Friday, October 31, 2008

Ysabel...

Friday, October 31, 2008 0
I had intended to post a review of Ysabel tonight, rounding out my reviews of the World Fantasy Award nominees.

Not going to happen. I just don't have it in me to write up a review tonight. Hopefully tomorrow, but I'm definitely aiming to get it out before the awards are announced...plus, that will let me write up and post my thoughts on the overall category.

So, here's the skinny: Ysabel is an outstanding novel. It was my first exposure to Kay and I'm going to read more of his work. I don't know if Ysabel is quite the best novel in this category, but it is damn close.

If I had a vote, I still think I would give the edge to Territory. Emma Bull is awesome.

On the off chance that I don't get to the review and the thoughts...that's my thought.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thoughts on World Fantasy Award Nominee: Collection

Thursday, October 30, 2008 0
Plots and Misadventures - Stephen Gallagher [Subterranean Press]
Portable Childhoods - Ellen Klages [Tachyon Publications]
The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club - Kim Newman [MonkeyBrain Books]
Hart & Boot & Other Stories - Tim Pratt [Night Shade Books]
Tiny Deaths - Robert Shearman [Comma Press]
Dagger Key and Other Stories - Lucius Shepard [PS Publishing]


My opinions on the Diogenes Club stories as a whole are covered in my post on the nominated novella “Cold Snap”, but the short version is that after attempting to read The Man From the Diogenes Club last year I am so burnt out on the entire concept of the Diogenes Club that I can scarcely stomach reading another story, let alone a full collection of the Diogenes Club. So, here’s my full admission: I have not read this collection, nor do I have any intention to do so. I’ve read “Cold Snap” and that was more than enough.

The crazy thing is that I’m willing to put a collection I have only read one story from below a collection I could not find. I checked both my local library as well as my library’s interlibrary loan catalog (in state only) and it was nowhere to be found. Even so, I’m quite confident that Plots and Misadventures HAS to be better than The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club.

Hart & Boot & Other Stories from Tim Pratt marks the first of the collections here I’ve actually read cover to cover and while individual stories are good reads, the collection as a whole somehow does not stand out. The title story “Hart and Boot”, in particular, is a strong story. “Impossible Dreams” is a favorite and was a previous Hugo nominee and, along with the title story, is the true standout of the collection. The rest of the collection, while interesting, is a grouping of slightly quirky stories that one might find at Strange Horizons (not a bad thing), but not necessarily something I would pay money for to have in book format.

Robert Shearman’s collection, like Tim Pratt, is filled with quirk, and while the stories generally have one “trick” that Shearman builds the story around – Tiny Deaths is a stronger, more exciting collection to read. Here is what I had to say about Tiny Deaths:

The thing is, the stories of Tiny Deaths are one-trick ponies. In nearly every case they have one thing about them which twists the story: the woman giving birth to furniture in "So Proud", reincarnation of Natalie as an ash-tray in "Ashes to Ash", a woman who has to die individually for each person in her life in "Favourite", and a television that bleeds in "Static". The rest of the story is normal, more or less, and the stories are short enough that Shearman is riding the one trick, the one main "idea" of the story. What makes all this work is that each story is short. Shearman never overstays his welcome in any given story. He gets in, tells a quick story, and gets out.


Now, I’ve only read a small handful of the stories from Dagger Key, but Lucius Shepard is one of the best writers working today and any collection of his will be outstanding. The fact that this collection includes “Dead Money” and “Stars Seen Through Stone” only make that impression stronger. “Limbo” is another solid story, though not quite as exceptional as “Dead Money” or “Stars Seen Through Stone”. Basically, having read four of the stories in Dagger Key, I feel okay placing it as the #2 collection nominated for the World Fantasy Award. There is a good chance that had I the chance to finish reading the collection before the World Fantasy Awards I might rank this one as the best collection, but right now I can’t.

Portable Childhoods. Ellen Klages. Before Portable Childhoods I had not read a single thing written by Klages and if not for the World Fantasy Award nomination I may never had read anything from Klages. That would have been my loss. Portable Childhoods is an exceptional collection. Here’s what I had to say about Portable Childhoods.

This praise of the best stories of Portable Childhoods is not to suggest that every story is superb or that there are not disappointments (I'm looking at you, "Ringing Up Baby), but taken as a whole Portable Childhoods is an exceptional collection. More often than not the stories contained within easily engage and entertain. They strike chords within the reader. The less successful stories do not linger in the memory like an angry specter. The fade, leaving the stronger stories to shine all that much brighter.

This can and should be said about any category and about awards as a whole: the best thing about award nomination lists is that it exposes readers to works and writers which they may not have otherwise encountered. I would have read the Lucius Shepard collection anyway, the same with Tim Pratt. But, I would never have discovered Ellen Klages or Robert Shearman without the nomination and just for that, awards have value. For this particular category my choice / hope / nonvoter for winner would be Portable Childhoods from Ellen Klages.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: The Servants

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 2

The Servants
Michael Marshall Smith
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novel


The Servants begins simply enough. Mark is an eleven year old boy adjusting to a move from London to Brighton, and adjusting to his mother’s new husband, a man she had only known for nine months before marrying. This last fact is not completely accurate, but it is the truth as Mark knows it. He spends his days sniping at David, his new stepfather, and skateboarding (poorly). Mark feels alienated, as if David were attempting to take his mother away from him. Mark’s mother is sick and the impression Mark has is that David refuses to let his mother go see a doctor or even go out to eat, that David is controlling their lives. Mark is an eleven year old boy.

Eventually Mark meets the old lady who lives downstairs in what is something of a basement apartment. She invites him in for tea and tells Mark a bit of the history of the house and how it used to be a manor with servants and down this locked hallway here, come take a look, is the old servants quarters – where they used to live and where they used to work. The servants quarters is dusty and unused. For lack of anything better to do Mark returns to the old lady’s apartment, chats with her and drinks tea, and when she falls asleep Mark explores the servants quarters. When he explores Mark finds…not quite ghosts and not quite echoes, but something still living and working down there even though nothing is actually down there.

There are two storylines running through The Servants: the family story, and the supernatural story regarding the titular servants. The strange thing is that despite the fact that there is something supernatural going on under the house, the supernatural element is completely besides the point. It doesn’t matter, and in fact, it is utterly superfluous to the real story of The Servants and that is Mark learning to accept David and his mother’s new relationship and grow up a bit. The story of The Servants is not exactly a coming-of-age tale, but that’s the territory this short novel is veering. The problem is that the 200 page novel is a good 20 to 50 pages too long as it is (or too short, it could go either way). Oh, The Servants reads easy enough but because the supernatural stuff is pointless to the real story, the supernatural element pulls the reader out of the story and is a distraction to the family drama. Yes, this novel is nominated for the World Fantasy Award, but this is a family-drama with the fantasy tacked on with a hammer.

The main gripe here is that Michael Marshall Smith attempts to combine the two narrative elements in the conclusion and the moment Mark begins what is obviously the final actions of the supernatural element of the novel, it is more than obvious how this will impact the family drama aspect to the novel even though they are in no way connected up to this point. It is as if Smith looked at his manuscript and realized: “Shit, what the hell am I doing here? Combine, combine! Must end the novel and tie up all the loose ends”. I realized what Smith was about to do and it offended me as a reader. While the author never set up the reader to expect one sort of novel, the conclusion felt like a betrayal. I have a thing about spoiling the ending to a novel, but I do want to talk about it, so I’ll be happy to complain in the comments if anyone really cares. But, the bottom line is that the way the two storylines came together and how the novel resolved itself made me call “bullshit" on the author. It was an absolute cop out on the story and made the ending become mystical bullshit. Deus ex machina. This phrase may (or may not) be overused, but I think this is a perfect example of it. The resolution to The Servants came out of left field and was in no way foreshadowed earlier in the novel as something that was even possible.

