Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fast Ships, Black Sails, by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (editors)

Fast Ships, Black Sails
Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (editors)
Night Shade Books: 2008

Until the Editors Vandermeer pubished Fast Ships, Black Sails, pirates had not truly penetrated into popular fiction the way they had back into film with the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. Perhaps because of the movies, pirates are a subject of renewed interest. The editors touch upon this in their introduction.

At least part of the current fascination with pirates, including our own, has to be about freedom, frontiers, a yearing for adventure and a desire to explore exotic locales. pg 1

The Vandermeers may be right, because for what other reason are pirates so compulsively cool if not because, in a sense, pirates inhabit the frontiers of the ocean in the same way the American West was explored and mythologized by settlers, ranchers, and cowboys. It is that sense of freedom, lawlessness, and excitement that can only occur several paces beyond the fringe of civilization. Contained within Fast Ships, Black Sails are science fictional pirates, exploring not just the frontiers of our world, but the frontiers of space and new planets.

The anthology opens with "Boojum" from Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. "Boojum" sets the tone, in a way, for the anthology and in this one story, shows the range of what a pirate story can be. "Boojum" is a tale set on the Lavinia Whatley, a "ship" which is actually a living creature which travels through space and engages in piracy against other "vessels". At its heart is the character of Black Alice Bradley, one of the ship's engineers who truly loves the Lavinia Whatley. Though this is, initially, a simple story of a raid gone bad, "Boojum" becomes more when we learn more of the Lavinia Whatley through the eyes of Black Alice. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette's skill at telling the story and their command of language is outstanding. There may not have been a better choice to open Fast Ships, Black Sails than "Boojum".

It goes without saying that the Editors Vandermeer selected the stories they deemed "the best", and that across the board they are likely satisfied with the lineup of stories in Fast Ships, Black Sails. Tastes vary, and any review is always going to rely on the taste of the reviewer and on how the reviewer experiences fiction. With any luck, the taste of the reviewer will line up with a wide range of readers and inform readers as to the relative merits and quality of a given work.

When I write that the standout stories from Fast Ships, Black Sails come from Justin Howe, Carrie Vaughn, Brendan Connell, Rachel Swirsky, and Jayme Lynn Blaschke it is with the full understanding that others will prefer the Naomi Novik, Steve Aylett, and Garth Nix. In fact, Jonathan Strahan has selected the Garth Nix story "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe" for inclusion in his forthcoming anthology The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Three.

With all that said, Fast Ships, Black Sails is, with very little question about it, an outstanding anthology. There really are stories for everyone. As the editors mention at the end of their introduction,

Within these pages you'll find villains, all right, black-hearted and gold-hearted both. You'll find captains in love with mermaids. You'll find double-dealing, double-crossing, and double-identities....pirates serious or humorous, in the past, the present, or the future... pg 2
Steve Aylett's "Voyage of the Iguana" is an absurd list of journal entries about a particular voyage and the mishaps that occured on said voyage. In short doses and when thinking about it, the story is funny. But it is not a story readers will engage with. Or, it is not a story I could engage with. I, as a reader and reviewer, can recognize why some will like this story and why the editors selected the story, but it isn't one of the best of the anthology.

"The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail" from Rachel Swirsky is one of the standout stories in Fast Ships, Black Sails. Anyone who has read Swirsky in the past should not be surprised by this fact. This is a serious pirate story featuring rats and eventually a cat.

Cracked Mack the Lack had been the last of their dastardly crew. Sully'd found him that morning, gone tail over snout in the stern. Arsenic done him in. Mack had a taste for it, reminded him of that crack in the wall called home when papa took the boys out of a morning to learn their way in the world: how to tweak a cat's whiskers and pry cheese from between spring-loaded jaws. Now Mack was gone, wrapped in a spider web shroud to decay in his watery grave.

Awesome. Simply awesome. A full collection of stories from Rachel Swirsky would be well worth the price of admission. Lacking that, this story in Fast Ships, Black Sails will have to do for now. This may be the best story in the anthology.

There is much good in Fast Ships, Black Sails and truly nothing bad. While not all stories come anywhere close to living up to the gold standard set by Rachel Swirsky or the Elizabeth Bear / Sarah Monette tale, there are no true clunkers in the anthology. If you like pirates or you just think that some pirate stories could be interesting, Fast Ships, Black Sails is a great anthology, one of the year's best and chock full of original fiction.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Night Shade Books.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Now on Inside the Blogosphere

John Ottinger has posted another Inside the Blogosphere column, this one on "Giving the Gift of SF"

John asks,

What five sf and/or fantasy novels or anthologies from within the last year would you recommend for gift giving this holiday season? Why?

My answer is the first one included. I focus on collections and anthologies.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Strahan's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol 3 has a TOC

Via SF Signal,

Jonathan Strahan's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Three now has a Table of Contents. Check it out over at the Night Shade Books listing. There's some good stuff there. I've read a small handful of the stories already, and besides that, there are some serious names in that TOC.

I thought Volume Two was outstanding and expect no less from this one.

last argument

Finally! My library just got a copy of The Last Argument of Kings on order, so I finally placed my hold on the book. I’m not sure I’ll have the chance to read this in 2008, which kind of stinks because I fully expect it would end up on my year’s best list.

Oh well. Better late then never.

Now if only they get Fast Forward 2 and I'll be happy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Clarkesworld Books is having what may be one last big sale (via Nic Clarke had to close a year or two ago but he still had inventory on hand and as he posted on the store's front page,

The point of re-opening is to clear out the remaining inventory that is filling our house. At present, I'm trying to get rid of enough inventory to allow our children to move into a larger bedroom, currently used as storage. So, don't just look at it as simply buying books, you're making two little boys very happy.

I'm thinking about it. I probably don't need to spend $35 (the minimum order), but I do have some spare spending cash and Clarkesworld has a LOT of back issues of some magazines I'd like to read. Besides an autographed copy or two of a novel (or two) I'd like, I could also get a lot of fiction for those $35.

The only problem? I have two issues of Asimov's and four issues of Weird Tales back from when I subscribed that I still haven't read. If I buy a stack of magazines what makes me think I'll get to them any sooner?

I'm waffling, but I kind of want to spend some money and just do it. Not sure how long the sale will be going and when it is done Clarkesworld will be closed again.


Friday, November 21, 2008

The Gypsy Morph, by Terry Brooks

The Gypsy Morph
Terry Brooks
Del Rey: 2008

Terry Brooks wraps up his Genesis of Shannara trilogy with The Gypsy Morph. This is the trilogy which is intended to start the bridge between his Word / Void trilogy and world of Shannara. With Armageddon's Children Brooks began the bridge, opening in an America crumbling not just at the seams, but at the center. With the fallout from nuclear war transforming the survivors and civilization as we understand it all but gone, the first steps towards Shannara have been taken (was this the Great War hinted at in those first Shannara novels?). Two Knights of the Word were called and given various tasks from helping the gypsy morph himself, a boy named Hawk leading a ragtag street gang of children named The Ghosts, and saving the Elves. Thus, the two series have been combined. Armageddon's Children was about Hawk and the Ghosts (while introducing Logan Tom, a Knight). The Elves of the Cintra introduced elves, continued the previous story, and brought a second Knight onto the scene in Angel Perez.

Brooks must somehow bring it all together in The Gyspy Morph and while Armageddon's Children felt like as much of a return to form as I can possibly expect from Terry Brooks at this stage of his career, The Elves of the Cintra was a step backwards again. Dare I raise my expectations of what The Gyspy Morph could be? The last twelves year of Shannara has taught that disappointment is the most likely end result.

