Friday, February 28, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: Selkie Stories Are for Losers

Friday, February 28, 2014 0
"Selkie Stories Are for Losers"
Sofia Samatar
Strange Horizons: January 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Short Story

There is a moment midway through the story when I realized that the story was doing something other than what I expected, the moment when you're reading and you sometimes say, out loud, "oh."  It's a lovely moment, and it changes how you view a story.  That moment here flipped the switch from simply reading the story to engaging with it.

The narrator, unnamed, tells of her meeting and friendship with a woman named Mona. She tells it in quick bursts, short scenes, of their working at a restaurant together, about moments.  She tells of her mom leaving and of the impact on the family.  Despite how the narrator opens the story, she also tells selkie stories. 

I hate selkie stories. They're always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said "What's this?", and you never saw your mom again.

There are implications in "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" that suggest what might be going on behind the scenes, what might be left unsaid by the narrator.  On the other hand, it is equally as likely that what the story seems to be about (a selkie story, in fact) may only be about a mother having left her husband and children behind and starting a new life apart from them.

I'm not sure it matters which story Samatar is telling.  The more you think about "Selfie Stories Are for Losers", the more affecting it is and the more it sticks with you.  This is a wonderful, somewhat painful story and the more I think about it, the more I like it.  

Thursday, February 27, 2014

One Eyed Jack

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The officially official news on this one is a week old by this point, but I did want to take the time to point out that Elizabeth Bear's One Eyed Jack will be published on August 13, 2014.  
The One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King: personifications of the city of Las Vegas—its history, mystery, mystical power, and heart…

When the Suicide King vanishes—possibly killed—in the middle of a magic-rights turf war started by the avatars of Los Angeles, a notorious fictional assassin, and the mutilated ghost of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel–the King’s partner, the One-Eyed Jack, must seek the aid of a bizarre band of legendary and undead allies: the ghosts of Doc Holliday and John Henry the steel-driving man; the echoes of several imaginary super spies, decades displaced in time; and a vampire named Tribute, who bears a striking resemblance to a certain long-lost icon of popular music.

All stories are true, but some stories are truer than others.

Folks, I seriously love Bear's Promethean Age novels and when Roc decided not to publish any more after the first four, it was assumed that the series had a great run, but that was it.  Prime stepped in and is taking a shot on Bear's standalone One Eyed Jack.  That's right, standalone.  Just because you haven't read any of the first four, this is your entry point.  Though, I do heartily recommend the other novels.

Blood and Iron or Ink and Steel are each two excellent places to start with the series as they are the first books in their respective duologies.  

I have previously reviewed each book in the series.  
Blood and Iron
Whiskey and Water
Ink and Steel
Hell and Earth

But that's the past (and what a wonderful past it was).  One Eyed Jack is the future.  I absolutely can't wait to read it.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Incredibly Preliminary Thoughts on the Nebula Award Nominees

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 0
I've read nothing. 

I briefly considered ending the post right there, but let's go a little bit further (but not much).  You can find the list of nominees right here

Normally, I would have read one or two novels and at least a couple of the stories.  Because of not being as immersed in the genre last year as I previously had been, the entire list (minus dramatic presentation) is new to me.  That's awesome.  It's a fresh reading list filled with wonder and discovery. 

I'm thrilled for Nicola Griffith being nominated for Hild.  I absolutely adored Ammonite and thought Slow River was fantastic. I expect that Hild will be equally awesome, if not more so.  With any luck, I will be acquiring a copy later next week. 

A new Neil Gaiman novel is always an event, so I'll be interested to read that, but I am yet more interested in Ancillary Justice from Ann Leckie.  It's received a whole bunch of praise this year, but not without some hesitation I've seen in some corners.   I've wanted to read it for a while, so this is a great opportunity to do so.  We'll see how I fall on that spectrum. 

