Friday, March 01, 2013

[Lisa's Take] Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Hrm, hum. I suppose I should actually get a review down for Throne of the Crescent Moon, given that it’s up for a Hugo and all. 

I will go ahead and come clean: one of my favorite authors of all time is George Alec Effinger.  His Marid Audran books (starting with When Gravity Fails) are an absolute delight; I’m overdue for a re-read at this point.  When Gravity Fails can best be described as “cyberpunk set in a near-future middle east.”  If you are at all familiar with the conceit behind Throne of the Crescent Moon, you’ll see where I’m going with these; where Effinger wrote sci-fi set in the middle east, Ahmed has produced a historical fantasy set in the middle east.

I was understandably excited when I heard about Throne – with such similarities to one of my favorite series, how could it go wrong!  And it certainly did have a lot going for it – an interesting world with a solid magic system, a colorful city with vivid sights and smells, a narrative that moved along with a pleasant ebb and flow while never dragging. But for whatever reason, I never really connected with the story and the characters.  It’s so frustrating, because the main character is totally awesome on paper (if you’ll pardon the pun) – how can you go wrong with a 60-year-old, crass, out of shape, completely un-suave, un-extraordinary hero?  I expected him to be worming his way into my heart with every page – but for some reason he never quite developed from the sketch of awesomeness into a believable and endearing character.

To run through the major players: Adoulla seemed like I’d love him, but I didn’t.  Raseed and Zamia actively grated on me (as so often happens with naive young lovers in fantasy).  I adored Litaz and Dawoud and their deep, devoted, “friends as chosen family” relationship with Adoulla, but the two of them didn’t get enough screen time for my taste. Overall the characters were pretty hit and miss.

Ugh. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I really wanted to be wildly in love with Throne, and at the end of the day I wasn’t. Effinger did a similar conceit much better, and I kept looking for his excellence in Ahmed’s book. Totally unfair of me, but there it is.  That said, I do see a lot of promise in this particular debut, so I’ll almost certainly pick up the sequel in the near future.  Here’s to hoping for a more positive experience!

Friday, February 08, 2013

[Lisa's Take] The Black Sun's Daughter Book 1: Unclean Spirits by M.L.N. Hanover

It is no secret that in the last 2 or 3 years I have becoming a huge fangirl of Daniel Abraham.  My top 5 list in 2012 and 2010 both included books by him, and he only missed the 2011 list because of fierce competition.  Hell, my 2012 list actually contained 2 entries by him: one for his fantasy work on The Dagger and Coin, and one for his Sci-fi collaboration with Ty Frank (written as James S. A. Corey).  I was tepid on the first book of Abraham's I read (A Shadow in Summer) – looking back, my mini-review is fairly positive, but I remember being put off by some of the in-character childish rashness of the young protagonists.  In spite of a bumpy start, by the end of the Long Price Quartet I was thoroughly hooked.  With the addition of Dagger&Coin and The Expanse… yes, I’ve become a slavering fan, rabid for more books.

So you can imagine that I was duly horrified to learn that Abraham has a 3rd pen name: M.L.N. Hanover. And that he uses that pen name to write *gulp* trashy-looking urban fantasy.  You know – the type that has midriff-baring, flowing-haired beauties with tramp-stamps on the cover.  To say that I was mortified by this discovery is pretty apt.

I put this black mark against one of my favorite authors out of my mind for the better part of a year.  But with every work of Abraham’s I read, I craved more.  Faced with a 6 month period during which nothing from The Expanse or Dagger&Coin would be released… I caved and picked up Unclean Spirits, the first in his series of Urban Fantasy.  I bought it for my kindle, because science forbid anyone see my with a cover that looks like that.

I read Unclean Spirits cover-to-cover in less than a day.  It chagrins me a little to say it, but I enjoyed it. Quite a bit.  It’s not stunningly amazing like this more current works – it lacks polish with the flow of the language, especially – but the pacing was great, the characters were solid and endearing, and the plot engaging.  At first I felt like the supernatural elements of the world were a little forced, but once I got into the flow of the novel it worked for me. 

