Warpworld by Kristene Perron and Joshua Simpson.
So this review will feature three firsts for this series. First of all, this is the first book I've reviewed with more than one author. Second and likely more important, this is the first book I've reviewed where a friend of mine is one of the authors. I've been friends with Josh Simpson for years, we've argued together, bitched, celebrated and generally carried on like a pack of manics. That said, I've never met him in the flesh, only online but I still think of him as a good friend and why not?
Lastly and the first I am most gleeful over, this is the first review of a book I didn't pay for. Josh was kind enough to send me a Kindle copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Why am I telling you this? Well, while I will swear to you that none of these things have had any impact on the review. I think I owe to y'all to be completely up front and honest over things like do I know the author, was I given this book in expectation of a review and so on and so forth. So expect to be told if I am reviewing a book that was given to me in exchange for a review, especially if by the author. If it wasn't the author, I will try to mention the individual who provided me with a copy anyways, so the credit (or blame) can be shared out as everyone deserves. But enough of me being more upfront then your average games journalist, let's get to the book.
Warpworld is Ms. Perron and Mr. Simpson's first book and it is a fantasy story. The story revolves around two lead characters Seg and Ama. I'll be focusing a lot on them in this review because the story not only is entirely dependent on their choices and actions, but 90% of it is through their eyes. So you'll be spending alot of time with them if you decide to pick this book up. Seg... Excuse me, Segkel Eraranat, Field Cultural Theorist (a cultural theorist being basically a combat anthropologist, something which tickles me pink) is a fucking asshole. A man who has knife fought his way up from the humblest of origins to the point where he can almost see the top of the mountain of his society. And Whoo Boy, this is a society of sharks and piranhas. They call themselves the People, because they don't regard anyone else they meet as people. Just living tools they can use up as they see fit. The People however, have a problem, their world is trying to kill them via a big angry life eating thing, they call the Storm. Frankly I can't blame the planet. Because of this, they must open Warpgates to other worlds, attack them and rob them of people and cultural and religious artifacts. Why cultural and religious artifacts? Because the technology they use to travel to other worlds and to keep their planet from murdering them wholesale is powered by magic. Don't look at me like that, it's tech that runs off the energy built up by belief and emotion, it's fucking magic! I don't have a problem with this in all honesty but a number of books these days attempt to tell me that the magic isn't magic, which I refuse to fall for! In fairness to the writers of warpworld, they don't try to sell me a potion of bullshit here, they get the characters to try to sell me a potion of bullshit. Which I can live with. Seg would roll his eyes at me and tell me firmly that this is not magic... And he would be full of shit, but characters are sometimes full of shit and often the story is better for it.
Anyways, back to Seg. He has been commissioned to find artifacts and sites of great religious and cultural impotence so one of the many armed forces of the People (divided between mercenaries and Noble Houses, because the People are to big a collection of Dicks to bite the bullet and centralize their armies for the greater good) can come through the warpgate and loot them dry! This of course isn't a new thing, the People have been doing this since Seg's grandfather's grandfather was a bouncing baby boy. So there are procedures, codes, regulations. Seg, despite being on his very first real mission... Believes he knows better then people who have been doing this entire lives. Because he is a genius and everyone else is a moron. He's not shy about letting people know they're morons either. I told you he was an asshole. What keeps him bearable is his willingness to admit when he doesn't know something and the fact that he keeps his word to the last. Additionally is his utter refusal to leave people behind or stab them in the back. Seg is also very forthright and blunt, which makes me wonder how the hell he survived in his society but it does add to his entertainment value. All in all, Seg keeps from being unbearable or a big enough dick that I am not consumed with hatred for him. I don't know if I like him... But I respect him and I enjoy his toils and efforts. Plus I usually hate the people he's being an asshole to more. Sometimes I'm even sympathetic to the amount of shit he's going through. Besides to be fair, given his culture and his experiences growing up he's practically Ghandi. I mean imagine being surrounded by people who are not only waiting for you fail, but are wanting you to fail so they can send you off to a life of backbreaking labor and humiliation. Now imagine this is your life from the age of something like 9...