Also interesting there is Linda Nagata's The Red: First Light.  Nagata self published The Red, which is what people have been trumpeting about, but I feel like there is context missing there.  Which is, simply, Nagata has been published before.  She has previously won a Locus award for Best First Novel (which was traditionally published) and she has won a Nebula Award for a novella published in SCIFICTION.  There is a substantial difference between a writer who has never sold a book before or been professionally edited deciding to self publish to get her book out and a writer who has a track record of writing quality fiction turning to self publishing later in her career for whatever reason.  One of those writers are significantly more likely to have a chance to be nominated for an award and to get a different sort of recognition than the other. 

I don't have many thoughts on the short fiction nominees, except that I am very happy for Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, and Rachel Swirsky, all of whom I have been a big fan of in the past.  I'm excited to see who, among the other nominees, may turn out to be new favorites of mine.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2013 Nebula Award Nominees

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My favorite season in science fiction and fantasy literature is awards season.  There is always great discussion to be found about the awards, about what works should be considered for nomination, about the nominees, about the winners.  Discussion.

I have been eagerly awaiting the nomination list of the Nebula Awards, nominated by and voted on by members of the SFWA.  They are now here, and I first saw the list on Tor.com. I am very excited to have another great reading list, so we'll see how far I am able to make it through the nominees before awards are announced in Mid May.  I expect to have various commentaries up on the categories as I work my way through them.  

Congratulations to all of the nominees.

Best Novel
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review)
Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
Hild, Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Harper)

Best Novella
‘‘Wakulla Springs," by Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (Tor.com 10/2/13)
‘‘The Weight of the Sunrise,’’ Vylar Kaftan (Asimov’s 2/13)
‘‘Annabel Lee,” Nancy Kress (New Under the Sun)
‘‘Burning Girls,’’ Veronica Schanoes (Tor.com 6/19/13)
‘‘Trial of the Century,’’ Lawrence M. Schoen (lawrencemschoen.com, 8/13; World Jumping)
Six-Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean)

Best Novelette
‘‘Paranormal Romance,’’ Christopher Barzak (Lightspeed 6/13)
‘‘The Waiting Stars,’’ Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky)
‘‘They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass,’’ Alaya Dawn Johnson (Asimov’s 1/13)
‘‘Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,’’ Henry Lien (Asimov’s 12/13)
‘‘The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,’’ Ken Liu (Lightspeed 8/13)
‘‘In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,’’ Sarah Pinsker (Strange Horizons 7/1 – 7/8/13) (Part II)

Best Short Story
‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth,’’ Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,’’ Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,’’ Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,’’ Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,’’ Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation
Doctor Who: ‘‘The Day of the Doctor’’ (Nick Hurran, director; Steven Moffat, writer) (BBC Wales)
Europa Report (Sebastián Cordero, director; Philip Gelatt, writer) (Start Motion Pictures)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, director; Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, writers) (Warner Bros.)
Her (Spike Jonze, director; Spike Jonze, writer) (Warner Bros.)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, director; Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt as Michael deBruyn, writers) (Lionsgate)
Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, director; Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, writers) (Warner Bros.)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Holly Black (Little, Brown; Indigo)
When We Wake, Karen Healey (Allen & Unwin; Little, Brown)
Sister Mine, Nalo Hopkinson (Grand Central)
The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson (Levine)
Hero, Alethea Kontis (Harcourt)
September Girls, Bennett Madison (Harper Teen)
A Corner of White, Jaclyn Moriarty (Levine)

Quick Take: The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

I would have read The Lowland regardless of its inclusion in The Tournament of Books, and if memory serves, I started the book before the tournament was announced.  I've been reading Lahiri since I first heard of her Pulitzer Prize winning collection The Interpreter of Maladies, and I've since read her first novel The Namesake.  Both are excellent.  Lahiri is a must-read author.  Period.

Published in 2013, The Lowland is her latest novel and it as good as I expected it to be, which is quite.

Lahiri deals with family and family expectations in this novel of brothers, one who becomes a revolutionary in 1960's India, the other who moves to America to study.  When the revolutionary is killed, the academic returns home, marries the brother's wife, and brings her and the baby back to America.  The primary focus is on Subhash, the academic, but Lahiri intersperses this with glimpses of the past with the revolutionary and also of the wife.

