Saturday, May 31, 2008

Text Message Stories

Inspired by the Japanese phenomenon of cellphone novels, Mary Robinette Kowal has started a text message story: "The Case of the White Phoenix Feather".

Hey, the first line already has ninjas in it, so its gotta be good. Plus, MRK is awesome.

Worth a shot? Absolutely!

The first four sentences of the story are available via the above link. To get more of the story, whenever MRK writes it, you'll have to contact her with your cell number and future installments will show up like magic on your cell phone. Just like magic.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Before They Are Hanged
Joe Abercrombie
Pyr: 2008

Before They Are Hanged is the second volume in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law sequence and follows his debut novel The Blade Itself. Abercrombie picks up the various character threads left hanging from the first book. Inquisitor Glotka has been named Superior of Dagoska and is tasked with finding what happened to the previous Superior while also protecting the city from the expected siege it is about to sustain. The Northman Logan Ninefingers travels with the First Wizard Bayaz, the preening and untested swordsman Jezal, an angry warrior woman from the South, Ferro, and a couple of others. Logan and company seek a treasure from antiquity on behalf of Bayaz, some talisman which will change the tide of history. Colonel West joins the armies fighting the incursion from the North.

As the middle book in a trilogy, Before They Are Hanged only makes sense if viewed in light of The Blade Itself. Any cursory overview of the novel’s plot will sound old and well used, but if one has read The Blade Itself and enjoyed The Blade Itself, there is a great deal of excitement to be found in what happens to the various characters of Before They Are Hanged.

What I once considered to be something called Middle Book Syndrome I now believe to be a combination of two things which affect how readers view the second book in a trilogy. The first volume is new, it is fresh. It is our first glimpse into a strange new world with (hopefully) exciting new characters. It is the first taste and it is delicious. We then wait a number of months or years to read the new volume, the second volume. The craftsmanship of the author has hopefully improved from Book 1 to Book 2, but often enough the second volume doesn’t taste quite as good even though it was better prepared. We’ve met all these characters before. It isn’t fresh. The second thing that affects this perspective of a second book is that we have not yet been given the ultimate resolution of the trilogy. Book Two should advance plotlines, further develop characters, but seldom is there that fully satisfying conclusion because that’s what we will have in Book Three. So, we get what is called Middle Book Syndrome with question of whether or not the novel was filler and could have been better told.

I think that Joe Abercrombie escapes this sense of Middle Book Syndrome with Before They Are Hanged. Yeah, some of the shiny newness has worn off the characters. We’ve met Glotka and Jezal and Logen before, and yeah, they don’t do too much we don’t see coming. Yet, character development does happen and I think it occurs in a realistic manner. We can guess how Jezal is going to change because he starts as an arrogant young pup and he is on his first adventure with men (and woman, though Ferro is almost more masculine than the guys). He has to change and he is likely to change in a particular way. Glotka and Logen are men grown and men formed, so even as there are chinks in their armor, they ultimately remain true to themselves. The success here is that Abercrombie has drawn out these fascinating characters. No matter what they are doing, we want more of Glotka, the crippled torturer. We want more of Logen Ninefingers and his berserker rage. We may not necessarily want more of Jezal, but we get that, too (but less of Jezal than we have in The Blade Itself). Abercrombie delivers when he writes such clearly defined characters. There may be a sense that these are stock characters, more archetype than wholly original, but Abercrombie writes them so damn well that I’m not sure I really care.

What happens is of importance to the story and our enjoyment of it, but it is not quite important enough to attempt to give an overview of. There is political intrigue with Sand dan Glotka taking over the city, there is questing with the motley crew searching for a stone at the Edge of the World, and there are battles and incompetence in the Colonel West storyline. Topping 500 pages Before They Are Hanged feels short, as if another 200 pages would help create a fully satisfying reading experience.

The only true negative I have for Before They Are Hanged is simply that I know the story isn’t over yet. Abercrombie provides closure on the direct storylines begun in this novel, but there is an overarching story that we know isn’t complete even while we don’t know exactly where Abercrombie is taking us.

I mentioned in my review of The Blade Itself that the novel would be judged based on the successes of the subsequent two volumes. Thus far we can count The Blade Itself a resounding success.

Before They Are Hanged improves upon the vision of the first novel, feels more tightly written (for whatever that means or is worth) and overall *feels* like a stronger novel. It lacks the freshness that can only exist in the opening novel of a series, but it measures up to the promise of the first book.

Another fine effort from Abercrombie.

Previous Reviews:
The Blade Itself

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld

I would never have read Uglies if not for John Scalzi. On May 2 he blogged about YA SFF books in a post titled “Why YA” in which he states:
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: The most significant SF writer right now is Scott Westerfeld, whom it seems most adult science fiction fans still have not read and indeed barely know exists.
The argument is pretty much that Westerfeld is the flag-bearer for SF in the YA market and that Westerfeld is damn good and deserves far more recognition from the adult market than he currently gets. Shoot, I had only heard of Westerfeld as the YA writing husband of Justine Larbalestier, and I had only heard of her because Scalzi mentions from time to time which prompted me to read her Magic and Madness novel.

Westerfeld is the real deal.

With Uglies Westerfeld has opened a series where Extreme Beauty is the Norm, and children under 16 are considered Uglies until they grow up enough to undergo a surgery to make them Pretty, where they can live out the rest of their lives without a care in a world where the only value is being Pretty. It’s an odd, but compelling setting. Tally Youngblood is to turn Pretty soon and cannot wait, but when she meets a new friend who would rather remain Ugly her world begins to turn upside down as she is forced to question everything she thought she wanted and why she wanted it.

