Friday, July 31, 2009

A Gentleman's Game, by Greg Rucka

A Gentleman’s Game
Greg Rucka

Written by Greg Rucka, Queen & Country is a graphic novel series centering on Tara Chace, one of the “Minders” of England’s Special Section. Chace is an operative carrying out various missions throughout the world. From assassination to pickups of intelligence, the Minders do whatever is required of them. They are the elite operatives of England’s espionage game.

A Gentleman’s Game is a novel set in this series. Tara Chace is Minder One, the Head of Special Section. A Gentleman’s Game is the story of Operation Tanglefoot and the fallout from it. This novel is set late in the Queen & Country series, between Operation Saddlebags and Operation Red Panda. The issues of Operation Red Panda are the last issues of Queen & Country, and A Gentleman’s Game sets up the finale.

Given that this novel is set so late in the chronology of Queen & Country, it would be fair to be concerned about whether reading the first 28 issues of Queen & Country is essential to understanding or appreciating A Gentleman’s Game. This is not necessary. The opening A Gentleman’s Game gives a character profile / history of Tara Chace and is a very solid overview of pretty much everything that has happened thus far in the series. All of the high points are hit, both the positives and negatives of Chace and her various missions. Now, this is capsule overview, so the heart of watching the events unfold through the graphic series is not captured, but as a background as to who Tara Chace, what she has done, and what is the situation in Special Section – Rucka successfully introduces the character for the new reader. This is a different medium, after all.

So, A Gentleman’s Game. The novel opens with a terrorist attack in the London Underground that kills more than 300. There must be a response, a retaliation. Because the response would likely not be an official military response, the response will fall to the Minders. As Minder One, Tara Chace would get this mission. After some fact finding and investigation, blame is assigned and a target chosen. Tara is sent to Yemen to assassinate a prominent Muslim cleric who has preached jihad and hate, a cleric who is believed to be an enemy actively plotting against England. This is Operation Tanglefoot.

Not having read many espionage / spy thriller novels, I cannot speak to whether or not A Gentleman’s Game works within the conventions of the genre or if Rucka plays into (or with) what readers of that genre would expect. As a reader of the first 28 issues of Queen & Country, the one thing I do know coming into this novel is that there is no guarantee that the mission Tara is sent on will end with success. There is no guarantee that even if the mission is successful, that there will be a happy ending or that everyone will come out of it okay and that the good guys will get to bask in the sun. Reading Queen & Country I do come in with an expectation, that things will be unpleasant for Tara Chace and that Rucka will not ignore potential fallout from Operation Tanglefoot, no matter which way the mission goes. Greg Rucka is a smart writer.

A Gentleman’s Game is not strictly Tara Chace’s novel. Rucka presents the perspective of her boss, Paul Crocker, and a couple of different perspectives from the terrorists. The reader gets into the head of the men perpetrating and planning these actions, though not entirely. It is difficult to say whether Rucka gets this aspect of the novel right because it is (or should be) difficult for a Western reader to really grasp that mindset. Rucka’s track record with Queen & Country suggests that everything he writes in regards to that series is done with the highest levels of quality and accuracy, so there is a level of trust the reader should have with Greg Rucka. Even so, that mindset is a difficult one to understand. This adds to the tension of the novel because the reader knows certain events are coming before the British government does. These scenes are well done, but I have to admit that I really wanted to get back to Chace or Crocker. That’s where the heart of Queen & Country is.

This is a difficult novel to discuss because it falls into the chronology of a graphic novel series. Rucka has written A Gentleman’s Game so that it can be enjoyed and appreciated by people who have never heard of Queen & Country, but fans of the series will come in to the novel with very different expectations for character and action. As a reader of the series, A Gentleman’s Game works. It is one more mission before the finale of Operation Red Panda and directly sets up those last four issues. The novel complements the series very well, and adds a level of richness to the character and situations that builds on what the series has done. I wonder if A Gentleman’s Game is not a stronger novel for readers of Queen & Country than it is to new readers. New readers do not have an emotional investment in Tara Chace.

New readers are given a solid spy story told in a realistic manner (though not bogged down with an excess of technical detail as with Tom Clancy at his worst). I think A Gentleman’s Game will intrigue the newer readers and will probably lead them to seek out Private Wars, which is the second Tara Chace novel, set after the events of Operation Red Panda and which is the ultimate close to the series (haven’t read it yet, I’m working in chronological order). Will it lead to the Queen & Country series? I can’t say. I don’t know how A Gentleman’s Game would read to fans of the spy genre as compared to how it reads to fans of Queen & Country.

As a Queen & Country reader, A Gentleman’s Game is good. It provides necessary information, but is also an emotional gut punch to the series reader. Rucka does not relent.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

An Early Review of The Gathering Storm

Oh, not by me.

There’s an early review of The Gathering Storm over at Dragonmount.

In terms of marketing and promotion, I’m not sure the new Wheel of Time novel needs advance reviews. By this point, the book almost sells itself and all Tor really needs to do is just point at the book and throngs will come and buy a copy. Throngs, I tell you, throngs. So much thronging that part of the throng will turn into a throngsicle.

The Thirteenth Depository revealed
that not many advance copies will go out for this one, presumably to keep spoilers to a minimum. That’s fair. And again, unlike most novels, “New Wheel of Time Novel” just kind of promotes itself. Add to the fact that this is the first part of the three final volumes to give a true ending to the series, and, well…throngs.

Regarding the review: It's a good review. Jason doesn't get too deep into specifics and keeps spoilerific things to a minimum while still revealing that there is some excitement to come.

It whets the appetite.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Snow Dragons", by Elizabeth Bear

Way to break my heart, Bear. Thanks you for that.

Elizabeth Bear’s “Snow Dragon” is a story that’s not about a dragon, because the dragon isn’t real. The first line of the story tells us “this is not a real dragon”. It’s not about a fake dragon, because there is sort of a dragon. It’s not about fairy tales, though it seems to almost be one. It’s not about a lot of things, but it’s really beautiful.

She tells me she could fall upon them from a great height, like the eagle in the Tennyson poem. She could push snow down on them, thundering avalanches, or she could tear up the fragile tracks that guide the trains’ toilsome journeys. But that is not the way the legend unfolds, and there’s always the chance that if she lets the story happen, it will work out the way it’s supposed to–with a happily ever after.

I think, deep down, she hopes so.

The narrator refers to the dragon as “the princess”, but this is a princess who lives on top of the mountain, whom everyone else thinks is a dragon, and who garbs herself in the clothing of the men she has murdered. This is also a princess who lives alone on the top of a mountain, and is filled with a sad yearning that the men coming to kill her will instead give her a happily ever after.

The narrator didn’t come to slay the dragon, and through the narration the reader is given a much more mournful look at the princess’s situation. The princess is presented as a younger woman (she sometimes speaks shyly), as one who appreciates beauty, who understands the sorrow and inevitability of her own situation. Because this comes from the narrator, the reader can always wonder if the narrator’s perspective is correct, that there is something here to feel for, but I think there is and that the reader is supposed to – at least as far as readers are supposed to do anything.

