Friday, December 11, 2009
Magic For Beginners made it into our stack when JD randomly bought a bunch of cheap books from a small publishing house, through some special. I didn’t know it was a short story collection when it was the only book I packed for a weekend away. I’m glad that it was the only book I packed, because I had brought anything else I would have dismissed it out of hand and never had the pleasure of reading it.
Kelly Link’s short stories are absolute gems. They are mostly rooted in real life with fantastic elements thrown in to shake up the worlds of the characters, but a few are straight fantasy. They all have great hooks, bizarre and intriguing storylines, and thought-provoking literary wanderings. Months later I still find myself pondering the implications of some of the stories, or what might have come next had the story been a whole book. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself thinking about “that weird dream I had” before I realized that I was actually thinking about one of the stories. Talk about impressive, to be able to grab you and hold you and integrate with your brainmeats so well.
I did have one gripe about the compilation as a whole. Ms. Link loves to end her stories with a sense of melancholy longing (or at least that’s the best set of words I can come up with to express the slightly sad, achy, wanting-more feeling her stories inspired). She does it incredibly well, especially considering the shortness of her stories. The problem is that almost every story ends that way… a fact that becomes glaringly apparent when you’re reading all of the stories back to back to back. An emotional tug starts to lose its effect when repeated that many times, so I started to get indifferent after 3 or 4 stories. Still, not her fault so much as mine for reading the whole book straight through, rather than breaking up the stories over a few month period.
So, consider my aversion to short stories somewhat assuaged. I’ll do my best not to be so horrifically biased in the future!
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
I honestly don’t have a whole lot more to say about Canticle other than “I enjoyed it,” but there are a couple of things Scholes did well that deserve highlighting. Thing One: characters that were complex but still believable. Sometimes when you have characters that are both good and bad, it’s contrived. Not so with Canticle – I always believed the turns and changes of heart that the characters had. Thing Two: Subtle character development. Scholes did a masterful job maturing and changing his characters from the start of Lamentation to the end of Canticle, and he did so subtly enough that you barely realized it had happened until you stopped and compared. Thing Three: introducing potential future plot developments without being glaringly obvious or saying “ha, ha, I know something you don’t know!”
Ok, stopping with the numbered Things before this mini-review becomes a Dr. Seuss book. Lamentation was good. Canticle was better. I’m very much looking forward to book three, and I’ll do my best to slow down and savor it.
Now. I see Juliet Marillier’s name ALL OVER the place. She publishes like a mofo and has a bunch of books out there. I know for sure that I have a couple of other books in my stack that were written by her. So – can one of you other fantasy lovers tell me if any of her books are more worthwhile? Unless I get a vote of confidence, I’m probably going to prune her out of my stack and move on. It just seems a shame to dismiss a prolific author who has at least a little promise without getting a second opinion.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Before I start gushing about The Magicians, I need to get one thing out of the way: I had a problem with the end of this book. After how excellent and solid the rest of the story was, the ending kind of rubbed me wrong for reasons I can't go into without spoiling.
However! Ending quibbles aside, The Magicians was an absolutely excellent book and I enjoyed it immensely. It will definitely be in hot contention for "Lisa's Top 5 of 2009." The setup is this: Quentin is a smart kid, late high-school, a bit geeky and shy. Like many smart kids, he has a big place in his heart for a childhood book series featuring swords and sorcery. Quentin is also about to head off to college, and on the day he has an interview for Princeton he's thrown off course by a mysterious package and instead ends up in another world taking an entrance exam for a school that teaches magic.
I know, it sounds a bit "Harry Potter" but please don't lower it to that level. This book is so much more.
Here's the thing: The Magicians does "magic school" without being trite. So very many books just don't pull that off. Even Name of the Wind - which was excellent overall - had moments of triteness when it came to magic school. Grossman has none of that. Everything about the characters, worlds, and situations he builds is real and visceral and moving. He touches on themes that everyone has to deal with between age 20 and 30, and he does so with poignant insights and cutting realism. Magic school is just a vessel for a much deeper investigation about character, personality, and learning what the "real world" is like.
I won't say more about the plot lest I spoil things, but I think the climax of this book deserve special mention. You remember when you were a kid, reading a fantasy story by one of the masters and they managed to build the intensity such that it got your heart racing and just scared you? When Shelob attacks Frodo, or when you see the Jabberwocky for the first time? Yeah. Grossman did that to me as a 26-year-old adult curled up in my cozy hotel room. He did it without blood or gore or any other "easy" pretense - he just built up his atmosphere and layered on the suspense more and more. I was nervous about turning off the light at bed time.
I recommend The Magicians more highly than anything else I've read in the last 4 months. It is fresh and original (in spite of all of the preconceptions you might harbor upon reading the summary) and it twinges the emotional strings like nobody's business. Huge thumbs up.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
First: the world. A human colony ship jumps into a distant galaxy and is promptly lost. It manages to find an inhabitable planet, builds a space station and eventually colonizes the planet thanks to a political rift between the pilots and the passengers. This planet has intelligent life already, a race called the Atevi who are tall, ebony skinned humanoids with golden eyes and a steam-engine level of technology. At first things go reasonably well, but what with one thing and another the ship leaves orbit in search of home (leaving the humans on-planet stranded) and war breaks out between the Atevi and the humans. The Atevi win quite handily and the humans frantically make a treaty that leaves them control of a large island off the mainland but nothing else. The treaty's basic idea is that a single human will live amongst the Atevi, learn their language, and act as a interpreter and diplomat to ensure the peace (he is called the Paidhi). In return, the humans will slowly release their technology to Atevi hands, in a way that is carefully calculated to not overturn the economic stability while still advancing their technology level to eventual parity. Fast forward 200 years and we meet Bren Cameron, the young new Paidhi and our protagonist.
These books aren't about things happening. In general, only two or three things happen in the entire book (and they aren't short books). They aren't about romance, as Bren is totally isolated from other humans and Atevi don't feel love. They aren't about action either. Though violence happens it is just as often off-screen as on. These are books about a smart and a good man trying to understand an alien psychology well enough that he can prevent the violence that always lurks just under the surface... a goal that often puts him at odds with his own species. This psychological understanding is primarily driven by an understanding of the Atevi language, and musings on the language fill a large portion on each book, along with explorations of the complicated political structures that make up Atevi society (which, because of their alien psychology, don't translate well into human thinking).
Reading this books is intellectually engaging, and you need to be prepared to actually think while you read. Previous description aside... they aren't boring books at all. Although very few big events happen in them (in fact, the goal is often simply to prevent big things from happening), there are small things happening all of the time. I think I could best describe reading these books as becoming wholly engrossed in a masterfully played game of chess. It becomes your world, and you spend as much time as you need to understand the implications of each move. As the game progresses, every motion ripples outwards and forward as pieces are moved into extravagantly complex arrangements... each piece protecting another, or blocking some gambit, or maneuvering for an attack. Your heartbeat speeds up every time a player picks up a piece, your shoulders tighten, your palms sweat... not because the move itself is explosive or surprising but because you can feel the game building to a crisis point and once the tension builds too far everything is going to tip and all of the structures are going to collapse. When the crisis finally comes, the casual observer might see very little to react to. A piece or two is taken... and the players continue to stare impassively at the board. But you, who are totally absorbed in the game see something else entirely. You see a power structure that shifted irretrievably. A mistake! Someone slipped, and his opponent moved to take advantage and now the tone of the board is completely shifted and it's all just careful mopping up from now on. Unless, of course, it wasn't a mistake at all...
And nobody who wasn't totally absorbed even noticed that anything happened. By the end of the game the board is totally changed. Someone will look at it and ask you "how did he win?" and you will shrug, unable to find the words. They will think "what a boring game", and in a sense they are right. Until you commit there is very little for you in the game, it is only in engrossing yourself that you see the drama and the excitement and the slow buildup of tension. Cherryh makes it easy for me to become engrossed... I imagine that is not true of everyone who picks up these books, and I imagine many people will walk away thinking "what a boring game".