In a very technical sense Uglies is a YA novel. It is written with a teenaged protagonist and is aimed directly at teenaged (Young Adult) readers. And yet, what marks the best YA is that the books are accessible to readers of all ages and work on different levels for readers of all ages. When an adult can read a YA novel and enjoy it just as much (though in a different way) as a teenager / child, that’s a book that crosses boundaries and deserves to be recognized as just a Good Book.

Uglies is a Good Book. Period.

I’ll be reading the rest of this series as well as looking for Peeps and his Midnighters books. All it takes is one good book and I’m hooked.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Refining Fire begins

I will have you all know that the season finale of Shadow Unit has begun. "Refining Fire" is a (short) novel length story that will close out the first season (hopefully of many) of Shadow Unit...the best damn thing going. "Refining Fire" is written by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull and will be posted / published in five parts over the next week.

Go read. Now.

You'll thank me later.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Reviews Forthcoming this Week

This is what I intend to review this week:
Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie
Nano Comes to Clifford Falls, by Nancy Kress
Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld

and, why I didn't like The Life of the World to Come, by Kage Baker (this will either take the form of an actual review, or will just consist of my bitching for a paragraph or two and then clicking "publish post", I haven't decided).

Should my ambition get the best of me, I'll write about the Nancy Kress collection because I accepted an ARC in return for a review and I honor my commitments, so that is priority #1, and then I'll whine about Kage Baker, and then I'll post something really short about Uglies.

The goal, though, is to actually write slightly longer reviews of each.

Oh, and a couple more quick short story reviews / overviews from Best American Fantasy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Not Flesh Nor Feathers, by Cherie Priest

Not Flesh Nor Feathers
Cherie Priest
Tor: 2007

With her third and presumably final Eden Moore offering, Cherie Priest says goodbye to Chattanooga. Not Flesh Nor Feathers opens with two children escaping from a flood in Chattanooga. While they are trapped in the attic of the old armory they hear sounds of...things...below them, something trying to get out. They survive, of course, and grow up to be Eden’s mother and aunt, but the memory remains and informs the rest of Not Flesh Nor Feathers.

This is important, the memory of the things that came out of the water decades prior.

As a reminder, Eden Moore can communicate with ghosts. She’s had a couple of previous ghost related adventures which were detailed in Four and Twenty Blackbirds and Wings to the Kingdom (two excellent novels, I might add). Now, in her mid 20’s, Eden is ready to move out of her aunt’s house and into an apartment of her own. The place she has chosen is down by the river. Lu, her aunt, is adamant that Eden not move there because the river might flood. Lu doesn’t explain her true fear, though, about the things that came out of the water from the last flood. Eden is warned by one of the town crazies that the new construction has stirred something that shouldn’t be disturbed, and that some of the transients have disappeared. Nick, a reporter we first met in Wings to the Kingdom, asks Eden to come with him to the Read House because of increased activity by legendary local ghost, the White Lady.

Things have begun, the rains are about to come, and the Tennessee River will rise.

Unlike Four and Twenty Blackbirds or Wings to the Kingdom, Cherie Priest has made Chattanooga downright scary this time out. Most of the action of Not Flesh Nor Feathers takes place during the flooding of the Tennessee River. Using the word “Flooding” does not entirely capture how high the river rises, how much of Chattanooga is covered, and just how frightening Chattanooga becomes. Priest does an outstanding job with description in this novel, with the fear of the ghosts, with the fear of the residents, with the fear of what comes out from the water, what the construction and the flooding has disturbed. Cherie Priest blends local history with a nearly iconic use of setting that makes the Chattanooga so real we can smell it, we can taste the river and the fear.

Not Flesh Nor Feathers reads as if Priest is saying goodbye. During the writing of the novel Priest moved from Tennessee to Oregon, but the combination of the flood and the destruction caused by the flood and just how Eden Moore speaks about the city in the novel really get the point across that this is goodbye. Not Flesh Nor Feathers closes the trilogy on Eden Moore, though as a reader who has been captivated by Eden Moore and Chattanooga, I hope that Priest decides to revisit Eden, if not Chattanooga.

I suspect this is why writers work in series (even loose series of related novels), because the readers fall so much in love with the characters and the setting that they are willing to buy more and more of these books. Creatively Cherie Priest may need to step away from Eden Moore, and if so, Not Flesh Nor Feathers was a perfect way to close the door on Eden and Tennessee.

Oh. Did I mention the exploding zombies? Not Flesh Nor Feathers has zombies, folks! How much better can this get?

Previous Reviews:
Four and Twenty Blackbirds
Wings to the Kingdom

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thoughts on Hugo Nominees 2008: Novelettes

"The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairytale of Economics" by Daniel Abraham (Logorrhea ed. by John Klima)
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang (F&SF Sept. 2007)
"Dark Integers" by Greg Egan (Asimov's Oct./Nov. 2007)
"Glory" by Greg Egan (The New Space Opera, ed. by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan)
"Finisterra" by David Moles (F&SF Dec. 2007)

I previously reviewed “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" here, and really, I don't know quite what to say other than Ted Chiang is an outstanding writer and storyteller and this is a great story.

“Glory” was originally published in The New Space Opera, an anthology I apparently did not love as much as a goodly number of other people. The story opens with several pages of description of what is occurring to some antimatter needle, or something. Honestly, I didn’t get exactly what was happening or what the implications were. What I knew is that I was already turned off from “Glory”. This opening allows some sort of distant travel to be possible (distant meaning to far flung galaxies otherwise impossible to reach). “Glory” is chock full of too much SF technology and narration about technology, and this is the sort of thing that makes my eyes glaze over. Once we got past this initial eye glazing, however, Greg Egan began to tell a fairly interesting story about uncovering history on an alien world. Well, that’s not –exactly- what “Glory” is about, but it is as good an abstraction as any. “Glory” is an odd blend of overwhelmingly dull detail (mathematics cubes? Really?) and discovery. I don’t think the blend works nearly as well as this nomination suggests.