Elizabeth Bear never tells us if the narrator is a man or a woman. There is a brief discussion of gender late in the story in regards to fairy tales and heroes, but we never learn who the narrator is. For so much of the story I’ve thought of the narrator as a woman because of the gentleness of the narration, but there is a line midway through the story: “Women who’ll amputate your rotten toes–gagging, puking into a bucket, doing it anyway–don’t just grow on trees.” It’s a line that suggests a man, but even then, does it need to? And does it matter? I don’t know, but it does matter just a little bit in the context of the story’s ending.

“Snow Dragon” is a beautifully written story. The passages are brief glimpses of the Princess / Dragon and each one reveals more and more so that by the end we think we know the dragon and the narrator, we think we’ve seen the mountaintop and the men coming to kill the dragon, we think we’ve seen everything there is to see because we have a clear image in our minds. But, of course we’ve seen very little. It’s just that Bear is so good in pulling our strings and creating an atmosphere that even though we haven’t seen much, we’ve seen it all because we, as readers, filled in the gaps.

It’s just beautiful and touching and moving. I wanted more because as a reader, I’m greedy. I want more of what I like, even when the story is absolutely complete in its own right. As this is.

Like I said, way to break my heart, Bear. Really. Thank you for that.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Pilo Family Circus, by Will Elliott

The Pilo Family Circus
Will Elliott
Underland Press: 2009

Jamie is a bit of a loser. He’s nothing special, just a guy who one day sees three clowns committing a crime and discovers a bag of some strange powder they leave behind by mistake. Jamie, being a bit of a loser, decides to ingest some of this powder – despite the fact that he doesn’t know what it is. Yeah. Loser. Anyway, this brings him to the attention of the clowns and he soon finds himself in the middle of a nightmare he can’t escape from.

“You have two days to pass your audition. You better pass it, feller. You’re joining the circus. Ain’t that the best news you ever got?”

The clowns are absolutely insane. Two of the clowns he first saw, Doopy and Goshy, are barely functionally retarded. Seriously, they are not all there and not in a polite way, either. Gonko, the leader, is a nasty git. There are two more clowns, and they are no more sane or gentle than these three. Perhaps because of the powder, Jamie is recruited into the circus and with the trashing of his flat, the alternative is death. Passing his audition, Jamie finds himself is some sort of alternate reality where the circus exists somehow out of time. The clowns are at war with the acrobats, the owners – the Pilo brothers – are nearly insane and not to be crossed. This is a nightmare dreamscape of a circus and when Jamie puts on the facepaint, he turns into JJ – a vicious (if cowardly) clown with no moral center.

Welcome to The Pilo Family Circus.

This novel is nuts. The Circus is populated by grotesque people, all who once were regular humans like Jamie, but transformed by the Circus, by the powder, by the Pilos, by the Master Manipulator. Will Elliott has an insane imagination and he tells a solid story of Jamie’s experience in the circus, his desire and attempts to find a way out, and how putting on the facepaint changes him. Jamie and JJ are two different people, each with control of the body depending on whether the facepaint is applied. It’s crazy, grotesque, nasty, impressive, and just plain nuts. That is probably the best word for The Pilo Family Circus.

I described the circus as a nightmare, and that’s exactly what it is. It changes the members into gross exaggerations of who they might be (perhaps the opposite of who they truly are, but this is not clear). There is a hint of an explanation of how the audience finds the circus, and what the true purpose of the circus is (it isn’t pleasant). The whole situation is monstrous, and Will Elliott is so over the top that the storytelling can be seductive at points.

It can also be utterly rude and disgusting (let me simply reference the consummation of the “relationship” between Goshy and a plant), but that is part of the point here. Everything is rude and disgusting and over the top in terms of violence and language and absurdity. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it should be noted. If you like the horror and you like the nasty, and you’d like another look at some evil clowns, The Pilo Family Circus is exactly what you’re looking for.

The Pilo Family Circus is the second novel published by Underland Press and it’s another one readers should come into with a fortified and strong stomach (though it isn’t as flat out nasty as the physical mutilation of Last Days was). If the first two novels can be used as a gauge, Underland Press is building a strong, if somewhat sick, lineup of fiction.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Underland Press.

Monday, July 27, 2009


I feel doom hanging over my head. I finished reading Operation Saddlebags, the penultimate Queen and Country graphic novel. Because Queen and Country is absolutely fantastic, I’m going to read A Gentleman’s Game next. It’s a Queen and Country novel set between Operation Saddlebags and the finale, Operation Red Panda.

I know that I have A Gentleman’s Game, Operation Red Panda, and then one final novel which is set after the close of the graphic series, but I’m beginning to feel the sadness that comes from seeing the end of a really damn good series looming in front of me.

It’s not that I’m going to avoid or delay the last books so I can still have something to look forward to, but I kind of wish there was more. Because I’m not done yet.

I want more Chace and Crocker and Weldon and Tom and Chang, and even Chris (it’ll be interesting to see how Chris develops as Minder Three). I think the new C is a complete wanker, but that’s sort of the impression Rucka is giving us through the eyes of Crocker and the fact that the new C isn’t a big fan of operations. I just want more.

Yes, I do know that Greg Rucka is planning a new Queen and Country series that takes place after whatever it is that occurs in Red Panda. And, reportedly, that Tara Chace’s life as a Minder is probably not going to continue – which makes me wonder exactly what direction the series would go. To me, Q&C is Tara Chace and does the series exist without her, or does it work with Chace NOT as a Minder. Keep in mind that I haven’t read Red Panda or the final novel, so any and all of this is based on speculation and maybe one or two lines I sorta remember reading in an interview.

This is all to say, of course, that Queen and Country is absolutely fantastic and gritty and delightful and one of my favorite graphic series out there. Perhaps only second to Fables and right now I have to question even that, if I had the choice between more Fables and more Q&C, I’m honestly not sure which way I’d lean.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Forty Thousand in Gehenna, by C. J. Cherryh

Forty Thousand in Gehenna
C. J. Cherryh

I came into Forty Thousand in Gehenna with an interesting perspective. Because I had recently read C. J. Cherryh’s Hugo Award winning novel Cyteen, I viewed Forty Thousand in Gehenna as one of those novels which expands on a small aspect of a different novel. See, the discovery of a situation in Gehenna is a fairly significant political plot point in Cherryh’s novel Cyteen. It is referenced more than a handful of times and the existence of the Gehenna situation plays a role in how things develop in Cyteen. So, coming at the novel from this angle, it is easy to read Forty Thousand in Gehenna as an expansion novel of an unexplored aspect of Cyteen.

The problem with that is Forty Thousand in Gehenna was published five years before Cyteen.

