Monday, December 31, 2007

Nine Author Discoveries in 2007

There is something to be said about talking about books. After all, that’s what we read. But, just as much fun as discovering a great new book is discovering a great new author. Or, even discovering a great older author. It’s all new if you have never read an author before.

So, in honor of authors, those wonderful people who write the wonderful books, here is a list of some of the authors I encountered for the first time in 2007.

1: Elizabeth Bear: Yes, she is at the top of every list of good things for 2007. Besides the Promethean novels, this prolific author has also written the Jenny Casey trilogy (Hammered, Scardown, Worldwired), several standalone novels (Carnival, Undertow), co-authored a novel with Sarah Monette, and has several series slated to begin in the next two years. Oh yeah, and a host of short stories. While I think Bear has developed quite a bit since she first wrote Hammered, I do look forward to continuing the Jenny Casey trilogy in the next couple of months as well as finding all her other stuff that is published and will be published.

2: Glen Cook: Yes, the Black Company guy. I have read eight Black Company novels and one standalone, and the Black Company is enough to get me excited for the man’s fiction. I have two Dread Empire omnibus editions sitting at home for review, and a couple more Black Company novels which I need to read. Sadly, Sung in Blood was more than disappointing.

3: Connie Willis: I’ve only read two of her novellas (The Inside Job and D.A.) and they were both exceptional. Bring on her career collection The Winds of Marble Arch!

4: Lucius Shepard: It began with his stories over at Subterranean Online, followed over to his longer fiction (Louisiana Breakdown, Softspoken, A Handbook of American Prayer, Aztechs) and now seeing the name Lucius Shepard on a book equals quality.

5: Joe R. Lansdale: Like Shepard, another discovery thanks to Subterranean Online and followed through longer fiction (Zeppelins West, Flaming London, The Big Blow), but Lansdale means a story with sharp edges and dialogue that cuts.

6: Mike Resnick: Ahh, Mike Resnick writes highly enjoyable novels and stories. Filled with humor and humanity, his Starship novels are worthy of more attention than they are getting and I am slowly getting into his back catalogue.

7: Kage Baker: I’ve heard her name for years, thought “Kage” was a boy’s name, and have missed out on the chance to read about The Company until 2007. Now I wonder what I was waiting for.

8: Cherie Priest: After Four and Twenty Blackbirds I’ll follow Priest anywhere.

9: Tobias Buckell: Thanks to the author for sending me copies of both Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin. I’m hooked.

Honorable mentions: Scott Lynch, David Anthony Durham, Ted Chiang, Naomi Novik, and Kealan Patrick Burke.

And, for the short stories: Mary Robinette Kowal.

All are names that will make me perk up my ears when I hear them mentioned.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Nine Best Reads of 2007

At first glance this list is awfully similar to the Best Of 2007 list, but the distinction is that the previous list is limited to those books published in 2007, and this list is limited only to the 226 books I have read in 2007 (assuming I finish Dreamsongs: Volume 1 before Tuesday).

In some cases I have read multiple volumes of a series this year and I would like to recognize the entire series rather than having the list taken up by three authors (Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, and Glen Cook).

1: The Promethean Age, by Elizabeth Bear (Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water): What can I say, the best and most memorable reading experience I had during 2007 was Elizabeth Bear’s first two Promethean Age novels. Considering that Bear will be releasing two more Promethean novels in 2008, the top spot next year may very well be The Promethean Age once again.

2: The Black Company, by Glen Cook (The Black Company, Shadows Linger, The White Rose): While I have read the first eight Black Company novels this year, it was the opening trilogy which was truly outstanding. Military fantasy with quite a bit going on behind the scenes; it was obvious that Glen Cook had directly influenced Steven Erikson and that the Black Company is a direct ancestor of Erikson’s Bridgeburners. Those first books with the sense of discovery were something special. The series has been on something of a downswing with the first two Glittering Stone novels, but overall this has been one of my favorite discoveries

3: The Company, by Kage Baker (In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, The Graveyard Game): With the introduction of Mendoza in a 16th Century English romance, and the introduction of cyborgs with immortality and some time travel, Kage Baker has put together an odd series spanning centuries which slowly reveals more and more of a conspiracy about the Dr. Zeus Company and what happens to the immortal cyborg operatives when they are no longer useful to the company. Each novel (except The Graveyard Game) tells its own story which happens to feature the immortals, and set in different eras and locations, The Company is a series of absolutely fantastic novels and I expect The Company to take a slot on next year’s list as I expect to finish off the series during 2008.

4: The Stories of Ted Chiang (Stories of Your Life and Others, The Merchant and the Alchemists Gate): Between the eight stories in Chiang’s collection and the 1 story novella from Subterranean Press, Ted Chiang has a total of nine stories which pretty well beats the pants off of everything else published in this, or any other year. A new Ted Chiang story is an event, and while I only just discovered him this year and I wish he was far more prolific, it only makes a new story all the more special.

5: The Gentlemen Bastards, by Scott Lynch: Between The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, this is one of the most exciting NEW fantasy series I have come across. It may be an obvious entry, but I doubt I have had more fun reading a new popular novel than I have these two Scott Lynch novels.

6: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by Jo Rowling: I would be remiss if I did not include HP7 on this list. It was essential reading in 2007 and delivered everything I could have hoped for. Plus, it gave me the answer I hoped for regarding Snape.

7. Dark Harvest, by Norman Patridge: Easily the shortest work on this list (160 pages), Dark Harvest was a World Fantasy Award nominated Novella about a small town’s Halloween tradition. Violent, creative, and exciting, Dark Harvest was a great 2007 discovery.

8: Heroes Die, by Matthew Stover: I first knew Stover as the author of some of the best Star Wars novels out there, novels which could hold their own against anybody’s work. But Heroes Die is its own animal and it’s a beast. It is a mix of virtual reality, fantasy, and science fiction (depending on which aspect of the novel we are dealing with), and it is a brutally honest and superb work of fiction. Heroes Die is a novel which should be read far more widely than it is.

9: Dreamsongs: Volume 1, by George R. R. Martin: Inclusion on this list assumes that I will finish the book by Monday night. I think I will. This first collection, of two, covers much of George Martin’s early short stories and award winners (“A Song for Lya”, “Sandkings”, “Nightflyers”, and more). This is an exceptional collection and would merit a place on the Best Of 2007 list, except for the fact that it was originally published in 2003 as a limited edition from Subterranean Press. Nothing has changed in the content, the RRetrospective was cut in half for wider publication from Bantam. Because of that, I can’t include this in a list of best books published in 2007. Not if I am being fair.

My honorable mentions here are Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn and Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest. Both excellent novels. The Vaughn is the third Kitty Norville novel and the series continues to surpass what I’d expect from a “werewolf” book. Four and Twenty Blackbirds is the opening entry of three Eden Moore novels where Eden can see ghosts. Southern, gothic, haunted, fantasy. Exceptional. Either novel could easily take a place on this list.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bottom Four Books Published in 2007

I have a “Best Of” list for 2007, and now I have a “Worst Of” list for 2007. I am quite sure that I avoided the truly atrocious books published during the year, but I read quite a few which just did not pass muster. It may be partially unfair to include some of these popular titles on a “Worst Of” list because compared to dreck, they may not be all that bad, but these are the 2007 titles I thought the least of.