So yeah. These are challenging books, they require you to think and to be willing to feel your heartbeat raise and your shoulders tense for five or six hundred pages. The writing is solid, but the first fifty pages will feel weird to you each time you pick one up. I'm not sure why, something in the way sentences are phrased perhaps, but the feeling always fades (at least for me). The Atevi, and the Atevi world, aren't all that different from humans and earth... it isn't world building on a grand and original scale. Rather, the focus is very much on understanding the way a similar but alien race thinks and reasons and lives. It's subtle and certainly not for everyone. I can only handle one of these books a year or so, and there are something like seven more waiting for me. This might actually be the only long series of books that I read more slowly than they are written, but I'm basically totally fine with that.
The problem with Sandman Slim is that the main character, by dint of living in Hell for seven years or just natural inclination, is an unrepentant asshole. He isn't a very sympathetic character, and it's hard to really care all that much about his suffering and whatnot because he's largely an emotionless revenge machine. That sort of thing *sounds* really badass on paper (especially if that paper is a character sheet, I've found) but it makes it hard to become emotionally involved with his story. He moves through a world filled with interesting characters, cool magic ideas, horrible creatures, awesome cosmology and all that sort of urban fantasy stuff, and it is all very cool! The friends he makes *are* quite interesting and sympathetic, but they are very marginalized and rarely get any screen time and don't get to develop at all... the same could be said about all of the cool elements. Kadrey just seems to neglect the parts of the book that were interesting and stay tightly focused on a protagonist that doesn't draw the reader in.
Then there's the revenge bits: these were all... weird. None of his victories felt like triumphs, perhaps because it never seemed like it was any effort or risk to him. I'm not sure how to describe a revenge fantasy novel in which the various revenges aren't actually cathartic at all. Firstly because you don't care all that much about the wrongs that were done to this guy, and secondly because the obstacles seem trivial and he walks through the actual revenges like he's out getting groceries.
All this sounds pretty negative, and I guess it is. I didn't *hate* the book but I don't feel like I got anything out of it either. There were lots of very, very cool ideas that could have been fleshed out into fascinating aspects of the story and I dearly wish they had been. Give me a scene of the arena fights! Show the immortal alchemist more! Play with the punk rock girl spider person more! Instead, I found that the most singularly positive thing about the book is that it's form factor is totally awesome, if you're into kinda weird sized printings. Which I am. So there's that.
Otherwise? Pass probably.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
The story is a novel-style re-telling of the classic ballad of Thomas the Rhymer (who is in turn based upon a real 13th century Scottish laird). According to the ballad, Thomas is seduced be the queen of Elfland and tricked into staying in her fairy world for 7 years. When he returns to the human world she gives him a parting gift of prophecy.
Kushner's take on the story is true to the traditional ballad, but she takes the tack of telling the tale from the point of view of 4 characters: Meg and Gavin, two surrogate parental figures; Elspeth, a friend and potential lover; and Thomas himself. Her approach is interesting and lends a certain depth and sense of realism to the legend.
The prose is lovely, as is always the case with Kushner's work, and the story moves along fairly quickly. Unfortunately, the book never quite connected with me - there was something missing, though I can't for the life of me put my finger on what. I think part of it was that Meg and Gavin seemed a bit shallow as characters; I didn't empathize with them as greatly as I did Thomas and Elspeth. I also thought the story laid it on a little too thick with some of enchantments of the Elfland queen - it got to the point where I found myself thinking "ok, I get it, she's unfathomably desirable and Thomas is hopelessly entranced. Can we move on?"
In the end, I suppose this book was a mixed bag. The writing style was lovely, and it was an interesting way to approach a classic story. Sadly, I felt let down from where my expectations were set by so much glowing praise, which cast a pall on my opinion as a whole. Take from that what you will, and maybe only pick up Thomas the Rhymer if you're in the mood for something classic and poetic.
[Related Aside: I realized in writing this review that I've now been disappointed by 3 or 4 books that I picked up (at least in part) because of a cover-blurb by Neil Gaiman. Maybe I should take a hint: read his books, but not the books he recommends...]
Friday, October 09, 2009
We enter the story in medea res with the main character Cole (think Han Solo being played by Space Quest's Roger Wilco) being dangled upside down and preparing to have his brain filled with the ravenous young of the collector his loan shark sent. He had just robbed a fellow smuggler who in turn had just robbed an adorable pair of dwarves. Who in turn had just robbed a casino. Sadly, that money was nowhere near enough. The creature dangling Cole is Kenneth, a Lovecraftian horror of an alien creature with a pleasant and soothing baritone voice that belays his natural inclination to lay eggs in people's brains and his unconscionable love of soap-opera style drama. One thing inevitably leads to another and we follow Cole across the galaxy with a ship stolen from his arch-rival and filled with smuggled freeze-dried orphans on a search for a Utopia. Adventures are had along the way, the way they so often are.
The plot is well-paced, but predictable... you will in no way be surprised by the character development arcs of any of the half-dozen characters who have them. Sadly too, some of the more interesting secondary characters are quite regrettably left to languish, narration-less, along the borders of the story. These are, of course, quibbles. Yes, it's a tad predictable but this story will have you flipping pages with complete disregard for work schedules or sane sleeping habits. The witty writing, inventive world, and flawed characters make it challenging to find that perfect break to set it down.
Is it as good as a book by the aforementioned giants? Not quite. It is fun, frantic and highly entertaining however; a page-turner that will make you wish Mr. Rubens would quit wasting his considerable talent on that no-good day job of writing for the Daily Show and focus on what's really important: expanding and improving the desperately under-served genre of humorous imaginative fiction. Pratchett won't be around forever and it's totally unfair of us to depend on A. Lee Martinez to see us through those dark days ahead. Verdict: absolutely pick up this book.
…no. Sorry, but no and no. There is nothing “epic” about Havemercy. It follows 4 main characters (a magician in exile, a student, a tutor, and an airman) in first-person format through what is mostly a character-examination and romance. There’s a bit of action near the end, but overall the book is a relationship study – which is a fine sub-genre of fantasy, but is most certainly not “epic.” A more apt description would be that Havemercy is “a fantasy of manners,” much like Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint – in fact I’d go so far as to say that Havemercy wanted to BE Swordspoint, as it investigated a lot of the same themes and had a very similar overall feel… only without Kushner’s refined language and ability to build emotion and attachment.
Oof, I’m rambling and edging towards a rant… let me reign this back into something resembling a review.
Havemercy started off with a lot of promise. As is my habit, rather than reading the back of the book for an idea of what to expect I opened it up and read the first few pages. The first section was from the point of view of Royston, aforementioned magician in exile. The first person tone was interesting, refined, and a bit tongue-in-cheek, which always suits my fancy. The next view point was Rook, the whore-loving, foul-mouthed, hotshot dragon-rider. I laughed my way through his whole chapter, pretty much loving his dirty, jaded commentary, especially when taken next to Royston’s more courtly air. Thom and Hal, the other two POV characters, were a bit dull in comparison… but they were distinct and well-developed, which is more than I can say for many books.
Sadly other than solid and entertaining characterizations, there isn’t much good to say about the rest of the book. By half way through not even Rook’s internal monologue was keeping me interested. The story and the relationships started to fall victim to a lot of relationship clichés as well as standard fantasy clichés. There was one revelation in particular that actually caused me to say “seriously??” out loud – the woman on the plane next to me gave me quite a look of confusion.
Anyway, the bottom line is that Havemercy started strong and then just sort of did a slow, leisurely spiral into mediocrity and finally into outright poorness. It was a relief when the book ended (none of the big emotional hooks in the last 50 pages did so much as twinge at my heart, even though they were clearly meant to). Skip this one, unless it happens that Ellen Kushner is your favorite author and you don’t mind reading her inferior little sisters.
Monday, October 05, 2009
If this sounds an awful lot like Harry Dresden, you'd be pretty spot on. The primary difference is that this is British. It was enjoyable and I'll probably pick up more, but I keep saying that about ol' Harry too, and time is making a liar of me. When it comes right down to it, these books all feel the same and while I enjoy them while I read them, it's hard to feel motivated to pick up another. This series might be more likely to catch my interest because I get to decipher obscure London-isms while I read it, and it left me with an intriguing next book hook. If you loves you some Dresden Files, this is absolutely worth a look.