It’s crap (the ending). Pure and simple. I question whether the nominating committee finished the novel when they bestowed a World Fantasy Award nomination on it.


It may be worth noting that Emma Bull had a more positive reaction to the novel, though she hasn't said a thing about the ending. While not the only thing, or even the most important thing, a really bad ending can absolutely ruin a book.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No Thoughts on World Fantasy Anthologies

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 0
This is a post which probably does not need to be written, but while I hope to be able to post my thoughts on the World Fantasy Award nominees in the Novel and Collection categories (as I have with the Novellas and Short Stories), I will not be posting my thoughts on the Anthologies.

I’ve nothing against Anthologies, but I started reading through the nominees too late and I just will not be able to get through this category. I’ll barely be able to make it through the Novels. I’ve just finished The Servants and still have to knock out Ysabel.

I will review the anthology Five Strokes to Midnight sometime in November since the good people at Haunted Pelican Press sent me a copy, but the other four will have to wait. Indefinitely. I’ve read a couple of stories out of The Coyote Road when they were nominated for a Nebula Award and one was exceptional. I want to read Logorrhea. But, the other two: Wizards and The Inferno? Only if one of them wins the World Fantasy Award (or if one of them magically appears in my mailbox).

So, please don’t hold it against me because I’m essentially ignoring this category. I’ll start earlier next year for all three major awards and try to knock out ALL of the nominated works, not just the stories. Unless another Diogenes Club collection is nominated. In that case, forget it!

Monday, October 27, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Fangland

Monday, October 27, 2008 2


Fangland
John Marks
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novel


The thought of a modern day telling of the Dracula story is not overly appealing. Dracula has been done already, and vampire stories have been written in a variety of styles over the years. John Marks revisits the Dracula story, but updates it to fit more into a modern setting and perhaps make the story a touch more realistic. Fangland follows the basis structure of Bram Stoker’s novel in that rather than Marks telling the story with letters and journal entries (like Dracula), Fangland is told through e-mail, diary entries (somethings never get old), first person accounts, and, in some cases, supposition. The novel opens with a note from a man named O’Malley, a television executive who is putting the Fangland tale together and he lists out the methods he uses and acknowledges that there are certain things he cannot know and others that he has a good idea as to what happened.

The clues as to what sort of story this is lies in a) the title, b) the jacket art – a microphone with two fang-like bites taken out, c) a blurb noting the Dracula comparison, and d) the lead character is named Evangeline Harker. One doesn’t put a lead character with the last name of Harker into a novel unless one plans to do something with it. We get what has to be presumed to be a descendant of Jonathan Harker (assuming the original Dracula story was true), or at least a healthy reason to be suspicious as to what is going on and what sort of story John Marks is telling. We else get echoes in the name Evangeline of Mina Harker, the fiancĂ© and later wife of Jonathan and, from The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a heroine in her own right. This is just cosmetic, of course, but Fangland is not the sort of novel that gets written by mistake or without being well thought out.

Here’s the basic story: Evangeline Harker is a producer for the television news show The Hour. If this makes you think of 60 Minutes, it should. The Hour is essentially a stand-in for 60 Minutes and given that John Marks once worked for 60 Minutes, perhaps this should not come as a surprise. Evangeline Harker is a producer for the television news show The Hour. Her latest assignment is to travel to Romania (the Transylvania region) and meet with a man purporting to be Ion Torgu, a man rumored to be a major crime lord in Eastern Europe. Her assignment is to see if Torgu is willing to be interviewed for The Hour, and also if his personality would be a fit for The Hour. Essentially, Evangeline Harker is the advance scout.

Torgu turns out to be far more than simply an Eastern European crime lord. He pretends at gentility but there is a sense of horror beneath the surface that does not need to push hard to show. Evangeline alternates between being charmed by Torgu and being afraid for her life. Unfortunately for Harker, but fortunately for the reader, the charm wins out long enough for Torgu to bring Harker back to his “hotel” and for the bad things to begin. The opening of the novel is Evangeline’s e-mails back to her fiancĂ©, but after she “disappears” the story shifts to the horrors beginning back at the offices of The Hour. Through diary entries, first person accounts, and assumptions made by O’Malley (told in a more traditional third person perspective), the horror somehow travels from Romania to New York City, overlooking Ground Zero (yes, location matters).

Fangland is well written and Marks’s prose is smooth enough that readers will be pulled through the novel at a fairly rapid pace. On the surface of things, Fangland is a fairly solid novel. Nothing glaring jumps out as a negative. That Torgu is not a traditional vampire is not a knock, nor is it a spoiler since it does not go into specifics and it is obvious from the start that Torgu is stepping into the role normally played by Dracula. Marks plays a bit with the Dracula / vampire expectations in Torgu’s reactions to the legends of Transylvania as well as in how the novel itself unfolds. This is not the usual Dracula / Vampire story.

Under the surface, and despite the World Fantasy Award nomination, Fangland scarcely stands out from a crowd of vampire novels, let alone fantasy. It is a well written novel that despite everything that Marks does well (writing characters, coming up with a modern way to re-write Dracula, showing what the working environment is at 60 Minutes, ahem, The Hour) is simply nothing special. Several chapters / scenes work exceptionally well (Evangeline escaping with the missionary…actually anytime Evangeline is together with the missionary), but as a whole, after any chapter and especially after finishing the novel, my reaction was generally, “Huh. That’s it?” Despite having something of a climactic “final battle” and the presence of some genuinely horrific moments, Fangland never quite delivers a fully satisfying experience. Fangland is a novel of great competence and was well thought out and well written, but just being good is not good enough. For all the knocking I gave The Gospel of the Knife, at least Will Shetterly’s reach exceeded his grasp. Shetterly tried. John Marks appears to have grasped exactly what he reached for, which is a solid novel – a good novel, but nothing special or out of the ordinary. Nothing to make a reader sit up and take notice. A proficient novel.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I'm a winner!

Sunday, October 26, 2008 0
Remember that Interzone contest Jason Sanford was running back in September? Remember how I shilled it and then pleaded that nobody else enter the contest?

Well, it must have worked.

I'm a little tardy in announcing the winner of my great Interzone subscription contest, so with any more delay the winner is Joe Sherry from the Adventures in Reading blog. I just purchased him a six issue, one year subscription to Interzone. Congrats to Joe and thanks to everyone who took part in the contest.

Sweet!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Inside the Blogosphere: Battling It Out

Saturday, October 25, 2008 0
John Ottinger's latest Inside the Blogosphere interview column posted yesterday and this time around I'm part of it.

He asks,
What makes a battle or combat scene exciting to read, and what makes it drag on or detract from the narrative?

I answer.

Brevity. My answer to this question is, unfortunately, not going to be littered with nearly as many examples as I would like. I like brevity. Get in, kick some ass, and get out. That's what *helps* to make a fight sequence exciting to read. The longer a fight lasts, the more likely I (and other readers) will lose interest. I don't want to read about every swing of the sword or about every punch. Cover the salient points of the fight, make it feel original even if it is a fairly standard fight, and don't over do it. All I really need to know is what happened in the appropriate number of words.

Of course, after that first statement of brevity I go on, and on, and on a little bit more.

Go take a look.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thoughts on 2008 World Fantasy Award Nominees: Novellas

Friday, October 24, 2008 0
"The Mermaids" - Robert Edric [PS Publishing]
"Illyria" - Elizabeth Hand [PS Publishing]
"The Master Miller's Tale" - Ian R. MacLeod [F&SF May 2007]
"Cold Snap" - Kim Newman [The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club,]
"Stars Seen through Stone" - Lucius Shepard [F&SF July 2007]

I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm just not going to be able to read Ian MacLeod's story "The Master Miller's Tale" before the World Fantasy Awards. It will be available in The Year's Best Fantasy 2008, but that comes out next year (explain that one). If I thought at all about it when I stopped by Uncle Hugo's last weekend, I could have grabbed the back issue of F&SF and read the story. Alas, I didn't and this weekend is out, and the following weekend is World Fantasy. So, no review of the story. I'll trust that it doesn't suck and if it happens to win, I'll track it down. Stiff competition in this category, though.