Greg Egan’s other nominated story is “Dark Integers”, a warfare via mathematics story. Yeah. Really. It’s different. I’ll grant Egan that much, but this is the sort of thing I’ve stopped reading Stross novels for. Too much technical detail, not enough humanity. Though, in the case of Egan there is a good deal more humanity than found in a techy Stross novel. Early on we are unclear on exactly how this works, but there is an incursion across borders by some unknown math program and flags are raised, hackles are up. The only ones who can be trusted not to screw up the investigation are three people who have formed their little secret society of sorts. Egan does something here, he makes the math talk somewhat interesting. I could care less about the plot, but the discussion of math as weapon somehow comes across as natural and real, rather than abstract. Beyond that, Greg Egan’s two nominated stories here fail to impress. They are competent and workmanlike, and some SF readers clearly delight in Egan’s fiction, but between “Glory” and “Dark Integers”, I’m not one of them. The best I can say is that there is a core of a good story here, but Egan doesn’t quite hit it.

You hope for the story from which you expect little and get much in return, the story that has a title which is makes no sense and turns you off from the story right away. “Finisterra”. Break down the title and the best I can come up with is “finis” “terra”. The end of earth. This is before I’ve read the story, by the way. I expected little from David Moles’ “Finisterra”. That’s what I got. 3 pages and I struggle. Not to make sense of the text, but rather to care. Moles writes descriptive prose, hitting details in Spanish and perhaps Arabic, and he evokes a multi-cultural, almost alien landscape. Or, skyscape, as the case may be. 6 pages and it’s official. I wouldn’t have bought this story. If this came out of a slush pile, the rejection slip would have gone out. It’s just a matter of taste and this story doesn’t suit me. I’m sure there is great descriptions, some action (things were thinking about heating up), and a good story, but Moles didn’t hit me in such a way that I wanted to keep reading.

Proving that you can’t truly judge a story by its title, we come to “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics” by Daniel Abraham. A cambist is a person who is an expert in knowing exchange rates and the value of stuff. Lord Iron is that extravagantly wealthy individual with debased and decadent tastes who only seems to exist in fantasy stories, though I’m sure there is a real life counterpart somewhere. Olaf, a cambist, has no personal life outside of his job. One day, Lord Iron, on a capricious whim, challenges Olaf to exchange exceedingly rare currency. If Olaf fails to provide an accurate exchange rate, Lord Iron will destroy Olaf’s life and career. Because he can. Thus begins a series of three encounters between the Olaf, the cambist, and Lord Iron. Each meeting is for greater and greater stakes with increasingly difficult challenges of assigning value. Rather than being a dull story about the value of things, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” is a smoothly written story with an interesting intellectual challenge for Olaf (and in turn the reader, if we want to think about the challenge before Olaf figures it out). Moreover, I liked “The Cambist and Lord Iron” enough that I intend to go find a copy of Logorrhea (the anthology the story is from), and also go read the novels of Daniel Abraham.

The favorite for this category has to be “The Merchant and the Alchemists Gate” from Ted Chiang. It won the Nebula and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t win the Hugo. The story really is that good, as one would expect from Chiang. I expect it to win.

If it doesn’t, I’d be quite happy if Daniel Abraham won for “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics”. Besides being the only other story in this category worth a damn, it’s quite good.

Previous Thoughts
Short Stories
John W. Campbell Award

Monday, May 19, 2008

Best American Fantasy: A Hard Truth About Waste Management

The Vandermeers selected "A Hard Truth About Waste Management" to open their Best American Fantasy anthology. Sumanth Prabhaker's story is localized into one individual apartment where the family decides to flush all their trash down the toilet rather than pay the city's exorbitant waste management tax.

This is the perfect story to open Best American Fantasy because "A Hard Truth About Waste Management" is not the typical fantasy story. With a talking alligator and trash piling up in a way that could only be considered Suessian, "A Hard Truth About Waste Management" would not be out of place in one of Dave Eggers' Non-Required Reading series, and overall is a solid opening to this anthology.

I'm excited to read the rest of the stories in this anthology. I suspect that these are not stories I would normally encounter, though there are names like Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, and Sarah Monette contained within.

"A Hard Truth About Waste Management" is available online over at Identity Theory.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Forthcoming 2008: Q3

Because I enjoy lists of all kinds, and I had this need to create a new one, below are books scheduled to publish in Quarter 3 which I am most looking forward to. This does not mean, of course, that something won’t slip my notice or that I haven’t missed a book, but given that disclaimer, here we go!

Seeds of Change – John Joseph Adams: I have a review copy of this book, but if I didn’t, I would still want to read JJA’s first anthology of original fiction. Seeds of Change contains stories from Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Nnedi Mbachu-Okorafor, and others.

Ink and Steel – Elizabeth Bear: If there was only one book I could read this quarter, Ink and Steel would be it. It’s the third Promethean Age novel.

Dogs – Nancy Kress: The more I read from her Nano Comes to Clifford Falls collection, the higher Dogs goes up my list.

Starlady and Fast Friend – George R. R. Martin: A limited edition of two Martin short stories. Sure, they’ll be available in the original collections, but what’s wrong with a finely bound book?

Victory of Eagles – Naomi Novik: The shine is off Novik’s Temeraire series, but I want to know what happens next.

The Alchemy of Stone – Ekaterina Sedia: Haven’t read anything by Sedia (maybe a short story), but I’ve heard nothing but praise for her debut novel A Secret History of Moscow.

Heaven and Hell – Elizabeth Bear: You know when I said if I could only read one book this quarter it would be Ink and Steel? I’d like to include Heaven and Hell in that. Technically they are one book (The Stratford Man) published as two volumes.