Sure, it's a ridiculous world, and the events of the books don't do a terribly good job of making it seem convincing. That's the second biggest flaw with this series so far: you suspend a truly epic amount of belief to swallow the story. The biggest problem with the writing is that Green has a really bad habit of using the same phrase more than once within a couple pages. It's jarring as hell to hear a distinctive phrase like "wind of fury" twice on the same page, and it happens over and over throughout the book. I think it annoyed me in the first book too. Basically: it needs a crueler editor. There are other problems as well: the characters sometimes act out of character and the much-vaunted invincible armor is pretty casually penetrated by any and all foes of the Drood family up to and including a guy in a bar.
That said, the writing is fun, the plots are fast moving and engaging, and I find the books to be highly enjoyable fluff. I like that, unlike Bond movies, the world changes and the actions of the characters have lasting and meaningful impact. The first book shifted rather dramatically the world in the second book, and that's a nice thing to see and rare in modern-fantasy-serials. There's a lot of very fun side-characters and world-building weirdness to enjoy, and the supporting cast is definitely one of the strengths of the series. I mean come on! Jack the Ripper is a recurring character and they've dubbed him "Mr. Stab". Just like the first one, I found myself flying through the book in obsessive-mode and thoroughly enjoying it... I just felt a little guilty when anyone asked what I was reading.
The short answer: these are books that are best described as "fun", and left at that. I'll certainly keep picking them up... in paperback.
 Not an actual example
Saturday, October 03, 2009
I kind of felt like Red Wolf Conspiracy was that kid. There was a core of a good story and some really nifty ideas about magic and history and worlds… but the author just took on too much. It’s as though he had a hundred cool ideas, and rather than dole them out in a few stories or books or worlds he decided that he had to get them all into this book right now or he might never get another chance.
The story started out pretty strongly, introducing interesting characters and setting the scene with skill. The world felt a bit like Victorian London at the start, and Redick skillfully added layers of intrigue and magic to his basic premise through the first third or half of the book. I was quite engaged, I enjoyed the characters, and tore through the first 200 pages with alacrity. I absolutely loved the idea of the Sisterhood (Sisterhood of the Lorg, maybe? Can’t recall the name now) and I desperately wanted the author to do more than just toe at the implications of it. The main character’s language-magic was also really neat and original.
Sadly, after a solid start the second half kind of fell apart. It stopped reading like a well-crafted, subtle, adult-fantasy and started feeling more like a slip-shod kids book, with magical elements thrown in to impress and awe rather than to serve any useful purpose in the story. Several of the character meetings and plot points felt extremely contrived, and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to get over it and enjoy the book. I stopped feeling an emotional connection to the characters because I was so grumpy with the downward turn in quality – it was a terribly frustrating experience.
Luckily the ending of the book managed to salvage things a bit, so I finished the story just “disappointed” instead of “actively annoyed.” I really don’t know how to resolve such a great first half with such a shoddy second half. Did the editor get sleepy half way through the book and not finish it? Or did the publisher insist on a limited page count, so rather than exploring concepts at a leisurely pace, Redick felt like he had to smoosh everything in quickly? I don’t know, but it didn’t work out.
I want to be optimistic and say that surely some of the “first writer foibles” will be remedied in later books. I guess I’ll see how accommodating I’m feeling when book 2 hits the shelves – I’d love to see a story that is as polished overall as the first half of Red Wolf Conspiracy.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Basket Case is straight-up mystery, set in (more or less) present day. The main character, Jack, is a mid-forty-something writer who was once a hot-shot at his paper, but got consigned to the career-ending hole of Obituaries after dressing down the new, pompous owner of the paper. One day a death notice for a famous singer from his youth comes across his desk, and when he goes to interview the remaining family he finds out there might be more to the death than just an accident.
Pretty ho-hum, as far as stories go but damn if Carl Hiaasen isn’t one funny bastard. He had me laughing about something every couple of pages, be it the blithe and death-obsessed tone of his main character, or the bizarre situations the character managed to get into (ex: mauling a burglar with a 30foot frozen lizard).
Unfortunately, great humor is not enough to make up for my apathy towards non-scifi/fantasy genres. There just isn’t enough escapism for me in a modern day mystery, I suppose. I kind of… forgot that I was reading Basket Case. I just slipped my mind. I started in on Red Wolf Conspiracy and a day or two later found Basket Case in my purse and went “Oh, oops!” I got about half way through before it was lost to the recesses of my forgetful brain – it’s not like it was boring, it just didn’t have that escapist hook that I need to enjoy a book.
Ah well. So goes my yearly foray outside of my usual genres.
When it comes down to it, I wasn’t actually planning to do any sort of review of the Otherland books (in order: City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, Sea of Silver Light). I read the first book 2 years ago, took off a year before reading book two, then took off another year before picking up book 3. Each book is so very thick and robust that I needed the reset time between stories. I fully intended to take another year long break between books 3 and 4, but found that I couldn’t focus on any of the books I tried to pick up after Mountain of Black Glass, so I gave in to the inevitable and finished it off.
Anyway, the scope and content of these books is so epic and ranging that I was going to wimp out on a review simply because there was SO MUCH content that I was daunted by trying to summarize anything. However, chatting about the story with JD the other night I realized that I had quite a lot to think about, so I figured I may as well put down a few thoughts. No plot summary or character recap, but allow me to ramble on some themes.
Thought the first: Otherland should be Required Reading for anyone who considers themselves and fantasy or sci-fi fan. The books are definitely a blending of the two genres, and they epitomize epic scifi/fantasy much in the way George R. R. Martin’s work epitomizes “hard” epic fantasy. The story in Otherland is enormous in scope and unbelievably imaginative. I often talk about books being multi-genre, but Otherland covers all of the ground between fantasy and science fiction and goes down several rabbit holes even further into their sub-genres. Tad Williams pretty much hits all of the bases.
Thought the second: pacing. How impressive is it to maintain acceptable pacing through 4 books that range from 600-1100 pages? It’s a feat in and of itself to tell that huge of a story and only very rarely have it drag. I will gripe a bit that each book was not a stand-alone package – the books had nice swells and lulls in action, but each one definitely ended on a cliff-hanger and the next book picked up right where it left off. A small gripe, but still something that irks me. That said, the last book still managed one of the more impressive resolutions that I’ve seen in a series. All of the loose ends were neatly tied off and resolved, but each in a believable fashion. It was not a stretch to see how each storyline was resolved, and none of the many, many resolutions seemed contrived.
Thought the third: characters. There are a LOT of characters in Otherland. If I were they type of person to re-read books, I’d re-read Otherland and keep a huge diagram of characters and how/when they meet other characters. Tad Williams does a very impressive job of making each character very memorable, in spite of such a large cast – even with year-long gaps between the books, I was always quickly reminded who was who. Even more impressively, all of the characters are realistic, flawed and individual. I can think of maybe 2 characters that seemed at all flat to me, which is quite good in a cast of 30ish. Williams also managed to create some characters that I truly despised, as well as using them on-screen without burning me out on having to deal with them. Additionally, he wrote one of the scariest mother-loving bad guys of all time.
Thought the fourth: relationships. Much as all of Williams’ characters were interesting and distinct, so were his character interactions and relationships. Everyone had very different chemistry, and he illustrated many of the different aspects and levels of love and hate. More than anything, I was impressed by how varied and nuanced the relationships in the core characters were, especially when everyone’s threads started crossing during the third book. My emotional string were definitely played like a harp. Rarely have I seen an epic work that developed its characters and relationships as carefully as its world.
Well. I guess I did have a lot to say – this ramble has gotten quite long! More of a discussion than a review, but whatever you call it I’m going to bring it to a close. Otherland is a spectacular set of books and you owe it to yourself to read all four if you are a fan of the fantasy/sci-gi genre!