Unlike the “Best Of” list, I am restricting this one to the worst of the worst. The Four books which made me wish I could gouge out my eyeballs with a plastic spork. Like the other list, I am leaving the fifth spot open for that really awful book I simply did not get the chance to experience.

1: The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold: After The Lovely Bones a new novel by Alice Sebold would be an event filled with anticipation and excitement. When the opening line was released months in advance, I was even more awash with desire to read this book. After months and months of thinking about it and wondering how it would all go, I opened the cover and was ready to get into the story. Within a couple of pages I was stopped cold and by the end of the third or fourth chapter I was done. It was bad, it was really bad. The idea of the narrator murdering her mother was a fascinating one and one which I thought would resonate throughout the novel and pull me through the pages one after another. Instead, it was a counterpoint to the narrator’s disappointing relationship with her mother and with her family and the weighty oppression and self pity which sucked every bit of drive out of The Almost Moon.

2: Kingdom Come, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins: This is the final entry in the Left Behind series. After three prequels, 13 main sequence novels, we are given the final sequel. Set during the “Millenium Kingdom” before the final Final Judgment, any sense of drama, tension, or narrative has been completely sucked out of the novel and we are left with nothing but a crappy epilogue onto a poorly written series that once had some narrative bite.

3: Death Star, by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry: Many people would not be surprised to see a Star Wars novel on a “Worst Of” list, but on average the Star Wars books aren’t bad, and some are quite good (Matthew Stover and Karen Traviss, for two). Death Star took what either could have been an interesting story, or what should have been better left to the imagination, tried to give us characters to care about and show the Kevin Smith version of the little people who may not have been culpable in the actions of the administration, and simply failed. The best stuff here was the Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin chapters. This might be because we know the characters, and the bits from the original Star Wars film tied the whole novel together, but the new characters were distractions from the real meat of the Death Star story and I found myself skipping more than half of the book to get to the Vader and Tarkin bits. I’d like the William Goldman “Good Parts” version, but I’m afraid that would be a short story and not a novel.

4: Blaze, by Stephen King: The last of King’s novels written as Richard Bachman was essentially a “trunk story” that had gone missing for years and finally turned up. King through a layer of polish on it and released it into the wild. As a historical piece showing a bit of early, non Horror King, Blaze is an interesting text. As a novel, Blaze should be left only for those Stephen King completists. Quite a disappointment.

Links are to the original reviews

Ann Vandermeer Interview

Jeff Vandermeer points us to a long, and excellent interview Readers Voice did with his wife, editor Ann Vandermeer.

Fascinating interview, reading about how Ann got her start editing and working in the field and how she ended up over at Weird Tales as the fiction editor. Ann also details what her work life is like over at Weird Tales, which is absolutely incredible (for me) to learn about because, honestly, I’d much rather be an editor (or at least a slush reader) than a fiction writer.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Top Nine Books Published in 2007

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 2007. It may be Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam, which I will not finish before the end of the year. It may be The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. 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 sort of / kind of in order. The first two on the list are very much in their proper order, but after that things get a bit trickier. Whichever order the list is in, these are the nine novels published in 2007 which I feel were the strongest titles of the year, popularity be damned.

1: Whiskey and Water, by Elizabeth Bear: I cannot speak highly enough of Elizabeth Bear and her two Promethean Age novels. Whiskey and Water picks up seven years after the events of Blood and Iron and brings us back into a war between humans, faerie, demons, and angels. Always surprising, and stunning in its beauty, Whiskey and Water is easily the best 2007 release I have read.

2: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling: Jo Rowling’s conclusion to her Harry Potter series is certainly the popular choice, and some may feel that its inclusion is not giving people anything new, but this list is not about highlighting books you may not have read, or that deserve extra consideration. This list is about the best 2007 publications I have read. Period. Deathly Hallows is certainly that. It was the perfect conclusion to the series, answered nearly every question that I may have had, and told a satisfying story. That it could have been a couple of chapters shorter is scarcely a knock because it allowed the reader to spend those extra chapters immersed in this delightful wizarding world.

3: Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch: Some readers were less than satisfied with Red Seas, but I thought Scott Lynch hit all the right notes in telling another story of the Gentlemen Bastards. Great pacing, still plenty of scheming and crooked plans of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, and another great setting for the novel. Between the Spire and the pirates, Red Seas was packed with action, humor, and fun, with moments of heart-wrenching fear and betrayal.

4: Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill: From the first appearance of the ghosts with their eyes scrubbed out with black scribbles, I was hooked. Heart-Shaped Box is a disturbing work of modern horror with touches of those Japanese horror flicks we’ve been importing and re-releasing with American actors, and it is one hell of a debut novel.

5: Softspoken, by Lucius Shepard: Where other novels on this list are large, epic stories of magic, science fiction, and adventure, Softspoken is a quiet (no pun intended) story of haunting and history and family in a small South Caroina town. It is about coming home again and loss, and told as only Lucius Shepard can tell it.

6: Acacia, by David Anthony Durham: I want to call Acacia one of the year’s big fantasy debuts, but this is David Anthony Durham’s fourth novel. His first three novels were historical fiction, so this is his first foray into epic fantasy, but Durham was an accomplished and award winning author before he threw his hat into the fantasy ring. Durham brings that historian’s eye to Acacia, laying out a backstory for his world and the kingdom his thrusts his four protagonists into. All that history and muck comes to the forefront early on in the novel when the Akaran king is assassinated and his kingdom overrun. Meticulously detailed, but somehow Durham does not allow the detail to overwhelm the story. The detail supports the story and forces the reader to pay closer attention while still maintaining the required level of interest to WANT to keep reading.

7: Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine: 30th Anniversary Anthology, by Sheila Williams (editor): This anthology covers thirty years of stories originally published in Asimov’s. These are not all the Hugo Award winners, but rather a representation of what Asimov’s is proud to have published over three decades. This anthology skews to the shorter stories as Williams mentions that if she included the novellas, there would scarcely be enough room for to represent the entirety of Asimov’s. The bottom line here is that Asimov’s has had an incredible thirty year run and these are exceptional stories, almost without exception. Octavia Butler, Kelly Link, Isaac Asimov, Robert Reed, Ursula Leguin, Robert Silverberg, and many more grace these pages. This is well worth reading.

8: Ally, by Karen Traviss: This fifth entry in the Wess’har Wars is all about character. Light on major plot moving action (except for momentous events which jump start everything), Karen Traviss’s original fiction (versus her equally excellent Star Wars tie in fiction) is generally outstanding and like coming home. Only, when we get home, we find that home is not a very hospitable place, but that inhospitable home is one which is a pleasure to visit. Traviss gets into the heads of a diverse group of characters and the narrative is fascinating. I don’t know that this is the best book in the Wess’har Wars, but this is a series I look forward to each year.

9: The Sword-edged Blonde, by Alex Bledsoe: While there is something of tradition of fantasy detective novels (Glen Cook’s Garret P.I., for example), I am not very familiar with them. Here’s what I do know: The Sword-edged Blonde is as hard boiled as they come with plenty of nastiness, a trip down memory lane, and a fantastic private investigator in a fantasy setting named Eddie LaCrosse. This is a reasonably short (fewer than 250 pages), fast paced, and filled with entertaining characters talking sharp, and is more than worth the read. I truly hope that Alex Bledsoe writes more Eddie LaCrosse books.

