Monday, March 31, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: A Stranger in Olondria

This is more of an acknowledgment than it is a review.  I suspected that I would struggle with A Stranger in Olondria and I was correct.  There is a formality to the prose that as a reader, I found difficult to engage with.  The novel takes the form of a memoir, and to me, it had the feeling of a hundreds of years old memoir. 

This isn't to say that how I felt about A Stranger in Olondria is representative of the overall consensus.  I believe that I am in the minority opinion.  Nic Clarke raved about it at Strange HorizonsAmal El-Mohtar was entranced at Tor.comAbigail Nussbaum was impressed, and has since said that "the farther I get from this novel, the more special it seems."  Cheryl Morgan liked it.  They aren't wrong.  This is the difference in who readers are and what they bring to the table.  For all the things that Nick, Amal, Abigail, and Cheryl appreciated about the novel, I failed to. 

I am just unable to express this very eloquently at all, and I was only able to push through the first half of the book before putting it aside.  If I hadn't planned to cover the various Nebula nominated works, I probably wouldn't have mentioned the book at all.  I tend to not talk about the books I don't finish because I seldom have anything constructive to add to the conversation.  Other people have much smarter things to say about this than I. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind", by Sarah Pinsker

"In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind"
Sarah Pinsker
Strange Horizons: July 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novelette

Pinsker opens the story with an old man having a stroke and his wife calling an ambulance and waiting by his side. It immediately flashes back to the first day they met back in 1944. We learn that he is an architect and in the Army.  The story flips back and forth between earlier in their life together and aftermath of the present medical emergency. 

What works so well here is that even in such a small number of words, the characters feel lived in and familiar, that we know who these people are. The strength of George's imagination and skill in architecture shines through and feels immediate, except he is also working on some funky stuff with the military. 

"There are some interesting projects. Hypothetical stuff, with the engineers."


"Made up. Like out of the pulps. Barracks for soldiers who are ten feet tall, prisons built into the side of mountains, guard houses underwater. I know it's all ridiculous stuff, kid stuff, but it's fun to imagine. The engineers tell me what is and isn't possible. I draw, and then they take my sketches away or tell me things to change. Mill, I thought my skyscrapers would be the future, but they're showing me all kinds of futures I hardly know how to think about." 

That's all we get, and then Pinsker moves back to the relationship and the stroke George has had and the family's rallying.  That's all we need, and it almost glosses over until late in the story.

But even that is only a side piece to the heart, which is a moving story of a marriage that has lasted more than sixty years and the changes in each partner.  There are reasons for some of those changes, but the core is that these are two good people who have had a good life together.

This is a moving, emotional story.  It is beautiful, and at touches, heartbreaking.  But the heartbreak here is not the raw heartbreak of some of the nominated short stories, but more that of a long life well lived that is very much in its last moments, whether those moments are days or years.  The heartbreak is also in the loss of an ambition and the cause for it.  It hints at some of the American mythology and legends that we don't really believe, though we tell ourselves, "maybe."

Whatever it is, "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind" is a wonderful story.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Zombie Baseball Beatdown
Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown: 2013

What could be more delightfully charming than a novel titled "Zombie Baseball Beatdown"?  Granted, you and I may have different definitions as to what "charming" is, but with that title, I see a fun children's book filled with zombies, baseball, and beatdowns.  All things most children enjoy.  The cover also helps to set that tone.  It looks like the awesome grandchild of those Madballs comics and toys I grew up reading and playing with. 

Rabi, with his friends Joe and Miguel, is out for some baseball practice on a field out near the stink of his town's meatpacking plant. They are out there, rather than at the nicer field, because of the bullying of some of the other kids.  As bad as the regular stink is, they are interrupted by a smell that is beyond wretched, and that's where the story here truly begins.  That extra strong stink is part of the catalyst for the creation of zombie cows and for the action and adventure to follow.

This really is a perfect children's book with zombie cows, one of the meaner adults we meet early on turning into zombies, an evil conspiracy, adults and police that don't trust the children when they report that there are zombies on the loose.  Here is when the kids step up and have the chance to do something heroic.

I thought about it. "We all want to be important. I guess you just have to find some way to help people see who they are."

If that was all that Zombie Baseball Beatdown was about, it would be a good, fun book.  You could easily see how it could be a movie akin to The Goonies and be that story for a generation.

Zombie Baseball Beatdown has so much more.  Bacigalupi also deals with illegal immigration, the meat packing industry, working conditions at a meat packing facility, what really goes into the beef that we eat, ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement), racial issues, culture, and what it means to be American.  It probably also has some other stuff that I didn't pick up on or that I didn't remember as strongly as the more prominent issues. 