So, "Cold Snap". It isn't that I passively ignore the Diogenes Club, I actively dislike it. Even though this in no way impacts me as a person, I actively hope a Diogenes Club story is not nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, or World Fantasy Award next year. Simply because then I can pretend it doesn't exist. I feel some weird obligation to read the story when it is nominated. Anyway. Here's what I previously said about "Cold Snap."

The story benefits from not having read the previous stories in The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club. “Cold Snap” is the last story in the collection and I am quite positive that had I attempted to read the rest of them that the book would have been tossed across the room long before I got to “Cold Snap”.

Without really talking about the story, since I’m really disinterested in discussing the Diogenes Club at any length, I semi-enjoyed “Cold Snap”. The over-description of flamboyant clothing was not there, and getting into some of the secret societies was interesting, as was the threat of the Cold demon that was about to freeze the planet. There is just something about the story, and the larger world of the Diogenes Club that simply falls flat for me as a reader. I’m not sure what, except that I certainly was not going to start from the front of the book and read any of the other stories. I’m pretty much done with the Diogenes Club until the next major award nomination (Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy), and may that nomination not be soon. I am content with that decision.

Still content. Basically, the story was light on the aspects of the Diogenes Club which really turn me off and I've been down on these story since last year's World Fantasy Awards, but "Cold Snap" didn't suck like I expected. Still a bit of a chore, though.

Before this nomination I had never heard of Robert Edric or his novella "The Mermaids". It's a solid story and I would definitely read more Edric if given the chance. Here's what I had to say when I reviewed the story.

The Mermaids is, at its core, a simple story of disbelief in the face of the fantastic. It’s more, though. The heartbreak of the attack on a fifteen year old girl who, despite the discomfort of the magistrate, is no Lolita (though, even Lolita too was a victim). Sarah Carr is simply a young girl who saw something and believed what she saw. For that, for daring to tell the truth about what she saw, for daring to see the fantastic, the trial with unknown stakes proceeds. So, in a sense, The Mermaids is about truth, about belief, about the fear of small towns and sensitivity about how they are seen by the world, and not at all about mermaids. Despite the title.

Moving on to Lucius Shepard. Given that "Stars Seen Through Stone" has been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula this year, and that I first read the story as part of The Best of Lucius Shepard anthology, I'll just do what I've been doing and repost part of what I said then.

The story was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and later in The Best of Lucius Shepard collection (forthcoming in August 2008). Like many other Lucius Shepard stories “Stars Seen Through Stone” is not an overtly SFF story. His fiction takes place in the real world, but a real world where sometimes something unexpected and unreal can occur. This is actually addressed early on in the story when the narrator mentions that the world contains all sorts of weirdness, but it is only the most extreme that anyone notices at all. “Stars Seen Through Stone” is set in 1970’s (sort of) Pennsylvania in a town called Black William (great name, by the way). Vernon is a small time, but moderately respected independent music producer and he signs a talented, if creepy, singer. There is an early incident with some odd ghost lights at the town library, but after that early incident the story follows Vernon developing his creepy singer, but comes back to the history of the town and the history of those odd lights. It is a quietly fascinating and compelling story, one that doesn’t necessarily jump out as being the story readers bang down the doors of their friends house to talk about, but it is also a really good story and one definitely worth the recognition of the various award nominations it has received.

While I will never be surprised by a Lucius Shepard win for any major award (or minor award), but I think the class of the field is another of The Inferior 4 + 1 (along with Shepard), Elizabeth Hand. "Illyria" is an outstanding story. I had never read Hand's work before, but this is a damn fine story. From my review of the story.

Outside of a slightly stilted too descriptive opening, Illyria rings with the earnest sense of youth that powered Dead Poets Society. The comparison may not be fully appropriate as we are comparing a novella to a feature length film, but this is a certain air to the movie, which if the film ever hit you, is clear and understandable and relatable. Illyria has that same special “something”.

This is all vague and incomplete, but writing about Illyria is difficult. I could tell you that the story is about Madeline Tierney, a young woman in love with her cousin Rogan, a scion (Madeline) of a once famous theatre family which has since abandoned the theatre as if it were unclean. I could tell you that the story is about the relationship between Madeline and Rogan as they grow, about the influence of the their and Madeline’s Aunt Kate. I could tell you all this, and more, but it would not serve to get across the quiet grace of Illyria, the still-small voice that gets under the skin and whispers to the reader.

So, there you have it. If I was on the jury for this award, and I had any say or sway, I'd give the World Fantasy Award to Elizabeth Hand. Without having read the MacLeod, the only nominee I'd be disappointed to see win is Kim Newman's "Cold Snap". But, seriously, if not Hand, then it should be Lucius Shepard. The man can flat out write.

Previous Thoughts:
Short Story

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bitter Gold Hearts, by Glen Cook

Thursday, October 23, 2008 2

Bitter Gold Hearts
Glen Cook
1988



Glen Cook returns to TunFaire with Bitter Gold Hearts, the second (of twelve, so far) novels following the exploits of a private investigator named Garrett. Though he walks through a low-tech fantasy-land populated with dwarves, ogres, trolls, were-creatures, vampires, and magic-users, Garrett himself is reminiscent of the pulp detective heroes of the past. He may be the protagonist with a soft spot for the dames, but he can also be a hard and sarcastic man who does what he needs to in order to get the job done. In short, he may rub most of the other characters the wrong way, he’s a blast to read about!

During Sweet Silver Blues, Garrett spent much of the novel away from TunFaire and in a very dangerous region called The Cantard. Bitter Gold Hearts keeps Garrett much closer to home, with only the occasional foray to the outskirts of TunFaire. While the Cantard may have a reputation for nastiness, TunFaire may not be much safer for Garrett as his new case takes him away (for a time) from the slums and into the much richer neighborhood of The Hills (I swear, this was written YEARS before the tv series). Garrett is approached by Amiranda Crest, a beautiful young woman in the employ of the Stormwarden Raver Styx (great name, by the way). Karl Jr, the son of Raver Styx has been kidnapped while the Stormwarden is away and Amirdanda and Domina Willa Dount (sort of like a major-domo) would like to pay the ransom and get Karl Jr back before the Stormwarden returns. Garrett plays his initial role, but is hired to do other stuff surrounding this case and it is not long before things go badly and Garrett is thrust (or, thrusts himself) into the middle of this case / situation.

Though there is a less of a straightforward narrative to Bitter Gold Hearts than in Sweet Silver Blues, Bitter Gold Hearts is a notable improvement over the first volume. It is difficult to say exactly what is better or why Bitter Gold Hearts is stronger, but it is. The interactions between Garrett the Loghyr are excellent, but I don’t think that is exactly the reason. There is plenty of sarcastic, joking dialogue, strong action sequences, dames, a little bit of magic, a strong character in Raver Styx, and overall just excellent writing from Glen Cook. Top to bottom, Bitter Gold Hearts is stacked. Despite dripping with the trappings of high fantasy, Bitter Gold Hearts is a detective novel through and through. The writing of the characters and the investigation are key here and Glen Cook does it well.

Bring on Cold Copper Tears!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Thoughts on 2008 World Fantasy Award Nominees: Short Stories

Wednesday, October 22, 2008 1
"The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" - Daniel Abraham
"Singing of Mount Abora" - Theodora Goss
"The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" - Kij Johnson
"Damned if you Don't" - Robert Shearman
"The Church on the Island" - Simon Kurt Unsworth


I will start with Theodora Goss's "Singing of Mount Abora". Originally published Logorrhea and reprinted in Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Two, this story from Theodora Goss was a complete loss for me. I remember reading this story about telling a story (not sure the song part was all that essential) and right away I was ready to read something else. I didn't re-read "The Singing of Mount Abora" for this category, so I'm going off what I can vaguely remember from July. But, what I remember is that I didn't like the story, that it wasn't the sort that would ever engage me. Unlike the other Logorrhea story nominated for the WFA. More on that later.