All links are to the original reviews.

Quick Takes: Neil Gaiman, Steven Erikson, Michael Reaves, Steve Perry

The Sandman: The Doll’s House, by Neil Gaiman: I am not the ideal reader for graphic novels. I want more text and description and plotting through the narrative and here the image tells as much of the story as the text boxes do. I don’t have a good feel for The Sandman, but because of its influence and “importance”, I want to actually read them all. This is the second volume of Sandman stories. I preferred the first, overall, though there were some impressive moments in this collection.

The Bonehunters, by Steven Erikson: Here we get back to those aspects of Malazan which I am able to most engage with and figure out. The remnants of Dujek’s Host, the last of the Bridgeburners, Ganoes Paran, and the armies of Adjunct Tavore Paran. Besides this, we get more Apsalar, Fiddler, Quick Ben, and Kalam. Near the end of the novel Kalam really gets a chance to shine and shows why the assassin is such a legendary character and why he is so feared. Oh, and there is more Karsa Orlong, which is always a good thing. So, what is it about? Difficult to say. Erikson pulls together some threads and begins to set up the final three volumes of The Malazan Book of the Fallen and the overall war against the Gods (for lack of a better term) that some people are beginning to see coming. It is becoming exceedingly difficult to talk about the Malazan novels because increasingly I am more and more confused as to what, exactly, is occurring and to whom. This is why when Erikson narrows the focus back to the Malazans I am most able to understand. Overall The Bonehunters was mostly interesting and mostly coherent, but this sixth volume is not a good place to begin the Malazan series. The first five volumes are required reading (though Midnight Tides still chafes quite a bit) before reaching The Bonehunters. I am becoming slightly disillusioned with Malazan, and I only hope that when the ten volumes are complete I will better be able to understand what it is that Steven Erikson is trying to do here.

Death Star, by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry: Bad, bad, bad, bad, Darth Vader, bad bad, Tarkin, bad, bad, bad, explosion, bad, The End.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dreamsongs: "A Song for Lya", "This Tower of Ashes"

In “A Song for Lya” George R. R. Martin gets into the alienness of a culture which has not advanced or evolved in tens of thousands of years. Two telepaths have been requested on the planet of ----- to help to figure out why humans are being drawn into the religion of the aliens which over years culminates in a form of suicide. Martin describes well the troubled feelings the telepaths have about the S----- and how seductive this religion could be. Martin is able to create this alien culture, make it comprehensible to readers and also have it be completely alien in nature. “A Song for Lya” is a troubling story, a beautiful and sad story, and one which moves with the heart in an alien landscape. Wonderfully written and a story which three decades later holds up very well.

“This Tower of Ashes” is another story which takes place on a strange and distant and mostly unexplored world. A lone man narrates the story from the ruins of a tower which is slowly crumbling to ash and his former flame and her new flame arrive on his doorstep where he has been hiding out, mostly from them and from his life. What follows is a bit of an adventure and a desire on the part of our narrator to have the girl back in his life, to show her that he is willing to sacrifice for her. If nothing else, “This Tower of Ashes” is a story about loneliness and the feeling of isolation, self imposed or otherwise. It ends, like most of Martin’s early stor ies in this Dreamsongs collection, in a very downbeat fashion.

One thing that seems to define Martin’s early work is an overriding sense of loneliness and alienation. Martin addresses this specifically in the introductions to both “The Filthy Pro” and “The Light of Distant Stars” sections. Martin mentions that several of the stories have come out of the endings of relationships and times that he spent alone during summers. Through the first two and a half sections of Dreamsongs, loneliness is a recurring theme and the stories tend to end in a emotionally harsh and empty place. The stories are overall quite good (“A Song for Lya” especially), but they can be quite wrenching.

Monday, December 24, 2007

She Is the Darkness, by Glen Cook

She Is the Darkness
Glen Cook

Murgen once again narrates this Chronicle of the Black Company. She is the Darkness is the second book of the Glittering Stone sequence which will wrap up the Black Company series, at least until Cook publishes more stories. The Company is under siege from Longshadow and The Howler and they are about to turn the tide of the battle through the rising powers of Lady and also through the timewalking of Murgen. I’ve read the book and Murgen’s odd ability doesn’t make any more sense to me, either. She is the Darkness keeps the Company pretty much all in one spot (except for Goblin, who is off doing something). Murgen is grieving the loss of his wife, Croaker and Lady are no longer desperate to get their child back but rather have focused on revenge against the Strangler who took their daughter. Kina, the Destroyer Goddess is influencing events and seeking to get back. Soulcatcher, the Taken we met in the first book and Lady’s sister, has her own agenda, and Croaker isn’t telling anybody anything.

I can imagine how confusing this may sound to someone with no familiarity with The Black Company, but I have to say that this is still confusing and I’ve read all of the Black Company novels. This was my biggest problem with She Is the Darkness. Because Murgen was kept in the dark about much of what was going on, the reader is kept in the dark. We see things through Murgen’s perspective and this is very limiting. Croaker even complains about how Murgen is writing the Annals (which is essentially what we are reading).

The events of the novel are unclear, there is a strong sense of dues ex machina running through the novel, and unlike previous novels there is a feeling of stagnation, that little is truly happening. That is, until the very end.

She Is the Darkness was simply a disappointing novel and one that if it were not part of the overall excellent Black Company sequence, I would have stopped reading midway through the book. The pacing is at a crawl, the explanations either obvious or non existent, very little action (in the sense that the characters are not really doing anything other than waiting), and the book is just not up to the standard of Cook’s earlier Black Company novels.

I have heard that the final two Black Company novels are much stronger than these last two I have read, so I still have hopes that Cook will wrap things up and deliver a good story.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dreamsongs: "The Second Kind of Loneliness", "With Morning Comes Mistfall"

"The Second Kind of Loneliness" and "With Morning Comes Mistfall" are the final two stories in the Second Section of Dreamsongs: Volume 1.

"The Second Kind of Loneliness" is written as a series of diary entries by a man who has chosen to spend 4 years guarding a wormhole beyond Pluto. Alone. There is a madness and a sadness to this story and it ends far sadder than I expected.

"With Morning Comes Mistfall" tells the story of a planet shrouded in mystery, where most of the planet is covered in mists and there are rumors and tourism based on the chance that there are wraiths in the mist, wraiths that have killed. But scientists have come to Wraithworld to either prove or disprove the wraiths. The proprietor of the hotel on Wraithworld fears either answer. This is another story with an air of sadness because things will end. "With Morning Comes Mistfall" is a much stronger story than "The Second Kind of Loneliness" and haunting.

What I am finding with this Dreamsongs collection is that George R. R. Martin truly is a master of storytelling and these, his earlier works, are strong enough on their own and knowing that better stories are to come is quite impressive.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Dreamsongs: "The Exit to San Breda"

George Martin takes the ghost story and brings it into twentieth century America. Europe has ghosts haunting castles, but America doesn't have castles. It has highways. Ghosts in a car is the logical step for hauntings, at least according to Martin.

