents. Now, the killer has returned, and Ash is trapped in the grip of the spider's curse.

His only hope is Cleo, his embittered high-school sweetheart, now a highly-trained agent obsessed with tracking down the spider. But Cleo knows something she's not telling Ash -- about a million dollars in dirty cash, and the terrifying secret his parents died to keep.

Can they solve the riddle of the gold spider before its deadly curse claims them next?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Thoughts on Equoid by Charles Stross

I came away from Equoid feeling that something was just not sitting. On first impressions, it was what it said on the tin, a Lovecraftian horror story. Literally. The protagonist Bob works for a British agency that deals with all the things that go bump in the night. This time, he's sent to investigate a possible outbreak of nightmarish creatures in the countryside, armed with letters in which H.P. Lovecraft, Hisownself, described them as true unicorns, not the friendly sparkly version in popular culture.

Sure, I'm not a big consumer of horror, and I had quibbles with the protagonist and some instances of verbosity, but that's common, not enough to make me look sidelong at a story--and I was looking sideways at the piece for a good long while afterwards. The one thing that I couldn't stop squinting at was that the special victims, the ones not killed or eaten or merged but penetrated and possessed and enslaved, were exclusively young girls.

It seemed like an artifact, a relic of another time, and I don't mean just within the story's world. I mean the virgin sacrifice trope, which, for the record, I think is stupid and tired. Like I said, I had my quibbles, but with so much creativity and the subtle subversions of the Lovecraftian framework on which the story was built, the employment of this trope cheapened the rest of it, for me. It is used in a way that seemed uninspired, unexamined, and reinforced.

The trope is introduced in Equoid through the letters of H.P. Lovecraft, wherein he details his boyhood encounter with the equoid and its lure, a girl named Hetty. There are implications that H.P. is an unreliable narrator, "leaving stuff out, putting stuff in" and Bob had been sniping holes in Lovecraftian lore all along, but this one account remained unscathed. Lovecraft is never proven to have embellished a single gruesome detail of this ritual, as we are never given even a glimpse of an alternate version, like, say, the girls choosing to help their very own unicorn, or adults as vessels, or non-invasive mind-control, or the queen equoid evolving beyond the need for humans altogether.

So, if everything turns out as H.P. recounted, then Lovecraft couldn't have been just a "gynophobic" storyteller, himself just using questionable constructs. He was simply reporting the facts of nature, something that ever was and will be. Sucks to be you, little girls.

That's reinforcement. Happens all the time, but it's disappointing to find it at the core of a story so imaginative in every other way. Is it any author's job to fully subvert and dismantle tropes? No, but Charles Stross was doing a pretty decent job of it until we got to this. It's too bad, because the rest of the story, near as I can tell, is pretty successful horror and dark fantasy humor, well-crafted mythology and psuedo-science, and an intriguing bureaucracy caught up in the middle of it--action, suspense, thrills and chills. There's plenty to recommend, but I can't, not this particular story.

Have you read Equoid? What were your thoughts?