"They do not care if people are hurt, because there are always more people from Mexico or Honduras or Ecuador. I have seen people lose arms and legs and fingers in that place. In those machines. Those fast knives..." He trailed off. "It is a sickness  in that place. They care about nothing except making a little more money. And now they feed their cows strange things to make them grow faster. They give them drugs to make them not die when they live in dirt and filth. They use the feathers and the droppings and bits of chickens from their chicken factories and grind them up and give them to their cows for food, because it is cheap to feed their cows the trash of other places...I see all of this, and I do not complain, because they will deport me like that." He snapped his fingers.

Bacigalupi has written a very smart novel aimed at younger readers, and it works as both a fun and scary adventure story as well as being educational.  Having read the book, kids may be curious to learn more about any of those subjects and getting kids interested in learning more can only be a good thing.  Anything that entertains and educates is a winner in my book.  When it entertains as well as Bacigalupi's Zombie Baseball Beatdown, it's something special.  Make it fun, make it smart.  Bacigalupi does both. 

If I were more widely read in children's literature, I know if I needed to go on a rant here about how this is exactly the sort of book that should be published and that more of it should be published. But, I don't know if this isn't entirely representative of what is already out there and I can be reassured that my future children will have awesome and smart books to read and that I won't need to start stockpiling them now just in case all the good books disappear.  I may well be underestimating a large chunk of kid's lit that is being published, and given that I already know of authors like Kelly Barnhill, Anne Ursu, and Alison McGhee who are writing absolutely wonderful books for kids (and adults of all ages!), I shouldn't be as hesitant about what is out there.

I just need to open my eyes to what is out there. 

Either way, Zombie Baseball Beatdown?  It is an outstanding book.  For anyone and everyone.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "The Sounds of Old Earth", by Matthew Kressel

"The Sounds of Old Earth"
Matthew Kressel
Lightspeed Magazine: January 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Short Story

"The Sounds of Old Earth" is an increasingly sad story that ends with a glimmer of hope and happiness.  I mention that right up front because I spent most of my time reading the story feeling sadder and sadder about the situation the old man is in and the looming complete loss of Earth and the loss of the heritage and history and original homeworld.  It is sentimental without being mawkish.

Earth is in its final days, having been abandoned to new colonies and newly built habitations orbiting...something.  There are still some residents who have not yet left their homes, but they will soon be evicted by the New Earth government.  The world will soon be destroyed in order to use the remains to build new habitats.  The asteroid and Kuiper belts have all been used up.  Don't think too deeply on the science of how all this has occurred, even the old man here gets to mention that he doesn't understand the technology of how this works.  It's a neat concept, at the very least. 

While the story details the last days of this old man on "Old Earth" and his interactions with his family and some of those who have not yet moved on, what the story really seems to be about is of understanding where we came from and of holding a sense of place in your heart.  That we, as humans, came from somewhere and that somewhere is important and belonging to a place is important.  It is sad and wistful, seen through the eyes of a sentimental old man who doesn't want to leave his home and homeworld, even though it is taking all of his technological skill to keep the poisoned world from intruding onto this one small place of habitation.  It is beautiful, from that perspective, and sad. 

And, it is wonderful. The ending provided a nice piece of peace away from the previous sadness. It doesn't undo what came before or any of the sense of loss, but it does provide closure and an opportunity to move forward. I think you should read it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Anticipated Fantasy Novels of 2014 Written By People

Inspired by a combination of this post from Kameron Hurley and also Hurley sharing a recent Buzzfeed list of anticipated fantasy novels coming out this year, I thought that perhaps I should make my own list.  I like fantasy fiction just as much as anyone else, and I guess some of the novels that I might be excited to see talked about are excluded from some lists. Which, is fine, each list is representative of the person who wrote it and representative of the viewpoint and goals of the person who wrote it.

I know I just posted a list of some stuff I was interested in coming out over the next few months, but I've had a chance to look through some other perspectives and I wanted to share an alternate list. 

I tried to keep mostly with the Buzzfeed's list of fantasy meaning "epic secondary world fantasy", though The Three from Sarah Lotz just looked too damn interesting to leave off.  Alphabetical by author.

Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie
The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
The Steles of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear
Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan
Fool's Assassin, by Robin Hobb
The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
The Leopard, by K. V. Johanson
The Lascar's Dagger, by Glenda Larke
The Three, by Sarah Lotz
Thorn of Emberlain, by Scott Lynch

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson

This isn't an exhaustive list of anything, but it does serve to show just how quickly and easily one can put together an alternate list of fantasy novels that is more inclusive of women.  Of course, this list has eleven books, three of which are written by men.  I suppose I could then be accused of discriminating against men and focusing more on women.  In that case, it is mostly true.  I focused more on women to build this list, except that I took perhaps five minutes (or less) to come up with this list.

I knew I wanted to list more women as an answer to the Buzzfeed list, which included just one.  These are all novels I am legitimately interested in reading.   Some are authors I am have read and am familiar with, others would be new to me.