This is "The Exit to San Breda". Reading it I forgot, at first, that this was to be his ghost story, but I was moved to try to figure out just what was happening and who the ghosts was as a man drives the remants of the American interstate system. America, you see, has gone to personal "copters" and jetpacks and it is only the enthusiasts who still drive cars on the roads which are in various states of disrepair.

This is the second of Martin's "Filthy Pro" stories and while it is not reflective of his later greatness, "The Exit to San Breda" is a solid professional quality story that holds up decades after it was first written.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dreamsongs: "The Hero"

George Martin opens his "Filthy Pro" section with the story "The Hero". For the first time in this collection we are introduced to Martin's visions of alien landscapes and science fiction ideas.

What I find especially interesting here is that the story of bleak betrayal of a soldier trying to retire and return home to Earth is that the underlying darkness of "The Hero" is apparent in the earlier stories in the collection and very likely (almost positive) that the subsequent stories will have that touch of darkness.

So far in the collection Martin's stories are reasonably simple and straightforward with a bit of a twist at the end. Martin is best known for his A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series which is noted for its complexity and I imagine that when we get to his award winners we will see deeper complexity.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quick Takes: Julia Peterkin, Kage Baker, Charles Wheelan

Scarlet Sister Mary, by Julia Peterkin: It has been a while, but Scarlet Sister Mary is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that I was able to finish. I felt the need to check on the author because the novel is set on a South Carolina plantation after the end of slavery and is told entirely from the perspective from the children of former slaves and I was surprised to learn that the author was white, but writing in the dialect of the former slaves and plantation workers. But, the author’s husband owned a post-Civil War plantation so I imagine Peterkin knew what she was writing about. The novel follows Mary, an initially young woman who marries perhaps the wrong brother, she gets pregnant, he leaves her, and over the course of decades we see her life in town, being accepted and shunned by the church, having a variety of children from a variety of men and just overall Mary’s experience. Scarlet Sister Mary is very readable and has a solid flow to the storytelling. I’m not sure it is better than anything else being published at the time and I can’t see it winning now, but I have struggled through the other Pulitzer winners from the 1920’s so I can’t complain too much. Interesting tidbit about the book is that the head of the Pulitzer board wanted another novel to win the Pulitzer for the Novel and resigned in protest when the rest of the board awarded Scarlet Sister Mary the Prize. Drama!

The Graveyard Game
, by Kage Baker: The first three Company novels were complete stories set in one location and time and told a story outside of the tidbits left about Company future history and the theories of the cyborgs. But at the end of the previous novel, Mendoza in Hollywood, the botanist Mendoza was exile more than a hundred thousand years into the past for the crime of murdering humans and perhaps also for being a Crome Generator (this will make sense if you read the novels). The Graveyard Game is the fourth Company novel and it features Joseph and Lewis over several centuries as they search for clues as to the whereabouts of Mendoza and of the other Company agents who have disappeared over the years and together (and apart) they discover startling information regarding the Company and about the Silence of 2355. The Graveyard Game is less a straight narrative as it is bits and pieces over the years and putting things together and just revealing more information about The Company as the previous three novels did combined. In a sense The Graveyard Game is like one of the mythology episodes from The X-Files. There is a lot of Company information packed into The Graveyard Game and while I think this hurts the novel as a “novel”, I was enthralled and wanted to learn more about The Company and The Silence and the conspiracies surrounding The Company. Kage Baker’s Company novels are fantastic and I can’t wait to read the first collection of Company stories Black Projects, White Knights.

Naked Economics, by Charles Wheelan: So, we have a Pulitzer winner, some science fiction from Kage Baker, and...a book on economics. Charles Wheelan breaks economics down to its simplest concepts, does not use any charts or graphs, explains things in terms that anyone can understand, uses real world examples, and essentially makes economics interesting to me. Looking back there are still quite a few concepts I may have a difficult time remembering or grasping, but Naked Economics puts difficult concepts into plain language and should be used as a primer for anyone interested in the subject but does not want to get into the nuts and bolts. Someone who wants as simple an explanation that can be given will find it here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Alison McGhee returns to blogging

With two posts yesterday, one an original poem, Alison McGhee begins her New Year's Resolution: More Blogs!

With that said, welcome back, Alison, and I'm looking forward to what you have to say. It'll make the wait between your adult (and YA) books a bit easier to bear.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dreamsongs: "The Fortress", "And Death His Legacy"

"The Fortress" and "And Death His Legacy" conclude the opening section of George R. R. Martin's Dreamsongs: Volume 1 collection of his short fiction (originally published as GRRM: a rretrospective). The first section, titled "A Four Color Fanboy" collected three of Martin's amateur stories. I mentioned the first here.

"The Fortress" was an odd tale which, while told smoothly, did not work for me as much as I think it could have and should have. My biggest problem was just differentiated between the characters and getting a sense of what was going on and what any real motivations were. It tells the story of Sveaborg and the surrender of the fortress in 1808 by the Finns to the Russians during the Finnish War. Martin uses historical figures and tells a tale of betrayal. Now that I think back, the concept of the story is a very interesting one, and as Martin tells in the intro to this section, he wrote this story as a college project for a grade. There is even a bit from the poem "The Tales of Ensign Stal" at the conclusion (and perhaps beginning, I'm fuzzy).

The story I most liked out of the opening three was "And Death His Legacy", the story of a future or past America (or present day, depending on when you are looking at it) where a Prophet comes out of the South, preaching about Americanism and about taking America back from the commies and fascists and protestors and those who don't work for a living. It is also the story of a rich man dying of cancer. He knows he has a year left to live and wants his life to have meaning and he knows the rhetoric of the Prophet, what it can mean, and what it can lead to. He attempts to answer the question of whether it would have been better and been moral to murder Hitler before he came to power in Germany, only this time in some later day America. Like "The Fortress", it's a great concept for the story and while it is a bit clunky and heavy handed at times (hey, this is Martin's amateur work after all), "And Death His Legacy" is a fascinating story with a tough ending. Martin doesn't let anybody off the hook here.

This closes out the "A Four Color Fanboy" section of Dreamsongs: Volume 1 and this amateur work is better than I expected, even coming from Martin and suggests that I am in for real treats once I get into his professional short fiction and award winners. I'm looking forward to beginning Section Two: "The Filthy Pro".

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Natural Ordermage, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Natural Ordermage
L. E. Modesitt, Jr
Tor: 2007

After fourteen Recluse novels a fair criticism that can be leveled at Modesitt is that he repeats himself. There is a certain amount of formula to his novel length fiction. A young man, apprenticed to some trade, finds out that he has some sort of talent with Order Magic (it is almost always Order), is brought to the rulers of his land, and ends up exiled to another land. Sound familiar? In this case the young man in question is named Rahl. He is an apprentice scrivener (a scribe, he copies books by hand because printing has not caught on yet) and while he knows he has some Order skills, he does not think he has many. He uses his talents to seduce a woman and this gets him in trouble and brought to the attention of the magisters of Recluse at Land’s End. They send him to Nylan where Rahl is told that he is a Natural Ordermage. Meaning he is skilled with Order Magic but he feels his way through the magic, rather than being able to learn through books or lecture.

