Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Nine Best Reads of 2014

Wednesday, December 31, 2014 0
As I've mentioned elsewhere: Some people do a top ten list, others do a top eleven, yet others may only do five. My list is 9 books long. Why? Partly to be a little bit different and partly because I want the tenth spot on my list to be reserved for that really great book which I simply did not get the chance to read during 2014. That really great book may also be something I have only heard whispers about and I may not discover for several more years. Whatever that tenth great book is, I’m holding a spot for it on my list.

Unlike my list of the top books published in 2014, this list is for the top books I read in 2014, no matter when the book was published. I'm also going to cheat a little and where a book overlaps with the previous list, I'm going to use most of the same text.  Because I'm lazy.


1. Ancillary Justice / Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice won pretty much all the awards it could possibly win, and after all that, still managed to live up to the massive hype it inspired.  Ancillary Sword was a sequel that couldn't possibly live up to the first novel, yet, it did.  This is top notch science fiction and was, collectively, my favorite reads of 2014.  Bring on Ancillary Mercy!!

2. The Eternal Sky, by Elizabeth Bear: The Eternal Sky is comprised of Range of Ghosts, The Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky.  It is epic fantasy that we don't see every day, with a very middle eastern and eastern flavor, but don't read this because it's good for you.  Read this because it's just friggin good.  Elizabeth Bear doesn't write bad books, and this is Bear at the top of her game. 

3. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker: A beautiful and moving debut in turn of the century New York City, where the city feels almost as much of a character as the immigrant experience and the varied titular creatures also attempting to find both themselves and their way in a world very foreign from what they knew.  I'm not sure I can adequately capture just how good this book is.  It demands to be read.

4. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer: The Southern Reach trilogy as a whole is strong, but Annihilation's introduction to Area X was what unnerved me the most and set the table for a meal I simply had to come back for. 

5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot: The powerful and moving true story of a woman whose genetic information and her cells taken without her understanding did the world a lot of good, but Skloot explores the intersection of scientific advancement and personal consent by tracking the story of Henrietta Lacks.

6. The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley: Alternate "mirror" worlds, blood magic, and just insane worldbuilding.  The Mirror Empire is a kick in the balls of epic fantasy and it's friggin outstanding.  Easily one of my favorite reads of the year and one which has me damn near salivating at the thought of reading the second book next year. 

7. Hild, by Nicola Griffith: Griffith takes what little is known of the early life of St Hilda of Whitby and extrapolates one possible story of how a young "heathen" girl could become an abbess and adviser to bishops and kings.  Spectacular.

8. Sheepfarmer's Daughter, by Elizabeth Moon: I briefly considered having this spot be for the full Deed of Pasksenarrion trilogy, but I'm only 40 some pages into Oath of Gold and I don't see myself making sufficient enough progress in that third book to feel confident enough that it will live up to my expectations.  I think it will, but here Sheepfarmer's Daughter will do.  It is the opening novel in the trilogy and is very much the story of a young soldier just beginning her career - and how her being a young woman plays into it.  This is top notch fantasy, and easily worth discovering if you have not already done so.

9. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison: My only complaint about this book is that it is a standalone novel, which is something that I both appreciate and am frustrated by, because I very much want more of it.  On the other hand, a quality standalone fantasy novel is worth the price of admission.


Previous Best Reads
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2013

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Top Nine Books Published in 2014

Tuesday, December 30, 2014 0
Some people do a top ten list, others do a top eleven, yet others may only do five. My list is 9 books long. Why? Partly to be a little bit different and partly because I want the tenth spot on my list to be reserved for that really great book which I simply did not get the chance to read during 2014. That really great book may also be something I have only heard whispers about and I may not discover for several more years. Whatever that tenth great book is, I’m holding a spot for it on my list.

This Top Nine List is more or less in order.  Ask me tomorrow and some titles may shift around a little bit.  Whichever order the list is in, these are the nine novels published in 2014 which I feel were the strongest titles of the year, popularity be damned. 


1. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie: At any given moment, I could shuffle the top four books on this list and feel very comfortable with how everything landed.  But at this moment, Ancillary Sword feels the most like the book which should be at the top of this list.  After all of the hype and Ancillary Justice winning pretty much everything, Ancillary Sword had a lot of expectation to live up to.  It did, but it wasn't just Ancillary Justice Redux.  It advanced the story of the first novel but is very much its own thing.  It is a worthy successor to one of the best novels of 2013.

2. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer: The Southern Reach trilogy as a whole is strong, but Annihilation's introduction to Area X was what unnerved me the most and set the table for a meal I simply had to come back for. 

3. The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley: Alternate "mirror" worlds, blood magic, and just insane worldbuilding.  The Mirror Empire is a kick in the balls of epic fantasy and it's friggin outstanding.  Easily one of my favorite reads of the year and one which has me damn near salivating at the thought of reading the second book next year. 

4. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison: My only complaint about this book is that it is a standalone novel, which is something that I both appreciate and am frustrated by, because I very much want more of it.  On the other hand, a quality standalone fantasy novel is worth the price of admission.

5. The Book of Unknown Americans, by Christina Henriquez: If there is ever a book that will help people re-think their views on illegal immigration and why the immigrants have come to America and the reasons why they might feel they have no choice to avoid the documented immigration system, it is this novel.  But, The Book of Unknown Americans is NOT a didactic polemic on the immigration system, but rather a fictional telling of very real stories of a small set of immigrants and what their lives were like before and now.  This is a beautiful book.

6. Hawk, by Steven Brust: I have finally caught up with the Vlad Taltos novels and Hawk is one of my favorites of a series I adore. It brought back so much of what was wonderful of those earliest Jhereg books - Vlad plotting and working a scheme and not telling nearly as much as he should, but doing so right under the nose of the Jhereg.  Wonderful. 

7. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine: This is the novel I didn't realize I always wanted Valentine to write. It is an outstanding novel of 1920's New York, with dance halls and speakeasies.

8. Defenders, by Will McIntosh: Go read a Will McIntosh novel. It doesn't matter which one, but you should be reading Will McIntosh.  Earth is invaded by mind-reading aliens. Humans create the "defenders" to defeat the aliens, but that causes a new round of problems.  Defenders is excellent, and so is everything else Will McIntosh has written.

9. Steles of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear: The Eternal Sky trilogy is an impressive piece of epic fantasy, and one which uses a more Eastern setting than Western.  I've seen this described as Silk Road Fantasy, but whatever it is - it's damn good fantasy.  This is what we expect from Elizabeth Bear, and she continues to hit the mark.  Start with Range of Ghosts. 



Previous Best Ofs
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Top Nine Author Discoveries of 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014 0
It seems I have not put together one of these lists in several years, the most recent being 2011.  My mistake. But, since we are coming to the end of another year, it's time to start reflecting on all of the awesome stuff that I've read throughout the year.  This has been a year for discovering authors I should have read twenty years ago, but for no reason I can articulate, did not.  It is also a year for discovering some of the hotter new authors. 

Here then, are my top nine author discoveries of 2014. In the spirit of acknowledging that there is always something or someone I’ve missed, either by a slip of memory or just lack of opportunity, the traditional tenth spot on my list remains blank.

1. Ann Leckie: I've been familiar with Ann Leckie for years, having read her short fiction and eagerly following her excellent short fiction zine GigaNotoSaurus while she was the editor.  To that point, Leckie isn't really an author "discovery", but then came Ancillary Justice (my review) and the follow up Ancillary Sword and holy crap, you can still be absolutely blown away and amazed by this wonderful writer who you knew was good but still didn't see this coming.  That's Ann Leckie, and that's why she is still a discovery.

2. Rosemary Kirstein: I love discovering authors I should have been reading long ago, and sometimes I hate it.  I hate it because The Steerswoman (my review) is a friggin excellent novel and I feel like I've missed out on something by not having discovered this years ago.  I love it, because there are all these old "new" novels I haven't read before.  Either way, I am so happy that I discovered Rosemary Kirstein this year.  I've read The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret and I am looking forward to the next two. 

3. Elizabeth Moon: Another writer I discovered much later than I would have liked, but unlike some of the others, I think I hit Moon at just the perfect time.  I don't know what my level of appreciation for Sheepfarmer's Daughter (my review) would have been years ago since it is mostly a grunt's level military fantasy novel.  Which is to say that I loved it, but like Glen Cook's The Black Company, I needed distance from my teenage years to appreciate it.  I am about to start the third Paksenarrion novel, Oath of Gold.  I'll be reading Elizabeth Moon for years now.