As for the protagonist: she’s a feminist, she’s an atheist, she’s unashamed of her competence and her sexuality, and she’s all around awesome.  Hanover (Abraham?) writes women well, and lays out some greatly controversial issues as just the bare, real facts – no, there’s not a god, yes, women are equal to men, and yes, you can be young and inexperienced but still smart and competent.  I loved it.

I’m going to stop writing here; I’m afraid if I go on I’ll get going on a lengthy rant about the idiotic marketing decisions made in regards to book covers.  It disgusts me to know that such good writing is hidden behind such a trashy cover.  I know if I was put off by it, then hundreds of other fantasy fans probably are as well, and it’s not fair to the author or his work.  No, really, I’m stopping now.

Bottom line: if you like Abraham and need something to tide you over, this is a pretty enjoyable read.  It definitely falls into the category of “candy” but I’m happy to keep popping skittles until I have another Dagger & Coin novel.  It looks like Abraham is still releasing books in this series, so maybe the more current ones will be even better!

[Lisa's Take] The Rise of Random City by Felix Gilman

After doing a lot of slacking with regards to reading last year, I’ve been working on getting myself back into gear this year.  To that end I’ve been eschewing TV and devouring books instead.  After a re-read of Lies of Locke Lamora, I felt invigorated and ready to recommit.  Woo!  (I exaggerate: a re-read of one of my favorite books was nice, but a trip to and from India totaling almost 60 hours of travel time, played a big role in forcing me to read.  Heh.)

Now, with that preface out of the way:

Maaaan, The Rise of Ransom City was a serious disappointment. I mean really.  The Half-Made World was one of my favorite books of last year – I loved the world, I loved the characters (even the unlovable ones) and I loved Gilman’s writing style.  I even made my “book shriek” noise when I saw the sequel on the shelf at Barnes & Noble; my excitement was that great.

So what went wrong with Ransom City?  To be honest, Gilman did his job a little too well.  Ransom City is told from the point of view of Harry Ransom, something of a mad scientist.  The format of the book is such that Harry is writing his memoirs in the form of a journal or letters, which an acquaintance of his then recovers, compiles, edits, and publishes (with a few revisions and footnotes).  Gilman manages to make Ransom’s character incredibly real… and therein lies the problem.  Ransom is young, ignorant of the world, egotistical, boastful, and generally not a very likable man.  Gilman captures that and portrays it masterfully, using Ransom’s memoirs to paint a vivid picture of a supremely dislikable man.  Ransom made me gnash my teeth and have deep frustration building in my gut – I took no pleasure in reading about his exploits, because his personality infuriated me so much.

It’s true, through the course of the book Ransom grows and starts to become an ever-so-slightly better person,  but it was nigh impossible for me to shake the negative impression I had of him.  It was with great relief that I finished the last page of the book and could put him out of my head.

I suppose that’s the bulk of it: Gilman did his job as a writer too well and made his protagonist too believably dislikable.  That was rough.  But there was another factor in why Ransom City was a disappointment.  When it comes down to it, the sequel didn’t live up to the excellence of the predecessor.  I didn’t get enough of what I wanted: weird west alternate history with altercations between The Gun and The Line and awesome spaghetti-western-style shootouts.  For all that Ransom meddled in the magic of the land, we the readers got few deep glimpses of the opposing forces set up in the first novel.  In a phrase: needz moar stand-offs.

So yeah.  Ransom City disappointed me.  That said, I will still be eagerly awaiting book three, with high hopes that we’ll get back to the excellence of the first book.

Friday, January 18, 2013

JD's Take: The Rook (Daniel O'Malley)

There is, I am sure you are aware, a sub-sub-genre of books that amount to "magic secret agents". These are modern fantasy novels where the protagonist works for a government agency that Knows Things Beyond Mortal Ken and his or her job is to be James Bond except against ghosts instead of communists. Unless they are ghost communists.