This is a fantastic novel and I am once again eagerly awaiting her next book (though I still have her second story collection Unaccustomed Earth to tide me over).

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Star Scroll, by Melanie Rawn

Monday, February 24, 2014 0
The Star Scroll
Melanie Rawn
DAW: 1989


Almost four years ago I wrote about Melanie Rawn's debut novel Dragon Prince, which has long been one of my favorite fantasy novels and one of the few which I occasionally come back to and re-read.  At the time I suggested around that time that this would be the beginning of a re-read series of posts covering the full series.  For no particular reason that I can think of, I did not immediately follow Dragon Prince with the rest of the series, and then the next few years became complicated, and I just never returned to the series and the re-read.  Until now.

As with Dragon Prince, this entry will be less of a proper review and more about my overall impressions of the novel and what it evokes in me, especially this being the fourth or fifth time that I have read it.  As such, spoilers will abound, though more for this particular volume than the rest of the series.  You have been warned.  My memory of the rest of the series is incomplete. It may be worth noting that this is the first time I have read Star Scroll in at least ten years.  If not longer. 

If you're on the fence, don't be.  Don't read what's below, just go read Dragon Prince and continue on with The Star Scroll.  This is top notch fantasy.

One thing that jumped out at me more from re-reading my writeup of Dragon Prince is that The Star Scroll does not have that prominent villain to latch on to that Dragon Prince did.  Dragon Prince had the High Prince Roelstra, one of the great villains in fantasy literature.  I will argue that point all day long if necessary.  The Star Scroll has hidden sorcerers.  Oh, there is plenty of villainy to be found here, but it isn't the same.  I would suggest that it is less necessary because now we are fully invested in the characters.  Rohan and Sioned are familiar and comfortable and their dreams as rulers are our dreams as readers.  We want them to succeed and build that peaceful society and make their world better.  The nature of the conflict is different.

There is a discovery of several scrolls on the island nation of Dorval, the ancestral home of the Sunrunners (for lack of a quicker description, this world's magic users - see my previous post).  The scrolls tell of long lost history, of a war against sorcerers who ruled the mainland, of a different sort of forbidden magical power. 

It is not this discovery which sets events in motion, Melanie Rawn is far too good of a writer to do that.  But, this discovery is a way to inform the reader as the characters are learning about a bit of history that might not be completely in the past.  The scrolls are a set up for the reader, a hint that Rawn is changing the nature of the game here. 

But, back to the villains.  There are two, really.  One is a character named Masul, who is claiming to be the son of long dead Roelstra, and thus having claim to the princedom claimed by Rohan for *his* son, Pol.  Masul is a bit of a prominent villain, but the underlying one here is Mireva - one of the sorcerers looking to reclaim some power and completely upset the current order of things in the world.  She is working multiple plots at once, attempting to subvert the Sunrunners, remove Rohan and family from power, and to set up a puppet of her own as the real power in the land in attempt to bring the long dormant sorcerers back into the light.  That is a gross simplification. 

Only one of those two storylines is resolved in The Star Scroll, the other (that of Mireva) will continue on into Sunrunners Fire.  To be honest, I really couldn't remember how that part moved forward, though I did remember it being a big thing.  It's just not what you hang the book on.  We're not reading to see how that particular storyline develops (as we were with the conflict between Rohan and Roelstra).  We're reading to see how our heroes (as a generic term) rise to the occasion, to see how they develop, how Pol grows.

One of the best storylines in The Star Scroll is actually that of Andry, the son of Chay and Tobin (sister to Rohan).  To quickly reduce all sorts of stuff, Andry is young (perhaps 20), and is tapped to be the next Lord of Goddess Keep when the current Lady, Andrade, dies.  Andry, like Andrade, has all sorts of family ties to the ruling family, but as a Sunrunner, he has other loyalties.  From the rotating tight third person perspectives in this novel, we see Andry go from fondly thinking about his "beloved older brother" to becoming almost estranged from his family when Andrade is killed and he is still given the full rule of the Sunrunners at such a young age.  We can see the drift, and perhaps because I knew it was coming I can notice more those earlier moments when Andry is trying to hold on to his family and just be a brother and a son - and I know that the estrangement is coming.  I know that the change is painful, and it is heartbreaking to watch happen even though you get the sense that Andry is kind of a dick, but he's also young and immature.  Which is awkward for the man who is now a major power in the land. 