What I am not saying is that any of the novels Sean Fagan listed out are not worthy of being read, of being excited for, or that they are not books Fagan is legitimately interested in reading.  If you take his list on its own and on its own merits, it is a list of books that one man is interested in reading and that he thinks are some of the best works of fantasy to come out for a while (though, I disagree with his closing thought on The Magician's Land being the most anticipated fantasy novel of the last 25 years, to which I say Harry Potter, Wheel of Time, and any Ice and Fire novel).  I think all of that is true.  On its own.

But when taken as part of a larger context and conversation, what you have is one list after another list and women are unintentionally marginalized by lack of inclusion.  Each on its own is not remarkable, but taken together they show a pattern. 

So, here is a list of fantasy novels coming out in 2014 that I think are interesting and exciting.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Forthcoming Books: April - May - June 2014

Coming to the end of 2014's first quarter, it is time to look ahead towards some interesting stuff being published in the next three months.  I'm using the Locus Forthcoming list because even though it may not be exhaustive, it is a fairly representative list of what is coming out over the course of a year.  My list below is based simply on that which strikes my own fancy, and I'm sure I'm overlooking all sorts of excellent stuff that if only I knew more about it or was familiar with the author's work, I would be excited for it.  But, alas, I am not.

April: I still need to read Shattered Pillars, but oh my god, Range of Ghosts!  I'm behind on my Daryl Gregory, but the man is solid.  I'm also behind on Kowal's Glamourist Histories, but Shades of Milk and Honey was excellent.
Steles of the Sky, by Elizabeth Bear
Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory
Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal

May: The biggest excitement for May is VanderMeer's Authority.  This has been getting a significant amount of press in the corner of the world that I see, and after reading Finch, I'm down to follow anything else VanderMeer writes.  Will McIntosh is a must read with each relatively slim novel he puts out, I'm a long ways away from reading the Elizabeth Moon, but after reading Sheepfarmer's Daughter I foresee following with the series til the end.  Recluse novels are pure comfort reading and it's been long enough since reading one that it'll feel both fresh and familiar.  Jo Walton needs no introduction.  Read her.

Defenders, by Will McIntosh
Cyador's Heirs, by L. E. Modesitt, Jr
Crown of Renewal, by Elizabeth Moon
Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer
My Real Children, by Jo Walton

June: Let's be fair, I don't know that I would describe Earth Awakens as one of my most anticipated books of the year or the month, but I've been reading the Enderverse books for so long I feel like I'd miss out on something if I did not.  They're fine, but no more than that.  No longer remarkable.  Beautiful Blood is a novel placed in the Dragon Griaule setting, Cibola Burn is a new Expanse novel, and Alastair Reynolds and Stephen King really don't need much explanation. 

Earth Awakens, by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey
Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King
On the Steel Breeze, by Alastair Reynolds
Beautiful Blood, by Lucius Shepard

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sunrunner's Fire, by Melanie Rawn

Sunrunner's Fire
Melanie Rawn
DAW: 1990

"Why does it happen this way?"

Rohan's whispered bitterness startled her out of her own. His face was as composed as Pol's, but his eyes were open wounds. "What do you mean, beloved?" She made her voice gentle, forbidding fear to scrape the words raw.

"This," he repeated. "Always. One man battling another."

Himself against Roelstra, Maarken against Masul, Pol against Ruval. Whole princedoms distilled down to two men. "Better one battling one than thousands battling thousands," she answered softly. It was the High Princess speaking, not the woman who had watched husband and nephew and now son go forth to their small, private wars.

This, I think, is to the heart of what the Dragon Prince trilogy is dealing with, which is the contradiction of Rohan's desire to be civilized and to make his world a better and safer one of laws while being continually forced to deal with men who refuse to accept anything but conflict and war.

Welcome to my final entry in my re-read series of the Dragon Prince trilogy.  We began four years ago with Dragon Prince and continued just last month with The Star Scroll.  Now we tackle the concluding volume with Sunrunner's Fire.  As before, this is less of a proper review and more of a re-read.  There is an excellent chance of book and trilogy spoilers, though I will attempt to limit (but not necessarily eliminate) those that touch on the Dragon Star trilogy.  You have been warned.  The quick answer is that I am a huge fan of these novels from Melanie Rawn and very highly recommend them. Go read, I'll still be here.

Something that I've been pondering since I finished Sunrunner's Fire a couple of nights ago is what if I'm looking at this whole trilogy thing wrong.  In a technical sense, this is the concluding volume of the Dragon Prince trilogy.  That's true.  But, to a point, Dragon Prince is a standalone novel that also sets up the potential for subsequent stories (as opposed to being a novel without a true conclusion). The Star Scroll and Sunrunner's Fire, however, seem more like one massive novel than two individual books.  To a point.  Each of those two novels have different focuses with character and story, but they tell more of the overarching battle against the sorcerers than they complete a fixed trilogy.

If there is a trilogy here, it looks like this:
1. Dragon Prince (1 book)
2. Star Scroll / Sunrunner's Fire (2 books)
3. Dragon Star Trilogy (3 books)

That's my side thought for the morning.

