I acquired 95 books in 2013.
Mac Connor is a biologist; she studies salmon migration in the nature preserves of the Pacific Northwest. (Halfway between Vancouver and Moose Poop, Nowhere.) Earth has made contact with cordial aliens, imported a bunch of alien technology, started a bunch of offworld colonies, and is generally paradisiacal. Mac's biggest problem is wrangling permission to set foot in the (highly protected) Castle Inlet Wilderness Trust, which, everybody agrees, is supposed to be a hassle.
Then a big blue alien shows up asking about her work, which puts hassle in everything. The Dhryn is cheerful and oblivious to politics, but comes with, er, blivious political handlers. They know more than they're saying. So does the Dhryn. So does the Ominous Prologue, in which a forest is melted down by green slime from outer space.
Thus, a big wacky interstellar spy story, crossed with first contact. (It's not actually first contact with the Dhryn, but they've been reticent about trading information with other species, so Mac's journey among them can indulge in first-contact tropes.) Both sides of the cross are competent and engaging. They're supported by quite excellent characters; all the stars are vivid, from workaholic Mac to her outrageous research partner Emily to the convincingly nutso crowd of academics and grad students surrounding their field base. The alien manages to be charming and funny without being human. The inevitable (human) love interest is somewhat shortchanged by being out of commission for most of the book, but he does not appear to be a jerk, which is nice.
The alien spy hijinks turn into alien spy serious problems, and the oh-shit level climbs quite high by the denoument -- melty green slime is nobody's friend. A trilogy is set up. I am up for it.
(I wondered how the Dhryn are quite so clueless about biology, but this is more or less addressed by the end.)
If you never read any of these, or if you tried the first one but bounced off the in-medias introduction, you should try Twenty Palaces. Ray Lilly got into trouble as a boy, got into more trouble as a young man, and then got into jail. Now he's out. He would like to avoid more trouble, please. His trouble-free period lasts about two hours.
The good news is, there's magic. The bad news is, I lied: magic is bad news. You can do magic the hard way, which hurts like hell and costs outrageously; or you can do it the easy way, by summoning demons that want to devour all life on the planet. I'd say "don't make a mistake if you choose the easy way," but it's pretty obvious what the mistake is there.
Anyhow, Ray attempts to free some of his friends from their mistakes. He runs into the inimitable Annalise Powliss, a hard-way sorcerer, who is also attempting to repair these mistakes -- scorched-earth style. Ray objects to this; unfortunately, it's hard to argue with Annalise's logic. Mostly because if you get in her way, she sets you on fire. Ray manages to avoid this, helps deal with the demon infestation, casts one (1) spell -- okay, two, but the second one is short-term -- and (spoiler) winds up as Annalise's "assistant". (No benefits, no salary, no life expectancy.) Thus we are set up for Child of Fire.
This is a pretty good book. The action is tense, the monsters are damn creepy, and the characters are reasonably interesting considering that they're just being introduced (and a lot of them wind up rapidly dead). If it were the first book I ran into, I'd say I'd try the next one and see if the series is solid. As it is, I can say that the series is solid; the books get stronger as you go (and we learn more about the characters and the setting). The prequel-plus-trilogy comes to a decent arc-conclusion, so you don't have to fear being left in mid-leap.
Yes, I am pushing this one. I would like people to read it, so that the author makes some money and continues writing and eventually strikes it rich and then comes back to the series. Sheesh his blog is depressing.
Then you've got eight books in two series, written earlier but set later. I haven't read those. Then Jewel's second trilogy starts. This is a problem. The author has synopses up on her web site (http://michellesagara.com/books/skirmish/) and that's fine, but reading about sixteen years of the protagonist's life isn't the same as experiencing them.
(Yes, I know what I just said.)
Jewel returns from her journey (or set of journeys) to find that The Terafin has been killed by a demon. She would prefer to put off the all-out political struggle until after the funeral is over. Good luck with that, Jewel.
I said of the Elantra series: "it alternates between esoteric discussions about magical theory and incredibly uncomfortable social interactions. Occasionally they're the same thing." The description applies equally to this series. (Yes, I should have included "rampaging magical catastrophes" as the third element. But the discussions occur during those too.) Jewel, like Kaylin, has magical talents not matched by (but also not matching) the older, wiser, more studied mages around her. Like Kaylin, she works on instinct; her role in catastrophes is "does the right thing at the right time."
(Which is why the social interactions are important! A character who just walks into a tidal wave or a faerie court or a demon-tree or a whatever, and walks out covered with roses and sparkles -- repeat per chapter -- is not a protagonist. She's a Mary-Sue-oid or, at best, an allegory. Both Jewel and Kaylin have to do things they're not good at; usually people things, like office politics or hiring spies or not pissing off someone who can breathe fire on you.)
(Also, they have to figure out why what they did was right. That's where the esoteric discussions come in.)
Kaylin works for me, because her beat-cop life grounds her. Young Jewel worked for me in the first trilogy; her struggle to survive with her den played the same role. Adult Jewel is almost working for me, and I don't think the author has slipped; I think I missed Jewel growing up. Her concerns as a Terafin House member and Council member are as valid as her long-ago street concerns, but I don't have a handle on them.
At the same time, I don't feel like reading eight books to catch up. So much the worse for me, and I will struggle through.
Tangential and possibly pointless complaint: there are talking cats. I also complained about the talking ferrets in Kari Sperring's latest book. (Although, it turns out, I was wrong in guessing that Sperring keeps ferrets.) I don't know. I have liked talking cats in other books. Tanya Huff writes a hell of a talking cat. Kit's dog Ponch is terrific. Jewel's talking cats, I do not like. Maybe I'm over this trope. Maybe I'm just in a bad mood this year.
They're not annoying -- I mean, they're annoying the way cats are, but that's not annoying to read. They even do some interesting things. (Sometimes in non-cat-like ways; sometimes in extremely cat-like ways.) I just kept thinking, "Why did it have to be cats? They could have been people. Or rocks. Or anything that isn't a cute fuzzy animal that readers like."
Crap, I am in a bad mood this year. Go ahead, enjoy the cats. Don't mind me. I'll be smirking about the fact that Jewel also has a pet stag and a pet elf-warrior, and they're not remotely cute or fuzzy.
I'm not reading this series for the plot. The stories effectively stand alone. (Whether the author wants them to tie together or not; they've all been about different things so far; I have no idea what the series plot is, really.) I just like the way that space opera plays with quasi-RenFair diction with spy thriller mixed in. (I shouldn't say "RenFair", that makes it sound like everybody is forsoothing incorrectly. Which is not what's going on. Mabinogion-Fair?) Anyhow, everybody is having such a good time in these books that I can't stop.
Everyone then spends a satisfying number of pages chasing around after the mysterious murderer. The book's cover shows Martian tripods devastating their way along, so you may presume that aliens are involved. It's good old-fashioned pulp of all flavors -- assassins, assignations, monsters, sewer chases, airships -- circling (as all spy-story pulp should) around the mirror-hall of shadows which is loyalty among spies. The book's epigraph, of course, is from Kipling's Kim.
I won't even try to list the literary references which I noted in passing (because I only noted them in my head) (because writing them down would have eaten a lot of paper, and would not have been the point anyhow).
Do we get a grand explanation of how an alternate history came to be full of Holmeses, Foggs, Jeckylls, Westenras, Frankensteins, and so on? (Not to mention the Stokers, Houdinis, Babbages, and Mrs Beetons flipped into international spies and politicians.) Well -- no. I still think the author has something specific in mind, given the centrality of the Bookman and its copying ways. But it's not a big-reveal book; nor is it a one-grand-scheme sort of trilogy. It's a book (and trilogy) which winds its schtick to the highest pitch and then lets it sail off into the Paris skyline. As it were.
I like that the aliens have senses of humor, and agendas, and do not regard humans as either yokels or incomprehensible marvels. (In the last book, the Dhryn were worrisomely ignorant of biology and how to deal with other species. As expected, this turns out to be a relevant peculiarity of their culture. Everyone else has good interspecies manners. When we see another alien get all offended about some Earth thing and run off, we're supposed to read it as strange -- and, indeed, it is.)
In this volume, we are reminded that the Barrani are really not human. Barrani architecture is also not human, but it is opinionated. And I appreciated the tension between Teela, Kaylin's drinking buddy since book one, and Teela, the immortal Barrani Lord who has been watching the mortal world for centuries.
Note that this book, unlike the previous ones, is not a standalone. It seems to be part-one-of-two. (The series still has episodic pacing, but this begins a two-parter.) So when you start to run out of pages and the ceremony hasn't started yet, don't be surprised.
Maybe the author has said this explicitly somewhere, but if not, I'll infer it: Kaylin Neya is an attempt to build every single Mary Sue trope into a character, but as narrative strengths, not indulgences. Let us list: she has unique healing magic; she has two hot guys lurking after her (one human, one immortal); she is explicitly The Chosen One. In the first few books she is acclaimed a Lord of the High Court, an elementalist mage, and gains friends, allies, and roommates from every powerful faction in the Empire. In this book, to nearly round out the list, she gains a magic fire lizard. Okay? Point made.
No, point taken: this is, like every other element in Kaylin's plot arc, a hazard (initially); a responsibility (ultimately); and sometimes a benefit (occasionally, never reliably). All of these fantastic things are indeed fantastic, but the stories aren't about how fantastic they are; the stories are about how hard they are.
