Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Starship: Rebel, by Mike Resnick

Starship: Rebel
Mike Resnick
Pyr: 2008

After a personal tragedy and a monumental act of evil from the Republic, Wilson Cole turns his small fleet from mercenary work-for-hire to directly target and take on the Republic Navy itself. His fight, as Cole makes clear early on, is not with the Men of the Republic, but with the Navy which has systematically perpetrated acts of genocide from which Cole can no longer look the other way. Cole’s initial goal is to simply remove the Republic’s warships from the Inner Frontier, to make the Frontier a place where the Republic dares not to send ships. Presumably, the Republic’s war with the Teroni will prevent them from sending a massive fleet against Cole and the Theodore Roosevelt. That’s Cole’s hope.

Starship: Rebel is the fourth volume in Mike Resnick’s series about the adventures of Commander Wilson Cole and the ship the Theodore Roosevelt. Cole was a former senior officer in the Republic Navy with a bad habit of allowing his personal morality to cause him to disobey direct orders. His actions generally resulted in great victories for the Republic and prevented other acts of genocide, but Cole did disobey orders. That led to Cole’s mutiny, his subsequent arrest, his crew’s further mutiny in rescuing him, and Cole taking the Theodore Roosevelt away from the Republic.

That is Cole’s backstory, and the premise of Starship: Rebel. Anyone who has read the first three Starship novels has an excellent idea what to expect from Starship: Rebel.

The Starship series, in general, is military science fiction that is written in a very easy and accessible manner. Without any disparagement intended, Starship is the sort of novel one might recommend to a new genre reader looking to get into the space adventure type of science fiction but isn’t ready for the heavy technological explanations of, say, Peter Hamilton. Like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Mike Resnick’s Starship series is introductory-level science fiction, and this is meant as a compliment. It’s the stuff that can hook new readers while pleasing long-time readers of the genre.

Starship: Rebel is not notably different than the first three volumes of the series. This is not the place to jump into the series, though Resnick’s storytelling is such that readers will likely be comfortable with this volume as an introduction – but the character connections won’t be nearly as strong as if they start with Starship: Mutiny. All of the standard traits of the series are here: the frequent use of humor, Val’s indestructibility, Cole’s morality, the occasional space battle. There are great similarities here and not much (if any) character growth from one novel to the next.

But that’s not why we read Mike Resnick’s Starship series. We read the books because they are fun to read. If you’re looking for some smart light and easy reading, a sense of adventure and some action, a lead character with a quick wit and who is unequivocally a “good guy”, these are your books. Starship: Rebel satisfies that itch.

Also, it is worth nothing that this series is part of Resnick’s larger Birthright universe and is set very near the end of the Republic era. This tidbit doesn’t spoil anything because the chronology in the appendix is in each of the previous volumes, but knowing where this series seems to be headed, it is likely that Cole’s actions will play into a change of a political era in Man’s history. It’s worth tracking down Resnick’s early collection Birthright – it tracks humanity across the ages with a series of short stories (or vignettes, really) and sets the framework in which Starship is set. It’s not necessary to enjoy the novel, but serves as a counterpoint for the universe.

Previous Reviews
Birthright: The Book of Man
Starship: Pirate (book two)
Starship: Mercenary (book three)

Monday, September 28, 2009

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Pandemonium


Daryl Gregory
Del Rey: 2008
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Novel

The world is just like our own, but with one notable difference. Possession is real. People can and do get possessed by demons, though usually for short bursts of time. There are particular demon identities which have been worked out: The Hellion, The Painter, Little Angel, Smokestack Johnny, and others.

Del Pierce was possessed when he was a child by The Hellion, a demon which causes the victim to act out as an angry child – except with much greater violence and a propensity towards shooting authority figures in the eyes with a slingshot. Ever since that possession, Del hasn’t been quite right. He’s been suffering the effects of that possession to a much greater level than most. He needs to tie himself down when he goes to bed or he’ll thrash and become violent at night. He’s had the occasional “episode” since that childhood possession. In short, something is wrong. Del believes the demon never left, which would be a rare thing indeed. Pandemonium is the story of Del trying to exorcise the demon within. This isn’t the Linda Blair style of possession and exorcism and the clichéd methods are unlikely to work, but Del needs to be free of the Hellion.

By grounding the story of Pandemonium in our world and only twisting just one little (important) thing, Daryl Gregory has made the impossible seem real. Though it isn’t understood and the origins aren’t known, possession in Pandemonium is accepted. There is even a fan culture built around possession. Del Pierce is a sympathetic lead character and his relationships with his brother and mother are exceptionally well written. There is a history there that is far beyond the characters being Mom and Brother. The character writing here is to be admired, and those relationships build far more tension than all of the demon possession combined. That’s because everything impacts a real person. It’s about how Del’s mother is impacted, the physical consequences to Del’s brother.