So, Sunrunner's Fire begins only days (40 days?) after the conclusion of The Star Scroll with the ceremony of Andry assuming formal command of Goddess Keep and all of the faradh'im.  Andry has had visions of the future, much as Andrade, the former Lady of Goddess Keep, has had.  Andrade used those visions to shape her actions to prevent a future that she did not want and to shape it into one that she did.  We never learned what most of those visions were, except that one involved her marriage to the High Prince Roelstra.  We do learn Andry's visions, however, and his visions are of a future at war and of the destruction of all that he loves. 

Though that is not what Sunrunner's Fire is focused on, it shapes the actions of Andry.  It is a thread running through the novel.  It sets up the Dragon Star trilogy, though when I read this book for the first time I had no idea there would be more, but this is what forces Andry to act.  We know he is a young man given a whole lot of power without having sufficient time to be trained on how to use it wisely and humbly.  There is a streak of arrogance to Andry that, to a point is present in his whole family and in Andrade, but Andrade still had some political skill in maneuvering people to her own ends.  Andry is all blunt force without the political tact to work towards his goals, and since he firmly believes that war is coming in the future and only he can prevent it, he continues to push and alienate himself from his family.

Remember the sweet boy who loved his brothers so much it hurt in The Star Scroll?  That boy is gone and at each step, he feels like he is betrayed by his family even though he pushes them away by holding so tightly to the idea that everything he does is right and he is justified in all of his actions no matter the consequence.  It is difficult to read, to see how quickly he becomes "other".

In retrospect, Andry's story is the one I have spent more time thinking about in regards to Sunrunner's Fire even though it is the smaller story.

The larger story, of course, is that of Pol growing into a man and a ruler and of the sorcerers Mireva and Ruval (Ianthe's son) making their play to destroy everything that Rohan has built and to take their place as rulers of the continent.  It is Pol figuring out who he wants to be and that while he is likely to be a man and Prince that honors his parents, he won't exactly be the same sort of man and ruler that his father was. There is conflict there, especially as he begins to fall in love with the sort of woman his parents disapprove of as a future High Princess.

There is drama in the political wrangling, which is always a highlight with Melanie Rawn, and the characters we've been following and love don't get off easy.  Characters die, and very bad things happen to very good people.  From what I recall, that is only going to get worse in the next trilogy.  Sunrunner's Fire is compelling reading, and I think it's a bit more focused than The Star Scroll was.

But, back to Andry.  I don't think I'd want a whole novel from his perspective because I think he works better as seen in response to other characters than he would as an obnoxious lead character that we don't quite sympathize with.  He does, however, have a perspective that works towards a big picture that only he knows is coming.  The trouble is, he doesn't trust enough to share it because he's afraid he won't be believe or trusted himself. It's a vicious cycle, so all he tells people is that he has seen war coming and that everyone will need him in the future and that the ways he is twisting what the faradh'im have been is so very necessary and so is his personal war against the sorcerers.

What makes that so interesting, though, is at the very end of the novel when Andry goes on his little genocide is that one of the sorcerers had a letter written and while it was unclear as to who the recipient is, the letter seems to be about how the sorcerers could return to power not through conquest, but because Pol is of their blood, and Riyan is, and that with men and women of good character in ruling positions, they could reveal themselves and be protected by those rulers and also teach those rulers their ways.

It seems reasonable, though Andry would never see it that way.  It also shows that not all the sorcerers are like Mireva, striving for vengeance and murder.  Of course, the old woman who had that letter was also murdered by Andry, so I think what we are seeing is a lost opportunity.  Which, like most things with Andry, is sad.

And with sadness over Andry, we shall close out the Dragon Prince trilogy.

Stay tuned, because over the coming months we'll pick up with Stronghold and begin the Dragon Star trilogy.  Where I have read the three Dragon Prince books many times, I have only read Dragon Star just the once.  I'll be interested to see my perspective on that and see what I latch onto on my second time through.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

New Space Opera from Elizabeth Bear!

Now this is exciting news!  Gollancz will publish two volumes of far future science fiction from Elizabeth Bear.  Long time readers here will know how much I'm a fan of what Bear writes, so you know I'm excited. My assumption is that this is a two volume epic, but I don't want to miscommunicate exactly what is out there.  This could be two unrelated books, but I don't think so.  Either way, this is awesome news.

From the press release:

Combining a unique concept with a compelling plot, Elizabeth Bear’s novels imagine the invention of The White Drive: an easy, nonrelativistic means of travel across unimaginable distances. The gripping story follows salvage operators, Haimey Dz and her partner Connla Kurucz, as they pilot their tiny ship into the scars left by unsuccessful White Transitions, searching for the relics of lost human – and alien – vessels.
 The first book, Ancestral Night, will be published in 2016.

Gollancz is primarily a UK publisher, but I have no doubts that these novels will make their way across the pond to the US so that I, greedy reader that I am, can read them. It's a long time to wait, but I'm sure I can find something to tide me over until then. 