In my review of The Elves of the Cintra I had this to say, and I think it bears repeating.
Terry Brooks has become very hit and miss and my thought is that the closer he gets to Shannara the faster he tells his stories and the less detail he provides, the less rich his storytelling becomes. It was only, I believe, the fact that Armageddon’s Children was very near a Word / Void novel that Terry Brooks gave the level of detail and, dare I say, care to the novel that he had not done since Angel Fire East.

So. The Gypsy Morph.

The first chapter was interesting in that it was apparently unrelated to the rest of the novel, except that clearly it isn't. Chapter One features a man named Wills, the last survivor in a military compound and he has the keys to launch the remaining nuclear missiles of the former United States of America. He's cracking under the pain and loss and the despair of being alone and while he isn't ready to give up hope and launch the missiles, he still might. That's the backdrop which plays behind the rest of the novel and it is worth keeping in mind when we get too wrapped up in the stories of Logan Tom, Angel Perez, and the Elves.

The Gypsy Morph feels like a desperate rush to impossible safety. Continuing the story on from The Elves of the Cintra, Kirisin (an elf) carries all of Arborlon, the entire elven race, in the Loden Elfstone, knowing only that the Knights of the Word will lead him to someone who will lead him to a place of refuge. The Ghosts follow the newly revealed Gypsy Morph, their friend and leader Hawk, a boy who is really a being of magic. Chasing them all are demons led by Findo Gask, the demon who hunted John Ross and Nest Freemark.

Realizing that there is no ending Terry Brooks could possibly have written that would have fully satisfied fans of the Word / Void novels AND Shannara, or fully set the stage for the Shannara series, The Gypsy Morph isn't bad. It doesn't live up to the promise of Armageddon's Children and certainly does not stand as one of the best novels of the Terry Brooks ouevre, but it is still one of his stronger novels of the last decade. That should count for something.

What works here is that after the opening several chapters which move about as slowly as the injured Angel Perez, the story picks up when the action does. Stasis is a bad thing for Terry Brooks, but once he begins to move his characters around and get into the chase / escape mode, well, the man can tell a good story. There is character growth mixed with action, and if sometimes Brooks describes the obvious, he keeps the story moving. That's the key to The Gypsy Morph - the story keeps moving and the reader keeps turning the pages. Recent novels do not have the depth of the Brooks's earliest work and do not share the emotional power of the Word / Void novels, but The Genesis of Shannara does build a bridge that satisfies a bit more than the longtime reader might have expected.

In short: hey, it doesn't suck.

In slightly longer: when the reader can forget this is about to become a Shannara novel, the book has potential. That it never quite lives up to the potential and hopes of the Word / Void reader is perhaps to be expected, but this is a solid effort from Brooks. Perhaps the best we can expect these days.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Del Rey / The Book Report Network

Previous Reviews
Armageddon's Children
The Elves of the Cintra

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Six Reasons to read The First Law

Jeff Vandermeer asked Joe Abercrombie for reasons why people should read his books. Joe answers at Omnivoracious.

2. Because its frequent explosions of visceral action are the closest you can get to being hit in the mouth with a mace and still keep all your teeth. Its selection of rooftop chases, duels to the death, chaotic melees in all weathers and full-scale pitched battles are so exciting they may cause you to lose control of your bodily functions.

Abercrombie's answers are fully awesome and had I not read and enjoyed the hell out of the first two, those six answers would be more than enough to get me reading. (Still waiting for my library to even stock The Last Argument of Kings).

As it is, I wanted to point out that post for sheer cool factor.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Dragon Reborn, by Robert Jordan

The Dragon Reborn
Robert Jordan

So far in the series the reader has known the Rand is, or will be, the Dragon Reborn, the prophesied hero who will "break" the world even as he saves the world from The Dark One. At the end of The Great Hunt Rand proclaimed himself as the Dragon and those who were at Falme (and lived) saw Rand battle Ba'alzamon in a vision in the sky. Rumors of Rand with crude drawings of the battle are racing across the land. Sick of fighting the dreams and unable to control saidin, Rand journeys to Tear so he can somehow take callandor, the "sword which is not a sword" in the Stone of Tear. This will be a major public fulfillment of prophecy and more than the vision of battle, will proclaim Rand to the world as being the Dragon Reborn.

In a bold move, except for a small handful of scenes, Robert Jordan pulls the focus off of Rand and places it firmly on Perrin, Mat, and the girls. Despite the fact that novel is titled after what Rand is, and the fact that knowledge of Rand permeates every aspect of the novel, Rand is barely in The Dragon Reborn. It is strangely refreshing. Moreover, pulling the focus off of what can be viewed as the primary and most important character of the series could mess with the overall rhythm of the series, but somehow it works.

There is a lot to like in The Dragon Reborn, some which only take on extra importance knowing what happens in the next eight volumes, others feel important but we don't know why, and yet others that are just interesting. Oh, and the story is good, too.

Jordan does an excellent job at foreshadowing certain events, both for the series and for the book. Early on, Lan mentions that "The Dark One has killers you don't notice until it is too late", the "Soulless". There is mention of balefire. Small comments, but there is a sense by this point that Jordan is introducing elements that will come into play later in the novel, or later in the series. With Jordan there is no telling which, but in these two cases the elements will be introduced in The Dragon Reborn.

One of the major storylines of this novel is that Suian Sanche, the Amyrlin Seat herself, sets Nyneave and Egwene on a mission - to hunt the Black Ajah in the White Tower. With Elayne in tow, this hunt takes them from the White Tower all the way to Tear. Actually, even though the characters begin the novel in different places and doing different things, they will all end up in Tear together. At times this feels a bit forced, but Jordan's storytelling is so strong that much of this doesn't matter.

One of my favorite aspects of the series, and of this book in particular, is the transformation of Mat. He begins the series as Rand's best friend and a weasely little prankster. He turns out to be ta'veren, one who shapes events and pulls people towards him. Early on Mat yelled phrases in the Old Tongue, but now, that Mat has been freed of the taint of the Shadar Logoth dagger, he has been changed somehow. There is no explanation if this is something that would have occured in his life anyway, or if the dagger changed him. But now Mat speaks more and more of the Old Tongue, has incredible luck, is able to hold off two master swordsman with just a quarterstaff (excellent scene, that one), has visions of past lives, and is proving to be one of the strongest characters in the series.

Regarding Mat, the Amyrlin relates a story of her uncle that perfectly describes who Mat is and who he will be throughout the series.

The Amyrlin gave an exasperated sigh. "You remind me of my uncle Huan. No one could ever pin him down. He liked to gamble, too, and he'd much rather have fun than work. He died pulling children out of a burning house. He wouldn't stop going back as long as there was one left inside. Are you like him, Mat? Will you be there when the flames are high?

He could not meet her eyes. He studied his fingers as they plucked irritably at his blanket. "I'm no hero. I do what I have to do, but I am no hero." pg 183

That's Mat. Perfectly captured in two paragraphs that imprinted so strongly in my memory that I waited for that conversation ever since I first read those words.

There are character introductions in The Dragon Reborn: Julian Sandar, Faile, and Aviendha. Important characters, each. The Forsaken. We find out that more of the Forsaken are loose and in some cities and countries - they rule.

The only aspect of The Dragon Reborn I really didn't like was for the first time in the series, Nyneave began to tug her braid in anger or frustration. It's become a long running joke about the series, but it begins here, on page 93. Nyneave tugs her braid eight times. Given that Jordan switches the POV chapters around, it feels like more and it is only going to get worse.

