Monday, November 30, 2009

Wild Cards: Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole
George R. R. Martin (editor)

The 1988 Democratic National Convention is host to the events of this sixth Wild Cards novel and politics is in the air. Ace in the Hole is the novel which has clearly been planned for several volumes now. Senator Gregg Hartmann is one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination. Readers of the first five volumes, and specifically the last two volumes, know Hartmann as Puppetman, a hidden ace with mind control powers and one which feeds on the fears of others. Puppetman is everything people have feared from aces, that one would take control of Washington and would be able to control the minds of others.

Here’s the thing: despite the somewhat sinister nature of Puppetman, Hartmann himself has consistently come across as a man who could be a good President, one who could be good for America. Readers have had viewpoint chapters from Hartmann’s perspective in previous novels. Hartmann is the sympathetic ace with a potential dark side.

On the other side of Hartmann is Reverend Leo Barnett, a fundamentalist Christian with a serious problem with those infected with the Wild Cards virus. Barnett seems to be the major “wild card” in this political race, not to pun too heavily on the series title. For those sympathetic to the jokers who actively suffer from the virus and to the aces who have been given great power (and great responsibility?), Barnett is a seriously scary man and his ascendency to the Presidency would be a cause for mourning (and running).

This is just the overarching political conflict of Ace in the Hole and while it is a major part of the novel, it is not the whole thing. Those who have read from the beginning will welcome the return of the Golden Boy Jack Braun, and there are various assassination plots unfolding – not to mention the very real threat of violence at the convention. Mixed in with the major story arcs with national implications, the smaller characters really shine here. The Golden Boy is one who does well with his page-time and his reflection on his history is quite poignant. Another is Demise, the man who can kill with a look. The continuing presence of Dr. Tachyon is less successful and his is a character who is beginning to wear out his welcome.

In short, Ace in the Hole is a deeply tense novel filled with intrigue and danger. This is one of the strongest novels of the first six and it is likely due to the political thriller aspect to the novel. The entire first act is setting up the Chekovian “gun in the first goes off in the third” idea. At some point the tension is going to boil over and when it does, the reader really has no clue how things are going to go down and who will be left standing. There are a variety of ways Ace in the Hole could conclude, and each of them would lead to a number of story arcs that could play out in the subsequent volumes. There is a sense that anyone could die and that anything could happen, that this election could change everything.

Written by Walton Simons, Victor Milan, Melinda Snodgrass, Stephen Leigh, and Walter Jon Williams, Ace in the Hole is a standout volume in the Wild Cards universe. By the end readers will be wondering how Martin and company could top that ending, and where Martin will take them next.

Previous Wild Cards Reviews:
Wild Cards (bk 1)
Aces High (bk 2)
Jokers Wild (bk 3)
Aces Abroad (bk 4)
Down and Dirty (bk 5)
Inside Straight (bk 18)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Graphic Novels: Y: The Last Man

Y: The Last Man
written by Brian K. Vaughan
art by Pia Guerra

Imagine, if you will, our world as it is today. Now, imagine that all of the men on Earth die off from some unknown disease. Imagine the destruction that would occur when men die in the middle of the day, in the middle of piloting a plane or mid-surgery or mid-anything. The surviving women don’t know if this is the Rapture, a plague, a terrorist attack, or what the root cause could be. First there is anarchy, and then the women begin to patch things back together. They learn that it isn’t just all the men, but all the males of each species.

But, one man survived. Yorick Brown. So did his monkey, Ampersand.

You’d think that being the only man alive on a planet full of women would be heaven. You would be wrong. Between women trying to kill him (really), governments trying to use him, and everybody having an agenda, being the last man isn’t exactly a walk in the park for Yorick.

Here’s the thing, though – even though Yorick is the titular character of this sixty issue series (collected in ten graphic novel volumes), Yorick is actually quite a bit less interesting than the various characters surrounding him. Yorick is the baseline, a male with a basic human decency who wants nothing more than to find his girlfriend Beth who was in Australia when the plague hit. Yorick is not a great man, but he is a decent man who is being pulled and push around by various forces who want use him for what he is and what he represents.

There are two primary characters who accompany Yorick throughout the series: Agent 355 and Dr. Alison Mann. Agent 355 is a member of the Culper Ring, which is sort of like a Secret Society within the Secret Service (to simplify matters greatly. They have numbers, not names. Dr. Mann is a geneticist who was working on human cloning.

The various storylines revolve around three basic actions: protecting Yorick (355’s job), getting Yorick to a working lab to figure out why he lived and how to clone him and rebuild the male population, and finding Beth. Again, this is another gross simplification of the issues involved in this series and the outstanding characterization going on here.

