Books I Bought in 2011

I'm afraid book reviews are on hiatus. You will find here brief reviews of books through 2011, longer reviews through fall of 2014, and then nothing. Sorry! I got distracted trying to finish a game and then never got back to reviewing.

I acquired 102 books in 2011.

Left Over From 2010

Levene, Rebecca
Cold Warriors
On a day in the 1980s, two men commit suicide: one for ambiguous reasons in ambiguous ritual magic; one for the worst of both. This is their story. It wants to be supernatural intrigue thriller a la Tim Powers. The author gets the motley crew of magically damaged amateurs down pat, and the picaresque of too-weird-to-be-fictional locales. She falls down on the bad guys. Tim Powers is a Catholic, but he knows better than to make all his villains be cackling child-raping Satanists.

McKillip, Patricia A.
The Bards of Bone Plain
I stopped at least once per page to say "I wish I had written that sentence." Aside from that... it has already been well observed that this book rethinks many of the elements of the Matter of Hed. Not because they were poorly done the first time, of course. I guess McKillip just wanted to play with bards and harps and students and riddles and inexplicable contests and wizards turning up out of legend at your dinner table, one more time. I can't blame her a bit.

Valente, Catherynne M.
The Habitation of the Blessed
Layers of story set in the land of Aristotelian foreignity -- the place with faces-in-their-bellies people and people with giant ears and people with giant hands and monopods and so on. Also, of course, the Fountain of Youth and Prester John. A monk travels there and finds three accounts of those days growing on a tree of (possibly lowercase) knowledge; he starts copying them down before they rot. Does any of this not sound like a Valente book?

What's in this book is a lot of colliding between "our" Western culture and Utopia, aka "did these virtuous pagans of legend really need a Christian emperor?" I feel vaguely disconnected from the argument. I mean, I'm as much an American white guy as the next American white guy, but why-should-I-care-about-your-Jesus is not an interesting argument no matter which side wins. The prose is lovely, though.

Miller, Rand; Wingrove, David
Myst: The Book of Atrus
This confirms the impression I'd always had, which is that David Wingrove is not a very good novelist. (The Millers aren't very good novelists either, but that wasn't their job. It was Wingrove's job to take their mass of story ideas and make a novel out of it.)

So we start with the childhood of Atrus (the daddy guy from the Myst games), caught between his awesome grandmother and his psychopath father. This would have been more captivating if the father weren't a lead villain from day one. The book tries to give us a sense of the kid's attempt to love his dad, but really, it's impossible. Seeing the ruins of the D'ni civilization was probably cool in 1996, but now we've visited them (Uru and Myst 5), so that's shot too -- at least for me. The plot thickens into a morass of attempts to play god, confusing plots involving somebody getting married, and a set of twists whose only clear purpose is to set up for Myst and Riven. It would have been great if it had come together, but it just doesn't. The only genuine thrill is reading Atrus's last journal entry, which is the opening narration of Myst; that's a virtue in fanfic, but it can't be the only support of a novel.

January 2011

West, Michelle
City of Night
The first book in this series was about a gang of kids. This one is about a gang of kids and the possible subjugation of the world by demons. The contrast is unsettling, but I think the author keeps the stakes high in both narrative frames: some of the kids disappear, and not in the "off having adventures" way. I don't think I'm going to have any idea whether this series works until it's over. (Contrast the Elantra books, which are nowhere near over but which hold their "mundane" and preternatural elements together comfortably.)

Berg, Carol
The Soul Mirror
Follows a few years after The Spirit Lens. The plot to destroy the kingdom is slowly turning out be a plot to destroy the universe -- I think. This book is narrated by Anne de Vernase, the daughter of the evil sorcerer who got away at the end of the first book. Now she's been summoned to the capital, where, as you might imagine, her social prospects are on the dry side. Also, her mother has gone mad and her sister has been murdered. The plot speeds up from there.

The neat thing about this structure is that the protagonist has no reason to trust the protagonists of the first book, and vice versa. Nor does the reader necessarily know better: Dante, the rogue mage with a heart of copper-at-best, may well have thrown in with the bad guys. Whoever they are. Including or excluding Anne's father. There's plenty of suspicion to go around, plus poison, ghosts, blood, curses, blood curses, and plotters using other plotters. But -- in keeping with the structure -- all comes to a triumphant conclusion, leaving open only the fate of the universe for the final volume.

Akers, Tim
Heart of Veridon
You know how the canonical fantasy badass is described as an nasty, violent person? It's interesting to read one who actually is. I don't mean he beats people up at random; I mean that when a fight starts, he wins by getting in close and causing damage until the other guy stops. I don't know. Maybe this is normal for movies, but this book gets it across as not stagy or cartoon violence. Maybe I'm just making excuses for finding a character interesting whose type usually repels me.

This book has zeppelins and clockwork engines, but it's Mieville-dark-fantasy in tone rather than anything one could describe with a "punk" suffix. The cogwork is mostly (and ickily) implanted in people, for example to make them cyborg pilots capable of interfacing with a zeppelin. Jacob Burn crashed his first zeppelin and thus ruined his life. He's a passenger on another, on Business, when someone runs amuck through the bridge and leaves him in charge with a macguffin ticking in his pocket. It's all angels, chase scenes, criminal masterminds, and crashing zeppelins after that. Burn is just sympathetic enough, I guess, due to nobody telling him what's going on and having police and monsters constantly on his ass. Downside: his girlfriend exists only to demonstrate every single love-interest plot trope in as few pages as possible.

Watt-Evans, Lawrence
Realms of Light [e-book purchase]
Carly Hsing takes a knotty new case, has to go back to Prometheus. This felt a little forced, for some reason that I can't quite pin. Maybe it was just too easy to cruise into and out of Nightside City, which (as I distantly recall) dominated the earlier book so effectively. Still, it's a good solid private eye story.

Griffin, Kate
The Midnight Mayor
More hijinks for the London sorcerer with pronoun problems. I continue to get a kick out of this series. I wasn't sure at first; the author's writing technique is the prose equivalent of a car chase through a shopping mall stocked entirely with brass bands and fireworks. For 550 pages. And yet it works. The monsters are terrifying, the allies are terrifying, the magic feels right under your skin, and Matthew -- who is just beginning to get a handle on being the blue electric angels -- gets the ever-lovin' shit kicked out of him. He also, it seems, gets a job offer or two. I want the third book.

Zivkovic, Zoran
Impossible Encounters
A book of mad little stories -- short enough that I sat down and re-read the whole thing before writing this review, and, unfortunately, just unmemorable enough that I had to. The author wants to be Borges, and perhaps could even have managed it if Borges hadn't done it first. Or if I were thirteen and still stunned by the idea of meta. Mind you they're perfectly good mad little stories; I just think that their virtue is several decades past fresh.

Raskin, Ellen
The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues
The one published Raskin novel that I never read. (There are several picture books that I'm leaving aside here. Also some unpublished manuscripts which might escape someday? I haven't heard any recent news. Anyhow.) It turns out I read this one as a kid after all. I remember that the secret of art is not drawing every brick in the brick wall. Dickory Dock (no jokes please) gets a job as assistant to a mad artist with a Holmes obsession. There is no single formal mystery, as there is in The Westing Game and Leon I Mean Noel, but it's all about mysteries anyhow. Also the secret of art, and names. Sorry -- the book is all about names. My mistake.

Pinkwater, Daniel
The Neddiad
I read Pinkwater (as well as Raskin) when I was young, and then bought reprints when I was a grownup, but I didn't read much of his newer stuff for fear that it was Not As Good. Well, it is. This book (not brand-new, but recent) is everything that Pinkwater has always done right: the life of us as kids, the world that we were always convinced lay hidden around us, and the ways that world worked. If anything he's gotten better. This book is set post-WW2, rather than the "current" suburbs of Alan Mendelsohn and the Snarkout Boys, but it is just as recognizable -- but with more railroads and ghosts. See, I'm even talking like Pinkwater now.