Gregory is heavily referential to science fiction authors A. E. Van Vogt and Philip K. Dick, so much so that Dick himself is a character in the novel (possessed by the archetype of one of his own characters). Not having read either Van Vogt or Dick, the one thing I cannot determine is whether knowledge of the works of those two authors would enhance the reading of Pandemonium. What I can state for sure is that not having a working knowledge of either author is no hindrance to engaging fully with Pandemonium. Gregory does an excellent job telling this story for all readers, not just initiates of Van Vogt and Dick.

Now, this whole fan-culture and self-referential science fiction detail may be a turn off for some (or many), and it is one of the weaker aspects of the novel. The weakest, though, is an otherwise out of place side story with The Human League. Not the band. Something to do with superheroes or secret agents, or something. It’s absurd and sticks out like a sore thumb.

The rest of the novel? It’s damn good. It’s a very strong debut. Based solely on Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory is an exciting new author and one to watch. His second novel, The Devil’s Alphabet will be published this year. I’ll be looking for it.

PS: I’ve done better reviews. I know. For as much as I enjoyed the novel, writing this was a struggle.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

World Fantasy Award Nominee: "Our Man in the Sudan"

"Our Man in the Sudan"
Sarah Pinborough
The Second Humdrumming Book of Horror Stories
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Short Story

Editor Stephen Jones described “Our Man in the Sudan” as “basically a zombie story in which the zombie NEVER appears. The whole horror unravels offstage through dialogue, hearsay and the reader filling in the gaps for themselves.” I kept that in mind when I read the story and it makes a difference. Maybe that’s a spoiler, but given the World Fantasy Award nomination and that Jones reprinted the story in his anthology The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20, there’s something happening below the surface of Sarah Pinborough’s story.

“Our Man in the Sudan” is part investigation, part look at the city of Khartoum*. The story opens with the line “I’d like to see the body”. Fanshawe is sent from London to Khartoum to investigate the death of MI6 agent Cartwright. In most cases we are only given last names as identifiers. It provides a bit of distance from the characters. Through Fanshawe the reader is initiated into the brutal heat of Sudan, the different level of formality, and some of the local mythology which informs the background of the story. That mythology also informs the core of the story because the background and setting is vital to “Our Man in the Sudan”. It’s the sense of place that Pinborough creates so vividly. The reader may not be able to picture each street or room, but the reader can feel the blistering and pervasive heat of Sudan, can taste the sand in her mouth, and can know exactly where they are. That’s one of Sarah Pinborough’s greatest successes with “Our Man in the Sudan.”

The deeper level of spookiness that pervades the story, beyond what Stephen Jones said about it, is that for so much of the story the reader never knows what happened to Cartwright. The death is written off as just a death, but Fanshawe has very strange messages from Cartwright prior to his death. It’s that feeling of knowing something is around the corner, but you don’t know exactly what.

At the very least “Our Man in the Sudan” is a fascinating look at the environs of Khartoum, but there is more than that. There is atmosphere and there is *something* going on. There are hints of what it is, but Pinborough never comes right out and tells the reader. That’s okay, because the story works.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Sarah Pinborough and Stephen Jones

A note on the availability of this story: If you want to read it, you’ll probably have to track down a copy of The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20. “Our Man in the Sudan” was originally published in the The Second Book of Humdrumming Horror Stories in the UK, but Humdrumming has since gone out of business and the Humdrumming book may be a little difficult to track down. The Stephen Jones anthology should be quite a bit more available on both sides of the pond.

*This really has no place in any conversation or review of Sarah Pinborough’s excellent story, but I am absolutely unable to see the name Khartoum in print and not think of that scene from The Godfather with the horse’s head in the movie producer’s bed. Also, there is something about the spelling and pronunciation of Khartoum that makes the city sound ominous. It’s the capital of Sudan and is likely not at all ominous (beyond any civil unrest or political troubles the nation already has), but I cannot escape the bias that there is something spooky about Khartoum. It’s something built-in that I bring to any story set in the city and while Pinborough wrote in the introduction to the story that she wanted to “create a photograph of a city that [she] loved very much as a child”, my reading and viewing experiences brought an inherent spookiness to “Our Man in the Sudan” that enhanced the story.

This is completely besides the point of the story and the conversation, but it influenced my reading of the story.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mage-Guard of Hamor, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr

Mage-Guard of Hamor
L. E. Modesitt, Jr
Tor: 2008

“Same as it ever was”. I should give thanks to David Byrne and The Talking Heads for providing such a simple refrain that can be so easily used to describe L. E. Modesitt Jr’s Recluce series. Anyone who has read two or three Recluce novels will have an excellent idea what to expect, and if you’ve only read the first volume (The Magic of Recluce), well, you also have an excellent idea as to what to expect from the series. The names of characters may change, and the locations may sometimes be different, but there is a great deal of similarity in the storytelling and even in what happens to the protagonist.