Y: The Last Man is written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Pia Guerra. Together they do an excellent job in telling a compelling story which touches on various issue of morality, hope, gender equality, and the landscape of a postapocalyptic world (which this truly is, given that half of the world’s population is dead). Vaughan handles this in a delicate but realistic manner and simply put, Y: The Last Man is an outstanding achievement of the medium.

Even better, Vaughan knows how to close out the story. He ends the series with a bittersweet epilogue (because how could it be other?) that perfectly captures the tone of everything that came before and stays true to the characters.

Other Graphic Novels
Girl Genius
Mouse Guard: Winter 1152
Pride of Baghdad
Queen and County
Uptown Girl

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I promise, I have at least five books on tap to review for you all, plus a couple of graphic novels posts. Really.

In the meantime, the Wheel of Time fans out there should check out this page about Min's Viewings over at The Thirteenth Depository.

What struck me early on is the evidence from the viewings that unless Mat, Perrin, and Rand are all together at the end, there is no chance of defeating the Dark One. I mean, it's kind of obvious and we take it for granted, but Jordan did a great job of setting this up in terms that seem rather stark and blunt when pointed out.

The page is updated with detail from The Gathering Storm.

Monday, November 23, 2009

By the Mountain Bound, by Elizabeth Bear

By the Mountain Bound
Elizabeth Bear
Tor: 2009

By the Mountain Bound is a remarkable novel. It is a prequel to All the Windwracked Stars, but it is a prequel that does not simply tell of events that came before, it is a prequel that makes the events of All the Windwracked Stars all the richer and more powerful. During the early chapters of All the Windwracked Stars we see that Muire is the lone survivor of a war that claimed the waelcryge and from which she ran. We see her alone in the snow at the end of the world. We are told of a war that was faught and that so many of the waelcryge, warriors of Light, were Tarnished. We learned that the Tarnishing of their power, of their light was of far greater significance than is conveyed in the first novel.

In By the Mountain Bound readers are shown the loss and the power in the word “tarnished” that is never quite captured in All the Windwracked Stars. This is the story of what happened before the fall. For a moment, though, Elizabeth Bear makes the reader forget that we know how this all ends.

Bear gives us three viewpoint characters: Muire, Mingan, and Strifbjorn. Readers know Muire from AtWS, but though Mingan is an important part of AtWS, here he is brought to life in a very unexpected manner. The depth to his character is surprising (though not surprising given the author), as is his more sympathetic nature. Here Mingan is a much more developed character compared to the somewhat sinister character he was in the background of All the Windwracked Stars. Even Muire, though, is different here. For a member of the warrior class, Muire is comparatively meek and quiet. She is the historian. Muire is a different character here than in All the Windwracked Stars. She’d have to be. She has not yet gone through the end of her world. Strifbjorn is the, comparatively, new character in By the Mountain Bound. Strifbjorn is the war chief of the waelcryge, the immortal children of the light, and it is he who finds the woman who is neither mortal nor waelcryge. This beginning of the end of the world.

There are no stock characters here (or in anything Elizabeth Bear writes). Each character comes across as real and layered. Even the minor characters who are given names but do not have anything to do in the novel have a sense of solidity, as if only they were given a voice we would see that their motives and desires were as strong as those of the main characters. This is something which Bear does especially well. Her characters are not just waiting offstage for the chance to step into the spotlight, they each have their lives and sometimes we get to see what they are.

By the Mountain Bound also opens up all sorts of questions and new ways to read All the Windwracked Stars, except to even mention what those questions are would be to spoil part of By the Mountain Bound. It is a rare novel that makes the preceding novel so much richer and opens up new avenues for Elizabeth Bear to explore in The Sea Thy Mistress.

By the Mountain Bound is a rich and beautiful novel. It stands as one of Elizabeth Bear’s best, and that is high praise indeed.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor Books.

Previous Reviews
Blood and Iron
Whiskey and Water
Ink and Steel
Hell and Earth
New Amsterdam
Seven for a Secret
A Companion to Wolves
All the Windwracked Stars

Monday, November 16, 2009

Burn Me Deadly, by Alex Bledsoe

Burn Me Deadly
Alex Blesdoe
Tor: 2009

Burn Me Deadly opens with a damsel in distress and a suspicious Eddie LaCrosse just the man to save her, which looks great on paper, but does not go so well for either the damsel or Eddie. The damsel mentions “Lumina” and is murdered. Eddie is beaten and thrown off a cliff. So is his horse. Eddie lives, the horse does not. Near death, Eddie is rescued by the kindness of a stranger who returns him to town for healing.