Next, onto "The Church on the Island", which I reviewed back in August. What I said then still stands.
I'll grant the inherent creepiness of this ill-groomed priest, a priest whom one might expect to do bad things to Charlotte. So, in this description-heavy story there is good potential for something special to come out in the story, some bit of goodness that will cause "The Church on the Island" to rise above and merit the acclaim that comes from a World Fantasy Award nomination. Something that will explain what the nominating panel saw in the story.

Frankly, I don't see it.

Oh, the story is decent enough and there is some genuine horror in the story and the anticipation of horror (because what else is true horror than that which we don't see but fear?), but it never quite delivers.

"Damned If You Don't" from Robert Shearman is the first gasp of fresh air in this category (see review). You'll note that I'm working my way up from what I consider to be the bottom to the strongest / best story nominated for the award. I was charmed by Shearman's collection of short stories and "Damned If You Don't" hit me in a weird, wistful way. What I had to say:
“Damned If You Don’t” is ultimately a sad story. This isn’t fire and brimstone, nor is it at all a “Christian” story. By the end, Shearman has done quite a few things, touching on the nature of Hell, God, friendship, marriage, zombies, death, prejudice, and blame. “Damned If You Don’t” is a quiet story. It doesn’t do or say anything flashy. It is charming, in a darkly twisted sort of way.

I was very impressed by Kij Johnson's "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs at North Park After the Change." The title is still crazy-long, but it's one hell of a moving story. What I had to say regarding the Nebula Nomination for this story:
Heartbreaking. So much of reading is as much what the reader brings to the book as what the writer brings to the reader. I am a dog owner. Kij Johnson’s story of dogs abandoned after “The Change” just kills because the dogs’ basic nature hasn’t changed, just the fact that they can now speak. From the very start this was a moving story and Johnson did not let up. Stories are more than concepts, though, there has to be execution and I think that Kij Johnson nailed this one.

This leaves me with the story that, had it not been for Ted Chiang being nominated for the Hugo, certainly could have come home with this year's Hugo for Novelette. I expect Chiang's win, but Daniel Abraham would have been my sentimental favorite. "The Cambist and Lord Iron" is outstanding. I wasn't ready for the story to end. I still haven't picked up Logorrhea or the novels of Daniel Abraham, but based on this story alone - I think I need to. What I said then.

Rather than being a dull story about the value of things, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” is a smoothly written story with an interesting intellectual challenge for Olaf (and in turn the reader, if we want to think about the challenge before Olaf figures it out). Moreover, I liked “The Cambist and Lord Iron” enough that I intend to go find a copy of Logorrhea (the anthology the story is from), and also go read the novels of Daniel Abraham.

So there you have it. "The Cambist and Lord Iron" should win the World Fantasy Award. Will it? I have no clue. I'll only be disappointed if the Theodora Goss or the Simon Kurt Unsworth stories win. I don't think Robert Shearman's story is good enough to win the award, but I'm glad I had the chance to read it and it's a good story. If, for some reason, "The Cambist and Lord Iron" should fail to win, I hope that Kij Johnson's story with a title I'm not going to type out a second time (or even copy and paste) wins. Those are the standouts here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Zoe's Tale, by John Scalzi

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 0

Zoe’s Tale
John Scalzi
Tor: 2008


I went through a number of different thoughts / opinions regarding Zoe’s Tale in the year between when I first heard the announcement for the novel and when I finally read the novel. First thoughts were simple excitement / happiness that John Scalzi had another Old Man’s War story to tell. Then, when I realized it was a companion novel to The Last Colony, just told from the perspective of Zoe, the excitement lessened and the skepticism increased. Yeah, Scalzi’s a heck of a writer and his easy-flowing storytelling makes pretty much anything he writes entertaining, but I wasn’t sure that –that- was the story that needed to be told. Obviously, this isn’t something I have a say in, but I wasn’t exactly clamoring for more Last Colony. He told the story already. Once is generally enough. Orson Scott Card tried that trick with Ender’s Shadow and the result was a novel that undercut the strength of Ender’s Game and ultimately wasn’t nearly as good as the original. The reviews for Zoe’s Tale have been fairly positive so far and increased my expectation / hope that the novel would be successful and good on its own as well as stand as a companion novel to The Last Colony.

For those who do not know the basic plot of The Last Colony (and in turn, Zoe’s Tale), the story here follows Zoe Boutin-Perry, the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan (the protagonists of the first three novels) as Perry and Sagan are tapped to leave their adopted homeworld of Huckleberry and lead a new colony about to start out to the world of Roanoke, an ill-omened name for a planet / colony if there ever was one. The name is apt (and chosen for a reason) as is made clear when the ship arrives at the wrong planet and only then are the colonists (including Perry, Sagan, and the crew of the shuttle) informed that the Colonial Union deliberately changed the course for the protection of the colony. Zoe’s Tale hits all the plot high-spots of The Last Colony, but Zoe’s Tale is its own novel that only depends on The Last Colony for the basic structure of events that the reader knows has to happen.

Zoe’s Tale works very well on its own.

The first thing to note is that, from my limited perspective, Scalzi nails the narration / character of Zoe. Zoe walks and talks like any intelligent yet smart mouthed sixteen year old girl, or at least how I would imagine one should talk like. From the introduction Scalzi makes mention that he did vet the writing of Zoe through a number of different women who were all, presumably, sixteen year old girls at one time. It shows. Yes, Zoe is a younger version of John Perry (or any number of witty Scalzi-penned characters), but she plays well as her own character and appropriate to her age. She is, of course, quite capable in her own right. There is some growth for the character as Zoe does not step right onto the scene able to do everything that the adults can do, and she expresses her fears and deficiencies in ways that adults might not and as Jane Sagan (for example), never would. There are a couple of moments near the end of the novel where Zoe steps a little too precocious and does a couple of things that should potentially be beyond a sixteen or seventeen year old girl. Or boy, for that matter, but the teenaged boys in Zoe’s Tale tend to be less competent and mature than the girls – also an accurate characterization from John Scalzi. This bit of “special-ness” in Zoe’s handling of some of the events of the ending has been foreshadowed a bit in her behaviors with the boys as well as the simple knowledge of who she is, how the Obin race views her (explained early in the novel) and the understanding that a child raised by John Perry and Jane Sagan should be expected to be more competent than the average sixteen or seventeen year old. Still, even granting a history of young-adult precociousness in both the science fiction and fantasy genres, Zoe’s actions at the end of the novel still come across as a bit too accomplished. Zoe’s follow-up reactions to those actions, however, are perfect.

Besides the character of Zoe, on which the success of the novel ultimately rests, the story of Zoe’s Tale is worth briefly thinking about. Basically, a companion novel which takes place during the same timeframe as The Last Colony would be expected to feel well-worn and potentially overstay its welcome early on. Somehow John Scalzi avoids this. Perhaps it is because I have not read or thought about The Last Colony since late May 2007, but Zoe’s Tale felt fresh. Sure, expected plot points will still occur (the true story of Roanoke, the “werewolves”, the disappointment at not being able to use electronic technology, the video of a slaughter, etc), but by whatever stroke of skill or luck (I’m banking on skill), through the very different viewpoint of Zoe, John Scalzi wrote a more interesting, more exciting, and stronger novel than The Last Colony was.

Zoe’s Tale is a much better novel than I had any expectation it would be. I am very much aware that expectation plays very strongly in how any reader experiences a book. My expectations for The Last Colony were very high and in retrospect I’m not sure Scalzi entirely met them (hey, Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades were several kinds of awesome, so if The Last Colony was only one kind of awesome, that’s not bad. Right?). However, with somewhat lower expectations for Zoe’s Tale John Scalzi absolutely exceeded my expectations and thus I am a bit more exuberant with my praise.