This is that, but done really well.

There is no ultra-competent secret agent with a mystical Q department at the core of this novel, there is a baffled pencil-pusher[0] with second-hand memories, a binder full of clues, and a desire to survive the next few weeks. Where other novels would have an over-sexed debonaire or femme fatalle, O'Malley gets by quite nicely with a plain looking mouse of a woman, hesitant in manner and vaguely baffled by the larger than life people she is surrounded by. When you might expect a car chase or a blazing magical gunfight, you instead get tension and ambiguity and plots. I suppose that, on consideration, there is certainly cool magic, and super powers, and action, and sex and explosions. It is, after all, a magic secret agency, but the scenes that stuck with me the most take place in corporate offices and cozy living rooms. The trappings of adventure seem to happen around the character, even when they are happening to her.

The two main characters (who happen to be played by the same person) are well written and engaging and fun and sad and scared and brave and smart. My favorite character in the book is quite thoroughly dead for the entire work. The other characters aren't as good, but they don't really need to be, and they are interesting enough. The world is well thought out for this sort of premise, and I enjoyed learning more about it.

Overall, this was a well written book that is head and shoulders above its nominal peers. Recommended for sure.

[0] In fairness, she is an ultra-competent paper pusher.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

[Mini Review] JD's Take: The Long Earth (Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter)

This is a near-future science fiction yarn, and it has a pretty interesting premise: the people of earth discover a way to step sideways into alternate versions of earth. The book is a combination of a exploration of how earth deals with the new technology (including the economic, security, social, and religious fallout), and an adventure tale following a small cast of characters exploring worlds many steps away from earth.

I found the characters interesting, the story engaging, the scope of the exploration satisfying, and the book a whole... unfinished. It suffers badly from being the first in a series, so it's probably worth waiting for the next book to come out before picking it up.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

[Nano Review] JD's Take: Red Shirts (John Scalzi)

Red Shirts is a parody of Star Trek. It's smart and funny and a long afternoon's read and you'll thank yourself for it. Right at the end, Scalzi takes the book's concept right up to 11, and you'll thank him for doing that for you.

Thanks  Mr. Scalzi, you did me a solid there.

See? Just like that. Anyway, the book ends about 2/3 the way through the book, but the afterwards will let you down slowly.

[Mini Review] JD's Take: The Islanders (Christopher Priest)

I was pretty excited about this book. Firstly, because Christopher Priest (of The Prestige prestige) impressed the hell out of me and secondly because it was described to me as having a "narrator with an agenda". Great! I love unreliable narrators and Priest is just the guy to write one!

The Islanders is set up as a travel guide to a globe-spanning archipelago, with each chapter offering information about an island. As an exercise in world building, it's spectacular. Priest creates a believably weird world and every entry offers something new. Often these "travel guides" are stories about things that happened on the islands, and those stories are quite interesting, and often quite emotional. However, the over-arching plot of the book is... obscure. It never dragged me on to the next chapter, and while there are recurring characters (in form of "famous artist such-and-such visited this island too! And did this thing!) there isn't really an overall story.

In the end, I found it interesting but disappointing. The narrator's "agenda" was either too obvious or too obscure to be interesting (I'm honestly not sure if I caught the "point" of the book or not, from the narrator's point of view) and I was really hoping that this would be more than it was. It drew me along, but in the end I wasn't entirely sure why.