This second Eddie LaCrosse novel from Alex Bledsoe is set approximately two years after the events of The Sword-Edged Blonde. Where the first novel was an active case for Eddie, to use a cliché, this time it is personal. Like any hard-boiled dick, Eddie has a thing for the dames. He’s loyal to his woman, that damsel in distress will get him every time. Twice if she’s dead.

Burn My Deadly is a quest of revenge and mystery. The revenge part is obvious, but the mystery is that Eddie doesn’t know who was behind the murder of Laura Lesperitt (the damsel) or who to go after. But he’s got ideas. Some “dragon cult”, for starters. With each passing chapter the scope of what is really going on grows and the stakes increase accordingly. What begins as a relatively simple story of revenge becomes much bigger than that.

That doesn’t address what readers really want to know here. “That’s great, Joe, but is it any good?” Hell yeah, it’s good. Fans of The Sword-Edged Blonde will be delighted with Burn Me Deadly. The action is just as good, the story is bigger, and the mystery stays fresh. Like Glen Cook before him, Alex Bledsoe deftly works a hard-boiled detective story in a traditional fantasy setting and he does so with style and verve. Eddie cracks wise, he gets into scrapes, his life is continually in danger, and through it all he retains his moral center and gruff edge. He’s the hero you want on your side, but it’s better if you don’t need him. It’s also better if you can pay. Reading about Eddie LaCrosse is a delightful experience if you like your delight with a bit of snark.

The bottom line is that there is not a lot of hard-boiled fantasy / mystery blends out there and if that sounds at all appealing you should check this out. If it doesn’t sound at all appealing…you should check this out.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor.

Previous Review
The Sword-Edged Blonde

Friday, November 13, 2009

Stuff: 11/13 Edition

Stephen King has a new story up at The New Yorker: "Premium Harmony"

Mary Robinette Kowal will be editing the first volume of The Hugo Award Showcase, the "2010" edition, which one imagines will be for the 2009 fiction.

Here's a compilation of Q&A sessions
between Brandon Sanderson and the Storm Leaders on the current Wheel of Time tour. There's not a lot of new here, but it's interesting all the same.

Scott Westerfeld contributes to The Big Idea over at Scalzi's blog. I've GOT to read this one.

Clarkesworld Magazine is having a Citizenship Drive

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

October 2009 Reading

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

99. Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan
100. Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
101. Crossroads of Twilight, by Robert Jordan
102. Night of Knives, by Ian Cameron Esslemont
103. Outcast, by Aaron Allston
104. The Ebb Tide, by James Blaylock
105. Chasing the Dragon, by Justina Robson
106. Burn Me Deadly, by Alex Bledsoe
107. Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman
108. Imaro, by Charles Saunders
109. Seven for a Secret, by Elizabeth Bear
110. Ace in the Hole, by George R. R. Martin (editor)
111. Jhereg, by Steven Brust
112. Knife of Dreams, by Robert Jordan
113. The Gathering Storm, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Graphic Novels
79. Fables: The Dark Ages, by Bill Willingham
80. Star Wars Legacy: The Hidden Temple, by John Ostrander
81. DMZ: Friendly Fire, by Brian Wood
82. DMZ: The Hidden War, by Brian Wood
83. DMZ: Blood in the Game, by Brian Wood
84. Jack of Fables: Americana, by Bill Willingham
85. Jack of Fables: Turning Pages, by Bill Willingham
86. Ex Machina: Fact v Fiction, by Brian Vaughan
87. Transmetropolitan: Gouge Away, by Warren Ellis
88. Uptown Girl: All the Right Friends, by Bob Lipski
89. Mouse Guard: Winter 1152, by David Petersen
90. Transmetropolitan: Spider’s Trash, by Warren Ellis
91. Y: The Last Man: Ring of Truth, by Brian K. Vaughan
92. Preacher: Ancient History, by Garth Ennis
93. Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones, by Phil and Kaja Foglio
94. 100 Bullets: Split Second Chance, by Brian Azzarello

Previous Reading

Monday, November 09, 2009

Jhereg, by Steven Brust


Steven Brust
Ace: 1983

Vlad Taltos is an assassin in the city of Adrilankha. He is a human in a land ruled by Dragaerans who have lives spanning thousands (upon thousands) of years. Vlad is a skilled assassin who has succeeded by virtue of skill, hard work, and with the good fortune of having some powerful friends. Besides being an assassin, Vlad also operates as mid-level mob boss in Adrilankha.

The primary storyline of Jhereg regards Vlad’s acceptance of a contract to kill a Dragaeran named Mellar, a member of the ruling Council of the Jhereg crime organization of which Vlad is ultimately a member. Mellar managed to steal the entire treasury of the Council and disappear. Vlad’s contract is not simply to kill Mellar, but to do so in a expeditious manner. Too many delays and word will get out that the Council can be hit, and that word may be enough to bring down the whole organization.