(The one missing element is violet or silver eyes. Most of the non-human races in Elantra have awesome color-changing eyes already, though, which makes it hard to work in for Kaylin. Maybe there will be some further magical disaster which mucks up her eye color. If so, it will hurt like hell and then turn out to mortally insult someone dangerous.)
The bum turns out to be an arrogant bastard even when he's blind. He claims to be in the middle of a high-stakes poker game -- for the city -- where sending eyeball-ripping fairies against your opponents is just the sort of light-hearted table manners that makes poker fun. And while he's growing his eyes back, would Billy Fox mind keeping his seat warm? He can pay well, if Billy wins.
Magic plus poker means comparing to Tim Powers. (Magic plus spies also means comparing to Tim Powers, as does magic plus pirates, magic plus Romantic poets, magic plus Cold War spies... okay, Tim Powers is hot shit. This review is not about Tim Powers, however. Let me start over.)
The author tells an excellent poker story. He's not nearly as comfortable telling an urban fantasy story. The opening scene is full of awkward infodumping and "let me explain about magic" speeches -- from someone who is supposed to be an arrogant bastard demigod. It all feels very shoehorned in to be an opening scene. The magic is too often conveyed in dialogue, not in reactions and assumptions and the way things are seen. (Which is, of course, what Tim Powers excels at.)
It's a pity, because once we get to the poker game, everything flows smoothly. The table jargon feels natural and there's plenty of context to clue in the non-poker-adept reader. We can play poker with Billy Fox; he doesn't have to explain it.
(I am a non-poker-adept reader, but as far as my knowledge runs, the poker in this book is good. I particularly appreciated that the tournament is not decided by James-Bond-style crazy hands -- the straight flushes and etc -- but by having the three-of-a-kind or two-pair when the other guy doesn't.)
There is plenty of magic mixed in with the cards. Our hero learns some tricks as the tournament runs on; he spends as much time running around the city dealing with, you know, deals as he does sitting at the table. The scenes get a little smoother, or maybe I just got used to the style. To be clear, the stuff that happens is all pretty cool. I'm not objecting to the author's sense of drama, just to the way he presents it. I also object to the repeated use of the "I explained to my friend what we were going to do" narrative-palming trick.
If the author can manage to steer his fantasy elements with the same aplomb as his poker, he will have some good books ahead. I assumed while reading that Richard Lee Byers is a first-time author. This turns out not to be true -- he's mostly been writing D&D tie-ins, which is why I didn't recognize the name -- but I hope he continues adapting to urban fantasy.
In this case, the juicy bit is the antagonist -- the Sun King, avatar of the Summer of Love, now back and cranky at the world for screwing it all up. That's got some heft, as a premise. Everything else is same-old.
(Although, for some reason, the traditional first-chapter case stretches to a third of the book. Green couldn't work enough stuff into his A-plot? Maybe he should have been doing short stories all along.)
I read this just prior to Incrementalists, so I suppose it was foolish for me to waste the phrase "strange, low-key book" on Brust/White. This is a strange book. And low-key, as well, if only because that adjective is so often paired with "haunting".
More than thirty years ago, I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I'm sure I re-read it, perhaps twenty years back? But it was written in 1960, so Colin, the boy protagonist, might be in his sixties today. He might be a radio astronomer, poking at the heavens, and having the occasional spell of -- well, he's getting along, isn't he.
In another life, a man paints the wall of a cave. Words thick as cream.
I don't think one needs to revisit the earlier Alderley books to read this one. They're connected but that isn't the point -- or it wasn't the point to me, who hasn't revisited them.
The point is to wander between a sharp, self-aware, self-sufficient man who fears he's losing himself, and a shaman who fears that the sun will never rise again and the world be drowned in ice.
Neither is comfortable. When the Director says "Your vision could take us to our next understanding", I do not know whether the author thinks of radio telescopy as still of the 1940s, when lone eccentrics mapped the skies in their back yards... or whether the Director is comforting a senescent with lies... or whether Colin is dreaming it all regardless. It's that sort of book.
(Bonus note for IF fans: if you ever want the experience of lighting a kerosene Tilley lamp -- what you think of as "the brass lantern" -- it's in here. Not as visceral as the claustrophobic cave crawl, but perhaps as canonical.)
This is, in fact, an epic fantasy story told by the comedy sidekick. His first act is to steal a giant, who is set up as the comedy sidekick, but there is unsurprisingly more to him.
The setting is also pretty good; medieval-Euro fantasy, but Mediterranean, distinctly Spanish, with an El Cid flavor. No, it's not a Guy Kay history riff, and there's no religious/cultural backstory at all (conqueror wants power, is all). But it has a better, or at least more convincing, eye for battlefield tactics than most medieval-Euro fantasy. On the other hand, minus one point for the extremely McGuffiny talisman.
Sequel exists; haven't decided whether to get it.
Marius Helles is a thief, a liar, and currently hard up for cash. That's why he's picking over battlefield corpses for rings, gold teeth, and spare change, accompanied by his not-too-bright apprentice Gerd. Unfortunately, the remaining soldiers notice them. Ten minutes later, Gerd is disemboweled and Marius is... in the Land of the Dead.
Turns out the dead want something. They want a king. They send Marius back upstairs to beg, borrow, or -- more plausibly -- steal one.
This book has the juice. Marius is a classic sarcastic bastard, but he's also been through deep crap, of which he deserves a precisely-calculated 66.7 percent. The narration careens between gleeful sarcasm and honest melancholy, on top of the rapid-fire disaster that is Marius's life. Every so often, to keep you on your toes, something genuinely creepy happens. I shall not list examples, not even in my usual elliptical way, because it's just too much fun reading the book.
I want to do a game where the screen is this maze of crystal facets, and each time you touch one it reflects light differently and reveals parts of a story. Stories. (The Crystal is cracked, all the stories are mazed and multiplied in reflection.) As you progress you find tokens (the flute, the shard, the orrery) that cause more of the crystal to light up. Yes, this is a gimmick but with good artwork it would be intense -- you'd want a 3D space of reflective planes, not just a flat static diagram.
(Late update: the official Dark Crystal website is running some sort of contest to find a tie-in novel author. I suppose I could email them and offer my services as a famous-ish game designer. If I weren't totally behind in all my current game design projects argghh.)
It starts out with a sort of latter-day-cyberpunk, updated-PKD style, with a hired, memory-hacked assassin sneaking through airport security in a decaying, overly-restrictive, decaying world government. Did I mention decaying? Apparently the world just sort of beat itself up for the first half of the 21st century, with terrorists and religious factional wars and civil wars and resource exhaustion, and now everything sucks. The author makes a great point of saying how science is being abandoned and technology is in retreat; he doesn't show it, but he talks about it a lot.
For the first third of the book, nothing happens. The assassin sits around his hotel and reconnoiters, as the author delivers canned history lecture after canned history lecture. Then we find out who manipulated, or rather invented, his mission and memory: a pair of super-powered reality-hacking twins who are living in the same hotel. This plot twist is not as well-handled as it sounds.
From here the storyline shifts over to delivering hallucinatory quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo. I am, to be sure, sometimes up for a good mumbo jumboing! But it works best in small doses. Climactic scenes. This book just doesn't let up. And it's delivered in the breathless, importunate, exhausting tone of a die-hard crackpot filling up his very first 1990s web site.
(I'd quote some choice paragraphs, and you'd laugh at them, but they wouldn't convey the experience of entire chapters of woo-woo scrolling past.)
I don't mean to imply that the author believes this stuff. I haven't read his other books. Maybe he's doing a brilliant job of inventing a lunatic, techno-eschatological worldview for his book. Maybe he writes down exactly what the voices in his head tell him to. I don't care. It goes over the top on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, it's damnably tedious, and if anything happens I couldn't muster the energy to pick it out of the fireworks.
(Interest: the protagonist's last name is Plotkin. I wondered if this would affect my reading experience, but it didn't.)
Decent reading, but not enough to get me back into buying comics regularly. The first year consists of Hal Jordan and Sinestro chewing on each other's asses while dealing with a crisis on Sinestro's home planet. This was good stuff, with Jordan trying to get Sinestro to take him seriously and Sinestro utterly failing to bother; followed by Sinestro wanting to be a hero to his people, and that doesn't go so well either.
Then issue 13 started a new storyline (and the "Muslim GL" arc that I vaguely remember making waves last year). This seemed decent, but it was a lot of history-of-the-universe material ("ten billion years earlier", the First Lantern, etc) and I only get into that if I can go out and slurp up every hint of relevant source material. Which I won't do with a 75-year-old comic series. I don't even want to get into "New Guardians" or "Green Lantern Corps", which appear to be bouncing this story arc back and forth with "Green Lantern". Multithreaded narrative is cool and all, but again, not unless I can follow it all.
So I am ending this experiment and going back to buying occasional comic miniserieses. Mostly ones by Warren Ellis, or by webcomics authors who I do read regularly.
I think this series is best read in close proximity. I remembered everybody from the first book, after the book reintroduced them, but I had trouble remembering what everybody in the first book was doing. Ah well. Third book has been turned in, according to the author. If you want to speed-gulp the series you can probably do it next year sometime. If you want to wallow in awesome bits right now, you can do that.