Sly Mongoose – Tobias Buckell: Crystal Rain was good, Ragamuffin was better. Can’t wait to see what Buckell brings next.

Zoe’s Tale – John Scalzi: I’m not quite as excited for Zoe’s Tale as I have been about previous Scalzi novels (nor as much as I will be for The High Castle), but New Scalzi is New Scalzi and I like New Scalzi.

The Best of Lucius Shepard: I reviewed this last month, but if I didn’t have a copy sitting on my shelf, I’d wish I did.

Best American Fantasy 2 – Ann and Jeff Vandermeer: I am about to start reading the first BAF, and I like anthologies.

The Gypsy Morph – Terry Brooks: My excitement about a new Terry Brooks is no longer what it was, but I still compulsively read a new Shannara book, and this is part of the bridge series between Word / Void and Shannara.

Toll the Hounds – Steven Erikson: New Malazan book (#8, for those keeping track at home).

The Wrong Grave and Other Stories – Kelly Link. I want to better understand Kelly Link's fiction. She's good, but I don't love her fiction the way others do.

You May Sleep – Nick Mamatas. A short story collection, I believe.

Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves is still on the Locus list for September, but I understand this has been pushed back into 2009.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

no surprise

This will come as no surprise, but I pretty much disagree across the board with Abigail Nussbaum's thoughts on the Hugo Novellas.


Her Thoughts.
My Thoughts.

I think I am part the audience who "gets" Connie Willis and I thought "Recovering Apollo 8" was the best of the bunch.

Reading Nussbaum, though, is always worthwhile. She's a damn fine critic and writer, even if I tend to like what she passionately dislikes.

A World Too Near, by Kay Kenyon

A World Too Near changes the nature of the story Kay Kenyon set up in Bright of the Sky. In the first book Titus Quinn, a human star pilot from Earth, returned to The Entire, a parallel universe in which his wife and daughter are held captive. Kay Kenyon's description of The Entire from her website gives a good sense of what The Entire is:
In a land-locked galaxy that tunnels through our own, the Entire gathers both human and alien beings under a sky of fire, called the bright. A land of wonders, the Entire is sustained by monumental storm walls and a never-ending river. Over all, the elegant and cruel Tarig rule supreme.
At the conclusion of Bright of the Sky, Titus returned to Earth (also known as The Rose to denizens of The Entire) with the knowledge that the Entire is dying and that the Tarig lords intend to destroy The Rose (Earth) in order to use its energy to maintain The Entire.

Now, in A World Too Near, Titus Quinn returns to The Entire to destroy the fortress of Ahnenhoon and with it, the weapon which would destroy The Rose. To do so, he must once again risk his own life and the lives of those few of The Entire who are willing to harbor and help Titus.

Kay Kenyon opens A World Too Near not with Titus, but rather with his wife Johanna, long held captive in The Entire. With this opening Kenyon expands the novel to provide a new perspective and while A World Too Near is essentially the story of Titus Quinn, it is also that of Johanna and her choice to save The Rose even though she knows she will never return.

When I reviewed Bright of the Sky I noted that while I was impressed with Kenyon's writing craft and imagination, the novel moved far too slowly and that Bright of the Sky required too much effort for not enough reward.

After reading A World Too Near I've changed my mind. The reward is there.

A World Too Near is a much stronger novel than Bright of the Sky, one in which Kenyon's imagination is matched by her storytelling, where the excitement and tension of not knowing if Titus will succeed in saving The Rose or when the double cross will happen. Kenyon expands our knowledge of the world(s) and tells a fairly fast paced story at the same time. She uses old and new characters in different ways, and rewards those readers who took the time to get this far.

A World Too Near is well worth the time.

Reading copy provided by Pyr SF.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Your Collar

When I wrote about the Hugo Short Story nominees I expressed how Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline” was not a story I could get excited about and that it was not a story I would have nominated for the Hugo. I feel differently about “Your Collar”. A minotaur is freed from the labyrinth at Crete. This is not a beast, but a thinking creature which honors his commitments though Asterion cannot speak. Asterion is brought to England, to a Queen, and from that moment, knowing the legends of minotaurs, we (as readers) expect the story to go in one of two directions. Elizabeth Bear chooses another path. “Your Collar” is one of the best of all of Bear’s short fiction. The story is thoughtful, moving, intelligent, and surprising.

I sincerely hope that “Your Collar” is nominated for a 2009 Hugo. When I finished reading the story once, I started back at the beginning to get a bit more from the story the second time through.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Taken He Cannot Be

“Taken He Cannot Be” by Will Shetterly features Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and a hunt for a unicorn mixed together with the hunt for Johnny Ringo. Yeah, you read that right. A unicorn. The movies Tombstone and Wyatt Earp both seem to have missed this detail. Normally this is the sort of thing I would skip if I didn’t know who the author was, but Shetterly belongs to the Shadow Unit clan, and that’s street cred enough for me.

“Taken He Cannot Be” is a tight little western with good interplay between Doc and Wyatt, some humor, some violence, and all in all, it’s a good short story.

The story was available for free on one of Shetterly's blogs, but it was accidentally deleted. According to the blog, it will be back up sometime. When it is, it's well worth reading.

Charles Stross Sales

HALTING STATE author Charles Stross's 419, in which the Scottish police investigation of a serial killer who targets spammers uncovers a massive international "blacknet" conspiracy; ROGUE FARM, a short story collection; and THE FULLER MEMORANDUM, the third book in the Laundry supernatural thriller series, to Ginjer Buchanan at Ace, in a good deal, for publication in July 2010, by Caitlin Blasdell at Liza Dawson Associates (NA).
One of my favorite aspects of Colleen Lindsay's blog The Swivet is her round up of genre acquisitions, or, as I like to call them "sales". Just recently she posted the April sales and Charles Stross has three.