Mage-Guard of Hamor is the fifteenth volume in this long running series of connected novels and is the direct sequel to 2007’s Natural Ordermage (review here). Rahl was the latest in a long line of heroes who came from the island of Recluce, a small island predicated on the magical use of Order – which frequently puts them in conflict with much of the rest of the world. Rahl was exiled from Recluce because he was not able to learn control over his Order-based powers and because he was too sure of his own personal rightness and pretty much because the Magisters in control of Recluce didn’t know what to do with him. Rahl is exiled to Hamor, the largest nation in the world (and one frequently in conflict with Recluce). Rahl was to learn control over his order skills and then return, but as frequently happens in this series, Rahl got himself in trouble by doing the right thing. To summarize the entire rest of Natural Ordermage in a hurry, Rahl ended up serving Hamor as a member of the Mage-Guards and apprenticing under Taryl, a senior leader of Hamor.

This brings us to Mage-Guard of Hamor. Much of the novel is Rahl patrolling in Hamor in the effort to put down a rebellion which could cost the current emperor the throne. Through the patrols Modesitt reveals details of the daily life of Hamor, which isn’t terribly different than daily life in Recluce or Candar – which just goes to show that people are people are people everywhere. The difference is with those in leadership roles and Modesitt also reveals the political landscape of Hamor, the trappings of power and the struggle between men of integrity and those without. This is also the same as in other lands. The details are just different. The core is the same.

What makes Mage-Guard of Hamor so similar to every other novel in the Recluce series (and also similar in parts to The Corean Chronicles) is that Rahl is a young man who feels that everyone owes him an explanation of how things work and what is truth. The result is that Rahl struggles through lessons and understanding, and he tries to do the right thing but also finds that he does too much with unexpected consequences. He gets frustrated a lot, but that leads to greater growth by the end. That sounds like Lerris, Creslin, Justen, and most of the other heroes of this series. This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone reading this series.

New readers to the series can start almost everywhere, but probably not with this book since it is the second part of a duology. Natural Ordermage would be a better place to start if one wanted this particular story. Otherwise, I’d recommend either The Magic of Recluce or The Towers of the Sunset. The Towers of the Sunset was my entry point and sold me on the series.

In terms of whether or not Mage-Guard of Hamor is “good” or not, it’s tough to say. I’ve been reading this series for a long time and it reads like comfort food. There are far better fantasies on the market and the series has (for me) lost any sense of discovery or “sense of wonder”. I know exactly what I’m going to get from L. E. Modesitt Jr. and Recluce and I don’t expect anything more than that. Mage-Guard of Hamor offers no surprises, a great deal of repetition, and will probably only satisfy longtime readers of the series who want more of the same. I honestly don’t know what a new reader would think of Natural Ordermage and Mage-Guard of Hamor. There are a handful of novels in this series that I would recommend as worth exploring over this one, but I also can’t point to any that was a true disappointment. They offer variations on a well worn theme. It’s difficult to make value judgments on comfort food. It’s good *enough*.

But like I’ve said before, the Recluce novels are all so similar that I recommend not reading them back to back (to back). Take your time and you’ll be much happier.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Winter's Heart, by Robert Jordan

Winter’s Heart
Robert Jordan

This *should* go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t…this is the 9th volume of a series and the book has been out for a number of years. I’m going to spoil the hell out of it. Stop reading now. Really. Stop. Now.

Winter’s Heart. The Cleansing. When I first read Winter’s Heart I was blown away by Robert Jordan’s ending to the novel. The Cleansing. Rand announces earlier in the novel that he plans on cleansing saidin, the male half of the Source. The taint of saidin was a major cause (if not THE cause) of the Breaking of the World 3000 years ago. It was the counter-stroke of the Dark One as he was being sealed in his prison by Lews Therin the Hundred Companions. The taint on saidin was what caused all male channelers to go crazy and destroy the world, and is the reason for the fear and (rightful) prejudice against male channelers for the last three thousand years. That’s what Rand wants to fix. In terms of what happens in Randland, it’s a really big deal. I was staggered by the conclusion and the actual Cleansing. So much so that I still capitalize the word Cleansing when referring to that event. The Cleansing loomed so large over the rest of the novel that any potential flaw was washed away by that conclusion. It led to several years of anticipation by how awesome the fallout would be.

The thing is, Crossroads of Twilight removed most of those warm fuzzies, and re-reading Winter’s Heart did not provide that first blush of awesomeness that the Cleansing did the first time. Don’t get me wrong, that was a pivotal moment in the series and it was treated with an extended pitched battle (seen in snippets), an despite the inherent awesomeness of the event, it doesn’t hold the magic it used to. Winter’s Heart as a novel is a big step forward after the last two volumes, but it does not quite reach the comparatively fast pacing of the earliest volumes. Big things happen, but they are surrounded by forests of quietness.