Our buddy Marius ("hero" would be too strong a word) has come home, made up with his pissed-off old flame, and settled down to an honest life with the woman he loves. Of course he is bored crapless. Fortunately, in some sense, the dead rise up and drag the woman he loves away into the underworld. The dead also stab Marius through the chest. This doesn't slow him down like it would most people -- he's got some experience being dead himself -- but it's no way to make friends.
With kidnapping and murder as an opener, matters quickly get desperate, and they stay that way. Marius winds up running around the continent, as he did last book, but this time it's not because he's been shanghai'd into a whimsical quest. He's trying to prevent a disaster -- and it's kind of his fault. And Keth is pissed at him again, and she's not wrong either...
What I find interesting here -- aside from the deft stake-raising from farce to catastrophe -- is that this a distinctly unromantic book. That's unusual in fantasy, and I don't just mean "genre romance is taking over". This is a story where magic will not turn up at the end to make everything right; nor will the gods, the Force, or the force of a happy ending. It's all down on Marius -- and Marius, despite some unusual talents, is not omnipotent. Therefore, not to be spoilery, but the ending is kind of grim. I'd say "realistically grim", but this is a world where the dead get up and walk.
(Oh, gah, I've just made it sound like a zombie apocalypse novel. No. Farthest thing from the author's mind.)
This is also (I'm certain this is the same theme), a distinctly agnostic book. I won't go into details, because that would be spoilery. But I'll say that this might just be a "grand evocation of rationality" in a way that other authors have flailed at.
(What is it about comedy writers that they do humanism so well?)
(Yes, I said "tootin'". On purpose. Cue groans.)
The setting, if you've missed every other review and comment, is the railsea: a vast trackless waste of flat ground, only it's not trackless because it's covered with railroad tracks. They snarl, they knot, they go nowhere and everywhere in every which direction. Nobody knows why. But to go anywhere in this world (between the "islands" and "continents" that jut up above the railsea) you need a train.
No, you can't walk. The carnivorous moles and giant antlions and burrowing blood-rabbits will getcha.
Upon this outre concept rides the mole-hunting train Medes, upon which rides the young apprentice Sham ap Soorap, among a crew of hardened molers with satisfyingly gonzo names like "Danjamin Benightly" and "Boyza Go Mbenday". Soon they will discover a wrecked locomotive which carries a secret that will send them to... adventures. Really, what did you expect? And there will be a giant white mole -- well, ivory-colored -- okay, yellow, if you insist.
It's not played the way you expect, though. Mieville (and I have to wonder whether this book was written just because people kept misspelling his name) would rather move his story along than hit you over the head with Moby Dick parallels. Oh, they're there -- he just doesn't feel the need to take them all that seriously. And the end of the world, that's not taken all that seriously either. I mean, it's there, you can't ignore it. But.
Railsea reminds me of George Alec Effinger, and not just the scene where Effinger rolled the Great Plains flat and Teflon-coated them into the world's largest Modern Kitchen Range of the Future. Mieville attains that gentle White-Knightish balance of whimsy and sorrow. Or finality and hope and resolution. Alternate future and alternate past. Oh, just go read it.
(Some of these tips are nifty examples of "turning the knobs" on thought experiments, creating variants with different intuitive consequences. Others are simple rules of thumb: if a philosopher uses "surely" or "arguably" in a sentence, watch out!)
After the introductory bits, Dennett starts applying these arguments to his standard topics: evolution, free will, and consciousness. He's still exercising arguments to see how well they stand up, but he's doing it as part of a pocket tour of these pet topics. Which is fine; there's been a lot of back-and-forth in the field since I read Godel Escher Bach and it's good to keep up to date.
Inevitably, there's a lot of "my thought experiments are interesting and my opponents' are broken". Dennett tries not to be a jerk about this -- he prefers to poke holes in his critics' certainties without claiming to be certain about his own beliefs -- but these are his topics, and he's opinionated. (Interest: I agree with Dennett's opinions about all this stuff.) For what it's worth, he's also assiduous about referencing both sides of each debate.
I found the thing extremely readable. The book is organized in lots of tiny chapters, each focussing on one point or example of argument. If Dennett's previous books on consciousness and evolution seemed like unscalable walls of text, I'd recommend trying this one. If you're already a Dennett fan, this book will be a quick read with a few interesting updates on the familiar arguments.
Short, readable, punchy, and unpleasant. Let me be clear. There has been some sort of hard-crash apocalypse; nuclear at least ("a minute outdoors is a day less to live") and probably biological as well (not a cockroach or blade of grass in sight). Our "hero" knows nothing of this, nor anything else, including why he is paralyzed from the waist down. On the up side, he is mysteriously immune to radiation sickness. The people who are waking him from cold storage know this, and need him to do them a favor -- outdoors -- despite his handicap.
It doesn't end well. Doesn't start very well, for that matter. The protagonist tries to strangle the first person he sees (on instinct), and has little control over his destiny thereafter. What decisions he does make are wrong. We wind up with few answers and no happy ending in sight, unless you count a few strands of regenerating algae in a stream. If you're okay with that sort of story, I recommend the book -- the telling is compelling. If you're like me, you'll close the book and wish you'd never opened it, while being reluctantly impressed anyhow.
This is SF-realist high-tech space opera, of the type that Greg Egan and Iain M. Banks write -- which is obviously a wide range of writing. This example tilts heavily towards the Egan side, although the long technical digressions aren't quite as opaque and the characters aren't quite as stilted. If you're old enough to have a stereotype of "Analog Mafia SF", this is it.
The writing itself is quite bouncy and charming (unlike Egan!) and this drew me in at first. It's a multicultural galactic setting, high-tech but not post-scarcity, with lots and lots of very non-human aliens (described in loving detail). On the planet of No-Moon, a bunch of neo-Neanderthal traders and sentient-coral sailors become concerned about an incoming interstellar invasion force. Or rather, missionary fleet. Cosmic Unity is the nicest possible religion, based on principles of materialism and universal tolerance, so that's reassuring, right?
Sadly, this is all an excuse for an Idea Story about evolution and memes, which couldn't have been that groundbreaking even when the book was published (2004). That's spiced up with an Evil Repressive Fundamentalist Church Story -- which has not been groundbreaking since the first flush of genre fantasy in the 1970s.
(I'm not questioning whether Repressive Fundamentalist Churches can be Evil, good grief, no. I'm just saying that ripping aside the curtain and saying "Look! They're torturing people and saying it's for the good of their souls!" wore out its shock value sometime in the first Deryni trilogy.)
The Evil Church winds up in a struggle with some sentient coral masterminds who are not, in the event, particularly nicer to hang around with. The human-scale characters should serve as a moral counterbalance, but they mostly spend their time watching the doom and destruction, because morality is irrelevant to galactic-scale political collisions. This is the problem with SF-realist high-tech space opera.
The philosophy is pat, the evolutionary science is pat (albeit generally accurate, credit there), and the space opera doom is wrapped up in a tidy pat ending. A competently constructed example of what it is, but I can't point to anything to recommend it.
Unlike most urban fantasy, this is outright horror. The protagonists are way out of their league, ass-deep in nightmares. They're all damaged in everyday life to begin with (again, unlike Aaronovitch's innocent-bystander-cop characters) and the supernatural goes right for the weak spots. I don't read a lot of pure horror but this is what it does well -- character portrayal via firewalk. So, definitely disturbing in places, but a great start to a series.
What we get is our four protagonists -- now Marcus, Cithrin, Geder, and Clara Kalliam -- struggling each with their own pieces of a war. They all suffer damage. They all achieve some triumph despite the damage... except maybe Geder. Or maybe that is a bit of triumph after all. If so, Geder is so, so very hosed. But we knew that.
Wow, trying to review these books has turned into a choice between "recount the plot" and "talk about Geder". Let's talk about Geder. I wish I knew whether he was the best character portrait in modern fantasy or a cheap trick. I wish I knew this because it is so, so easy to see myself in him -- and I am prone to the belief that I am a cheap trick. Then he goes and plans some monstrosity with the same mildly satisfied air of any all-we-have-to-do-is social schemer -- you've read fannish political discussions, you know the type -- and raises his voice a bit to be heard over the screaming. Then he mentions the gaping holes in his life without even noticing that they're holes, and it is wrenching all over again. So yeah, the author has managed to garner my sympathy for a character that I swore would never get it.
Crap, Geder is a response to Ender Wiggin, isn't he. I'll have to think about this more. I still think his ultimate fate in the series is to be capable of learning better. Then he'll do something fractionally heroic and get killed without anybody ever finding out. That's my prediction. If it was worth anything, I'd be writing the books.
I was right about the uncertainty-of-history riff, though. Hoo boy. Watch for the kids playing Chinese Whispers ("Telephone") -- it's an unsubtle position statement. This, too, is humanist fantasy, only without the whimsy or the faith in forward social progress. And faith in a benevolent king-by-divine-right is obviously going onto the chopping block next volume. (The god-kings of this history are the dragons, and I hope you don't want them back.) So... Abraham better pull something optimistic out of his hat. I hope. Won't be until book five, though, so the next one will be grim.
PS: Yardem Hane -- too awesome to live, or too awesome to be real? In the context of this series, the question scares me.