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
- It is "hidden" over in YA, and my usual excuses for venturing over there do not apply (ie, neither Gaimen nor Pratchett wrote it)
- The cover is... not compelling. (Yes, I judge books by their covers. It usually works out.)
- My almost unhealthy lack of fixation on unicorns
- The alarmingly pink cover (sans dust jacket)
- My friend's gleeful exclamation when I told her I finished: "I knew there was a 15 year old girl in you!"
The story follows a young woman named Viola as she struggles to deal with her status as a liked-but-ignored outsider in high school, and her devastating breakup with her it-turns-out-quite-gay best friend. Also she manages to summon a genie on the third page or so, so there's that. It's a story about love and self-reliance and loyalty and wishes.
Jinn (that's the jinn Viola summons. Try to keep up.) comes from a world called Caliban where all of the jinn were exiled to in time immemorial. Pearce had fun with Caliban, and some of my favorite parts of the book were explorations of that world. It is very possible that this says more about me than the book. Caliban is basically timeless; jinn only age when they are on earth granting wishes. It is ruled by an elite of ancient jinn who parcel out assignments to Earth, punish jinn who break the rules, and try to convince everyone to please have sex before we all die out please thanks. Once summoned, Jinn just wants to grant the requisite three wishes and get back to being immortal with the scantily clad jinn chicks in the perfectly beautiful world and delivering flowers and not knowing anybody's damn name.
Viola, on the other hand, rather sensibly wants to make sure she doesn't squander her opportunity by screwing up her wishes. Which I thought was smart, but apparently Caliban looks ill on that sort of behavior and sends jinn MPs to stress her out and make her wish faster. They are dicks. Meanwhile, Jinn starts actually liking her and her insistence on treating him as a friend so he makes rather a mess of the whole following-the-rules shtick. Hi-jinx ensue!
No lie: this book reads fast. I chewed through it in a single Saturday, and still had time for kayaking. More importantly: I was compelled to finish it in a single Saturday. I wasn't immediately drawn in, but I found it extremely difficult to put down once I hit the halfway point or so. The characters are fun and believable. The world is very-authentic feeling high school with interesting and non-standard fantasy elements. The ending satisfies, and everyone learns at least one valuable lesson. Even the mean ones. Bottom line: while not something I would pick up unprompted, this was a very enjoyable read.
Holy crap is that cover ever pink though. Seriously.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
So tell me – why! Why, oh, why must you persist in writing out all your sound effects in text? Haven’t I impressed upon you how distressing, disturbing, and laughable it is to be trying to take your story seriously only to have it broken up by “HUUUUUUUUURGH!” or “slap, slap went his skin, grunt grunt went the barbarian”? While the later does conjure up some highly amusing parallels with the kids book “Pat the Bunny,” it also serves as a detriment to the tone of the story.
*cough* Sorry, I think I’m done with that little segue. You have to understand quite how hard I’ve ranted about Joe’s Sound Effects (tm) in the past. Anyway: Best Served Cold! A story of betrayal and revenge, also known as “Joe picks his favorite secondary characters from The First Law Trilogy and plays dress up with them!” And a damn fine job he does at it, too – Best Served Cold blasts The First Law out of the water in terms of awesome. The plot is much tighter and more polished, the character flaws much more realistic and understated, and the pacing and scope of the story are just spot-on.
I will disclaim my endorsement with the following: know what you’re getting into with this book. If you read The First Law, you have a good idea: really graphic violence, really graphic language, and really graphic sex. No, really. Take all of the fantasy books that you’ve read and munge them up together, then add about 10 degrees of raunchy and you’ll have a good idea of how NC-17 Best Served Cold is. Definitely not for the faint of heart – I don’t exaggerate when I say that the opening chapter made me green around the gills. I do appreciate that Joe is as visceral in his sex as he is in his violence; way to even up the score across the board, buddy!
Anyway, I don’t have a lot more to add to this silly little ramble. I quite liked Best Served Cold, and Joe Abercrombie is now solidly on my list of authors whose books I will pick up no questions asked. I would like to see his next book try out a new setting, just for variety, but no huge hurry there. Just try to keep the sound effects to a minimum next time, eh?
Almost a series of short stories, this account can be frustrating at time when it leaves you desperately wanting to follow a story further. The storytelling varies from amazing to decent, but on the whole the stories are gripping and engrossing. This is not the cold accounting of facts of the official reports. No survival rate comparisons or infection maps. This is the war in the words of the people who lived it and it is essential for us to remember the human cost (and the human causes) of the war that nearly destroyed us all.
Friday, August 14, 2009
I have a viciously love-hate relationship with China Mieville (ok, that’s a lie – I have said relationship with his books, not with him personally, though the latter would be nice too). Perdido Street Station and The Scar top my list of “all time favorite books” and I can’t get enough of his amazing, subtle world building. But then on the other end of the spectrum are books like Un Lun Dun (meh) and King Rat (super-meh edging on loathing). I’m not sure where the disparity in my feelings is sourced (after all, Un Lun Dun and King Rat are extremely different books) but there it is.
Based on this background, you can imagine my surprise when I didn’t at all have a strong reaction to The City & The City. It was a good book with some interesting elements, but I didn’t love it. It had some shortcomings, but I didn’t hate it. Dammit, China, what am I supposed to think of our relationship now!?
The City & The City is set in more-or-less present day in a fictional country somewhere in eastern Europe. The story starts out reading like a detective novel, and then slowly introduces the concept that there’s something a bit odd about the setting – gradually a picture is painted that there are in fact two countries that exist on top of each other in space. The residents of each country are trained to “unsee” the elements of the sister country, and the border between the two places is enforced by a supernatural force known as Breach. The story follows Detective Tyador Borlu as he investigates a murder that takes him across country lines and gets him involved in all sorts of historical intrigue.
As always, what Mieville does best is build a world without explicitly calling attention to its weirdness. He tells the story from the point of view of someone who lives in that world – someone who takes in their surroundings, but doesn’t exclaim “Wow, Holy crap!” every time something strange happens… because to that character it’s not strange: it’s every-day. The City & The City was no exception to this excellent world-building approach, but the “real world” elements made the journey less fantastic than PSS or The Scar.
The characters were solid and real – flawed without being contrived. The story was interesting – starting small but expanding to examine some bigger issues. The ending was a bit predictable, but the plot turns throughout the story were surprising enough that I didn’t feel cheated. The whole narrative read very quickly, and left me pleased and satisfied.
So – good book. Not as good as some of my favorite Mieville work, but not as bad as some of my least favorite. Worth reading, especially if you want to give someone a gentle ramp-up to PSS and The Scar.
*apply face to keyboard repeatedly* @(*&!HASHDJH!U!@*#$&!)($(#*!!HFKJH#*YR&@!*&@*#($^(*^!@$#. *repeat at least 4 times*
Good gods. How is it even possible that books this abjectly horrible exist? And are read by wide audiences? And have a zillion sequels and have been turned into TV shows? Seriously? I bitch about Laurell K. Hamilton’s work having turned to tripe in recent years, but compared to Dead Until Dawn the Anita Blake books are up on a shining pedestal of literary achievement. If books could make one’s eyes bleed with badness, this book would have made me weep bloody tears. I can’t even begin to express how awful it was.
The protagonist made me want to kill. The fact that the sentences were so choppy made my internal monologue shudder. The juvenile character relationships made my hands quite literally curl into fists. This may be the first time that I’ve ever actually rolled my eyes at a book. Needless to say, that is the last time I take a book recommendation in the form of “Oh, they’re actually not bad – they were made into a TV show, after all.” That’s also the last time I consider reading Twilight just so I can disprove all the people who say it’s good; after the pain of Dead Until Dawn, which has a similar audience and level of acclaim, I can’t bear the thought of subjecting myself to more.
Ok. I think I’m done. Consider this the end of my most unfair, unbalanced, viscerally-inspired review ever.
This is the first book by John Scalzi that I’ve ever picked up, and I grabbed it based solely upon the fact that it was in the running with Little Brother and The Graveyard Book for several YA-related fantasy awards. Surely such good company would imply a good yarn?