I'm not exactly high on Stross, but his stuff interests me in ways I can't quite explain given that I've quit on three of his books.

So, what do we have here? 419, something that I suspect I'm going to not like as much as Halting State, based on the description above. Rogue Farm, which makes me nervous because I haven't read much of his short work. And, finally, The Fuller Memorandum, which honestly and truly excites me because it is a new Bob Howard Laundry novel. The Fuller Memorandum has moved itself near the top of my 2010 MUST READ list. Those novels (Atrocity Archive, Jennifer Morgue) are damn good. I only wish it was sold to Golden Gryphon since they published the first two and in really nice editions. Plus, I could probably score an advanced review copy if the book was at Golden Gryphon.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Shadow Unit: Overkill

Elizabeth Bear’s “Overkill” is live over at Shadow Unit. “Overkill” is the seventh and penultimate episode in the first season of Shadow Unit.

Act I opens with one of the grislier crime scenes we are likely to read about. Nasty, just nasty. But like a crime scene or an accident, we can’t look away and Bear is too damn good at telling the story to even want to. Just don’t eat anything before starting up.

Despite the overwhelming grisliness of the opening, reading a new Shadow Unit story is a delight to savored.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dead in the West, by Joe R. Lansdale

There are two types of people in the world: Those who think a Zombie Western is an awesome idea, and those who, strangely, don't.

Dead in the West is written for the former, but is good enough that even the latter may be converted. The story opens with some good old fashioned horror. A stage coach is set upon by...well, we don't see what the stage coach is set upon by, but it comes quick and is deadly. There is a creature, we know that much.

A Reverend comes to town, Jebediah Mercer. He carries a gun. Reverend Mercer is the quintessential Western man, owing much to Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider as anything else. He is a man of the cloth, but a hard and dangerous man, doing God's work with his gun.
The man was dressed in black from boots to hat, save for a dusty white shirt and the silver glitter of a modified .36 colt Navy revolver in his black sash waist band. His face, like many men of the Word, was hard and stern. But there was something definitely unGodlike about the man. He had the cool, blue eyes of a cold killer - the eyes of a man who had seen the elephant and seen it well. - pg 8
It isn't clear exactly why the Reverend has come to Mud Creek, but he has, and just in time to find himself in the midst of a zombie outbreak. Is there a better time to come to Mud Creek?

In the hands of any other author, Dead in the West could come across as exceptionally campy, but instead we are given a hard driven story laced with black humor and outstanding zombie action. There is a curse on Mud Creek, and that curse is the blessing of the reader because Lansdale is a master of this blend of action, horror, western, fantasy, and comedy, laced with dialogue so sharp it'll leave a scar.

The narration of Lansdale is not to be missed. The attitude drips off the page.

Dead in the West begins with the horror occurring off the page, with the screams cut off and the damage unseen. As Lansdale spins the story, the horror is more and more real, more in the face of the reader and builds until the violence and tension has to burst out and explode into one hell of a conclusion.

A Joe Lansdale novel is a vicious treat and Dead in the West has to be one of his best. This is not to be missed.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Night Shade Books.

One thing I Reverend Mercer from Dead in the West the same as Reverend Rains from the Lansdale story "Deadman's Road"? There are differences, sure, namely how the choice of firearm and how said firearm is carried (sashes vs holsters), but how many gun toting Reverends can there really be?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Clockwork Chickadee

Clarkesworld Magazine will publish Mary Robinette Kowal's story "The Clockwork Chickadee" in its June issue. I had the opportunity to read Mary's story in advance of publication, and like I have found with so much of Mary's work, it was really good.

"The Clockwork Chickadee" is, simply, a story of deceit and trickery as a little windup Chickadee plots her revenge on the little windup Sparrow.
Chickadee kept her head down when she could so as not to give him the satisfaction of her notice. It was clear to her that any bird could fly if only they were attached to a string like him. The flight, of which he was so proud, was not even an integral part of his clockwork. A wind-up engine hanging from the chandelier spun him in circles while he merely flapped his wings. Chickadee could do as much. And so she thought until she hatched an idea to show that Sparrow was not so very special.
The story is, in turn, playful and charming, well thought out and deliberate, and Kowal appears to have written her own version of an O Henry story.

It works.

It should come as no surprise that I quite enjoyed "The Clockwork Chickadee" as I am a noted fan of Mary Robinette Kowal's work, but written with a simplicity which likely masks the work that went into crafting the story and making sure that what happens at the end is, in fact, set up at the beginning "The Clockwork Chickadee" is as good as anything she has published before.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

On Authors and Finishing Series

I was reminded by a thread over at the Terry Brooks message board that Melanie Rawn still has not started work on The Captal’s Tower, the third volume. I double checked Rawn’s own board and read through the most recent thread of folks whining that Rawn has moved on to the Spellbinder series. There was a little tidbit which I was not aware of before, namely that the long gap between The Mageborn Traitor and Spellbinder was due to Melanie dealing with some serious depression and writing Spellbinder was part of her therapy. Or something along those lines.

Now, I have to remind myself sometimes that writers are people too - complete with all the personal, emotional, physical, mental, and health issues that everybody else has and that life can really kick the ass of a person, no matter the best intentions. Being a reader is so much easier when the books magically appear in the bookstore and in my library and I don’t have to consider Author as Person. Thanks a lot, Maturity.

This means, of course, that the most important thing is that Melanie Rawn the Person is healing and doing what she needs to do to continue healing.

Do you hear a but here?

How about a “however”?

However, I do find myself coming back to something that Shawn Speakman has said from time to time on that same Terry Brooks message board. The author does have a obligation to write the book they have contracted with a publisher for. So, unless Rawn was writing without a contract, she was in breach of contract with her publisher. Now, Speakman was talking more about George R. R. Martin and the continual delays in A Song of Ice and Fire, and that Martin was not showing professionalism by not delivering work on time. This led to discussions about contracting art and timelines and putting out the best product possible. My personal opinion is that the author should take as much time as is reasonable to complete a work on time and that the contract should hopefully reflect the amount of time required to produce the product on time. Sometimes (ahemTerryBrooksahem) I would prefer if the author took a little bit more time to write a better book.