Kennedy, Mike; Green, Timothy
Aeon Flux
A short graphic novel, set in the movie Aeon Flux universe rather than the original animated shorts. It's adequate for what it does, but -- okay, it's doing the wrong thing, I'll just say it flat out.

February 2011

McGonigal, Jane
Reality is Broken
Embarrassingly, I still haven't read this.

Ellis, Warren; Cassaday, John
Planetary [e-book purchase]
Graphic-novel series; I read them off iPad. It's a series of riffs on famous fictions -- Ellis does the League of Gentlemen. (Yeah, Extraordinary Gentlemen, sure, go on.) The invocations are deeper and better-used than Moore's, and bitterer -- the main villains of the story arc are the Fantastic Four -- but it's still basically gosh-wow awe-and-wonder science fantasy. Which there's nothing wrong with.

Caine, Rachel
Unseen (Outcast Season, book 3)
Book three (of four) in the Weather Warden side-series. The main series is now complete, and I remember more about the contortions this book goes through to stay out of Total Eclipse's way than I do about the plot. Cotton candy, in the sense that it melts away upon eating.

Bear, Elizabeth
The Sea Thy Mistress
Concludes (in some sense) the Norse-ish future (probably) history trilogy. The protagonist of the first two books is no longer on-stage, and everyone else is trying to cope with unexpectedly being in the "rebuild civilization" kind of post-apocalyptic world rather than the "it's all over" kind. Well, almost everyone else. (Gotta have a villain, and Norse myth provides. No, not Loki, try and keep up.)

This series is strangely... historical, for being a series about the end and beginning of the world. The vibe is "stuff happened to these people". It's not wrong but it's unexpected, even the third time.

Sedia, Ekaterina
The Secret History of Moscow
Have not yet read. (This was a freebie from Boskone, so I haven't been as motivated to read it as I would for a book I chose to buy.)

Williams, Walter Jon
Deep State
Second book about the post-traumatic ARG game designer caught up in politics. An intelligence agency wants a favor, and... This nicely conveys how squalid and awful spy work is, while still having all the thriller material that we want in spy stories. The puzzles described aren't quite accurate for the real-world puzzle community, but that's the narrowest of expert-syndrome nitpicking.

Pevel, Pierre
The Cardinal's Blades
Dumas with dragons, translated from the French. This is one of those less-realistic spy stories (albeit three-musketeers-era spying) where absolutely everybody is involved in at least one plot to betray everybody else. I don't know if that's true to Dumas or not. I more or less completely failed to keep track of who was doing what to whom.

Korogodski, Leonid
Pink Noise
This is the most gorgeous physical construct of a book I have bought in years. It is not a very good novel. It's got brain-hacking and dogfighting in the skies of Mars, but it all turns out to be the depressing kind of brain-hacking and dogfighting. Also the kind of prose that wishes it were pyrokinetic New Wave writing, but that doesn't support a novel all by itself.

It is also the sort of book that has a glossary and a postscript about the author's hobbyhorse physical model of the universe, although to be fair, that isn't a flaw in the novel itself.

Egan, Greg
Apparently Egan has always wanted to have written Dragon's Egg. Now he has, but it's not much of a book. To be precise, it's two short stories, one of which is a decent "how does their world work and can they save it?" bit of alienry and one of which is pointless. Padding them out with extra Newton and pasting them together does not add up to a novel, and while Egan must be proud of his tides-not-gravity re-rendering of basic physics, I did not need that many pages of it.

Lewitt, Shariann
Interface Masque
I saw this in a bookstore in 1997, flipped through a few pages, and thought "Cyberpunk in Venice. Good hook, but maybe I'll wait for the paperback." Fourteen years later, the paperback is out (from a small press I noticed at Boskone). This may be the longest I have ever waited to buy a book after it made it into print.

So a bunch of demi-corporate tech groups mostly run the Net, and are now conspiring to get the last few percent locked down. Also, jazz is illegal in Venice. Counter-conspiracy occurs among people who want to free the Net and also jazz. This ought to be good stuff, except, one, it's hard to take the jazz thing seriously -- the Venetian choirs have all been coopted to sing Handel and Palestrina to keep everybody's minds placid. Jazz and rock must be stamped out! Whatever. And two, the protagonist has a terrible case of tell-don't-show. She manages to make all her discoveries of conspiracies and murder and aliens (spoiler, there are aliens) sound run-of-the-mill. It's a pity, because the future-of-1997-Internet cyberspace is pretty juicy and so is the society and its crazy mask fashions, Baroque mind-control aside.

Monette, Sarah
Unnatural Creatures
A few otherwise-uncollected stories about the Lovecraftian protagonist of The Bone Key. (Lovecraftian as in "bookish, reclusive, socially inept, and prone to discovering preternatural horrors under every tea-tray.") These show a nice range of tones, from straight-up campfire ghost story to a night-time children's-fairyland adventure that even Kyle Murchison Booth cannot make anything less than charming.

Bear, Elizabeth
Foundered generation ship crawls at last to its destination star, and finds that the damn home planet has invented FTL in the meantime -- isn't that always the way? Also someone has murdered the Captain's mother, and the fact that all the bad guys were executed in the last book isn't much of a comfort on a starship where death is just a matter of bad record-keeping. I love the scenery in this trilogy (I figure it's what Art Nouveau would look like if someone obsessively mistook it for an engineering diagram) but the plots always seem to come from somewhere in the left field of Bear's left brain, and this is no exception. A suspicious first-contact situation is mixed in with murder and mutiny, and then -- look! It's the Winged Victory of Transhumanism!

Butcher, Jim
Changes (Dresden Files, 12)
Wizard finds himself in deeper shit than usual. I'm not sure about what I even should be saying about book twelve in a series. If you've never touched a Harry Dresden book before, for pity's sake don't start here. If you've read the first eleven, for pity's sake don't stop now.

Jones, Howard Andrew
The Desert of Souls
A novel which is actually set in the fantasy Arabian-Nightsian Baghdad that all the Prince of Persia games pretend to be set in. (I don't blame Jordan Mechner -- he was young and enthusiastic when he wrote his first game -- but it's nice to see someone going back to the source material.) Assassins, djinn (scary ones, wish at your own risk), zombie monkeys, a pair of magic doorknobs (from the lost city of Ubar) -- but also the caliph's dealings with the Byzantines, the Zoroastrian cult, the Bedouins, and so on. Plus the sort of interesting greater glimpse that I like in fantasy. Plus it's a solid standalone adventure, although I understand there will be more books with these characters.

March 2011

Bear, Elizabeth
The White City
Vampire and girlfriends visit Moscow in 1903, with flashbacks. A murder mystery with complications -- nasty little vampire family complications.

Rothfuss, Patrick
The Wise Man's Fear
Boy at wizard school goes to classes, then takes a semester abroad. This is a fat book two in a fat-book trilogy, but the shapes of the author's intent are starting to show through the persiflage and aw-shucks narration. If you think this is just a self-indulgent magic adventure story, you're wrong -- go read it. If you've read it, go look at the ongoing analysis posts at; a hell of a lot is going on that you probably missed. I did.

Zivkovic, Zoran
Again, a collection of Borgesic short-shorts, this time on the themes of time travel. (Themes, because each story treats the idea differently.) Again, Zivkovic is fascinated by his own role as a storyteller (and I just typoed "storytelling", which he would probably find fascinating too); but again, his fascination doesn't make the ideas new.

Robbins, Ben
A small RPG with an outside-in model. A group of players (no GM) decide how the story begins and ends, and then they go in and fill in how everything got there and why. "The story" may be a millenium of empire or a day in the salt mines, and you can focus in on any given subset and keep going. (The designer's aim is bigger canvases rather than constrained ones, mind you.)

