Books I Bought in 2012

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 101 books in 2012.

Left Over From 2011

de Bodard, Aliette
Harbinger of the Storm
The Revered Speaker -- that is to say, the Emperor of the Tenochtitlan nation-state -- is dead. His potential successors are maneuvering for the throne like there was no tomorrow. There may in fact be no tomorrow, because the Revered Speaker is the mortal representative of Huitzilpochtli, and without one in place... the universe gets shaky. For example, somebody important is torn into messy little gobbets by star-demons. Our favorite High Priest of the Dead decides to do something about this, over the objections of everybody important (that isn't dead yet).

This series does an excellent job of the Vinge Spider Trick: you're reading along, in tune with what's going on, and then you remember that all of the characters have never heard of iron, eat newts for lunch, and consider their gods to be corpses. Newts aside, this is a satisfying political mystery of the "argh I hate politics but I have to fix this" model, crossed with "argh half of my suspects are gods and half of my witnesses are dead". (Being High Priest of the Dead makes that last part easier, of course. But not easy.)

de Bodard, Aliette
Master of the House of Darts
High priest continues to solve crimes, avert the end of the world. The noir parallels are rather explicit, now that I think about it: Acatl is the ex-cop who left the force because the top brass were all corrupt and he couldn't stomach the ass-kissing needed to get ahead. Okay, it's not a perfect parallel -- he never was "on the force" -- but the "last honest man, refuses to play politics" theme is very much there. This is the point in the series where he has friends and allies, but he's not sure of them because they play the games -- but he needs them for just that reason.

I like this depiction of the worship of Lord Death. Lord Death is the god who doesn't have to play games, because everything comes to Him eventually. (Yes, the themes tie in.) On an unrelated note, I was startled to realize (I know, duh) that these are the cultural threads that lead to the modern Mexican Day of the Dead and thence to Grim Fandango.

Haley, Guy
Reality 36
He's a laconic German ex-military cyborg! He (other he)'s a hyperintelligent supercomputer with a penchant for trenchcoats! They fight crime! Also, virtual reality games are outlawed and the government controls artificial intelligence.

This is unabashed cyberpunk, with the two main characters covering both the "psychedelic matrix-hacking" and the "brutal enhanced-human fight" ends of the scene spectrum. Unfortunately I found the book rather too sloppily constructed. I didn't realize that those two characters were the protagonists, for a start -- the plot kicks off with a young whiz-kid running for her life (along with her AI phone! They fight crime! And also commit some). Then we see the titular "reality 36", but we don't know why it matters or who cares about it. The two eventual protagonists show up, but in separate scenes. These threads don't link up for a long time. I expect some mystification in a thriller plot, but I'd like to have some idea of what the stakes are or at least who I'm supposed to root for? Or the background history that set it up? Yeah.

I did in fact keep reading until all was explained. The action moves along (with body count standing in for coherence) and the author can turn a funny phrase when he's of a mind. However, I'm not reaching for the promised sequel.

(Added footnote: okay, I see the front cover says "A Richards and Klein investigation", which is a strong clue that they're the protagonists. What can I say. I bought this several weeks ago and didn't re-inspect the cover.)

West, Michelle
House Name
Street kids attempt to get jobs.

This is a weird book if you haven't read the author's other series in this setting. (The Hunter and Sun Sword series, not the Cast In ones.) And I haven't. You're cruising along with Jewel and her gang, trying to figure out what to do with their lives beyond starving in a gutter, having painful conversations (or silences) about responsibility and privilege. Then wham a bunch of characters show up from another series. Demons, magical catastrophes, tormented souls wailing in the streets, a titanic battle between the gods (our erstwhile protagonists are not in attendance, as it's several miles above their pay grade). Demon-god is defeated, party invitations for all, more painful conversations.

I guess it's a tribute to how well the earlier books were constructed: they are completely solid as the story of a street waif. They don't depend at all on knowing the books already written about her future life. But those threads were always there, and they make up a large part of this book. But not all of it. I'm not uncomfortable with the balance, but I didn't expect it either. Anyhow, I am now interested in reading the other serieses, so it's a win from the author's point of view.