The rest of the novel works like many an urban secondary world detective novel, only here the successful conclusion of the case will result in the death of the target, rather than the resolution of a mystery. Of course, Jhereg predates Glen Cook’s Garrett PI novels by half a decade, not to mention later works from Alex Bledsoe. I mention Cook and Bledsoe because they are very much in the vein of Jhereg and they are the easiest comparisons to what sort of novel Jhereg is.

With that said, Steven Brust did it first and he is very much his own man here.

Jhereg was my first real experience reading the fiction of Steven Brust (his Firefly fanfic novel nothwithstanding). I had seen the man twice at the Fourth Street Fantasy convention and was impressed by Brust in person, and plenty of people there spoke highly of his fiction, but somehow over the last two years I still delayed reading Jhereg. It’s one of those novels you put off reading for no good reason and then realize when you’re done that you were a damn fool for waiting because it’s really that good.
Jhereg really is that good.

The novel opens slowly, with a bit of history of the character, and Brust takes his time setting up the central conflict. The initial impression is that Brust is clever with dialogue, but the reader will expect to be merely satisfied by the end of the novel. But here’s the trick Steven Brust pulls off. The longer you stay with Jhereg the better it gets. The world becomes deeper and richer, the characters more compelling. Vlad Taltos becomes an old friend who you don’t mess with. Brust lures the reader in chapter after chapter. Before you know it, you’re hooked and you don’t want to put Jhereg down for fear you might miss what’s in the next chapter, and the next.

There is really no better way to be introduced to Steven Brust. This is the first of twelve novels featuring Vlad Taltos and if Jhereg is any indication (it should be), once you read one, you’ll want to read the rest.

If you haven’t read Brust before, you should. Fans of Glen Cook and Alex Blesdoe owe it to themselves to find the early Vlad Taltos novels and give them a shot (the first three are also collected in the omnibus edition The Book Jhereg).

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Saturday, November 07, 2009

September 2009 Reading

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

I'm a little behind in putting out the list. Clearly.

I broke out the graphic novels from the rest of the books.

90. We Never Talk About My Brother, by Peter S. Beagle
91. Invincible, by Troy Denning
92. Millenium Falcon, by James Luceno
93. It, by Stephen King
94. Winter’s Heart, by Robert Jordan
95. Mage-Guard of Hamor, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr
96. Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory
97. Purple and Black, by K. J. Parker
98. Filter House, by Nisi Shawl

Graphic Novels
63. Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days, by Brian K. Vaughan - September
64. DMZ: On the Ground, by Brian Wood
65. Y: The Last Man: One Small Step, by Brian K. Vaughan
66. Crisis on Infinite Earths
67. Transmetropolitan: The New Scum, by Warren Ellis
68. Bone: Eyes of the Storm, by Jeff Smith
69. DMZ: Body of a Journalist, by Brian Wood
70. Y: The Last Man: Safeword, by Brian K. Vaughan
71. Jack of Fables: Jack of Hearts, by Bill Willingham
72. Ex Machina: Tag, by Brian K. Vaughan
73. DMZ: Public Works, by Brian Wood
74. Echo: Moon Lake, by Terry Moore
75. Jack of Fables: The Bad Prince, by Bill Willingham
76. Transmetropolitan: Lonely City, by Warren Ellis
77. 100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call, by Brian Azzarello
78. Bone: The Dragonslayer, by Jeff Smith

Previous Reading

Friday, November 06, 2009

Forthcoming 2010: Q1

Welcome to the latest installment of "Stuff I'm Looking Forward To This Year". As always, I take my information from the Locus Forthcoming list, plus a little bit of extra research when I'm aware of things that should be on the Locus list and are not.

Prince of Storms, by Kay Kenyon: This is the conclusion to Kenyon's series The Entire and the Rose. It's some of the best science fiction being published today.

The Best of Joe R. Lansdale: Does the title not say everything you need to know about this? Lansdale is one hell of a writer and a Best Of will surely be one of the year's best publications.

Iorich, by Steven Brust: Last month I read Jhereg, the first Vlad Taltos novel from Steven Brust. Iorich is the twelfth novel in the Vlad Taltos series and there are six other ancillary novels set in that world. So, even though there is no chance I am going to be caught up with Brust by the time this novel is published, it is a mark of just how much I liked Jhereg that Iorich is on the list.

Mirror Kingdoms, by Peter S. Beagle: I have only just discovered Peter Beagle and this is a career retrospective collection from SubPress. Count this as one of the year's essential collections.

Horns, by Joe Hill: You've read Heart-Shaped Box, right? On the strength of one novel, I'm ready to go anywhere Joe Hill is willing to take me.