Duane, Diane
The Big Meow [e-book purchase]
Picking up a series after ten years is a hard climb for any author. The Big Meow began appearing in 2006, on the author's web site, but it fell off the radar for a while. Happily, Duane is shipping novels again, and this is one of them.

Worth the wait? It was fun, but I've never been hit by the cat-wizard books quite as strongly as the better Nita+Kit novels. And the basic composition of the wizardry universe is getting a little long in the tooth. The N+K series deals with this by allowing the protagonists to grow up and encounter more complexity in their world, but for an adult cat and her coworkers, this metaphor doesn't hold up. I'm not saying it's not fun, mind you; it's just getting... workaday.

Moran, Daniel Keys
The Big Boost (The AI War, book 1) [e-book purchase]
Picking up a series after fifteen years is an even harder climb. Moran's audience is twenty years older (and, we like to think, smarter) since The Long Run came out. Our expectations have bolted, flowered, gone to seed, and probably been pressed and dried in a diary somewhere.

With that all in mind, I read The Big Boost (an e-book on the author's web site, although he's hinting at an upcoming paper edition). I enjoyed it. So there. I didn't enjoy it like I enjoyed the earlier novels, but there are so many angles to that reaction that I couldn't possibly sort them out. This is half of the original AI War story, for a start, and barely begins to touch what "the A.I. War" might be. It's a classic Trent-on-the-job romp; it has none of the scope that The Last Dancer added to the universe. To an extent it's just reiterating The Long Run. But I don't know whether that's a deliberate structure which sets up its second half. The whole story might disappoint me, or clinch itself as a worthy successor to my college-age-self's book-crush, or anything in between.

And then I still won't know whether the author can write more books in the series (leaving aside the question of whether he will). This is an old manuscript, which has clearly been revised for publication -- there are vintage-2010 in-jokes -- but I don't know how much. (No, I haven't compared the first chapter to the version that's been online since wayback.) Will we ever get a full picture of the Continuing Time? After fifteen years, I'm still waiting to find out, I guess.

Brust, Steven
I don't know if Daniel Keys Moran still has it, but Brust does. This is a collection of story-bits, ostensibly organized around a bit of silverwork in the shape of a tiassa. We see Vlad early in his career, and then in the "present" of the Vlad stories; we see Devera and Verra and the rest of the gang around the edges. We see Khaavren, and then we see Vlad from Khaavren's point of view, and if you haven't been waiting for that for twenty years, there's something wrong with you. All of this is so effortlessly tossed out, and so readable, that you barely notice that the whole forms an answer to some crucial questions about Vlad's life and Deverra's.

Fox, Daniel
Hidden Cities
Third Chinese-mythology multithread rebels-vs-Emperor story. (Come to think of it, this is probably a riff on the same period as the Guy Gavriel Kay book -- see below.) Dragons, jade, priestesses. The storylines and characters continue to do stuff, and sometimes stuff is done back at them. I'm not sure how long this series is supposed to run. I will keep reading them.

April 2011

Sanderson, Brandon
The Way of Kings [e-book purchase]
The start of another fat-book series, in the traditional form: a prologue from ancient legendary history followed by a thousand pages of fantasy-world politics and extremely detailed magical theory. Sanderson tackles a multiple-POV story this time around, with an exiled ninja, an enslaved war hero, and an impoverished noblewoman. Meanwhile, giant storms are trying to scour the world clean of life -- that is, they've always done that, but they might be getting worse. I suspect that the author is deliberately taking a GRRM tack, and he's no GRRM, but he's still Sanderson and capable of whacking out a good readable story for as long as you're willing to read it. Which I guess will be another nine thousand pages.

Saknussemm, Kris
Enigmatic Pilot
The prologue has a US Army lieutenant being chased by a stampede of ghosts and buffalo across the Dakota badlands in 1869. Promising! Unfortunately the book is about a vile supergenius child in Ohio in 1844. He travels across the country, invents the flying machine, gets laid, and I think meets aliens and/or the Illuminati. It's hard to tell. It's not pleasant reading. The flaws and squalidity of the nation in that era are presented with loving detail, when they're not being ironically multiplied; and if the plot connects up with the prologue, the connection is in some sequel which I will not be reading.

Pinkwater, Daniel
The Yggyssey
Followup to The Neddiad, starring Yggdrasil Birnbaum. I don't think this one works as well -- the adventure leads off to a secret world of talking dogs that doesn't have the resonance of the first book's ancient turtle god. However, the continuing references to Pinkwater's older books are cute.

Zeiger, Mimi
New Museums
A collection of photographs of crazy museum architecture. I like crazy architecture. (See Garden, below.)

May 2011

Cook, Paul
Fortress on the Sun [borrowed book]
The Engines of Dawn [borrowed book]
These are sort of... engaging in a late-1980s let's-have-big-starships-and-space-stations Analogish way. Less excusable in the late 1990s, of course, which is when they were written.

I think this author is just not a natural plotter. Both of these books require levels of contrivance that would disgrace a third-rate videogame. I think the nadir was a fight scene in variable gravity that invoked both "it seems these alien life forms become brittle in zero-G!" and "wow, it's a good thing I've been wearing sixty pounds of gold as a fashion statement for the past three years!" Also, both books have a basic plot of "alien scheme destroys all human libido", which was a book and a half too much of that and now I don't want to read any more Paul Cook, ever.

Kelleher, Anne
Silver's Edge
Elf politics. This was an unfortunate mix of interesting fantasy notes (elves being as drawn to human mortality as humans are to elven beauty) and done-to-death cliches ("Going Into the West"? Come on). The plot is also strained, with several plot threads circling and not running into each other enough. Also, each thread kept jumping viewpoint characters, often to characters introduced as antagonists. In theory I like having bad guys turn sympathetic, but this book doesn't manage the GRRM trick and I wound up just disliking everybody.

Shiga, Jason
This is my favorite comic that starts with a guy drinking his own urine. That's not why I like it. It is a tremendously geeky little comic, a short fantasia on the puzzle-solving trapped-in-a-room theme, where every plot beat is a logical or mathematical conclusion. You have to swallow a somewhat caricatured amnesia setup, but hey, better that than your own urine.

Shiga, Jason
Empire State
A young man (Shiga's drawing style doesn't distinguish between eight and thirty) wrenches himself out of California existence to go visit New York and his best friend / crush / something. This is one of those stories unquestionably full of autobiographical elements, not that I know, but which is its own story nonetheless. Jimmy is a romantic but aware of it; Sara is a cynic but honest with it. "Stuff happens to these people" -- not SF stuff, just life -- but I liked it.

Mind you, reading this and Fleep together paint a fairly angsty picture of the author's storytelling outlook, and Meanwhile (for all its awesomeness) doesn't alleviate that. I should re-read Bookhunter, that was pure joy.

Kibuishi, Kazu
The Cloud Searchers (Amulet 3)
Kids' adventure graphic novel, volume three. Talking animals and elf politics. Still cute, but I suspect it reads better in a lump than in eighteen-month intervals.

Yokoyama, Yuichi
An infinite number of people sneak into an architectural garden. That is the sum and totality of this thing. It isn't a story. The characters (all stylized and distinct, none named) wander through examining things (equally stylized) and remarking on them. Here is a house made of trees. There is a tree made of houses. The dialogue is just like that. It gets weirder and more involuted (blizzards of photographs of the people, replayed video of the scenery, branched sub-explorations of previous scenes) but does not end anywhere.

I confess that I bought this thing because I thought it would be interesting from a game-design standpoint. Games (particularly narrative games) are stuffed full of architecture, frequently for architecture's sake. But even games with awful storytelling are still obsessively interested in storytelling, and this book is not at all.

Stevermer, Caroline
Magic Below Stairs
A bit of pleasantry about a servant boy in the world of Sorcery and Cecilia.