I'd be a raging asshole to, on my good days.
On the flip side of the coin we have Captain Amadahy Kalder of the Kenda. She and her people have a problem. This problem is a another group of people named the Shasir. The Shasir are a group of people who had the industrial revolution first on their planet. Unlike the Europeans of our world though, the Shasir decided to make a religion out this and ensure that only those who entered and climbed the ranks of their priesthood would be allowed to study and understand the resulting technology. Using firearms and airships, they proceeded to conquer and subdue a good chunk of the globe. Including the part the Kenda were living on. The Kenda are a waterbound people, they worship a water god, love to sail on boats, make water oaths and metaphors so on and so forth. They're very much an oppressed people however and the book shows us this through little things (conversations and interactions between the characters) that the Kenda's lives are ringed around with restrictions and obstacles both grand and petty. In alot of ways it's kinda like looking back at the lives of the some of the colonized peoples here. Although the Kenda are not without privileges, being better off then the other subdued people, the Welf.
The Welfs don't really get to speak for themselves in this novel, the story isn't about them, they're just more or less background to it. Although we do get a couple of moments that shine a light on their lives. They live on the bottom of the social and economic order. There are no Welf priests (there are Kenda priests), no Welf land owners or anything like that. The Welf have 3 roles in society. To grub in the mud so their betters can eat without toil. To serve as their maids and cooks and other low level servants and to perform the work no one else wants to. Honestly the Welf made me a bit uncomfortable, calling back indirectly to parts of American History I rather not think about to often... But that adds to the realism. The Shasir are a imperialist, racist bunch of assholes who have seized control of large chunks (if not all) of their planet through better technology and being willing to use it and horde it. Course that kind of empire is fragile, Seg himself openly states that Shasir empire couldn't last more then another 2 or 4 generations but it can and will smash alot of people into the mud, for no better reason then who their parents were, in that time frame. Worse, it'll do so because that's one of the things it was designed to do. I don't know if the writers were trying to make the point that imperialism isn't very nice and is often a dirty, nasty business... But they did a good job of making that point without giving any lectures or rubbing your nose in it. The actions and thoughts of the characters drive that point home without any really calling attention to it.
As for Ama herself. I didn't like her at first. Not because she's unpleasant or anything. She's a fairly nice person as far as characters go, it's just... Let me just ask if this sounds familiar... She is a person fighting against what her society and family expects of her, trying to reach her own dreams. Her mother died when she was young and she wants nothing more then to be a free ship Captain. Her family on the other hand wants her to settle down and get married and live a respectable life. Her society isn't very keen on a woman Ship Captain (which I admit is very silly of them). As such she finds herself arguing with her Father, who Just Doesn't Understand! I call this standard fantasy protagonist number 3, variant b. For Ama to be variant a, she would have be a child or a teenager, a very popular choice in fantasy books, in fact I'm not sure Mercedes Lackey has actually written any other kind of character. That might be unfair dig at Ms. Lackey, and this isn't a review of one of her books, so I'll stop there.
Thankfully Ama, doesn't spend a lot of time acting like standard fantasy protagonist number 3b. She doesn't mope around and wish for adventures and whine and nag and generally act like a angsting teen. Note to aspiring and published writers, reading someone whine and angst gets old... FAST. Instead Ama does stuff. She plots, schemes, fights, swims, sails and curses. It also helps that she actually pretty good at at least some of that. Additionally, she's not moping around wanting a higher destiny or anything, she just wants to be allowed to sail her damn boat. Which is a reasonable desire in my book and a point her favor. Ama doesn't want to be a princess or an archmage... Or run around with a magic white horse with an over inflated sense of it's own importance (okay I'll stop now). She just wants people to leave her alone and let her be a ship captain and she's willing to work to that end. When she discovers Seg's secret, her reaction is "how do I make this work for my people and for me?" It's realistic, pragmatic and decisive, which makes Ama and her decisions frankly a breath of fresh air compared to say Shadow Ops, nor does Ama sit around moodily and wonder about her enemies like a certain jumped up Starship captain (I still like that character, but there are bits I could do without). Additionally pragmatic and decisive is her willingness to go behind Seg's back to warn her people and family and make sure they get the most out of this. Frankly I approve this, she isn't willing to let the best interests of her family and friends take a back seat to some dude she meet a few days ago. Ama is fairly straightforward and easy to deal with once you realize that she isn't protagonist 3b, or if she is, she's a very well done one who isn't constrained by the mold. Honestly I like her more then I like Seg, but Seg is the more interesting of the two characters. Additionally, his goals and plans end up pretty much superseding Ama's. So what Seg is going to do next towards the end of the book becomes alot more important then what is Ama going to do next.