Absolutely, in this case. I read Zoe’s Tale in one day, practically in one sitting. It was certainly YA, but not overly so. The characters were fun and colorful, the history behind the book was rich, and the plot rushed along very satisfyingly. Most impressively: I didn’t realize that Zoe’s Tale was a re-telling of The Last Colony from a different perspective until the author told me so in the afterword. How freaking impressive is that?
I’ll keep this short since this is a mini-review: Zoe’s Tale is quite good, and it turned me on to Scalzi’s other work, which I proceeded to eat through in a matter of days. I’d suggest reading Zoe’s Tale last, rather than first, but his books are all stand on their own so it won’t hurt one way or the other. Great characterization (Zoe might be a little socially advanced for a 16-year-old, but it works), fun story, all around good times. Hooray!
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
The Prefect is set in Reynold's Revelation Space universe , complete with the complement of Demarchists, Conjoiners, Ultras, and his other usual factions and freaks. The novel takes place at the height of the Demarchy's power in the Glitter Band, a group of more than 10,000 space habitats orbiting the terrestrial planet Yellowstone (which is in turn circling around the star, Epislon Erandi). In the Glitter Band, the Demarchists have constructed an anarcho-capitalist utopia, powered by seriously far-out nanotech. The central characters are prefects, specialized police officers, charged with maintaining the machinery that allows the populace to vote -- and prevent the same populace from tampering with it. The plot of the novel forces the prefects through increasingly deeper and broader conspiracies, threatening the very existence of Glitter Band society.
There are obvious shades of current debates on liberty vs. the police power reflected in the story. The prefects are denied actual firearms, much like today's UK where most constables carry only truncheons. The billy-club, however, is replaced with semi-autonomous whiphounds that attack and defend using monofiliment and a limited AI. The gruesome, up-close-and-personal attention dished out by our primitive implements is preserved, however.
Throughout the book, Reynolds waxes philosophic with a purpose. Through the mirror of his universe, he critiques our current culture of safety over freedom in the face of threats to national security. When is it acceptable for the executive to disregard the wishes of the populace and the contract by which it governs? What evils can be committed in the name of the state and insurance of future safety at the cost of individual lives and freedoms? Is the benevolent tyrant preferable to the will of the mob?
Of course, any libertarian hack can write a story like that , Reynolds keeps it unique and engaging in two ways:
1. His universe is unique in its believability. While I doubt he is the first writer of hard SF space opera, his work represents the state of the art. Most of the elements of Demarchist, Conjoiner, and Ultra society seem believable, considering both the technological and sociological possibilities. His universe becomes almost a three dimensional character unto itself -- it possess depth, rationale, and a human touch.
2. His characters are also three dimensional constructs inside this universe. There are no heroic, dashing Captain Kirk's or infallibly prophetic Hari Seldon's. While Reynolds does rely on quite a few familiar tropes -- the maverick cop, the the scheming vizier , etc. -- their use is to give us something to identify with inside the framework of the story. The characters, after all, must seem somewhat human to us, as they exist in a nearly fantastic setting.
The whole thing, of course, is enhanced by the dramatic irony if you've read the other books in the series. The Prefect takes place well before the events of Chasm City or Revelation Space, so the foreshadowing contained takes a much more ominous note once one knows exactly what is to come.
I have quite enjoyed the other books in this series and The Prefect did not let me down. It may have certain formulaic elements but the questions posed by the intertwining of the familiar plot elements with the unique framework of his universe make it well worth the weekend read.
 While it's not as voluminous as, say, Terry Pratchett's Discworld, it's got 4 novels and a slew of short stories and novellas comprising it.
 I'm only poking a little bit of fun at Cory Doctorow.
 First order of business if I ever become a CEO, President, or Evil Overlord: fire/impeach/execute anyone with a goatee on my staff.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
So, I finally got around to pulling this off the shelf last week, and discovered that Hamilton had put aside Space Opera to take a stab at Near Futurism. This, I thought, ought to be good. Hamilton is an absolute master of extrapolating technology in interesting ways! However, my excitement slowly faded into... not disgust but at least apathy. By halfway through the book, I had no desire to open it again and placed it, sadly, on the shelf.
So what went wrong? The story follows a well-off family in 2038-ish England. The father is missing, gone to get the world's first Rejuvination treatment. This rare honor was given because of his massive popularity and fame, having invented a crystal memory lattice that could be grown cheaply and provided unlimited storage space... and then giving it away for freesies. His beloved son and trophy wife are waiting for him to return from the 8 months in isolation, and the security teams from the EU are setting up shop to protect against terrorist assasination attempts. So far so awesome, yeah? The problem is that when Hamilton turned in Space Opera, he traded it out for Soap Opera. The first part of the book was spent following the son and his friends in their drama-tastic sexual exchanges. Then the dad comes back and we get more of the same with the father. And the Wife. And the neighbors, the old friends, and probably the postman.
The technological and societal extrapolation was interesting, but very much in the background. Normally I'd consider that a good point, but in this case the foreground was filled with vapid, unlikable characters. The greater sin, however, was that like all Soap Operas, this novel lacked any kind of real plot. There was no conflict, no villian, no political intrigue. There was nothing to keep me reading unless I actually cared if the Father and the Son's Girlfriend would hook up (really. That was the big suspense when I set it down).
So give this one a miss, and busy yourself reading everything else this man ever wrote.
They are all basically right: Haldeman took his experiences with war in Vietnam and crafted an amazing story about humanity and war and relativity. There is only one real character in it, and the ending is little trite, but those are extremely minor quibbles. The technology is very "future viewed from the 70s", but that's not a complaint at all... it's just an interesting perspective.
So yeah, I'm not going to spend any more time with this one: it's a solid, thoughtful, quick-reading exploration of war and human psychology set in a sci-fi warzone. Good times.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Predictably, the gimmick fell far short of the premise. The book itself was passable... a pretty bland little mystery filled with some supernatural stuff that failed to tingle the spine sufficiently. The characters themselves were... almost painfully "in-touch"? You have the main character: an Art Psychologist who is dedicated to making the world a little brighter by having viscious killers that society has locked away in a stereotype of an insane asylum (they built it DOWN instead of up! Spooky!) by making them do finger paintings, through which they tell him all about their insecurities and whatnot. He has a younger brother who is a genius NYU film student who is heavily into parkour, and a girlfriend who is smoking hot and tattooed and a huge nerd who eats potato chips and plays videogames all day for her blog and never needs to work out. Oh, and she's also a fact-checker for a newspaper, giving her great connections for researching stuff. Oh, and his father is the Assistant DA trying the case he is assigned to. How convenient that we will use all of these disparate skills and connections in the solving of this mystery!
Anyway, one of the things the book does well is to impart a sense of peril about the characters who surround the protagonist. Throughout the book you feel like you are one panicked moment away from utter devastation. In part this is because he loves them all so hard and appreciates them and needs them and you just KNOW that's the Kiss of Death. Partly it is because their deaths are fortold like 10 pages in, and that is also a Kiss of Death. But here's the thing: nothing bad happens to anyone. Even the *very* secondary character who is marked for death early in the book (and whose death would have made the whole plot more convincing and impactful) comes out unscathed. By the end, I felt kinda... ripped off that all of the foreshadowing and dread and suspense ended with smiling rainbows and chocolate.
If you've noticed that I haven't mentioned all of the non-book content so far, you've made a very good observation! On the plus side, the quality of the inserts was quite good. The drivers license was laminated plastic, the certificates were on crappy government paper while the CIA memos were on nice stationary. Nice production value! The problem with the Book Tied Into Clues concept is that it totally falls apart if you neglect to make any of the non-book content meaningful. Let me itemize:
- Most of the stuff ends up being very tangentally connected (birth and death certificates for a couple of minor, off-screen support characters, for instance, which have no bearing on the mystery).
- When there are phone numbers you can call (to, say, check voicemails) the messages aren't reprinted in the book (good! Make me do it in real life!) but they are also WORTHLESS. Every single syllable of the messages can be easily extracted from the in-book context and they are totally mundane anyway ("Son. I'll be late to the funeral. Love, Dad.").