Balder, Rob; Noguchi, Jamie
The Battle for Gobwin Knob (Erfworld, book 1)
The first collection of the Erfworld webcomic. A wargamer grognard from our world is snatched, Cheeto stains and all, into a fantasy kingdom at war. The gag is that Erfworld's laws of nature are wargame rules -- territories are hexagonal, every sentient creature has stats, and you can only attack in turn order. Everything, but everything, is a terrible pop-culture pun. So the gimmick is that, despite this, it is all completely serious: the creatures there live out their lives with the hopes and concerns and terrors (and sometimes terrible jokes) of any fictional or real world. The author carries it all off pretty well. Since it's a webcomic, you can read it all online, so don't take my word for it.

Wilce, Ysabeau S.
Flora's Dare
Spunky girl -- hang on, I've got the subtitle here -- "Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)". This series remains entertaining on the edge of twee, and when I say "edge", okay, I mean "hanging three feet below the edge from a tree root". However, it's hard to complain when racing along a plot that jumps through time and sacred space without pausing for breath. The Norse-Empire-on-the-Bay feels more solid than some hard-SF settings, from the disaffected teen music fans to the gleeful nicknames (Tiny Doom!) to the uncomfortable receiving lines at state dinners. (Nobody likes shaking hands with a Huitzil priest.)

Moore, C. L.
Northwest Smith
Pulp SF from the 30s, when planets were planetary, men were blaster-packing men, and women were their mortal enemies. Seriously. This collection starts with seductive alien vampire women ("Shambleau"), and then runs through seductive women pimped by demons, seductive women baiting dimensional traps... okay, it's more varied than I'm making it sound. The theme is definitely there, though. The sexuality is not explicit by modern standards, but it's suggestive as heck and must have been on the edge for its era.

June 2011

McGuire, Seanan
Rosemary and Rue
Half-elf detective gets herself turned into a fish. (Every reviewer must start out with that line; it's just too quotable a setup.) Years later, she drags herself out of the fishpond, tries to remember how hands and feet work, and goes looking to put her life back together. This is elf politics in buckets, and many people have recommended it, but I wasn't as hooked -- er, sorry -- as others. The pacing is weird. The book is trying to fill in Toby's backstory at several levels simultaneously (as a child, as a teen on the streets, as a maturing fae with powerful fae allies, as the wife of a human and mother of a child). They're all important to the plot, but the story jumps around too much and it doesn't gel. The elf politics do in fact interest me -- I want to know what the Queen's game is -- but not enough to read three-or-is-it-four-already sequels.

Leiber, Fritz
Swords in the Mist (Nehwon 3)
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have adventures in Lankhmar, go sailing for more adventures, and then get swapped to our world (a vaguely Greek/Phoenician era of our history) for a novella-length jaunt against an evil wizard.

Leiber, Fritz
Swords Against Wizardry (Nehwon 4)
Leiber must have gotten excited about mountaineering, because a good third of this book is Fafhrd and the Mouser climbing a mountain, in detail. (Naturally, they take a break halfway to bed some magical princesses, then fight a duel at the top.) (Not with each other.) Later they get involved in politics in some underground empire.

Leiber, Fritz
The Swords of Lankhmar (Nehwon 5)
This one is a novel. Rats try to take over Lankhmar. Naturally, some of them are sexy, sexy rats. But not nice ones.

Leiber, Fritz
Swords and Ice Magic (Nehwon 6)
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser get laid. This is a strange collection. It starts with a scene of Death picking off heroes around Lankhmar -- certainly a direct antecedent of Pratchett's first Discworld story. Then we get some quick scenes of women falling out of the air onto our heroes, or vice versa -- barely stories at all. (This includes the scene in which the Mouser, after five books of chasing or being chased by all manner of women for honest lust or, at worst, honest cash, casually rapes a would-be assassin. The text doesn't even try to handwave it. I don't know what Leiber was thinking.) The body of the book is another long sea voyage with wacky magical antics and gods fighting at the end.

So, now that I've read the bulk of the F+GM stories? They're still tentpoles of the canon, as far as I'm concerned. The prose very deftly slides between action, humor, and lyrical tone-setting. (The image of the world of Nehwon as an airy bubble rising through an infinite sea will stay with me; and, again, it must have been an inspiration for Pratchett's ironically clunky worldbuilding.) Nehwon is a very tangible place, Lankhmar more so, and the repeated intersections with our world, if patchwork, are confidently so.

As for the Fairies of Infelicity -- I think they've pooped less upon these stories than you might expect of the era. Nehwon is a big place of many nations and ethnicities; we see national stereotypes (the Mingols as outskirt nomads) but not unmixed ones (our heroes spend several stories sailing with a Sea-Mingol boatman). The women in the earliest-set stories wind up dramatically dead, but for most of the series the female characters show up as plot instigators rather than plot tokens, and pull our heroes into bed or not as appropriate to their schemes and desires. (With the blatant exception noted above.)

So, overall: worth keeping in one's library.

Kay, Guy Gavriel
Under Heaven
GGK applies the GGK treatment to what Wikipedia tells me is the An Shi Rebellion (China, Tang Dynasty, second Thursday). Imperial China-I-mean-Kitai is one of those eras where saying the wrong word to the wrong person can easily get you decapitated, disemboweled, or exiled to Mongolia-I-mean-whatever. Thus, a perfect setting for Kay's love of silent realizations, knowing glances, and allegorical poetry. If you've read any Kay at all you should know whether you'll find this evocative or want to throw the entire historical period through a brick wall. I kind of went back and forth.

No, no, that's my love of sarcasm talking. I enjoyed this a lot. The storytelling has a very stylized tone, but again, that's the style of the period. The characters are all interesting and kick ass. It's not exactly subtle that the exotically beautiful women are the green-eyed blondes, but it fits, and they're as distinctive and relevant in the plot as the other female (and male) characters. There are ninjas and they think the protagonists are funny. I can go with it.

Black, Holly; Kushner, Ellen
Welcome to Bordertown
First Bordertown collection in -- well -- the in-story gimmick is that Bordertown slipped out of phase for thirteen days, except, whoops, in our world it was thirteen years. So you'll still catch some of your old friends from the old collections, unchanged; but they're dealing with a sudden influx of kids with iPhones and Nintendos. But check it: an influx of kids who grew up hearing that there used to be a place called Bordertown, they thought they'd never get there... So, a mix of the old Bordertown authors (Yolen, Bull, Shetterly, de Lint) and fantasy newcomers (Tim Pratt, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Catherynne Valente, Cory Doctorow). Seriously, it's so meta you could bite your lip.

Smartass gimmicks aside (and the Doctorow story aside, because he's constitutionally incapable of not smarting ass) this has some good stories in it. And some very good poetry. Also some stories that are just okay. Par for the Borderlands course, I suppose. The stories brush past each other in a way that's occasionally interesting but not really genre-changing. (I don't remember whether that's par for the course; been too long since I read the old collections.)

I think I have never been in the Bordertown target audience. My adolescence doesn't fit the metaphor; or else, as a so-called adult, I don't fit the ending. (The opening story does nod to the "Bordertown isn't for me" angle, and I appreciate that, but I can't get seventeen-year-old-me's take on it.) So whatever's YA about this doesn't quite satisfy me, and everything knowing-adult strikes me as clunky. I enjoyed the stories but at a distance. I'll recommend the poetry direct, though.

Reynolds, Alastair
Terminal World
The worn thread in my Reynolds novel commentary is "he can't write grownups". I pulled that out after finishing this book, and... it doesn't fit. I'm not saying he's become a deep gem of maturity, nor are his characters, but they're as much grownups as any random adventure SF protagonists, and decently written. So, good for Reynolds, improving skills.

That said: this book is a not-very-successful Vinge riff. I wish it were a better one. The Zones were a great idea; more people should have been riffing them in the past oh god twenty years; and in fact Reynolds has a nice take on the Zones themselves. The world (rather than the Galaxy) is divided into regions of variable technology, particularly in tiers up the suspiciously beanstalk-like Spearpoint Mountain. (In fact the zones go past "no electronics" to "no machinery" and eventually "no cellular biology, sorry, you probably want to stay the hell out of there." And yes, Reynolds has a good explanation waiting.)

