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Book Review- “Canary” by Duane Swierczynski

March 25, 2015 1 comment

Canary coverI’ve been a crime fiction fan for years, but for the longest time I didn’t appreciate stories about amateur sleuths or criminals. They often seem too quaint and tidy or to stretch disbelief like the person stumbling around in the world of murder and mayhem that is a good crime fiction tale should be arrested or killed right off the bat.

The past several years though some good television shows, comics, and novels have been working to change my opinion and now thanks to those forms of media there is one particular type of “amateur” crime fiction protagonist I have great love for and find fascinating, the type of person that suddenly discovers they’re really good at committing or stopping crime. I’m talking about the Walter Whites and Saul Goodmans of the world. I’m also talking about the Veronica Marses as well, and with his latest novel “Canary,” writer Duane Swierczynski gives us a tale that reads like a mash up of “Breaking Bad” and “Veronica Mars.” Plus the writer introduces us to a fascinating new character in the form of Serafina “Sarie” Holland.

When we first meet Sarie in “Canary” she’s an Honors Student at a small Philadelphia College. She’s likeable and conscientious, but she also makes some poor decisions involving a boy she just met. Those decisions lead to her being left holding the bag when a Philadelphia Police Detective, named Ben Wildey shows up to arrest the boy for the drugs he just bought. So Sarie is left with a choice: be prosecuted or become a confidential informant for the special narcotics unit that Wildey is part of.

This starts Sarie’s journey into Philadelphia’s drug underworld and it’s a fascinating one to watch. Like all amateurs duaneshe makes a few blunders, but soon the Honors Student discovers she has an apptitude for more than just academics. She’s also quite good at walking the edge between law breaker and law enforcer that is required of a “snitch” that wants to stay alive and stay out of jail.

Much of “Canary” is told to the readers first hand from Sarie’s perspective. As I said. she’s a very likeable protagonist with some fun and interesting insights and watching her deal with and overcome the strangeness and horrors of the Philadelphia drug underworld is at times funny, exciting, and terrifying. I mentioned “Veronica Mars” earlier and Sarie has the same mix of cunning, likeability, and interesting perspective that Veronica has.

Sarie isn’t the only interesting character in “Canary.” Over the course of the novel we meet a whole host of interesting players from both the underworld and suburban environments Sarie is straddling throughout the story. They include previously mentioned cop Ben Wildey, “D” the boy whose dealing leads to her arrest at the beginning of the story, and several shady criminals. My favorite underworld character is a veteran Philly mobster named Ringo that Swierczynski introduces in the latter half of the novel. He has some great scenes, especially with Sarie.

The Holland family is also a big part of the story. Sarie lives at home with her father Kevin and her younger brother Marty and they’re all dealing with the recent death of her mom in different ways. Kevin is probably dealing with it the worst. So there were a lot of moments in “Canary” where I didn’t like him, but by the end of the book Sarie’s father becomes a very sympathetic and likeable character. It’s the same for 12 year old Marty. He comes off as a sort of nuisance figure early on, but Swierczynski does a fantastic job establishing what motivates Marty.

On top of great characters and action “Canary” also features some other elements that Swierczynski is a master at. First and foremost of those of course is bringing the city of Philadelphia to life. All of the books that the writer sets in his home town crackle and make you feel like you’re right there walking the mean streets with the characters. They’re almost travelogues and documents of the weird, wonderful, and warped places of the City of Brotherly Love.

The other element that Swierczynski excels at is immersing a character in a shadowy world that they previously weren’t familiar with or had no idea existed. He did that fantastically with his Charle Hardie trilogy of novels and he does it again here. The more Sarie becomes immersed in the twisted world of Philly’s drug wars the more thrilling “Canary” became. The last half of the novel is harrowing and very, very cool.

So in “Canary” Swierczynski introduces to a thrilling new character whose journey into the world of crime is both fun and exciting to read about. I don’t want to say much about the end results of Sarie’s journey because I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say though that “Canary” is a deeply satisfying novel and the best book Swierczynski has written since “Hell & Gone,” my favorite of the Charlie Hardie trilogy. I eagerly await the writer’s next novel.

Categories: Book Review

Book Review- “Salamanders Omnibus” By Nick Kyme

Salamanders-the-Omnibus Tie-in fiction has an unfortunate stigma attached to it. Like the fact that because it’s a story from a pre-existing world, usually attached to a game, that it’s no where near as entertaining, imaginative, or as worthy as original fiction. Having read a number of tie-in fiction books over the years I can tell you whole heartedly that tie-ins can be just as fun and exciting as original fiction. In fact in recent years I’v discovered a series of tie-in books that I’ve become utterly addicted to even though I have no interest in playing the tactical miniature game that inspired it. I’m talking of course about Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe.