The twist here is that unlike, say, Lerris, Rahl believes that nothing is ever his fault and he is angry that nobody explains things to him even though he doesn’t understand when people try to explain. So, basically, he’s something of a typical teenager, though I picture Rahl as being somewhat older than that. What this accomplishes is that Rahl is moderately unlikeable from the start because the reader (or just me) wants him to just take responsibility and he doesn’t.

He is sent to Hamor to work as a clerk in a trading company for a year (or a season, I can’t remember which) and then he is on his own and will be welcome back in Recluse whenever he is able to demonstrate control of his Order talent. He quickly discovers that the leading factor at the Nylan Mercantile Exchange is dishonest and cheating and while he does not act against the factor he is attacked and wakes up a season later with no memory and on a work gang.

Having the novel set in Hamor is nice change of pace because Hamor has always been the Evil Empire of the series and not at all understood. This gives the reader a chance to see and learn something new about this world of Modesitt’s. I understand that Modesitt wanted or needed to get Rahl from simply being a clerk with limited understanding of his talent to eventually work for Hamor in their Mage-Guards. The next novel is called, after all, The Mage-Guard of Hamor. That’s fine. But was it absolutely necessary to use the memory loss / work gang plot device again? Modesitt did this in either The Magic of Recluse or The Towers of the Sunset. I’m almost positive it was in The Towers of the Sunset and while it worked at that time, now it feels like a complete rehash. Basically Modesitt opens Natural Ordermage with a dash of The Magic of Recluse and follows it with a plot device of The Towers of the Sunset and it becomes frustrating that the author is cribbing wholesale from his earlier novels. The two freshest things Modesitt has done in the entire series was to have a couple of novels told from the perspective of a Chaos Mage (who is later revealed to be a Grey Mage and not strictly white) and to have the guy from The Wellspring of Chaos to be an adult and not be an immature young man. Sometimes I wished Rahl would get hit with a Chaos bolt when he wasn’t paying attention.

From reading over the last four paragraphs I can see how one get the perspective that I didn’t like Natural Ordermage and that I would think it is not worth the time. Surprisingly enough, I enjoyed Natural Ordermage quite a bit. Yes, Modesitt repeats himself (and this has nothing to do with there being a limited number of basic plots, Modesitt uses the same techniques from book to book and they feel like the same novel. Pawn of Prophecy from David Eddings may use the same basic plotline as other novels, but we can tell that it was Eddings and not Modesitt who told that story). See, I’m doing it again. I read The Towers of the Sunset years and years ago and loved it and have since enjoyed the other Recluse novels. If you read too many of them back to back they will start to all run together, but give a year or so in between Recluse novels and what you are left with is an enjoyable yet familiar feeling novel where bad things happen to some good people and trying to do good can be as punishing as doing evil, but in the end the moral thing wins out at great cost.

Natural Ordermage is not very different from other Recluse novels, but if you liked the other ones you’ll like this one. If you haven’t read Recluse, start with either The Magic of Recluse or The Towers of the Sunset and work your way gradually to this one. Natural Ordermage is a decent Recluse novel, and it helps to fill in some gaps of understanding, but outside of setting foot on Hamor, this novel doesn’t do anything that the first thirteen didn’t do first.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Quick Takes: Elizabeth Bear, Orson Scott Card, Walter Jon Williams

Hammered, by Elizabeth Bear: I saw a listing of Space Opera novels that had Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy on it. As I read Hammered I couldn’t figure out how this could be until I got to the very end. Jenny Casey is an ex elite soldier for the Canadian military. She has served in many of the world’s hot spots and in this future setting, the locations are not what you’d expect. The United States has mostly crumbled and Hartford is a bad town to be in, New York is far worse. Jenny is a 50 year old woman who has had cyborg parts for the last thirty years as a result of her military career. She is worn down, broken down, and in pain. She was trying to live her life quietly and off the grid when she starts to get pulled back in by the military she thought she left behind and by the mean streets of Hartford. Having read Bear’s two Promethean Age novels I can see how she has developed from Hammered, her debut. Hammered is a strong story, interesting, but choppy in how it jumps from scene to scene and I initially had a difficult time figuring out who some people were and how they connected. By the end it made a bit more sense, but Hammered was a bit of work to get through. I hope / expect that Scardown will be a stronger effort than Hammered, but this early Bear novel is still good, but because I know that Bear gets better Hammered wasn’t the thrill I had hoped. I think this is being a little unfair to Hammered, though. After all, on the strength of the three Jenny Casey novels Bear was awarded the Campbell for Best New Writer.

A War of Gifts, by Orson Scott Card: This novella is Card’s Ender Wiggin Christmas story. If you think about it, this is a little bit weird because the story is set in the military academy setting of Battle School, but it works because with Battle School there is to be no religious expression. Battle School needs to bring the kids together and religion is a way to divide. The story seems to be directed through the eyes of a child of an ultra orthodox Christian family from the United States who is very isolated in Battle School and becomes further isolated when he reports other students for celebrating Christmas. By the end of this Christmas story everything is turned about with a heart warming, but not at all sappy conclusion. I wish that more of Card’s fiction was this solid. Since he started telling Bean’s side of the story Card’s Ender-verse has been going downhill fast and A War of Gifts is a very pleasant surprise.

Destiny’s Way, by Walter Jon Williams: Coming off of Matthew Stover’s excellent Traitor, this New Jedi Order novel starts pulling the various threads together. Jacen, Jaina, and the Solo family are reunited, the New Republic begins to find a way to fight back, Vergere gets some more face time, and we learn a bit about the origins of how and why the Vong have invaded the known galaxy. I was hesitant about this one because I worry about any Star Wars author I am not familiar with. Walter Jon Williams knocked this one out. There are only five novels left in the New Jedi Order series (out of 19).

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dreamsongs Volume I: "Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark"

The first story in George Martin’s Dreamsongs collection (Volume 1) is one of his amateur stories “Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark” and is a Dr. Weird story, kind of a text pulp comic book story. It’s a bit over the top and obvious, but that’s exactly what it is supposed to be. The big surprise is that the story is still entertaining and quite dark. It features a demon breaking out of its own realm to enslave humanity and utterly destroy the souls of humans and the world’s great hero, Dr. Weird, who will fight evil in all its guises. It’s better than I expected from a very early story like this.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bears, by Leah Bobet

I finally got around to reading Leah Bobet’s short story “Bears” and I’ve got to say, this is a weird, weird story.

And I like it.

This is the one I mentioned a few months back with the wonderful opening
Ninety-eight percent of all fictional deaths are directly attributable to being eaten by bears.

Bullshit, you say? What about those shooting and stabbings and drownings and beatings and death by Doomed Gay Manlove?

Well, it's not my problem if you can't see the bears.
The rest of the story unfolds as the bears begin to get loose from the stories you thought you knew and the bears have their own agenda. Get past the first couple of pages and this is something of a weird delight.

I rather like this line, too:
"You are ascribing moral values to a force that is inherently without morality," I tell him, and give him a shove forward. "Anyone who even rolled up and smoked a philosophy text could tell you—"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Plague of Doves (story)

The word languorous comes to mind, Erdrich’s storytelling spins out a story a young girl heard once from her aged great grandfather and remembers later as an older woman. The story her great-grandfather liked to tell, the one about the biggest day in his life, when he tried to get rid of a plague of brown doves.