One last thing to note - the end of the book features a quote form The Fourth Age. Ths is is a song fragment "Composed by Boanne, Songmistress at Taralan, the Fourth Age". Taralan. Tar Valon? Does this relate in anyway to the "Great Aravalon" mention in Lord of Chaos? It is something that will never be answered, but I wonder all the same.

Despite the absence of Rand, or perhaps because of it, The Dragon Reborn is one of the strongest entries in the series (though I have immense respect for Book 4, one sequence in particular). This is a point where even people who later become disillusioned with the series are still fully engaged and fully in. This is Robert Jordan still at the top of his game and, to use a cliche, firing on all cylinders.

Previous Reviews:
The Eye of the World
The Great Hunt

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cold Copper Tears, by Glen Cook

Cold Copper Tears
Glen Cook

The third entry in Glen Cook’s Garrett, P.I. series once again keeps Garrett close to home, though unlike the first two books Garrett’s investigations in Cold Copper Tears only tangentially relate to the two cases Garrett is contacted about. I say tangentially because there is a relation, but what Garrett investigates is a result of being contacted for those cases and not in the pursuit of those cases. If that makes sense. If it doesn’t, let’s just say that Cold Copper Tears follows Garrett on a series of investigations for which he is not being paid or contracted for.

After being attacked by members of the Vampires street gang, Garrett contacts Maya, the young leader of the all female gang the Doom (The Sisters of Doom), for assistance. It turns out that the Jill Craight, the woman who hired Garrett to investigate a break in at her apartment, was once a member of the Doom and now has gone missing. She is connected to Magister Peridont, the man who failed to hire Garrett for the other case.

Connections are everything and even though Garrett is no longer directly investigating the case he was hired for, Cold Copper Tears is a fairly straightforward story. The readers knows as much as Garrett (not much), but throughout the novel Garrett is pushing forward to a) find out who tried to kill him and why, and b) where Jill Craight went. Accompanying Garrett as something of an apprentice is Maya. The expectation with the introduction of Maya's character is that she would be a plucky (if profane) sidekick for Garrett and not much more, but within a couple of chapters Maya turned out to be one of the best characters in the first three books and one who showed a fair amount of development even in this one volume.

As readers should come to expect with the Garrett P.I. novels, Cold Coppers Tears is smoothly written and filled with snarky smart characters (and dumb ones, too). They feature crimes and mysteries that need to be solved and as I'm not one who figures out the whodunnit before the end, trying to figure out what is going on in the story is half the fun. The other half of the fun is visiting and revisiting favorite characters such as Dean, Morley Dotes, and The Dead Man. While sleeping for much of the novel, The Dead Man gets a fair amount of development in terms of what exactly a loghyr (even a dead one) can do and what the potential of that race is. Fascinating stuff.

Once again Glen Cook has delivered an outstanding fantasy / detective novel and once again he leaves the readers both satisfied and wanting more.

Previous Reviews
Sweet Silver Blues
Bitter Gold Hearts

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Electric Velocipede #14

Issue 14 of Electric Velocipede is notable for a couple of cosmetic reasons which have nothing to do with the fiction contained between the covers. While not an official "double issue", John Klima offers the readers an "extra big issue", so this issue is chock full of more stories. Because it is an extra big issue, this is the first issue with a full color cover. Plus, it is a nice perfect bound digest rather than a saddlestitched chapbook looking 'zine. Nothing wrong with chapbook looking 'zines (I like them), but Issue 14 is making a visual statement.

Oh, and Issue 14 can also be referred to as the "All Female" issue of Electric Velocipede. All the stories, poems, and nonfiction content (not counting the preview of forthcoming issues) are written by women.


But is it any good?

This issue opens with "Hermit Crabs" from Elissa Malcohn, a strange story that begins and what seems like an ending - a teenaged double suicide attempt, but then backs up into the friendship between Mandy and Noah, and then works its way through to the weird part. "Hermit Crabs" is partly a story of adolescent alienation, but I'm not really sure what Malcohn intended with the story. It isn't the strongest opening story, but the image of the attempted suicide is such a striking one that readers will push through to the end of the story and wonder what else Klima has in store for readers of Electric Velocipede.

The third story, Michelle Scott's "Them" is one of my favorites here. It's a story of lies and rumor and those who plant the lies and rumor which get taken as fact. You know what they say, right? Well, "Them" is a story about who they are. Or, just one of them. "Them" is also a story about what happens if a person, one of them, goes against what they say.

The fat policeman nods. If they say it, it must be true. He, for one, would never argue with them. pg 21

Good stuff. On one hand "Them" works because Michelle Scott plays with the idea of "them" and "they" and the trick is the story, but on the other hand, it's just a good story with a great hook.

The story I perhaps most looked forward to here is Jennifer Pelland's "Shashenka Redux". The stories I've read from Pelland have been consistently excellent. "Shashenka Redux" is no exception.

They all led back to a single point: the original Shashenka Medvedeva, who had died under questioning rather than work to cure the invading aliens she had poisoned. The aliens copied here, body and brain, breathed life into the copies, and set them to work on the cure, promising to free the Shashenka who provided it. And when the copies failed, the aliens made multiple copies of each of them. And then made more when those failed. And more when those failed. pg 42

Pelland's words far better explain what the story is than I could. "Shashenka Redux" loops back on itself and is a quest for a cure. Pelland makes it immediate and makes the stakes of the story important, because no matter that more copies will be made (asuming the reader even wants Shashenka to come up with a cure), Shashenka herself wants to live. And so in turn the reader wants Shashenka to live. Why? Because Jennifer Pelland makes the reader care. Pelland doesn't disappoint.

Leslie Claire Walker
's "Your Blood" is two thirds of a really good story, with one third "what the hell is this about?", but unfortunately it is the last third that drops the ball. I've read a couple of Walker's previous stories and I think she's a writer with some potential. "Your Blood" damn near sealed the deal, and maybe for other readers it did, but I just didn't get the last bit of the story.

I liked the selfishness in Leslie What's "#1", though given that a woman wants to keep her own kidney rather than donate it to the daughter of a sister she's never had a relationship with, it is difficult to really call it selfish.

But what I really liked what the visions of a woman's future in "Perfect Tense" by Lisa Mantchev. This is a story where a future version of the narrator steps through a doorway to confront the narrator to change her actions which will then change her future. Kind of convoluted when I write it out, by damn if it doesn't work.

Now, not every story in Electric Velocipede #14 stands out, and some just don't work at all (Melissa Mead's "Stepsister", for one), but on the whole, Electric Velocipede #14 is an excellent issue with more good stories than bad, and enough serious quality here that you've just got to pay attention if you weren't already. So pay attention, huh?

I've previously purchased a couple of issues of Electric Velocipede (#11 and #13), so one can guess that I do like the publication, but even granting that, this extra-big issue is extra-good.

The fact that this issue is the "All Female" issue of Electric Velocipede wouldn't matter if the stories weren't good. They are. So, Issue 14 is actually the "Really Damn Good" issue of Electric Velocipede.

Reading copy provided courtesy of John Klima.

(I also reviewed the Wexler chapbook and was less enamored of it. For what it's worth)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

more Bear

Since July of this year I’ve read one Elizabeth Bear novel per month.

July: Ink and Steel
August: Hell and Earth
September: All the Windwracked Stars
October: Undertow
November: Worldwired

Oh, and back in January I read New Amsterdam.

I think I’ll try to keep this up for the next couple months until I finish up Bear’s catalog. Still to come:
Dust (I own a copy)
A Companion to Wolves
Seven for a Secret (limited edition novella from Subterranean Press)

By the time I’m done with that we should be into the second season of Shadow Unit.

I’m just not sure what I’m going to do next summer!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

two good stories

As I procrastinate on writing some actual review content, here are two good stories I read yesterday.