Let’s talk about Mat and his Daughter of Nine Moons. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that waaaaay back in The Great Hunt Jordan reveals that the Court of Nine Moons is Seanchan. This is before Mat is told in The Shadow Rising that he was to marry the Daughter of the Nine Moons. The official reveal of the Daughter of the Nine Moons is in Winter’s Heart, though most readers probably guessed it before the reveal. There’s just a little too much focus on Tuon for her not to be. Maybe it’s just obvious in retrospect. Here’s the big moment where they meet, and despite Mat’s insistence for the last several novels that he would run if given the chance, he repeats three times that he will marry Tuon. The repetition is important.

Actually, what I really want to mention is a character named Noal Charin. We first meet him in A Crown of Swords, but he becomes a named character here. I don’t know when I figured it out, but Noal is easily one of my favorite characters. Not because of anything he does here, but because of what it is. See, Charin is the family name of a Malkieri family. There is Jain Charin, a legend of Malkier and the author of Rand’s favorite book The Travels of Jain Farstrider. Noal has serious gaps in his memory, but remembers stories that should have been Jain’s. Something bad happened to Noal, something with the Forsaken, and Jain was broken and took the name Noal. Now, I don’t know if Noal Charin will be a hugely important character, but I think it’s awesome that such a legend is walking around with Mat and nobody knows it. He’s just an old man with a broken memory of past deeds and past skills.. It’s just damn cool, ya know? Maybe you don’t, but I’m endlessly fascinated with Noal Charin. Jain Farstrider. To think, I used to be annoyed with all the mentions of Rand’s book early on. Then I realized what Jordan was doing. It wasn’t pointless. You just have to look for it. Noal is described as a “natural storyteller”. Indeed, sir. Indeed.

There’s other stuff. The bonding of Rand by Elayne, Aviendha, and Min. The resulting pregnancy and prophecy. The Seanchan Ogier Gardeners. Who’d have expected that. The Ogier in Randland (the continent, not the world) are gentle giants, but Jordan gets across a sense of menace of the Seanchan Ogier. Awesome.

As a whole novel Winter’s Heart is a bit uneven. There’s a sense of anticipation, but you don’t get the sense that anything will really happen (the Cleansing notwithstanding). That Winter’s Heart looms so large in my memory is due entirely to the Cleansing at the end of the novel. Much of the rest suffers from a bad case of stuff almost happening. Got a new mystery in whether Mat will figure out what an Illuminator might use a bellfounder for and whether this will introduce artillery to the world. Rand got Elayne knocked up and eventually she’ll take back the throne of Andor. The Shadow has an agent in the Palace. Bayle Domon never did get to dump the male a’dam into the ocean. That’ll be a problem (or a solution) for Rand. In retrospect there are enough interesting tidbits that you’d think Winter’s Heart is a stronger novel. It isn’t. It’s stronger and most interesting and compelling than the last two, and a sight better than my memories of the next volume, but the Cleansing is really the big deal here. It has to be, but even that isn’t as awesome as I remember it being.

Which is the overall impression of Winter’s Heart. It’s not as awesome as my memory of the experience reading it. It’ll do, but it used to be better.

Previous Reviews
The Eye of the World
The Great Hunt
The Dragon Reborn
The Shadow Rising
The Fires of Heaven
Lord of Chaos
A Crown of Swords
The Path of Daggers

Saturday, September 19, 2009

August 2009 Reading

Here's my monthly wrap-up of what I read the previous month. Links, as always, go to the reviews.

73. Down and Dirty, by George R. R. Martin (editor)
74. Revelation, by Karen Traviss
75. Bone Dance, by Emma Bull
76. The Sun Inside, by David J. Schwartz
77. Eclipse, by Stephanie Meyer
78. Federations, by John Joseph Adams (editor)
79. Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation, by Martin Millar
80. Strange Roads, by Peter S. Beagle
81. The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough
82. Starfall, by Stephen Baxter
83. Downbelow Station, by C. J. Cherryh
84. Kitty Raises Hell, by Carrie Vaughn
85. Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan
86. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
87. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
88. The Path of Daggers, by Robert Jordan
89. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

Graphic Novels
60. Burnout, by Rebecca Donner
61. Preacher: Proud Americans, by Garth Ennis
62. The Plain Janes, by Cecil Castellucci

The best books of the month were The Language of Dying, Starfall, The Graveyard Book, and Born to Run.

The worst...Eclipse. Anyone surprised by that?

Previous Reading

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We Never Talk About My Brother, by Peter S. Beagle

We Never Talk About My Brother
Peter S. Beagle
Tachyon: 2008

Peter S. Beagle’s latest short story collection, We Never Talk About My Brother, contains two original stories and seven reprints from 2007 and 2008. It features the three stories in his World Fantasy Award nominated chapbook Strange Roads, including “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”, which is nominated for a World Fantasy Award in its own right (Best Novella). “The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” was reprinted in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 2. This is to say that some of the stories in We Never Talk About My Brother are very fine indeed.