The other great bit (in a book filled with great bits) is Sioned and how she is using her powers to initially touch, and then communicate with a dragon - something that had never been even considered.  It isn't a major point of this novel, but it's so beautifully done and frightening and thrilling that it just has to be mentioned.

I don't love The Star Scroll in the same way that I do Dragon Prince, but from the start this is a gripping fantasy that from the first word I fully immersed myself into and did not want to stop until I had turned the final page.  From these first two books, Melanie Rawn is a master and should be mentioned far more often as one of the great fantasy writers. 


As a side note, given how much I love the Dragon Prince cover and that it was one of the first pieces of fantasy art that made me actually notice fantasy art, the cover for The Star Scroll is fairly disappointing.  It shows an important scene of the book, but it doesn't really differentiate this as being any different of a book than, say, Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels (which are very good, but not at all the same sort of thing).  Of course, Michael Whelan did do a number of the covers for The Dragonriders of Pern and McCaffrey herself did blurb Dragon Prince, but still.  The cover here lacks that sensual and exciting feeling of that awesome piece of art he did for Dragon Prince.  Perhaps it is not a fair comparison, that is, after all, one of my favorite book covers of all time.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Barrayar
Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen: 1991

With a series as long running as Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, there are always questions as to which book is the best one to serve as a series introduction.  Do you start with the first published book?  That way, you don't have any of the baggage of having to deal with things you should have known reading a particular book or dealing with chronology issues.  Do you start with the first book in the series internal chronology?  In this case, it is the preferred reading order of the author, but one drawback of this is that when the books are not written in chronological order, reading them that way can diffuse some of the power and surprise of events in earlier written books set later in the chronology (consider Star Wars).  Or, do you just pick up whichever book you happen to run across and hope that it isn't one that absolutely requires knowledge of other books to fully appreciate it? 

Depending on one's perspective, Barrayar is either the seventh novel in publication order, the second of the primary series dealing with the Vorkosigan characters, the third novel if you count Falling Free (set 200 years prior to anything), and it is definitely the second novel dealing with the character of Cordelia Naismith, set shortly after the events of Shards of Honor.  While I'm not sure if this is the ideal place to begin reading Lois McMaster Bujold, it is what I have to work with.

The background of Barrayar has the aftermath of a war where one of the captains from the winning side, Cordelia Naismith ends up meeting and falling in love with a general from the losing side, Aral Vorkosigan.  She sacrifices much of her life and culture to live with Aral on his native planet, Barrayar.  As the novel opens, she is pregnant with his child.  I expect that had I read Shards of Honor, my understanding of what led up to this point would be drastically different that from picking up the clues in the text of Barrayar.  What I do know is that some exceptionally nasty things occurred in the war (as happens in war).  As in Shards of Honor, the protagonist here is Cordelia and despite the rather weak sounding background description I gave, Cordelia Naismith is a remarkably strong and well written character of depth and determination.  Accepting of a somewhat backwater patriarchy with less technological advancement than where she came from, Cordelia is not.  She toes the line only so far as necessity forces her to.  The rest of the time, she pushes back.  She is an absolutely wonderful character with agency and one whom you will likely be sad that there are only two novels which feature her as the protagonist.  From this one book, I'd like a whole lot more of Cordelia.

Here's what you can find in Barrayar: war, insurgency, genetics, politics, action, adventure, family drama, gender politics.  Here's what you need to know about Barrayar: All of it is exciting, fantastic, and intelligently written. 