MacAvoy, R. A.
Death and Resurrection
It has been a really, really long time since I read any R.A. MacAvoy. It's been so long that I barely remember what she's like as a writer. Answer, as of the present: not exactly like other fantasy writers.

Ewan Young lives in Washington State. He's Chinese-American ("Yuan", in earlier generations); he paints for a living; he part-time runs a martial arts school; he has a twin sister and a terrible ex-girlfriend and a cute nephew and this is the sort of novel where those people will orbit through his life, a lot, in various ways. It's urban fantasy, but that's to give the people somewhere to meet.

See, Ewan has a near-death experience and get Buddhist Superpowers! I am very, very wary of Buddhist Superpowers. See, when I was a kid I was a stone-cold fanatical Spider Robinson fan... Well, long story short, it can be done poorly. This book does it well. What we have is a four-novella series (in one volume) about (unsurprisingly) death and Resurrection (Resurrection is the dog's name). (Or maybe three novellas and a coda.) Ewan deals with spirits, ghosts, monsters, the souls of mixed-up teenagers, and so on -- but, like I said, these are not stories about how Ewan is a magical superhero. They're four things that happen to him; and meditation turns out to be helpful, as it usually does for him. If you're expecting modern urban fantasy, you will be left off-balance, but I liked these.

Berg, Carol
The Daemon Prism
Wizard and friends go off to deal with their religion, which has gone badly, badly wrong. Not their church -- their religion. The religion (and church, and beliefs, and priests, and heresies, and all the other things that go along with religion) is one of the better-done examples of same in modern fantasy. It's all believably more complicated than made-up religions usually are.

Anyhow, we finally get Dante's point of view. (It's roughly two-thirds him and one-third Anne, from the previous book.) The transition to the interior works well, because we get more about where he's coming from and also see (or fail to see) his (no pun intended) blind spots. He is still an absolute bastard to everyone, of course, and this is correctly explained and not excused. Then he is dropped into seven kinds of shit. The plot goes rocketing off through disasters, betrayals, and all manner of wonderfully horrible things. The only weak spot is the sudden appearance of some fairy-tale villains out of ancient history, complete with fairy-tale magic tokens which are crucial to the plot. But this does not detract much from a slam-bang trilogy wrap-up.

January 2012

Spoor, Ryk E.
Grand Central Arena
This is not Doc Smith fanfic. No, it's fanfic of every SF work published in the 70s and 80s. (The author happens to be a Doc Smith fan, but that's irrelevant, except for the character named Marc DuQuesne. There's an explanation. The explanation is that the author is a Doc Smith fan.)

So humanity invents FTL, and the first starship lands smack in the middle of Eon crossed with the Well World crossed with any given RPG milieu handbook. Then follows 600 pages of discovering the environment, the aliens, the alien politics, the One Thing Humanity Is Better At, and the meticulously-worked-out rules -- interspersed with fight scenes and spaceship races. All great fun, of course. The action scenes are, to be clear, the frosting on the cake; the cake is a Big Dumb Object story. Character development is, well, it's not entirely absent, but it's the little silver beads scattered on the frosting. (In the tradition of all BDO stories of the 70s and 80s.)

The book is a fine example of what it is, and I'm glad I read it, but I'm also glad that most SF (even the relatively small slice of SF that I keep up with these days) has moved beyond this model.

If I have a serious complaint, it's that the book needed one more editing pass. Sentences, whole paragraphs, and the occasional entire scene are blatant "let me show you how much detail I've thought about" showboating -- understandable, but in need of the belt sander nonetheless.

Snodgrass, Melinda
The Edge of Reason
I sense this is a story that has lurked in the author's brain for a long, long time. I say this because it seems kind of out-of-date.