The first is "Kimberly Ann Duray Is Not Afraid", by Leah Bobet. The reviews / commentary I've read on this story have made mention about the racial tension regarding the white protagonist and her black husband - not necessarily between the two, but race matters in this story. Now, I guess I didn't read the reviews closely because I just assumed that a story with an interracial marriage and racial tension just had to be set back thirty - fifty years ago. It's not. Bobet's story depicts a future where race doesn't have to matter because, in a very controversial procedure, race can change. I thought it was a heck of a story, but I tend to like what I've seen from Bobet ("Bears", for example), so take that for what it is worth. I think this story shows some of Leah Bobet's range.

The second story I want to mention is "Apotropaics" from the perpetually excellent Norman Partridge. Yes, Dark Harvest left that much of an impact on me. "Apotropaics" purports to be a vampire story, at least on the surface. I think it is set in the 1950's and Jason has just returned from vacation with his parents and his friends rush up to him telling him about a vampire that he has to help them kill. Jason and his friends might all be eleven, by the way. It's one of those things that Partridge doesn't come right out and say. Now, the trick here is that I'm not sure this is a vampire story at all or that there are any vampires. But, Partridge also leaves that open to interpretation. Regardless of what the truth of "Apotropaics" is, it's a good story. First published back in 1992.

Oh, according to the dictionary apotropaic means "designed to avert evil", or in other defintions, "to ward off evil". Interesting.

One last thing. I haven't read this yet, but Subterranean also has a Cherie Priest story up which shares a setting with her forthcoming novel The Boneshaker: "Tanglefoot: A Story of the Clockwork Century". Now, you know how much I liked Priest's novels, right? Life is good.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Plugged In, by L. Timmel Duchamp and Maureen McHugh

Plugged In
L. Timmel Duchamp and Maureen McHugh
Aqueduct Press: 2008

According to the back cover, Plugged In was "published in conjunction with the appearance of L. Timmel Duchamp and Maureen McHugh as the Guests of Honor at Wiscon 32", which is fairly cool because if not for that fact this chapbook might otherwise never have existed and the two stories here never would have been put together. "The Kingdom of the Blind", from Maureen McHugh is original to this collection while L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Man Who Plugged In" was first published in 2006's re:skin (the story itself has a copyright date of 1998).

"The Kingdom of the Blind" opens this chapbook with a story of a weird systems burp which causes power outages across medical facilities linked by SAMEDI, which is a program running on the BHP DMS software system. This sounds overly techy, like something written by Charles Stross or occasionally by Cory Doctorow, but while there is tech-talk in "The Kingdom of the Blind", the story is not overwhelmed by it. "The Kindgom of the Blind" is driven by Sydney, one of the members of the IT team at DM Kensington Medical. Sydney and her team attempt to find out why the glitch is occuring every day at the same time and impacting all of the hospitals running SAMEDI and doing so in a particular order.

While "The Kingdom of the Blind" begins with a simple tech SF story of figuring out a problem with a computer system, the story turns into a moral question. If a computer system has someone developed sentience and is aware, is there a moral issue involved in shutting down the system and restoring an earlier, more unaware backup and thus effectively "killing" the AI?

Maureen McHugh doesn't offer a simple answer. In the end Sydney makes her decision, but "The Kingdom of the Blind" does not truly offer commentary on the morality of her decision. The story just asks the question. "The Kingdom of the Blind" takes all sorts of ideas internalized by a generation raised on The Terminator and various aspects of artificial intelligence in science fiction and without getting anywhere near the doomsday scenarios which normally cover the concept, McHugh asks the reader to think about the morality of how humans should interact with sentient computer systems and what our resonsibility is.

Oh, and she tells a good story, too.

L. Timmel Duchamp goes another direction with "The Man Who Plugged In". The focus is still on technology (hence the title of the chapbook), but on a more human level. Technology has advanced to the point where women can give birth to a child but actually carry the fetus outside of her body in an external carapace, a "prenatal cradle of caring" designed to offer "better care and protection than any naturally gestated child". Howard Nies is a pioneer. Howard is to be the first male to carry a child in an external carapace. All that is needed is a couple of major surgical procedures to take the womb from his wife so he can carry the child.

The story follows Howard as he goes through hormonal and physical changes and becomes obsessed with the child he is carrying. The story follows the impact on Howard's marriage. Besides following the timeline of the pregnancy, Duchamp throws in sidebar quotes from various future medical journals regarding what the procedure entails.

There is the obvious flipping of gender roles in the pregnancy (perfect for a feminist science fiction convention like Wiscon), and this is truly what is at the core of "The Man Who Plugged In". The story examines the obsession of Howard Nies through the pregnancy and later in the story it is revealed that his wife only just went along with the deal because he really wanted it. This is a flip of what could be considered a more traditional story of pregnancy, the wife who really wants a child and gets herself pegnant even though the husband didn't really want a child. Or, perhaps a flip of the husband who gets his wife pregnant even though she really didn't want to carry the child. Either one. Either way the story is interesting, but when viewed as simply flipping a more conventional tale of family while adding future tech, "The Man Who Plugged In" is nothing revolutionary. It takes the trappings of science fiction to tell a fairly straightforward story.

On the other hand, "The Man Who Plugged In" is still an interesting story. It does rely (and stand) on being a "male pregnancy" story, but Duchamp is a good enough writer to pull off the story.

Plugged In contains only two stories, but the stories here are both good (the McHugh is better). A two story collection would not normally be enough to recommend picking it up, and in that sense, the value might not be there, but these are two good stories. Plugged In is a limited edition publication that looks at the future of technology, both on a computer level and on a human level. This is a forward looking collection, which is ultimately what science fiction is supposed to be about. It's worth the time, even as a two story chapbook of a collection from two excellent authors. The stories may not be perfect (what is?), but despite flaws and limitations, there is good stuff here.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Aqueduct Press.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

stuff coming up

Well, I've hit a bit of a lull, so here's what sort of content you can expect to see here in the near future.

Reviews of:
Plugged In, from L. Timmel Duchamp and Maureen McHugh (this'll post on monday, I read it back in late September)
Cold Copper Tears, from Glen Cook
Electric Velocipede: Issue 14

The above three are all stuff I hope to have for next week. I expect I'll finish Fast Ships, Black Sails in the next week or so. The same with the third Wheel of Time novel The Dragon Reborn. Reviews of both will follow. I don't really expect either to show up next week, though.

After that?

I'm not rightly sure. I plan to start the new Ender novel from Orson Scott Card, Ender in Exile, fairly soon. Since Card is bringing the focus back to Ender and it is set between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, I have high hopes that won't doesn't suck like Card's Bean novels (the Shadow offshoot series). I feel the need to start The Gyspy Morph soon, too.

Other stuff I'm thinking of reading sooner rather than later:
Worldwired, by Elizabeth Bear
Street of Shadows, by Michael Reaves
Tsunami, by L. Timmel Duchamp
The Stress of Her Regard, by Tim Powers
The Shadow Matrix, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Last Days, by Brian Evenson

So, there's lots of good stuff coming up, but I'm almost caught up on the reviews I have pending (meaning, finished the book), so I'm going to have to come up with some alternate content.

Or read faster.

Friday, November 07, 2008

October 2008 Reading

Another month gone by, another recap list of what I read the previous month. Links are to my reviews.