Even though I knew the publication chronology when I went into this novel, it was still hard to escape knowing the political fallout of the events of Forty Thousand in Gehenna, and even more, knowing backstory for Gehenna that is not presented in this earlier novel. This probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense right now. Let me back up a bit.

Three colony ships are sent to the second planet orbiting the Gehenna star. Gehenna II (just as our Earth could be considered Sol III, and probably is once you get deeper into Cherryh’s Alliance / Union universe – or a variety of other science fiction novels, for that matter). The three Union ships are sent from Cyteen Station and they carry 452 fully human citizens and more than 40,000 azi. The azi can and should also be considered fully human, but they are laboratory designed, created, and born. Azi are trained from birth by “tape” that teaches them their future jobs, morality, provides reward and punishment. Azi are clones and can be delicate creatures when outside the parameters of their tape, but they are perhaps like anyone else indoctrinated from a young age. The azi are to be the workers on Gehenna, serving the citizens (as they are elsewhere in the Union).

So far as the colonists know, this is to be the first wave of colonization on Gehenna (a world they were to call Newport, but Gehenna stuck for a variety of reasons). Three years after arrival, after the initial facilities had been built, another colony ship would be sent with another group of scientists, workers, and colonists. That ship never arrives and Gehenna is abandoned by the Union that sent the first three ships.

The first section of Forty Thousand in Gehenna is told from the perspective of the first colonists, of the first colonial governor, and of the two azi Jin and Pia. Through these eyes the reader is given the first glimpse of Gehenna and the strange situation on the ground and the maybe-sentient creatures they call “calibans” that burrow and build tunnels and other mounds of dirt. The earliest section deals with the developing colony, their expectation for reinforcements, and the changing behavior of the calibans. It deals with the breakdown of the colony, even in those first three years (possibly impacted by the calibans).

That’s the beginning of Forty Thousand in Gehenna, but it isn’t the end. This is a generational novel and the primary characters through the generations are the descendants of Jin and Pia. Cherryh shows the changing culture of a world with a limited population that doesn’t have contact with the rest of civilization (i.e., the rest of the universe). The culture that develops is quite different than what landed and is tied into the geography and the native life.

After a slow and somewhat clinical start, the development of Gehenna culture and the later rediscovery of the planet by the Alliance is a fascinating examination of how people change and it seems to get at the essential question of if there is anything inherent in how civilizations develop. If this is a question Cherryh is asking, her answer seems to be “no”. Civilization and Culture adapts in regards to the situations it finds itself in. Cherryh does a damn fine job is putting this all together and showing the changes with each generation and does so over a couple hundred years.

What is revealed in Cyteen but is not touched upon in Forty Thousand in Gehenna is the reason the colony was abandoned. It is an important detail in the backstory and makes the larger universe richer, because there is a specific reason behind this and it plays into the precise nature of the tape the colonizing azi were given and what their purpose on Gehenna really was, but it is not necessarily important to the story of Forty Thousand in Gehenna.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna, at its core, is a novel of an abandoned colony and how it changes, survives, and develops over the centuries before there is renewed contact with the Alliance.

I have used the terms Alliance and Union because they apply to this novel and the larger series Cherryh is working in, but the reader unfamiliar with Cherryh’s work only needs to know that these are two differing political philosophies in the human expansion of the galaxy or Universe. Cyteen is Union, Sol is Alliance. More or less. Neither is inherently morally corrupt or morally virtuous. It’s people with different philosophies for what humanity is about. This is what Gehenna is caught in the middle of.

I was about to write that Cherryh does not get into the consequences of Gehenna in this novel, but that is true only to a point. The larger political consequences are not touched on, but we do see through the generations how certain actions are part of the changing culture. The weird autistic-like children of the azi (not the regular children of the azi) run off to live with the calibans. We see the ramifications of this through the generations. Other artifacts of culture are part of the changing landscape of Gehenna. So, in that sense, Cherryh deals with consequences on the ground and the consequences of human life of Gehenna.

Because this is a generational novel, readers should not become too attached to any one character or any one era.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna is a solid novel and one that gets better once the viewpoint is shifted past the original colony and the clinical tone used for the azi viewpoints is muted.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Thoughts on 2009 Hugo Nominees: John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Looking at some of my Hugo posts from last year, I realize I have been remiss in not writing about the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

First, here are the five nominees in alphabetical order and a little bit about what they have written.

Aliette de Bodard: A French / Vietnamese writer who lives in France and writes in English, her second language. That’s impressive. de Bodard is a short fiction writer who has been published in Interzone, Electric Velocipede, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Abyss & Apex, Coyote Wild, and Shimmer. One of her stories was reprinted in one Gardner Dozois’ yearly best of SF anthologies and she has received several honorable mentions. She has stories forthcoming in Talebones, Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, and Realms of Fantasy.

David Anthony Durham
. Best known in genre for his debut fantasy novel Acacia: War Against the Mein, Durham is also the author of three previous historical novels: Pride of Carthage, Walk Through Darkness, and Gabriel’s Story. Durham was nominated for the Campbell last year. The second Acacia novel is forthcoming this year, and a third is planned. David Anthony Durham has also been tapped to join the Wild Cards Consortium and work on a forthcoming Wild Cards novel (Fort Freak).

Felix Gilman
is the author of two novels: Thunderer and Gears of the City.

Tony Pi was born in Taiwain but currently lives in (and is a citizen of) Canada. He is a short story writer who has been published in On Spec, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Abyss and Apex. He has a story in Paper Golem’s forthcoming Alembical 2 and another forthcoming in the John Joseph Adams Sherlock Holmes anthology.

Gord Sellar is a Canadian science fiction writer currently living and teaching in a suburb of Seoul, South Korea. His fiction has been published in Apex Online, Interzone, Asimov’s, Fantasy Magazine, and Nature.

Except for Felix Gilman, the other four nominees are in their second and final year of eligibility for the Campbell.

This is a difficult category to write about this year, because unlike the previous two years, I’ve only read one of the nominees. Would it be unfair for me to say that David Anthony Durham deserves the Campbell over the other four nominees when I haven’t read the other four? Yeah, it would.

The two writers most folks will likely be most familiar with are Felix Gilman and David Anthony Durham. They have published novels. Jeff VanderMeer gave Gilman a goodly amount of word-of-mouth publicity to Gilman’s debut novel Thunderer and Durham has done quite well with Acacia.

Aliette de Bodard, Tony Pi, and Gord Sellar face potentially steeper climbs to claim the Campbell Tiara. They have only published short fiction. Now, this is by no means a bar to Campbellhood. Mary Robinette Kowal won last year on the strength of her short fiction. The fact that I was familiar with Kowal’s work and not de Bodard, Pi, or Sellar probably means nothing since I am not a Hugo Voter and I am, sadly, not the voice of science fiction and fantasy fandom. Whatever that means.

de Bodard has more name recognition in my world, but looking at the publication lists of the three short fiction writers, Sellar may have a stronger list of publications (though de Bodard’s forthcoming publications could change that – unless you hold to the view that as one of the Big Three, an Asimov’s publication trumps the rest). But even that doesn’t matter because Kowal wasn’t published in Asimov’s until AFTER she won the Campbell.