This is urban fantasy where the dialectic is Unreason (superstition, religion, magic, the bad guys) vs Reason (rationality, science, no magic, the good guys). (But the good guys get to use a little bit of magic, because otherwise it wouldn't be urban fantasy.) This is preaching to the atheist choir (i.e. me), but unfortunately it's the most annoying kind: preaching which isn't very good. It's all broad strokes, like a mediocre episode of Star Trek TNG. (Yes I know who the author is.) The bad guys feed on fear and hatred, start wars, inflame religious fanatics, set off bombs, impede stem-cell research, and generally are responsible for anything that's ever annoyed a liberal. All religion belongs to that faction, except for some handwaved "some hippy cults preach compassion and love, and oh yes there was once an era of polytheistic tolerance and goodwill, remember?" Uh-huh. The good guys will Give Us The Stars(tm). I'll take that sort of thing from Diane Duane, who can infuse it with the love of actual technology and science and SF and so on, but here it's boilerplate. The protagonist starts out religious (Lutheran) and winds up indistinctly agnostic through an indistinct process of that's-where-the-plot-went. Also, there's an angsty character backstory which does not break new ground.

The book does some things right. The protagonist is a gorgeous blue-eyed platinum-blond cop with a delicate face and perfectly manicured nails, and also plays classical music; his name is Richard. I don't think I've run into that trope-and-gender combination before. His police department (Albuquerque) is plausibly full of non-cardboard human beings, acting in plausible cop ways; when they go investigate some trailer full of creepy magic they know they have to get a search warrant first. If the book has a saving foundation, it is the relationships between Richard and his family, particularly his father. By the end I was grudgingly on the book's side (and I see a sequel has appeared), but it is not the grand evocation of rationality in SF that the author clearly wanted.

Lowachee, Karin
The Gaslight Dogs
This is frequently cited in lists of not-stupid book covers. (The person depicted is female, armed, not helpless, not half-naked, not contorted, and not acanonically Causasian. She does have tattoos but they're plot-significant.) Unfortunately, after all that, she's not the protagonist of the book. Her dog arguably has more of a plot role than she does.

The protagonist is Captain Fawle, the requisite disenchanted soldier in a story about white folks in a fantasy-US-western-frontier. This appears to be a Thing now (Felix Gilman, Richard Calder, the prologue of that Kris Saknussemm one) and I am having more misses than hits with it. (I liked the Gilman.) This one is mostly a miss. Fawle is ordered by his chilly martinet of a father to learn native-style spirit-walking. He is assigned two helpers: Keeley, from a local tribe, and Sjenn, from the North. She's the one on the cover with the spear and Dog. Nobody likes the arrangement, but it's the General's army, so Fawle gets to figure out his own Dog. Local politics intervenes, and things go very downhill. Set up for book two.

I like the good guys well enough; the antagonists (including General Daddy) are fascinating; and the prose is frankly gorgeous. However, the story never grabbed me. Nobody (not even the white guy) has a chance to do much beyond coping with the next life-wrecking plot complication. It's a familiar sort of setup for a (probable) trilogy, but I like a few more petty triumphs before (metaphorically) the Breaking of the Fellowship and Sean Bean getting scragged.

VanderMeer, Ann; VanderMeer, Jeff
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities
Another collection of whatever this subgenre consists of.

Lee, Jenn Manley
Wander (Dicebox, book 1)
This is the first printed collection from a webcomic series that I admire deeply. It's serious medium-future SF, focussing on a couple of itinerant tech workers. The author has the trick of conveying a lot of dense setting very lightly -- mostly through artwork, some through people's casual behavior. One day I will make myself a version of that coat.

Hurley, Kameron
God's War
A down-and-out bounty hunter gets downer and outer. This got into a lot of best-of-year writeups. It is not my favorite book in whenever, but I think that's because its obvious strengths do not line up with my needs.

The setting is thick and juicy: a barely-terraformed world, several centuries into a war that the planet and population can barely support. Technology is biological, creepy-crawly, and taken for granted; the war is permanent, clearly the center of everything that's gone weird about their (splinter-Islamic) culture, and taken for granted. Some people can shapeshift into dogs or birds. Aliens (i.e. humans from other worlds) hover around the edges. All of these things have layers, fractures, subculture clashes, and history. We get all of it from the inside, tangentially, because who bothers thinking about the centuries-old causes of day-to-day shit? It's very well done.