Let’s start with the five stories which are not mentioned in the above paragraph (granting that Strange Roads covers three of them). Two of those five are quite excellent. The title story features characters named Jacob and Esau, and is narrated by Jacob. He’s aware of the Old Testament nature of their names. Just so you know. In an otherwise normal setting, Esau has the power to change things with just a word. Like when Esau was a child and told another boy that “You got run over”, and somehow, days later, that boy did get run over by a car…except that it happened a week prior. That’s the sort of change Esau is capable of. “We Never Talk About My Brother” deals with the inevitable conflict of brothers named Jacob and Esau, and this is a well told story of imagination. As with the other stories in this collection, Beagle knows how to end the story.

“The Stickball Witch” is another standout story. Remember back to your old neighborhood and that one house on the block, the one with the crazy lady. You may have called her a witch, or not, but you didn’t go into her yard. This is the story about what happens when you DO go into her yard to get your ball. Part of the story you can probably predict, but the rest of it is entirely unexpected. “The Stickball Witch” feels like a story of home, of childhood, of baseball, and Beagle successfully evokes all of that and more in this beautiful story.

Less successful is the closing story, “Chandail”, which is set in the world of his novel The Innkeeper’s Song. Maybe enjoyment of the story depends on knowledge of the novel, because I’m not sure it works nearly as well on its own. “Chandail” features a character named as Lal, sometimes known as Sailor Lal, Swordcane Lal, and other names. The story focuses on Lal’s hate of her sister, and hate of the creatures known as chandail, and her attempts to heal both. Neither hate nor healing resonated at all with me and “Chandail” left me cold the whole way through. This was perhaps not the best story to end the collection with. It’s not a high note, rather it’s the lowest. I expect rampant disagreement on this opinion.

Far better are the four stories I was most familiar with. I wrote about Strange Roads already, and it is worth repeating what I said about “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”, which is:
There is nothing flash here, but we are left with something quite wonderful in the end. A story of grace and power and beauty, a story that ends just when it needed to and leaves the reader satisfied.

It’s an excellent story. While neither “Spook” nor “King Pelles the Sure” reach the heights of “Uncle Chaim”, both are standout stories. As is “The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French”; a story with a very literal title. This is a charming story of an initial obsession of all things French, and a man who eventually requires English lessons because he begins to forget his own language. It’s a sweet story, if a bit sad.

While there are a couple of weaker stories, We Never Talk About My Brother is a very strong collection of short fiction. Fully two thirds of the stories are well worth reading and could reasonably be considered some of the best of the last two years. They should be, because they are. This is a collection which deserves to be read, which should be read by all fans of good stories.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tachyon Publications.

Monday, September 14, 2009

JJA Interview

Charles Tan interviews John Joseph Adams over at Bibliophile Stalker.

JJA is the editor of Wastelands, Seeds of Change, Federations, The Living Dead, By Blood We Live, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and a bunch of forthcoming anthologies.

Expect a review of The Living Dead by the end of October (it's nominated for a World Fantasy Award doncha know)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

World Fantasy Award Nominee: "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica"

A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica
Catherynne M. Valente
Clarkesworld Magazine: May 2008
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Short Story

“A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” is a similar story, stylistically, to Catherynne Valente’s recent story from Federations “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy”. That is, the story being told is ostentially about something else and it is told in chunks about something else. The obvious story here is a series of auction entries about maps of Antarctica. Hence the title. The entries alternate between maps created by Naheul Acuna and those creased by Villalba Maldonado. According to the auction house, the Acuna maps are marvels of cartographic accuracy and are masterpieces of achievement given the tools available in the early 1900’s. Maldonado’s maps, however, present a different Antarctica.

The Map Legend explains that the pair of dogs, called Grell and Skell, may be found at coordinates (redacted) and that they require gifts of penguin feet and liverwort before they are willing to part with a cupful of the sun, which if carried at the end of a fishing pole and line before the intrepid polar conquistador, may burn with all the heat and pure light that he requires.

This is presented as truth by Maldonado and it is the Maldonado maps which cause a flurry of excitement and exploration, much moreso than those of Acuna.

The true story of “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” is that of the one sided rivalry between Acuna and Maldonado, of the decades long jealousy felt by the scientifically accurate Acuna. That is the story told between the lines and in the auction house’s entries describing the various maps.

There is a definite narrative to Valente’s story and it involves the clash of science and mythology. This is our Antarctica after all, and one would think we’d have heard about these mythical creatures inhabiting the continent. Except, there is that glimmer of hope for a sense of wonder that Valente exploits in the story.