A better writer than me would have all sorts of smart things to say about Barrayar, but what I have is an unhesitating recommendation: read this book.  It doesn't matter if this is the first Bujold that you've read or if you've read everything else but this one.  Barrayar is a smart, exciting, tension-laden novel and is one well deserving of being read and read again.  Damn, this was a good book. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books: 2013

It isn't every day that you encounter a novel written in the second person perspective or that is written with the loose conceit of being a self help book directed at the protagonist, but How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is both. 

In this case, "you" the reader are a young man in a poor Asian village and the novel will track your journey from poverty and tell you how to become rich.  But, it will do so by using your life as the example all the while mocking the idea of a "self help" book with chapters of "move to the city" and "work for yourself". 

While the second person perspective and self help format may imply some sort of overcooked gimmick, Rising Asia is anything but.  This is a moving story of a man fighting his way into a better life, dreaming of and desiring a woman he can never have, and overcoming a society that is and isn't built for people like him.  It just happens to do so with a great deal of quirk and a whole heaping spoonful of biting nastiness.  Rising Asia is wonderful and funny and in all ways a revelation to me.  I haven't read anything quite like this before.

I have to thank the Tournament of Books for including Rising Asia because I highly doubt I ever would have encountered this book otherwise. 

At a spare 228 pages, Rising Asia is a blazingly fast read and it is just the right length. At times, you may want more, but at no point does Rising Asia overstay its welcome. 

Recommended.

Monday, February 17, 2014

19 Books I Want to Read in 2014

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I’ll be up front here, and if you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know that it’s been a very quiet couple of years.  I’ve spent a lot of time unconsciously detaching from what’s going on in literature and the SFF world.  It wasn’t planned, but due to some personal stuff in my life and just changing motivation and desire, I really didn’t have anything to say or the desire to say it.  I’ve slowly been recovering the itch. 

As such, I can’t say that I have completely followed what is new and shiny in this forthcoming year in books and I certainly don’t know much about many of the new authors who seem to have everyone all in a tizzy (though I am aware of Ann Leckie and have been for a while now).  So, I gave a quick look through the LocusForthcoming List, a quick search on stuff I have saved on Goodreads, and voila! We have list! 

As such, this isn’t exhaustive or authoritative.  This is just a list of 19 books, in presumed publication order, that I’d like to read this year.  I’m sure I missed something awesome.  


Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (Feb): It may, at this point, be impossible to have heard about Annihilation (the first volume in the Southern Reach trilogy). It seems to be exploding all over the place, which is fantastic.  I hope to read it soon, and I expect it to be friggin awesome.

Locke and Key: Alpha and Omega, by Joe Hill (Feb): Joe Hill concludes his Locke and Key series of graphic novels.  This has been one of the best things going, and if you’ve been waiting for the collections (like I have), the wait has been painful.

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson (Mar): Big Fat Fantasy alert.  Follow up to Sanderson’s epic Way of Kings.  Now that he has been able to step away from finishing The Wheel of Time, he’ll have that much more availability to work on his own stuff.  I’m not convinced the man sleeps or is not a robot of some sort, but if you like the big fantasy epics, Sanderson is your man. 

Steles of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear (Apr): Just read (andwrote about) Range of Ghosts. This is the concluding volume. Also, it’s written by Elizabeth Bear. That’s enough to push it to the top of a must read pile for me. 

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Apr): I read Shadesof Milk and Honey years ago, loved it, but I haven’t read the next two volumes (yet, book two is on my shelf waiting for me).  This is the fourth.  Unless she’s gone completely off the rails since then, which I highly doubt, this will be wonderful.

King of Ashes, by Raymond E. Feist (May): This is the first non-Riftwar novel that Feist has written in a long, long, long time. Remember the creepy Faerie Tale?  I believe this is a new fantasy series, but I’m curious how Feist will do stepping away from Riftwar.  It could be a very good thing.

Cyador’s Heirs, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr (May): New Recluse.  If Modesitt keeps writing them, I’ll keep reading them. Or, I suppose it’s more of a Cyador novel than Recluse, being set way earlier in the history of that world. Even so, I know exactly what to expect from these books and if I don’t try to read 10 of them in the same year, I’m always satisfied.