RIP Lucius Shepard

According to SF Signal, author Lucius Shepard has died at the age of 66. 

I did not know Shepard personally, but he was one hell of a writer.  He was a writer of novels, short fiction, and non fiction, and all of it was excellent. 

Sad news. 

Depending on one's perspective, he may be best known for his Dragon Griaule stories.  I can't say that I have exhaustively read Shepard's work, but everything that I had encountered was compelling work. 

The Best of Lucius Shepard
The Golden
Two Trains Running
A Handbook of American Prayer

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cover Art: Mr. Mercedes Full Dust Jacket

From the author's website, we have the full dust jacket for Stephen King's forthcoming novel Mr. Mercedes.  I really like this cover, the raining blood on the front with the umbrella and creepy smiley face is great, but that ice cream truck on the back is just awesome.  Sam Weber did a bang up job with that cover (and not knowing the distribution of contribution, let's also give credit to the designer Tal Goretsky).  Good stuff.  I'd read whatever King writes just by virtue of it being written by Stephen King, but this is a great cover.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer"

"Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer"
Kenneth Schneyer
Clockwork Phoenix 4
Nominated for a Nebula Award: Short Story

This is a difficult story to evaluate because its very format is going to be divisive enough to throw readers off of the story being told.  "Selected Program Notes" is what the title suggests - notes from the program of an art exhibit.  The story is told through those notes.  It begins with a painting Latimer did in 1978 and proceeds chronologically until the last painting in the exhibit from 2025.

Rachel Swirsky, in her overview of the year's best stories, has this to say.
As someone who took many years of art lessons and a very little bit of art history, I am a total sucker for stories that are told through the lens of art criticism. I thought this story did a really striking and intelligent job of it. I won't lie; the strength of the story lies in the format; it will strike people for whom it doesn't work as a gimmick story, I expect, and that's not unreasonable. But the gimmick has the strength of being one that is wholly integrated with the narrative in an intelligent way. Plus, I like it.

The format here is key, with individual entries for thirteen paintings and each entry has "discussion questions".  But the format is only giving glimpses of what might be occurring in the artist's life, and the reader is left to piece things together more than might normally be required in a more conventional story.  Inferences are made about how Latimer connects to certain subjects of her paintings and what aspects of the art mean.

Swirsky writes that the story worked for her, that it hit buttons that she has for this sort of story.  While I am not the opposite, and I don't necessarily find "Selected Program Notes" to be a gimmick story, nor did it work for me.  The lack of a center of the story to grasp on to and work through here is a negative and while re-reading the story does draw out different details and interesting and potentially important, it just didn't work for the sort of reader I am.  I can say, though, that this is not entirely due to the format because I have read similarly formatted stories that I have been able to engage with.  This, sadly, is not one of them.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sheepfarmer's Daughter, by Elizabeth Moon

Sheepfarmer's Daughter
Elizabeth Moon
Baen: 1988

There is a subset of fantasy literature which features a farmboy or a kitchen boy, often an orphan but always a boy, who dreams of being more and somehow joins a company on a great quest and discovers his own greatness (and often saves the world by fulfilling prophecy).  Sheepfarmer's Daughter is not exactly part of that tradition, but it is in the same family.  But, here's the trick: Paksenarrion is a girl and all she wants to do is become a soldier.  The distinction here is vital, when we are thinking about where Sheepfarmer's Daughter fits in the realm of fantasy.

Paksenarrion, or Paks, for short, has been told by her father that she will wed the neighboring pig farmer and so in return, runs away to join Duke Phelan's Company of mercenary soldiers. She had to walk the thirty miles to the next town, but she is eighteen years old, so is old enough to sign her own name and to begin to follow her dream of being a soldier.  The rest of the novel follows her first three years of soldiering in the Duke's Company, or her training, friendships, losses, battles and marches.

So much more than epic adventures, Sheepfarmer's Daughter is about the daily day to day slog of being a soldier.  But, what's interesting there is that the majority of the characters, including Paks, do not have strong definable personalities or characterization that develops throughout the novel.  Normally, this would be something to complain about, and likely many will.  The overall storytelling, though, and the detail of the mercenary company going about their business (and later, having that business get personal) is all that is needed for Sheepfarmer's Daughter to work.

The other thing going on here is that Sheepfarmer's Daughter is the first volume in The Deed of Paksenarrion, which tells us that Paks is going to do and be something special.  This ties back into how the novel is related to that kitchen boy fantasy, though only in the barest trappings.  Also worth mentioning is that in the very first paragraphs, before even the first chapter begins, the father of Paks as an old man remembers the day that he received her two swords and a scroll detailing part of her life and adventures.

And they always ask, the little ones who never knew her, what she was like. Just like that in the scroll? Always so tall, so brave? And Dorthan remembers her face the night she left, and is silent. One brother thinks of a long-legged girl running down errant sheep; the youngest remembers being carried on her shoulders, and the smell of her hair. Besides this, legend is all they have.