However, the appeal of AFUTD was not the Zones per se, but the sense of a multileveled Galactic civilization and all its attendant wonders. Terminal World wants to portray that -- a vast future world and all its history -- but the scope doesn't stick. It's just a trip, there and back again. A perfectly good adventure trip story, sure, but all the little background details just sit there on painted canvas. Yes, I got the (smartass) hints about the history of the world. They're not worth the effort Reynolds put into them.

Westerfeld, Scott
It's 1914; Europe is divided between Prussia's giant diesel mechs and the giant bioengineered living dirigibles of Britain, France, and Russia. And then guess who gets assassinated? This is a YA adventure which is sufficiently fun that you won't care how absurd it is. I mean, the dirigibles host warrens of gut-engineered bats that eat metal spikes and crap death upon command, and how can you say anything to that beyond "more please"? We get two protagonists, an Austrian princeling and a girl playing Handsome Cabin Boy in the British aeronavy; the book's pacing is a little awkward until it gets them into the same place, but it never slows down. More to come, of course, with the Ottoman Empire in book two.

Sinclair, Alison
Second book of the country where half the population can't survive sunlight and the other half can't survive without it. Despite the title, this book is divided between Lightborn viewpoint characters and the Darkborn Lady Telmaine of the first book. The difference, it turns out, is that the Darkborn have a Regency-I-guess formal society, with all the familiar trimmings, plus a soupcon of socially unacceptable magic. Whereas the Lightborn are all over magic -- understandably, as they need it to survive each night -- and also have a formal society of advancement through assassination, at least in the noble families. Result: any given Lightborn noble has been shot, poisoned, and dismembered any number of times, and healed (they hope) just as often. Result, and I'm pretty sure the author intended this explicitly: they are all batfuck insane. Murderous paranoid psychopaths with a creamy posttraumatic filling. The Darkborn who have to deal with them aren't much better (the spymaster is a piece of work, and I do mean well-written). Against this background, murderous paranoid psychopathic plots play out. We don't learn a hell of a lot about the underlying Shadowborn plot, but that's the title of the third book, so I look forward to the conclusion.

Novik, Naomi
Tongues of Serpents
Boy and dragon go to Australia. You'd think this would be out of the way, but no, China is smuggling trade goods, the British Empire runs on trade money, therefore trouble. This series has enough books that I can no longer get excited about them. New ones will appear at comfortable intervals until the end of time. (The afterword promises that three more are outlined, nor do I imagine that'll be the end.) They will always be comfortable reads but the war will go on, as foretold in the prophecy. I mean in Patrick O'Brian.

Mieville, China
Mieville's bent sensibility of urban magic turns up in London, where you always suspected it grew. Someone has stolen a giant squid. A giant squid! Stolen! I suspect this was a mad idea that turned up in Mieville's head during a museum visit and had to be exorcised by writing. The plotting isn't slapdash, exactly, but it's full of random things which aren't quite as compelling on paper as I suspect they were behind the author's eyelids. Yes, it's cool that the "kraken" is the name of a fairy chess piece; no, it's not cool enough to make you the new Tim Powers. Yes, it's cute that you can write London dialect so over the top that it lithobrakes back into plausibility from the far side. ("If you step closer, my lad and I will take you sailing, and you will not enjoy what's under the mizzen. We'll run you up a dress in taffeta. Do you understand me? If you speak we will bake you oh my god but the worst cake.") All that said, and believe me Mieville does say it, this is a bouncing little plot with plenty of special effects and the characters are all awesome in interestingly different ways.

Sapphire and Steel (Big Finish Productions audio plays, season 1, ep 1-5)
I watched the original S&S TV show last year. It was fascinating in a Lovecraft sort of way -- I don't mean batrachian; I mean that it was creepy, atmospheric as hell, implied a far longer reach of detail than it expressed or explained, and didn't quite work. The plots tend to resolve by fiat, lacking force -- tragic but not tragedy. (If there was an exception it was the fifth episode, the Dr. McDee dinner party.) Sarah Monette has a long diatribe about this somewhere.

But the upshot is a fanfic vortex; you want more and you want it done right. A few years ago Big Finish picked it up, with David Warner and Susannah Harker voicing McCallum's and Lumley's roles. (Scripts by Steve Lyons, Joseph Lister, David Bishop, and Nigel Fairs.) (David Collings, the original Silver, guest-stars in two of the episodes.)

Having run through these five new episodes, I can say that they capture the tone and the flaws of the original. The acting is good and the audio evocations of the supernatural are brilliant. Sapphire and Steel themselves are probably a little caricatured; Warner and Harker do credit to the roles, but their interactions seem stuck in a pattern and never have the spark that McCallum and Lumley had, either with each other or with the characters of each story. However, the show's main problem is unchanged: every story is a chilling buildup to an arbitrary tragedy. Okay, X is dead and Y (or sometimes X) is responsible. Problem solved, in story terms. We never have a sense of the implicit rules which make the calamity inevitable.

Nonetheless, I still want more, so I will probably pick up the two following seasons and find out if they improve.

July 2011

Stross, Charles
Rule 34
More future-of-police procedural. The theme is mostly Make Your Neurological Problems Work For You; which is to say, one of the characters is a paranoid schizophrenic. Curiously, he's not the most uncomfortable character to read. I recall this as fun, but I can't recall specific reasons to recommend it, so maybe we should just stick to Stross's Laundry novels.

Wells, Martha
The Cloud Roads
Not ambitious, but does a couple of interesting things. You know the (rare) SF novel with no human protagonists? This is a fantasy novel with no human protagonists -- a world inhabited by tribes of demi-humans, bipeds with fur or scales or carapaces. Yes, Adrian Tchaikovsky is doing that, but his bug-people are distinctly humans with knacks and the (slightly hard-to-swallow) mechanical inaptitude. These folks are people, but a step to the side of human: instinct, social reflexes, sensory ranges, living arrangements.

The protagonist has a tail. He also, unusually, can shapeshift into a winged, scaly, dragonish form. He keeps this secret, because the region gets regularly invaded by the winged, scaly, dragonish Fell, and he doesn't trust any of the locals to recognize the difference. (He knows the difference; the Fell stink, to his nose.) This is the other interesting bit: it's the fantasy novel where the "orcs" are smart. The Fell intend to take over the continent, and they use every trick in sight: treacherous peace treaties, assassinations, sneak attacks, divide-and-conquer. Or all of the above, at the same time, in layers. They lie whenever there's any tactical advantage in it at all. They're not very nice people. (This appears to be a racial trait, although the text does not engage this aspect of orc-fantasy -- at least not yet. No Dark Lord is in sight, in case you were wondering.)

Anyhow, our orphaned-at-an-early-age hero meets up with more of his kind, and they fight off the Fell. No surprise there. The surprise is that this is resolutely non-epic fantasy; it's one clan of good guys, one clan of bad guys, several local clans of bystanders, and everything is personal. The core plot arc is our hero's dragonny teen romance. (Okay, he's supposed to be 35, but he's shy and uncomfortable in groups -- due to having not met anyone of his species since he was a kid -- and, basically, it feels like that.) So, an unassuming book and nothing about it made me bounce around in my chair, but it's solid, and the series may be headed somewhere I don't see yet.

Thurman, Rob
Blackout [e-book purchase]
When the author pulls amnesia in the sixth book of a series, it's a strong sign that she is out of material. This isn't purely a book of "erase the protagonist's memory so we can retread everything cool from the previous books"; there's some attempt to work in character growth, as Monster Boy and His Brother react to the situation. But -- not enough to justify a sixth book. I'm sorry; the fun has not run out of this series, but this is not the way to stretch the fun.