Defenders, by Will McIntosh (May): I’ve read Soft Apocalypse and Hitchers (plus the story Love Minus Eighty was based on) and I’m a fan, man.  Will McIntosh is the real deal and he writes books I want to read.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton (May): I haven’t read much from Jo Walton, but after reading Among Others a couple years back, I am sold.  Doesn’t matter what this is, I want to read it. 

Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey (Jun): I’ve read the first two volumes of The Expanse (the series to which this belongs). I have Book 3 coming up, and then this. 

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King (Jun): New Stephen King. 

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine (Jun): I’m curious.  I thought Mechanique was fantastic and this is Valentine’s next novel. 

One-Eyed Jack, by Elizabeth Bear (Aug): I’m not sure I could be more excited about this book.  So, here’s the deal. Between 2006 and 2008, Elizabeth Bear published four novels in her Promethean Age series. I absolutely adore those novels, especially the two part Ink & Steel / Hell & Earth set. I haven’t read them in years, but I could wax rhapsodic about them. Her publisher didn’t want to do any more, much to the chagrin of right-thinking readers everywhere.  It’s been six years, but Prime books is publishing the fifth volume, One-Eyed Jack.  Holy crap, y’all. But, don’t worry about not having read the first four.  This one ties into the larger world, but is completely stand alone.  Actually, the series so far consists of two sets, so Blood and Iron or Ink and Steel are equally valid entry points to the series. As is this. I shall be there.

Lock In, by John Scalzi (Aug): New Scalzi.  I’m there. 

Hawk, by Steven Brust (Sep): New Vlad Taltos novel.  I’m there.  Seriously, read this series if you’re not already. Start with Jhereg and go with publication order. 

Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest (Sep): New Cherie Priest. I’m there.  Priest describes this as “Lizzie Borden fighting Cthulhu with an axe”, which, I’ll be honest, sounds kind of awesome.

The Thorn of Emberlain, by Scott Lynch (Nov): Gentleman Bastards Book 4.  I still need to read Republic of Thieves, but this is must read fantasy for me.

Symbiont, by Mira Grant (Nov): First, I thought Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy was excellent.  Second, I enjoyed the first book in this new series, Parasite.  I want more. 

Going Gray, by Karen Traviss (Dec): Since she published her excellent Wess’har Wars series, Traviss has publishing Star Wars and Halo novels.  I can speak for the Star Wars books and say that those are suburb, but I’ve been itching for Traviss to write something that wasn’t tied to anything else.  Going Gray is that book. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear

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Range of Ghosts
Elizabeth Bear
Tor: 2012

First novel in epic fantasy series from one of my favorite authors.  Novel is acclaimed by most.  Wait two years before beginning to read novel.  Read novel.  Wonder why in the world I waited so long to finally read it when it had been sitting on my shelf since before publication.

Welcome to Range of Ghosts, the first novel in Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, an epic fantasy that if you have previously read Bear’s work will not surprise you (though it should delight you) that the fantasy is not based on more “traditionally” Western European elements and more on Eastern cultures.  Without knowing a whole lot about more Eastern cultures, I get a Mongol vibe from part of the setting, and I imagine part of the journey gets towards some Middle Eastern cultures (that is an assumption based on some textual descriptions).  Thing is, this isn’t an attempt to necessarily praise Bear for writing from a different cultural perspective.  The reader in me sees the new setting and thinks, “cool, a new place!” and then gets on with digging into the actual story that Bear is telling. 

Folks, *this* is where Elizabeth Bear excels.  Character and story.  This is a grand, big story rife with civil war, fratricide, adventure, wonder, tightly wound fear, grace, and pretty much everything else thrown in to a barrel, blended well and painted with masterstrokes.  I could tell you that there is a surviving tribesman who is a scion of the Khagan dynasty, a princess turned wizard, another princess on the run, a tiger-woman, a sorcerer or sorts, and a host of other characters who all are presented as richly conceived characters with their own motivations and needs and who are acting because this is the way they would act in this situation, not because the plot demands it.  The reader gets the sense that Elizabeth Bear is telling the stories of these characters who already exist, not that she created them from a blank canvas to tell a particular story that she wanted to tell.  Except, that is exactly what she has done.  This is another mark of just how damned good at this stuff Bear is.  She does the hard work and makes it look natural. 