What I find fairly fascinating is that there is a character in this story named Junesse Malaterre, the narrator’s great grandmother. Junesse is shy and timid and the comparison with June Morrissey from Love Medicine is striking because June was the wild one. Considering that Erdrich’s fiction connects across books and stories, I wonder about the name Junesse.

I’ll also be very interested to see how Louise Erdrich turns this 5600 word story into a novel, and I’m excited to find out.

Reading “The Plague of Doves” renews a desire to go back and re-read Erdrich’s novels, from Love Medicine to The Painted Drum. I own them all, except for the most recent, I just need to take the time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Brandon Sanderson to finish Wheel of Time

If anything can be old news in a couple of days, this is it. Tor announced on friday that Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) has been tapped to finish the final novel of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. The news has been making the rounds of the SFF blogs and message boards and while I don't have a sense of what the consensus is about the news, assuming there can be one, I think Sanderson's selection is a good move.

My initial wish was for George Martin to write A Memory of Light, and if I'm being honest, he is still my first choice.

But Sanderson has the love of Wheel of Time and a knowledge of epic fantasy and his styling in both Elantris and Mistborn seems that he might be able to pull it off. Plus, he is working from extensive notes, both written and recorded, as well as the fact that Jordan's wife Harriet will edit the novel (as she has done the rest of the series).

Sanderson has been interviewed over at Dragonmount where he reveals that he has every intention of writing in exactly who killed Asmodean. He better!!! I want a chapter written in first person perspective from the killer and the chapter should be titled "I Killed Asmodean". The chapter should begin, "I, Bela, the Creator, killed Asmodean..."

The first thought I had when I read about the announcement: Good for Brandon! He seems like a nice guy and is open with his readers and this is a great opportunity for him. It should be a huge boost to his career.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

19 Books I'm Looking For in 2008

Stolen directly from the Gravel Pit because I thought it was a great idea to look at the titles from the full year to come rather than just what might be interesting in a single quarter. Locus only went up to September, so if I am missing a great title, it is only because I am not aware of it yet.

This list is mostly in order of my interest, but after the first couple it becomes a real jumble.

1: A Dance With Dragons – George R. R. Martin (??): There is no release date set and George Martin is still working on the book, so this may not see the light of day until 2009, but on the off chance that Martin does finish early this year and it is published by Christmas, this is the title I am most looking forward to.

2: Ink and Steel – Elizabeth Bear (July): After reading Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water this year, just about the only thing that I am more looking forward to than Ink and Steel IS a new George Martin novel. This one jumps back in time to the era of Shakespeare and Marlowe and the earlier days of the Prometheans.

3: The Republic of Thieves – Scott Lynch (June): Scott Lynch has truly delivered the goods with his first two novels and the thought that we will get a third volume in the Gentleman Bastards sequence is worth plenty of anticipation. I fully expect that this one will be just as good as the first two, and that is plenty good.

4: Judge – Karen Traviss (Apr): After reading City of Pearl I was hooked on the Wess'har Wars from Karen Traviss and the series has held its high quality through the first five books. This is the sixth and final volume.

5: Wastelands – John Joseph Adams (Jan): Anthology of post apocalyptic fiction. Featuring Stephen King, Octavia Butler, Elizabeth Bear, George R. R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, and more.

6: Dust – Elizabeth Bear (Jan): Don't know too much about it, but it is a new novel from Elizabeth Bear and the beginning to a new series. I expect great things.

7: Zoe’s Tale – John Scalzi (Aug): Old Man's War: The Next Generation. Any questions?

8: Sly Mongoose – Tobias Buckell (Aug): The third entry in the ever improving series which began with Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, I really want to see where Buckell takes us next.

9: Reaper’s Gale – Steven Erikson (Feb): A new Malazan novel. Enough said.

10: The Best of Lucius Shepard – Lucius Shepard (Aug): Shepard has continued to impress me with everything I have read of his, and a career retrospective is something that needs to be read.

11: Other Teddy Roosevelts – Mike Resnick (Jan): Teddy Roosevelt Vampire Hunter? Resnick brings a collection of his Roosevelt stories together here and this should be a good one.

12: Starship: Rebel – Mike Resnick (??): The fourth entry in the Starship series. Pleasure to read Resnick's Starship novels.

13: Fathom – Cherie Priest (Sept): I have only read Four and Twenty Blackbirds from Priest but that was enough to put her gothic fantasy on this list.

14: The Hero of Ages – Brandon Sanderson (June): The third Mistborn novel. The second book was a little bit of a disappointment, but the first was good enough to keep this on my list, though farther down than it might have otherwise been.

15: Stalking the Vampire – Mike Resnick (Aug): No clue what this is about, but I like Resnick.

16: The Born Queen – Greg Keyes (Apr): The conclusion to The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone. These books have slipped a little bit in my estimation over the years, but this is still quality fantasy.

17: The Wrong Grave and Other Stores – Kelly Link (Sept): I'm curious about this collection. I'm not as high on Link's fiction as other readers are, but she is a talented writer and worth reading.

18: The Victory of Eagles – Naomi Novik (July): The fourth Temeraire novel.

19: Return of the Crimson Guard – Ian Cameron Esslemont (Aug): I have heard about this Malazan novel for years, I would love to see how it ties in and how Esslemont stands up with Erikson (they created the world together)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Sung in Blood, by Glen Cook

Sung in Blood
Glen Cook
Night Shade Books: 2006
originally published 1990

The city of Shasesserre has enjoyed three hundred years of peace, both within and from without, because of the actions of a magician named Jehrke. Through Jehrke, all villains looking to disrupt the peace of Shasesserre have been foiled. Until Jehrke is murdered and his son, Rider, is the only one who can find the killer and continue to protect Shasesserre - whether or not the rulers of Shaseserre wish his help and protection.

Rider, along with his band of merry misfits, begin the investigation and encounter strangers wishing harm to Shasesserre, black magicians, gnarly men, and more.

Glen Cook is a talented writer with a vivid imagination and a gift for describing characters, action, and setting in a simple manner that engages the reader instantly. Sung in Blood shows little evidence of this talent. The descriptions in Sung in Blood are heavy handed and obvious.
All through the night assassins moved. They were not many, but their ways were stealthy and cunning. Never were they so direct or crude as to employ a frontal attack with steel. p 124
Jehrke had known all Shasesserre's leading men, so his son knew them, too. This mansion belonged to one Vlazos, currently posted to the western army for his year in five of public service. p 23
These are two examples of Glen Cook flat out telling the reader detail rather than somehow having the detail flow organically out of the story. The sense of flow is certainly a difficult thing to achieve, but in Sung in Blood the detail and explanation and often times even the action were so over the top obvious that I forgot that Glen Cook's name was on the cover of the book.

Cook tries to blend action, fantasy, and humor together, but unfortunately it all feels forced. Some of the humor works, one joke at a time, but taken as a whole there is never the easy comfort one might find in the harsher world of The Black Company.

There is a sense about Sung in Blood that it could be either a shorter and less developed draft of a longer novel, or that the novel could be an expanded version of a novella or novellette. The sense that I have about Sung in Blood is that the story would be better be served by a shorter story, by condensing the narrative and tightening it. Considering Sung in Blood is 172 pages of story, this may seem odd, but there is not quite enough story or description to fill out those pages. The stranger thing is that the novel just kind of ends. Was this supposed to be the first book of a planned duology or series, because rather than setting up a second book Sung in Blood feels incomplete.