4. Kate Elliott: You know when you see a series of novels on a shelf for years (maybe fifteen years) and you think, "I should read that soon", but you wait another month and then another and then another year and then more time passes and you keep seeing the book and keep thinking "I should really read that, it looks awesome", but then you don't?  Then, some more years pass and you finally do read the book and you seriously get mad that you passed it over for more than a decade because the novel was stupid good and you can't wait to read the next one that you could have also read a decade ago?  Yeah, that's Kate Elliott and her Crown of Stars series which begins with King's Dragon.  I'm now two books in and I'm still pissed off I waited this long.  I feel like I should apologize to someone, but I'm not sure who. 

5. Katherine Addison: Despite being on my radar for years and years as Sarah Monette, I had never read any of her solo novels (I had read A Companion to Wolves (my review), which she wrote with Elizabeth Bear and it was excellent), but then The Goblin Emperor (my review) was published under the pseudonym of Katherine Addison and I finally picked up one of Sarah's novels.  It just felt like it was time and the book to read.  Folks, it is excellent and one of the best novels of 2014 (spoiler alert for my forthcoming Best Of list).

6. Wesley Chu: What can I say, I'm apparently a sucker for stories where aliens crash land on earth and inhabit humans as "hosts" and shape the direction of human history for their own purposes.  I'm sure I've read other books with that overall subject, but if not, Chu's Tao novels are still excellent on their own merit.  Start with the first book, The Lives of Tao (my review), continue on with The Deaths of Tao, and then wait eagerly for The Rebirths of Tao in April.  Do it now. 

7. Helene Wecker: Go read The Golem and the Jinni (my review).  If that is a debut novel, I can only imagine what Wecker's second novel will be like.  I can't wait. 

8. Tamora Pierce: I read Alanna just a couple of weeks ago.  It was published in 1983, and I swear to you that if I read that book when I was ten or twelve or fifteen years old instead of when I was thirty five, Tamora Pierce would be one of my favorite writers of all time.  I plan to read more of Pierce's work, but I feel like I really missed out on an opportunity to have a favorite writer hit me at just the right time.  I would have devoured Alanna as a teenager. 

9. Lois McMaster Bujold: It is weird to think that I met an author years before I ever read any of her work, and it is not because she wasn't published yet. I met Bujold the first year I attended Fourth Street Fantasy, had a very brief chat with her (not knowing yet who she was), and then never quite got around to reading any of the numerous novels she had published and won awards for.  And then I read Barrayar (my review) and wondered why in the world I hadn't been reading Bujold for years because it was a simply fantastic novel that I couldn't possibly read fast enough. 

Previous discoveries can be found for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Forthcoming Books: January - February - March 2015

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Coming to the end of the year, it is time to look ahead towards some interesting stuff being published in the beginning of 2015.  I'm using the Locus Forthcoming list because even though it may not be exhaustive, it is a fairly representative list of what is coming out over the course of a year.  My list below is based simply on that which strikes my own fancy, and I'm sure I'm overlooking all sorts of excellent stuff that if only I knew more about it or was familiar with the author's work, I would be excited for it.  But, alas, I am not.

Later this month there will be the annual look at the books I am most excited for coming out any time next year, and you will see books slide from year to year to year depending on delays and such.  But for this post, it is just the first three months.


January: I am a book behind on the Tao series from Chu, but The Lives of Tao (my review) was a breath of fresh air in my reading.  Rebirths of Tao is volume three in the series, so I better get a move on.  I adored Jo Walton's Among Others, so at this point any new Walton is cause for celebration.

Rebirths of Tao, by Wesley Chu
The Just City, by Jo Walton


February: New Elizabeth Bear, which needs no explanation.  I thought the first Wastelands anthology was fantastic (my review) and I'm a sucker for post apocalyptic fiction.  I actually have the Kate Elliott collection on my Nook, so that's something I'll chip away at pretty soon.  And a new Kelly Link collection, which even though I'm not necessarily as big of a fan as many others, I think it is worth noting and worth reading.

Wastelands II: More Stories of the Apocalypse, by John Joseph Adams (editor)
Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear
The Very Best of Kate Elliott, by Kate Elliott
Get In Trouble, by Kelly Link


March: I'm a bit less excited by this month and I expect that what I read from March will be read months if not years down the line.  But, I'm two books into Peter Brett's series and I enjoyed them like a good 80's fantasy (my review of The Warded Man), Daryl Gregory's Pandemonium was excellent (my review) and I keep talking about his new books without reading them, and while I loved Bitter Seeds from Ian Tregillis (my review), I still haven't read anything else of his.

The Skull Throne, by Peter V. Brett
Harrison Squared, by Daryl Gregory
The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis

Monday, December 01, 2014

Books Read: November 2014

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The positive to take away from this is that I was able to get the post up on the first day of the month.  The negative is that I don't have any reviews to link up. I had anticipated only finishing nine or ten books, but I had a couple days at the very end where I powered through several.  I do count books that, for whatever reason, I was unable to finish.  I want to be able to record those as well. 


1. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, by Jean Stafford (unfinished)
2. The Way West, by A. B. Guthrie
3. As You Wish, by Cary Elwes
4. The Complete Peanuts: 1991-1992, by Charles M. Schulz
5. Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
6. Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb
7. Shouldn't You Be in School?, by Lemony Snicket
8. The Sapphire Rose, by David Eddings
9. Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear
10. Unlocked, by John Scalzi
11. Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham (unfinished)
12. Some Luck, by Jane Smiley
13. The Outskirter's Secret, by Rosemary Kirstein
14. Facing the Music, by Jennifer Knapp

Best Book of the Month: I am simply enamored with Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books and I really want to see how she continues to develop this world - how the "magic" continues to be revealed as science.  I reviewed the first book, The Steerswoman, back in April.  The Outskirter's Secret is a worthy follow up. 

Disappointment of the Month: I've been chipping away at Lemony Snicket's prequel series to A Series of Unfortunate Events, but this latest entry was fairly dull and tedious.  Alternately, my tolerance for his particular style of writing was much lower than usual and I'm sure my child will love this book if he discovers it in five to ten years.  Or something. 

Discovery of the Month: No discoveries for November.

Unfinished of the Month:  There is nothing particularly wrong with Jean Stafford's Pulitzer Prize winning collection, but there was also nothing that made me want to read another story.  I read the first several, and then skipped ahead a few times.  Disinterest. 

Worth Noting: Fans of Jennifer Knapp's music or those who followed the Christian music scene in the late 90's and early 2000's may wish to check out her memoir, Facing the Music - which talks about her journey in and out (and in again) of the music industry, her faith, and her relationship with a woman (which is only notable because of how the Christian music industry and many churches treat homosexuality and as such, it becomes a significant part of her story).  I have been a big fan of Knapp's, once frequented the Alabaster Arts message boards, and I am more than thrilled to see her recording new music.  That her earlier "Christian" music spoke about her own doubts and struggles is what resonated with me and the continuing journey of her music speaks to me, still.  Plus, it's just damn good music.  Facing the Music is worth checking out.

Gender Breakdown: Of the fourteen books I read last month, eight were written by women, which may  mark the first month since I've been keeping track of this sort of thing that I have read more female authored books in a given month than those written by men.  This brings my total to 55/123 for the year (44.71%).  Looking at what I currently have out from the library, I expect December to be similar to November with a solid chance of a second month reading more books written by women.


Previous Months
January
February
March 
April 
May
June
July 
August 
September
October

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Books Read: October 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 0
Once again, apologies for the tardiness of this post as well as the general lack of content.  I'd like to tell you that next year I'll have a consistent posting schedule (though I did well for a few months this year), but my wife and I are expecting our first kid in January and I'm pretty sure that will throw some kinks in the frequency of updates. 

No reviews to link, though I did start an Ancillary Sword review four times without figuring out just how to write about it.

1. The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith
2. Broken Monsters, by Lauren Buekes
3. Lock In, by John Scalzi
4. Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer
5. The Ruby Knight, by David Eddings
6. He Drank, and Saw the Spider, by Alex Bledsoe
7. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
8. The Humans, by Matt Haig
9. My Life, by Li Na

Best Book of the Month: Ancillary Sword is not only the best book I read last month, it will surely be in contention for the best book of the year.  As good as Ancillary Justice was (my review), Ancillary Sword is better.  Different, but also better.  Dazzling. 

Disappointment of the Month: None, really.