- On top of the above, the outgoing messages on the voicemails are totally out of synch with the book. At a point in the book where the main character has only barely heard of the case, the outgoing message you get is "Sorry I can't come to the phone. This case has taken hold on me in unexpected ways. I love you all" or something. It totally destroys the sense of immediacy that the whole concept is doing its best to impart.
- Some of the clues have puzzles in them. Neat! I spent 15 minutes deciphering a card that was totally blank except for some brail writing. This was a fucking waste of time and opportunity, since it was never mentioned in the book, added absolutely nothing, and provided no clues or insight. Gah!
- Websites! There are several! One of them was missing, one of the them provided a clue to the characters in the book but NOT TO THE VISITOR, and one of them was actually kinda cool (a blog run by the protagonists girlfriend that actually developed her character a bit and lent authenticity... though had no relevance to the story).
- There was some artwork included. There was artwork in the book, the clever manipulation of which led to important clues. There were not connected. The included artwork had no relevance to the book at all.
Friday, July 17, 2009
I really, really, really hate to pan this book, because it’s soooo close to being everything I love in character-fantasy: snarky first person narrator, main character with dubious morals, betrayals, plot twists, magic, &c, &c. Unfortunately, either due to my own personal bias or perhaps due to the lack of polish that sometimes comes with first books, these ideal elements didn’t quite coalesce into a good book. A passable book, perhaps, but not the excellent, rollicking, laughter-inducing tale that I hoped for.
The setting: Will Hawthorne is a young actor (think Elizabethan era) who writes some stories, but more often than not gets stuck playing female characters - dress and all. On the day that he’s set to graduate from his role as an apprentice and become one of the big players, a decree is sent out to close all theaters and arrest all writers of note (repressive government and all that jazz). Will makes a run for it and is sheltered by a mysterious collection of men and women. They turn out to have things like Morals and Scruples (unlike our Will) as well as a firm belief in Doing The Right Thing. Will is forced to tag along with them in order to stay out of the government’s clutches, and ends up being sucked into an investigation of strange attacks and magical happenings in a nearby province.
Will as a character is a lot of fun – just the sort of narrator that I love to read: witty, scrupulous, tactless, and a big self-serving coward. Unfortunately, a couple of problems kept him from being ideal. First, as the book goes on Will “develops” and “changes” but it seems forced. His shenanigans and reactions also get a bit predictable, so he’s less and less fun to read as the story progresses. The second problem is more a personal problem: Will is basically a clone of the main character from Sir Apropos of Nothing. If you hadn’t read the aforementioned excellent little novel by Peter David, it probably wouldn’t present an issue for you. But since I read it last year, Apropos was fresh enough on my mind that Will seemed like an imitation – and a pale one at that. Very Sad.
Still, that’s getting pretty picky. Overall I liked the narrator and the themes in the book; a strong story or supporting cast would have done a lot to remedy my gripe. Sadly, the supporting cast were mostly one-dimensional and predictable (though I did have a soft spot for Orgos), and at their worst moments annoying. The story tried for political intrigue, but mostly ended up with a plot line of “then they went there and discovered ‘this.’ Then they went somewhere else and discovered ‘that.’ Gasp! A revelation!” The “big reveal” at the end wasn’t much of a surprise, and honestly the tedium of the storyline by 250 pages in had me close to giving up.
So – it is with much disappointment that I can’t really recommend Act of Will. I wanted so much for it to be great, and given so many promising elements it’s a travesty that it didn’t come together as excellently as promised. That said, I think there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll give book two a try – the story’s (fictitious) translator promises it will be out in a year… I guess we’ll see. I want very much for Hartley to live up to the promise he shows. Perhaps it will just take him a couple of novels to hit his stride.
I don’t want to disparage the series as a whole, because the first book really was excellent, and the second book was enjoyable. I just wish that Ms. Novik had kept an end in sight for the story as a whole, and maybe limited the whole ordeal to 3ish books. Damn shame. Someone do tell me if the 6th book suddenly turns around and redeems the series, ok?
Thursday, July 16, 2009
So. Let me set the scene. The story is set in the city, an unnamed noir style metropolis dominated by a monolithic building housing the Agency. The city is dark, and rainy, dirty and dismal, and structured. The city honestly feels more like Bas Lag than Metropolis. There is nothing openly fantastic about it, but the people are too structured, too neurotic, too obviously and subtly broken to be entirely mundane.
Charles Unwin is a orderly man, a clerk by trade, and the best in the business. His job is to chronicle the cases of Detective Sivart, a legendary figure who is a cross between Holmes (in stature) and Sam Spade (in attitude). Our story starts as Unwin is suddenly promoted to the rank of detective and his life spirals rapidly outside of his ability to cope. He meets a cast of characters feel like they are in color against the black and white of their world. They are broken, strange, intriguing. Many would not be out of place in a Dick Tracy story, and others feel lifted straight out of Chinatown. Unwin is forced to stretch outside his comfort zone (a zone that is 7 blocks long and 14 stories high), his only strong motivation to make sense of his life and go back to the way things were.
As details emerge about cases past and present, they are filled with fantastic elements. I'm not talking dragons and high magic though... one of the cases that is often referenced in the story quite literally focuses on the theft of November 11th, a Tuesday. Certainly the book is imaginative, along with being well written, well plotted, and engrossing. There are weak points, perhaps, in the resolution though that is largely a matter of taste I think. I strongly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys noir, urban and weird fantasy, and/or great writing in general. Honestly, it's a shame that the book is in the mystery section, because it doesn't read or play out like a mystery, and true fans of the genre will probably be disapointed. There are no clever clues for you to work out while you pretend to work, and the butler most certainly did not do it. The biggest mystery is figuring out what exactly "it" is that was done.
* Used in the sense that it plays with language, and at time flirts with poetry. There were paragraphs I stopped and read aloud, just for the pleasure of doing so.
Thursday, July 02, 2009
Stranger in a Strange Land has been in my stack for a very, very long time. I remember in early high school my mother said "you really need to read this" then quickly changed her mind after re-reading it herself and deciding I didn't need that much candid sex as a 13-year-old. The novel unofficially joined my stack around that time, and then officially a few years later when I received a copy as a gift.
Honestly, now that I've finished SiaSL, I'm unsure about how best to review it. Much like when I read 100 Years of Solitude I find myself struggling with evaluating the elements of "real literature" versus "fantasy candy." I didn't find the story of SiaSL particularly compelling, and it dragged painfully through the second half. I was counting down the pages to the end, so very ready to get it over with. I didn't like or care about any of the characters with the exception of Jubal Harshaw, who reminded me far too much of an old friend to dislike.
I did, however, appreciate some of the very progressive ideas that Heinlein touched upon, especially considering the book was written over 40 years ago. His diatribes on love, lust, sex, relationships, and polyamory were impressive and well considered. Early in the book I enjoyed Jubal's dissertations on religion, media, and lifestyle, though Heinlein's portrayal of religion shifted so heavily towards the end of the book that I was left with a sour taste in my mouth.
What I didn't appreciate about the book were the rampant undertones of sexism and the blatant gay-bashing. Generally my rule is that it's ok for an author to have opinions opposite of mine (Orson Scott Card comes to mind) so long as those viewpoints don't creep into his literature. Heinlein did not manage to maintain this separation, and his diatribes on the matters left me quite grumpy. Saying things like "9 out of 10 women who get raped probably were asking for it" and generic gay bashing is more than I can deal with. I especially have a hard time reconciling all of the "free love, open relationships, orgies!" talk in-story with the blatant statement that "being gay is wrong and immoral."
I don't really have a bottom line for this review. As with many books that are "more serious" rather than strictly fantasy, I don't know whether to recommend it or not. It's a lot like Wicked in some ways - not a very pretty story, but one that has some really interesting themes. Take from that what you will.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
2,272 pages of extremely high quality fantasy.