My extremely clever parabiological theory remains unsupported by the text. Ah well. Since I've been slyly alluding to it for four reviews now, I might as well dish: I believe that, in this series, human "souls" (consciousness) are just another species of demon, low on the magic scale but co-evolved to inhabit hairless apes. Maybe this will be the shocking revelation in book ten, who knows.
The Fell are an impressive brand of antagonist, precisely because they're not mad-cackling villains; they're just all sociopaths. They lie to get what they want, and then stab you in the back or the face, and never a moment of guilt or shame or empathy. Call it one-note if you like -- it's the opposite of "heroes of their own story" -- but it's damn creepy and rarely done in the genre.
(Belated note: It's very cool that this trilogy is, more or less, a romance -- set in a culture that does not contain "love" as a concept. Nor does the story lean on raging hormones as an excuse.)
For the first half of the book I kept waiting for the protagonist(s) to solve the clues so that they could get into the story. Then it was clear that this would never happen, and the book would end with some final clue Revealing Something, fade out. Just so. But with enough depth to make a satisfying read.
Mr Edgar Nevett sends a note around with an offer: he thinks his family silver is cursed. Ned Mathey has no fondness for the Nevett family, but money is money, and there's probably no curse anyhow. In fact there isn't. Except two days later a silver candlestick flies across the room and bashes Nevett's brains out. Mathey drops by his old schoolmate (and old flame) Julian Lynes, who knows more about detectivizing than magic, and it's off to the murdery races.
Structurally this is cozy rather than noir; the protagonists are on the professional end of things, and the police inspector who's actually in charge of murder investigation rather likes them. Also there's a cozy big gay romance. Altogether I thought the authors went easy on them, but then in a family-feud murder mystery there's plenty of angst and suffering to go around.
Not as good as the "Points" books, but acceptable if you're impatient for Fair's Point to come along.
Here, however, is an ancient (1967, fifty-cent) paperback, fallen into my grasp. Being a pulp-ish novel of the old days, it's short (150 pages). The cover (Frazetta, very faded) shows a guy with a pointy hat facing down some kind of green man-bat monster which is awkwardly holding a spear. (Bats sort of have hands...) Worth a shot?
Absolutely! I open the book and bam, it's an Amsir hunt. Must've in the old days, a writer knew how to bag you in the first page -- because they were giants who walked the earth, or because he only had 149 more to work in? Who knows. But the Amsir, the monster, is sparely described ("graceful as a goblin bride") and then we meet Honor White Jackson, who chases it under his pointy hat. The hat is crucial. So is the hunt, the Hon -- "Honor" is a job title -- and the Hon will last one short chapter, after which you will have to unlearn some of what you picked up in those seven pages. After the second short chapter, you'll have to unlearn the rest of it. The plot continues turning over completely every couple of chapters thereafter.
I'm not sure this is a novel. (It was originally a magazine serial.) It certainly has no regard for novelistic convention; Honor White Jackson (not called that for long) is not after the respect of his brother, the love of the girl next door, or any sort of narrative closure. He's too smart for that. (The barbarian with a pointy stick, by the way, is a Genius Protagonist; always a step ahead; rendered with no flourish and dead convincing. Try and keep up.)
By the end, Jackson (and we) have travelled between planets, dealt with technology and a post-scarcity society that would fit absolutely undated in a Banks Culture novel, been on reality TV, and gained -- again, I'm not sure. The chance to tell his story, I guess is the point. Or be the butt of the joke. Whatever works.
Randall Garrett once made a pun about an "algae buttress", so we know that much.
I did not much get into this one, and I suspect I wouldn't have done better if I'd started at the beginning. There's worldbuilding, there's psionic machination, a starship gets piloted a little bit; it's okay in a technicolor 80s sort of way. But I was never a fan of Catherine Asaro either.
I feel like the author was primarily interested in his alchemical physics; the quintessence, how it works, how it interacts with everything. The rest of the plot was added so that he could keep playing with sulfur and mercury -- added piecewise, I suspect. When the good doctor's strained marriage and tragic backstory weren't enough to keep the travelogue-with-alchemy in gear, we got a headstrong daughter, an impromptu scientific society, a first-contact story, and the Inquisition. In some order. The plot threads keep crowding each other out; the alchemy is what sticks around, which is why I say it's the author's favorite.
Yes, I've written IF this way -- fair enough. At least in the game domain, I can keep your interest by letting you play with the quintessence. When my various plot threads aren't solid enough, people call me on it, and I'm calling this book on it. Nothing's terrible, and I got to the end in good order, but nothing in the story is quite fully-assed, either.
Furthermore: you know I said I was sick of the Evil Repressive Fundamentalist Church Story? Bringing in the actual Spanish Inquisition does not reconcile me to the trope.
The blurb begins: "Analogy is the core of all thinking." The authors then unload some 600 pages of support for this thesis, somehow making it both too vaguely general to be interesting and too pedantically detailed to be compelling. Hofstadter has finally written a boring book. I am sad to see the day.
The point is basically to identify analogies as being not just a literary device, but the way we categorize the world into concepts in our heads. "That's kind of like (X), in that (Y) acts like (Z), except..." A concept is a category -- not necessarily a category of things, but perhaps a category of situations or relations. (Even a lego-block word like "and" can be considered as denoting a category; contrast its uses with those of its near-synonym "but".) And what is a category but a bunch of things like each other in some way? --thus, analogies.
The authors go into mountainous detail: analogies behind single words, behind phrases and idioms, underlying our unconscious perception of the world, twisted in conscious wordplay; analogies discovered by children learning; analogies employed in creative work and scientific discovery. Analogies, analogies, analogies. Examples are deployed in battalions.
I feel that, for all the breadth and detail (and page count), there's not much depth here. If you're interested in the brief description of the Copycat toy problem ("abc->abd"), you'll really want to read Hofstadter's earlier Fluid Concepts (1995), which gets down into models and algorithms. If you're interested in how concepts translate between English and French (the book takes the opportunity to investigate its own construction), well, there was his 1997 book about translation. This book has a nice summary of the intuitive concepts that led Einstein to revolutionize physics in 1905 -- but if you're really into that, you'd want to read a book about Einstein, not this half-chapter.
It's not unreadable; there are points of interest. I like the definition of intelligence (both in the smart-people and AI-goal sense) as "the ability to pick out salient concepts" (or, if you like, to put new experiences into relevant categories). That feels nice and general, and the book provides a good base of support for it.
But nothing here is all that compelling. Or challenging. I guess if you're a Platonist then it's world-wrenching heresy, but I spent most of the book saying "Sure, no problem." If analogies are taken so broadly as to cover any kind of concept, then yes, analogies underlie all thinking. If all you have are tools, then everything starts to look like tool use.
Duane does what she likes to do, which is take a cheesy SF setting and put honest-to-serious human beings in it. (See also, her Trek novels.) Cmdr Jonelle Barrett runs an X-COM defense base -- she runs it well. This means paying attention to logistics and budgeting. (True to the game mechanics!) Then trouble arrives, and the book alternates between air assaults, ground assaults, and tourism in Swiss villages. The tourism is the best part, and yes, it is relevant to the plot. I'd say this was intensively researched, except that the research obviously consisted of going on Swiss vacations as often as humanly possible, and I suspect Duane was doing that anyhow. (According to her blog, as I write this, she's wandering around the Breisgau.)
There are Swiss cattle farmers. You know how aliens like to abduct and mutilate cattle? The author has fun with this.
It doesn't add up to much -- it feels like a pilot episode to a series that never materialized -- but if you're a Duane completist it's worth grabbing. Except you probably can't find it; the rights are owned by Microprose and I'm sure they're buried in a box somewhere. Sigh.
This is billed as a space opera, but it's really a formal mystery -- not a murder mystery, but the mystery of an epic fraud. Krina bounces along a trail of clues and odd jobs, from scholar to starship janitor to financial buccaneer (Monty Python gags firmly in place) to police consultant to mermaid. The epic scope of What Really Happened becomes clear in fits and starts; and for this to make sense, Krina has to explain lots and lots of background. The book must be 50% infodump by weight. The introductory epigraph is from Graeber's Debt; take this as fair warning.
To be clear, this worked for me; I found the world-background (and the core economic mystery) to be at least as interesting as the story which props it up. I suspect this puts me in the same boat as the author and Paul Krugman. If you're in some other boat, the book will probably bore you snotless. We get a nice depiction of a bitcoin-style economy (with a good reason for why it's used). We get a model for interstellar trade. We get a clear view of "artificial nature" (not by that name, but it's the explanation that Karl Schroeder never managed to assemble). We get a vindictive slander of Amazon.com. As you know, Bob, I've been wanting all of those things, so I was happy.
This is a story of familiar outline, and it does a satisfactory job of it. Unfortunately the London urban-fantasy scene has a lot of competition these days, and this book doesn't do a whole lot to stand out. The use of the (too weird to be fictional) Quit Rents ceremony of London is a nice touch. The use of the "climactic legal challenge that all Fey are bound to" trope is a tediously cliched touch. In between are Niall's relationship with his ex-wife, his daughter, and the romance subplot -- those are decently done. The author is deft with secondary characters; in fact, I think I liked most of them more than the protagonists. So, a mixed recommendation.