Not only does Zoe’s Tale serve as an alternate entrance point for readers just discovering John Scalzi and the Old Man’s War Universe, it is a heck of a novel in its own right and like Mike Resnick’s Starship series, Zoe’s Tale would be an excellent novel to hand someone who has never read science fiction before. Zoe’s Tale would be a great introduction to the genre and is flat out fun to read.

Well done, Mr. Scalzi.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Liavek!

Monday, October 20, 2008 2

Yesterday I made my first trek over to Uncle Hugo’s bookstore, which, like any good bookstore, is wall to wall filled with books. Ahh, but Uncle Hugos is a SFF bookstore, so it is wall to wall with nothing but SFF. New and Used. It is a delightful place to which I am definitely going to return.

As soon as I walked in past the back issues of Asimov’s and F&SF I knew I was in one of the local branches of heaven. I wanted to look for a copy of Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival and the fifth Wild Cards volume. I was in the store for ten minutes before I remembered what I wanted to look for. I never did remember Wild Cards, but I saw the Bear and decided not to pick it up this time. Almost picked up Caine Black Knife and Fast Forward 2, but I kept browsing, kept remembering stuff.

And then I saw it. Liavek.

It’s nothing I was ever looking for, but as soon as I saw it I knew I had to get it. Liavek is a shared universe anthology created and edited by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull and was published back in 1985. I know nothing about the world, except that it is from Shetterly and Bull. Including tax, it only cost me $2.15, so you can’t beat that!

Here’s the contributor list:
Emma Bull
Gene Wolfe
Patricia C. Wrede
Nancy Kress
Steven Brust
Jane Yolen
Kara Dalky
Pamela Dean
Megan Lindholm (later known as Robin Hobb)
Will Shetterly
Barry B. Longyear

Not bad. There’s a couple of writers I’ve never heard of, and some I have heard of but haven’t read, but given that Bull only had one previous publication credit (a short story – she was two years away from publishing War for the Oaks), and Shetterly’s first novel Cats Have No Lord came out that same year, it’s a solid lineup of writers who would go on to have successful careers. According to Wikipedia, six of the contributers were part of the same Minnesota writers group, the Scribblies (Bull, Wrede, Brust, Dalky, Dean, Shetterly)

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World
Robert Jordan
1990

Eighteen years. It is difficult to believe that it has been eighteen years since Robert Jordan first unveiled The Wheel of Time, first introduced readers to Rand AlThor, the Two Rivers, the Dragon, to this deeply imagined world. By the time I discovered The Wheel of Time Robert Jordan had already published six or seven volumes in the series and I devoured them. Now, more than a decade since I first discovered the series and eighteeen years since Jordan began The Wheel of Time, I plan to re-read through the entire series to work my way up to Brandon Sanderson's final volume, completing what Mr. Jordan began eighteen years ago.

I'm not going to do a plot description of The Eye of the World. Right now it just seems pointless. The novel opens as standard-fare kitchen-boy fantasy (or farm-boy fantasy, as the case may be), and while the novel has that in mind, the series as a whole develops beyond that more simplistic feature.

So, here's are some various thoughts.

First, the prologue still kicks several kinds of ass. I absolutely adore the opening set thousands of years in the past with Lews Therin Telamon in the grips of his madness, having destroyed his family and standing in the wreckage of what used to be a palace and being taunted by an agent of the Dark One. The former hero, elite of the elite, broken. Besides this, what I appreciate is that there are little tidbits which enrich the overall landscape of the Wheel of Time. Lews Therin wore the Ring of Tamyrlin. What I like about this is that the suggestion here is that Lews Therin very likely ruled the Aes Sedai of his day. In the "present" of the novels the ruler is titled the Amyrlin Seat. There is an excellent chance that this is a bastardization over the years of Tamyrlin...and this plays into something else that I like (not part of this novel, but applicable). In Lord of Chaos there is a quote from someone from a Fourth Age children's song heard in Great Aravalon. If this is the next age and not a previous turning of the wheel, Great Aravalon is a bastardization of Tar Valon, the home of the Aes Sedai. The flip side, of course, is that if this is a previous age then Tar Valon is the corruption and not Great Aravalon.

That was a longer thought than I expected that had little to really do with the novel.

Okay.

Anyway. It's the little things that I like in this book.

"What kind of need would be great enough that we'd want the Dragon to save us from it?" Rand mused. "As well ask for help from the Dark One" p 34

It's almost a throwaway line at the time given that there are musings of False Dragons and fear of war and Rand questioned how bad things would need to be to require the Dragon Reborn to be the Savior given that Lews Therin was the Dragon and he went mad and began The Breaking of the World. Of course, given the direction of the series, that musing is sadly ironic.

pg 55 / pg 596 - Rand has a copy of The Travels of Jain Farstrider (his favorite book) and later we see Lord Agelmar tell the story of Malkier and mentions Jain Charin, "already called Farstrider", which suggestions that Jain Farstrider was alive in the last fifty years sometime and that at the fall of Malkier, Jain was a younger man. Why this is important (to me, as I'm not sure how important it is overall to the series) is because in A Crown of Swords we meet an old man named Noal Charin. Coincidence?

Several times in this novel (probably series as well) characters give long, detailed, historical speeches about stuff I'm a little surprised they know about (the farmer giving a fully detailed explanation of Queen Morgase, the political infighting, and Tigraine going missing), but given that they didn't have television I guess gossip has a way of making the rounds. Of course, you'd think that farmer would have a muddled version of the truth rather than a fairly solid outline of what happened. The speech I throroughly enjoy encountering is Moiraine's accounting of Manatheren to the people of The Two Rivers so she can leave with the boys and thus save the village. "Weep for Manatherin. Weep for what is lost forever." Speechifying generally bugs me, but Jordan can sure write a good one.

It's little things I like. Bayle Domon, captain of the Sea Spray telling Rand and Mat that "on Tremalking, one of the Sea Folk's isles, there be a stone hand fifty feet high sticking out of a hill, clutching a crystal sphere as big as this vessel" and also that the Sea Folk search for "the Coramoor, their Chosen One." (p 300). Now, the Coramoor bit will be obvious, but that big crystal sphere thing will also be important later. But it gets mentioned in passing. Domon talks about the Panarch's Palace, about the wonders there. All these little things that frequently will come into play later and at the time they are first discussed, they simply build the wonder of the world.

Things that seem random, like filler (the meeting with the Tinkers), they matter later on.

So, basically, what I appreciate is just how much Jordan put into this first volume that won't pay off for several books AND that when Jordan did put these things in they first felt like worldbuilding and not like Chekov's Gun. We're not waiting for the crystal sphere to go off in the third act but the fact that the crystal sphere matters, that Jordan built what seemed to be small stuff into a larger tapestry (a Pattern, if you will), is impressive.

Plus, not once did I catch Nyneave tug her braid in this book. Not once. I was looking, too.

What I didn't like / remember - The Eye of the World is a slow book. If the splitting up of the group didn't allow them to hit several marks that will pay off later, I would consider much of that to be a waste since the thrust of the story occurs with the characters all together. But, so much of what happens here has import throughout the series that I can't complain too much. It's just a slower book than I remember. Perhaps that's just because I'm less patient with roaming through the woods than I used to be. When everyone is back together, though, that's when The Eye of the World soars.

This is an opening volume which I once loved. I appreciate aspects of it more and I enjoy how the little things here matter, but I am somewhat less enamored of it.

It's still the opening to an outstanding fantasy series and one which is worth the read. This book, though, is fairly standard to what "epic fantasy" is considered to be. Jordan gets better after this.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

huh

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Alright...I've read Dogland and other than sharing characters with The Gospel of the Knife, the two books really are nothing alike. I really didn't know if there would be a strong tie between the two novels and, well, there isn't.