Discovery of the Month: Also none.

Books and Bars of the Month: I read The Humans for book club, and I'm hoping that unlike the last few months, we're able to actually make it to be part of the conversation. I like the concept, and the book improved as it went on, but I don't know that I'd really recommend it.

Worth Noting: If you haven't been reading Alex Bledsoe's Eddie LaCrosse novels and you'd like a different slice of fantasy like a detective novel set in a traditional medieval fantasy setting, you should really check these out. They begin with The Sword-Edged Blonde (my review) and the latest (He Drank, and Saw the Spider) might be the best of the bunch. 

Gender Breakdown: Of the nine books I read last month, four were written by women (Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym of J. K. Rowling).  This brings my total to 47/109 for the year.  I'm slowly creeping the percentage up to a 50/50 split, though I'm not quite sure I'll get there this year.



Previous Months
January
February
March 
April 
May
June
July 
August 
September

Monday, November 10, 2014

2014 World Fantasy Award Winners

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Via Tor.com

Congratulations to all the winners.

Novel
  • Winner: Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press)
  • Richard Bowes, Dust Devil on a Quiet Street (Lethe Press)
  • Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (Tor Books)
  • Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow/Headline)
  • Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni (Harper/Blue Door)
  • Gene Wolfe, The Land Across (Tor Books)

Novella
  • Winner: Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages “Wakulla Springs” (Tor.com, 10/13)
  • Caitlín R. Kiernan Black Helicopters (Subterranean Press)
  • KJ Parker “The Sun and I” (Subterranean magazine, Summer 2013)
  • Veronica Schanoes “Burning Girls” (Tor.com, 6/13)
  • Catherynne M. Valente, Six-Gun Snow White (Subterranean Press)

Short Story
  • Winner: Caitlín R. Kiernan, “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” (Subterranean magazine, Spring 2013)
  • Thomas Olde Heuvelt, “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” (Tor.com, 4/13)
  • Yoon Ha Lee, “Effigy Nights” (Clarkesworld, 1/13)
  • Sofia Samatar, “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” (Strange Horizons, 1/13)
  • Rachel Swirsky, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” (Apex Magazine, 3/13)

Anthology
  • Winner: George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds. Dangerous Women (Tor Books/Voyager UK)
  • Kate Bernheimer, ed., xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths (Penguin Books)
  • Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, eds. Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy (Tor Books)
  • Stephen Jones, ed. Flotsam Fantastique: The Souvenir Book of World Fantasy Convention 2013 (Smith & Jones/PS Publishing)
  • Jonathan Oliver, ed., End of the Road: An Anthology of Original Short Stories (Solaris Books)
  • Jonathan Strahan, ed., Fearsome Journeys: The New Solaris Book of Fantasy (Solaris Books)

Collection
  • Winner: Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Ape's Wife and Other Stories (Subterranean Press)
  • Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters: Stories (Small Beer Press)
  • Laird Barron, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories (Night Shade Books)
  • Reggie Oliver, Flowers of the Sea (Tartarus Press)
  • Rachel Swirsky, How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future (Subterranean Press)

Artist
  • Winner: Charles Vess
  • Galen Dara
  • Zelda Devon
  • Julie Dillon
  • John Picacio

Special Award—Professional
  • Winner: Irene Gallo, for art direction of Tor.com
  • Winner: William K. Schafer, for Subterranean Press
  • John Joseph Adams, for magazine and anthology editing
  • Ginjer Buchanan, for editing at Ace Books
  • Jeff VanderMeer & Jeremy Zerfoss, for Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Abrams Image)
Special Award—Non-professional
  • Winner: Kate Baker, Neil Clarke & Sean Wallace, for Clarkesworld
  • Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies
  • Marc Aplin, for Fantasy-Faction
  • Leslie Howle, for Clarion West administration
  • Jerad Walters, for Centipede Press     

Winners of the Life Achievement Award were anounced last night:
  • Ellen Datlow
  • Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Friday, October 17, 2014

Underappreciated Authors: Part Two

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Back in August I wrote about some authors I felt were a touch underappreciated, which really has nothing to do with sales numbers but rather with my perception.  I acknowledged that I may only be looking through a very narrow lens and all sorts of wonderful conversations are occurring in places I don't see, but that's the only lens I'm able to look through right now.

I knew then that I wanted to continue to highlight more writers who I have enjoyed, but don't too much conversation about.  

The first of those is Daniel Keys MoranI wrote a bit about Moran in 2007, which is to say that some time during high school I stumbled across The Long Run, the second novel in his Continuing Time setting (which had an ambitious 33 novels planned) and I was absolutely hooked.  I've come back to The Long Run from time to time over the years.  He has published seven novels, though only four in The Continuing Time.  Honestly, his fiction has been a bit hit or miss for me, but The Long Run was one great chase of a novel and The Last Dancer was solid and opened up the scope of the story he was telling.  I'd probably skip Emerald Eyes (or just understand that it's rather rough / raw compared to the next two).  I sound a bit conflicted about Moran, and I suppose I am, but I know that I'd be quite happy if he was able to keep publishing his Continuing Time novels because I would absolutely love to read them. 

The only work I've read from Jennifer Roberson is her multi-generational Chronicles of the Cheysuli series featuring a race of shape changing humans dealing with all sorts of prejudice, love, prophecy, lineage, and expectations.  Cheysuli is an 8 volume completed series and, if my memory serves from high school, is quite good and worth reading.  Years ago, Roberson announced she was going to write three additional Cheysuli novels (two interstitials and a prequel), but that they would be written after three other books which have not yet come to fruition.  Roberson is also the author of the Tiger and Del Sword-Dancer novels. 

Katherine Kurtz is most well known for the long running Deryni series, and has also written the Adapt and Templar series.  I first discovered her novels because of King Javan's Year and then the earlier set Camber of Culdi novels, and what I most appreciated was how Kurtz blended religion and magic - and the ceremonies and traditions of each.  The details were richly written and, despite the nastiness of what is going on, there is beauty in the description and in the faith. Wonderful, wonderful novels.  My preference is the earlier Camberian era novels and not the later set Kelson books.  Kurtz is wrapping up the Childe Morgan trilogy this coming December and with luck, she really will write the 948 novel or the Orin and Jodotha novel she hinted at years ago. 

Any writers you feel have not had enough attention these days?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Books Read: September 2014

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All apologies for the delay in my monthly Books Read post and also for the overall lack of content.  There's been a number of things happening on the homefront.  First, we moved into our new house (from apartment), so there's been a plethora of home related items to take care of.  Second, I have a test coming up next week that I would really love to excel at, so that's been taking a good chunk of the remaining time.  Third, life's just been extra busy.

So, I'll probably need a little bit more time to sort this stuff out, but we're close to being through this busy patch.  After which, I'll resume the Memories Of series with Pern and Midkemia, plus at least one more after that.  We'll see.

The link below is to the one review I managed to write. 

1. Landline, by Rainbow Rowell
2. Bravo, by Greg Rucka
3. Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson
4. Hurricane Fever, by Tobias Buckell
5. The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley
6. Book of Iron, by Elizabeth Bear
7. The Diamond Throne, by David Eddings
8. Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest (unfinished)

Best Book of the Month: I was completely caught up in both The Mirror Empire and Words of Radiance.  If you're a fan of the massive tomes of more traditional epic fantasy, you really can't go wrong with Words of Radiance.  But in the same vein, I kept needing to know more about what's going on in The Mirror Empire.  I couldn't review it and do it justice, but that's a landmark fantasy that I hope will be recognized as such for some time.  There's a lot to unpack in it, but it's worth the effort.

Disappointment of the Month: This may be the only time I ever put one of Elizabeth Bear's books in the Disappointment category, but I struggled to engage with the novella.  Given that I nominated Bone and Jewel Creatures for the Hugo a few years back, it's not the setting of this prequel I struggled with.  I don't know.  Whatever it was, it's me.

Discovery of the Month: None.

Unfinished of the Month: I've plowed through most of Cherie Priest's novels, and there is seriously nothing wrong with Maplecroft, but I had to force myself to keep picking the book up.  I'll give this one another try in the future.

Worth Noting: David Eddings, man.  Writing up the Memories of Riva column had me feeling nostalgic and while I'm still not sure the Belgariad will hold up for me, The Diamond Throne mostly did.  Mostly. So much of the book is obvious, but it's good fun if you don't think too much about what's going on or examine any of the issues too seriously.  But for Eddings, it's damn near adult and it's a piece of my teenage years that happily I can still enjoy.  I'll finish up the Elenium before putting Eddings back to bed, possibly for good. 