(We also hear, offhandedly, that the Soviets grabbed Von Braun; cosmonauts are heading for the Moon. The US is busy with some kind of Civil War 2, in case you're curious.)
Our heroes' personal lives are going as badly as the global political situation. "Fortunately", these lives are all disrupted (once again) by Gretel, the scariest little supervillain -- not "Nazi supervillain", because she is clearly uninterested in anybody's agenda but her own. We finally start to see what that agenda is. (Knowing doesn't make us feel better.) We also figure out who Scarface was in the previous book. And everything goes well and truly to hell, with one teeny line of hope picked out of the strands of history by Gretel's precognitive talent.
The author is juggling many threads here. I found that I had to return to the first book and skim chapters to get a good picture. I appreciate this level of detail, but I would strongly recommend marathoning this series rather than spreading it out. Yes, I will probably buy book 3 immediately, rather than waiting for the paperback... if only to find out how much nasty crap the author can sling at the protagonists in the course of a nominally happy ending. Seriously: these are great books, but you have to get a kick out of despair.
The book is based on an obscure murder ballad -- rather, on a modern reconstruction of it. (The period ballad, "The Famous Flower of Serving-Men", doesn't have much of a plot.) William Flower, a nicely-turned-out young man of no declared birth, stumbles out of a storm into the King's castle, declaring that he's looking for a job.
We then flip to the tower of a sorceress, Lady Margaret, who is arranging to have a household slaughtered by mercenary bandits. This turns out to be a flashback. (The book is plagued by poorly-marked flashbacks; I often had to chew through several pages before figuring out that somebody was the wrong age.) There is necromancy and kinslaying afoot, not to mention crossdressing, poorly-managed invasions, and the bitter disillusionment of teenage crushes.
The storyline adheres to Martin Carthy's recording strictly, in its main points -- except for the ending, which goes for realistic awkwardness rather than fairy-tale pat. I wish more of the storyline had done that. The ballad plot beats feel forced, and the "real" plot is a lot of reaction and secondary characters dancing around while waiting for the big ballad climax. The big climax is not, in fact, a genre-fantasy battle between William and Margaret -- I'm not saying it should be -- but maybe some kind of conflict would have served the novel? William barely does anything.
One could argue that this whole book is a slice-of-life portrayal of William in Cyngesbury, while in the background news reports roll in of Margaret slowly but surely shooting herself in the foot. Neither is particularly novelistic.
Positives: the life that we see sliced is realistically medieval, as far as I can tell. I'm no expert, but it felt like period idiom, period points of view, and period dirty jokes. Also, no cheap fantasy-cliche (or romance-cliche) conflicts driving the plot. Negatives: as noted above, not much driving the plot at all.
It's worth noting that Margaret, explicitly an Evil Witch (plots murder, spreads plague, summons demons from Hell, not a lot of ambiguity there), is not treated as evil in her half of the story. The narration follows her plaguing and murdering attempts with the same dispassionate focus as William's... well, William's attempts to run a kitchen and keep people from falling in love with him. (Really, that's his primary goal. You see why I keep squinting at the plot.) Anyhow, I was impressed by this narrative balance at first, but I eventually decided it wasn't good for anything; Margaret's foot winds up shot and that's the end. She is not even the heroine of her own story. Best I can say about it.
(I will be stuck on an interstate bus for many hours in the near future. This may prompt re-evaluation.)
Emma Donahoe is Australian, teaching young kids English-as-a-second-language in Hong Kong. Her best gig is as a part-time nanny for the extremely adorable daughter of the extremely rich (and handsome) John Chen. The "and handsome" part is going to come up a lot, because this is a romance, no question.
The gimmick is that Chen is a mythological figure, the Black Tortoise of the North. He is stuck in human form because of plot reasons, and steadily weakening. Demons are on his case. He is trying to survive long enough for his (extremely adorable) half-human daughter to reach her majority before he vanishes in a puff of chi. Emma gets to figure this out while waltzing around with a large cast of secondary characters, including Chen's bodyguard, demons, the goddess Kwan Yin, dragons, etc, etc.
The book is good when it is showing off life in modern Hong Kong. This is a society I know practically nothing about, and it appears here in detail. (Emma spends as much time going out with her human friends as she does in Chinese-mythology-land.) It is also good when Emma, Chen, and the little girl interact as a semi-family. They all tease each other in appropriate adult and little-girl ways; it's genuinely a lot of fun.
The book is not so good when it starts rolling the romance-ball down the romance track. It's all inconsolable longings and intense angst (Emma and John cannot touch because plot reasons, except when they can). Then Emma turns out to be a natural super-hot-shot at martial arts, dismantling demons and firing off magic-chi-missiles; my eyes rolled audibly. There is some kind of supernatural explanation hinted, and I'm sure the sequels will hammer out the details, but this sort of thing does not motivate me to read them.
The supernatural stuff itself comes off rather humdrum. Not in a tantalizing "hidden depths below reality" way, but just sort of bland. I think the author has cool stuff in mind, but her style doesn't do it for me. (Insufficient reaction shown from Emma's naive point of view?) If this winds up as movies, I'd go see them.
Also, I don't know why the demons don't buy guns. Shoot the humans, take the girl. Yes, this is supposed to be martial-arts schtick, but still.
An extra-special mixed-bag point goes for Leo, the bodyguard. He is American, enormous, ugly, black, gay, and a hot-shot at martial arts (though not, of course, as awesome as Emma once she gets going). He's a great character, except the author drops in an AIDS plot thread, because -- why? Tragic gay characters with AIDS are back in style? I hope not.
In addition to Kelly the PA, we get return engagements of the Tribe (the thematic opposites of the Fay from Neon Court); Dr. Seah; and, inevitably, ultimately, the Midnight Mayor himself. (The blue electric angels turn up much earlier, which is not good news for anybody.) Plus of course the gang from the first Anonymous book. You might think the series is getting a little claustrophobic -- except that there are serious hints of moral screwed-ness bubbling up under the farce and occasional romance. The Midnight Mayor is supposed to be the necessary blade of cleansing fire... but this is not his series and "necessary" is a lot more unsettling when the sane/likeable characters carry it. Not sure where this is going but I think I'm going to enjoy it.
Tara Abernathy, witch in training, is thrown out of school for unspecified offenses. This is a serious punishment when the school is a magical city floating a thousand feet in the air. You could also look at it as a sink-or-splat graduation test. She does not splat, of course, and winds up as assistant to Ms. Kevarian, partner of the magical concern Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao. Ms. Kevarian is dealing with an unfortunate situation in the city of Alt Coulumb. Ms. Abernathy has one chance to prove herself competent.
The book has a very nifty take on theological engineering. It's rather the fantasy take on Debt, although I assure you there's way more plot and less lecturing than Neptune's Brood had. In fact the magic is all deft, dense, and creepy while never distracting from the story; think P.C. Hodgell if the Kencyr all wore pinstripe business suits. Without being any less scary.
The only criticism I can level is that we run into vampires who don't really add anything to the vampire trope page. (And, to be fair, Mieville did that too.) Anyhow recommended.
The plotting is perhaps a little awkward. At one point, to make certain dates line up, a character is thrown into an SS prison cell for a year. Chapter break, escape, return to Britain, plot continues. I forgive it. Gretel's fate could be viewed as deus ex machina, but since Gretel was a hair's-width beneath godhood for the first two books, it's hard to imagine any other resolution for her. Her arc is undeniably wrenching and, ultimately, satisfying -- in the bleached-bone way of these books -- so no complaints there either.
Ultimately, history is saved. If, afterwards, we look at the real WW2 and think "Whew, reality got off lightly" -- bite your tongue, but you know you thought it -- we'll just have to credit the author with a high talent for descriptive grim.
Then Burton takes a ride on London's pneumatic train and talks to a bioengineered messenger parakeet. So, not so legitimate.
Turns out somebody assassinated Queen Victoria in 1840, scientific advances are springing up everywhere like pubescent weeds, and history has gone seriously askew. The author underlines this by having a time traveller pop up -- not Wells's, this traveller has jumping boots -- screaming something about history being all askew, and it's all Burton's fault. Plot commences.
I don't know. The author has clearly done vast research into the Spring-Heel Jack legend, and has constructed a plot to make it all Make Sense. Plus the werewolves of London, the aforementioned 1840 assassination plot, and more. But where The Anubis Gates pulled the trick effortlessly, this book clunks and strains. Furthermore: it makes Burton boring. This should be impossible. Giving him Algernon Swinburne as a sidekick doesn't help; I wanted him offstage every moment he was on. (Superpowers: whingeing, laudanum, getting off on being beaten.) I didn't like the explanation for the boots either.
Ambitious, did not work for me, oh well.
(Up Fimbulcreek without a paddle? Okay, maybe not.)
My big problem here is that we have two blatantly unreliable characters -- Dainn the elf and Loki -- who are both manipulating the living crap out of our heroine and each other. Except the book barely hesitates before giving us both their POVs! And in both cases we don't find out any more than we did before. Loki is an arrogant jackass (but not noticeably clever); Dainn is an angsty jackass. Both go on at length about their respective secrets, and then how they're both screwing over Mist. Then we switch back to Mist, who manages to come up with some secrets of her own, but in a pro-forma "I must have something to not talk about" way.