Dogland is better, more focused, more emotionally powerful. Gospel, up to the retelling of the Gospel, is smoother reading.

That's probably about all the reviewing I intend to do with Dogland, but I just wanted to mention it. Very, very briefly.

Forthcoming 2009: Quarter 1

Usually early in whatever quarter of the year we're in I like to take a look at the Locus list of books coming out in the next quarter. I just like to see what's coming out that I should keep an eye out for. It's about that time. So, here's what I think looks good in the first quarter of 2009. Obviously, publishing schedules can and do change.


January
The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan: I haven't read a single thing from Richard Morgan, but I have heard nothing but good stuff about his science fiction. This is one of those fantasy debuts I'm looking forward to and hopefully he'll have something strong to bring to the table.



February
Fantasy: The Best of the Year: 2009 Edition, by Rich Horton (editor): I didn't read either of Horton's volumes last year, but I want to give it a go. Plus, it's about the only place I'll find Ian MacLeod's World Fantasy Award nominated novella.

City Without End, by Kay Kenyon: I admired The Bright of the Sky. I was impressed by A World Too Near. I can't wait to see what she does with City Without End. Should be a good one, nay, a great one.

Steal Across the Sky, by Nancy Kress: It's Kress. I've enjoyed the little I've read from her recently.

The Walls of the Universe, by Paul Melko: The story this novel is based on is excellent. I wanted to know more. Now I'll have the chance. I never did read his debut novel Singularity's Ring.


Drood, by Dan Simmons: Umm...it's Dan Simmons.



March
Seven for a Secret, by Elizabeth Bear: Umm...it's Elizabeth Bear. It's also the follow up to New Amsterdam. Not as exciting as a new Promethean Age novel, but it'll do.

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch: Finally, the third volume of The Gentleman Bastards! A little late, but very welcome. This should be one of the highlights of the year.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Three, by Jonathan Strahan (editor): Volume Two was excellent. Haven't read Volume One yet, but between this and Eclipse One, Strahan has the markings of being one hell of an editor. Plus, as a reprint anthology, I like seeing what he thinks is worth anthologizing. Great taste with the stories in Volume Two.


Here's my Q4 list for 2008.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Implied Spaces, by Walter Jon Williams

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Implied Spaces
Walter Jon Williams
Night Shade Books: 2008

Opening as a fairly typical fantasy novel, Implied Spaces is anything but. Aristide is introduced to readers as a wanderer, a scholar and poet carrying a broadsword named Tecmessa. During the first three chapters Aristide battles bandits, trolls, magician-priests, and swings his magic sword. Implied Spaces is not a fantasy.

Technology has advanced so far that entire worlds can be created and are created for all sorts of purposes. The world of Midgarth is a pre-technological world that has developed into something of a fantasy-adventure-world. Aristide is, in fact, a scholar. He studies what he called the "implied spaces."

"The point is, the architect didn't say to himself, 'I think I'll put up four squinches.' What he said is, 'I want a dome, and the dome needs to be supported, so I'll support it with arches.' The squinches were an accident implied by the architect's other decisions. They were implied. pg 48

This is what is meant by "implied spaces". Aristide was on Midgarth to study what was unintentionally created, what was implied during the creation of Midgarth. The desert Aristide adventured in during the first three chapters of Implied Spaces was itself an implied space created because of the other designs of Midgarth.

The scholarly investigation of Midgarth is only the stepping off point for Implied Spaces as Walter Jon Williams expands his story and builds towards a war which could possibly mean the end of civilization. Implied Spaces contains pod-people, mind control, zombie viruses, interstellar war, artificial inteligences, worm-holes through space, philosophy, poetry, and more.

Outside of the "magic" sword, the opening fantasy section of Implied Spaces is not enough of a hook to grab readers and compel them to keep reading. However, once chapter four begins and the reader has the chance to get a grasp on what the real story of Implied Spaces is, the novel takes off.

Implied Spaces is, even in the science fiction elements of the story, an initially confusing novel. The deeper the reader gets, the more compelling the novel. What is most fascinating about Implied Spaces is the "world" itself, or perhaps the universe. The history of the humanity, the various plagues and wars, the still enslaved AIs which permit technology to advance the way it has, all of this together allows Williams to tell a story about unintended consequences.

Implied Spaces is not a perfect novel and at some level it fails to grip or engage at quite the level that the best science fiction does. Implied Spaces entertains and informs, it gives the reader something to think about with clear storytelling. It is a good novel. Implied Spaces falls more in the realm of science-fiction-fantasy with impossibilities, and happily does not overwhelm with too much hard science fiction, the kind that numbs the mind. Implied Spaces is not enough to compel me to seek out more from Walter Jon Williams, but it is still a good read.


Reading copy provided courtesy of Night Shade Books.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: The Gospel and the Knife

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The Gospel and the Knife
Will Shetterly
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novel

According to Will Shetterly, The Gospel and the Knife is not his best work and he suggests that new readers don't start with this one, because "Elsewhere and Dogland are better". Perhaps, but since The Gospel of the Knife is my first exposure to Shetterly's novel length fiction I'll just have to let the book stand on its own with no comparison to his earlier novels.

The Gospel of the Knife is two thirds of an interesting story, two thirds of a book that was almost excellent, that grasped for something it could not quite reach. This is, I understand, something of a follow-up to Dogland though it requires absolutely no knowledge of the events of Dogland.

Written in second person perspective, The Gospel of the Knife is a coming-of-age story of fourteen year old Christopher Nix at its center. Set in 1960's Florida the opening of the novel paints a picture of who Chris is, a sometimes angry young white man (like any 14 year old, to be honest), an artist, something of a counter-culture rebel with long hair in a crew-cut community, and a boy who doesn't yet know who and what he is. Chris rebels against his parents, runs away from home, meets up with a black girl a year younger than he, gets into some trouble and then the first shoe drops.

Ralph Fitzgerald shows up at the front door of the Nix family with an offer. Mr. Fitzgerald represents Mr. Jay Dumont, a man who fought in World War I and had his life saved by Christopher's grandfather and even though Grandpa is dead, still wishes to repay the debt. The method of repayment was to enroll Christopher in an elite school known only as The Academy. This is a school which produces future leaders and important men. It is a rare opportunity. Of course Christopher goes.

What follows is a weird combination of what feels like a version of Skull and Bones and kitchen-boy fantasy told in a prep-school setting. This may not be the most appealing description I could give, but it does cover the entire second section of the novel. Christopher, you see, is heir to a special power and through this school and Jay Dumont will help him master this power. Sort of. Simply having the power puts Christopher into an elite society that makes him an elite among the elite, except this is all so new to Chris. Remember, just days ago he spent his life as a normal kid. He adapts remarkably well. Perhaps too well for believability given that the world in which Chris lives is not at all supernatural (no matter what may have happened in Dogland, which I haven't read).

Christopher plays the traditional role in epic fantasy where he is the young man who grows up without knowing anything of his destiny or power but will soon learn to use it and do something beyond his years. This is the kitchen-boy fantasy aspect (see the Memory, Sorrow, Thorn series or The Belgariad for more "traditional" examples of this).

At times the perfectness of this new life grates a little. Sure, Chris hides what he is, and occasionally he pines for the C.C. (the young black girl from early in the book), but overall he is a little too smart and a little too quick to adapt. Things are too easy for him. What Will Shetterly excels at, though, is telling the story. If things are a bit too pat, Shetterly's skill at storytelling and easing the reader through the story makes up for the patness and his easy delivery hints at greater things to come in the novel, the possibility that the conclusion will blow my socks off. It's a hell of a set-up.