1. The Gospel of the Knife - Will Shetterly
2. Starship: Mercenary - Mike Resnick
3. The Eye of the World - Robert Jordan
4. Angel: After the Fall Volume 1 - Brian Lynch
5. Order 66 - Karen Traviss
6. Undertow - Elizabeth Bear
7. Zoe's Tale - John Scalzi
8. Bitter Gold Hearts - Glen Cook
9. Fangland – John Marks
10. Dogland – Will Shetterly
11. War for the Oaks – Emma Bull
12. Street Dogs – Traer Scott
13. Shelter Dogs – Traer Scott
14. The Servants – Michael Marshall Smith
15. The Great Hunt – Robert Jordan
16. Ysabel – Guy Gavriel Kay

Best Book of the Month: War for the Oaks
Worst Book: The Gospel of the Knife / The Servants – I really can’t choose.
Pleasant Surprise: Zoe’s Tale

Previous 2008 Reads

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

Pet Sematary
Stephen King

When I was no older than ten years old I saw the movie adaptation of Pet Sematary and it scared and scarred me so much that for the next fifteen years I wouldn’t go anywhere near a Stephen King novel. I knew the basic outline of the story, though there is no telling how faithful a film adaptation actually is. What terrified me the most about the movie wasn’t the cemetery itself or what happened because of it, though a couple of cemetery related scenes are burned into my mind. What terrified me the most had to do with what I thought was an old lady living upstairs named Zelda. Zelda struck fear and sickness into my ten year old heart.

It should be pointed out that Zelda is not central to the movie OR the novel, but for a ten year old, this character was the most vivid and caused me to almost dread picking up the book.

Louis Creed moves his family from Chicago to rural Maine. Creed is a doctor and will be working in the medical department of the local university. Since this is a Stephen King novel, moving to Maine (or simply living in Maine) is generally a very bad thing. Shortly after arriving at his new house he meets his eighty-something year old neighbor Jud. Jud quickly becomes a close friend for Louis and shares some of the local lore, including the fact that the highway right off the front yard is a noted pet killer as semi-trucks speed down the road. Jud also shows Louis the dirt path behind the house that leads through to town. On that path is a pet cemetery, only the sign is spelled “sematary”. This is where children from town bury their pets. The Creed family is made up of Louis, his wife Rachel, 6 year old Ellie and even younger son Gage. And a cat. Given the title, we know what has to happen to the cat.

This is what makes Pet Sematary such a scary novel. It’s not the boogeyman lurking in the shadows and it isn’t knowing that a killer is on the loose. What makes Pet Sematary scary is anticipation. A college student dies in a car accident early in the novel and it gives Louis bad dreams. Louis is on edge and because this is Stephen King and because we expect the cat to get killed and that the cat will only be the start, we’re anticipating the bad things to come and what shape they might take. There are premonitions of death. But, when the cat finally is killed on the road and buried, as it has to be, at the pet cemetery, when what happens next occurs…that is when the real horror of the novel begins. Anticipation. When the cat dies the reader knows exactly what is going to happen next, but we don’t know when and that keeps us on edge the entire novel.

The whole thing with Zelda? Scary for Rachel (it’s a flashback to her sister), but not horrifying in the same way that the images and the sounds were in the movie. For that, I’m grateful.
Pet Sematary is one of the Stephen King horror novels where somehow not a lot of horror actually happens. Most of the novel is the story of Louis and his family adapting to life in Maine with the new neighbor, and then the business with the cat, but that’s the first three quarters of the novel. It’s a good novel and is in the same vein of Christine in that the really bad stuff doesn’t occur until the end, but is not quite as strong a novel as Christine. Pet Sematary is a good Stephen King novel, a solid effort, and at times absolutely horrifying in the expectation of what is to come. Pet Sematary is nowhere near my favorite Stephen King novel, but it’s pretty good all the same.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt
Robert Jordan

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my impressions on re-reading The Eye of the World, the opening volume of Robert Jordan's long-running epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time.

As before, I have no intention or interest in doing any sort of overall coverage of the basic plot of The Great Hunt. I think that instead I am coming into the basic format of how I want to cover these books, and that's simply to talk about I did like and what I did not like.

I can't say that the "In the Shadow" prologue of The Great Hunt has anywhere near the impact of the "Dragonmount" prologue of The Eye of the World. It doesn't, and perhaps, can't. What this prologue does well is establish beyond a shadow of a doubt (no pun intended) that there really are Darkfriends among all lands and all people, both highborn and low, even among those who should not be touched by a taint of shadow. This prologue is from the perspective of a man named Bors, though it is not his real name. This prologue is a meeting of Darkfriends, to give each Darkfriend their instructions. Bors notes, walking around the room, that some have not hidden their identities very well.

He could read them all, to class and country. Merchant and warrior, commoner and noble. From Kandor and Cairhien, Saldaea and Ghealdan. From every nation and nearly every people. His nose wrinkled in sudden disgust. Even a Tinker, in bright green breeches and virulent yellow coat. pg xv

Bors marks certain nations, a High Lord of Tear and an Andoran Queen's Guard, Aes Sedai, and himself - one of the Questioners of the Children of Light. The point of all of this is that I appreciate how Jordan, in a handful of pages, covers just how widespread the infection of Darkfriends are and how anyone can be a Darkfriend. This means that ultimately, everyone may be a threat to Rand and his friends. Anyone could be that Aes Sedai. Who is the Sheinarian soldier?

Frequently, what I appreciate is the moments where history is revealed as part of conversation. Take the scene opening Chapter 5 with Moiraine speaking with her old friend, the Amyrlin Seat, Siuan Sanche where Jordan reveals for the first time the secret plan these two old friends had to find Rand, the Dragon Reborn, and what they risked, even among those who are fighting The Dark One. It is one of those conversations which is ultimately an info-dump, a chance for Jordan to reveal so much detail that no other character knows so that we, the reader, are not left in the dark (so to speak) regarding what Moiraine is planning and why she is acting the way she does. In the hands of a lesser writer such an info-dump might come across as clumsy, but in the hands of Robert Jordan this very info-dump (and make no mistake, it is an info-dump) feels comfortable and necessary. It works more than it should.

This followed by a half-reveal of who one of the Aes Sedai Darkfriends are. A Black Ajah, one dedicated to serving the Dark One. What I am trying to remember is if I realized what that scene meant when I read the book the first time or if it is only crystal clear because I've read the series and was hit on the head by the full reveal. I want to believe I was smart enough to catch it the first time.

Page 89: The dark prophecy written in blood which mentions a Daughter of the Night, Luc and Isam, and hints at the Seanchan. The first time I read this I appreciated the mention of The Daughter of Night (Lanfear), the second time I appreciated the hints of the Seanchan. This time, I appreciated Luc and Isam. I can't say I really understand the mechanics of the Luc / Isam stuff, but Luc is brother to Rand's birth mother and Isam is Lan's cousin. The other part I love about the prophecy is we then get to see Verin piece together what it may mean and then move right into realizing what Moiraine and Siuan are up to.

Pg 146, regarding Ingtar: "He spoke of the glory they would have, their names remembered in story and history, in gleeman's tales and bards' songs, the men who found the Horn. He talked as if he could not stop, and her stared down the trail they followed as if his hope of the Light lay at the end of it." This is colored by having read the book before, but it's just sad. And, while Jordan pushes it a few times, an excellent set up.

As much as anything else in this book, I love the idea of the Portal Stones and the alternate worlds where history turned out differently. This is where Rand meets Selene, a woman who is very much not who she seems to be . The Portal Stone sequenes are very well done early in the novel and the short sequence near the end with flicker flicker flicker and "I have won again, Lews Therin" is nothing short of masterful.