The Iron Khan, by Liz Williams: This is the fifth volume of the Detective Inspector Chen series. I've read the first three and have the fourth begging me to be read.

Bone and Jewel Creatures, by Elizabeth Bear: C'mon now, it's a new novella from Bear. Click on the link and check out the cover.

Chill, by Elizabeth Bear: Chill is the follow up to last year's novel Dust. It's one of the few Elizabeth Bear novels I haven't read, but I do have a copy, so I'll try to catch up before Chill is published.

Warriors, by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois: Military SFF, edited by GRRM, and featuring a new Dunk and Egg story? Not to mention the rest of the contents of the antho.

The Trade of Queens, by Charles Stross: This is the concluding volume to The Merchant Princes. I don't consistently love the execution of this series, but I'm generally interested enough to want to know what's next. Well, this is what's next.

I am also hard at work in compiling a list of the top books I'm anticipating for all of next year. I'll publish that list in late December or early January.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Seven for a Secret, by Elizabeth Bear

Seven for a Secret
Elizabeth Bear
Subterranean Press: 2009

Elizabeth Bear returns to the sorcerer Abigail Irene and the wampyr Sebastian in this follow up to her linked collection New Amsterdam. Seven for a Secret is a novella which is set near the end of Abby Irene’s life. Her exile from England is at an end and she now resides in a much changed London. London is an occupied city in 1938, with the Prussian Army having been victorious in the last war.

Abby Irene is now in her 80’s, but in Seven for a Secret she isn’t the protagonist of the story. There are two real storylines working in Seven for a Secret. The first is of two teenaged girls, Prussian soldiers who are called “Sevens”. They are given great responsibility for their age because of what they will be able to do in the future. At the start of the story it is not clear exactly what that may be. The other storyline mostly centers around Sebastian as he investigates why these two girls give off a scent similar to werewolves – even though werewolves shouldn’t exist any longer. At least not in London.

Seven for a Secret touches on loss and memory, on being the resistance in an occupied city, and on how governments might use supernatural elements. It’s a story of young girls, an old woman, and an even older vampire.

Moreso than in New Amsterdam, Elizabeth Bear will try to break your heart. Seven for a Secret is laced with emotion and loss. Those who remember the character as a much younger and spry woman will mourn for the loss of youth, but readers can jump in here and find their own way to a broken heart. The two Prussian girls, Ruth and Adele, opens up an entirely different aspect to this alternate history and it is brutal. Sebastian looking at Abby Irene will do it, but so will Sebastian understanding what the girls will face in the future.

Let me just put it this way: Seven for a Secret is really good. I wrote about New Amsterdam last year, but this is so much better and it screams out for a re-read. Seven for a Secret also begs for a sequel. Bear is at work on a novella called The White City, but that’s a story set before the New Amsterdam tales. I want to know more about Ruth and Adele and how that all works out. Bear does well to leave the reader wanting more, but damnit, I want more.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Chasing the Dragon, by Justina Robson

Chasing the Dragon
Justina Robson
Pyr: 2009

Chasing the Dragon has that “middle book” feel to it that even the second and third Quantum Gravity books did not have. Each of the previous volumes had complete stories which also built upon the one before it. Chasing the Dragon has a story entirely dependant on Going Under, but it reads more as a middle book. It is set up, wondering, and wandering.

There are a couple of things going on in Chasing the Dragon. First is that after the events of Going Under, Lila Black has returned to Otopia (Earth, our world) to find that 50 years have passed. She’s having a difficult time adapting to that fact, that the world she knew is long gone and so are most of the humans she once knew. Zal is fifty years dead, though she believes there will be a way to resurrect / restore him somehow.

So much of Chasing the Dragon is Lila moping around and being cranky. There is also a bit of a side story (though it may well be central to the series plot) of Lila hearing a "Signal", something that seems at least partially sentient though incomprehensible. It is referenced, but seldom explored.

The second thing going on is a bit more confusing because it’s about Zal. It happens early enough in the novel that I don’t think this should be considered a spoiler, but we find Zal in some weird alter-dimension. He’s either dead, mostly dead, or not dead at all. Justina Robson isn’t entirely clear, though I guessed “mostly dead” at the time. Zal doesn’t have his memories and there are other beings with him. It’s almost like he’s kept as a pet.

I hate to say this because I very much like this series and hope for a satisfying conclusion with some future volume, but Chasing the Dragon was a bit of a disappointment. There are some interesting things going on here, a couple of major developments, but they don't add up to enough to recommend the book. Even though we don’t know what the larger picture is supposed to be, there is little sense of how Chasing the Dragon really connects to the previous books. By the end there are hints of different potential directions Robson can take the series, so we know that this is a set up novel. It’s just not a satisfying one.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Pyr.