Then we get to page 219 and Book Three and The Gospel of the Knife runs off its rails and loses focus. Yes, this was clearly a deliberate decision to include a 69 page retelling of the Christ story in a style / manner which fits the story Shetterly is telling but that decision grinds the narrative to a screeching halt. These 69 pages (ending on page 288 of a 319 page novel) absolutely destroy any momentum Shetterly had built in the first 219 pages of the novel.

The conclusion itself feels a bit forced, but this may be because I was yanked out of the story two thirds of the way through. Getting back to the Chris / power stuff was difficult because not only did Shetterly mess with the narrative flow of The Gospel of the Knife, he telegraphed part of what he intended to do with the conclusion in Book Three. It isn't exactly deus ex machina, but it points in that general direction.

So, The Gospel of the Knife had some potential and Shetterly clearly tried to do something interesting in the end, but he was not as successful as perhaps he hoped to be. Shetterly is a good writer, this is obvious from how smoothly he puts together the story up through the rising action but just as he's about to hit the climax to the story it all slips away.

I have a good deal of fondness for The Gospel of the Knife and even writing about it I want to like it more than it perhaps fully deserves. The novel is enough to make me want to seek out Shetterly's earlier, "better" work to see how they compare. The Gospel of the Knife, however, falls short of being as good as it could be and perhaps short of being as good as it should have been.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Starship: Mercenary, by Mike Resnick

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Starship: Mercenary
Mike Resnick
Pyr: 2007

In his third installment of the Starship series, Mike Resnick brings us further adventures of Wilson Cole and the Theodore Roosevelt. Once one of the most decorated Commanders in the Galactic Navy, Wilson Cole was shunted to every crap posting a Commander could have because he valued doing what was morally right over directly obeying the commands of those with higher rank. That he also got the job done did not matter because Cole had a bad habit of embarrassing the upper brass of the Navy while doing his job with precision and competence.

Back in the first novel (Starship: Mutiny) Wilson Cole was imprisoned by his superiors on the charge of mutiny (fact) and was broken out by his crew. He took his ship and crew, and went on the lam. The second novel (Starship: Pirate) featured Cole and his crew in their attempts to make a living on the Frontier and away from the Core Worlds of the Republic. With the start of Starship: Mercenary, Wilson Cole has given up piracy and is now hiring out his ship as a mercenary ship.

This is easy reading military science fiction and like most of Mike Resnick's work, Starship: Mercenary is a compelling read. As I mentioned in my review of Starship: Pirate,

If I called the Starship novels as introductory sci-fi, please do not take that as a knock. It isn't. It is just a statement that a reader who knows nothing about science fiction can pick up one of these books and be equally as entertained as one who has been reading the genre for years. It's a good introduction to what sci-fi can be. It isn't just about the Big Idea. It’s also about the fun story.

This opinion is just as valid now, for Starship: Mercenary, as it was for Starship: Pirate. Resnick tells a tale of high adventure on the lawless Frontier worlds. He visits a giant space station (no jokes about it not being a moon, please), features a Pirate Queen as a prominent character, and brings the reader everything one has come to expect from this series while still delighting in the new.

If one has already read the first two books, then the reader will know exactly what to expect in Starship: Mercenary. If one has not, well, Resnick makes the book easy to pick up and start in without knowing anything of what came before. Oh, sure, it helps to have a familiary with Cole's crew, but it is hardly essential. At the same time, Resnick doesn't spend chapters bringing the reader up to speed.

This may be an odd comparison given the length and success of Mike Resnick's career, but Starship: Mercenary is a fun military science fiction novel that fans of John Scalzi's work will want to jump right into. There is a certain comparison and similarity in style.

The bottom line is that Starship: Mercenary is a fun book to read and bring on Starship: Rebel!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Territory

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 2

Territory
Emma Bull
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novel

Does the world have enough takes on the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the town of Tombstone? Do we really need another one?

When it is written by Emma Bull the answer is yes.

Set in 1881, sometime before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Territory features all of the characters readers would expect: Wyatt, Doc, the Clantons, Johnny Ringo, the Earp brothers, and the wives of the Earps. And yet, these are not the principal characters of Territory. Emma Bull won't do the obvious here. The leads are Jesse Fox and Mildred Benjamin.

Mildred works in one of Tombstone's newspapers as a typesetter. She is a widow and secretly writes adventure stories. Jesse Fox comes to town as a drifter, having shot a man trying to steal his horse, Sam. Jesse is more than just a drifter, of course, he was educated in the East, has a Chinese friend (and consider the history of the Chinese in America and in building the transcontinental railroad - this friendship is remarkable), and has something of a secret.

Bull dances around the edges of Tombstone, bringing Mildred and Jesse through the lives of the Earps and Johnny Ringo's gang. Through Mildred we see the other side of the Earps: the women. Through the women we get a completely different Tombstone story, one which generally gets lost in the glamour of Wyatt Earp. Through Jesse we see another side to Johnny Ringo and the harsher side of Wyatt.

Emma Bull makes Tombstone come alive in ways that the movies don't, and creates a visceral experience with Territory. Tombstone lives and breathes here. She also infuses the story with a special kind of magic that twists the Tombstone story into something else entirely.

Territory is not simply a Western and is not simply Tombstone told from other perspectives. Jesse Fox possesses a form of Earth Magic and he isn't the only magician in Tombstone. Who the others are will be left for the reader to discover, but this magic brings an entirely new dimension to the Tombstone story while somehow staying faithful to the Tombstone story that knowledgeable readers will understand.

Let's not mince words here. Territory is an outstanding novel. It is so good that having only read two of the World Fantasy nominated novels, I would be shocked to find a better one than this.

Emma Bull blends historical figures and events with magic and a story of her own imagination and tells the story in plain language and keeps the reader in thrall to her storytelling.

Oh, and the one character perspective I haven't mentioned yet: Doc Holliday. Whether or not there is historical evidence on how Doc spoke and what the cadence of his dialogue should be, Emma Bull absolutely nails the reader's expectation of Doc Holliday. Moreover, at no time does this characterization feel like cliche or an aping of Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc in the film Tombstone. It would have been easy for Bull to fall into that trap, but Bull's Doc Holliday feels authentic. Bull gets into Doc's head.

Readers should show up simply for Bull's portrayal of Doc Holliday, but they should stay for the rest of the show. Emma Bull is the real deal and she delivers the goods here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

some book club stuff

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The first reviews of Camp Concentration are floating in, as are some of the first bits of discussion in the comments. There's much to read and digest.

So, here's me.

Then:
Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen
Kristen Fantasy Cafe
The Reading Gaol

I think The Reading Gaol is doing something interesting here. He's up to post #20.

I'm not sure how many folks total will weigh in, but I do know there's going to be a good deal of reading to do to get the impressions of the others.

Camp Concentration, by Thomas M. Disch


Camp Concentration
Thomas M. Disch
1968

Welcome to the first selection of what I'm calling Larry's Book Club. I suspect Larry won't be overly excited by that moniker, but that's what he gets for coming up with the idea, running the poll, and breaking the tie to select the book. Sorry, Larry.

Camp Concentration is a difficult novel to write about. Disch wrote a very intellectual novel and those are the sort of books I struggle with both in the reading as well in the talking.

I'll very briefly start with the title. Camp Concentration. Obviously the first thing we are supposed to think about is the comparison to the term "concentration camp". That sort of title is not chosen by mistake. It is a title to remember throughout the novel.

Sometime in the 1970's the war in Vietnam is still raging, has expanded. Robert McNamara is President. The United States is fighting with germ warfare. It is a nasty time in America. This is all window dressing for the story. The story is Louis Sacchetti, a poet and conscientious objector who is imprisoned for avoiding the draft. He goes voluntarily, figures that five years of prison is worth the objection and will resolve his problem with the government.