The slightly longer version:
Lisabit already covered this series, and we feel about the same about it, so I'll let her review stand. This series features an intricate and fascinating world/magic system, an ensemble cast of compelling and interesting and flawed characters, an evolving storyline that works quite well at escalating the threat while not seeming tacked-on, a witty and entertaining writing style, and several fantastic and unexpected twists on fantasy tropes. I'm not too proud to say that the ending had me tearing up pretty bad, and the final resolution was simultaneously satisfying without being over-done, brief without feeling truncated, touching without being sappy, and open for more books without feeling like an obvious set up. I'd rate the ending as one of my favorites in any series.
There were times when the work dragged a little bit. I agree with Lisabit that the angst in the second book could have been cut in half and that would have been fine with me. The first half of the third book dragged pretty bad for me as it ventured too close to Epic Fantasy Purgatory for comfort (that being: endless marches. Everyone just moving around the board in excruciating detail, but not actually *doing* anything). One of my favorite characters (TenSoon) got the shaft, story-wise, in the third book too, which was a shame to me. I think his character's resolution could have been more meaningful if his narrative had gone another direction (West, actually).
There are also times when you'll be screaming at the characters to pay attention to some small detail, that they are making life far more difficult and it's Just So Obvious. Of course, the first time I did that I was totally wrong about it... so you might want to keep those yells bottled up lest you be embarrassed when you're wrong...
That said, I highly recommend this series to any reader of fantasy. If you are the type of person who happens to get a little *too* excited by well-executed and fiddly magic systems (in other words: if you are a tabletop roleplayer) then all the more reason why these books should immediately go onto your must-read stack. At the top.
Oh: and Lisabit is totally wrong about the "glaring plot hole" she claims to have found. Nyah. :)
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Quick setting summary: Saturn's Children is set some several hundred years into our future. Humans have built robots with relatively powerful AI to do all manner of jobs -- from asteroid mining to entertainers to spaceships to whatever else that humans, being squishy or easily bored, couldn't do. Stross gets around our current problems with AI by hand-waving that these robots are based on human intelligence patterns (essentially, computer-based copies of our brain's structure). Robots have a "soul chip" that stores their consciousness, which can be slotted into another copy of the same model, carrying over its experiences and personality. Copies of the same model form lineages that typically stick together, pooling the soul chips of their dead brethren/sisters so that the deceased's memories live on. In addition to their soul chip, robots can have slave chips installed (usually unwillingly), which allow near total control of the robot in question.
By the way, "robot" is a slur equivalent to some of our more pernicious racial slurs. So, apologies to any persons that happen to be non-pink goo reading this. Though, I really should apologize for much more, because, you see, there are no more humans (or any biological life) in Saturn's Children. Somewhere in the next couple of centuries, humans disappear (Stross isn't particularly clear on the how or why, but it's not really necessary to the story), leaving behind our robot slaves and a destroyed Terran ecosystem. Problematically, since robots were generally property rather than people, this left most in a peculiar legal state. Some enterprising robots that happened to have legal powers of attorney used their now defunct masters' funds to buy up around 90% of the robot population. This created a solar system of a incredibly small, cruel and insane aristocracy and enormous slave population. The few remaining "free" robots were essentially self-owned LLC's barely scraping by, attempting to avoid falling into debt and becoming indentured servants themselves.
Enter into this world our protagonist, Freya, a free robot of modest means. Unfortunately for her, her lineage's purpose died out with humanity: she was to be a hyper-advanced sex toy for the few remaining humans. (Is it any wonder we died out?) Thus, she starts the story down on her luck somewhere in the high atmosphere of Venus.
Looking back over those last couple of paragraphs, I can conclude that I'll never be a jacket-cover writer. Moving on.
In continuing theme with his previous fiction, Stross depicts space-travel as realistically as possible. Thus, it is very Hobbesian: solitary, nasty, and brutish, but not so much with the short. Travel to Jupiter from Mars on even some of the fastest ships takes over a year and that journey comes with a hefty dosage of ionizing radiation from the ship's nuclear engines. Colonization efforts are also depicted in realistic, but nonetheless fantastic, detail: a city moves on rails around Mercury to keep its temperature optimal, while Mars gives birth to a massive space elevator. While settlement would have been impossible for squishy humans, robots manage to proliferate, colonizing the solar system in our stead. While this is terribly disappointing to those of us raised on Star Trek, it sadly has the support of quite a bit of scientific evidence behind it.
Stross cheats a bit with his characters and makes them mostly clones of each other, but this sort of fits in a world dominated by many clones of a few basic models. There is a background cast of various more fantastic non-anthropromophic bots, but their details are usually shallow. There are a few colorful exceptions to this, of course: Dechs seems to fill the role of the plucky dog sidekick, but reveals to be much more. The hobo bots on Mars are also wonderful bit of the familiar yet absurd.
Perhaps one of my favorite theme in the story were the debates concerning creation myths from a robotic perspective. As creatures created rather than evolved, the majority of robots had trouble believing that their creators came to be in such a messy manner. This leads to the comedic reversal of evolutionists being treated as the intellectual parriahs that today's creationists fill, complete with cultists, "skeptics" and the like.
Though I am admittedly a Strossian fan-boy, we now come to the part of the essay where I must lambaste him for failing: Mr. Stross needs an editor with a chainsaw and plenty of duct tape. As was the case with Accelerando, Saturn's Children is occasionally non-linear. Unlike previous works, however, these transitions are unexpected and confusing. At several points in the book the transitions were so jarring, I found myself checking page numbers to make sure my copy wasn't missing pages. A zealous editor should notice these sorts of things and berate Mr. Stross until they're fixed.
(As a note, from reading his blog, it appears he's been releasing and editing quite a number of books of late. While I'm all for output, I really would prefer a more paced release schedule. Quality, not quantity!)
Further, his characters motivations and personalities fall flat, especially towards the novel's climax. I was left wondering, "So, that's why so-and-so did that? Ho-hum." It just really didn't feel believable or interesting. The overall plot, too, felt a bit weak. It was very Mission: Impossible (the Tom Cruise movies, not the TV show): needlessly complicated, with too many, "Oh no, X was really Y all along!" moments.
Despite these complaints, I had a good time with the novel, and would definitely recommend it to fellow SF readers for their enjoyment.
Monday, June 15, 2009
I’m not really up to trying to put together a plot summary, so instead I’ll just bitch (because who doesn’t like to listen to me rant about bad fantasy?).
The story started with a very promising prologue – first person with a touch of wit and a very human tone… but after this brief introduction there was a subsequent switch to 3rd person omniscient and the author started waxing poetic about the world and the characters. Is there nothing less enticing in a book than extended droning about the history of a nation? Especially when said history is neither particularly original, nor particularly interesting? The author went on at length and started to lose me right away. Once characters started showing up on screen (on page?) I though the book might turn itself around and hook me… but I found quickly that the characters were much like the history – dull and over-described. I want to be shown what my characters are like, not told “he was loyal, oh so loyal.” And heaven forbid that more than a sentence or two should be spent describing totally mundane clothing – please spare me. I especially enjoyed (didn’t enjoy) the few pages that introduced 16 characters and spent a paragraph describing each one. Let me tell you how exciting that was – I do so love incorporating memorization exercises into my reading experience!
Oh dear, I seem to be waxing sarcastic and not a little bit caustic. I’ll just stop before I get really carried away, shall I?
I do see that Ms. May has written quite a lot of scifi – can anyone out there tell me whether it is more worth reading that her disappointing fantasy foray?
Max is your typical loser – 30 something, down on his luck more often than not, and a chronic night-owl to the point that he can’t keep a regular day job. The only thing remarkable about Max is that he has very vivid dreams. Then one day a man in Max’s dreams offers him a job… and seeing nothing better about his life Max accepts and is transported to another world – vibrant and exciting where magic is commonplace, but highly regulated. A little bit of acclamation and training and he is officially instated as the Night Time Representative of the Secret Investigative Force (think the CIA, but with magic).
