Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kitty Goes to War, by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Goes to War
Carrie Vaughn
Tor: 2010

Set within a framing device of one of those conspiracy theories that can be spun out from those late night radio talk shows (one of which Kitty Norville is the host of), Kitty Goes to War is, at its heart, about exploring a different aspect of lycanthropes and what the human impact is.

First, the framing device. On one night of her radio show Kitty explores the theory and rumor that “something weird is going on at the Speedy Mart” and asks for her listeners to call in and report what they know and what they have heard. This leads to a variety of reports of weirdness and also leads to Kitty and the radio station being sued for libel by the CEO of Speedy Mart (he was also mentioned by name on the show). The framing device is the investigation into Speedy Mart and the conflicts which ensue. This ties into a larger conflict and story arc which Carrie Vaughn has been dancing around for several books now. It’s the hint that there is something much bigger out there and that Denver is only a small part of that something which goes far beyond the personal conflicts.

Carrie Vaughn’s slow build of this larger conflict is well done and where she really succeeds is keeping her focus on the smaller personal stories. Framing device notwithstanding, Kitty Goes to War answers the question that has surely been asked over thousands of years or longer: Is there a military application to using werewolves in combat? Given that lycanthropy enhances strength, speed, and endurance, and also bestows an almost magic-like self-healing ability, the answer is assuredly yes. Of course there is.

Please note that Vaughn does not answer whether there *should* be, only whether there is.

Dr. Shumacher, originally introduced in Kitty Goes to Washington and still working for the National Institutes of Health’s Center for the Study of Paranormal Biology, contacts Kitty because there are three soldiers just returned from Afghanistan who need help. The soldiers are, one may have guessed, werewolves and to say that they are not coping well would be a drastic understatement.

Here Vaughn shines. The depiction of Kitty fighting to allow these soldiers a chance at true rehabilitation is touching, as is the varying brokenness of these men turned soldier turned werewolf who have given nearly all to serve their country. Vaughn’s portrayal of the soldiers each suffering from the same trauma but being broken in different ways is important. Vaughn handles this very delicately, but with assurance that she knows what she is doing and what she is writing about.

Despite the title, Kitty Goes to War is not The Great Werewolf War (though that story may come later) and it is not about werewolf soldiers in combat. Werewolf or not, it is a story about soldiers coming home and dealing with their trauma. It is about belonging and healing and hope. The heart of the Kitty Norville novels has always been the small personal stories and, typically, Kitty dealing with a situation that is almost out of her presumed skillset – except that each situation forces Kitty to struggle and grow and overcome. Kitty Goes to War continues Carrie Vaughn’s streak of writing excellent Kitty Norville novels and only leaves the reader wanting More Kitty Now. Alas. The reader must wait.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor Books.

Previous Reviews
Kitty and the Midnight Hour
Kitty Goes to Washington
Kitty Takes a Holiday
Kitty and the Silver Bullet
Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
Kitty Raises Hell
Kitty's House of Horrors

Monday, June 28, 2010

strange conversations you don't expect to have

At this point the name Piers Anthony mostly conjures images of pun-riddled novels and juvenile views of sex in said pun-riddled novels and not a whole lot else.

Which is why I was surprised to find myself in a conversation yesterday at Fourth Street discussing the good parts of the Piers Anthony oeuvre.

I believe it started with someone mentioning that she remembered seeing a note in a volume of the Incantations of Immortality series that Anthony needed to take a break from the series because he needed some fast money and was going to return to Xanth to quick churn out several volumes in quick succession. I would be curious to find out which book that was so I could try to backtrack and figure out which Xanth novels were the cash grab. Regadless, this person said that she immediately lost all respect for Anthony.

I replied that I would have gained respect for the man. At least it was upfront and honest and since we really don’t know what his situation was, it’s hard for me to judge that. Maybe it was medical or family related.

On the other hand, I remember reading an interview with John Grisham where he baldly stated that he had to turn in a new novel every year to eighteen months to be able to “maintain his standard of living” and that just rubbed me exceptionally wrong.

Of course, it is difficult to understand motive on a potentially apocryphal story for Piers Anthony.

What was interesting, though, was the rest of the conversation turned to the stuff Anthony did well. The early Xanth novels before he punned his readers to death. Macroscope came up (nominated for a Hugo, even), as did a couple of other books. I mentioned the Battle Circle trilogy.

Battle Circle, if you are not aware, is a trilogy comprised of Sos the Rope, Var the Stick, and Neq the Sword. It’s a sword & sorcery type of story, only set on a post-apocalyptic Earth. I haven’t read them since I was a teenager (so, about fifteen years ago), but I remember being entertained by the storytelling. They’re a bit shlocky, if memory serves, but decent enough.