Previous Review:
Keeping It Real (book 1)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Gathering Storm, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The Gathering Storm
Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Tor: 2009

Let’s just get one thing cleared up before we start here. If it wasn’t obvious by the last eleven posts of the series re-read, I’m a bit of a Wheel of Time fanboy. There’s nothing I can do about that and I’m quite happy with it. This is a seminal series of my fantasy reading life and Robert Jordan has stuck with me over the last fifteen years when other authors failed me. So, please understand that while I may recognize flaws in the novel (and the series), I can easily gloss over them because this is a series I love dearly. Never is anything so egregious that it will hamper my enjoyment of the series.

That’s my admission of bias.

I will attempt to be very light on revealing spoilers since the novel has only been on the market for a week, but some events that happen early on in the novel may be touched on more than some would like to know. So, if you don’t want to know any details, please step away and come back when you’re done with the book. I’ll be gentle with the spoilers, though.

This has been pointed out elsewhere, but a major focus of The Gathering Storm is the dueling stories of Egwene and Rand. Continuing on her story of defiance from Knife of Dreams, Egwene is strong at heart, firm in her need to both do what is right for the White Tower as well as her need to heal the Tower the right way. The way she behaves and acts is as important as the result she is looking to achieve. Egwene demonstrates leadership through example. She does not permit the rebel Aes Sedai besieging Tar Valon to rescue her because she knows that her example of moral defiance and the small conversations she has with the Tower Aes Sedai will do far more good than she ever could as the head of a besieging army. In this way she is setting herself up as a viable alternative to Elaida. In this way she is also shown as something of a mirror to Rand.

Early on in The Gathering Storm, after another attack by a Forsaken almost causes Rand to mirror the actions of Lews Therin and kill Min, Rand decides that being hard as stone is no longer hard enough. He must be as hard as cuendillar. For several novels now Rand has been holding on tightly to his humanity, with only a small soft core he leaves for the women in his life. Rand realizes, or simply believes, that to make it to Tarmon Gai'don he must strip even that away. Between shutting Min away, exiling Cadsuane, and changing his attitude about what he is willing to do to defeat the Dark One, Rand is on a very fast decent into darkness. Others have talked about Rand’s behavior in terms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and his journey from being a decent man from a small village to a man who has to be a killer.

I am so very fortunate to not have experience with PTSD, but this is an excellent explanation as to the entire direction of Rand’s behavior throughout the series. It also demonstrates part of the difference between Rand and Egwene. Egwene has been taught by the Aiel on how one with honor behaves, how to be better and stronger, and what it means to live towards an ideal. This has given her the strength to make her decisions, to stand on her own as the Amyrlin Seat, and to take all the beatings she has been given as “penance” as a prisoner of the White Tower and still hold to her duty. Rand, on the other hand, had to deal with becoming a killer of men and knowing that in the potentially short time he had left to live, he would have to kill again and again and do so without compunction.

To use the analogies of being hard like stone and being able to bend, Egwene is the one who is strong but able to bend and survive. Rand is making himself so hard that he will eventually crack and break. It’s clear very early on that he is in a very bad place. This is only worse when he has to use the True Power to free himself from an impossible situation. The True Power, if you don’t remember, is the one that is provided via a link to the Dark One and it is drawing on his own essence. It’s what Moridin uses to have the black lines of saa cross his eyes and what the other Forsaken use sparingly because of the risks. Rand taps into that early on in the novel and even the voice of Lews Therin is absolutely horrified by what Rand just did. Like I said, Rand is in an exceptionally bad place.

The two storylines of Egwene and Rand are exceptionally well done. Egwene, in particular, should be singled out as a character done well and one of the best storylines in the last half dozen volumes of the Wheel of Time. The various events which take place as part of Egwene’s storyline will be pivotal for the next two volumes (and beyond). Egwene’s storyline is at times thrilling, heartbreaking, and when some of the early reviews say that they wanted to stand up and cheer during The Gathering Storm, they were probably talking about something to do with Egwene late in this novel. Folks, if you’re a long time fan of The Wheel of Time (and you should be if you’re reading this twelfth volume), some of this stuff is as good as anything you’ve gotten earlier in the series. Seriously. This could be Joe the Fanboy talking, but Egwene in the late stages of this novel is just spectacular.

Rand, obviously, has a very different journey and as well done as Rand’s chapters are, they are somewhat difficult to read as we see Rand going into dark places indeed. There are two reunion scenes which readers have looked forward to for a while and neither one goes well. There is also the things Cuendillar-Hard Rand says to Nynaeve, and an action which Rand does which Nynaeve is both horrified about and also finds herself wondering if it was perhaps truly necessary if he is to defeat the Dark One. It’s interesting and brutal and is not at all pleasant.