This has been a difficult review to write because after reading Glen Cook's Black Company novels I have such a high opinion of the man's work and finding very little to praise about Sung in Blood is disappointing. Honestly, the best three things about the book are Glen Cook's name on the cover, Bob Eggleton's beautiful (as always) cover art, and the binding / construction of the book itself (it is a nice physical piece of work and Night Shade should be happy with whichever company they pay to print / bind their books).

The back cover of the book has this to say:
Long out of print and impossible to find, Sung in Blood blends the exhilaration and excitement of Doc Savage, the devious villainy of Fu Manchu, and the thrilling swords and sorcery action of the best high fantasy escapades.
Perhaps if Sung in Blood was published in Asimov's or F&SF as a longer story I might be more charitable, but as a novel, as something to pay money for, Sung in Blood simply does not pass muster.

Reading copy courtesy of Night Shade Books

Friday, December 07, 2007

November 2007 Reading

Links, as always, will bring you to my review of each book.

1. Mendoza in Hollywood - Kage Baker
2. A Lifetime of Secrets - Frank Warren
3. You Don't Love Me Yet - Jonathan Lethem
4. Retro Pulp Tales - Joe R. Lansdale (editor)
5. Blind Descent - Nevada Barr
6. Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand - Aaron Allston
7. Blaze - Stephen King
8. Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine: 30th Anniversary Anthology - Sheila Williams (editor)
9. Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill
10. The Last Dancer - Daniel Keys Moran
11. Traitor - Matthew Stover
12. The Sagan Diary - John Scalzi
13. Lords and Ladies - Terry Pratchett
14. Promises to Keep - Charles DeLint
15. Night Shift - Stephen King
16. Exile's Song - Marion Zimmer Bradley
17. The Colorado Kid - Stephen King
18. The Bottoms - Joe R. Lansdale
19. Confessor - Terry Goodkind
20. Whiskey and Water - Elizabeth Bear
21. Hammered - Elizabeth Bear
22. A War of Gifts - Orson Scott Card

213 total books read through November.

Best Book of the Month: Whiskey and Water – Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age is beautifully written and takes well known settings of hell and faerie and turns them on their head.

Worst Book of the Month: Blaze – A complete misfire by Stephen King

Disappointment of the Month: You Don’t Love Me Yet – I expect much more out of Jonathan Lethem

Pleasant Surprise of the Month: Asimov’s Science Fiction 30th Anniversary Anthology - Almost every story was a winner.

Novella of the Month: Promises to Keep – This is a good introduction to Charles DeLint.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Quick Takes: Stephen King, Joe R. Lansdale

Night Shift, by Stephen King: This is King’s first collection of short fiction and nearly all of the stories are entertaining and have elements of creepiness. The thing about this collection is that each story takes one idea and runs with it. For example: “Trucks” deals with people discovering that trucks have all become sentient and intent on killing humans and a group of people are trapped at a gas station (apparently this is the genesis of the idea which will later lead to Christine and From a Buick 8). The stories are hit and miss, but mostly hits. “Children of the Corn” is a genuinely creepy / nasty story. I think it is the evil children thing. The best and most imaginative story in this collection, however, is one that has generally been unsung – at least to my experience, is “Quitters, Inc”. This story has a mysterious company with a guaranteed success rate for helping people to quit smoking. I expect King’s later collections to improve, but while Night Shift was slightly underwhelming, it was still a good read.

The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King: Two aging newspaper men in a small coastal community tell a story to their young, new coworker, about one of the town’s true mysteries, that of the man they nicknamed The Colorado Kid. The novel unfolds like two men telling a story and while there are hints of darkness, it is really a simple story, not quite like one of Plato’s dialogues but along those lines. The Colorado Kid would likely read well as an audio book. This is a low key novel and is a quick and easy read, which is good because it doesn’t quite merit excitement.

The Bottoms, by Joe R. Lansdale: A bit of a mystery here when two white children find the corpse of a black woman in the South in the 1920’s. Who did it and will he strike again? The racial atmosphere is tangible. The Bottoms is very well written novel, as is everything Lansdale writes, and while it was a very good book I could only read it in smallish chunks of 30-40 pages at a time before putting the book down again. I could not stay in this setting for any length of time. Landsale readers will note the connection to his novella The Boar, which is set nearby. I am unsure if this is before or after that story. Impressive work of fiction, but smaller doses of reading was required.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Quick Takes: John Scalzi, Terry Pratchett, Charles DeLint

The Sagan Diary, by John Scalzi: While I can’t get enough Old Man’s War and I thoroughly enjoyed the short story “Questions for a Soldier”, The Sagan Diary is a different animal all together. Set after The Ghost Brigades, Jane Sagan has been discharged from the Colonial Special Forces and intends to join John Perry in a quiet life together on a colony planet. The Sagan Diary is being used by the Colonial government to evaluate their soldiers, but it seems to be written to John Perry, though I do not remember if he is ever intended to read it. It is a deeply personal story and completely in Jane Sagan’s head and she thinks about different aspects of herself and explains herself in a level of detail that was unexpected, even poetic. The Sagan Diary is utterly unlike any of the OMW novels, and unlike even “Questions for a Soldier”, and this may be off putting for some readers. I’ll admit that it wasn’t what I expected, or perhaps hoped for, but it was well written for what it is. This shows a bit of range on John Scalzi’s part, but again, The Sagan Diary is not for all fans of Scalzi’s work as it is devoid of action and the humor which so marked his longer fiction. The novella is exactly what it advertises: Jane Sagan’s private diary, non military. The Sagan Diary is also available for free online.

Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett: Why, oh, why is Discworld so hit or miss? I want to love (or like) these books, and Lords and Ladies is overall better than some of the previous books, but it was difficult to really get a feel for the story and how everything was piecing together. Pratchett’s storytelling style is a bit off-putting for me and the Witches generally are one of my less favorite of all characters (I don’t like Rincewind, either, but the Luggage more than makes up for it), and this somewhat telling of faerie and A Midsummer Night’s Dream does not all come together as perhaps it could or should. Terry Pratchett sells a ridiculous amount of books, and I don’t grudge him his success, but I expect more from him than what I get. Perhaps I shouldn’t since this is the 14th Discworld novel. I’m stubborn, though, and I’ll make it through all of the Discworld novels...I’m younger than Pratchett is. I’ll catch up.