Piers Anthony was my gateway to twenty years of actively reading fantasy and science fiction, starting back when I was in seventh grade and overhearing a couple of kids talking about how awesome and “adult” the Xanth novels were. How the other kids weren’t mature enough for them. I laugh now, but immediately following my family’s move from Staten Island to Minnesota, I had everyday access to the Rush City library and sought out those books and absolutely loved them.

Today I don’t think I could pick up a Xanth novel after book 10 (if not book 7) and make it through, but back then…couldn’t get enough and I was current through everything that was published.

So, it was with weird fondness that I was part of that conversation, remembering back when Anthony was spinning entertaining tales and didn’t require 5-10 pages at the back of each book identifying what ideas came from his readers. The description of Macroscope that was given made me exclaim, “man, that was back when he could still THINK!”, in pure surprise at the inventiveness of it all.

It was a weird conversation, but pretty damn cool.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Stuff I Really Need to Read in the Next Year

This is my third year attending Fourth Street Fantasy and invariably there is conversation about books and authors I haven't read. The last three years have fairly well identified the areas of my ignorance and when I keep hearing certain names mentioned with deep affection and reverence, it is time that I step up and read these writers.

Roger Zelazny

Diana Wynne Jones

I think that these are the two most glaring absences in my reading history and two which I need to fix. Sooner, rather than later.

The Carpet Makers, by Andreas Eschbach: This isn't one of the names I've been hearing for years, but is instead one of those Jo Walton recommendations and the set up she gave was so damn fascinating that I have to read it. Besides, nearly everything Jo has recommended (usually on Tor.com), I have loved.

Skyler White: And Falling, Fly: This is one of those situations where I previously had little interest in reading the book UNTIL the author was on a panel at a con and I thought what she had to say and how she carried herself was interesting enough that NOW I want to read her book. Luckily, I've had a copy of the book for a number of months now. And Falling, Fly has just pushed up the queue a bit.

I am also reminded of stuff, not specifically because of the con, that I have wanted to read for some time now: Elisabeth Vonarburg, Sheri S. Tepper, Hugh Cook, Peter Watts, Lois McMaster Bujold.

and, of course, more Elizabeth Bear and Steven Brust. Because you can't have too much of them.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Taltos, by Steven Brust

Steven Brust
Ace: 1988

“Watch Steven Brust. He’s good. He moves fast. He surprises you.” – Roger Zelazny
Taltos is the fourth of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels and for the first time, I really understood the Zelazny blurb that has graced the covers of the three previous volumes.

As per his norm, Brust is working on multiple levels telling at least two different stories at different times to drive home the main story or theme of the novel. Assuming there is just one. You never know with Steven Brust. You just don’t. What you get out of one of Brust’s novels likely depends on your emotional age, life experience, which of his previous books you’ve read (if any) and how much you remember from them, and whether or not this is your first time reading the book.

This is not to say that a Steven Brust novel demands a steep price for admission or that it requires a learning curve. Brust will trick the reader and suck them in so that they feel comfortable all the while he continues to paint a rich history of a city and a land and tell a story through the nimble narration of a gangster and an assassin for hire AND raises questions of ethics, morality, loyalty, friendship, and love. At first glance all this stuff in the book is simple, but it isn’t.

Taltos is a novel about beginnings.

In the previous novels, Vlad is already well established as a capo in the Jhereg, controls a bit of territory, and has powerful friends. Taltos tells of how that came about.

There are three distinct parts to this novel: the story of how Vlad joined the Jhereg Organization and began his rise of responsibility; the story of Vlad’s first meetings with Morrolan, Sethra Lavode, and Aliera, and his “walking the Paths of the Dead”; and finally and most obscurely, Vlad’s preparation to create and perform a complicated spell / ritual. Of the third, there is no sense throughout most of the novel of what that spell may be for and, more importantly, when it is occurring.

Each chapter begins with a novel excerpt of the spell. The rest of this short novel bounces back and forth between Vlad as a beginning gangster and Vlad’s job for Sethra which eventually takes him to the Paths of the Dead. At times a moment is required for the reader to reorient and fix on which story is being told, but ultimately it is a story of beginnings, and of the shaping of Vlad’s life and career.