Gender Breakdown: Four of the eight novels I read (or attempted to read) were written by women. Half isn't bad, though I suppose one could argue with me over Maplecroft.  This brings me to 43/100 for the year. 


Previous Months
January
February
March 
April 
May
June
July 
August

Monday, September 22, 2014

Memories of the Four Lands

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It begins with a novel that is remarkably influenced by The Lord of the Rings, almost as if Lester Del Rey approached Terry Brooks and said, "hey, what if you just re-wrote Lord of the Rings instead?"  There are now 26 published novels in the Shannara milieu with more to come.  What started as being heavily influenced by Tolkien quickly became its own thing.

I grew up in a small town with a small public library.  It has since undergone a remodel, but I can clearly picture how the library was laid out when I first discovered it and where I spent so much time browsing its limited shelves. At the time, though, the library was big because I was small.  I was in eighth grade and randomly choosing what to read next.  I know the librarian was formative in introducing me to a handful of fantasy authors, but the memory I have right now is of browsing the shelves and finding a small hardcover of The Sword of Shannara.  It was casebound (the art was printed and laminated to the cover, so there was no dust jacket), though I didn't know what that was at the time.  It was different, and I was entranced by the glowing sword and the closed door looming behind those awkward characters.  I wanted to know more, so I borrowed the book and started reading.

This isn't so much about The Sword of Shannara, though.  As vital as the discovery was, and as interested as I was to read more of Terry Brooks, the book felt a bit stilted and older than the 1977 publication would suggest.  What was important about The Sword of Shannara was that it was the beginning of something.  I would say it was the beginning of my interest in epic fantasy, but that honor belongs to David Eddings.  It was more than just the beginning to the Shannara series, though it is also that.  I think The Sword of Shannara did two things.  It helped me realize just how many worlds there were to discover, and it also introduced me to The Elfstones of Shannara.

Oh, the story of Wil Ohmsford and Amberle Elessedil.  Stee Jans.  The seige.  If I was ever to re-read the Shannara novels, I might skip over the first book and go right to Elfstones. Elfstones of Shannara is the novel with which Terry Brooks showed the most growth and development as a writer and and storyteller.  It also is where Brooks hooked me for the next twenty years, even when later novels did not hold up to the level of quality I expected from Elfstones through his Heritage of Shannara series and the Word / Void novels. 

Like many others, Elfstones was a novel of great adventure, but unlike a number of the fantasy novels I was reading at the time, it was also a novel of great loss and sacrifice.  While this is something that is reasonably common for those who have read widely, it was a new thing for me and it sealed Elfstones as a novel I would come back to, seek out, and recommend. 

I have been reading the Shannara novels for a good twenty years or more, but it is the battles, last stands, and the Ellcrys that I remember so clearly. 


Friday, September 19, 2014

Lou Anders Leaves Pyr

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(Via Rob Bedford)

I learned today that Lou Anders is leaving Prometheus Books.  Anders is both the editorial director and art director of Pyr, and imprint of Prometheus. Anders is leaving to focus on his writing career. I wish Lou and Pyr nothing but the best, with good fortune to follow on both sides.

In my mind, Lou Anders IS Pyr.  I understand that there is and was a team in place making everything happen, but Lou was the face of Pyr, a public advocate for the fiction he was publishing, and he was the editorial director. It was his vision and guidance that drove the sort of fiction published at Pyr.  The reason I am familiar with and fans of James Barclay, Justina Robson, Kay Kenyon, and Joe Abercrombie is because I was introduced to them by Lou Anders. There are another dozen or so writers I haven't read yet, but they are on my radar simply because Lou published them.  They have to be good.  Not only did he publish good books, as art director, his books looked good, too.  They looked sharp.  They looked like something you'd want to pick up. 

Books selected by Lou would, from the first year, be nominated for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Hugo, World Fantasy Award, Compton Crook Award, The John W Campbell Memorial Award, Sideways Award, Philip K Dick Award, and the Locus Award. Among others.  The art that he selected would be nominated for and win the Chesley Award. Short fiction he edited would invariably be nominated for awards, and Lou himself would be nominated for the World Fantasy Award and win the Hugo and Chesley Awards.  It isn't an exaggeration to say that if Lou Anders published a book, I could assume right off the bat that it was going to be worth checking out.  Lou Anders built the Pyr brand and knowing that a book was published by Pyr, I'd give it a second or third look. 

I almost wrote that it is sad to see Lou leave Pyr, but that would only be the selfish thought of someone whose reading life has benefited from and been enriched by the work that Lou has done with Pyr.  Lou Anders is leaving to focus on his own writing.  His first novel, Frostborn, has been published and has been well received and if leaving Pyr gives him the opportunity to fully embrace and chase his dream and his personal goals, then that's the right decision and the right call. 

I have never met Lou Anders, though I hope one day our paths cross and I can buy him a beer and sit down and talk books with him for a few minutes, but he has my sincere best wishes in this next stage of his career. 

On his blog today, Lou has some poignant words about Kermit the Frog.

Somewhere along the way, it became less about his own dreams and more about facilitating others' dreams, about accruing and enabling a group of like-minded individuals to reach their own potential.

As an editor over the last ten years at Pyr, Lou Anders has done exactly that.  While the nuts and bolts of editorial work is largely invisible to the reader, to a very real point, the job of an editor is to facilitate the dreams of others and to enable them to reach their potential.  And like Kermit, he has been remarkably successful at bringing those voices forward and making them known.  He has been the public face of a company's brand.  Now he is stepping forward himself, making his own dream a reality, pushing his own vision and stretching to tell his own stories.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Forthcoming Books: October - November - December 2014

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Coming to the end of 2014's third quarter, it is time to look ahead towards some interesting stuff being published in the final three months of the year.  I'm using the Locus Forthcoming list because even though it may not be exhaustive, it is a fairly representative list of what is coming out over the course of a year.  My list below is based simply on that which strikes my own fancy, and I'm sure I'm overlooking all sorts of excellent stuff that if only I knew more about it or was familiar with the author's work, I would be excited for it.  But, alas, I am not.

October: I'm a huge fan of Brust's Vlad Taltos series and he simply cannot write them fast enough for me now that I have finally caught up with the series.  After the year Ancillary Justice has had, I'm not sure any explanation is needed for Leckie's follow up.  I'm behind on my Hamilton, but I wanted to note this one anyway.


Hawk, by Steven Brust
The Abyss Beyond Dreams, by Peter F. Hamilton
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

November: What Baxter I have read has been fantastic, and this seems to be an impressively ambitious new novel.  I'll read everything Stephen King writes, same with Modesitt's Recluse series, and I'm interested to see where Mira Grant takes the Parisitology series.  It's not as impressive, thus far, as the Newsflesh novels, but it's still a good read.

Proxima, by Stephen Baxter
Symbiont, by Mira Grant
Revival, by Stephen King
Heritage of Cyador, by L. E. Modesitt

December: It's been 8 years since Katherine Kurtz published Childe Morgan, the second volume in her trilogy of the same name. I haven't loved this trilogy (so far) the way I have many of her other Deryni novels, but new Deryni is always cause for celebration. I only hope that, now that the trilogy is complete, she might work on either the 948 novel or the Orin and Jodotha novel which she hinted about years ago. I've also never read Nora Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy, so what better time than a new omnibus?

The Inheritance Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin
The King's Deryni, by Katherine Kurtz

Monday, September 15, 2014

Memories of Riva

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I was fourteen or fifteen when I first tried to write a novel. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure I made it a good ten or fifteen pages before realizing this was a horrible decision.  Ten or fifteen pages was a fairly big deal for me at the time and it gave me hope that I would be able to push forward and write the whole thing.  It would be epic, I would sell a gazillion copies and would become rich.  I was set.  The only problem, besides not being very good at telling a story or having any idea what I was doing, came when I realized I was more or less re-writing Pawn of Prophecy.  What can I say?  It was influential.

After Piers Anthony, David Eddings and his five volume Belgariad series was the second major step in my discovery of science fiction and fantasy.  Unlike the various characters of Xanth, I was pretty much of an age with young Garion, a farm boy destined for so much more. Where Xanth was my gateway to fantasy, the Belgariad was my hook. I would read these five books over and over again, probably more times than I could even guess.  Sure, I would venture out into other fantasies and continue to explore new worlds, but I would keep coming home to this particular world.