I don’t know that I have it in me to predict the winner with any sense of accuracy at all. If I was voting, I would vote for David Anthony Durham. I also think that Durham has the most name recognition with Acacia and George R. R. Martin’s announcement that Durham will be writing Wild Cards. If I had to guess, I would suggest that Durham picks up the Campbell in his final year of eligibility. If it isn’t Durham, I think this is a wide open category.

Previous winners
2008: Mary Robinette Kowal
2007: Naomi Novik
2006: John Scalzi
2005: Elizabeth Bear
2004: Jay Lake
2003: Wen Spencer
2002: Jo Walton
2001: Kristine Smith
2000: Cory Doctorow
(the list of winners stretches back to 1973)

The winner will be in good company.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hugo Chart

From SF Scope, here's a graph of of the Hugo winners for fiction reflecting the number of wins.

I like it.

It's interesting to see who has been the most honored by Hugos.

Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson
Tor: 2009

Brandon Sanderson has received a good deal of attention over the last couple of years. Most of the attention stemmed from the announcement that Sanderson was tapped to write the concluding volume of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and conversation branched out from there. Sanderson is the author of four previous fantasy novels for adults: Elantris (a standalone fantasy) and the Mistborn Trilogy (The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages). If one was so inclined to look at it like this, Warbreaker is Sanderson’s final chance to win Robert Jordan fans over before The Gathering Storm comes out later this year.

Despite that I chose to open the review this way, I think that would be an unfair way to view Sanderson and Warbreaker. I just wasn’t sure how to avoid the elephant in the room. Brandon Sanderson and Warbreaker should be judged on their own merits, and ultimately they will be.

Years ago the King of Idris signed a treaty with the Kingdom of Hallandren. The Idrian King would send his eldest daughter, Vivenna, to wed Susebron, the God King of Hallandren. Vivenne trained her entire life to be a suitable bride for Susebron and thus do her duty for Idris and help forge a stable peace between Hallandren and Idris. That was the plan. That was the plan until the Idrian King sent his willful and disobedient daughter Siri in Vivenna’s place.

Thus begins two of the three major storylines of Warbreaker. Siri attempts to find her way in court of Susebron and discovers the hidden truth about the God King. Thinking Siri wholly unsuited for her new life, Vivenna journeys to Hallandren and meets with the Idris operative working in the Hallandren capital and begins a new life of undercover espionage and sabotage. Vivenna’s plan is to rescue Siri. The reader quickly learns that Siri needs no rescuing.

The third major storyline features one of Sanderson’s more entertaining characters, a being named Lightsong. I use the word “being” because the court of Susebron is made up of the Returned. The Returned are viewed as Gods because they were once humans who died doing something heroic and were resurrected from death into a being more powerful. Lightsong, however, does not believe he is a god. Or that any of the Returned are gods. Lightsong’s does not take himself or the other Gods seriously and it is this questioning unbelief in his own divinity which will push him into the larger story.

I don’t know how well these brief overviews do in describing what Warbreaker is about. Getting a sense of character and plot is well and good, and I think it is important, but it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is something that reviews struggle to get a handle on: How well does Sanderson tell the story? How well does Sanderson execute these ideas?

The answer is that he does a very good job in telling the story and in using his creativity in worldbuilding to provide the reader with a well thought out world that comes across as a place that could be real. Brandson Sanderson does a consistently excellent job in writing compelling characters who are more than just a set of attributes. He also does an outstanding job at looking at the tropes of fantasy and coming up with fairly fresh and original magic systems to build a world around.

This time Sanderson uses color and Breath. Here’s the idea: every person is born with one Breath in their body. It is the spark that gives them life, though not exactly. Anyone with Breath can, willingly, give up their Breath to another. They will continue to live, but as one considered a Drab. Drabs do not see colors as crisply and do not appear as distinct to others with Breath. Breath becomes a commodity with a high value. Breath is also the basis of the magic system, because adepts can, at great cost, gather a larger number of Breaths to them and at certain numbers, they will reach a Heightening. They see colors more distinctly, and various heightenings give different powers (if you want to use that word) to the adept. Breath also allows the user to bestow a breath (or more) onto an inanimate object, bring it to a semblance of life, and command it to perform some simple task. The more complicated the task, the more Breaths required. The adept can (and should) reclaim those breaths when the task is complete.

Color is an offshoot of breath in that those with more Breath lend their clothing sharper and more defined colors (and thus can be identified easier) and can also perceive greater variations in shading. Breath is more important, but color provides definition and richness to the world.

This is an aspect of worldbuilding and of storytelling which Brandon Sanderson succeeds at. He builds this rich, vibrant world with a distinct and fresh magic system. Then he populates the world with a cast of characters who are shades of grey, generally neither all good nor all bad, but are people acting in the best interests of themselves or their nation. They do the best they can and make mistakes. The characters are people the reader wants to know more about.

This is a long winded way to say that Warbreaker is Sanderson’s best and strongest novel yet. It shows Sanderson trying new things and trying to continue to improve with each book. He has. There is a richness of imagination and strong storytelling in Warbreaker that should please any and all fans of high fantasy.

This is also a long way to address the original paragraph, which is to say that if Warbreaker doesn’t convince Robert Jordan’s fans that Sanderson is up to the task of completing The Wheel of Time in as satisfying a manner as possible, nothing will.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor Books.

Previous Reviews
Mistborn: The Final Empire (I know, I barely said anything)
Mistborn: The Well of Ascension
Mistborn: The Hero of Ages (no review, apparently)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Who Killed Amanda Palmer

The Who Killed Amanda Palmer book is subtitled "A Collection of Photographic Evidence". This book is a series of pictures depicting the various ways Amanda Palmer has been killed. That's the premise of the book (and the album).

There are brief stories written by Neil Gaiman. The stories, like the photos, are glimpses into the deaths of Amanda Palmer. Some of them are a touch on the gruesome side.

As a collection of themed photographs, it's an interesting book. As a collection of stories from Gaiman, well, it's not that. These aren't full stories, they are ideas and, if you will, snapshots.

The Who Killed Amanda Palmer book also contains the lyrics of all the songs from the album and can reasonably be considered the liner notes for the album. See, the album was released without a booklet, just a cardboard slipsheet.
Who Killed Amanda Palmer has become something of a multimedia affair. There is the album, the book, and a series of videos.

I don't know how well the book would succeed as an independent entity. I am not the market for photography books (though I do enjoy them), but from that perspective, I do think Who Killed Amanda Palmer is an interesting coffee table book which depicts one woman found dead in a wide variety of ways. Seriously, the typewriter to the head (and accompanying story) is easily my favorite.