Green, Simon R.
The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny [e-book purchase]
From Hell With Love [e-book purchase]
More Nightside, and then more Droods.

Martin, George R. R.
A Dance With Dragons
I went back to read book four, A Feast For Crows, before jumping into A Dance With Dragons. (I'm not the first person to think of Gilderoy Lockhart, am I? Good.) So I am now sitting at the back end of 1600-odd pages of Westeros storytelling, and that doesn't count the appendices. It's a hell of a lot.

My conclusions are twofold. First: yes, this pair of books could have been shorter. 1200 pages, maybe. I'm all for dense storytelling with lots of underhanded clues -- Rothfuss is doing a great job of that these days -- and Martin does enjoy planting his clues and symbols. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't have so much underhanded information that he needed this much surface to hide beneath. A prophecy here, a dream there, a damnably brilliant aside about ravens elsewhere -- you keep it moving forward.

But second: if you asked me to swear that books 4 and 5 were too long, I would mumble and wave my hands and then point at the Winged Monkey of Samothrace. Because at no point was I bored, tired, or in a hurry to get on with it. Every piece of story, every viewpoint character, I wanted to know what happened next. If Martin does this for another 1600 pages, and it's not over yet, I will read the books and be happy because they're just good reading.

(Maybe I should hope he's not reading this review.)

I can remember thinking (back in 2005) that book 4 was bloated with unnecessary scenes. ("I felt like a lot of time got marked," I wrote.) But that was half a book, and it works better in completion. The focus -- if I can use that word unironically -- the focus of book 5 is the twinned struggle of Jon and Dany to rule their newly-acquired realms, the Wall and Slaver's Bay. But this is really a triple struggle; it goes back to Cersei at King's Landing, which took up so much of book 4. That is why we needed her viewpoint, small-minded and blinkered as it was. All three of them are making a hash of it, but in different ways.

(It's interesting that Tyrion is not involved in that command storyline at all. I have always felt that, amid all the POVs, the three protagonists are Jon, Dany, and Tyrion. But Tyrion is absent from book 4 and essentially passive throughout book 5; Martin literally turns him into comic relief. I'm sure that's just a matter of focus -- Tyrion danced all over the early books, and he'll be back on stage -- but he started out with the people skills that Jon and Dany lack. I mean, aside from the skill of knowing when to not flip out and murder people.)

So time passes, stuff happens, and the pieces move around the board. You might expect more movement, but only if you don't acknowledge that trying and failing (and flailing) is a movement, in story terms. Both Jon and Dany will certainly be in new situations next book -- Martin isn't being subtle about that -- and where will Tyrion turn up? I have no idea. But I am still along for the ride.

Abraham, Daniel
The Dragon's Path
The author admits his new series is in the lineal descent of Ice and Fire (and he traces that lineage backwards to Thomas Covenant for one -- the antihero surfacing in Tolkien's wake). So I probably shouldn't have picked up right after 1600-odd pages of Westeros. A few chapters in I was thinking "Okay, sharp-edged medieval riff with some great banter, but it seems pretty stock, all in all." Then I remember that I thought that about Unclean Spirits, and I was wrong; Abraham is good at leading you down the genre path and then levering up the flagstones to show wriggling worms. Here, as well. I'm pretty sure he's running the Great Fantasy Quest Plot from both sides -- starting from when the Dark Lord really was a sympathetic protagonist. (The good and evil sides get more obvious halfway through this volume.) Also, there are scary bankers and decade's best gruff sergeant. If Brandon Sanderson is a guilty pleasure for you, try this.

August 2011

Flynn, Michael
The January Dancer
A fable set in mythical Ireland in the far future, only it's a spy story. I can't make that sound any less ridiculous, but it's played perfectly straight and it works great. Humanity's first interstellar civilization was forcibly diaspora'd; a millennium later, the fragments have rebuilt an uneasy cluster of stellar nations while clinging to their mish-mash of half-remembered Terran history. Result: people with names like Ringbao della Costa think it's perfectly natural to write "Little Hugh O'Carroll" on the office door when they go to work for the government of New Eireann -- it's not deception, it's just good manners.

The point is, the galaxy ("Gaelaxy", by god) is a centuries-old RenFaire gone to seed -- except it's not a joke; they have extremely real national concerns and prejudices and fears, notably of the Confederacy lurking on the other side of the Rift who threw them off Earth in the first place. And into that mix falls the alien MacGuffin, and pow, heaven's own chain reaction of agents, pirates, soldiers, and spies, all merrily chasing each other's tails for 400 pages. Recounted in frame by a harper and a mysterious tale-teller in a pub, of course. I can't say it never gets twee, but the author only winks when the characters aren't looking, and the characters are dead serious. So it works.

Gilman, Felix
The Half-Made World
This is the book I wished The Twist had been: the American West as a vast stretch of psychogeography, fragmenting into unformed potential at its limits (thus "half-made"). Unlike The Twist, this was never our world. The land is contested by two psychopolitical polarities, the Gun (individuality and chaos) and the Line (eusociality and order), as represented by sentient revolvers and steam engines. Neither is healthy to be around -- they don't want humans, they want heroes or drones, respectively. Correctly, the author doesn't pretend to explain any of this; it's the foundation for the story, not the story itself. More pragmatically, the foundation of the story is the fall of the Red Valley Republic (they wanted no part of either Gun or Line) ten years ago. It left unresolved wreckage. And yes, a hidden axis shadowing the native peoples turns up, although its import is not explained in this volume.

Miller, Rand; Wingrove, David
Myst: The Book of Ti'ana
Have not read.

Goldin, Stephen; Mason, Mary
Jade Darcy and the Affair of Honor
I keep hearing about this series, but what I keep hearing is that it was abandoned after two books. I guess I can see why it had early fans, but I wasn't that entranced. Jade Darcy, bad-ass with a phobia of the human race due to some background trauma, is now a spaceport bar bouncer on a planet so far out there are no humans at all. Occasionally she takes more interesting jobs. The background of alien social customs (in that mid-80s not-very-subtle SF way) is fun.

September 2011

Donaldson, Stephen
Against All Things Ending (The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, book 3)
Me, on previous book: "His stylistic quirks are... well, I can't say they're under control, but they're adequately curbed." You know, I think they are under control. Mostly. Donaldson does this thing where he starts a simile, nails one of its feet to the ground, and pushes it over backwards. "His hands made incomplete gestures like truncated supplications." NO THEY ACTUALLY ARE TRUNCATED SUPPLICATIONS. It drives me nuts. But then he also puts "may" where I want "might" and that drives me nuts, and I know it's just me -- the point is, Donaldson picks his words precisely and with care. He's aiming at effect, and most of the time, he gets me there. Occasionally he comes out with "surquedry" or "that dire fug" and I lose it, but -- fine, I'll say it. The bastard can write. Sometime in the past twenty years, he figured it out or I started paying attention. I won't swear which.

So this is the penultimate Covenant book, and things are really hotting up in the Land. Linden Avery has yanked Covenant back into mortal life, one of those things you're Really Not Supposed To Do (my caps), thus awakening the Worm of World's End (not my caps) and everybody has about a week left to finish their Christmas shopping. Thus, several mad races into and out of places after allies, power sources, and possible solutions.

I oversummarize, of course. We get: a couple of really very tense chase sequences; a couple of really very scary battle scenes; a lot of not-tense but fraught what-the-hell-do-we-do-now arguments... and it isn't cheap. By which I mean, this is not the third-hand fantasy gudge of "will he put aside his fear" (hint, the hero always puts aside his fear and finds magic in a giant burst of gosh-I-could-do-it-all-along). This isn't about fear, it's about doubt (and self-doubt) and trust. Linden Avery is a fuckup; she knows it; accidentally setting off Armageddon was a big hint in that direction. She has to keep moving anyway. The loops of second-guessing and fleeing/grabbing responsibility are what fucked-up people do. (They feel right to me, anyhow.) She can blast out magic in a giant burst of etc, and sometimes does, but she has to figure out what to do and what the cost will be. (Answer: usually irreparable.) Covenant isn't a deus ex machina either; he's just a person who has built some place to stand and trust. Their companions are, in various ways, broken and dealing with the same issues. All the plot threads reflect this, in various ways, and this is what good books are supposed to do. So I'm on board.