Louis is moved from his initial prison to Camp Archimedes. The warden, a United States General (retired?), wants Louis to continue to write his diaries, which he did in the previous prison. Only now Louis is to report the facts of everything he sees in the prison. Only the facts. Facts are important here. See, Camp Archimedes is not just your run of the mill secret military prison. Oh no, it is more. Camp Archimedes is your run of the mill secret military prison performing experiments on the inmates and Louis is to observe the results of the experiments. The experiment is to inject a special strain of the syphilis virus to make those infect geniuses and those genius prisoners will hopefully come up with something special. The flip side - those infected will die in 9 months.

The novel is told in diary format, it is the reportage of Louis Saccheti. The first half of the novel is straightforward storytelling, more or less. Louis meets the other inmates, writes poetry, reports on them and gives the reader an overall experience of the underground prison.

I realize right now that this is more a Book Report than a Book Review. I'm just not sure what to do with Camp Concentration. According to Wikipedia the novel references and mirrors in some ways the story of Faustus. Perhaps. My issue with this is that Faustus willingly made a deal with the Devil. Louis didn't. It is an important distinction.

My central issue is that because of the intellectualism of Camp Concentration I, as a reader, had a difficult time engaging with the novel. I don't work very well on that level and while it is not a flaw of the novel, it is a fact of how I read. Yes, Camp Concentration requires more work than the average novel, but there are novels which require more work but can still be enjoyed by a more "average" reader and then there are those novels which require more work but aspire to something higher, something more elite. I think Camp Concentration falls into the second category. It is (L)iterature in the sense that despite having a very particular and set plotline (something that is not often the case in the character studies of Literary Fiction as a genre), Camp Concentration focuses tightly on the character of Louis Saccheti and his observations rather than his experiences. It is an internal novel, not an external.

While I am drawn to novels which live and breath by their characters, I do recognize that frequently I require something to happen. Character as explored by action (of some sort). Camp Concentration is not that novel, though Disch has written a clear chronology of what is happening in the prison and through the changes of Louis we get a plotline. This is especially clear in the second half of the novel, which I will not spoil as to what exactly is happening.

Camp Concentration is likely an important novel and from all reports, one of Disch's best (and certainly most well known), but it is not a novel all readers will enjoy.

That's a stupid thing to say. No novel will be enjoyed for all readers. What I'm trying to say is that Camp Concentration is aimed at a more particular, perhaps more "discerning" audience. It isn't going to appeal to a wide SFF audience. Actually, the largest audience for Camp Concentration is likely outside the genre, the ones who read Camus and Sarte.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

September 2008 Reading

Sunday, October 12, 2008 0
Here's what I read during the month of September. Links, as always, are to the reviews.

1. Portable Childhoods - Ellen Klages
2. Illyria - Elizabeth Hand
3. The Mermaids - Robert Edric
4. Christine - Stephen King
5. Hart & Boot - Tim Pratt
6. Jimmy the Hand - Raymond E. Feist and S. M. Sterling
7. The Sandman: A Game of You - Neil Gaiman
8. All the Windwracked Stars - Elizabeth Bear
9. Betrayal - Aaron Allston
10. Children of the Company - Kage Baker
11. Thinner - Stephen King
12. The Born Queen - Greg Keyes
13. Tiny Deaths - Robert Shearman
14. Camp Concentration - Thomas Disch
15. Move Under Ground - Nick Mamatas
16. Plugged In - Maureen McHugh and L. Timmel Duchamp
17. Territory - Emma Bull
18. Implied Spaces - Walter Jon Williams

110 books on the year. This is significantly less than last year, but that's okay.

Territory is one of the best books I’ve read all year. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t really a bad book in September. Jimmy the Hand was probably the “worst”, but that is only comparative. It’s a decent book for what it is and wouldn’t be considered “worst” in a month where I read anything truly crappy. On the other hand, even in an off month, it would also never be considered the best of anything.

Reviews of Camp Concentration, Plugged In, Territory, and Implied Spaces are forthcoming.

Previous 2008 Reads
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Elizabeth Bear Week - fin

Saturday, October 11, 2008 2
And this concludes Elizabeth Bear Week. There was a small chance of an Undertow review sneaking in, but it's just not going to happen. If I write it, it'll show up in the next couple of weeks. Next week is all set and I've got some stuff lined up for the week after.

So, in review:

Monday: Ink and Steel review
Tuesday: "Shoggoths in Bloom" review
Wednesday: Hell and Earth review
Thursday: Interview w/ Bear
Friday: All the Windwracked Stars review

After this past week of reviews and the last three months of reading, I've covered most of what Bear has published which I had not yet read. There's only three novels left: Dust (I own it), Worldwired (I have it from the library right now), and Carnival. Oh, and her collaboration with Sarah Monette: A Companion of Wolves. Sometime next year I'll be all caught up. Until she publishes more.

I don't know that I'll have another themed week like this anytime soon. I liked doing it, but it only happened because I had a couple of reviews stored up and that doesn't usually happen. I could potentially do an L. Timmel Duchamp week, but I don't see me sitting on the reviews long enough.

Hope y'all enjoyed Bear week.

Friday, October 10, 2008

All the Windwracked Stars, by Elizabeth Bear

Friday, October 10, 2008 0

All the Windwracked Stars
Elizabeth Bear
Tor: 2008

Elizabeth Bear described All the Windwracked Stars as "periApocalyptic Norse steampunk noir high fantasy." According to the words of Bear, periApocalyptic means that the story "takes place after, during, and before the end of the world. In that order, yes." The rest of the description can be parsed out fairly easily, though there is always a question as to what those terms mean in regards to All the Windwracked Stars.

The novel opens in the wreckage of the first apocalypse, where the Valkyries, the Children of Light, battled the Tarnished Ones until there were no more Valkyries left on Valdyrgard. Except one. Muire. Muire and one Valraven, Kasimir, a steed of the Valkyries. Do not assume, however, that because Elizabeth Bear uses the term "valkyrie" the path of this novel is obvious, because it is not. Yes, All the Windwracked Stars is steeped in Norse mythology and this informs the language of the text. We get the Old English "waelcyrge" and part of the mood is the terms Bear uses to tell her story: Ragnarok, waelcyrge, herfjotur - words which sound alien to an American reader but which have a history and which are used to create a world which never existed.

Some two thousand years later Muire still walks Valdyrgard, has rejected Kasimir, and once again Valdyrgard is dying. The Technomancer, viewed as despot and savior, somehow holds together one of the last cities and of the remnants of humanity. Mingan the Wolf, seen at the last Apocalypse, is also walking the city and Muire begins her hunt.

All the Windwracked Stars is one of those novels which, for me, has a very slow build, a slow burn. After the two thousand years pass and the reader is dropped into a different story than the opening chapter, Bear takes some time to reveal what the basic story is. According to Bear,

It stars a valkyrie who has gotten herself shipwrecked in time, a kickboxing gigolo, a kitten with a whip, a two-headed iron horse, and a nihilistic wolf, and it's about all sorts of things--the differences--or lack thereof--between service and slavery being one of them.

There is a such a disparate group of characters, each with their own motivations and desires (and, since this is an Elizabeth Bear novel, each with their own pain), that the reader may be a bit lost early on. Bear reveals things in her own time, and while this is no different than her Promethean Age novels, it is the alien-ness of the Norse terms which causes the first third or so of All the Windwracked Stars to be an initially difficult read.

Finishing the novel is rewarding, however. All the Windwracked Stars is worth the effort to push through and see this world that Bear is developing. The novel works as a standalone novel, but it is also the first volume in a trilogy: The Edda of Burdens. This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of All the Windwracked Stars - the conclusion turns any expectation for the rest of the series on their head. I refuse to spoil the conclusion, and this is a difficult novel to talk about the overall plot anyway, but one of my thoughts after finishing the novel was "where the hell is she going to go from there?"

All the Windwracked Stars is not essential reading as her Promethean Age novels are, but it is a strong, solid novel on its own. The next two volumes may affect how AtWS is viewed, but for now, it is worth a shot. I cannot give it my strongest recommendation, but Bear is always worth reading.
 
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