Where it truly succeed is as a companion to the album. Now, I don't know how well the album has sold or what Palmer's reach has been in terms of getting the album out there (to say there are issues with the her label would be to revel in understatement), but this book is a beautiful collection of lyrics, photographs, and short-short stories from Neil Gaiman.

Who Killed Amanda Palmer is a beautifully put together book.

Given that has a tank for sale (check out the reviews), it may come as a bit of a surprise that the Who Killed Amanda Palmer book is not actually for sale on Amazon. You may have wondered what, exactly, Amazon doesn't sell...well, this is it. So, if you are so inclined, Who Killed Amanda Palmer can be purchased here and only here (so far as I know).

I think it's worth it. But, as it has been suggested recently that I may have a crush on Amanda Palmer*, I may not necessarily be the most impartial of judges. Despite that, this is a pretty damn cool book and I'm glad I bought it.

*it's a completely platonic musical crush, I swear it. I'm taken, she's taken. What more do you need to know?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lord of Chaos, by Robert Jordan

Lord of Chaos
Robert Jordan

Early on in the novel Sammael is given an instruction by the Dark One: “Let the Lord of Chaos rule”. Now, the introductory quote tells us that this is a chant from a children’s game in the Fourth Age in Great Arvalon*, but in the context of the novel (and the series), Jordan is not clear about what exactly this means. The most straightforward reading that I can come up with is that this refers to Rand. As the Dragon, Rand is the Lord of Chaos, and the Dark One is giving Rand a fairly free reign to mess things up and turn the nations against him. To the Dark One, Rand is little more than a babe with a sword. Rand has been lucky, but will ultimately fail. That, at least, is the presumed perspective of the Dark One.

Is this the correct reading? Sammael aligns with Graendal and neither makes an overt move against Rand during this volume (at least not until Rand makes his own move). This is the reading that makes the most sense to me, but Jordan never spells out what he means.

An alternate reading would be that Padan Fain is the Lord of Chaos. This makes a certain amount of sense. After all, Fain is quite mad by this point and is barely controllable by anyone, so letting him do his thing could (and does) cause a variety of muddles…mostly regarding the Whitecloaks at this point, though they don’t need any help. Fain, or Mordeith, or Ordeith, or whatever he is calling himself at this point can certainly be considered the Lord of Chaos. Except that as interesting an option as Fain represents, he doesn’t make nearly as much sense in the context of the novel as Rand.

And what is up with that being part of a children’s game? That’s an awfully morbid game. On the other hand, we have our Lizzie Borden rhyme and the whole deal with standing in a dark bathroom with the door closed and saying “bloody mary” over and over again, so who are we to judge “let the Lord of Chaos rule”?

Now, in terms of the novel itself, we are beginning to settle into a routine at this point. As Adam Whitehead points out, we are into the political phase of the series and fairly well out of the adventure phase. Readers will respond very differently during the political phase and many who thoroughly enjoyed the first three or four novels will be less enamored with Lord of Chaos and the subsequent volumes. Yes, there are major action sequences that are iconic in the Wheel of Time series. Dumai’s Wells is a prime example of this and is perhaps the crowning moment of Lord of Chaos. Want to see the One Power used as a weapon in battle and the horror of what it can do? Look no further than Dumai’s Wells.

The bulk of Lord of Chaos, however, consists of the characters sitting around, plotting, no longer confiding in each other, Rand being “hard”, and strategizing as to what to do next. Or, more specifically, waiting. Lord of Chaos is not pure stasis, but some readers may perceive it as such.

Back when I first started to write about Lord of Chaos, two months ago, I wrote down a quick jottings of things I then wanted to touch on: Bit of plodding, Egwene as Amyrlin, Dumai’s Wells, more Rand being “hard”, beginning of the Min / Rand relationship, Asha’Man as warriors – what does the title mean?, re-emergance of Lan (barely), Alanna / Rand, Verin spending a lot of time looking mysterious and suspicious, getting Mat in Ebou Dar to meet Tylin, escape of Moggy, a couple of Halima / Aran’gar actions but otherwise not much there, Elaida.

At this point I don’t really want to discuss any of it, except that for me, those were the high points – or just the stuff that came to mind and worth calling out.

The thing is, this may not be enough for some readers and that’s okay. Robert Jordan cannot be all things to all people and he is telling a particular story in the best manner he knows how. This is not to excuse any perceived lapses or the decreasing speed of the narrative pacing. It is just to state that the style of the series has changed and by this point Wheel of Time is not a story of grand adventure. The characters are growing up. There is some development, though they retain most of the traits they had before, only now writ large. Rand is perhaps the notable exception because Rand is the blank canvas on which Jordan is painting this novel. He began as a fairly standard and generic heroic boy of prophecy, only now we see Rand carrying the weight of the madness of saidin and the weight of the expectation of prophecy. Being the Dragon Reborn was always something to be feared, not celebrated.

The following statement can be leveled at more than a couple of Wheel of Time novels: The Lord of Chaos is an uneven novel. Overall, I’d consider it to be a good one.

*Great Arvalon? Assuming that this is a quote from the NEXT age and not the last Fourth Age (which should be long forgotten), one can guess that it is part of the how names change over time – something explicitly mentioned more than a handful of times in this series. So, Great Arvalon was once Tar Valon. But who can say exactly how the city of the Aes Sedai has changed?

Previous Reviews
The Eye of the World
The Great Hunt
The Dragon Reborn
The Shadow Rising
The Fires of Heaven

Monday, July 13, 2009

Boneshaker: Chapter One

Because I have no actual content until tomorrow morning, here's something more awesome than me.

Cherie Priest has posted the first chapter of her forthcoming and almost guaranteed to be awesome novel Boneshaker.

stuff I really swear I'm going to do

I've been feeling all kinds of slack lately, so I wanted to publicly remind myself what I plan / want to do in the next two weeks for this blog.

Book Reviews
Lord of Chaos, by Robert Jordan
A Crown of Swords, by Robert Jordan
Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson
Spicy Slipstream Stories, by Nick Mamatas and Jay Lake (editors)
Forty Thousand in Gehenna, by C. J. Cherryh

Those are four books I've finished and just need to sit down and write about.

I'm reading JJA's Federations, so that'll be soonish. The above five, though, should take first priority.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

catching up with my anticipated reading list

Way back in January I posted about the 16 books I was most interested in reading this year. The list was focused on 2009 titles. I haven't been this reflective in the past, but let's take a look to see how I'm doing.

1. A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
2. A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin
3. Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie
4. Seven for a Secret, by Elizabeth Bear
5. The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Three, by Jonathan Strahan, editor
6. Chasing the Dragon, by Justina Robson
7. The Revolution Business, by Charles Stross
8. The Walls of the Universe, by Paul Melko
9. The City & The City, by China Mieville
10. City Without End, by Kay Kenyon
11. The God Engine, by John Scalzi
12. Steal Across the Sky, by Nancy Kress
13. Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson
14. Federations, by John Joseph Adams, editor
15. The Son of Retro Pulp Tales, by Joe R. Lansdale
16. Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

Starting with the strikethroughs, that's what I've read - with two exceptions. I haven't read Seven for a Secret, but I own it and I plan to read it in the next month. Maybe it shouldn't have a strikethrough. I also own Federations and I'm a couple of stories in. That counts.