Enge, James
This Crooked Way
Further adventures of Merlin's hunchbacked alcoholic son, if Merlin had lived in a world with no Britain. I say "adventures" because this is a series of semi-linked short stories, much in the line of (and with stylistic references to) Zelazny, Vance, and Leiber. Haven't seen that in a while, have you? The semi-linking is how Morlock keeps running into his (interestingly insane) parents while on a quest to rescue his horse. We get Morlock through viewpoints human (interestingly varied) and nonhuman (not-so-interestingly insectile).

At this point I'm not sure what the series is about -- Morlock is completely reactive, in the long view, and his involvement with his parents comes off as two cases of "Eh, dealing with that sure did suck." I think the first book benefited from bouncing him off his sister, but she doesn't appear in this volume. His involvement with the rest of the human race (and etc) is the point, I guess, which makes these a curiously mainstream set of epic fantasy. But the third book may be yet another change in form, so I shouldn't draw conclusions yet.

Footnote: the sun rising in the west is a definitional mistake, not a geographical alteration.

Enge, James
The Wolf Age
Third book about Merlin's cranky, alcoholic son, now abruptly kidnapped by werewolves. Unlike the previous book, this is unquestionably a novel. Morlock Ambrosius is not unquestionably the protagonist; I think he winds up being the weird foreign sidekick of his werewolf cellmate. Hint: they escape. Battles and electoral politics ensue. (Werewolves love elections. They're pack sapients! Who can fight to the death and heal it all back at moonrise! Now imagine what their election rallies are like.)

There is also an evil wizard and a bunch of very Leiberian gods, none of whom I am particularly convinced by. Unfortunately the wizard sort of takes over the plot, and not in a good way. It's still a fun book, and I am thoroughly charmed by a (good) wizard whose first reaction to any problem is to invent, but I feel like each of these books is a mix of story and random crap the author thought would be cool to throw in. I'd love it if the random crap seemed to be going anywhere, arc-wise.

Footnote: Okay, I get it that the cosmology is not remotely Copernican or even Aristotelian. I'm still not comfortable with the sun rising in the west, not unless we get a non-solar account of what "west" means.

Niven, Larry; Barnes, Steven
The Moon Maze Game
Dream Park was not from Niven's "early and awesome" period, but it was an early favorite of mine, because it was about gamers and it understood what gamers wanted out of interactive drama. (Yes, the Games themselves were a stilted collection of LARP and D&D tropes, but that's what would actually happen, right? I mean look at today's videogame industry. But then check out the description of the haunted-house attraction at the beginning of DP. That's proper game design.)

So then I liked the second Dream Park book a lot (interesting ideas about the use of gaming), and the third one not so much (too much real-world drama intruding on the gaming). I don't mean to sound like a one-key pianist. The point of this series is a thriller drama intertwined with a fantasy game, with a mystery underneath, and all the parts have to work. I feel that The California Voodoo Game failed to make the fantasy game work. Its mystery was weak. Its spy story didn't repel me, but it didn't particularly drag me in either, especially since its underlying motivation was "He was so sexy that her brain stopped working."

That's background, so I can say: The Moon Maze Game also fails to make its fantasy game work. On purpose. But it's still a failure. Let me back up. It's a generation later; Cowles Industries is buying dome space in the Lunar settlements for the first big off-world Game. At the same time, revolutionaries are plotting to kidnap one of the Gamers. The Gamemaster has a hate on for the Loremaster, billions of dollars are on the line, the revolutionaries have hired psychos as kidnappers, everything is about to go splat.

(That's introductory. Real spoilers begin here.)

So. The point is that the Game gets seriously interrupted, and the last half of the book is everybody speed-running through a broken-down Game environment, while trying to kill each other. On the Mooooon! As a thriller plot, this makes sense. But I'm not in it for the thriller plot, which is -- anyhow -- basically plotless beyond the "run! hide! run! fight!" level. There is no mystery plot to solve. The Gamer characters are a half-assed ensemble. (As in previous books, I admit, but the previous books had colorful half-asses.)

And the Game, well, it breaks down. The shards make good scenery but the magic is gone. I think it never gelled, because the authors knew from the beginning that they would break it. I felt the hesitancy from the beginning. (Too many introductories about kidnappers, Lunar construction, and unstable African dictatorships. I could tell, in retrospect, that this was never a novel about Gaming.)

The worst part is, the bastards did take care to invent a great Game. They let us see it in the pieces.

Connolly, Harry
Circle of Enemies
I ask you, is anyone else in the "hunting urban monsters" subgenre actually writing scary? Because this is the scary stuff. (Okay, F. Paul Wilson can also do scary. I'm behind on his series.) Small-time thief continues to hunt the alien horrors from outside space and time. They're not sexy-scary, they don't have charming accents, and they're not good in bed. They're also backdrop: this series is about the Twenty Palace Society, who are not exactly the Happy Ending Club either, and what our hero will do about it. We also learn more about his past, and what his boss thinks. Annalise is pretty much the best thing ever.

Landy, Derek
Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days (book 4)
Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil (book 5)
Skulduggery Pleasant: Death Bringer (book 6)
I think I've pinned this style: it's Teenage Noir. The characters are streams of sardonic bon mots and clever comebacks, but it's not to deal with the ruin and fatalism of modern life; it's to deal with the loser kids in school. ("School" may be the Ministry of Magic or an ancient cult of necromancers, in the event.) They're great reads, don't get me wrong, but when I read three in a row I got a little cranky about the repeated reliance on the confidence versus socially-inept contrast. (Heroes and villains worth respecting are the former; contemptible toadies white-hat and black-hat are the latter.) Also a little too heavily beaten into the pavement: mocking Twilight tropes. On the positive side: Valkyrie's relationships with other characters, male and female, continue to grow and develop nuance. Also on the positive side: smartass skeleton with big gun. Skullduggery is just never not fun to hang around.

Sedia, Ekaterina
The Alchemy of Stone
Have not read. (I think this, like the other Sedia I haven't yet read, was a freebie on some table or other.)

October 2011

Vinge, Vernor
The Children of the Sky
As noted in every review of this book by anybody: this is what happens to Ravna and the kids on the Tines planet. Much politics, very little Zones stuff. That ought to be fine; Deepness was the same way. But I wasn't quite satisfied. I think I've gotten fed up with Vinge's flatly over-the-top villains. On the plus side: the Tines characters get equal time in plotlines with the humans, and the Tines plots are resolutely Tines plots: they are character stories that couldn't happen to human characters. Vinge does that very well. On the minus side: enough dangling plot threads (particularly re Zones) that we can expect a sequel, no doubt in 2020 or so.

Sagara, Michelle
Cast in Ruin (Elantra 7)
I enjoy this series more every book, and if I try to analyze why I come up with: it alternates between esoteric discussions about magical theory and incredibly uncomfortable social interactions. Occasionally they're the same thing. (The only thing worse than interrogating a Dragon about his reproductive habits is the Dragon knowing that answering is important.) And this is awesome! I don't know why. It's related to the Covenant thing, actually. It's the "heroine pulls out a new magic power every book" trope done not as deus ex magicwand, but as "oh my god, what complexities have I mired myself in this time, what have I made myself responsible for". And the complexities are now, what, seven books deep? and the author has not dropped the ball.

Also, Kaylin Neya is now perceptibly a grownup. She'll always do what she needs to do, and when that includes talking to other people like a grownup, she does that. This may be why she's my hero. Must learn this trick.