Which actually gets to something that I thought about while reading Sheepfarmer's Daughter that I have never considered before in any other novel I have read.  Paks thinks about sending some trinkets back home, returning the dowery price that her father had paid the pig farmer to marry her.  It caused me to wonder about her family back in Three Firs.  Not so much about what their lives were like, but more about how they were feeling about not knowing whether Paks was even still alive.  During many battles and marches, there were close calls and injuries and illnesses and that Paks does live through this first novel (not a spoiler) is something beyond luck given how many of her friends and fellow soldiers died.  Does her father regret pushing her into a marriage he knew she didn't want? Were her brothers angry or proud, learning that she left?  Does her mother stay up late each night, waiting beyond hope that she might come home?  This is seldom addressed in fantasy novels or adventure novels or really in most novels where the rest of the family is left at home.  Do they worry?  Do they fear?  They must.

That opening passage suggests that life does go on, and that the family did talk about her, and that silence of Dorthan holds personal regret and pain that their last parting was in anger.  But, that is the sort of thing that you think about reading Sheepfarmer's Daughter.  Or, it is the sort of thing that I thought about.

Sheepfarmer's Daughter is the first entry in life of Paksenarrion, in The Deed of Parksenarrion, and for much of this novel Paks is no more than she knows herself to be: a simple woman who loves to be a soldier and wants nothing else out of life.

I can't say what sort of reception Sheepfarmer's Daughter received in 1988, but it was successful enough for Elizabeth Moon to continue to publish novels with the same publisher and for her to be able to write more books in this same world (both from the direct series, as well as subsequent related volumes).  But, in the intervening decades I feel that it has slipped from the conversation of top fantasy novels where acclaim and conversation have gone in different directions.  Some of this may just be from my own perspective and there may well be a dedicated community that praises this and Moon at every turn of the clock, but Sheepfarmer's Daughter still seems to be absent and overlooked. It shouldn't be.

While giving the appearance of being epic fantasy in the more traditional sense, Sheepfarmer's Daughter as a first volume (and debut novel) seems to fit more in the vein of military fantasy - but with a strong sense of realism. It is more akin to The Black Company than with a macho testosterone laden fantasy that comes to mind when "military fantasy" is thought of.  This is good, folks, and I think it would be awesome if it was more read and discussed.  I'll be very interested to see how the story develops in Divided Allegiance and how it is different, because from the end of Sheepfarmer's Daughter, there is a strong sense that this is all about to change for Paks. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

National Book Critics Circle Award Winners: 2014

The National Book Critics Circle have announced the list of award winners for publishing year 2013

Frank Bidart, “Metaphysical Dog” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Franco Moretti, “Distant Reading” (Verso)
Amy Wilentz, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti” (Simon & Schuster)
Leo Damrosch, “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” (Yale University Press)
Sheri Fink, “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital” (Crown)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Americanah” (Knopf)

I've been planning to read Americanah and Five Days at Memorial, so this doesn't really my forthcoming reading, but I love awards and award lists.  Because, somehow, my reading list isn't nearly long enough yet.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cover Art: My Real Children

This isn't really news because the cover art has been out in the world since September, but the more I see this cover, the more I like it.

I'm absolutely sold on reading the book anyway.  Jo Walton's previous novel, Among Others, was fantastic. 

But this cover from Jamie Stafford-Hill is gorgeous and gives some idea as to what might be going on.  Stafford-Hill is listed as the designer, here, which is a distinction that I might not normally think about, but this isn't a painted cover.  So, as far as I know, there isn't an "artist" in the same way that we get from other cover artists.  Normally I'm not a fan of more photorealistic covers, but this one is gorgeous.

As a side note, this makes me think about artists and the Hugo Awards.  It's easy to tell when Donato Giancola or Jon Picacio has done a cover that that individual is the artist and when we are nominating for Best Artist, we are nominating that individual for the body of work they did in a particular year. 

Designers, however, do more (and different) than the artist.  In an incredibly simplistic reduction, the artist paints a work.  The designer then does the layout of the rest of the cover, including title, author's name, other aspects that they need to put on the cover to make a final cover.  That's my understanding.  I could be wrong. 

So, what happens when there isn't a cover artist in the way we think of Michael Whelan?  The work that Stafford-Hill has done is no less beautiful or striking or worthy of note.  But, would Stafford-Hill qualify for the Best Artist Hugo Award?

I don't know.  I think so.

Regardless, beautiful cover, right?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: "Alive, Alive Oh", by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

"Alive, Alive Oh"
Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
Lightspeed Magazine, June 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Short Story

If there's one thing that I like in a well written science fiction, it's a sense of hopelessness and the tension that comes from that.  With "Alive, Alive Oh", we get that in spades.

The water here is nothing like the salty sea of home. It’s acidic and eats into the flesh. I shouldn’t even be this close to the shore, in case the spray splashes across and burns me. Everything about G851.5.32 is toxic; I’ve been here so long, even I am.