Not everything on the list has been published
A Memory of Light: The Gathering Storm (November)
A Dance of Dragons (Q4, maybe?)
Chasing the Dragon (August)
The God Engines (December) - preordered
The Son of Retro Pulp Tales (August)
Republic of Thieves (.............)

The Strahan is due next week, I think, and that's also preordered (got a shipping confirmation last week)

All told, I'm not doing too badly in terms of reading what has been published. Best Served Cold is on hold with the library (listed as "on order"). I expect to read the Nancy Kress this year, but I'm not sure about the Mieville. It deserves its place on the list, but Mieville requires this emotional investment to pick up the book that I'm just not prepared to work up to. His stuff is heavy.

Here's the good news: Everything (except one novel) that I have read from this list has been quite good. I don't expect many more disappointments (The Revolution Business being the one).

Still a good list and I look forward to reading the rest of them.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Clockwork Century

Stonewall Jackson survived Chancellorsville. England broke the Union’s naval blockade, and formally recognized the Confederate States of America. Atlanta never burned.

It is 1880. The American Civil War has raged for nearly two decades, driving technology in strange and terrible directions. Combat dirigibles skulk across the sky and armored vehicles crawl along the land. Military scientists twist the laws of man and nature, and barter their souls for weapons powered by light, fire, and steam.

But life struggles forward for soldiers and ordinary citizens. The fractured nation is dotted with stricken towns and epic scenes of devastation—some manmade, and some more mysterious. In the western territories cities are swallowed by gas and walled away to rot while the frontiers are strip-mined for resources. On the borders between North and South, spies scour and scheme, and smugglers build economies more stable than their governments.

This is the Clockwork Century. It is dark here, and different.

Cherie Priest has a new website for the world of The Clockwork Century - the setting of her forthcoming novel Boneshaker.

The website is quite gorgeous and gives background on the world (the quoted passage is from the website), the two planned novels, and the two stories. You can read "Tanglefoot" now.

Boneshaker is one of the novels I am most excited to read this year.

So - check out the website, read "Tanglefoot", and then get ready for some Cherie Priest goodness. All four of her full length novels have been outstanding.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Situation, by Jeff VanderMeer

I dedicate The Situation to all of the passive-aggressive emotional vampires, cowardly blunderkinds, narcissistic sociopaths, and incompetent power-abusing managers currently lurking amongst unsuspecting office workers everywhere.

The above is the acknowledgment to Jeff VanderMeer's novella The Situation. Given the dedication, this is a story set in a corporate office and features a long suffering office worker with a worsening work-place situation. That's something so many of us are facing today, though to be honest, it's not a new situation for employees to be in. So, in that sense, The Situation is a perpetually topical story.

What makes The Situation stand out is that VanderMeer takes all the mundanity of working in an office and combines it with elements of absolute fantastic. The narrator's office is filled with the weird and surreal. The narrator appears to make educational products, except they are educational beetles that can crawl into an ear and teach the recipient. A major project is to make a fish that will swallow a child and after sensory deprivation, increase the child's facility at math. The corporate world of The Situation is utter madness.

If a story can truly be said to be "about" anything, The Situation is about a poisonous corporate enviornment. Coworkers once considered friends change as they are promoted. Managers can be absolute monsters. A new employee can alter the atmosphere of a workplace. It's a perfectly common story told with fantasatic literalizations of what occurs in offices around the country (perhaps world).

Damn, Jeff VanderMeer nails this one.

The Situation is available for download.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

First Half of 2009: The Nine Best Reads

Time for a quick review of the best books I’ve read in the first half of 2009. Now, bear in mind that only three of the nine are 2009 publications. This list isn’t about the best books published in 2009 (I do a list of that at the end of the year) but just about what the best of what I’ve read so far this year.

This list is not in ranking order, but rather the order in which I read each of the nine.

, by Cherie Priest
A Companion to Wolves, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
Hand of Isis, by Jo Graham
City Without End, by Kay Kenyon
Lamentation, by Ken Scholes
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith
Cyteen, by C. J. Cherryh

I’ve linked up my reviews of each.

I’m rather curious which books will make my end of year list for the top nine books I’ve had the pleasure to read. I suspect Ammonite, City Without End, and The Sparrow are near locks. Hand of Isis won’t make the final list (I almost cut it from this one). The rest? It’s going to be tough paring down the top nine for the year. I recently read a novel which is sure to make my list.

Good stuff here. Gotta tell you.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Though took down the archives, thanks to the wonder that is the internet, the archives to SCIFICTION are still available. There are some heavy-hitters there.

Lucius Shepard
Elizabeth Bear
Howard Waldrop
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Michael Bishop
Kim Newman
Jay Lake
M. Rickert
Elizabeth Hand
Jeffrey Ford
Robert Reed
Bruce Sterling
Walter John Williams
James Patrick Kelly
Scott Westerfeld
Gene Wolfe
Maureen McHugh
Charles Stross
Cory Doctorow
Nancy Kress
Kage Baker

That's just a glimpse of the original fiction. There are classic reprints from folks like Joan Vinge, Howard Waldrop, Samuel R. Delaney, Theodore Sturgeon, and Roger Zelazny

many others

"Shadow Twin", by Gardner Dozois, George R. R. Martin, and Daniel Abraham (the story that would become Hunter's Run)

There's an Octavia Butler story I've never read or heard of, "The Book of Martha", and another, "Amnesty"

Seriously, it's a treasure trove of fiction.

(thanks goes to SF Signal's Facebook page for the link)

Tsunami, by L. Timmel Duchamp

L. Timmel Duchamp
Aqueduct Press: 2007

Tsunami is set almost ten years after the conclusion of the previous volume in the Marq’ssan Cycle, Renegade. Tsunami does not reboot this series, exactly, but it refocuses the nature of the storyline. The Executive is once again operating openly in the world and in the wake of years of war, consolidating power. The Free Zones, under the nominal protection of the Marq’ssan, are building the vision the Marq’ssan presented – that of a free and cooperative society. The leaders of the Free Zones are building alliances and cooperation with other, more supportive governments, and are working towards equality.

There are three primary character perspectives in Tsunami: Elizabeth Weatherall, Martha Greenglass, and Celia Espin. After the first two novels, Weatherall and Greenglass are rather well known characters. Celia Espin is new. She is a human rights lawyer who, for doing her job, gets in trouble with the Executive. This brings Celia into the larger narrative of Tsunami – that of the conflict between the Free Zone and the Executive. Or, more accurately, the conflict complete social and political change.