Monday, January 14, 2013

[JD's Take] Year Review 2012

Last year I (hopefully) suggested that the downward trend of my reading habits may be at an end. Sadly, that appears to not be the case. I've dropped to only 31 books this year, several of which were under 150 pages. In fact, my page count dropped from 14,545 to only 10,104! PATHETIC! I've... really gotta work on that next year! Also on reviews, the whole point of this site is so that I can remind myself if I liked a book I read many years ago, and I'm failing myself on that count. It might be time for another series of micro-reviews in the next couple weeks! Here's the short list:

The Immorality Engine George Mann
Moonraker Ian Fleming
Under Heaven Guy Gavriel Kay
Dreadnought Cherie Priest
Edge Thomas Blackthrone
Empire State Adam Christopher
Knights of Viljameer Mark Charan Newton
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe Charles Yu
The Chronicles of Amber Book 1 Roger Zelazny
Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain A. Lee Martinez
The Guns of Avalon Roger Zelazny
Seed Rob Ziegler
On Rope Smith & Padgett
The Tree Climber's Companion Jeff Jepson
The Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas
Rasputin's Bastards David Nickle
How to Archer Sterling Archer
Leviathon Wakes James S.A. Corey
Caliban's War James S.A. Corey
the strangers woes max frei
Left hand of God Paul Hoffman
Master and Commander Patrick O'Brian
The Rook Daniel O'Malley
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle
Range of Ghosts Elizabeth Bear
The Great Bazaar and other Stories Peter V. Brett
The Long Earth Pratchett
Red Shirts John Scalzi
An Election John Scalzi
The Islanders Christopher Priest
The butcher of Anderson Station James S.A. Corey

And let's just move on, nothing to see here.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

[Lisa's Take] Year Review 2012

I only reached my 50 book goal this year by the barest of definitions.  I started 3 books in the last week so that I could use them to pad the list, even though I'm only part way through each of them.  Pathetic, no?  The list below also only has 49 books on it - that's because I know for a fact that I read something else in the realm of numbers 31-33, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was.  Must have made quite an impression, no?

Anyway, I blame the low numbers on a couple of factors.  For the first time in years (maybe in my life?) I watched a non-trivial amount of TV this year.  Being on the road every week for work is a lonely prospect, and evidently watching shows instead of reading keeps my mind off it better.  The other factor is that I spent the last 2 weeks of December shotgunning almost 2000 pages of manga.  Yes, really.  JD got me an iPad for Christmas and loaded it up with a good comic reader and several manga series I've been wanting to read.  One of them, Nana, I have been wanting to finish for quite some time.  I reacted in typical addict fashion and did nothing but chew through that for days on end.

Right, enough with the justifications!  I read 18296 pages in 2012, for an average of 51 pages read per day, and an average book length of 358 pages. I, uh, read a lot of novellas.  On to the book list!

The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton
The Temporal Void by Peter F. Hamilton
The Evolutionary Void by Peter F. Hamilton
When we were executioners by J M McDermott
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Seed by Rob Ziegler
Among Others by Jo Walton
Ganymeade by Cherie Priest
Freedom & Necessity by Steve Brust & Emma Bull
A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin
Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain by  A Lee Martinez
Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes
The Dragon Path by Daniel Abraham
The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham
Unchained and Unhinged by Jay Lansdale
Perfect Shadow by Brent Weeks
The Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett
Last light of the sun by Guy Gavriel Kay
Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman
Redshirts by John Scalzi
The Spirit Thief  by Rachel Aaron
The Spirit Rebellion by Rachel Aaron
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey
The Spirit Eater by Rachel Aaron
The Stranger's Magic by Max Frei
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliot
The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks
Stormdancer (The Lotus War Book 1) by  Jay Kristoff
The Last Four Things by Paul Hoffman
Legion by Brandon Sanderson
Gods of Risk: An Expanse Novella by James S. A. Corey
Railsea by China Mieville
An Election by John Scalzi
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
The Butcher of Anderson Station: An Expanse Novella by James S. A. Corey
The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin
The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin
The Great Bazaar by Peter V. Brett
The Emberor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman
Cold Days by Jim Butcher
House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier
Hit List by Laurell K. Hamilton
The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

My top 5 books (or groups of books, because I'm a cop-out) of 2012 are:
- The Void Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton
- Novels of the Expanse by  James S. A. Corey
- The Dagger and Coin Trilogy by Daniel Abraham
- Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
- Among Others by Jo Walton

Here's to 2013, and hopefully a more robust list!