I also enjoyed a number of the secondary characters, like Brin, Ama's cousin. Seg's mentor Jarin, a cunning and crafty old man with his own mission and his own possibly shady past. He seems to have been in Seg's position before in a lot of ways and is trying to keep the kid from repeating his mistakes. Seg seems to feel that Jarin hasn't done him that many favors coming up, but considering the fact that someone with Seg's lack of connections and rather smart mouth is still breathing... I kinda think Jarin has spent a lot of time giving Seg cover. However, my favorite minor character is hands down the old rogue that is Viren. Who we met trying to rob Seg when he stumbles around a port city after being drugged by Ama (I told she was pragmatic didn't I?). Viren was a bit of treat for me. He's sly, clever and irrelevant and completely refuses to take this shit seriously. He's no Han Solo but he is pretty fun. Just don't ever play cards with the man.
There are drawbacks to the story. I felt the action scenes were overall pretty average. Not bad just... Average. They are competently written and plotted out, I was never left lost or confused but they lack a certain edge. The mass firefight at the end of the book for example didn't quite click for me. I enjoyed reading it but I was also sitting thinking "that's not how it would really work..." This might be my own life experiences working against me, plus I'm not a huge fan of 'large masses of under equipped enemies throw themselves in frontal assaults against dug in enemies with better weapons.' Yes, it's happened more than a few times in history. Yes, it makes perfect sense in the context of the story. I'm still just not a fan. I'm hoping to see more even fights later in the series.
The antagonists are the weakest part of the story. We don't get much of a sense of them, other then one member of the people being ambitious and petty and a law enforcer being an utter bastard for reasons unknown. For the most part the antagonists are a faceless mass. The People's society and the Shasir empire are the main antagonist forces in this book, only they are left without spokesmen (or spokeswomen) to speak to their side of the story or to give an opposing viewpoint to the characters. Instead everyone who opposes them is a petty, ambitious bastard, an utter psychopath or a deluded victim. I'm left wondering why the CMC (the People's organization that is opposed to the Cultural Theorist Guild) is so dead set on wrecking Seg's raid when he can provide grand amounts of the the very energy they're so desperately hungry for. Why is the Constable so fired up to see Ama put in what he thinks is her place? For that matter why is he so anti-Kenda? That said, they serve fairly well as forces or individuals that are dangerous to our characters. Ama and Seg bleed, they get beat up, they have problems and suffer. This is not an easy walk over for them, unlike some professionally published stories I could name. So there is more then enough tension in the story to keep you turning the pages. For that matter, you don't feel like the antagonists are absolute idiots (Seg's opinion not withstanding, but he thinks almost everyone is an idiot), it's just you're not very sure their motivations or their goals expect in a vague broad sense (keep the Shasir in power, get more power over the People and get more magic energy to keep the planet from killing us, stuff like that). The antagonists are serviceable but nothing more.
Warpworld rests on the character of it's protagonists and their relationship with each other. Which is a dynamic evolving relationship between two people with their own goals and desires. The relation is also put under strain by the stakes and tensions of the situation and how Seg's and Ama's goals align or clash depending on the situation. Which works fairly well. It makes for a strong interesting story with enough bad things happening to the protagonists to keep it interesting. This is good first book for these authors and a good start to the series (there are something like 4 more books) and I can recommend these books with a clear conscience.
Warpworld gets a B+, the lack of attention to the antagonists and averageness of the action keep it from going any higher but the well written plot and characterization lift it firmly out of the average run of the mill fantasy.