I started to write that you should read Range of Ghosts because it is a starkly original novel that draws on cultural elements that are seldom used much or well in most western fantasy novels, but the more I thought about that, the more I realized that it was a bunch of crap.  Range of Ghosts is not medicine, and you shouldn’t read it because it is good for you, with or without a spoonful of sugar.  That is a terrible reason to choose to read a book (though, better than choosing not to read a book at all). 

You should read Range of Ghosts because it will thrill and delight you.  You should read Range of Ghosts because you will marvel at how cool some of the stuff going on in the story is (I may have said “holy crap, that’s awesome” at least once).  You should read Range of Ghosts because it is the first volume of a trilogy that you really, really want to finish to find out what happens next and how it all comes out.  You should read Range of Ghosts because it is a friggin fantastic novel that might just knock your shoes, socks, and pants off and will make you wonder what, exactly, Elizabeth Bear is doing with all of those shoes, socks, and pants that keep getting knocked off people.  Probably creating a black market for pants. 

You should read Range of Ghosts because it’s just that damn good of a book and you will seriously be missing out if you don’t.  That’s probably a good enough reason, don’t you think?


Can we also maybe pause a moment and just look at that cover from Donato Giancola?  That is one seriously gorgeous cover.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Divergent Series, by Veronica Roth

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 3

Oh, teenagers. 

I suspect that the sort of reader who might be reading this blog is the sort of reader who is, at the very least, aware of the Divergent series, even if that reader is not overly familiar with the books.

The opening premise of Divergent, written by Veronica Roth, is that in some dystopian version of the future the population of a city is divided into five factions that are based around personality traits.  Those factions are Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite.  Readers figure out very early on that this city is Chicago, though the implication is that perhaps this is what the rest of the world is like.  Families are raised in factions, but when the children reach the age of 16 (or so), they are able to choose which faction they would like to belong to.  The first novel follows Tris Prior as, not quite a spoiler, she chooses the risk-loving Dauntless faction over her family’s selfless Abnegation faction. That's the cliff notes version of the background, there's a bit more going on than that, plus the meaning of what the title means in the setting of the novels.

There is a lot to like about the Divergent series.  This is a fast paced story that frequently leaves you wanting to know more and to read just one more chapter before stopping.  Divergent is fun, despite having some darker and gloomy elements to the society and the overarching story.  To that point, it is reminiscent of The Hunger Games, to which it will inevitably be compared because of the YA branding of the series as well as because of the forthcoming movie. 

I wonder if the farther away from my own teenaged years (I turn 35 in three weeks), the less I am able to identify whether younger characters are accurately portrayed.  Are my frustrations with teenage characters a frustration with the writing or the frustration of a man who will one day be yelling at those same kids to get off his lawn?  The protagonists of Divergent, and the series, are often impulsive.  But then, they are members of a faction that prize recklessness.  Or, they are teenagers.  The romantic entanglements of Tris, and others, were one of the more frustrating parts of the series.  Part of it is the writing (one character noting to himself that each touch has meaning, that they don’t touch just to touch), but part of it might just be teenagers in love.  At some point, and I suspect I am long past this point, I can’t connect with that adolescent view of love and relationship.  Don’t get me wrong, I do think that these romantic elements are not all that well written, but I am also far from the age where I can recognize that emotion as being exactly correct.  As such, oh, teenagers.

What I very much appreciated about this series, though, is how Veronica Roth is unafraid to continue to open up the world and completely change the nature of what we know and to continue to raise the stakes.  I’m sure her publisher would have been very happy to throw out various faction-era novels and continue to roll in some money, but Roth is building a much bigger story and is touching on a small exploration of prejudice (not very robustly, but it’s there). 

On the whole, the Divergent series is a mixed bag but works as entertainment.  Worth reading, but not with an unhesitating recommendation.
 
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