Promises to Keep, by Charles de Lint: Promises to Keep is a novella about the Jilly Coppercorn’s earlier life, about just after she got herself clean. I imagine for long time reader of the Newford series of novels and stories, there would be some emotional resonance to the character they are well familiar with. But this was only my second Newford story, so I don’t have that same feeling of familiarity or belonging to the series. While I know that titles really don’t give a good sense of what kind of novel one is about to read, I’ve been hesitant to read the Newford stories because I expected something fluffy and light, like Newford should be a few miles away from Stars Hollow (not that Gilmore Girls is all fluffy and light, but what I want from a tv show is different than what I want from a book). There is an interesting breeziness to DeLint’s prose, like it is all coming easy to him and there is a comforting feeling to his narration. This is the only thing easy about Promises to Keep. Jilly’s history is a hard one and we see some of her abuses and her fight to kick her drug addiction. The content is certainly not easy, but everything flows together so that even as DeLint is drawing us down in darkness we aren’t overwhelmed by it, perhaps because Jilly is not overwhelmed and that she does recover. Being a novella, Promises to Keep is reasonably short, but it tells a story that I wanted to keep reading. In short, Promises to Keep whet my appetite for other Newford stories and put Charles DeLint on my list of authors I want to read more of.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Whiskey and Water, by Elizabeth Bear

Whiskey and Water
Elizabeth Bear
Roc: 2007

Seven years prior to the beginning of Whiskey and Water Matthew Magus and Jane Andraste fought a war against Faerie. Jane attempted to rescue her daughter, Elaine, a half human / half faerie who was at the time the Seeker of the Daonie Fae. The result of this war was Matthew betrayed Jane, the Prometheans destroyed, Elanie took the throne of the Daonie Sidhe, Matthew was left powerless and with a crippled right hand, and an uneasy truce between the Faerie and the humans of the Promethean Club.

Seven years later a woman is murdered in New York City. This, in itself, would not be unusual, but the murder was clearly Fae. This with a truce that has kept Faerie out of New York for seven years. Matthew, the Protector of New York, needs to find the killer. Jane Andraste, still alive, is rebuilding the Promethean Club, presumably to restart the war against Faerie.

But, wait. There's more.

Elizabeth Bear brings back Elaine and Carel the Merlin, and Whiskey, and most (if not all) of the living characters of Blood and Iron. More than this, and much more interesting than this, Elizabeth Bear mixes in Christopher Marlowe, Lucifer, Satan, the Archangel Michael, a trio of human twenty somethings who want to be faerie, interfighting amongst the faerie, betrayal, Lucifer's yearning for heaven, magic, new mages, and does so in a way that feels entirely fresh and original.

The result?

One beautifully written book that at 431 pages could easily have been three hundred pages longer and have lacked for nothing. Isn't that what a novel should be? A complete story that leaves the reader wanting more? Whiskey and Water is exactly that.

While the set up of the novel leads the reader to expect the resumption of an active war between human and faerie, the execution is far superior to that. Elizabeth Bear tells a story about stories, about how all stories are true, even when they aren't. The telling and retelling of a story is what makes it true and makes it real. Devils who were not around before the story was told are now real.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Whiskey and Water is the existence of heaven and hell, only there is just one heaven but multiple hells depending on the devil. With Lucifer (Christopher Marlowe's Lucifer) as a major character we get to see a bit of the perspective of the other side and how Hell relates to human and faerie. It would have been very easy for Bear to simply make Lucifer a sympathetic character just for the sake of shock or to be contrary, but Lucifer, like nearly every single character in the novel is a fully realized character with his own motivations and his own goals and wishes. That's what is so remarkable here, Bear has created numerous distinct characters with distinct voices and traits. They act in ways that may not even be convenient for the story, but are necessary for the character to be real.

Whiskey and Water is an expansion of Blood and Iron and though Elaine Andraste is relegated to being a secondary character, the importance of what happened seven years prior can not be overstated. The changes in the characters from Blood and Iron to this novel make sense.

Simply said, after all this, Whiskey and Water is an outstanding novel. It surpasses the already excellent Blood and Iron and showed Bear's development in storytelling and character, and should be counted as one of the best novels published in 2007.

I can only hope that Elizabeth Bear is able to sell more of her Promethean Age novels. Two more are due to be published in 2008, set back in 16th and 17th Century England (which makes me guess that Kit Marlowe and Will Shakespeare will play major roles), with a third novel sold but not scheduled. This leaves 8-9 novels on Bear's chronology left unwritten and unsold. If Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water are any gauge, and they should be, The Promethean Age could be one of the most oustanding fantasy series written and nearly every book would be standalone. I can only hope.

This Just In: Mainspring

Thanks to a contest over at the Fantasy Hot List I am the proud owner of Jay Lake's newest novel Mainspring.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Serenity Found

Jane Espenson has another book of essays on Firefly and Serenity and somehow it came out and I completely missed it (thanks to SF Signal for the link). This one is called Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe. USA Today has an excerpt of Nathan Fillion's essay "I, Malcolm".

I'll have to see if I can procure a copy from my local library. The first collection, Finding Serenity, was an interesting assortment of essays, including one from Jewel Staite (she played Kaylee).

Exile's Song, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Exile’s Song
Marion Zimmer Bradley

With Exile’s Song Marion Zimmer Bradley returns to Darkover with a sequel to Sharra’s Exile, though set a number of years later. Margaret Alton is the daughter of Lew Alton, the Imperial Senator from Darkover. In Sharra’s Exile we had Lew’s story, but in the intervening years Lew told his daughter nothing about her heritage and Margaret is nearly estranged from her distant father. Instead Margaret is a musicologist, a scholar studying indigenous music on various planets. Along with her teacher, Ivor, Margaret is sent to Darkover and she is initially intrigued by this cold world. She experienced odd flashes of memory which she did not understand and soon after arriving Ivor died, leaving Margaret alone on a strange world which seems to be trying to reclaim her.

Margaret soon meets a cousin and hires a Renunciate to travel to collect the folk songs of Darkover, but between her visions and the hardships of travel, Margaret soon finds herself being pulled different ways as her large extended family attempt to lay claim to Margaret’s heritage. You see, Margaret is heir to the Alton Domain and as an unmarried woman and an untrained telepath, her emergence on Darkover is the catalyst for the troubles of others.

Exile’s Song slowly reveals Margaret’s heritage and her family’s history, as well as the history of Darkover, and throws Margaret into Darkovan politics.

The major issue is with this novel is that Exile’s Song features a half-hearted romance, and despite being the protagonist of the novel, Margaret Alton doesn’t do anything. She does not act. She barely responds to action, except with a refusal to marry or bend to local custom, until resolution occurs at the end of the novel. It seems that Margaret is simply swept along in a world she doesn’t understand and moves from point A to point B with no real intent at all.

Exile’s Song is a typical Darkover novel. It can be read without much understanding of Darkover, and I believe this is intentional. Most Darkover novels are written to stand alone, but that simple fact of standing alone leaves us with clumsy info dumps of detail that the long time Darkover reader will have been well aware of. Had the background been introduced subtly and in drips and drabs to give the story flavor, it might have been more effective, but as it stands, Bradley just throws it all at the reader in big chunks of exposition (throughout the novel). As always, Darkover novels are about the culture clash of Terrans with Darkovans, and any protagonist Bradley presents us with will naturally whether the culture clash easily. The villains are typically Darkovans who want everything to stay traditional with the “old ways” and / or Terrans who want to ruthlessly change everything. The middle ground is where the heroes lie, to protect Darkover while understanding that things can’t go back the way they were and that there needs to be a way to meet the Terran Empire but retain the Darkovan identity.

This novel reads quick and easy enough for a 400+ page novel that should be half the size, but it just is not very good. So little of note occurs in the novel and Margaret is such a weak protagonist that whatever story there is in Exile’s Song feels like a poor reflection of things that have been done before in stronger Darkover novels.