It is difficult to describe exactly how Brust “moves fast”, as Roger Zelazny so aptly described him. But, the fact is that there is a nimbleness to Brust’s storytelling. The Vlad Taltos novels are short, yes, but Brust also keeps readers turning the page as fast as they can just to find out what happens next. While Steven Brust is always one step ahead of the reader, he laces the novel with casual detail that later turns out to be anything but. Between the very self aware and quick witted narration of Vlad and the deep emotional politics of human / Draegaran relations, Brust does indeed move fast, but he does so while presenting a smartly written and an often funny story.

While those who have read the three previous Vlad Taltos novels will get a bit more out of Taltos, this is an otherwise excellent place to jump in to the series and see what it is all about. Regardless of whether one is working the series in publication order, chronological order, or just discovering it for the first time, Taltos comes highly recommended.

Previous Reviews

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Ghosts of New York", and Other News

In an amazing bit of title-synchronicity with yesterday’s post, let’s take a brief look at Jennifer Pelland’s “Ghosts of New York”, a post 9/11 ghost story.

“Ghosts of New York” is the lead story in the Dark Faith anthology edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon (following only a poem from Linda Addison). Pelland tells the story of the people who jumped from the Towers on September 11 and in this story they are doomed to repeat their final leap over and over so long as people still remember what happened. Only, it’s not so simple as that.

There is horror and despair here, as there should be. But there is also exploration, revelation, and a touch of not-easy grace. “Ghosts of New York” is a tough story, in part because the event in question is so prominent in the national consciousness and so much more immediate for residents of New York, but also because of the revelations of the other ghosts of New York. It calls to mind other tragedies and questions the power of memory.

As should be expected from Jennifer Pelland, “Ghosts of New York” is quite good and uncomfortably moving.


The other news?

Jennifer Pelland has sold her first novel
, Machine, to Apex Books! Congrats to Pelland!

I'm a big fan of her short fiction (have you read "Captive Girl" yet? How about "That Has Such People In It"?) and I'm excited to have the chance to read it sometime maybe next year! This one will surely hit my annual list of the books I'm most excited for.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ghosts of Manhattan, by George Mann

Ghosts of Manhattan
George Mann
Pyr: 2010

What do you get when you cross steampunk with a pulp-era vigilante hero? The answer is George Mann’s Ghosts of Manhattan. This is a 1920’s New York with prohibition in full swing. The era feels like what we would expect, but other aspects of history are different. The first World War still occurred, but America and England seem to be locked in something of a cold war threatening to go hot. The background is fascinating, but is ultimately a small part of the novel.

With shades of Bruce Wayne and Batman, Ghosts of Manhattan is entirely the story of a man taking the law into his own hands and meting out the justice that the police is unable to. There are gadgets, a dame, and plenty of action.

In only 236 pages, George Mann spins a fast paced urban adventure and introduces an excellent vigilante hero with what readers can hope will be the first volume of a new series. Ghosts of Manhattan is a blast to read and is the perfect book for when you want to kick back and just enjoy the ride. Ghosts of Manhattan is a smartly written modern take on a pulp adventure and is all about enjoying the ride.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Pyr Books

Thursday, June 17, 2010

20 Under 40?

I love looking at lists of promising writers and then watching the comments. Which is why when Omnivoracious pointed out some responses to the New Yorker's list of the top twenty writers under the age of 40, I had to check them out.

You start with the New Yorker’s List, follow that with an alternate list of 20 from The Millions, and then check out some commentary. Or, with this pre-response to the list.

Now, this is generally a SFF themed blog and most of what we read around these parts is in-genre. As such, I haven't read many of the writers on the New Yorker's list (books from Adichie, Freudenberger, and Foer - and probably some individual stories from a couple of the others like Alarcon), and I've scarcely heard of the folks on the list from The Millions.

But I love lists.

And it is worth noting that when The New Yorker ran a Top 20 Under 40 list in 1999, the list contained a number of names that are instantly recognizable today: Sherman Alexie, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, George Saunders.

Oh, yeah, there's four Pulitzer Prize winners on the 1999 list, not to mention other bits of awesomeness. If this new list is nearly as prescient, you'll be hearing much more the newly anointed.

Did I mention that I love lists?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What Doctor Gottlieb Saw

Hey, were you interested in reading Bitter Seeds but just don't have the time to read a complete book?

Or, have you already read the excellent Bitter Seeds and just want more?

I have the answer for both problems.

The answer is "What Doctor Gottlieb Saw", the new short story from Ian Tregillis. It's set in the same world as Bitter Seeds and features Gretel, which, if you've read the book, should immediately compel you to read the story.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Through the Drowsy Dark!

Thanks be to Jeff VanderMeer, I was just reminded of something that I forgot!