Pg 254. Remember how I pointed out the crystal spheres Bayle Domon mentioned in The Eye of the World? Well, here's one of the two in Cairhein and Rand feels drawn to it - to such an extent that even Selene, who previously has asked Rand to seek power and glory, wants Rand away from it and she is scared. By this point we should have an idea who Selene is, but clearly she knows what the sphere is and why Rand should be afraid. These two pages gives the first hint about how much power Rand can channel through that sphere and while it won't pay off in this volume this is part of Robert Jordan's setting things up for much later in the series and also just worldbuilding - except it is worldbuilding with a purpose. Page 385 tells us clearly that it is a very powerful sa'angreal for men to amplify the One Power.

Pg 284. I just like sequences at The White Tower and this one is where Nynaeve goes through the Rings and sees lives she could have (and could still) live if she takes another path, each one with different pain and possibilities. Powerful sequences.

Pg 311. The Illuminators. Nothing comes of it now, and really, nothing comes of it throughout much of the series, but there is a feeling of importance to fireworks and the Illuminators. Even now, with the first mention of the Illuminators there is a feeling that they will matter.

Pg 325. I like prophecy and this is the beginning of the "twice and twice shall he be marked" prohpecy with the herons and dragons. It'll pop up a few more times, but Jordan does prophecy very well.

Pg 420. I don't remember if Min mentioned this or not in The Eye of the World, but here is a mention of Tuon, and the Court of the Nine Moons. This will matter much later in the series. It's not even a throw-away line, it's just description of no signficance, except that it introduces something important.

Here's one thing I did not like: Nynaeve. No, she didn't tug her braid in this book either (two in a row!), but at page 232 she is being taught the same lessons in channeling that Egwene is being taught, except Nynaeve has a block and cannot channel except when angry. Okay, fine. This comes up throughout the series. Only problem is that late in the novel she channels time and time again with great control and skill. Now, given the situation late in the novel she is very likely angry. But, what Jordan established in the first book and midway through this one is that Nynaeve needs to be very angry to be able to push past her block and channel. When she does channel it all comes out as a rush and partly out of control. So how then, exactly, does she channel with such control and precision near the end of the novel? How?

No answers are forthcoming, except perhaps that she was angry and had such a controlled anger during that period that she could do what she needed to do. Just seems a bit shady, though. Give Elayne those actions and there's no problem.

Pg 308. Min. "Light, I don't want to fall in lovewith a man I've only met once, and a farmboy at that." Min has visions about people and she knows that she will fall in love with Rand, as will two other women, and they'll all have to share him. I'm projecting a bit here, because Min didn't say she loved Rand yet, but two of the three women in question feel a bit, that's not right. Not forced. Just too easy. Only one of the three seems like there might be an honest attachment that comes from really knowing each other. Min, and the second woman, seems calculated for story.

Overall The Great Hunt is a stronger novel than The Eye of the World as Jordan begins to step away from having the series be a basic kitchen boy / farm boy fantasy. There are so many little details to note, things that really stand out on a second read through (or in my case an eleventy billionth read-through) of the series. The opening of the novel is a bit slower than necessary as Rand is not yet his own man (stubborn, yes, of course he is stubborn). Rand reacts when events push him, but he does not make his own decisions yet. Of course, the series will show later that Rand probably should not make his own decisions and that he is better off when he doesn't, but given that the novel opens with Rand having said he was going to leave Fal Dara for weeks but staying despite his protests (until something forces the issue), this can be a frustrating issue. On the flip side, it gives Jordan a chance to have some speechifying and info-dump history and the fact of the matter is that Jordan is just damn good at doing that.

This is Robert Jordan improving. He'll hit his stride in the next two volumes, but there are some absolutely fine moments (the blowing of the horn, Egwene with the Seanchan, the Portal Stones, Rand in front of the Amrylin, etc) in this volume. Little things still matter here and for the first time, Robert Jordan really broadens the scope of the series with the Seanchan. He also pulls characters apart so that while they are all working towards the same thing and know what Rand is, Egwene / Elayne / Nynaeve are off doing the Aes Sedai thing, Moiraine is trying to lead Rand by not leading him, Rand is trying to figure out what to do while trying to help Mat, Mat and Perrin are coming to terms with Rand being the Dragon, and at the very end, we get Masema looking reverantly on at Rand after the battle in the sky. This is another little thing that will matter.

Hey, you either like Robert Jordan or you don't, but when you do, you realize just how much he put into these books, just how much detail that doesn't feel like overkill. It's an impressive achievement.

Not that I ever would have wanted to intrude into such a private and emotional moment, but I would have loved to have been there when Jordan told his wife, cousin, and perhaps someone else the overall arc he planned for A Memory of Light. This was shortly before he died, but even stepping away from what that moment meant for him and his family, it would have been something to have the man himself spin out the tale over a period several hours. No fan outside the family should have been there (and wasn't, if I remember correctly), but I would love to have heard Jordan spin out the story...any story. The man was a great storyteller.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

a good week for MRK

I'll say this has been a pretty good week for Mary Robinette Kowal.

Her story "Waiting for Rain" is up at Subterranean Online (one of my favorite markets). In a recent post, she mentioned her short fiction collection forthcoming from Subterranean Press (I mentioned this a while back), and keeping with the Subterranean theme, there is also an interview with Mary over there. I read the story a few months ago and it's a good one.

Today Mary announced her first sale to Asimov's!

I'm very happy for her. Not to get ahead of myself (or ahead of Mary), but it is worth noting that despite several years of very good stories from Elizabeth Bear, she didn't pick up her first Hugo nomination (or win) until "Tideline" was published in Asimov's. I'm just saying. First the Campbell, next the world!

Renegade, by L. Timmel Duchamp

L. Timmel Duchamp
Aqueduct Press: 2006

Renegade is set one year after the aliens came and de-structured the way human society works, humanity has attempted to put the pieces back together. The stated long-term goal of the Marq’ssan was to remake human society into a more cooperative and peaceful society. After disintegrating a number of military assets of the United States government (and likely worldwide, but Duchamp tightly focused Alanya to Alanya on the United States, specifically the Pacific Northwest), and destabilized the government as a whole by destroying communications networks, the Marq’ssan set up a number of Free Zones around the world where humans would be “free” to set up a more cooperative and independent way of life not tied to the extremely hierarchical “Executive” system that was previously in place. Central to the action of Alanya to Alanya was Kay Zeldin, a Seattle history professor and former Executive agent. Zeldin was initially tasked to be the analytical eyes of the United States as a silent “negotiator” with the Marq’ssan. The negotiation did not work out the way the Executive had planned and Zeldin ended up assisting the Marq’ssan and was instrumental in the creation of the Free Zones.

In August 2077 the Seattle Free Zone has something of a functioning society working and the beginning of trade with other nations and other Free Zones. The patriarchal Executive government has been replaced in the Free Zone with a more anarchic / communist society which is shaped not by men, but by women. Part of the conceit of these novels is that the male dominated way of authoritative government has failed and has led, if not exactly to the subjugation of women, but certainly to the disrespect of and dismissal of the capabilities of women. The glass ceiling is not only firmly in place, but it has been sealed with concrete. In Alanya to Alanya the negotiators requested by the Marq’ssan were specified only to be women. This, and the fact that the Free Zones were founded / led by women has resulted in a backlash against women by some of the newly disempowered men. The new Cooperatives have had a year of struggle to survive and flourish without the luxuries generally provided by a civil government.

The opening chapters of Renegade are prologue to what will be the meat of the novel, but this prologue of 182 pages serves to demonstrate the changes that have occurred in the year following the conclusion of Alanya to Alanya. While the world of Alanya to Alanya was an exaggerated vision of our own, it was also recognizable in many ways. The conclusion of Alanya to Alanya marked a paradigm shift for how that future world of ours would work. Renegade picks up on that, shows the reader the Cooperatives, revisits minor characters from Alanya to Alanya, and also shows the reader what some of the major conflicts are in the Free Zones. Some issues facing the Free Zones are agents from the existing Executive government of the rest of the United States, anger from males who wish power, and the overall struggle to create an entirely new way of life. Growing pains.