Those are the two primary aspects of The Gathering Storm and combined, is by far the strongest aspect of the novel. Everything else is secondary to those storylines.

This does mean that Mat and Perrin are given much smaller roles and Elayne is completely absent from this volume. Readers are given short glimpses of Perrin and the fallout from the battle of Malden and the rescue of Faile. We don’t see a whole lot of what’s going on there, except that Perrin and Faile are relearning who they are together after being given a chance to grow while separated. Mat gets a bit more to do in The Gathering Storm, but his is likely to be the most controversial aspect of the novel.

There were concerns going into this novel about how well Brandon Sanderson was going to be able to step into the world that Robert Jordan created. Most fans of the series felt good about the decision Harriet (Robert Jordan’s wife and editor) made to hire Brandon to finish the series, but even the most positive couldn’t help but wonder if Sanderson would really be able to pull it off, that he would be able to write the characters in such a way that they feel the same. That he would somehow make the characters feel “right”.

Mat is perhaps the only character who feels “off” (and perhaps Perrin, to a lesser extent). Here Mat talks a bit too much, his jokes feel flat, and some indefinable bit of “Mat-ness” isn’t quite there.

Here’s the thing, though. Brandon stopped in Minneapolis on his tour for The Gathering Storm and he talked a little bit about Mat, though not in regards to the character feeling “off”. Thankfully, nobody was so gauche to actually bring it up directly. What Brandon had to say about Mat was that he had just experienced the most surreal and absolutely weird situation he had ever had in his life, which is Tuon herself. Mat had never been in love with a woman before and when he did fall in love with Tuon it changed his worldview. After finally declaring herself married to Mat; she leaves and returns to Ebou Dar to take up the Seanchan Empire. Mat is usually the one doing the leaving and here he is left, this time by the woman he loves. Worse, he may be about to find himself on opposite sides if it comes to war. He is out of sorts, not sure how to behave or deal with what just happened. He’s not sure what to do in the future.

Now, I can’t say if this played in to how Brandon wrote Mat (assuming that those chapters / sections were written by Sanderson and not Jordan), if this was the plan all along, or if Mat just feels “off” because he feels “off”, but it was interesting to hear Brandon talk about what was going on in Mat’s world. It’s clear from the Minneapolis signing that he did think a lot about Mat. It’s questionable if he pulled off the character or if the change was intentional.

On the other hand, Mat did ask Verin if she "saidared" something, and that was just priceless.

Taking a look at The Gathering Storm as a complete novel, Sanderson did an excellent job of pulling together storylines, answering a good deal of questions, and telling as complete a story as possible given that this is volume twelve of fourteen. There is no resolution, as such, because Tarmon Gai'don is still coming, but Sanderson told complete story arcs for both Egwene and Rand and did a hell of a job with it. Others characters received short shrift, but it seems necessary and appropriate for Sanderson to have done so in order to do justice to Egwene and Rand. Brandon was capable of handling some seriously emotional sequences (Verin, anyone?) and he did so with great skill.

The Gathering Storm is a richer and more fully satisfying Wheel of Time novel than we have seen in a good many years. It is difficult to compare the first experience of reading The Gathering Storm to reading those first five novels of the series all those years ago, but this novel holds up well compared to anything that came after the fifth book.

The Gathering Storm shows that Harriet’s judgment in choosing Brandon Sanderson was sound, that he was the right writer for the job. For fans, there is a sense of relief that Brandon was up to the task and that he delivered the book we hoped for.

Call me a fanboy for believing this, and perhaps this is more than a little presumptuous to say, but I think Robert Jordan would be proud of this one. Folks, Brandon did well, and he should be proud of himself, too. He wrote a novel that “feels” like it is part of The Wheel of Time. It was worth the wait.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor.

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
Winter's Heart
Crossroads of Twilight
Knife of Dreams

Monday, November 02, 2009

Amazon's Top 10 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2009 has published their editor's choice Top 10 list for SF&F books. It's a very interesting list.

1. Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente
2. The Red Tree, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
3. The Other Lands, by David Anthony Durham
4. American Fantastic Tales: Boxed Set, by Peter Straub
5. Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
6. The Other City, by Michal Ajvaz
7. Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts
8. Eclipse Three, by Jonathan Strahn
9. Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, by Christopher Barzak
10. The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, by Jesse Bullington

As if I needed it, I think I just found another reading list.

What is somewhat curious, though, is that China Mieville's The City & The City made their overall top 10 list, but not the SFF list.

catching up again with my anticipated reading list

Back in January I posted a list of the 16 books I was most interested in reading this year. In July I took a look at how I was doing at that time. Here's one more peak.