Rachel Swirsky’s first book is out! Through the Drowsy Dark was published by Aqueduct Press in May, and, well, I’ll let the catalog listing do the talking.
Through the Drowsy Dark collects ten stories and nine poems by Nebula- and Hugo-nominee Rachel Swirsky, "a terrific writer who's been making a name for herself with a string of intelligent, perceptive stories," as critic Jonathan Strahan characterizes her. In Through the Drowsy Dark, Swirsky's characters struggle with too much and too little emotional control, with heartbreak, with grief that has gone deep underground; they search for nothingness, for difference, for oneness. One commits a terrible crime because she believes it's the moral thing to do, while another digs up a dead dog because the very thought of kissing it on the lips makes her clitoris throb. Swirsky's explorations of the heart and mind are fearless—and dangerous fictions indeed.

"Those Who Wait Through the Drowsy Dark" -- original to this collection
"Heartstrung" -- Interzone 210 (2007)
"Mirror Images" -- Fantasy Magazine (May 12, 2008)
"Of Passage" -- Flushed (Bannock Street Books, 2009)
"Heat Engine" -- Last Drink Bird Head (Ministry of Whimsy, 2009)
"The Black Angel's Kiss" -- original to this collection
"Detours on the Way to Nothing" -- Weird Tales 349 (2008)
"Defiled Imagination" -- original to this collection
"The Debt of the Innocent" -- Glorifying Terrorism (Rackstraw Press, 2007)
"No Longer You" (with Katherine Sparrow) -- Interzone 229 (2009)

"A Season with the Geese" -- Abyss&Apex (2007)
"Pomegranate" -- original to this collection
"Remembering the World" -- Electric Velocipede #15-16 (2008)
"Insider Her Heart" -- Ideomancer (2007)
"The Dream Vacation" -- Mothering Magazine (2006)
"The Oracle on River Street" -- Goblin Fruit (2007)
"Dear Melody" -- Sybil's Garage #4 (2007)
"Invitation to Emerald" -- Lone Star Stories (2007)
"The Fate of Hitler's Brain" -- Flashquake (2006)

While I’ve read a fair amount of Swirsky’s earliest stories, I do not believe I have read any of the stories collected here. That’s exciting, because Rachel Swirsky is one of the best young writers working today and she remains one of the names to keep an eye on in the coming years. She is only just now beginning to get the wider recognition her fiction deserves and it’s time to check out her work if you haven’t already.

I suppose you could also check out this page on Swirsky’s website to see what stories of hers are currently available online if you’re inclined to sample before you buy. "A Memory of Wind" was nominated for the Nebula and "Eros, Philia, Agape" is nominated for the Hugo (a story which I felt strongly enough about to put on my own nomination ballot).

I expect to pick up a copy of Through the Drowsy Dark sooner rather than later.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds
Ian Tregillis
Tor: 2010

Folks, it is time to check out the debut novel from Ian Tregillis, Bitter Seeds. If you’ve been following the Wild Cards series, you will likely recognize the name as a contributor to the recent triad of books (Inside Straight, Busted Flush, Suicide Kings), but with Bitter Seeds Tregillis offers up a very strong story of an alternate World War II.

Bitter Seeds is a different sort of alt-history novel than one would envision from, say, Harry Turtledove. Tregillis plays the war straight and doesn't deviate quite as far from history, but instead introduces a couple of slight twists that adds another facet to the conflict. Bitter Seeds presupposes that the German attempt to genetically modify humans into “super” men was successful. These super-soldiers, having undergone a lifetime of hardship and modification, are able to manipulate their bodies to produce a form of telekinesis, precognizance, flight, or, the case of one soldier, pyrokinesis. One ability per person. With these super-soldiers, Tregillis appears to be taking some of the lessons learned working on the more realistic super-heroes of Wild Cards and dials the realism up one more notch to make these individuals products of scientific engineering.

On the more supernatural side, the Allies have access to a form of witchcraft – though while the term and forms are familiar, the end results are not.

Wild Cards 3.0 this is not. Ian Tregillis is not telling a story of witches versus mutants battling it out for supremacy. The storytelling and the realism (if you accept the presuppositions required for entrance) are much tighter and closer to home.

There are three primary viewpoint perspectives in Bitter Seeds. Raybould Marsh can be considered the primary protagonist of the novel (if there truly is such) and is a British intelligence agent involved in Milkweed, a secret branch / team devoted to combating the unnatural aspect of the German threat, and using unnatural means to fight the war. Second is Will, Marsh’s good friend and one who has a heritage of witchcraft. Third is Klaus, one of the German “super soldiers”. Through Klaus the German perspective of the common soldier (or uncommon, as it may be) is humanized. Through Klaus, Tregillis reveals more about the capabilities and limitations of these super-soldiers – which really are little like any “super-soldier” the reader is likely to imagine.