It was the simplicity that brought me back.

When you're first discovering a genre, you don't know what the tropes are.  You're a kid reading about a boy your age with a quiet and boring life on a farm who is pulled away on an adventure for reasons that don't quite make sense. That adventures begins to grow and grow and you, through the rather bland protagonist, discover new lands and new magic and find out that your destiny is so much bigger, that perhaps you might be a lost scion of royalty, an inheritor of magic, and you're probably going to marry a princess and become king. 

It's easy to dream of these characters and put yourself into Garion's shoes, to perhaps wish that you would be pulled away on that adventure. You'd forget about the fear Garion must have faced and sure, you'd probably miss things like electricity, plumbing, and your family - but what an adventure!  What dreams! 

I sometimes spend time thinking about what books I want to introduce to my kids. They'll be surrounded with all sorts of books and I'll probably read wildly inappropriate books to them at a very young age, but who knows. My wife is pregnant with our first child, a boy.  I've got a number of years to figure out what I might want to slide his way, but would I give him the Belgariad?  I don't think I would push him towards Xanth, but on the off chance I think of this in the future, I might be willing to share this one with him.  It's such a simple story, but it's perfect for hooking a young boy.

My memories of David Eddings extends beyond just the Belgariad, though they start there. I'm still, somewhat, a fan of The Mallorean, which is the five volume follow up series to the Belgariad.  And by "follow up", I mean the same exact story told with twice as many pages in each book.  It is.  Eddings plays with that idea a little bit with "didn't we already do this?" comments and weaving the ideas of the first series into something different in the second.  The Belgariad stands well enough on its own, and while I think I'd prefer it without the second series, if you're still young enough, you can latch onto the Mallorean.  I distinctly remember receiving a copy of Guardians of the West for my birthday and eagerly awaiting each subsequent volume.  It was a chance to spend more time with Garion, Durnik, Belgarath, and Polgara. And friends.

But the one series which I think I most want to revisit is the three volume Elenium, which is set in a completely different world and features a world and war weary older knight Sparhawk. There is a similar interplay with mortals and gods and kings and queens, and it is clearly written by David Eddings, but overall the novels (beginning with The Diamond Throne) feel more serious and intense. Despite all the books I need and want to read for the first time, I think I need to revisit this one.  I'm feeling nostalgic. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Catching Up: The 2014 To-Read List

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Back in February I posted a list of 19 books I wanted to read this year, the list ordered by presumed publication date.  I meant to do this update post a couple of months ago, but time got away from me, I completely forgot, and here we are.  I'll update this again at the end of the year. 

So far I have read 7 of the 19 books from the list, which for me is actually pretty good. Even better, I have a copy of Steles of the Sky at home, and expect to get through One-Eyed Jack, Lock In, and Hawk in the near future from the library. 

I'm at least one book behind on three of the series volumes, so I won't get to Valour and Vanity, Cibola Burn, or The Thorn of Emberlain until I catch up.  

Feist's King of Ashes has been pushed to next year.  Going Gray has already been published, but Traviss has self-published the volume so my ability to get a copy might be a bit more limited as my book buying budget is very low (hey, we just bought a house and we've got a baby on the way) and my library carries few self published titles.

So far, so good. 

1. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (Feb)
2. Locke and Key: Alpha and Omega, by Joe Hill (Feb)
3. Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson (Mar)
4. Steles of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear (Apr)
5. Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Apr)
6. King of Ashes, by Raymond E. Feist (May)
7. Cyador’s Heirs, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr (May)
8. Defenders, by Will McIntosh (May)
9. My Real Children, by Jo Walton (May)
10. Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey (Jun)
11. Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King (Jun)
12. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine (Jun)
13. One-Eyed Jack, by Elizabeth Bear (Aug)
14. Lock In, by John Scalzi (Aug)
15. Hawk, by Steven Brust (Sep)
16. Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest (Sep)
17. The Thorn of Emberlain, by Scott Lynch (Nov)
18. Symbiont, by Mira Grant (Nov)
19. Going Gray, by Karen Traviss (Dec)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson

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Words of Radiance
Brandon Sanderson
Tor: 2014

Words of Radiance is epic. It is the second novel in a planned ten volume series and clocks in at nearly 1100 pages. I made a final push to finish the book last night and my wife looked over and said, "damn, that's a big book".  The scope of the overall series, The Stormlight Archive is nearly impossible to see this early on, despite being 2100 pages in.  We can see some of the shape, but with three volumes to go in the first set of five books, we don't quite know where this is going.  The novel itself is epic, spanning three primary viewpoint characters which helps ground and focus the novel, and a handful of minor viewpoint characters during the "interludes" between major sections of the novel.  Words of Radiance deals with world changing ideas and events and this is fantasy writ large with the rediscovery of lost powers and ancient enemies.  The novel is big and heavy and can probably be used as a weapon or a shield, depending on one's preference. 

Talking about the first book in a series is easy to do.  Everything is new.  The characters and the setting and the story have not been explored before, and touching on them can shape a review.  But when we get to the second book, and two of the three primary viewpoint characters are the same as from the first book, it's easy to talk about how those characters journeys have changed them and how they have developed, but that is only talking to those readers already familiar with Kaladin and Shallan.  If you haven't read The Way of Kings, those names and that development means nothing.  Those who have read The Way of Kings already know if they are going to read Words of Radiance or not.  Those who haven't are probably not going to start here.

Which raises an interesting point.  Despite being the second book in a ten volume sequence, Words of Radiance does stand on its own far more than I would have expected.  Readers won't appreciate Kaladin's journey nearly as much if they didn't read the first book, but I can see how the novel could potentially hold up for a reader new to the series. I'm not new, so I can't confirm that one way or the other, but Words of Radiance is a reasonably contained novel that builds off the first book and sets up the third.  But with that setup still comes a story that ends.  I wouldn't recommend Words of Radiance to be read on its own, but I think someone could pick up the novel and still appreciate it without being completely lost.   

On a completely different note, Sanderson is tying his books together and it is happening here.  If you know what to look for, you'll see it.  Or, in my case, if you see other people mention the connections, you'll see it.  It is completely unnecessary to know this or catch it to enjoy the books, but Sanderson has been very open about his larger "Cosmere" and that the majority of his original work (not counting Wheel of Time, or anything set on Earth) is part of this Cosmere. Right now most of the Cosmere action is taking place in the background. We can see the occasional character moving around, and I think it is going to be much more evident in The Stormlight Archive, but it's icing on the cake for the more devoted and careful readers. Or, again, for those who follow the connections others have pointed out.

So, what do you talk about when you talk about Words of Radiance?

Words of Radiance doesn't break new ground when it comes to epic fantasy. Brandon Sanderson is still a fairly traditional fantasy writer. He is very well aware of the genre and occasionally plays with some of its tropes (Mistborn), but he's really telling straight up epic fantasy with a variety of settings and magic systems. He's ambitious though. Think about his plans for the Cosmere, he's definitely ambitions.  The thing is, Words of Radiance doesn't need to break new ground. That's not the story Sanderson is telling (I think), and there is room in the genre for all kinds of storytelling and fantasy. Words of Radiance is a very good fantasy novel and, happily, Sanderson's reach does not exceed his grasp.  He's stretching and striving to tell a very, very big story and two novels into The Stormlight Archive, he's nailing the mark.

If you like a big fat fantasy novel in the vein of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince (the intrigue and the magic), or some of the earlier Terry Brooks (though without the echoes of Lord of the Rings), Brandon Sanderson is your guy.  He will give you exactly what you're looking for, and despite the heft of Words of Radiance, he'll still leave you wanting a couple hundred more pages to stay with these characters to see what happens next.

To Mr. Sanderson, I can only say, "More, please, and thank you."  Words of Radiance was a delightful journey.

Some Other Reviews
Tor.com (Non Spoiler)
Tor.com (Very Spoiler)
Neth Space
Staffer's Book Review
io9
Fantasy Book Review
Fantasy Faction
Ranting Dragon
The Wertzone




Monday, September 08, 2014

Memories of Xanth

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I remember overhearing two kids talking about some books they were reading. The boys were excited about how cool they were and how "adult" these books were.  They felt like they were getting something over on the adults and the other kids who weren't old enough, weren't mature enough to handle reading those books.  I was one of those kids who they didn't think could handle the adultness of these books.  I didn't know what they were, but I knew I wanted to read them. I was quietly desperate to be part of any sort of group and these were books.  Books!  I love books!