All of this is prologue to what must be considered the primary story of Renegade: Kay Zeldin versus Elizabeth Weatherall. In the year following Alanya to Alanya’s conclusion, Kay Zeldin has been hunted by agents of the Executive. Elizabeth Weatherall, the personal assistant to Robert Sedgewick (the head of the Security branch of the Executive), is leading the hunt to capture Zeldin. All Zeldin knows is that if she isn’t careful she will be taken, interrogated, and killed. Despite this threat for her life, Zeldin searches for her husband, one of many scientists who disappeared under the guise of working on a “secret project” for the Executive. This search, however, will expose Zeldin to Weatherall’s team hunting her.

The back cover of Renegade claims that Zeldin and Weatherall will “risk all she has become in no-holds-barred, mortal combat”. This is extremely misleading as it suggests something along the lines of a cage-fight, or less crassly, a physical contest between the champions of two armies where the outcome will decide the war. Renegade is not that kind of novel.

The meat of Renegade is an intellectual battle of wills between Kay Zeldin and Elizabeth Weatherall. It is no spoiler to disclose that Zeldin is eventually captured by the Security forces and the battle is not a knock-down drag-out physical confrontation. It is a conflict of captivity, of interrogation, of Stockholm Syndrome, of so dominating the will of the other that her will is co-opted.

There are two things at play in this battle of wills. First, the reader never gets the story through the eyes of Elizabeth Weatherall. Instead, Duchamp’s choice of perspective is Weatherall’s personal assistant Allison. Allison is a young Executive woman and is somewhat politically na├»ve. This permits Duchamp to give huge info-dumps on the motivations of Elizabeth Weatherall in the form of a Socratic dialogue between Weatherall and Allison. Allison asks a question, admits that she does not understand, and Weatherall spends paragraphs (and pages) explaining the reasoning, often in dismissive language, for Weatherall’s actions. Allison plays the role of the student, saying one or two things to lead Weatherall to continue the monologue (which is essentially what a Socratic dialogue is), and otherwise keep quiet.

Allison found Elizabeth's use of so many abstractions confusing. "I don't understand what you mean when you talk about these structures and reality and so on."

Elizabeth sighed. "I'm sure you'll see what I mean as the experiment proceeds. But let me try to explain. In the first place, the only source of a non-solipsistic reality for her while she is in that cell is me: I'm the only thing outside of herself that can assure her of her own existence." - pg 216-217

The thing that sets Renegade apart from Alanya to Alanya has little do with the Marq’ssan, the human / alien conflict, or even the attempts to build a new human society outside the bounds of what is generally known as “civilization”. What sets Renegade apart and distinct from Alanya to Alanya is just how intellectual and self-aware the characters are of their motivations and actions. There is a great deal of self-analysis from Kay Zeldin and Elizabeth Weatherall in exactly what their actions means intellectually and morally and Duchamp allows her characters to clearly define the larger meaning of everything they say and do.

"You apologize. For what exactly do you apologize, Kay?"

Kay swallowed. Weatherall was going to make it as hard as she could. "I apologize for using ideological and inflammatory words, and for being rude to you."

"Let me see. What was it you said during my last visit about moral authority . . . Does this mean you grant me the moral authority to punish you?"

Kay hated her own stupidity in having supplied Weatherall with such ammunition. pg 247

On one hand this is a fascinating exercise that defines in literal terms what everything in the novel means. There is always a question of whether the characters are telling the truth when explaining their actions, or if they are capable of accurately evaluating their own motivations. This is most important to consider in the character of Elizabeth Weatherall, because unlike Kay Zeldin, we only see Weatherall through the eyes of her personal assistant and lover, Allison. The reader is given detailed intellectual explanation from the mouth of Elizabeth Weatherall, but the reader is never in Weatherall’s head. So, as far as it goes, Renegade is an intellectual battle taking the form of captivity and privation.

The flip side is that most of Renegade is a huge instance of tell and not show. Because the characters so frequently pontificate the reasons behind their actions, the reader is being force-fed the story rather than experiencing the novel and coming up with his or her own interpretation. This can be a major turn-off for many readers.

L. Timmel Duchamp did such a good job in Alanya to Alanya in creating this situation that so hooked the reader that even through chapters of info-dump and pages of detailed explanations of motivations, the readers are so engaged with the characters that Renegade never feels flat. By all rights it should feel flat, but it never does. Duchamp ratchets up the tension chapter by chapter because the reader has no real expectation or pre-understanding of how this story should resolve itself. The ending, as far as the reader is concerned, is not set and Duchamp is willing to do Very Bad Things to her characters and protagonists.

Renegade is a very different novel from Alanya to Alanya. It is much more introspective and self-evaluating. There are hundreds of pages with Zeldin in captivity and because of this, Renegade has a feeling of stagnation, that things may never change. This comes through the perspective of Kay Zeldin, of course, but the reader experiences it for an extended period of time and over the course of a large number of pages.

Very likely, whatever aims L. Timmel Duchamp had in writing Renegade were met. She is a good enough writer to be able to accomplish what she sets out to do, and the extended captivity sequences were integral to the novel. Through these sequences and through the eyes of Allison, the reader learns so much more about what Elizabeth Weatherall is willing to do (though never why she is willing to do them). It is these same sequences, however, that may discourage some readers.

As a whole, Renegade is not a completely satisfying novel. It comes on the heels of a much more straightforward Alanya to Alanya and there is still the knowledge that there are three more volumes in the Marq’ssan Cycle to come. How Renegade is viewed will likely depend entirely on the final three novels. The story it tells, on deeper reflection, is a fascinating one. If the comparison is even remotely appropriate, it has echoes of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. For Kay Zeldin, it is certainly that kind of personal story (as it was for Levi), though certainly on a larger scale there is no comparison as the captivity is centralized on Kay Zeldin and not put into a larger context of what Survival in Auschwitz really was about (one man’s experience to help explain a much larger and incomprehensible genocide – the Shoah). On a smaller scale, though, Kay Zeldin’s captivity and her emotional responses and breakdowns are relatable.

Renegade does require that deeper reflection. The superficial reading will likely leave the reader feeling cold and unsatisfied after some of the vibrancy of Alanya to Alanya. The choice of the word “superficial” is not meant to denigrate a particular reading style or the capabilities of understanding of various readers, but rather to show that Renegade only benefits from distance and thought. In writing this review my final opinion changed from an unenthusiastic shrug to a more grudging appreciation for what story L. Timmel Duchamp told. Renegade does come across as cold and intellectual (read: unemotional) at times, but as part of the larger series I believe that Renegade will ultimately be a successful novel, though perhaps not a favorite novel.

Previous Review
Alanya to Alanya

Monday, November 03, 2008

2008 World Fantasy Award Winners

The winners of the 2008 World Fantasy Awards have been announced. Thanks to the good people at Science Fiction Awards Watch for posting the results.

Novel: Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay
Novella: Illyria, Elizabeth Hand
Short Story: "Singing of Mount Abora", Theodora Goss
Anthology: Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, Ellen Datlow, Editor
Collection: Tiny Deaths, Robert Shearman


I do believe that Territory should have won, but despite that, Ysabel is a fine novel. Will Shetterly shared some insight on the award (namely the fact that he knew before the announcement, but also about the need for consensus).

In one of what feels like a very few times in SFF Award-dom, my taste in the Novella lined up perfectly with the judges. Illyria is the class of the field.