Pratchett, Terry
Trust Pratchett, publicly dealing with a terminal illness and euthanasia issues, to pick the title... But if there's any visible influence in his writing, it's a sneaking desire to get his minor characters married off and his minor races un-two-dimensionalized. In this case it's the goblins, previously known only as "so dimwitted they collect their own nose-droppings". In this book we (in the person of Vimes) (and son) (and wife, butler, ... don't neglect the butler) learn more. It's not as multilayered as it could be, but still solid.

Flynn, Michael
Up Jim River
More Irish interstellar spy adventures. Same crazy characters, same chase scenes, new gonzo planets, new MacGuffin. (We finally find a planet settled (at least in part) by Americans, I think. It may have been a mix of Americans and Tamil.)

Jamieson, Trent
I bought this because the first chapter begins in a city called Mirrlees-on-Weep. Sold! The city (all of civilization, turns out) is threatened by a slow-encroaching storm-zone of monsters and zombie-spores. Somewhere in the background, millenia-old engineers lurk with a possible defense mechanism, except they're almost as creepy as the Roil. It's wonderfully picturesque, but by halfway through I was still waiting for some kind of story. I kept waiting. The two main protagonists spend the entire book running away. Not the good Trent-the-Uncatchable kind of running; just predictable action-movie running. Things happen but no plot; everybody is completely reactive, except for the one Old Man on-stage, and he plays cryptic wizard all the way through. Too bad.

November 2011

Kadrey, Richard
Aloha From Hell
Badass sorcerer goes back to Hell. Hell turns out to be a lot like L.A. I liked this series more when the scope was a little smaller. Lucifer slumming around on Earth is an excuse for banter; but when we go to Hell and meet a whole lot of demon princes, plus various archangels and deity-figures and machines that run the entire Universe, it stops being at all convincing. Whatever trick Gaiman had for writing that level of numen, Kadrey lacks. This is nothing to be ashamed of! But it means you should write about sorcerers and second-string demons, not about God.

Griffin, Kate
The Neon Court
The urban wizard is just starting to get his pronouns under control, when a gang war breaks out between Faerie and a (nicely-realized) opposite-of-faerie clan. (Not the usual Unseelie Court trope.) Also, the sun keeps not rising and people don't notice. This series continues to build itself on city-texture in a way I like very much -- e.g., the uncanniness of no-daytime is first visible in the Underground, where morning commuters and pub-goers and dance-clubbers are all milling around in a nonsensical mix. We also get background on the scary not-quite-enemy assassin lady and the negative consequences of knocking out the most powerful sorcerer in the city (book 1) just because he happened to be an evil murdering bastard.

Jemisin, N. K.
The Kingdom of Gods
Third book (and concluding volume, although the previous two stand alone) in series about cranky deities. It has only now occurred to me that Jemisin gives us the first interesting theological alternative to Worshippers-Give-Them-Power since Pratchett filched that trope from Lankhmar's purse. These gods do fine without worshippers (although some enjoy the sensation); what they need is to be true to their Aspect. Thus, our protagonist Sieh, the god of childhood, literally gains mana from playing tag, throwing tantrums, or jumping on the bed. And yet he is an ancient being who watched his parent-gods create the human race; his tantrums have devastated cities. Kudos to the author for seeing that there's a whole novel's worth of potential just in that setup.

The book has an A-plot, nonetheless, involving a scheme to overthrow the Arameri aristocracy. One will not be surprised to find some commentary on privilege and power. The conclusions to all these threads felt just a little overblown, sketchy, and/or precious (depending on how seriously you take devastated cities). Nonetheless, the character relationships carry the book. I include the internal relationships between the gods and their natures, between the gods as vast immanent beings and as people-like-us. (It is no accident that each book in the series shows one of the gods being forced to live at the mortal level, in some way.) Very well done.

de Bodard, Aliette
Servant of the Underworld
Aztec fantasy procedural: imagine Detective Inspector Chen as an Aztec priest. Acatl is the high priest of Mictlan, god and/or land of the dead. This is a back-corner-office-in-the-basement position, as far as the Empire is concerned, but he still gets called in to crime scenes. One turns political. The world nearly ends. (But then, when is the world not nearly ending, in that viewpoint?)

Good stuff, as long as you are okay with buckets of spilled blood. Magic costs blood, which leads to a lot of nicked fingers and earlobes, but also several scenes where Acatl roots through the temple livestock reserves for cute-and-fluffy mana supplies. (Routine human sacrifice, as in the let's-keep-the-sun-rising trope, is not erased from the setting, but it's way in the background. Not sure how I feel about that.) I have some problems with the pacing, but they're minor.

(Also, between this and the werewolf book, I am completely full up on books full of foreign names that I can neither pronounce nor remember.)

Monette, Sarah
Somewhere Beneath These Waves
Have only read some of.

Elliott, Kate
Cold Fire
Girls' Own Adventure, part two. The protagonist falls straight into fairyland, which ought to be a hint that this book is immoderate in its pursuit of awesome. (Most of the storyline takes place in Hispaniola rather than fairyland, but only because zombies and soccer are more awesome than fairies.) Our heroine drinks, screws, escapes zombies, punches a shark in the snoot, does not quite start or prevent a revolution, and copes with Napoleon and the Wild Hunt, not necessarily in that order. To be fair, this book has more romance formula than the previous volume, but I was okay with it. We also find out what ice mages are the opposite of -- fire mages, unsurprisingly, but the details are nice. Lawyer dinosaurs remain a favorite.

December 2011

Tchaikovsky, Adrian
The Scarab Path (Shadows of the Apt, book 5)
Fifth bug-people book. The previous four formed a rather sprawling history-of-the-war quartet. This one is a standalone, and much tighter.

The Wasp Empire has been quiet for the past couple of years, so our protagonists (the ones who survived the previous book) (for bleeding and haunted values of "survived") head off to the semi-lost Beetle city of Khanaphes. The place is stone-age (an unsubtle riff on Ancient Egypt), which confuses everybody: it's not that darn lost, and the Beetle-Kinden who live there are not among the Inapt races of the world. Why do they insist on living in the past? And will they change their mind about crossbows and mortars when an army shows up? (You didn't buy "quiet" did you? Ha ha.)

Big battles, big character reunions, interesting story progression on many axes; tighter focus (one city, albeit with many threads); and a deeper look at the Apt/Inapt divide and what it really means for Bug World. I like it. I understand that book six is already out, and I will go get it without hesitation.

Hodgell, P. C.
Honor's Paradox
Of the last book, I said: " wraps up the Tentir storylines and advances the series arcs.... We have strong hints that Jame will be off to the north in the next story." Turns out I was completely wrong. All of that applies to this book. (Except south, not north.) So, no points for pacing. It remains true that "Jame hits Tentir" works better as a single (enormous) novel than as three, and it might have been better if it were edited that way, too. As it stands, it feels like a quarter of this book's wordcount is spent explaining what happened in previous books. Actual events are packed in like eggs, off-kilter; either their setups have been hanging too long (since To Ride a Rathorn), or the setup and event come on the same page. Hodgell is best when she can work a few strange details around from "quirky background" to "oh god the plot" at leisure, and this book lacks enough leisure.

All that said -- still a great story.

de Bodard, Aliette
Harbinger of the Storm
Master of the House of Darts
Haley, Guy
Reality 36
West, Michelle
House Name
MacAvoy, R. A.
Death and Resurrection
Berg, Carol
The Daemon Prism
Have not yet read. I am starting 2012 out well behind the curve. (But this includes early January releases, I think -- I went shopping on the 30th. Also, I expect the Aztec books to go by fast.)

Retrospective for the year: Angry Robot has become the publisher for whom I will give practically anything a try. I buy mostly "safe" books these days (known authors, known series, known genres) but I picked up three brand-new-to-me authors this year from AB (and one last year). Not all of them have been great but they were all interesting (allowing that I haven't gotten to Reality 36 yet) and worth the shot.

Last updated January 1, 2012.

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