The thing is, that hopelessness is filled with nostalgia for what is lost and for what is impossible, and it is beautiful.  A woman joined her husband on a scientific mission to another world, a mission intended to last ten years, and then they would return home to Earth, to Wales, and they would be financially set for life.  The second sentence of the story tells readers that they had been gone for seventeen years. 

Throughout the story, the narrator tells of this new world, of when they learned they weren't going home, of the birth of their daughter. The narrator tells the daughter of Earth, of the food and life that the daughter would likely never get to taste or experience. 

It's hopeless, we know that from the second sentence.  But yet, there is beauty in that hopelessness, in that yearning for home. 

As a reader, I want to know more.  More about how the mission is proceeding, how it works as a colony, how Earth views it from afar, how others in the colony are dealing with this unexpected new life, what other missions and colonies may be going out to other worlds.  But that is the greedy part of me.  All of that extra detail is extraneous to the story Spruck Wrigley is telling, which is a much tighter story of the narrator, her daughter, and the danger of this new world.  There is enough detail in that tight story to give glimpses of the wider setting, and it is those details that cause the wondering about what else is out there.  It's the mark of a good story that I am wondering more about what else is going on just off the page. 

Well done.  I'm looking forward to see what Sylvia Spruck Wrigley will have for us in the coming years.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman
William Morrow: 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novel

An older man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, goes off for a walk, and in visiting the family of his friend, remembers a significant period of time from his childhood that he had long forgotten.  If that sounds overly prosaic, trust me, it is not.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane is written with a very reflective tone that grounds the story in a very real and "normal" life of a seven year old boy who did not have many friends but always surrounded himself in books.  This may be the childhood of many an adult who will nod knowingly at just that. It is a common enough story, and from that perspective, it is similar to Jo Walton's stunningly good Among Others.

And where there is a quiet supernatural element in Among Others, the supernatural in The Ocean at the End of the Lane seems to begin small with tiny steps so as to not overwhelm either the reader or the unnamed protagonist, it builds.  From people seemingly being given money in ways that don't make sense to what feels like a true version of how faerie might work to something that becomes bigger and more evil and more menacing than readers would expect from how simply The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins.

At its best, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is simply and scary, where strangers and nannies are a source of fear and where marital discord can seem a part of something bigger and worse.  But then, that's part of what makes this such a wonderful novel.  Is this an older man looking back at his childhood, remembering for a brief moment in full detail the hopes and fears of his seven year old self exactly how they happened?

Or, are those childhood events part of the imagination of a young boy who isn't able to process and understand why his life is suddenly so topsy turvy and difficult?  The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this isn't something akin to what Joe Kelly did in his graphic novel I Kill Giants, which, like the Gaiman novel, has a young protagonist dealing with some serious real life issues but is fighting those issues in a very serious fantasy manner.  Which, if that is Gaiman's intent, suggests that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is exactly as masterful as I am coming to think it is. 

The farther I step away from having finished the book, the more impressed with I am.  This is a novel where reader interaction is absolutely vital, because the reader is filling in the white spaces between the words and pages where imagination can take over.  The novel on its own is excellent.  The novel with the reader picking up another way to read what story is being told is sublime.  Whether or not this was Gaiman's intent, the novel works on either level (as a straight up telling of a story, or as a childhood fantasy dealing with deeper family issues).  Highly recommend.

And oh, that cover art.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White
Catherynne M. Valentie
Subterranean Press
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novella

There are some authors which, no matter how much you try, you know that you are not truly part of the audience for.  Catherynne Valente is, unfortunately for me, one of those authors.  I keep trying because her I tend to be interested in the overall stories that she is telling, the concepts are just so damned interesting, but most of them just don't quite work for me.  I can recognize why she has a devoted readership, and I can more than appreciate the craft of her writing, but who I am as a reader is not the reader I think she is aiming for.  But, because I do sometimes find one of her stories that I appreciate, I keep going back and pushing myself beyond what I would normally read.

That's a bit of a preamble to talking a bit about Six-Gun Snow White, and is more about me than the story, but I felt that I needed to be up front and fair here.  This is more about me than about how successful I think Valente was with Six-Gun Snow White.  When I fail to fully engage with one of Valente's stories, I am convinced that it's me and not so much the story.

As might be guessed by the title, Six-Gun Snow White melds the Snow White fairy tale with a western.

From the publisher's website:
A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother’s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine’s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.

All of the pieces of the fairy tale are here and in place, but even knowing this is a Snow White story, you may still be surprised when you notice the "seven dwarves", which here play a similar role but are very different. 
The story is recognizable, but it is more twisted from an expectation than it is simply given western shadings.

I recommend readers to seek this out, if only to see how you respond to Valente.  Fans of Valente's work will find much to love here.  Readers like me who struggle with Catherynne Valente will likely continue to struggle. 

The cover art from Charles Vess is worth noting as it is exquisite and striking.  It has the appearance of watercolors, which absolutely works for this art. 