The result is a loss of narrative tension, and a serious inability to care about Mist's problems. Mist and Dainn are the non-romantic equivalent of the "You know, if you two would just talk the story would be over already" romance cliche. (Except with romance thrown back in, eventually.) Loki, well, he should be scheming, but half the time he's monologing the reader and the other half he's being made a fool of. It does not work.
Somewhere in the background is the real scheme, which seems to involve Freya being a bigger jerk than Loki ever was and Odin hanging over Chekov's mantelpiece. (Both Loki and Dainn know about this, and talk about it in blatant ellipses.)
I feel like any one of these viewpoints -- Mist, Loki, or Dainn -- would have made a good story. In Mist's case, we could cheer her struggles without seeing the gears turn backstage. For the two guys, we could take (either of) them as protagonists rather than narratively signposted manipulative jerks. But trying to jam these three threads into one novel is a mess.
Like I said, very noir. The setup is great; the book is not quite what I was hoping. I guess it's a problem of familiarity. It's a Milton-for-the-modern-age Christian cosmos, which has exactly no surprises for anybody who grew up on Sandman and Hellblazer comics. The big reveal at the end was a big "Yeah, this again" from me.
To be sure, the book has plenty of plot -- most of which consists of cinematic chases, fights, helicopter crashes, manhunts, and an intimidating bystander body count. (The bystanders are, to the author's further credit, not faceless.) It was a fast adrenaline-driven read. I may read the sequels. But I'm not getting the sense that I'll get anything out of them, beyond the moment-to-moment burn of danger.
Despite the above, I have not read most of her stories, because I don't read many short stories. (Just not in the habit.) Thus I have suddenly been smacked with a decade's worth all at once! Which turns out to be a good thing.
This book is full of... it's easy to say "Asian-flavored". The introduction (by Aliette de Bodard) says "Asian-inspired". Both are thready generalizations. The science fiction is full of elements of Korean mythology, Japanese culture, Chinese history; (permute! permute! Okay, and add in all the bits I am insufficiently educated to recognize). Ninefox is a clan emblem; origami is the techne of starships and mass destruction; more than once, a peninsula is divided and at war. Stellar nations are autocratic, varying degrees of totalitarian, and not very much like 20th-century America at all. These are specifics. It is a distinction well beyond chopsticks, tea, and Asian-sounding names. (Though all of those do appear.)
What else? The author is cheerfully fond of physics and math, and the storylines are frequently wrapped around those bones. I was often and startlingly reminded of early Greg Egan. These stories aren't as militantly philosophical as Egan, and they don't have his incessant edge of horror, but they have that... love of system, let's say. Occasionally it's too nakedly presented for my taste (Euclid's fifth postulate isn't enough to hang a story on) but in most of the stories it's structure and confidently-handled terminology, which is exactly what I want in SF.
A wider criticism: several of the stories show a character arc without much emphasis on the changing angles. (Do I have math on the brain now?) So we see a character betray her nation; the decision is inevitable, and I even have a sense why. But I don't have a sense of making the decision, the rupture seen in approach and falling away. Certainly that already-there-realization is a mode of decision-making, but it's not the only one, and after a while I started to want a little self-reflection already.
(Which is unfair; this collection has a good variety of tones and storytelling modes. It's not all the same thing.)
I appreciated the story notes at the end, which dig deeper into sources and inspirations and goals than most authors are willing to 'fess up to.
Anyhow, this is good stuff and I recommend it. If the author gets through a novel, I will jump on it; otherwise, I'll probably drift until another collection of stories hits me. Look, they call them "habits" for a reason.
This book will feel familiar to Transmetropolitan fans, but it's not a retread. Rather, I get the sense that the author wasn't satisfied with how Spider Jerusalem was received -- too self-congratulatory, too easy to superfically identify with? -- and is now trying again; a little closer to the present and a little closer to the bone. Doktor Sleepless is self-admittedly a fiction created to make a point; John Reinhardt tells us this on the first page. I know I'm projecting, but I hear Ellis's voice shouting "...and listen this time goddammit!"
...I wonder if the cover was painted as a nude in space (a scene from the book!) and then covered over with the dress (also from the book! but a different scene) for publication. Hm. No, the coronet doesn't fit that scenario. Oh well.
No, the cover isn't as interesting as I'm making it sound.
A trio of Galactic aristocrats land on backwater, impoverished Earth. Two are immediately beaten to death by irate locals. Marada Kerrion escapes in the company of Shebat, a starving waif with a bit of magical talent.
This has potential. The book doesn't come through for it, at least not for me. After the opening, the narrative splinters into a Great Family political drama, with Shebat bouncing around between the glowering Kerrion patriarch, his Hera-esque wife, various of his wastrel children, and others. Marada -- the Kerrion heir and presumed male protagonist -- disappears offstage for most of the book, leaving Shebat moping around with an adolescent crush and nothing to do but become the galaxy's greatest dream-dancer and also starpilot. People plot, scheme, betray each other, have not-very-consensual sex, commit assassinations and suicides and marriages. A lot of that happens offstage too. There's about three times as much plot as there is book, and this is just the first of a trilogy.
Also, the language is absurdly florid. If you're going to distract me with your rhetorical flourishes, they'd better be luminously lovely (or else funny as hell). These are just distracting.
The feeling of reading every third chapter from somebody's Dune pastiche rapidly wore me out, and I wound up skimming out of sheer stubbornness. I was unable to follow most of the pieces around the board; whether this was lack of exposition or lack of attention is not really my problem.
I am glad to have finally probed the mystery of the girl wearing a pigeon, but I don't need to read the sequels.
Many people have praised Hellspark. I will skip the plot squib and say what I love about this book: the joy. All the characters are having so much fun learning and understanding and realizing and connecting and figuring it out. The reader is absolutely in on the game, as well; there's a running stream of little details about people's cultures that you can pick up and run with.
(Trivial example: early on, the protagonist introduces her computer (and starship) to a new friend: "Lord Lynn Margaret", meet "Tinling Alfvaen". Elsewhere, the ship is the Margaret Lord Lynn -- therefore, it must be that Alfvaen is a personal name, Tinling is a family name, and the protagonist is politely transforming her ship's name into Alfvaen's native idiom. And also that, at some point, "Lord" as an English-idiom title has become gender-neutral... All of this is completely unremarked in the narrative. You just go with it.)
Also: the puns. I don't mean the narrative is a groanfest; you just run into these little bits of translation that work out to be bilingual puns (in two fictional languages). Or bilingual puns between a fictional language and English body language. For posture, gesture, distance, and all such nonverbal communications are part of language; thus they can be spoken with an accent, translated poorly... and punned in. Delightfully.
It is not a perfect book. The points of view of the various cultures is never quite smooth, from the inside. The author needs to convey the unconscious assumptions of each character, but does it more by explicit description than by clean implication. The story is presented as a murder mystery, and less formally as a first-contact SF story (which is of course always a mystery plot). But the murderer is unmasked several chapters before the end, and the pacing of revelation of both mysteries is awkward. I never had the moment of "Of course, how could I have missed..." -- in either plot thread. I'm also unhappy with the guilty faction, the "Inheritors of God", who are shallow villains with no sympathy to them -- too easy to dismiss. Conveying their interior assumptions and viewpoint would have turned a delightful book into a brilliant one.
We do not complain of these matters, because we're having too much fun hanging around with the characters. I mean, the non-murdering ones.
Obligatory amused complaint: I have the first-edition Tor paperback in which the title of the book is misspelled on the front cover. The fact that this is possible -- and yet not noticeable to the reader until chapter 3 -- is one of the charms you will have to discover.
The cover says "space opera", but this is the grimy near-term sort of SF, which is not what "space opera" means to me. It has canned monkeys whizzing around the solar system, but the outer planets are Far Away even with the hush-it's-really-good constant-thrust fusion drive. (The authors also work in the fact of really-good anti-radiation meds, which takes care of the other realism issue of canned monkeys.) (And speaking of the phrase "canned monkeys", there's also a reference to the debt issue of founding colonies, which I guess means that everybody's a Stross fan now.)
Anyhow, I liked it. It touches on a lot of political issues in a non-stupid way. I don't mean it's an in-depth exploration of politics; it's not, it's a bang-zoom action plot that grudges every paragraph not spent chasing, rioting, shooting, or sustaining life-threatening injuries. But the plot threads of secrecy and whistle-blowing are dipping in and out of the weave, everywhere; and the interesting conflict of those threads is not between the good guys and the bad guys. One protagonist does something because it's clearly right, and the other protagonist explains how it's clearly wrong, and the narrative is on both their sides.
Scaling up also means "the middle third of North America is going to explode tomorrow", so this is an on-the-run sort of plot. Backstory occurs in brief intervals between Harry getting beat up, performing his own beat-downs, and meeting up with allies and enemies for collaborative beatings.
Molly report: roughly the same as the previous book; she is no longer an apprentice and Dresden is coping with that fact but still absorbing it. (Mab delivers an extremely cynical lecture on the subject, late in this book.) In fact Dresden doesn't have time to absorb much of anything in this book, except for disaster reports and the aforementioned beatings, but the author is clearly willing to switch up pace and tone between volumes so the next one should provide some resolution in this sphere. Especially given certain Molly-related story developments which even Dresden cannot manage to ignore.