A friend of mine once describe 40k as a “jungle juice of cool genre fiction.” You’ve got elements of Star Wars, Dune, Tolkeinesque fantasy, Lovecraftian horror, and an often noirish outlook on morality. On top of that it’s got a visual aesthetic that appeals to the heavy metal fan in me. So of course I’d be drawn to the Black Library’s series of Warhammer 40K fiction. So far I’ve read some fantastic stuff by Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell. For Christmas I got a mammoth tome of 40K fiction that I just recently completed reading, the “Salamander Omnibus” by Nick Kyme. It’s a collection of three novels and like 10 short stories for the cover price of $17.50 in the U.S. So it’s a great value, but on top of that it’s a thrilling and epic read.

All together the stories in “The Salamander Omnibus” run about 1014 pages. So reviewing all that and keeping it spoiler free is going to be tough, but let’s see what I can do.

The titular characters of the “Salamander Omnibus” are the 17th Legion of genetically engineered soldiers known as Space Marines. They serve as sort of the elite forces of the Imperium of Mankind a sprawling interplanetary empire that is under siege in the 40th millenium by a host of rival alien empires and corruptive supernatural forces that turned several Space Marine Legions into marauding malevolent forces often capable of arcane feats. What makes the Salamnders unique is the fact that they’re one of the most altruistic and “human” of the Space Marine Legions. Each Legion has it’s own set of customs and beliefs and the Salamanders credo urges them to protect, sacrifice for, and try to elevate the humans they live side by side with.

Making the Salamanders even more interesting is the fact that they hail from a volcanic home world in a constant state of nick-kymeturmoil. The planet “Nocturne” is dubbed a “Death World” because of how inhospitable and dangerous life there is. It takes a hardy stock to survive and an even more resilient individual to survive the arduous trials that lead to initiation into the Salamanders.
So Kyme already has some great building blocks to forge the characters of his “Salamanders” stories and he uses them to build some fascinating and fun characters to follow. The chief protagonists of the stories are Zek Tsu’gan and Hazon Da’kir. When we first meet Tsu’gan and Da’kir they’re bitter rivals because of who they were before they became Space Marines. Tsu’gan hails from a city of wealth and power and believe Da’kir, who is the only member of a nomadic tribe to become a Space Marine, is unworthy of the genetic gifts he’s been given.

With that set up you’re instantly geared to like Da’kir who is a noble and heroic guy. You’re also left with a feeling of anger and hatred towards Tsu’gan. It’s like he’s a William Zabka character from an ’80s teen movie. I believe that’s intentional though. Over the course of the three novels and 10 short stories things change drastically for Da’Kir and Tsu’gan. They undergo many heartbreaks and perilous adventures and over the course of these exploits I started to understand Tsu’gan a little more an empathize with him. Plus he’s pretty bad-ass.

Da’kir and Tsu’gan aren’t the only Salamanders that figure into Kyme’s stories. You meet a whole host of fascinating characters that occupy a variety of positions through out the Legion; every one from the leader of the entire chapter, Tu’Shan, to the Captains and Sergeants of the various companies. Some of my favorites include Sol Ba’Ken, a giant even for a Space Marine, who is Da’kir’s best friend; and Pyriel, a Space Marine Librarian which means not only is he a genetic super soldier, but he also possesses a whole host of psychic abilities.

Kyme also gave his heroes a fascinating cast of villains to do battle with. Over the course of the novel the Salamanders go to war against Orks (imagine the bad guy armies from the Lord of the Rings armed with steampunk technology), Dark Eldar (evil sadomasochistic space elves armed with technology that is almost magical) and Space Marines that have been corrupted by the malevolent Chaos Gods. The Chaos Space Marines that are a recurring force of villainy throughout the “Salamanders Omnibus” are war band called The Dragon Warriors.

Nihlian, the leader of the Dragon Warriors, used to be a Salamander before he became corrupted by Chaos so he has a personal grudge against the Legion. Over the course of the three novels we follow his various schemes and plots to get revenge on his former Legion. These schemes makes him and his lieutenants bad guys you love to hate.

Describing the various clashes between the Salamanders and their enemies takes us into spoiler territory so instead lets talk about where these clashes take place. One of the things I’ve grown to love about 40K tie-in fiction is they’re also travelogues of fantastic and otherworldly places. You feel transported to strange and fascinating alien worlds. That’s exactly what happens here. In addition to the Salamanders home world of Nocturne Kyme takes us to such fascinating and fun locales as a twisted Dark Eldar port city located in the ethereal realm known as the Webway, a massive alien haunted ghost ship or Space Hulk, and a mysterious ancient world somehow related to Nocturne.

While we visit these places we’re treated to really cool moments of character development, and intense action. There are some battle scenes that made me stand up and cheer. Most of these battle sequences are fought man to man or army to army, but in “Nocturne,” the final novel in the Omnibus, Kyme gives readers some fun outer space battles between capital ships.

So the “Salamanders Omnibus” is an epic, fun, sci-fi, fantasy story packed with great characters and thrilling moments. My one real complaint, and to be fair Kyme mentions this in the book’s introduction, is that not everything wraps up by the time the book is over. On one hand that’s a little frustrating, but on the other I was definitely left wanting more. With the “Salamanders Omnibus” Nick Kyme made me a fan of of the 17th Space Marine Legion and I can’t wait to see where he takes them in future books.