1. The Gathering Storm, 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 Engines, 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

Three of these books have not yet been published, and of those, we won't see the Martin and Lynch this year.

That just leaves me with five books to read from my original list. I own the Strahan, pre-ordered the Scalzi, and have the Kress coming from the library. I feel god about getting the Abercrombie from the library by the end of the year, but I'm just not so sure I'm going to get to the Mieville this year.

But, given that I made this list back on January 6, I think I've done fairly well in identifying new 2009 books that I was interested in and then getting a hold of them to read.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

2009 World Fantasy Award Winners

Thanks to Cheryl Morgan's live reporting, we have the winners of the 2009 World Fantasy Awards

Novel: The Shadow Year, by Jeffrey Ford AND Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan (tie)
Novella:"If Angels Fight", by Richard Bowes
Short Story: "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss", by Kij Johnson

Collection: The Drowning Life, by Jeffrey Ford
Anthology: Paper Cities, by Ekaterina Sedia (editor)

Artist: Shaun Tan
Special Award: Professional: Kelly Link & Gavin G. Grant for Small Beer Press and Big Mouth House
Special Award: Non Professional: Michael Walsh for Howard Waldrop Collections

Lifetime Achievement: Ellen Asher and Jane Yolen

Congratulations to all the winners (and extra yay to Kij Johnson)

Thoughts on 2009 World Fantasy Award Nominees: Novel

The House of the Stag, Kage Baker (Tor)
The Shadow Year, Jeffrey Ford (Morrow)
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins; Bloomsbury)
Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory (Del Rey)
Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin; Knopf)

We have to start with the one novel I haven’t read: The House of the Stag. I have mixed expectations about this, mostly because the last couple of Company novels from Kage Baker were disappointing and they’ve soured me just a bit on Baker. On the other hand, when Baker is on her game, she’s a damn fine storyteller. I can’t talk about The House of the Stag in comparison to the other nominated novels, but I can’t ignore it, either.

Out of the four nominated novels I was able to read before the World Fantasy Awards was given out, Tender Morsels was easily the most disappointing. Margo Lanagan’s story is a reimagining of “Snow White and Rose Red” and it is a brutal, brutal story. Nominally a YA novel, Tender Morsels features repeated abuse, rape, and incest in an intensely patriarchal society (not that women can’t have positions of prominence, but they also shouldn’t be caught alone with a male…the men have all the power). While the portrayals of these terrible are not graphic in terms of physical description, they are viscerally graphic and hang over the entire novel. I’m not sure exactly how to talk about Tender Morsels. It’s a novel that just failed to work for me in any way, that I had to force myself to continue to read because of the award nomination. Otherwise I would have put this book down after maybe fifty pages. The novel is perhaps too emotionally graphics, but it is also such a bleak story with many men who come across as one dimensional monsters. Simple because it is a fairy tale or not, it’s not something I ever want to read again. Very much not recommended.

The Shadow Year is an expansion of Ford’s critically acclaimed novella “Botch Town” and as such, I only reluctantly read The Shadow Year. I wasn’t a fan of “Botch Town” and that makes me the one person who wasn’t. So much moreso than Tender Morsels, I can see the craft and the skill in the storytelling in The Shadow Year. It’s a quiet novel of growing up and secrets in a smallish town / city, with just a hint of magic in the air. Only problem is that Jeffrey Ford is very much a hit or miss writer for me and despite his obvious skill, The Shadow Year was a miss. I don’t have a good reason for why, only a knowledge that it didn’t hit.

Thus far we’ve briefly looked at two novels I didn’t enjoy and one I haven’t read. Now we’re going to move onto the two novels I could appreciate.

The first of those two is Daryl Gregory’s debut novel Pandemonium. This is what I had to say about Pandemonium when I first reviewed it: 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.

The second is The Graveyard Book. This is what I had to say about The Graveyard Book in my previous review: The Graveyard Book is the sort of book where you don’t talk about genre or publishing categories when you talk about it. You just hand it to a friend, your mother, your priest, your cabbie, a stranger and say “read this. It’s really good,” and expect them to thank you later.

Outstanding. Spectacular. Delightful. Wonderful. There are all sorts of adjectives to use when talking about The Graveyard Book. Choose one. I’ll probably have meant that one, too.

The Graveyard Book was a superior novel and one of the best of last year. It’s the class of the World Fantasy Award nomination novels. I can see The Shadow Year potentially winning this award, and I definitely appreciate Pandemonium, but I think the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel should go to The Graveyard Book. It’s really quite good and deserves all the acclaim it has received.