Do you remember when you first read Harry Potter? Even if you weren’t completely blown away, you have to admit that the world that Rowling painted was gorgeous, colorful, and enthralling. My experience reading The Stranger was a lot like that – the world was just so very engaging and convincing. I really felt like I had been plucked out of Boring Old Real World and dropped into the fantasy city painted by the author.
There are some quirks to the storytelling in The Stranger. The first is that it’s a translation from Russian, and while it is very well done, there are references or jokes made from time to time that don’t quite make sense. Very minor things that don’t at all take away from the major themes or humor in the book as a whole. After finishing all 4 Night Watch books and now this new piece of Russian Fantasy, I’m gaining a serious affinity for the genre – both in the originality of the stories and worlds, as well as the variety of wry, askance humor that seems to pervade.
The second quirk to the book is that rather than one large arc (The hardcover weighs in at a middlingly-dense 544 pages), the book is broken up in to 5 large “chapters,” where each chapter is its own story, largely self-contained. Each of these chapters has its own hook, plot, crescendo, climax and resolution, which is nice, but it made the book feel a bit choppy, rather than being a smooth continuous narrative.
What else is there to say about this book? The characters are vibrant and exciting, the wit is beyond measure, and each chapter is nearly impossible to put down. I absolutely loved it, and I’m desperately hoping that the rest of the books in the series will be translated soon and published in the US.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Wizard of Pigeons is urban fantasy set in modern(ish) Seattle. It revolves around a homeless man who goes simply by Wizard, and who is granted certain powers of urban survival so long as he does not break a few rules. The magic system is fairly interesting a has a level of subtlety that is rarely seen – in some ways the powers of the characters in the book reminded me of aspects of the magic in the Nightwatch series. However, where this book really shines is in its description of downtown Seattle – the images and geography are spot on. Maybe it’s just my great love of the Emerald City, but I found the city descriptions to be incredibly evocative, so much that I could smell the air, feel the misty rain on my face, and taste the rich coffee.
After such a rousing endorsement of the setting I almost hate to type this next line, but alas… I’d be lying if I said I thought Wizard of Pigeons was worth the read. Where the environment and magic system where intriguing, the characters were less so. Wizard was kind of well developed, but the major secondary character drove me absolutely insane. I hated her so much that she actually managed to ruin a lot of the book for me. I wanted about 90% less screen time for her and 300% more screen time for the other wizards in the story, who were all interesting but didn’t get to be featured very heavily.
By the last quarter of the book I was literally only reading because it seemed like I didn’t have many pages left and it would be a shame to quit so close to the end. I wanted the final chapters to redeem the middle section that made me so angry, but I don’t think I was in much of a mindset to let it. I ended the book grumpy and disappointed, and though I recognized that the author made a bid at including her signature bittersweet finale, I couldn’t appreciate it.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone unless you are a particularly die-hard Robin Hobb fan, and also only if you have a strong stomach for extremely obnoxious female characters (ex: if Malta pissed you off during the Liveship Traders, don’t touch this book with a 10 foot pole). It may also be worth reading for lovers of Seattle, if only to see a beloved city in text form, and to have a little magic lent to the Market.
The basic technological premise of the novel is that human interaction with technology continues to become more and more pervasive. Most everybody wears digital eyeglasses that give them an internet-enabled overlay (or several overlays) on the real world in order to augment it with additional information. For instance, the police use an overlay called CopSpace which recognizes people in their field of view and gives instant information about them (arrest record, personal information, etc). People can overlay maps onto their field of view to navigate, gamespaces into their view to seamlessly immerse them in a fantasy world while they navigate the real one, and endless other applications are hinted at or explored. All of this is powered by distributing the processing across everybody's (extremely) smart phones. Basically? The future is sweet. And really, there's nothing here that's particularly farfetched for the future of technology. I won't say that I believe the predictions, but it is certainly a compelling argument for the way that tech might progress.
We join our heroes as they are gathered together to investigate the theft of Sweet Gear from a bank in an MMO. The implications of this theft are that *someone* has broken the cryptography on the networks, and that is Bad. It quickly becomes clear that this is Very Bad Indeed, and has implications for national security and worldwide politics and economics.
The story is told entirely in the second person, and switches characters each chapter between one of 3 POV characters. This sounds awkward, and it could have been, but Stross handles it masterfully. Instead of being jarring, it feels like a DM narrating a scene to the character as you read. This, in turn, helps to subtly draw you into the very gaming-centric story in a very effective way. The other thing it does is to reinforce the importance of perceived reality to the story. In a world where you can augment your reality however you want, the second person perspective really drives home that "you see a man" is a much better construction than "there is a man". Frankly, this was a subtle and wonderful and clever decision and I loved it.
The story wasn't without flaws... there were weak characterizations in the supporting cast and some unconvincing technological guesswork, but that's all nitpicking. This was a great book and I highly recommend it. Just read it now, while it still sounds like compelling futurism and not one of the other two options (reality and "flying cars" futurism).
Peter and the Starcatchers is kind of a Peter Pan Prequel (mmm, alliteration), the first in an ongoing series. It follows the story of a group of young orphans who get sent off on a ship that will take them to live in the employ of an evil prince. Their voyage does not go as planned, however, and through the course of the story we find out just how the ordinary boy Peter becomes the legend that can fly and defy pirates. We also meet Captain Hook’s precursor and discover the events through which he came to be plagued by a crocodile.
This book is definitely a kids book; I think a child between 8 and 12 would really love it. Sadly, it doesn’t live up to the “timeless tale” measure, like Tigerheart did. I chomped the book down on a flight home from Memphis, all in one sitting, but I really only kept reading it because I had nothing better to do. The story was fun and it was a creative and interesting take on Peter Pan, but there was no real substance to it. At times the narrative aaaaalmost took on a self-aware tone and injected a bit of humor… but in the end it fell short and missed the mark.
Peter and the Starcatchers is a good book for youths and young adults, but lacks the punch or depth to make it appeal to all audiences. If you pick it up looking for Dave Barry’s usual wit and humor, I fear you will be disappointed.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Oh, I did have one little gripe: did anyone else feel that there was a pretty serious screw up (retcon?) in the capabilities of allomancy during one of the big final battles? Trying to remain unspoilery: the one involving a lot of Inquisitors? Maybe I was racing through the book’s climax so quickly that I missed the explanation of why this particular thing worked in that battle, but didn’t work in a number of other battles – I’d like to think that surely the author and the editor couldn’t both have miss it. Regardless, the fact that I got fixated on it in a “that’s not supposed to be possible” sense really broke up the book’s climax for me.
Anyway, at this point I’m really just rambling because I don’t have the juice to do a full review of Hero of Ages. I’ll wrap this up by reiterating that in spite of its (very few) faults, the Mistborn trilogy is truly excellent. It’s definitely the best fantasy trilogy I’ve read in a couple of years, sporting a compelling plot line, an amazingly awesome magic system, epic scope, and very well developed characters. I look forward to reading more of Bradon Sanderson’s work in the future.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
The Well of Ascension was a Good Book, though perhaps not a Great Book. I felt it wasn’t as impressive as the first book for a couple of reasons, the biggest one being that it’s hard to rival the slow reveal of a world and magical system that took place in book one. There were still some cool new concepts in book two, but you didn’t spend 200 pages learning about Allomancy and going “Oh, awesome!!” so the overall novelty was lower.
I was also kind of annoyed by how Sanderson handled the relationship aspects of book 2 – a lot of the back and forth just annoyed the hell out of me, regardless of how much you could argue that it was in character. For about two thirds of the book I ground my teeth whenever the Elend/Vin dynamic came up, and the weird conservative overtones that snuck into the narrative rubbed me the wrong way.
Luckily the end of the book did a lot to rectify my gripes; when I finished The Well of Ascension I had a very “Empire Strikes Back” feeling in my chest. I wasted no time getting my hands on book 3, which I have been summarily tearing through. I also feel it worth mentioning that Zane might be winning the “Lisa’s favorite character of the year” award – some of the aspects of his characterization were really great.
Right, that’s it. Keeping this short, with the expectation of a longer ramble when I wrap up The Hero of Ages in a day or two.