“A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” has been recognized and praised by many and is being reprinted in Best of the Year anthologies, and the story deserves that praise. On its surface it is not a straightforward narrative going from Point A to Point B, but in a sense, it does. It features a hero, a villain, a conflict, and a resolution. Valente just tells the story in a non-traditional manner, one which serves the emotions of the story in a more authentic manner. The story works.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

World Fantasy Award Nominee: "Caverns of Mystery"

"Caverns of Mystery"
Kage Baker
Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy
Subterranean Press: 2008
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Short Story

"Caverns of Mystery" is one of Kage Baker's two World Fantasy Award nominated fictions (the other is her novel The House of the Stag), and frankly, I'm not sure the story is worth the nomination. Let me back up.

This is a quiet story told from the limited third person perspective of an unnamed girl (unless I missed it). The girl's parents have rented a cottage by the sea for a family vacation. This is important for the titular caverns of mystery, but equally important is that the girl sees "phantoms" which nobody else can see.
A thing crawled up out of a creekbed, a skinwalker with a coyote's head, and it turned to watch as the station wagon approached. Meeting her gaze, it leaped at the door; she pulled her glasses off and covered her right eye as it clawed at the window. She turned her face away, refusing to see it.
There is a certain amount of question as to what, if anything the phantoms can do. Another phantom, a pirate, "smiled at her, tenderly". Some seem to be harmless, but the girl is concerned when they seem angry.

"Caverns of Mystery" involves stories and local folklore, a small tourist-trap of a cavern, over-protective parents, and the sort of friendship that can only happen while vacationing away from home.

The story features Baker's usual quietly graceful writing. Seldom is Baker ever flashy in her storytelling, but "Caverns of Mystery" fails to deliver...well, mystery, or wonder, or anything to compel readers to want to commit to the story. Obviously that statement cannot be entirely true given the World Fantasy Award nomination, but "Caverns of Mystery" isn't even the best story in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy, let alone one of the best five fantasy stories of 2008.

The struggle here is how to articulate this. "Caverns of Mystery" isn't bad, it's just ordinary. It's the sort of story that if I wasn't trying to talk about the World Fantasy Award nominations, or of it was not nominated (which it shouldn't have been), I would never have mentioned the story at all. It's just a story. Competent. Well written. Ordinary. Slightly boring.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

scoring reviews and other bullshit

Harry Markov over at Temple Library Reviews has an interview with Paul Stotts, the blogger at Blood of the Muse. I've enjoyed the interview series so far, but one particular response of Paul's just bugged the shit out of me.

Paul was asked about his system of rating books on a 100 point scale. Paul's response:
I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors. So they write reviews that are open to interpretation, using nebulous terms like good, overemphasizing the positive aspects of the book, trying very hard not to have an opinion. It’s okay, you’re entitled to have an opinion, you’re entitled to take a stand and let people know what you think.

See, words lie; numbers don’t. And I don’t want to lie to my audience. So I score every book on a scale of 100. Like any review, the number is completely subjective; there are no underlying components. I score books by ranking them against other novels I’ve read in the genre. It’s rather simple. But effective.
I call bullshit.


It's not cowardice and it's not a cop out. It's not about appeasing publishers.

What it is about is being as honest as you can about the book you are writing about while understanding that the number doesn't mean a damn thing if I can't convey my thoughts clearly. And many times I can't, and giving an 87/100 on the bottom of a poorly written review of mine would be nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.

What it is about is understanding that in something so subjective as talking about books, numbers don't mean anything. They lie as much as words. The review is based on your impression of a given book at the time that you write the review. If you change your mind later and think the 87 should really have been an 82, do you go back and change your score? Do you think that nothing deserves a 100/100 because no novel is perfect, but something comes along that is so good that you feel is just this side of perfection and you want to score it a 98 to reflect that. Except that you've given 97's before and this is so much better than that 97. Do you change your 97? Do you bump the new book to a 99? Does this new book shine so brightly that the book you gave a solid 80 to is now a 75 in comparison?

I don't want to lie to my audience either. So I don't. It's that simple.
I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors.
The arrogance! Are your numerical reviews so superior to Larry Nolen's unnumbered reviews? Is Larry a coward who doesn't speak his mind? Was I unclear when I reviewed Ammonite? Do the reviewers at Strange Horizons lie to their readers? Did I try to appease the publisher when I reviewed Sung in Blood? Do others? Who?

The thing is, Paul, you do a good job with your reviews. Your review of Warbreaker is solid. It tells me what I'd want to know. The 91/100 you gave the book? Superfluous. If it wasn't clear for the rest of the review, the last two paragraphs sold your opinion. If you want to slap an arbitrary number on the bottom of your review, feel free. If I was feeling uncharitable I might call giving a numerical score lazy, because I believe the review should really stand on its own and clearly state the opinion of the reviewer. I'm not feeling that uncharitable, though, and your reviews wouldn't deserve that because they do stand on their own and clearly state your opinion.