Ultimately, Tsunami is a novel about power. The power of the Executive. The power of the Marq’ssan. The power of the Free Zone and the power of change. One of the many ways Duchamp demonstrates this is through Elizabeth Weatherall. Weatherall has been the de facto leader of the Security branch of the Executive for more than a decade. As the personal assistant to Robert Sedgwick, she wielded Sedgwick’s power when he was not able to. Weatherall had all the power of Security in everything but name. At any time any of the other senior leaders of the Executive could trump Weatherall by going to Sedgwick. Tsunami features a major power struggle between Weatherall and Sedgwick and this struggle is central to the narrative and the shape of the series.

This is a highly political novel filled with depth of thought. Duchamp uses dialogue and the inner narration of the characters to explain political and power philosophy. Duchamp may be a bit blunt and obvious in the handling of this political discourse, but by this point it is part and parcel of the story Duchamp is telling. She is telling a political and feminist story, and if that was going to be a problem it would have been a problem in Alanya to Alanya.

I hate to use cliché when talking about a work of this depth, but Tsunami is, in a sense, a case of the “dread” Middle Book Syndrome. First, it is a true middle novel, the third of five. That has nothing to do with the Syndrome because some book HAS to be the third book of five. The thing is, on a superficial level, Tsunami fits the bill. Duchamp moves characters from Point A to Point B (not necessarily physical locations, but in story terms) and sets up the direction of the series is to go with the next volume Blood in the Fruit. Specifically, I’m talking about Elizabeth Weatherall. Weatherall opens Tsunami in her previous role as Sedgewick’s Personal Assistant but in the very first pages Sedgewick confronts Weatherall with her actions in Renegade, the emotional torture and breaking of Kay Zeldin. This sets the tone and the gradual change in Weatherall’s position and political beliefs. Weatherall, more than any other character in Tsunami, is absolutely central to the story Duchamp is telling with this series and it is the changes in Weatherall that will set up Blood in the Fruit.

The thing is, there is far less of a clearly defined story in Tsunami than there was in either Alanya to Alanya or Renegade. The three character perspectives do not come together to build a unified whole. Rather, they remain mostly distinct stories which serve to better set up the next two volumes. This does not make Tsunami any less readable or enjoyable, but it does prevent Tsunami from in any way standing on its own as a novel. It is entirely dependent on what came before and what will come next. That’s fine, but it worth noting that what readers may have expected after Renegade is not at all what Duchamp gives the readers. The tension does not ratchet up as it did with the Weatherall / Zeldin showdown in Renegade. The closest to that sort of dramatic tension that is contained within Tsunami is the political / emotional interactions between Weatherall and Sedgwick. While these are arguably the highlights of the novel, they do not deliver the same visceral punch as did the first two novels.

In the end, Tsunami is a solid novel, if not as impressive as the previous two. It sets the stage for what are likely to be two explosive (politically, if not with action) novels. The fallout from Weatherall’s actions and the larger role the Marq’ssan took in this novel will be worth checking out.

Previous Reviews
Alanya to Alanya

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Thoughts on 2009 Hugo Award Nominees: Novellas

The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)
The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008)
“The Tear” by Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (Fast Forward 2)
Truth” by Robert Reed (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2008)

This is my third post covering the 2009 Hugo Award nominees. This time, the novella. As I prefer to do, the stories will be listed in reverse order of how good I think they are / their perceived worthiness for the award.

The first story I want to talk about is the one I haven't read. Here is what I wrote about it when I covered the Nebula nominated novellas, with one quick adaptation for the Hugos.
I’ve read a previous story from Charles Coleman Finlay (“The Political Officer”) which featured Maxim Nikomedes and I don’t remember being too excited / impressed by it. Given that “The Political Prisoner” is set in the same world as that earlier story, I’d be surprised if I’d liked the new one. Unless “The Political Prisoner” wins the Hugo, I don’t plan to read it. This story gets the position of dishonor simply because I did not read it.

I have always had issues with Ian McDonald’s work and could not get into “The Tear”, but at least I tried. McDonald is just a case of author / reader failure for me. Perhaps I should attempt to explain what my major issue with this is, but I don't know if it would do much good. Me and McDonald are not a good fit. By any rights this story should be granted the position of dishonor, but the unreads have to go first.

"The Tear" is not currently available online (though if you are a member of World Con, you can e-mail McDonald for a copy - but that offer may no longer be open given that the deadline for voting has passed)

"True Names"
Previously stated thoughts
Here's the thing - I like Cory Doctorow's work. I haven't read quite enough Rosenbaum to have formed an opinion (nothing has really resonated), but I suspect he's good. Their novella "True Names"? It's not for me. It's overlong with little meaning (for me) and has nothing for me to connect with, to engage with. I was left lost and cold.

"The Erdmann Nexus"
I think I waited too long before writing about Nancy Kress's story because at this point I don't really have anything to say about it. It was a perfectly ordinary and reasonably satisfying story about an aging physicist attempting to work out strange visions reported from the other patients at the old folks home. It's fine, with a twist of an ending that is sort of hinted at throughout the story, but it doesn't stand out as a story one would heartily recommend to others. On the flip side, compared to the first three stories I've written about...

Here is the Torque Control wrap up / coverage of the story.

"The Truth"
Previously stated thoughts
A story that runs as little more than extended conversation, or as two extended conversations, probably should not work so well, but damn, this is stuff I want more of! “Truth” isn’t political diatribe or rhetoric, it’s just the story of a time traveling terrorist.

It’s just a really good story that I wish was a little longer. It’s horrifying, but beautiful in the very nasty way a looming apocalypse can be.

"Truth" is the one story truly worth recommending. If I had a vote, I don't know if I would throw down the dread "No Award", but I'm fairly disappointed in this crop of nominees.

Previous Thoughts
Short Stories

Monday, July 06, 2009

June 2009 Reading

On the heels of my much delayed post on what I read in May, here's the same for June.

54. Ammonite – Nicola Griffith
55. Genesis – Paul Chafe
56. Cyteen – C. J. Cherryh
57. Gifts - Ursula K. Le Guin
58. The Sioux Spaceman – Andre Norton
59. Fury – Aaron Allston
60. The Eye of the Monster – Andre Norton
61. The X Factor – Andre Norton
62. The Walls of the Universe – Paul Melko
63. Voorloper – Andre Norton

Graphic Novels
43. Fables: The Good Prince – Bill Willingham
44. Fables: War and Pieces – Bill Willingham
45. Whiteout: The Melt – Greg Rucka
46. Queen and Country: Operation Blackwall – Greg Rucka
47. Preacher: Til the End of the World – Garth Ennis
48. Pride of Baghdad – Brian K. Vaughan
49. 30 Days of Night – Steve Niles

The four Andre Norton novels were part of an omnibus edition which will be reviewed for Fantasy Magazine. Here's the short of it: They weren't good, no matter what John Ottinger says. He's wrong.