That last paragraph was a bit scattered, but rather than re-write the paragraph, what I am getting at is that if an author has contracted for a book or a series of books, that author should (my opinion) strive to complete that book or series of books. I have less of an issue with delays for personal / professional reasons. That’s...well, not fine, but understandable.

What bugs me, as a reader, as a potential book buyer, is that if I know a book is intended to be part of a series and that the conclusion is in the future, and I purchase Book 1 and I purchase Book 2, I feel I am entering into a trust with the author that the author fully intends and will strive to complete the series. If said author takes a 14 year break in the middle of a planned 3 volume series because he / she has to deal with personal stuff, that’s one thing. That’s...well, not fine, but understandable. But, if in the middle of this 14 year break between the publication of Book 2 of a 3 volume series the author writes several completely unrelated volumes and has made no announcement of when Book 3 will even be worked on, I would feel somewhat betrayed as a reader.

Life gets in the way, I know. Authors may not be able to complete a series for a variety of reasons. But, in the case of Melanie Rawn, she has since published Spellbinder, has announced Spellbinder 2 is on its way early 2009, and reportedly has suggested Spellbinder 3 is in the works...I think, as a reader, that’s crap. I did purchase The Ruins of Ambrai when it was first published. I have it on my bookshelf. I almost purchased The Mageborn Traitor.

This isn’t Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott not writing the spin off novels of a single volume complete story The Golden Key (excellent novel, by the way), this is Rawn choosing to not finish a series she started, promised an ending to, and betrayed the trust of the people who spent money to purchase her books and put a little bit of coin in her pockets.

Don’t start what you can’t finish, and don’t go on to the next project if you’re not still working on the first project.

In my mind this is different than George R. R. Martin working on Wild Cards and various anthologies while still working on A Dance with Dragons, or Elizabeth Bear having a variety of novels contracted in multiple series (for which she is meeting her obligations) and is certainly different than Robert Jordan’s health issues.

In the case of Melanie Rawn and The Captal’s Tower, I do feel betrayed and disappointed by Rawn.

There have to be other authors who have similarly betrayed their fanbases by completely stepping away from finishing a series. I know Glen Cook never wrote the last Dread Empire novel, but at least he had the courtesy to be robbed by a “fan” who stole the only copy of the manuscript.

Anyone know of other examples where the author moved on to other works in the middle of a series outside of publisher-driven reasons and never finished that series by choice?

If working in a series, what responsibility does the author have towards the reader?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Thoughts on Hugo Nominees 2008: Novels

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
Brasyl by Ian McDonald
Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
The Last Colony by John Scalzi
Halting State by Charles Stross

When I first read The Last Colony earlier in 2007 I was quite enamored with the book. It was a chance to read about John Perry, Jane Sagan, and get another story in the OMW universe. Delightful. Time has been slightly less kind to my memories of The Last Colony than I am comfortable with. I need to trust my initial impressions, but unlike Scalzi’s other work (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Android’s Dream), I have fewer warm fuzzies in retrospect. This is simply to say that I don’t think The Last Colony had quite as much meat as its predecessors. Or, maybe it is that the meat had a different flavor, because there was a bit more action and military interaction in the first two volumes, and this is colonists abandoned to their fate. But with everything that I am writing here about how my memory of The Last Colony does not hold up, I still need to go back to my initial review of the book last year. In that initial review, I was quite positive and full of praise.

Compared to The Last Colony, Robert J. Sawyer’s novel Rollback benefited from a much fresher perspective. I finished Rollback on May 5, and all the warm fuzzies I feel for Rollback are still fresh in my mind. This was the first novel from Sawyer I have read and despite having encountered negative opinions of both Sawyer and Rollback (along the lines of it being another damn Sawyer novel), I was quickly engrossed in the novel. Basically, Rollback is two stories in one. First is that of an elderly Don and Sarah Halifax. Sarah Halifax, 38 years ago, was the first to decode the first contact message from another planet 18.8 light years away. Now that Sarah is in her eighties, Earth has received a response to their reply. The man essentially bankrolling SETI believes that Sarah should continue to be involved in the communication, but she is nearing the end of her lifespan. Wealthy Man recommends a rollback procedure, and extremely expensive and relatively new procedure which can quite literally reverse the aging process and give the recipient another 60 years of life. Sarah insists that her husband Don, not a scientist, also receive the procedure. The procedure works on Don, but not Sarah. Now what? The other half of the story is Sarah’s first decoding the original response. There are big ideas in Rollback dealing with science, morality of aging, ethics, what sort of communication we would really receive from another planet, and family responsibility. While what the novel is about is important, it is less important than how Sawyer tells the story. Let me tell you that Sawyer tells it well. Rollback is smooth reading, flowing from chapter to chapter, idea to idea, until before you know it, you’re halfway done with the novel. Oh, and Rollback barely clocks in at more than 300 pages. Not only was I impressed with Rollback on its own terms, now I want to go find more of Sawyer’s work because I like what he’s doing here and I want more of it.

Usually, if I only read two of the five nominees in a category, I won’t write about that category. This is why I skipped the Novel category for my Nebula reviews. The Hugo Novels are different. I may only have finished two of them, but I attempted another two, and that gives me enough to discuss.

I previously posted about why I stopped reading Halting State and why I quit The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The more I think about it, the less I want to go back and read Halting State. I knew I was done with that book when I closed the cover. I like maybe half of Stross’s work and this doesn’t fall into the half I appreciate. I still believe I need more time before I go back to The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. There have been books I came back to later and appreciated more the second time around, though, to be honest, I can’t remember when this occurred. Given that I gave both Halting State and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union a fair shake and came up empty on both, I’ll move on to the fifth and final book in the category.