This was the end of seventh grade and my family was in the process of packing up and moving from New York City to some small town in Minnesota.  Those kids will never know it and I don't remember their names, but they set the course of what I would read over the next twenty years and more. 

I had never read much fantasy before I was thirteen.  I'm sure I had read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but that's probably about it when it came to fantasy (I devoured The Hardy Boys).  But when I heard those kids talking about the adult books they were reading, I just had to read them.  I don't remember what they said, but I remember where they were in the classroom and I remember what the series was.

They were talking about Xanth. 

Looking back over the last twenty two years, it is difficult to imagine that Xanth would have been nearly as formative as it was, or that anyone today would consider Xanth "adult".  Juvenile, sure.  Adult? 

Consider the perspective of twelve and thirteen year old boys, though.  There is plenty of adventure and Piers Anthony talks around sex and violence and growing up and, if my memory is worth anything in this reminiscence, it seems to hit that sweet spot for a thirteen year old boy who doesn't know much about anything at all but wants to disappear into some other world for a while.

So when I read A Spell for Chameleon for the first time in the fall of 1992, I was hooked.  Xanth was magical, and I don't mean anything to do with the magical nature of the world created by Piers Anthony.  Xanth was magical in how it transported me to a different world with characters I could care about and follow on grand adventures.  Xanth was magical in the escape it represented.  That the escape also happened to be to a place where magic was possible and the danger was not too real and always fun (and often funny) was just a bonus.

My life had just been uprooted from Staten Island, which as the least populous of the five boroughs of New York City still had a 1990 population of nearly 379,000 people - but that was still part of a much larger city with over seven million.  I landed in Rush City, population not quite 1700.  There was culture shock, and I buried myself in the public library and with the help and prompting of the librarian at the time, Jeanette Monthye, discovered new worlds that were so much larger than the small one I found myself in.  When I think about Xanth, I tend to think about everything else except the novels. I think of my life at thirteen, about how the books made me feel, about escape and magic and wonder and discovery.  I think of the journey.

At the time when I first discovered Xanth, Piers Anthony had written fifteen or so novels in the series.  I didn't know that at the time, I just knew that for quite a while, there was always a new Xanth novel at the public library for me to read.  I have very specific memories from the earliest books in that series and it laid the groundwork for my venturing on to other science fiction and fantasy authors. 

Without Piers Anthony, I don't progress to David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, Raymond Feist, Terry Brooks, and Katherine Kurtz.  Without Piers Anthony, I'm probably not reading Jeff VanderMeer, Elizabeth Bear, George RR Martin, or Ann Leckie today. 

I don't have the twenty two year journey of reading science fiction and fantasy if I don't take a first step.  The first step was Xanth.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Books Read: August 2014

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Below is a listing of all of the books I read in August. All links go to my reviews.

1. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine
2. Annihilation, by Drew Karpyshyn
3. The Devil's Snake Curve, by Josh Ostergaard
4. Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer
5. Earth Awakens, by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
6. Cyador's Heirs, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr
7. The High Druid's Blade, by Terry Brooks
8. Memory of Water, by Emmi Itaranta
9. Divided Allegiance, by Elizabeth Moon
10. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer (unfinished)

Best Book of the Month: Whether this is Best or Favorite, I was completely hooked by Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. I think I said everything I wanted in my review, but even though I didn't quite expect this after Mechanique, this is the novel I am not at all surprised Valentine wrote. It's fantastic, people. Read it.

Disappointment of the Month: It is difficult to decide if my disappointment was the new Terry Brooks, from which I expected a little bit more since he seemed back on track after The Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy and instead got something that seemed like he farmed out the novel to a writer who isn't on his game or if it was The Devil's Snake Curve which is a book of essays on baseball combined with offbeat meditations of America. As a Books and Bars pick, it should have been perfect, but I found it mostly tedious and the essays were more quick thoughts than actual essays of any length.  I think I'll pick both. 

Discovery of the Month: None.

Unfinished of the Month: The New York Times suggested that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot may be "the novel of the summer" for 2014.  I didn't care. It did read a bit like a less esoteric DeLillo novel, but through one hundred pages or so I realized that I was forcing myself to keep reading out of some misguided need to finish everything that isn't completely awful. I stopped. I expect that I stopped just short of the point where things would begin to ramp up and get truly absurd and interesting, but if I have to force myself to continue, I shouldn't.

Worth Noting: I never quite managed to write the review of Authority that I had planned and almost started several times, but Authority spins a different side of the story of the Southern Reach. It deals with the fallout from Annihilation (my review) and while it focuses on a different character outside of Area X, it is very much informed by it and still has that claustrophobic feel of Annihilation.  More so, perhaps, because now we've got governmental bureaucracy clustered around the weirdness of Area X. 

Gender Breakdown: Three out of the ten books I read last month were written by women, which isn't a very good representation. The thing is, I saw this coming, but since these were mostly library books that all came at the same time, I read myself into a corner. I'm looking to have a stronger rest of the year. Right now all of my own books are boxed up for the forthcoming move, but I'm pushing to get a number of things from the library and then when I'm all moved in a couple of weeks, it's on like Donkey Kong.  I am currently at 39/92, which rounds up to 42.4% of the books I've read this year are written or edited by women.  On one hand, I believe that is possibly the strongest percentage I've had.  On the other, I can do better.

Previous Months
January
February
March 
April 
May
June
July

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Fishbowls All the Way Down: The Series Is Doing Just Fine

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Yesterday, Justin Landon wrote about how "The Series is Dying, and the Internet is Killing It", and if that's not a title designed to catch the attention of speculative fiction fans, I don't know what is.  His argument, abbreviated as I can make it, is that in today's world of social media and "online buzz" the word of mouth conversations that used to occur in bookstores are now happening online, but the spaces in which those conversations are being held are driven by clicks and getting people to keep coming back - which means much more focus on the new shiny thing than on subsequent volumes of a series. As such, series are likely to be less successful now than they were in the past.  Landon is a bit more cogent, so you should really just read his article first. 

Landon admits in his final paragraph that

This editorial presents a lot of hypotheses without any supporting data. There’s a reason for that… the data is hard to find. I have no idea if series are more or less successful today than they were ten years ago, or twenty years ago, or fifty years ago. Anecdotally, it feels true, but that’s hardly the same thing. 

But that's the problem, isn't it?  It isn't quite irresponsible to say that the series is dying and the internet is killing it, but it's clearly ill informed.

The fact is, we just don't know.  I would like to believe that publishers know, and unless they feel like being part of this conversation, really don't have much incentive to crunch the numbers and figure out if there is a greater or lesser hit percentage for a series today as there was at any other time in the past, or if the percentage is down because the volume of new series are up.  Or if any of that is true. 

The trouble is that Landon is relying on his perception of "buzz" and also on his perception of sales.  He writes about how reviewers tend to not review the later volumes of a given series because "what's to say that hasn't already been said?" - and to that point, I would only agree from a personal perspective. I do find it difficult to say something new about later volumes in a series, especially when the level of quality, such as it is, is consistent.  If I feel a later volume is exceptionally poor, that's worth remarking on.  But those middle volumes?  What to say? 

I don't feel that this is representative of anything, though.  I don't know or have any way of knowing if this is even different than what happened twenty or fifty years ago.  The venues for reviews and conversations are different, but isn't it still the same thing?  Haven't we always been excited about something new and that's what we like to talk about?  Isn't buzz really about the new shiny thing?

Does this really have anything to do with sales?  We're playing around and talking make-believe without data.  There are no numbers to crunch and every time you point to a series that started out strong, had plenty of "buzz" and then faded after X number of volumes, I point to one that is still going strong and seems to be growing.  But then, do we even know how these books are selling?

What if "nobody" talks about a series but it continues to sell a consistent number, year after year, and remains in print and with each new book, more people discover the first volume and it keeps on going?  How do you measure that, except anecdotally?  

I don't have answers.  Only questions. 

I think the premise is a touch myopic because as broadly as we think we read and as broadly as we think we explore the internet and are plugged into various circles and conversations, we are only seeing a fraction of what is being discussed online.  So, where we see that "nobody" is talking about the fourth volume of a series, someone else may be engaging it on any number of sites.  Or, where "nobody" is talking about the fourth volume, it continues to sell well beyond the "buzz" that we don't see.  Yes, this year has seen plenty of buzz for Ancillary Justice, The Goblin Emperor, and The Mirror Empire and yes, it is certainly possible that there will be much less visible "buzz" for books two and three (or volume 15 of CJ Cherryh's Foreigner series, for that matter), but they may still sell in sufficient volume for the series to be viable. 