Friday, March 07, 2014

Cover Art: Maplecroft has another cover art reveal, this time for a book I already knew I wanted to read it (Cherie Priest tackling Lizzie Borden?  I'm sold).

This cover comes from Blake Morrow, an artist I am not familiar with by name.  It reminds me of the Larry Rostant photo realistic covers of Mary Robinette Kowal's novels, but with the bloody axe and the scratchiness of the design, there is a creepiness to this cover.  I'd like to see more of Morrow's work.

I don't know that I fully love the cover yet, but I do like it.  But really, the main reason that I'm digging on this is the author's name on the cover.  Cherie Priest sells me, the art in this case is a bonus.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Cover Art: The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem is a novel by Liu Cixin, translated into English by Ken Liu.


The Three-Body Problem is an award-winning series by Liu Cixin—the first of which is arguably the first Chinese science fiction novel translated into English. Liu uses the “three-body problem” of classical mechanics to ask some terrifying questions about human nature and what lies at the core of civilization. The series explores the world of the Trisolarans, a race that is forced to adapt to life in a triple star system, on a planet whose gravity, heat, and orbit are in constant flux. Facing utter extinction, the Trisolarans plan to evacuate and conquer the nearest habitable planet, and finally intercept a message—from Earth. 

I'm intrigued.  I also don't believe I have read Chinese literature before, and I am positive I have not read Chinese science fiction.  What better place to start than this book?

But, look at the cover art from Stephan Martiniere!  Gorgeous.

Just from the cover, I want to know more.  I like cover art as art for its own sake, but I know that the primary reason it is there is to help present, market, and sell the book.  From that perspective, the cover works.  It pulls me in. 

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Shallan Endpaper

Can I just say how much I love the endpaper that Michael Whelan produced for Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance?  Seriously, I absolutely adore it and I agree with Carl Anderson that I wish it were the actual cover for the book (which, like Carl, is not a knock for what was produced for the cover).  But, I can see that from a marketing perspective, the final cover is a bit more action orientated and might drive sales better than the Shallan endpapers...but the Shallan image is just pretty.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Books Read: February 2014

Below is a listing of the books I read in the month of February.  I read some solid fiction this month.  All links go to my reviews. 

1. The Hypersonic Secret, by Franklin W. Dixon
2. Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug, by Raymond E. Feist and Stephen Abrams
3. Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh
4. The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
5. Allegiant, by Veronica Roth
6. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid
7. Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear
8. Ironweed, by William Kennedy
9. Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold
10. The Star Scroll, by Melanie Rawn
11. Hellbent, by Cherie Priest
12. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride
13. When Will You Rise, by Mira Grant

Best Book of the Month: Range of Ghosts, easy.  This is must read fantasy. 

Disappointment of the Month: Disappointment might be the somewhat wrong word because I didn't have high expectations, but the Midkemia book from Feist and Abrams.  It is written as it were a series of diary to note the personal perspective of Pug on the events of the various Riftwars.  The greatest focus is on the earliest wars, or the earliest books.  But, everything is so abbreviated and choppy that not only are there no real revelations, it makes the entire thing come across as dull.  Later entries are even shorter, with suggestions (from Pug, and later Magnus) that they'll write more in the future, but then they never do.  It's just not worth it. 

Discovery of the Month: I must read some more Lois McMaster Bujold and do so soon.  Barrayar was excellent.

Worth Noting: If you've never read Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies and you're a fan of fantasy novels, I think you are seriously missing out.  The Star Scroll is the second book in the first trilogy. 

Previous Months

Monday, March 03, 2014

Nebula Award Nominee: If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love

"If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love"
Rachel Swirsky
Apex: March 2013
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Short Story

I think my heart just broke. 

The story opens with some whimsy, or, what seems like whismy at the time.  It seems sweet, if in a slightly twisted sort of way. 
If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you. You’d be fragile-boned and you’d walk with as delicate and polite a gait as you could manage on massive talons. Your eyes would gaze gently from beneath your bony brow-ridge.

If you were a T-Rex, then I would become a zookeeper so that I could spend all my time with you. I’d bring you raw chickens and live goats. I’d watch the gore shining on your teeth. I’d make my bed on the floor of your cage, in the moist dirt, cushioned by leaves. When you couldn’t sleep, I’d sing you lullabies. 

Most paragraphs flow from the ending of the one before it.  The next one begins with "If I sang you lullabies."  The construction of the story is how Swirsky builds expectation and has the reader wondering how one thing will flow to the next, where she's going with this very short story.  And it builds, with little heartaches that we're not sure what to do with until the story turns, hard, and we know that these little heartaches are built from one very large heartache at the heart of it.

And oh, how the heart aches.

There is wonder and beauty and pain and I cannot recommend this story highly enough.  I've read through it three times now, twice in quick succession, and there is a hollowness inside my chest where Swirsky bored a hole and then scraped the sides. 

Read this.