Through these three limited viewpoint perspectives, Tregillis tells the story of Bitter Seeds at not quite a “boots on the ground” level, given that all primary characters would be considered officers, but still from the perspective of individuals not truly in charge of their own destiny trying to do their part to fight with the best of their abilities against the enemies of their nation. Bitter Seeds is just above the mud action that still gets the characters dirty.

Bitter Seeds requires a little bit of time to acclimate to and figure out what story is being told and how, but once the reader immerses into this fight, Bitter Seeds will stand as one of the better novels of 2010 and an excellent debut to what will hopefully be a long career for Ian Tregillis. Bitter Seeds is the first volume in the Milkweed Triptych and while it is the first of three novels, the story told here is complete and allowing for closure while still allowing that stories and lives do not just end when the last page is turned.

Can't wait for the next book.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor Books.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Way of Kings excerpt

Folks, you're going to see this all over the place and normally I don't post a lot of promotional stuff, but I've been digging on Brandon Sanderson since Elantris and it isn't a stretch to say that Sanderson is THE breakout writer of high fantasy today. Where Sanderson is reaching a much wider audience than anyone (including Sanderson himself) could have ever imagined is through picking up the torch from Robert Jordan and finishing The Wheel of Time. His own work, though, continues to improve and impress.

The Way of Kings is the first volume in a proposed ten volume series titled The Stormlight Archive.

There are novels I am as excited about coming out in the next two years, but The Way of Kings certainly is up near the top of the list.

I'm writing this last night (time travel!), but go to Tor.com right now.



If that link works, what you are looking at is a three chapter excerpt from The Way of Kings.

If the link doesn't work, it's because I messed up and you will want to use this link and I expect you'll be able to find the excerpt on your own. I believe in you.

Meanwhile, and this is the other thing you will find on a host of other blogs, Tor has graciously allowed blog type folks to post the prelude to The Way of Kings.

So, enjoy. I'm really freaking excited about this book.

(click on the post title to expand and get the prelude)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
Mary Robinette Kowal

Tor: 2010

The elevator pitch for Shades of Milk and Honey is “Jane Austen with magic”, and had this not been the debut novel from Mary Robinette Kowal, the elevator pitch would have induced me to run the other way. Screaming. Not a fan of Jane Austen, though Sense and Sensibility wasn’t bad. But, since this is the debut novel from Campbell Award winning writer Mary Robinette Kowal and because I am such a fan of her short fiction and have been for a number of years, I eagerly (if nervously) opened the book.

The elevator pitch is entirely truthful. Shades of Milk and Honey is a novel of society and manners and appears to be set in late eighteenth century England. The heroine of the novel is Jane Ellsworth, a “plain” woman who has resigned herself to a life of spinsterhood (Jane is twenty eight) and hopes for little more than to be able to care for her younger and much more beautiful sister’s children when Melody finds a suitable match. What makes Jane remarkable, however, is her sharp intelligence and her skill at “glamour”. Glamour is the only supernatural element to Shades of Milk and Honey and it is a magic used in society as an art to entertain at parties and is something that is taught to the children of privilege.

The conflict in Shades of Milk and Honey is that of emotion, family, honor, and relationships, much as can be found in the novels of Jane Austen and other writers of that ilk. Mary Robinette Kowal is able to overcome my natural aversion to the form by creating a compelling heroine on whom to hang the narrative. Jane Ellsworth is a character readers will feel they know already. She is a woman of integrity and competence and while she understands propriety and is a woman of her day, she is no shrinking violet. When a dishonorable man attempts to take advantage of Melody’s naivety and only Jane knows something is amiss, it is up to Jane to protect her sister’s honor.

No matter whether one comes into Shades of Milk and Honey as an unabashed fan of Jane Austen or, like me, avoids the stuff like the plague, Mary Robinette Kowal has delivered a debut novel to satisfy any and everyone. Shades of Milk and Honey is silky smooth and beautifully written. Kowal uses, on occasional, the style, spelling, and formality of Austen-era fiction, but does so in a modern manner to ease the reader through the novel. It works and works to the point that not only can I recommend Shades of Milk and Honey to readers who would never otherwise pick up this book, but I can also state that after finishing Shades of Milk and Honey readers will be ready for Glamour in Glass now and won’t want to wait for next year.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Tor.