While I'm glad that a story in John Klima's anthology won the award, it was the wrong story. "Singing of Mount Abora" doesn't hold a candle to the Daniel Abraham story "The Cambist and Lord Iron."

I have no opinion on the Anthology category since I didn't read any of them, but this will push me to read Inferno.

I'm a little surprised by Tiny Deaths winning Collection. I liked it, but I really expected that Lucius Shepard would win and that Ellen Klages should.

And, to recap, here are my thoughts on each of the categories. Links to individual reviews are contained within each of these posts.
Short Story

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Thoughts on 2008 World Fantasy Award Nominees: Novels

Territory - Emma Bull [Tor]
Ysabel - Guy Gavriel Kay [Viking Canada/Penguin Roc]
Fangland - John Marks [Penguin Press]
Gospel of the Knife - Will Shetterly [Tor]
The Servants - Michael Marshall Smith [Earthling Publications]

With less than a day to go I was able to get this in under the wire. This is a category with two standout novels, one that's not bad, and two which really do not need to be anywhere near this nomination list.

First off, The Servants. I had a difficult choice in picking which novel was least suited to be recognized as a nominee for the World Fantasy Award. I'll say now that it was really, really close. The reason The Servants was placed in the position of dishonor was the ending. The main thrust of the novel wasn't bad and got solidly into the head of a pre-teen boy, but the entire novel was undermined by the conclusion. Here is what I had to say about The Servants.

The main gripe here is that Michael Marshall Smith attempts to combine the two narrative elements in the conclusion and the moment Mark begins what is obviously the final actions of the supernatural element of the novel, it is more than obvious how this will impact the family drama aspect to the novel even though they are in no way connected up to this point. It is as if Smith looked at his manuscript and realized: “Shit, what the hell am I doing here? Combine, combine! Must end the novel and tie up all the loose ends”. I realized what Smith was about to do and it offended me as a reader.

The Gospel of the Knife also got into the head of a teenaged boy and I think Shetterly did this just as well as Michael Marshall Smith. Even the stuff that felt like the Skull and Bones society and the secret history and power of Chris (which I don't believe is ever hinted at in Dogland) feels natural to the novel. What fails, and what yanked The Gospel of the Knife down from a good story to a "what the hell just happened" is a sixty nine page outtake from an alternate Gospel story that while it applies to the novel, it just doesn't work or fit. Here's what I had to say (please note that the rest of the review wasn't this harsh).

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

This brings me to Fangland. This is the first of the novels to feel like a complete novel and to feel like the novel met whatever expectation the author set in writing it. John Marks takes the Dracula story to a modern setting and twists it a bit so that it isn't a simple vampire tale, but even so, it just wasn't good enough. Here's what I had to say.

Under the surface, and despite the World Fantasy Award nomination, Fangland scarcely stands out from a crowd of vampire novels, let alone fantasy. It is a well written novel that despite everything that Marks does well (writing characters, coming up with a modern way to re-write Dracula, showing what the working environment is at 60 Minutes, ahem, The Hour) is simply nothing special. Several chapters / scenes work exceptionally well (Evangeline escaping with the missionary…actually anytime Evangeline is together with the missionary), but as a whole, after any chapter and especially after finishing the novel, my reaction was generally, “Huh. That’s it?” Despite having something of a climactic “final battle” and the presence of some genuinely horrific moments, Fangland never quite delivers a fully satisfying experience. Fangland is a novel of great competence and was well thought out and well written, but just being good is not good enough.

Ysabel from Guy Gavriel Kay is one of two standout novels, one of two novels that is actually worth the time to read and that will not disappoint. Here was what I had to say about Ysabel as my ultimate impression regarding the novel.

Every so often I had to stop, close the book, stare at the cover, and marvel at how good Ysabel is. I have no idea how this novel compares to the rest of Guy Gavriel Kay's work, but Ysabel feels like it has to be a standout novel. If it isn't, then what that tells me is that Guy Gavriel Kay is one of today's masters and deserves to be read. On the basis of Ysabel, I can see why he earned the nomination for the World Fantasy Award.

Despite this praise, Ysabel is not my choice for the winner of the World Fantasy Award. My choice is Territory, from Emma Bull. Territory takes part of the Tombstone story with the Earps, Doc Holliday, the Clantons, and Johnny Ringo as major players in the novel. This is so much better than I could have hoped for and was my first exposure to Emma Bull's work outside of Shadow Unit. Emma Bull is the real deal and deserves any accolade she receives. Here is what I had to say about Territory.

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

So, that's it for my coverage of the World Fantasy Award nominees. With any luck Territory will win the World Fantasy Award for Novel and if it does not, Ysabel will pick up the award as a great second choice. If any of the other three nominee wins the award, I am simply going to have to conclude the jurors have taken leave of their senses. Nothing else comes close to these two novels.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Ysabel

Guy Gavriel Kay
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Novel

It is a simple thing to say that a reader will either like a book or a reader will not. Perhaps it is so obvious and banal that it does not need to be said because it could be set about any book at all, sometimes it feels the appropriate thing to say. Ysabel is a novel that, for me, feels like it could have gone either way. I have heard of Guy Gavriel Kay for years and everything I have heard has been quite positive. Until Ysabel, I had never read anything Kay published and I have found that novelists who are considered well respected and perhaps a touch more literary can be a tough sell. This is backwards, but stepping into a new author's work can be an exciting and scary thing, especially when that author is one a reader is expected to like.

So. Ysabel. The novel starts out simple enough. Ned Marriner is a fifteen year old boy spending part of the year in France (Ned is Canadian) because his father is a famous photographer and his father "is shooting Saint-Sauveur Cathedral in Aix-en-Provence" (from the jacket copy). Ned's mother is out of the picture as she is currently in Darfur working with Doctors Without Borders. Ned is a sharp kid, full of wit and warmth and intelligence. He's quick on his feet. Ned meets Kate at the Cathedral. Kate is his age and is a self-professed geek with a passion for history. Kate is an American exchange student. In a foreign country a teenaged boy meeting an attractive girl who speaks his language is a set up for friendship and budding romance. Kay starts the characters down this path, but he gives them an additional reason to spend time together.

They also meet another man in the Cathedral. On the surface this should not be a surprise as it is a famous Cathedral but the Cathedral is closed for Ned's father to shoot it. Kate snuck in. The man also should not be there. He attempts to warn Kate and Ned off, to get them away. He tells them they are stepping into someplace they don't belong, into something that could get them killed. He is not a good man, he tells them. He has killed children. But Ned has some preternatural sense and is bold. He tells the man things that Ned should have no way of knowing. This is the beginning. What follows touches Ned's entire family and is a part of a much older story.

Ysabel touches on myth, history, magic, and family and does so with a quiet grace that before the reader can blink he or she is captivated by the storytelling of Guy Gavriel Kay. The basic points of Ysabel seem so simple, so easy that there is no way Ysabel can possibly be anything special, and yet, GGK is so damn good that fifty pages pass and we want, no, we need to keep reading late into the night. The only knock on the novel is that a modern teenager, Ned, seems too smart, witty, and capable with adults and in a very serious situation - and on top of that, everyone is smart, witty, and capable. It seems overkill. But, beyond that, Ysabel stands out from the crowd.

Every so often I had to stop, close the book, stare at the cover, and marvel at how good Ysabel is. I have no idea how this novel compares to the rest of Guy Gavriel Kay's work, but Ysabel feels like it has to be a standout novel. If it isn't, then what that tells me is that Guy Gavriel Kay is one of today's masters and deserves to be read. On the basis of Ysabel, I can see why he earned the nomination for the World Fantasy Award.