You see value in your numbers, fine. The text of the review backs that up. But to describe reviewers who don't slap a numerical score on their reviews as cowards sucking on the teat of publishers and authors*, well, sir...

That's just bullshit, lazy, and arrogant. I can't speak for anyone else, but I don't score my reviews because the numbers wouldn't mean anything to me, let alone another reader.

I find that opinion of yours to be a 1/10 and my response to be a 77/100.

*that last bit of imagery is mine.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is not the story of the apocalypse; it is the story of what comes after. North America was ravaged by flood, famine, fire, and war. The nation of Panem rose from the war-torn ashes of what was left. Panem was a strong Capitol City surrounding by thirteen districts. The districts eventually rebelled and were defeated; the thirteenth district was destroyed completely. The remaining twelve districts were given new laws and they were given the Hunger Games.
The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins. – pg 18
The Hunger Games is treated as the future of reality television. It’s something like The Running Man (or The Long Walk) meets Battle Royale. The Games are broadcast both for entertainment purposes (and you know this would be popular) as well as a lesson to the districts.

The novel is narrated by Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl from District Twelve. District Twelve is, in her mind, one of the poorest districts and only twice in seventy-four years has District Twelve produced a winner of the Hunger Games. When Katniss’s younger sister Primrose is selected in the reaping as the female tribute for the Hunger Games, Katniss offers herself in her sister’s place. Volunteers are rare, but allowable. Through the eyes of Katniss readers see the preparation for the Games, some training, and then starting with Chapter 11, the Hunger Games begin.

While there is a small romance element to the novel that gets played up as part of the strategy of the Games, The Hunger Games is heavy on action, suspense, and strategy. The Hunger Games is a story of survival. There is only one winner of the Games after all. The losers don’t survive. With the novel’s narrator as one of the contestants of the Games, there is a certain level of expectation inherent to the story being told that Katniss will survive. After all, how else can she tell the story? Also, this is the first volume of a planned trilogy, so unless Suzanne Collins plans to twist things up with Catching Fire, Katniss kind of has to win the whole thing.

Strangely, this does not lessen the tension much. We expect that Katniss will survive, but we don’t know how and we don’t know in what shape she will be in if she does make it through. That’s where the tension and suspense lies. What’s going to happen? Suzanne Collins balances this very well, the dance between expectation and surprise.

In The Hunger Games Collins has created a world that, despite its post-apocalyptic nature, is believable and feels real. It is a world readers can accept. We’ve seen and read different versions of this story, ones where survival and death are mass-market entertainment. Suzanne Collins provides her take on this idea and tells a compelling story.

That’s the most important aspect of The Hunger Games, that it is a well told and compelling story. Even knowing (or suspecting) the ultimate conclusion, readers will want to keep reading to find out what happens next. Readers will care about the fate of Katniss. The cliché phrase “a real page turner” exists because of books like The Hunger Games, because the cliché can be true.

Whether Catching Fire will be as successful and compelling as The Hunger Games remains to be seen, but Suzanne Collins has set herself a standard that may be difficult to meet. Regardless of whether she does or not, The Hunger Games is an impressive achievement.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Shadow Magic

My review of Shadow Magic, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett is up at Fantasy Magazine.

Enjoy. Or not. Your call. I vote for "enjoy".

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Gathering Storm: Chapter One has published Chapter One of The Gathering Storm. If you're caught up on the series, check it out. You do have to register with the site, but otherwise it's free for all.

Dragonmount has the full press release with all the announcements (ebooks, and stuff)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Elizabeth Bear Interview at Stomping the Yeti

Patrick at Stomping the Yeti has a nice interview with Elizabeth Bear. Go check it out.

The Path of Daggers, by Robert Jordan

The Path of Daggers
Robert Jordan

I'll just be upfront here, The Path of Daggers is a little tedious. The novel fares a bit better now than it did back when it was first published because there is no longer a wait for the next volume. It's not that nothing happens in The Path of Daggers, but Jordan uses more pages to cover a smaller amount of time than he had in previous volumes.

Spoilers be here.

One of the more important things to happen in The Path of the Daggers is something that is only introduced, and not necessarily ever explained as to what it means. The legendary Aes Sedai Cadsuane meets with the Aiel Sorilea and together they decide to work together to try to make Rand less "hard" and more "strong.
Cadsuane drew breath. A chance she would have scoured anyone else for taking. But she was not anyone else, and sometimes chances had to be taken. "The boy confuses them," she said. "He needs to be strong, and makes himself harder. Too hard, already, and he will not stop until he is stopped. He has forgotten how to laugh except in bitterness; there are no tears left in him. Unless he finds laughter and tears again, the world faces disaster. He must learn that even the Dragon Reborn is flesh. If he goes to Tarmon Gai'don as he is, even his victory may be as dark as his defeat."
The whole thing with Rand being "hard" is a major aspect to the last handful of novels. Rand thinks he needs to be "harder" to prepare himself for Tarmon Gai'don, that being human and caring would lead to his downfall. On one hand Rand does have his eye on the ball. He knows that everything he does must be in preparation for that final conflict, the one which only he can fight (he believes). The "hard" thing, though, is making him cold and callous to others - others who are not Min, Elayne, or Aviendha. His behavior towards Perrin in A Crown of Swords is an example of this.

