Thursday, November 18, 2010

Deep Stepping Stones by Robert D. Miller

Deep Stepping StonesDeep Stepping Stones by Robert Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Really, 2.5 stars, so I rounded up. :-)

Disclaimer: I know the author – he was my high school track coach.

Deep Stepping Stones is set in modern-day Montana, and follows the exploits of 2 FBI agents investigating the disappearance of 2 other agents, whose disappearance may or may not be related to a terrorist cell somewhere in the state. It is a fairly tight suspense novel, without any egregious plot holes, but I do have a few nits to pick, upon which I will elaborate momentarily.

But first a few words on the writing style – it is extremely detailed, down to describing the color of the agents’ socks, or their exact jogging route through the streets of Butte. While this serves to give the reader a feeling of really being there, a few times it moved into the realm of distraction, as when we are treated to 2 paragraphs describing the likes, dislikes and mindset of one of the agents wives, whom we never meet. I did get used to the detail after a while, and it really helped during the description of the last, desperate raid on the terrorist hide out, where the detailed description of the house layout (including a floorplan) enabled one to really get immersed in the action. Other times, however, it seemed like Miller was writing a tourist guide for Butte (or Jackson Hole), which, for my taste, went a bit overboard.

One of the things that bugged me the most was the lack of differentiation among the characters. They all spoke the same way (even the “bad guys”) and I never got the feel for who these guys really were. The minutae of descriptors merely served to overwhelm me with details, and didn’t do anything to really let me see into these guys’ heads. It was a case of the author “telling” me about the characters, rather than “showing” me, by their actions and dialog.

My largest complaint about the plot was the seemingly laid-back approach the agents took when a US Senator was kidnapped. They would knock off at 6pm and go have long, leisurely meals and then turn in for the night. And there weren’t any more agents brought in on the case – I would think that the kidnapping of a US Senator (even if he is from Idaho) would involve more than 2 agents, and there would be enough of a sense of urgency that they would work in shifts around the clock.

Don’t get me wrong, in the end, I enjoyed the book. But I do think it could have been better. Of course, I have never written a book, so I have to give props to Mr. Miller for even doing so, and for getting it published! I do hope he writes another book, because I think he will improve as a writer, and this one definitely shows promise! (Let’s face it – I’m downright envious that he had what it took to write it in the first place! I admire that ability, greatly!)

Farlander by Col Buchanon

Farlander (The Heart of the World, #1)Farlander by Col Buchanan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Heart of the World (of which this is book one) looks much like the Mediterranean and surrounding areas, though without the long “boot” of Italy. It is an imagined world, though somewhat grounded in ours, with words and names similar enough to be familiar, but foreign enough to be new. The cultures, too, seem vaguely familiar, even to the point of monks who follow the Daoist Way.

But this is not the history of our earth, despite the similarities. In this world, there is a ruling cult, called Mann that preaches embracing the flesh and is bent on conquering the entire known world. Its society & politics remind one of ancient Rome, with plots to capture the throne, crazed rulers keeping the masses entertained by gladiatorial games, etc.

Still opposing it, even after 10 years of siege and war is the loose confederation of the Mercian Free Ports. The people here still follow Daoism, and are fighting to remain free.

And into this mix of politics and conquest are the Roshun – a society of assassins who train both mind & body using Daoist principles, and who avenge the deaths of those who have purchased their protection. (Think Ninja + Jedi and you get the picture of who they are.)

The book mostly follows an older, and dying, Roshun named Ash, who takes on an apprentice, Nico, a young man living on the streets in Al-Khos, the largest city of the Mercian Free Ports. Ash had always avoided taking on an apprentice, but, knowing his end is near, he nearly randomly chooses Nico, as he catches Nico trying to burgle his room. They go back to the Roshun monastery in the remote mountains (again, this evokes images of the monks of the Shaolin Temple) and Nico begins his training.

Meanwhile, the heir of the Mannian matriarch kills a young woman who wears the Roshun seal of protection. This launches a vendetta in which Ash and young Nico are main players.

The book switches back and forth among several main characters/storylines, keeping the pace quite brisk. We get to see the depravity of the Manninan rulers (though thankfully, not too terribly graphic), their plots to at last take the Mercian Free Ports, and their personal paranoia. We also follow a soldier of Al-Khos, where we see the devastating effects of the long war/siege. And we follow Ash & Nico.

All of this is quite skillfully woven together, in a world that Buchanon does a masterful job of making real. While some things are maybe a little too clichéd (e.g. master “jedi” and his apprentice), things do not always follow to form, which is refreshing. We definitely feel the grit and pain of hand-to-hand combat, and it is not in any way glorified. The pacing of the book is quite good, and I found myself ripping through the last half, wanting to know the outcome, which, while leaving open the door for book two, was not quite what I expected.

I thoroughly enjoyed the world created by the author, and do look forward to the 2nd book!

NOTE: The copy of the book I read was an advanced reader’s copy – this book will not be published in the US until January 2011. However, it has been published in Great Britain, so it may be possible to find a copy online, somewhere.