Brasyl: How I shall never read thee.

Over the last couple of years I’ve read a couple of Ian McDonald stories due to the man’s frequent inclusion on award lists. The stories have so turned me off from reading one of McDonald’s novels that just about the only way I will ever read Brasyl (or River of Gods, or anything else) is if the book shows up in my mailbox for a review. I’ll finish any book I owe a review for, but otherwise, McDonald is out. The only other author with a single story that turned me off so much was Paolo Bacigalupi (“Yellow Card Man”), but his entry in the Wastelands anthology helped me to be receptive to more Bacigalupi stories. Ian McDonald? I’m on strike.

My choice: Rollback. I wonder if I had read both Rollback and The Last Colony a year ago if I would have the same opinion, but given that Rollback is fresh in my mind and my good vibes on The Last Colony are fading a bit, I have to go with the Sawyer. It’s a good read. If, among the Big 3 SFF awards, the Hugo is the award voted on by the masses (such as 500 Worldcon voters can be considered the masses), I think that Rollback plays well to a larger audience (as does The Last Colony, but my vote is still Rollback).

Previous Thoughts:
Short Stories
John W. Campbell Award

Monday, May 05, 2008

Thoughts on Hugo Nominees 2008: Short Stories

"Last Contact" by Stephen Baxter (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, ed. by George Mann)
"Tideline" by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov's June 2007)
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken MacLeod (The New Space Opera, ed. by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan)
"Distant Replay" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's May-June 2007)
"A Small Room in Koboldtown" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's April/May 2007; The Dog Said Bow-Wow)

I’ll start with one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Bear. Her story “Tideline” is set in what has to be some sort of a post apocalyptic setting because there is a former military robot scavenging on a beach. The robot, named Chalcedony, helps rescue a boy of indeterminate age and she (Chalcedony) feeds the boy and teaches the boy. “Tideline” is, I think, about memory and loss, hope and responsibility. Despite my quite obvious delight in the novels of Elizabeth Bear, “Tideline” is not a story I would have put on this of Nominees. Don’t get me wrong, I am more than happy that eBear is nominated for major awards and I don’t understand at all why her novel Whiskey and Water hasn’t been nominated for either a Hugo or a Nebula (because it was the best damn thing published in 2007), but “Tideline” is not (I don’t think) a story that worked for me as much as I had hoped it would. Perhaps my expectations were too high, and I hate saying anything negative about Bear’s writing since I want her to have more recognition and not less, but I just can’t get excited about “Tideline”.

I first read “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359” back in late September 2007 along with the rest of the stories in The New Space Opera. By the time the Hugo nomination came about I couldn’t remember a single thing about the story. So, re-reading the story it is easy to see why it was so difficult to remember. A man (almost a post-human) breaks some arcane law and his punishment is to be sent out to investigate a failed business colony on the planet Wolf 359. Half the story is the man getting to a quarter of the story is the man’s arrest, half the story is his travel to the world, and the final quarter is man on planet and the result. Ken MacLeod packs a whole lot into a little package, and while the story is conceptually interesting, I felt that there was too little actual story for the grander tale that MacLeod sort of told. “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359” could easily have been expanded to twice its size, but instead we are given an almost deus ex machine conclusion and the story wrapped up rather abruptly. This isn’t a story I would have nominated, but then I don’t have a Worldcon membership so I couldn’t nominate.

Seldom will there be a Mike Resnick story which fails to entertain and delight. “Distant Replay” is no exception. Resnick spins a short story about an elderly man who for several weeks sees a woman who looks exactly like his wife did as a younger woman, down to her taste in clothes and the scent of her perfume. Except this man’s wife has been dead for seven years. When Walter (that’s his name) sees the woman at his favorite restaurant, he finally asks if he could speak with her, and the story unfolds from there. The story does not go the way I expected it to, but at the same time “Distant Replay” felt so familiar, as if Resnick was telling a story we’ve all heard but barely remember. Perhaps he is. I don’t know. What I do know is that “Distant Replay” was a pleasant story and a delight to read. Some will likely argue that “Distant Replay” is too “lightweight” to be award worthy, but I don’t know about that. I just know that it was a story I was glad to have read and one that is likely to age well.

“Last Contact” has to be one of the most mournful stories I have read, and a beautiful one at the same time. The story opens on the ides of March with a strained conversation between a mother and her grown daughter. There is talk about multiple “last contacts” early on, but no explanation of what that means. But then we get a hint. A moment later we realize what it means. Another conversation on June 5, and finally on October 14. Overhanging the entire story is what happens on October 14. Stephen Baxter absolutely nailed this story. It is a quiet story between a mother and a daughter, about the ultimate fate of the universe, and about letting go. By the end I was stunned by how simple and perfect it was.

The story I was least excited about was Michael Swanwick’s “A Small Room in Koboldtown”, another story based off one of his novels and from reading "Lord Weary’s Empire" last year, I wasn’t too thrilled by the idea of another Swanwick. This one was better, though I think if I knew more about the setting I’d have more of a feel for the story. There’s a murder investigation. The murder was possibly committed by a haint (think ghost, but able to interact actively with “solids”) and a haint politician Salem Toussaint has his man, Will le Fey, involved in the investigation. It is the setting which is so fascinating here. I want to know more about the haints, how this city works, what are the underlying issues, and just get in deeper into Koboldtown and the surrounding environs. But Swanwick keeps the story in pretty tight to the investigation, nothing more. Details are revealed in the course of the investigation, but everything came together so quickly, and was resolved so fast that I couldn’t help but feel that “A Small Room in Koboldtown” was simply a small chapter in something larger. So, while the story was decent, I felt empty by the conclusion, like I ate the icing but was never served the cupcake. I want my cupcake!!