There are other things going on. We see Moridin watching Aviendha / Elayne / Nynaeve in Ebou Dar and when Aviendha unravels a weave, Moridin realizes she just did something they did not know of in the Age of Legends. And there's a gholam watching Moridin. Which is interesting, if unexplained.

The A / E / N trio eventually travel from Ebou Dar to Caemlyn, but on the way the Bowl of Winds is used to fix the weather. It's a major development that is seven volumes coming, but as important as it is, it is almost glossed over because the women still have things to do. It's weird how something that big and important is almost overlooked right after it is done.

As interesting as anything else is the introduction of Cyndane, a character who appears with Moghedien and is rather commanding with Graendal. There is no explanation as to who Cyndane is at this time, but by the next novel we realize fairly quickly that Cyndane is the reincarnation of Lanfear. We also learn that Cyndane is sort of in charge of Moghedien, though both are terrified of Moridin. And that Moridin was named Nae'blis, which makes him the most important person in service to the Dark One. Besides the weirdness that is Shaidar Haran.

A great line later in the novel:
He could remember as a boy hearing men laugh that when rain feel in sunshine that the Dark One was beating Semirhage
I only point that out because it's such a sweet throwaway line.

By the end of the novel, here's where we are left:

Egwene takes full control of the rebel Aes Sedai in Salidar and begins the siege of Tar Valon.

Faile, Maighdin (Morgase in disguise), and Alliandre are captured by the Shaido Aiel (along with Bain and Chiad)

Rand is attacked in Cairhain by renegade Asha'man. Fedwin Morr (a likeable young man) has his brain addled to that of a small child. Rand gently kills him with poisoned wine.

Perrin intends to bring The Prophet (Masema) to Rand so he can answer for the slaughter done in Rand's name.

This is more of a novel recap than a proper review, but at this point there is not much to say in review. With 600+ pages, there are long gaps of unexplained plans and minor plots with brief flashes of development and action. If I had to wait two years for Winter's Heart, I would probably be really disappointed. As it is, The Path of Daggers is what it is: a long novel that only sets up a couple things for the future but overall doesn't move the timeline along very much.

Previous Reviews
The Eye of the World
The Great Hunt
The Dragon Reborn
The Shadow Rising
The Fires of Heaven
Lord of Chaos
A Crown of Swords

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

World Fantasy Award Nominee: Tales from Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia
Shaun Tan
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Collection

Compared to the other four collections nominated for the World Fantasy Award this year, Tales from Outer Suburbia offers something different. Shaun Tan is best known as an artist, and though this is a collection of short fiction the stories are told through text as well as the artwork. Collections can come wrapped in pretty packages, but the usual way to talk about a short fiction collection is to talk about the stories themselves.

We can’t do that with Tales from Outer Suburbia. With a story like “Grandpa's Story”, the images are part of the storytelling. The art is essential for all of the stories, but "Grandpa's Story" requires the art. The grandfather tells about the travels he and his bride-to-be went on as part of the pre-wedding ceremony, but the story he tells is through a series of images that tell the story far better than words ever could. “Eric” is a similar story in that the ending hinges entirely on the artwork on the last page, but the charm of the story comes from the artwork throughout the story. It’s a delightful tale, but the sense of wonder is art-driven.

There are some stories that can still work with only the text, but even those are enhanced by the artwork. "Alert but not Alarmed" and "Wake" are examples of this.

As a book Tales from Outer Suburbia is a delight and a wonder. The artwork is moving and charming and effective. It’s beautifully drawn and fairly well written. If we consider Tales from Outer Suburbia as a short story collection where the prose drives the story, the collection does not measure up. The art is required. Without the art, the stories are not all that satisfying. Tales from Outer Suburbia is a mixed medium storytelling experience. As such, it works. Shaun Tan is a fantastic artist (also check out The Arrival) and he does great work in blending simple stories with the wonder of his artwork.

As a short story collection, Tales from Outer Suburbia just doesn’t stand up next to Peter Beagle or Kelly Link or Nisi Shawl. It’s not at all the same thing, nor is it supposed to be, but looking at it in terms of the Best Collection category for the World Fantasy Awards, I’m not sure it is in the same league. As a work standing on its own and not part of that category, I would not hesitate to recommend Tales from Outer Suburbia to anyone. It is quite good.