I do think that is important to remember that we who engage in online discussion and analysis are more likely to be such a small fragment of the book buying public, and those tweets and blog posts and podcasts and tumbles - as awesome as they are and as many people as they reach - still don't represent the real reach of the long tail of book publishing.

The "Series" is likely doing just fine with or without us.  When all we see is the fishbowl, we think the fishbowl is the whole world.  It's just a fishbowl inside a larger fishbowl inside a larger fishbowl. It's fishbowls all the way down.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Divided Allegiance, by Elizabeth Moon

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Divided Allegiance
Elizabeth Moon
Baen: 1988

Following Sheepfarmer's Daughter (my review), Divided Allegiance is the second volume in The Deed of Paksenarrion.  The first volume was very much a military fantasy novel with a heavy dose of realism in the portrayal of characters and the military campaigns, despite the occasional supernatural elements.  Divided Allegiance picks up shortly after the ending of that first book, which places it some three years or so from the beginning of the series. Paks is still a private in Duke Phelan's army, but she is a much more experienced soldier with combat experience and the emotional scars the prove it. 

It is worth remembering the beginning of Sheepfarmer's Daughter with the section set years in the future letting the readers know that Paks will become a legendary figure, and that the legend is all the family has left of her.  It is a reminder that what Paks had accomplished in Sheepfarmer's Daughter was only putting her feet on a much longer road.  Divided Allegiance contains the next steps of that road as she leaves Duke Phelan's company to train with the marshals and paladins of Gird, a militant religious order dedicated to serving "good" and combating "evil".

There is some lip service paid to this ideal of "good" and it certainly tints the overall impression of the novel, but I think that Moon is doing more than tweaking the epic fantasies of the 1980's (the three volumes of The Deed of Paksenarrion were published in the late 80's).  She seems to be playing in this world where characters talk in a formal heroic manner of upholding virtue, and purport to act in that manner as well, but the reality is that things are much nastier on the ground and the lines of "good" and "evil" are muddied - and that following the path of "good" can still lead into bad situations from which there is no clean escape.  But it is those characters in positions of authority, moral or otherwise, who talk about serving "good".

It raises questions of the moral purity of organizations purporting to have just that, which in fantasy written in later years would be the most corrupt organizations of all, but here shades the white into a bit more gray.

But despite Moon's tweaking of some fantasy conventions, Divided Allegiance has several aspects and instances of being a very traditional quest fantasy novel.  The outcomes of those quests are very different that we might expect from when this was written, but the trappings have this as a much more formal and traditional novel.  It is those trappings that date the novel and cause it to feel like a much older novel than it actually is.

The initial quest portion of the novel after Paks leaves Duke Phelan's army is one of the weaker aspects of the book, which was disappointing given how strong Sheepfarmer's Daughter was as a whole. When Paks travels with the part-elf Macenion, they do some exploring and it feels like a poor novelization of a different role playing campaign.  This section is at odds with the previous novel and even with the rest of the novel, because when Paks later arrives at Brewersbridge the storytelling begins to settle down and sell itself to the reader. I wonder if part of this has to do with my own interests in this book (and others), where the closer Paks is to any sort of organized military the more I appreciate the novel, or if there is a more distinct difference in the novel.  But, from Brewersbridge on through the training with the marshals and paladins of Gird, Divided Allegiance picks up steam and doesn't let go.


I suspect that one should read Divided Allegiance with the concluding volume Oath of Gold close at hand, because Elizabeth Moon does not pull any punches with how she ends the novel.  There is a point late in the novel where some very significant things happen to Paks and I spent the remaining pages trying to figure out when Moon would lay off her protagonist and give her even a small break, but still Moon kept digging the dagger in and twisting. It was absolutely brutal, but so well done.  Moon makes you care, and then kicks you in the face. And even though Divided Allegiance was published some twenty six years ago, it's something better saved to experience rather than being told right off how it all happens.

But, that's why I think having Oath of Gold on hand might be a good thing. Moon ends the novel with some serious darkness (Empire Strikes Back has nothing on Moon) and causes you to wonder how it is possible Paks can get from where she is at the end of Divided Allegiance to anything that would cause her to be considered a "legend".  I should probably take my own advice and pick up Oath of Gold far sooner than I had originally planned, because I feel upset Fred Savage in The Princess Bride because the story isn't going the way he expected / hoped / wanted it to and I want Moon to tell the story right. Except that she is, and it's painful and brutal, and it leaves me hope that Paks will somehow be able to recover and become the legend I expect that she will.  It's just that bit doesn't happen in Divided Allegiance, and the book gets very dark in a hurry nearing the end. 

The best praise that I can give Divided Allegiance, though, is that I stayed up extra late finishing the last hundred pages because I just couldn't stop before I found out how it ended and if Paks was going to be okay. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Underappreciated Authors

Friday, August 29, 2014 0
Once again, I'm riffing off of a SF Signal Mind Meld.  This one asks the question "Which genre author, living or dead, do you think deserves more attention?"

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer, even though the answer entirely depends on the respondent's preferences and perspective. But perspective is part of the problem.  I could probably rattle off a handful of names that I would love to see more discussion about, only to find out that they are consistent bestsellers.  This is because I don't know much about how much a particular novel is really selling, relative to the online conversations I see. But even that is a trick, because we only see what the people around us are talking about and we only hear from those voices we seek out. This is a touch obvious and trite, but if we only know what we know, we then have no idea what other conversations are taking place just outside our circles.  There are vibrant conversations taking place about all sorts of awesome books and I have no idea what they are talking about.  This book that I think is wonderful but lament that "nobody" is talking about may be much discussed and may also be selling quite well beyond anything I could have imagined, but here I think that nobody knows about it because my small corner isn't talking about it.

Of course, one could always run with the question from the perspective of "sure, this person sells enough to keep publishing and wins awards, but I want her to outsell Stephen King and Jo Rowling combined."  I'm going to try to not intentionally push in that direction. 

So, let's take what follows with a small grain of salt.  I may have no idea what I'm talking about. 

The first author who comes to mind is Jennifer Pelland.  She is a two time Nebula Award nominee for her short fiction ("Captive Girl" and "Ghosts of New York") and if I had my way she would be a Nebula Award winning author at the very least for "Captive Girl", which I thought was stunning.  Pelland is the author of the excellent novel Machine, published in 2012, and the short story collection Unwelcome Bodies (2008).  Pelland's fiction often deals with issues of body augmentation and image, and does so in an unflinching manner. If anyone is going to flinch, it's likely going to be the reader. She's damn good and I hope that she will be able to publish some stuff soon, because it's been far too long since I've read a new Jennifer Pelland story.  This is, of course, about me.

Another writer who I don't see people talking much about is Greg Keyes.  Keyes was discussed a bit more between 2003 and 2008 when he published his generally excellent Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone fantasy series, but perhaps because his subsequent output has been two Elder Scrolls novels and a prequel to the new Planet of the Apes movies, there hasn't been much buzz.  Keyes is also the author of the fascinating Age of Unreason quartet featuring an alternate history with Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton. That one is worth a look, if you haven't heard of it or read it before.  Start with Newton's Cannon.  I'd love to see a fresh novel or series from him that isn't tie-in work. 

Which, pun intended, ties in very well to Karen Traviss.  Much of Traviss's output has been tie-in fiction, starting with Star Wars and moving on to the Halo universe.  I followed her Star Wars work and thought it was some of the best of the Expanded Universe novels, but because I am less interested in the Halo Universe, I haven't followed her there yet.  I say yet, because knowing how good Traviss has been at everything else she's written, I'd probably be a fool if I didn't give those a crack, too.  If you want some excellent science fiction that isn't tied in to a shared universe of some sort, try her Wess'har Wars beginning with City of Pearl.  Blew me away and I was hooked from the first book of the six volume series.  Traviss does excellent work, period, but because she's been working so much in the Star Wars and Halo settings, I don't see much discussion about her.  She does have a new novel Going Gray just out and I expect it will be fantastic.

I read Imaro from Charles Saunders in 2009 (my review) and loved it.  It is a wonderful sword and sorcery novel set in an alternate Africa, and it is one which I had never previously encountered.  Despite my appreciation for Imaro and despite buying the second volume Imaro Two: The Quest for Cush, I have still only read that first book.  I should remedy this. So should you.  The first two Imaro novels were originally republished by Night Shade in the mid 2000's, but they never published the third volume. Saunders self published the third volume (which did have an original print publication by DAW in the 80's) and he has also self published a fourth volume. On the strength of Imaro alone, Charles Saunders should be much more well known than he is.