I do not have a clear sense of how much farther the series has to run. Many plot elements are clearly escalating (even after Lake Michigan is defused). The author could aim for a massive arc climax in, say, two more books -- and either wrap it up there or just crank them out forever, I have no idea which.
This book retains one of the viewpoint characters from book one -- Holden, the optimistic starship captain. We get some new ones, such as the freaked-out botanist whose daughter vanished on Ganymede slightly before everything else went to crap. Also, we get a marine gunnery sergeant, and a UN assistant undersecretary administrator. One of these is a polite and well-trained functionary; the other is a foul-mouthed, cynical, fire-spitting bastard who is the terror of all her subordinates and the despair of her nominal boss. Also one of them is a grandmother. I'm having way too much fun with this partial-description stuff. I love these two. (The botanist, well, he's okay.)
Somewhere in between the political machinations, the system-wide Kickstarter, and the space-naval battles, I had the thought that this is the distinctly liberal strain of near-future SF. I don't want to be absolutist about this, it's not a brand-new thing. But last book, an unethical corporation almost destroyed humanity. This time the bad guy is, spoiler, the incredibly rich arrogant asshole who ran the corporation (and is still running it under a different label). Governments contain many stupid, corrupt, and evil elements, but these are not books in which government is the problem.
(Nor are they dystopias constructed out of giant evil corporations. That's a different thing.) (Indeed, this whole series can be read as a non-caricatured, non-ridiculous take on the Alien/Prometheus mythology.)
Thoughts from a couple of days later: maybe four viewpoint characters is too many for this book? Like I said, the botanist is okay. He demonstrates a nasty period as a refugee, and then spends the last half of the book supplying bits of biological plot wisdom and being charmingly incompetent as an action hero. The marine, similarly: she is PTSD stereotype for a while and then it... goes away? She's still a character, but I'm not sure what her plot arc is other than "face the monster again". The first book was 100% about its two protagonists, and I liked that better.
Dan Abraham is usually good at this multiple-narrator thing. Well, we'll see how the third book shapes up.
Also, it takes some chutzpah to put a seven-foot-tall black trans blind lady in your novel and have her kick ass.
Also, I forgot to mention earlier that I love, love the cover design on this series.
This is a strange, low-key book. It doesn't much resemble SF or fantasy, although it works hard to make the memory-architecture of the Incrementalists feel like an interesting "magic system". Perhaps it's more of a cozy murder mystery?
My usual gag about Gene Wolfe is that, having written the last word on the Unreliable Narrator, he went on to invent the Incompetent Narrator. Now Brust has found the next step, the Narrator Whose Head Has Been Deliberately Screwed With. All our narration comes through Phil (the oldest immortal) and Renee (new recruit), but if you're expecting a traditional rookie-eye info-dump, guess again. Renee winds up implanted with the personality of the dead immortal Celeste, which means that by chapter 5 she's explaining things to Phil. Only Celeste is more involved in the situation than either of them initially suspect. Quite a lot of the storyline involves recalling first-person narration and trying to figure out who has influenced it, and how. Do you see what I mean?
Let me put this a different way: the book is, among other things, a romance between Phil and Ren. It is, to my mind, a singularly unconvincing romance. But is there a reason for that? It turns out that there is. Maybe that doesn't reconcile you to reading the thing, but you can't say the authors didn't think about the question.
So: very sneaky use of narrative convention. Whether that makes the book... I enjoyed it but wasn't swept away. Unsurprisingly, I worry that I've just missed some fraction of the point. (Wolfe has the same effect on me.)
The metatextual twist at the end hardly requires comment; Brust can do that sort of stuff in his sleep. (I don't mean to neglect Skyler White, his co-author; I just don't know anything about her beyond this book.) Browse through incrementalists.org if the mood strikes you. I approve of the challenge ("what can you do to make the world suck less?") but I'm not sure how the book (and site) can help such a mentality snowball. But then, on the third hand, can I complain that the authors are trying?
Good points: the authors know both medical practice and how life really works in the military. (Sure, it's a very U.S. Navy sort of far-future starship military, but if Battlestar Galactica can be functionally identical to the U.S. Air Force...) And the plot threads do come together very tidily at the end.
I guess at some point (in the next decade) I should read the follow-on series.
There are some nice anecdotes about recent history-of-science. I didn't know that the origin of the Moon has been rethought quite a bit in the past couple of years.
It seems almost a shame to admit that the third book is a little weak. Or, I don't know, not as strong a resolution to the series as I'd hoped.
The Venus Mystery pops off of Venus, flies out to Neptune, and turns into a stargate. (Gedge as much as Emmerich, we will discover.) So now what? An international expedition is organized; "international" means Earth, Mars, and the Belt, among whom there is no more trust than there is mayonnaise in a supernova. All our old friends from the first book are along for the ride. (Our friends from the second book get cameos, no more. Apologies to UN-undersecretary fans.)
New viewpoints: a pastor and someone who is very, very angry.
What does the trilogy look like? The first book used alien biohorrors to explore how horrible humans could be to each other. The second book used even less alien; just alien seasoning, as it were, in a political drama. The third book tries to up the stakes by throwing everybody through the stargate, and having them be human beings there. This... almost works. The human/political drama is still there, but we are learning more about the aliens too, and that unbalances the story. In my opinion, I mean! It's not a total failure; in fact it's not a failure, but it is a weakness in the story. The big climax comes off as "We must push this button to solve all our problems." Getting the button pushed is a real story about real people -- with politics, mutiny, and gunfights -- but I just didn't think it quite had room to breathe.
Yes, I'm this close to saying that the authors should have expanded the storyline into a fourth book. I know! Terrible idea. Three is fine. They're good books. Captain Holden is a great character; the genre has so many stupid optimists, and plenty of implausibly right optimists, but so rarely an optimist who is both right and wrong in smart ways.
Most of the book is classic Walden-2 utopia-tour boilerplate, with only the barest hint of plot to move things along -- the hint being "Does the guy's girlfriend-cum-PR-manager, no pun intended, care about him half as much as her cut of his take?" (As an old-term revivee, he is famous, meaning rich. The book studiously limits itself to portraying the top 1% of this society; even in a post-scarcity utopia, the less-than-hyper-rich are not worth anybody's time.)
Later on, the author appears to introduce a plotline, but it doesn't actually involve the protagonist; it's the sidebar adventures of his holographic pre-amnesia personality matrix. (A hyper-rich asshole, in case you were wondering.)
If nothing else, this book demonstrates the difference between irony and nihilism. Iain Banks wrote this sort of thing with oceans of irony and glaciers of snark, but he was fundamentally interested in what people actually do, how organizations organize, and why society works. Spencer Baker looks at the same societies (the Slabscape might as well be a GSV), considers the same questions, and concludes that society is all bullshit. This is why Banks wrote great SF.
Final note: the torrent of crap science in this book comes with enough wink to make me suspect that it's consciously crap science. However, I refuse to give the benefit of the doubt to crap relativity. Listen up, authors: when you hand me the "two spaceships leave Earth in opposite directions at 99% lightspeed, oh god, that adds up more more than C" wheeze, I drop it on the floor. I'll give Heinlein a pass on that for nostalgia. If you were born after Heinlein -- which, hint hint, was two years after Special Relativity -- that gag just marks you as an ignorant blowhard.
The protagonist (I'm sure he had a name) works for MortMax Australia, which is to say he's a junior associate Grim Reaper. It's a hereditary talent, but the business is corporate these days. Boring; pays well. Then somebody tries to shoot him in the head, he starts seeing dead people who aren't clients, and there's a zombie outbreak.
Okay, to be fair, not zombies. Revenants. They don't bite and they don't care about brains; they just suck the life out of anything nearby. Part of Steven's job (sorry, name's on the front cover, I checked) is to deal with them. Unfortunately, with his colleagues rapidly getting mown down, Steven is becoming outnumbered.
Anyhow, the story starts with a lot of running around Brisbane and screaming, which is fine for the momentum but not all that interesting. Presenting Death as boring and corporate is an interesting idea, but in practice... er... boring? Perhaps an inevitable flaw.
The author has a fondness for what you might call "realistic grit" -- not in terms of dead-eyed combat veterans, but of white-collar office workers (of death) who go out and drink too much, then have horrible puking hangovers the next morning. Also, there's a spell which requires semen as an ingredient. It's less erotic than it sounds. Maybe he's just trying to add an authentic Australian touch? ...Don't answer that. At least it's not yet-another-Dreamtime-mythos.
Eventually Steven digs farther into the story mythology, which turns out to be appealingly creepy and hallucinatory. However, overall, I was not enthused.
The question after that is "If Locke and Sabetha are engaged in some grand duel of bastardy, isn't the entire city going to wind up collapsed, on fire, and sunk into the swamp?" (That isn't a spoiler, that's what I was wondering by part 2.) I'll leave that unanswered.
Mixed in we have another flashback storyline, to the Teen Bastards, which means a generous helping of Calo and Galdo (and even a brief ambiguous appearance of Bug). Along with the early Locke/Sabetha interaction that we've been missing.
So, basically, this book has everything that you want, and you will tear through it in no time.
Here's where I confess that I'm often unsure what Bear is doing in novellas. Sometimes. The Abby Irene stories have this problem for me. I mean, I know it's "Have some Abby Irene" but if I don't get into plot-following mode, I'm left at the end about where I started. This is one of those. But I liked the batch of disagreeable wizards, and I like Erem.
