Tuesday, August 18, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie

Oh, Joe. Joe, Joe, Joe. Why must you try me? Is it because I initially tore into The Blade Itself so badly? I apologized for that, you know, and in my review of Before They Are Hanged I recounted all the ways in which you had remedied my gripes and turned out to be a pretty darn good author after all.

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?

[Mini Review] JD's Take: World War Z (Max Brooks)

Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and that goes double for us now, as the long rebuilding process continues and the horrors of the war begin to fade into memory. Before long, there will be few alive who remember the heroism, the bravery, the depravity, and the fear of that time. You owe it to yourself, to your family, to those you lost and those you love and those who will come later to read this book. It will be hard to revisit those years, hard to listen to enablers and profiteers justify themselves, hard to listen to survivors forced to remember what they did to stay alive.

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

[Lisa’s Take] The City & The City (China Mieville)

[Editor's Note: this was supposed to be a mini-review, but then it ballooned. My apologies for the rambling]

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.

[Mini-review] Lisa’s Take: Dead Until Dawn (Charlene Harris)

Excuse me for a moment while I ruin this blog’s credibility:

*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.

[Mini-review] Lisa’s Take: Zoe’s Tale (John Scalzi)

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

[Sean's Summation] The Prefect (Alastair Reynolds)

Continuing my fascination with UK-based SF, I grabbed a hardback copy of The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds from Amazon awhile back. Unfortunately, quite a bit got between me and reading it, so it was only recently that I was able to sit down and tackle it.

The Prefect is set in Reynold's Revelation Space universe [0], 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 [1], 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 [2], 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.

[0] 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.
[1] I'm only poking a little bit of fun at Cory Doctorow.
[2] First order of business if I ever become a CEO, President, or Evil Overlord: fire/impeach/execute anyone with a goatee on my staff.