Finally, let's talk briefly about Rosemary Kirstein.  I only just discovered Kirstein this year (my review of The Steerswoman) and I'm excited to read more of the Steerswoman novels.  The first was excellent.  Kirstein, of course, is another author has written excellent books but because of sales and publishing, was dropped by her publisher / or didn't have the next book picked up, which is much the same to me.  She has been self publishing her novels and there are currently four of them out, so there are still opportunities to read more.  Back in 2008, Jo Walton put a spotlight on the series, and it's well worth a look.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Definitions or Categorization

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 0
Ian Sales has an essay titled "An epistemological model of (speculative) fiction" in which he discusses how one might categorize a work as science fiction or fantasy because he feels that for all of the definitions of what is science fiction "most of these definitions are ineffective."

Sales breaks things out with a chart which would graph out the amount of "Wonder" a work has (how much does it fill up the imagination) and the "Agency" (is the work filled with possible things that work in ways they do in real life?), and I think of the scene in Dead Poets Society where the students are told to chart out the greatness of a poem immediately before Robin Williams informs the students that the idea is excrement and to rip out the pages of their textbook.

Sales goes on to say that

Works can, of course, straddle borders, which can lead to interesting effects. But as means of distinguishing between various genres, the above chart doesn’t rely on tropes – in fact, it completely ignores them. A story can, for example, feature dragons, defined as cryptozoologic reptiles, and be science fiction. A fantasy novel can feature spaceships which fly between worlds because some person in a cloak waves their hands and mutters gibberish.

I think his essay is worth a look.  To the point that I have felt a need to truly categorize a novel or story as science fiction, I tend towards something Ray Bradbury once said about The Martian Chronicles (which I can't quite source),

First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see?


If I get technical about things, that's how I would define science fiction versus fantasy. It seems like, for the most part, Sales is working from a similar definition.  He just has a graph. 

But for the most part, I don't feel much need to define science fiction and fantasy. I can cover both of them under the umbrella of "speculative fiction" and I can further just say "genre" when referring to them.  Of course, "genre" is non-specific and can lead to confusion with other genres, but then genre itself is fluid and allows speculative fiction to take some romance and take some hard boiled crime and mix it all together and you still have a speculative fiction story. 

I can also say "hey, this is a really great book, you should read it" and recommend it like anything else. 

Of course, Shaun Duke takes this in a different direction and calls SF a "Supergenre", but I'm not quite willing to dive into that at the moment.  I just wanted to point it out.

My final thought is simply that science fiction (and all its subsets) and fantasy (and all of its subsets) are both under the umbrella of Speculative Fiction because they are different sides of the same coin.  Of course, this would suggest that I should define "speculative fiction" in some way that is superior to all of the unsatisfying definitions of science fiction or fantasy unless I said that "Speculative Fiction is comprised of science fiction and fantasy and all the blurred lines in between." 

I'm sure that doesn't work. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Legacies

Thursday, August 21, 2014 0
Recently, SF Signal posted one of their periodic Mind Meld features which asks a number of people to provide an answer for a particular topic. The latest one had to do with author's legacies and whether an unfinished series should remain unfinished.  You can find it here.  I had an abbreviated response there, but wanted to expand on it here. 

The quick answer is that it depends entirely on the author's wishes.  If George R. R. Martin does not want another writer to finish A Song of Ice and Fire if he should pass away before completing it, then that is exactly what should happen.  Or, should not happen, as the case may be.

Of course, Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time is an excellent example of the other side of this.  The author knew he was terminally ill and made arrangements through his wife and editor, Harriet, that the series would be finished and that his fans would get to find out how the series ended.  His wife selected another writer who was able to not only finish Jordan's work, but also do so in such a way that both honored and lived up to the standard that was set. 

But, the author's wishes are paramount. 

In that Mind Meld, Bradley Beaulieu had this to say,

Last year on Speculate!, the podcast I run with Greg Wilson, we were interviewing Scott Lynch about his wonderful” Gentlemen Bastard” series, and we got to talking about the implied contract writers create with readers—whether there was one, how far it extended; that sort of thing—and Scott said that he believed that the author owed the reader the full story. If you said you were going to provide a trilogy, you really do owe them a trilogy. I’m with Scott. Readers become very invested in their fiction (I know I certainly do), and I think it’s fair to say that if you put down good money for the first installment, you really ought to provide all the installments you said you were going to provide in the beginning. Now, Scott also said that you don’t owe the reader their version of the story, and I believe that to be true as well. A writer owes it to herself and the story to finish it the way she wants to. 

I could not agree more.  I understand the perspective of Neil Gaiman when he, famously, wrote that "George R. R. Martin is not your bitch."  Which is to say that GRRM, or any other author, is not required to write on your schedule or write what you think they should write.  This is true. 

But. 

I agree with Bradley and Scott that there is an implied contract between readers and authors.  When I buy "Book One of Potentially Awesome Fantasy Series" from Wonderful Author Person, I am buying it with the understanding that it is only the first volume in a series and that the series may take years or decades to complete.  Obviously, I hope it will be finished sooner, but that is because I am an impatient little bastard.  I understand that it may take a long time and that in some cases, the author may need to step aside and write something else while they are working to complete the series.  That's the thing, though, I am buying "Book One of Potentially Awesome Fantasy Series" with the expectation that there will be "The Last Book in Totally Awesome Fantasy Series" to wrap things up. 

There are different sorts of series and they carry different sorts of expectations.  Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels are, for the most part, "The Continuing Adventures of Lawrence and Temeraire" and there is likely no true concluding novel because there can always be more adventures. This is the same with Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards. Sure, I know that there are seven books planned, but for the most part, they stand alone while building a larger tapestry.  Or many detective novels and Vince Flynn and Tom Clancy.  The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire and Memory Sorrow Thorn and The Night's Dawn Trilogy are all different.  They are telling a singular story and set the expectation of a final volume that wraps up the story the author intends to tell, regardless of of how the reader feels it should end. 

If you knew going in that the author was not going to complete the sort of series which more requires an ending, would you have bought the "Book One of Potentially Awesome Fantasy Series" to begin with? 

This all ties together with the point about legacies, I promise. 

There are all sorts of reasons why an author does not finish a series and most of them a reader would have to be an unfeeling asshole to not empathize with or be able to understand.  Sales might be weak and the publisher declined to finish the series.  The author may have been ill.  There may have been family issues which there is no good reason for us, the reader, to know about.  As Neil Gaiman explained, the author may have been stuck or needed to recharge on different projects before returning to the promised book.  Actually, this is how Brandon Sanderson stays so prolific. He switches up projects and works on different things so he can stay fresh for his longer works.  It's just that Brandon writes so fast that we seldom have to wait very long.  But imagine a slower writer who still needs time to recharge on different projects.  The author may have died. 

Bradley Beaulieu wonders "does the death of the writer absolve the author from that contract" and goes on to explain how, from his fan's perspective, it does not - but that it should be done carefully and with conditions.  He later explains in the comments to the Mind Meld that as an author he agrees with those who believe the author gets to decide her or his legacy and whether a story will be finished by another writer.

The older I get, the farther I get from the fan's perspective and the closer I stick with "the author's wishes are paramount."  As a younger fan, of course I wanted whatever series to be finished and would have said that it should be.  Now, with a touch more maturity under the belt, my thought is that:

A) It sucks horribly that the author has passed away and all of my sympathy goes out to the author's family and friends and I hope that they all are able to find peace with the loss of their loved on. 

B) I may never get to find out how this story that I loved ends and that's okay. 

So that's where I stand.  But I do have one caveat to all of this, and it is more of a wish than a hope.  My wish is that if an author knows that she is nearing the end of her life, whether it is illness or age, that even if she doesn't want another writer to finish her work that she would be willing to pull together her notes and maybe sketch out how various story arcs are intended to resolve, and permit those notes to be released after her death - perhaps as a published volume for her estate or maybe just something online through her publisher / agent / friends. It would be a way to provide closure for the fans and readers who have spent years and money and emotion investing themselves in that author's work. The series may never be finished and the author never had the chance to finish it the way she intended, but here's a glimpse into how the various arcs and characters ended.  It's not a demand and it isn't a requirement, but it would be something nice. It would be one last gift to the readers who have been following along for years. 
 
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