There's a certain amount of compression here, as we discovered last book that there were nine baddies -- the nine Collectors who went off the grid back in antediluvian times, with various untoward consequences. (For one, times stopped being antediluvian. Abruptly.) Thornton has to kill them all, which means the book is a sequence of rather abrupt episodes. It doesn't feel rushed, though, and there's time for the appropriate talking and walking. Satisfying.
The good news is that you probably already know the comic, so I don't have to... okay, okay. Digger ("Digger of Unnecessarily Convoluted Tunnels") is a sapient wombat. As such, she is pragmatic, nonreligious, engineering-oriented, and sports a mean right hook. ("We spend twelve hours a day swinging a pickaxe... we're basically walking biceps.") This leaves her extremely disgruntled when her tunnel becomes magically disarranged and pops her out in a temple of Ganesh the Compassionate -- who has a job for her.
The story winds up as an extended meditation on morality and responsibility. To be clear, it's a hilarious meditation. Digger's air of faint exasperation at the absurdities of the universe (I could explain about the oracular slugs) never gets old. She is not a hero -- I'd say "opposite of a hero", if the term "antihero" weren't already spoken for; she's someone who tackles the right thing because you can't let that sort of thing slip.
The artist elicits wonderful subtleties of expression from a character whose body structure is basically "potato with a nose". It's textured black and white art, which I often have trouble with, but here -- absolutely clear.
Eh, look, everything about this story is great. Go buy it.
I took the opportunity to read it (which I hadn't done since I was in elementary school). It's exactly what it tries to be -- a boy's-own adventure (written in 1959) in which a teenager tours the solar system. Invent the minimum possible plot which could require this; you've probably replicated this book's gimmick.
The author is optimistic about the invention of antigravity, which he admits in the foreword is probably necessary for manned travel to other planets. Sadly, still waiting.
It's not an absolutely straight-faced fairy tale. Everyone is just a little bit slyer and more conniving than that. (I guess Jack Vance's "Cugel" stories are this raised to the hundredth power?) But I bogged down halfway through, put it aside, and didn't finish it off until several weeks later.
The scenery is good, but this sort of thing can't survive on scenery alone. In fact the author has a whole mess of notions he's trying to stuff in: protest and poverty and stereotypes and sex work and social inequality (financial district, remember?) With a giant heaping dose of cynicism to wash it down. (Jim Wedderburn is a pimp.) It rapidly goes overdone, both too metaphorical and too blatant. Not successful.
It would be easy, in this world, for the author to keep focussing on Craft people and their enormous powers. They remain central to the plotting (they are the movers and shakers of the world, literally) but this time we get a protagonist with a different focus. And a nice variety of side characters, too. Will keep reading these as long as the author wants to crank them out, and if the author wants to try a different series, I'll read those too.
Addendum: I just discovered that the author has done an interactive text game set in this universe: Choice of the Deathless. (Same CYOA-with-stats model as Choice of the Dragon, Choice of Romance, that series of games.) I should write a review.
Cohen, the Jewish cyber-sybarite, has travelled to Pittsburgh to commit suicide. A Pittsburgh on another planet, not Earth's Pittsburgh. As the first book was sort of set in a Welsh coal mine in space, this one is a run-down blue-collar steel town. In space.
That's kind of cool; the problem is the background, which is relentlessly recapped and yet still somehow unclear. Ever since the coal mines blew up in the first book, FTL has been on the way out -- it was FTL coal -- so Earth's colonies are scrambling to achieve some kind of self-sufficiency before space travel becomes impossible. Only it's not becoming impossible, it's becoming... pirates. In space. Everyone is looking at the Drift, an area of space where FTL will either remain possible or has never been possible because of multiple universes. There are pirates there.
This book would have been pretty awesome if I understood what it was about.
In fact it doesn't deserve that much snark. It was pretty good regardless. Catherine Li (Cohen's wife, a human being) has to travel out to Space Pittsburgh -- via a form of cheap, dangerous FTL which either does or does not require space coal -- sorry -- anyway, she winds up forked in a quantum teleportation accident. (It took me three-quarters of the book to figure this out, but that isn't the author's fault. I was just dumb. Two alternating plot threads: two Catherines.)
She winds up on both sides of a space pirate feud, while trying to find Cohen and ask him why he killed himself.
This book is a serious attempt to tangle with how different AIs might be. Cohen is a distributed network of software agents; "death" is a disintegration, but leaves sentient fragments and shadow-Cohens all over. (In fact we meet an AI who used to be part of Cohen but seceded.) Then of course we have the bimodal Li. So this is excellent SF idea-wrangling. And the story has lots of stuff going on, what with the pirate captain and the blue-collar cop and the scary bad guys closing in everywhere. I just... couldn't get oriented, through the whole book.
The book switches back and forth between present Tokyo and three episodes of the swords' histories. This is a stumbling block; a large percentage of the early book is told from the point of view of psychopathic assholes. I assure you that Beautiful Singer's episode is short, and we thereafter only have to put up with part-time narrative from the yakuza sword master asshole who is trying to collect the set.
The strength of the book is Detective Oshiro, who gets sucked into the mess when drug lords and meter maids start dying all over Tokyo of sword wounds. Oshiro is a female Tokyo cop who's lived in the US, and is thus convincingly both in and out of her society -- at least, it was convincing to me. (I've never been farther east than the Tower of London.) Between her sexist cop boss, her family, the Tokyo crime scene, and the good-guy sword master who teaches her about the fantasy part of the plot, Oshiro winds up being an engaging viewpoint on modern Japan.
The down side is that low-magic urban fantasy isn't really my thing. This is more a cop story (with historical interludes) than a fantasy novel. This does not make it a bad book, but it wasn't quite the book I was in the mood for. So I may not pick up the sequel. But then, maybe I will.
If you're willing to cope with this, it's a great ride. It's interesting, though, because Sagara is a very prosaic author. I mean, I'm used to this allusive dreamscape stuff from McKillip, who can run on drunk with language for chapters. Or, if you want creepy rather than lyrical, all the new-weird writers will do that for you. But Sagara's protagonists tend to be extremely pragmatic people who see the world in concrete terms, and then are forced to run on pure intuition through these abstract situations. I wonder if Sagara isn't doing it specifically because it's outside her natural style.
But, speaking of natural style: Teela, the immortal Barrani elf detective, grew up in a gang! Of immortal elf kids! It's so Michelle Sagara.
This is clearly a media tie-in project, with a big "Disney" label. The stories yank in elements from both the movie and the well-known videogame series, without a lot of cohesion. But then, "bag of stories" always works in the Arabian-Nights-ish setting.
I snagged this in order to find out, amid all the "Prince of Persia" commercial properties, whether Mechner was a good writer. You know? I think he is.
When I was twelve, I thought this was awesome. So now you know why I started using the handle "Zarf". (Originally on BBSes and on silly BASIC adventure games. I didn't get on the Internet until college, and by then, Zarf was just the handle I'd been using for years.)
Anyhow. I thought it would be interesting to re-read this as an adult. (I almost said "nominally an adult", but nominally, I'm still Zarf, right?)
It's not an awesome book. It's a caper novel, but without the wholehearted flippancy that the caper genre suggests. Having 15000 rolls of toilet paper unexpectedly delivered to a hospital is funny. The units of urgently-needed plasma stacked up in the street because the loading bay is clogged -- not so funny. And the book calls this out explicitly. Tweaking payroll so that half the sanitation workers get a two-cent paycheck and the other half get paid $49000 per month is funny, except that we hear a riot break out in the payroll office, and then somebody pulls a gun. And then we're right back with Harold "Wimpie" Begelman, charming schmoe, billiards addict, Zarf to his not-really-friends at the computer club, who is planning to defraud the city to the tune of twenty mil.
Inevitably, the book is dated -- down to the month, probably, if you can read the signs. It's the pre-AIDS 80s. All the action is on mini-computers and mainframes, with model numbers spelled out. (IBM, Burroughs, Honeywell.) A smartass ten-year-old girl uses a TRS-80; the nerds speak approvingly of the Apple 2.
Nostalgia aside, I didn't start to get a handle on this book until I realized it's not about computers. It's about New York. New York is a monster; enormous, complex, fucked up. Computer mistakes and computer-aided crime are simply the latest iteration of what New York has always been.
Everyone in this book loves New York. It's killing them and they wouldn't live anywhere else. (Except for maybe Switzerland, or Tel Aviv, but you know they'll miss New York.) Nobody's clean, not the cops or the hackers or the sanitation workers, but that just means that everybody's in it together.
When I started my re-read, I knew the rough storyline, but I couldn't remember how it ended. Isn't that wacky? This is one of my personal fairy tales, but I had no recollection whether Zarf and his hacker pal got away with the money. The author is even-handedly sympathetic towards them, the out-of-his-depth cop who is hunting them down, and the city IT guy who is caught up in the gears. Who's gonna win?
I should have known: the author ties himself in a knot to make sure they all win. Human beings take the Big Apple for twenty million dollars; that's victory. And a vacation in Switzerland or Tel Aviv or wherever for everybody.
(Inasmuch as New York is represented by a human being, it's the Mayor, who must be a fictionalization of Ed Koch, and the heck with him, right?)
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