My Choice: “Last Contact”, by Stephen Baxter. It’s a small localized story set in the middle of something extraordinarily large and I loved every page of it.

Previous Thoughts:
John W. Campbell Award

This leads me to Abigail Nussbaum’s article on these same Hugo nominees. I disagree with pretty much everything she says, even though she does a better job giving her opinions on the fiction. Actually, I only half disagree with her portrait of Mike Resnick’s fiction. I see her point about the simplicity and sameness from his stories, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t a good read. What Abigail seems to be looking for, hoping for, is something (L)iterature, showing intellectual rigor as well as craftsmanship in the prose. Yeah, that’s great, but tell me a good story, a story I care about and want to read again. If the writer can achieve the intellectual rigor while delivering a story that flows, is readable, and is interesting as more than just an intellectual game, that’s a bonus. If not, I want a story that makes me think about what I just read and that “entertains” on some level. The definition of entertainment is up in the air. Some can find intellectual entertainment, others want it on a more visceral level. I think I’m somewhere in between. It is clear to me, though, that what I want from a story is quite different than what Abigail Nussbaum wants. That’s cool. We’re both readers, both want to read a good story. I agree with what she said at the end, that she hopes Elizabeth Bear wins. I just want Bear to win for more personal reasons (i.e. Bear's novels kick ass), and Nussbaum would like to see “Tideline” win on its own merits. Forgetting about the authors, I think “Last Contact” is the one.

Friday, May 02, 2008

2008 Locus Awards Finalists

This is hardly new, but since I expect to be done reading the Hugo Nominees in short order and wanted yet another reading list, I found the 2008 Locus Awards finalists. The Locus Awards are something like the People’s Choice Awards, but the people here recognize quality a little bit more than those who vote for the People’s Choice Awards. This should make me sound just enough like a presumptuous a—that I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

I suspect that when I finish with the Hugo nominees and before World Fantasy is announced much later this year, I’ll knock through the stories I haven’t yet read.

The Locus Awards will be announced on June 21.

The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman (Ace)
Brasyl, Ian McDonald (Pyr)
Halting State, Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit UK)
Spook Country, William Gibson (Putnam; Viking UK)
The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)

Endless Things, John Crowley (Small Beer Press; Overlook)
Making Money, Terry Pratchett (Doubleday UK; HarperCollins)
Pirate Freedom, Gene Wolfe (Tor)
Territory, Emma Bull (Tor)
Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay (Viking Canada; Roc)

Extras, Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK)
The H-Bomb Girl, Stephen Baxter (Faber & Faber)
Magic's Child, Justine Larbalestier (Razorbill)
Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harcourt; Gollancz)
Un Lun Dun, China MiƩville (Ballantine Del Rey; Macmillan UK)

City of Bones, Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster/McElderry)
Flora Segunda, Ysabeau S. Wilce (Harcourt)
Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill (Morrow; Gollancz)
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (DAW; Gollancz)
One for Sorrow, Christopher Barzak (Bantam Spectra)

"After the Siege", Cory Doctorow (The Infinite Matrix Jan 2007)
"All Seated on the Ground", Connie Willis (Asimov's Dec 2007)
"Memorare", Gene Wolfe (F&SF Apr 2007)
"Muse of Fire", Dan Simmons (The New Space Opera)
"Stars Seen through Stone", Lucius Shepard (F&SF Jul 2007)

"Dark Integers", Greg Egan (Asimov's Oct/Nov 2007)
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", Ted Chiang (F&SF Sep 2007)
"Trunk and Disorderly", Charles Stross (Asimov's Jan 2007)
"We Never Talk About My Brother", Peter S. Beagle (Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show Jun 2007)
"The Witch's Headstone", Neil Gaiman (Wizards)

"The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French", Peter S. Beagle (Eclipse One)
"Last Contact", Stephen Baxter (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction)
"A Small Room in Koboldtown", Michael Swanwick (Asimov's Apr/May 2007)
"Tideline", Elizabeth Bear (Asimov's Apr/May 2007)
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?", Ken MacLeod (The New Space Opera)

The Dog Said Bow-Wow, Michael Swanwick (Tachyon)
The Jack Vance Treasury, Jack Vance (Subterranean)
Overclocked, Cory Doctorow (Thunder's Mouth)
Things Will Never Be the Same, Howard Waldrop (Old Earth)
The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories, Connie Willis (Subterranean)

The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant, eds. (Ballantine Del Rey)
The Coyote Road, Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, eds. (Viking)
The New Space Opera, Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan, eds. (Eos)
The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror 2007: Twentieth Annual Collection, Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant, ed. (St. Martin's)
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fourth Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois, ed. (St. Martin's)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Why I Stopped Reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union

This better not be a trend: quitting on the Hugo Novel Nominees. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union just won the Nebula for Best Novel, it is written by a Pulitzer Prize winning author (Michael Chabon), and features some excellent alternate history where in 1948 the United States allowed Jewish refugees to settle in Alaska for a period of 60 years.

So why did I stop?

Not because the book is bad, let me that perfectly clear. Sometimes it just isn’t time to read a particular book. Over the past two weeks I’ve tried to read The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in drips and drabs and it just hasn’t worked for me. Two weeks and I was only seventy pages into a book by an author I admire with a subject that I am very much interested in. It wasn’t the right time for me to read this book.

Unlike Halting State, I will come back to The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. This is a major work from a great author and I would be disappointed if I didn’t read it.

I don’t think the prose is flat, but Chabon definitely takes his own sweet time to get the story and the murder investigation rolling.

Some books are worth coming back to. Sometimes the reader isn’t quite ripe enough yet.