The best books of the month were Ammonite and Cyteen. Also - Pride of Baghdad is something special.

The worst, the Norton. Though, I've not a whole lot of patience for Genesis, either.

Previous Reading

Wild Cards: Inside Straight

Inside Straight
George R. R. Martin (editor)

If this is your first time, welcome to Wild Cards. If you’ve been here before, welcome back to Wild Cards. Inside Straight is the eighteenth volume in the long running series. If you’ve never read anything in the Wild Cards universe before, don’t worry. Don’t feel intimidated because there is no need to go back and read the first seventeen novels before you read Inside Straight. New readers can just right into Inside Straight and understand everything about the story without having read a single previous volume. This is a perfect place to start your Wild Cards experience. Long time readers will be rewarded with side references to long familiar characters and events but new readers will not feel lost.

Consider this to be Wild Cards: The Next Generation.

A little background: in 1959 an alien virus was unleashed on Earth. Those infected had a 90% mortality rate. It is said they drew the Black Queen. 9 out of 10 survivors developed a wide range of physical abnormalities and were called Jokers. Jokers tended to be shunned and ended up living in enclaves within major cities. The most famous of those was called Jokertown and was in New York City. That lucky 1% of all victims of the Wild Card virus developed a wide range of super powers. They are called Aces.

What makes Wild Cards different than other superhero stories is that the people who become Aces are just that, people. They have the same base desires or potential for heroism than any average person already contains within. Some did become heroes, some criminals, and some are just regular folk going about their business without getting too involved in the world at large. That was 1959. The intervening decades wrought social and political changes both great and small. The Brooklyn Dodgers never left New York. Fidel Castro played major league baseball and never became a dictator. A character introduced in Aces Abroad (book 4) is assassinated at the beginning of Inside Straight after uniting nearly the entire Arab world as one nation, the Caliphate.

By the time Inside Straight rolls around, Aces and Jokers are old hat. There are two generations who have never known anything but the transformed world with Aces, Jokers, and the Black Queen. There is a decreasing number of people who were even alive when the virus was unleashed.

That’s the background to Inside Straight and much of this is revealed in little pieces for the new reader. Again, this is a perfect entry point to the series.

The assassination at the opening of the novel is a major plot point, but it does not really come up again until midway through Inside Straight. The first half of the novel introduces a new set of Aces to the reader through a reality tv show: American Hero.

The first thought of many readers might be to groan at the idea of a reality show based around Aces competing against each other, but let’s be realistic. Though the introduction of the virus caused certain events and situations to change, overall the world follows basically the same path – and that includes the rise of reality television. In such a world, of course there would be a reality show based around a superhero competition. There’s probably also some shlocky FOX show regarding marrying a Joker, but that’s not this book. Happily.

It’s a perfect way to introduce the major characters and give background on some minor ones. The first half of the novel introduces the characters and reality program, shows some competition and the backstories of a handful of characters, and does an excellent job in rebooting the Wild Cards franchise without once contradicting or erasing anything that happened in the past. These are new characters with new lives and they are getting on with their business. Some are shallow, some are misunderstood, some are morally solid, and some are not. Just like regular people. Regular people who just happen to have superpowers.

The second half of the novel begins to return to fallout of the assassination and draws in some of the new characters we’ve been introduced to.

That’s Wild Cards and that’s Inside Straight.

The other thing to note about Inside Straight (and the franchise as a whole) is that this is considered a mosaic novel. It has a variety of authors writing their own stories which all build to a coherent whole. It provides different perspectives on the characters and the story.

The writers of Inside Straight are Daniel Abraham, George R. R. Martin, Carrie Vaughn, Melinda Snodgrass, Ian Tregillis, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, and S.L. Farrell. They bring us characters like Jonathan Hive, Stuntman, Curveball, Rustbelt, The Amazing Bubbles, Earth Witch, Brave Heart, Drummer Boy, Wild Fox, Spasm, Toad Man, and The Candle (and quite a few more)

Of particular note is the work of Daniel Abraham, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, and Melinda Snodgrass (the Noel story).

These aren’t the characters longtime readers of the series know and love, but there are appearances by Peregrine and The Golden Boy, as well as references to Jetboy, The Turtle, Fortunado, and others. This is actually part what makes Inside Straight work so well. The novel is self contained but feels like it is a part of a much larger world with characters who have their own lives and may not intersect with these characters, but we know they’re out there.

For what it’s worth, my favorite character is The Amazing Bubbles. Thanks to Caroline Spector for that. Earth Witch a solid #2.

I very much recommend Inside Straight to both fans of the series as well as to new readers. I’ve only read the first four volumes of the series before jumping into Inside Straight. I picked up just fine.

It’s good.

Previous Wild Cards Reviews:
Wild Cards (bk 1)
Aces High (bk 2)
Jokers Wild (bk 3)
Aces Abroad (bk 4)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

May 2009 Reading

Once again, I am way late in doing a wrap up post of what I've read. This is for May 2009. I'll post the June listing later today.

44. The Edge of the World – Kevin J. Anderson
45. The Six Directions of Space – Alastair Reynolds
46. Toll the Hounds – Steven Erikson
47. Rides a Dread Legion – Raymond E. Feist
48. Inferno – Troy Denning
49. A Crown of Swords – Robert Jordan
50. World’s End – Mark Chadbourn
51. Lamentation – Ken Scholes
52. Gunpowder – Joe Hill
53. Tsunami – L. Timmel Duchamp

Graphic Novels
27. Y: The Last Man: Unmanned – Brian K. Vaughan
28. Fables: The Mean Seasons – Bill Willingham
29. Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Golden Trilobite – Phil and Kaja Foglio
30. Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Voice of the Castle – Phil and Kaja Foglio
31. Preacher: Gone to Texas – Garth Ennis
32. Fables: Homelands – Bill Willingham
33. Fables: Arabian Nights (and Days) – Bill Willingham
34. Queen and Country: Operation Crystal Ball – Greg Rucka
35. Fables: Wolves – Bill Willingham
36. Fables: Sons of Empire – Bill Willingham
37. Transmetropolitan: Year of the Bastard – Warren Ellis
38. Bone: Out from Boneville – Jeff Smith
39. Queen and Country: Declassified, Volume 1 – Greg Rucka
40. Star Wars Legacy: Alliance – John Ostrander
41. Whiteout – Greg Rucka
42. Y: The Last Man: Cycles – Brian Vaughan
43. Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall – Bill Willingham

If you didn't notice, I got a bit obsessed with Fables this month. I'm now all caught up with the published collections, so that'll slow down. I'm still reading graphics, but perhaps not in the raw volume I did in May. We'll see if saying that will make me a liar.

Anyway, the best books of the month are Gunpowder and Lamentation. The best graphics, as you might guess, are Fables and Queen & Country.

The worst is easy. The Edge of the World by Kevin Anderson.

Previous Reading