Nyx is that rare thing, a protagonist who genuinely doesn't know she is one. Her life is, in fact, day-to-day shit. She isn't nice. She makes petty mistakes, knowing they are mistakes as she does so. She doesn't dream of a better life because she's working too hard at this one, and when things get worse, well, that's the new normal. She doesn't blame other people because she knows it was her screwup. It is despair indistinguishable from never giving up, fatalism that you could call responsibility -- though never heroism -- perhaps only because we see it from inside Nyx's head. I think this is the strain of "sociopathically brutal hero" SF/F that I want.

The plotting, on the other hand, is a mess -- weirdly paced, turgid with characters and plot threads, and with a shoehorned-in denoument. All the stuff I've just been praising nearly passed me by because I was waiting half the book for the story to happen. It never really did; just various phases of shit in Nyx's life.

February 2012

Wilson, F. Paul
Fatal Error
Repairman Jack applies his customary blend of psychology and extreme violence. This is the second-to-last Jack book, plus the promised Nightworld at the end. (I have read most of the Adversary books, but not the Baby Jack prequels. Enh on that.)

This one is an episode, very much in the TV sense. A major plot event goes by, but in a self-contained sort of way. Some major characters meet up, so those plot threads advance. The big bad guy is temporarily foiled but gains a huge advantage. The good guys gain a small one. Okay, I could be describing any mid-late volume of a series, but Fatal Error felt a little thin. It's fattened up by a couple of horrible people being horrible in a completely human way, and then Jack beats them to a pulp. Effective but artificial tension. I'm not saying the series shouldn't go there -- its heft lies in addressing racism, bigotry, and selfishness in the same breath as demons of the apocalypse -- but the author seems to want to push all the elements over-the-top at the same rate, and he winds up just turning some chapters into a gorefest.

Rajaniemi, Hannu
The Quantum Thief
This was on everybody's best-of-year list... well, everyone with a taste for semi-singularitan caper novels, heavy on the programmable matter and socially mandated brain-hacking. No FTL, no AI; all the hard work seems to require uploaded copies of actual people, so we get all the wacky tech showpieces of post-scarcity SF while still having, you know, scarcity. (This must be a conscious choice on the author's part -- far-future SF without lapsing into lax Culture-ness. It would be caddish to point out that they should be able to clone the brain-patterns after upload, and thus dispense with all the slave farms and brain piracy.)

As for the story -- a thief escapes from prison (with help), goes to Mars, and tries to figure out what's going on. (He's not the man he used to be, you see.) Along the way we run into three different sort-of-posthuman human societies, get glimpses of historical background (what did happen to Jupiter, anyhow?) and watch people get tangled up in the kinds of awkward teen relationships that apparently won't change at all, ever. Plus, there's a costume party and a chocolate gown. Really, why aren't you reading it already?

Mieville, China
I'm pretty sure this novel only succeeds because of a trick. But it's a successful trick, and that counts. The trick is: the story is about language and metaphor, which means that every damn thing it does which is metaphorical is thematically appropriate and refers back to everything else just by that fact. It's a trick so damn brilliant that I'd steal it immediately, except now it's been done, and this is the book that did it.

Avice Benner Cho (never referred to as "ABC", but see above) grows up in a small human colony on the edge of known space. The humans are guests of, and represent humanity to, the native sentients: a species whose Language is so damn weird that they can't understand anybody else's. Humans can understand the Hosts' Language just fine -- AI translation handles that sort of thing easily. Humans can learn to speak it, too... sort of.

I will not spoil the details of the setup, although they are not a central mystery; it's all laid out within a couple of chapters. It is, nonetheless, nicely paced. The lesson of Language comes after we know of Avice's adulthood, her training as an astrogator, her flight from her home planet, marriage, and return -- all of which come after the incident in her childhood which makes her a simile in Language. The Hosts want to be able to say: "like the girl who was hurt in darkness, and ate what was given her." Avice agrees to be that girl. Much later, after she grows up and leaves and gets married and returns, everything goes wrong.

This is the classic linguistic SF story, and the classic first-contact SF story, and the what-these-aliens-really-need SF story, and the "Julian Jaynes just blew my mind and I have to write SF now" story. You can't do any of those barefaced any more (nobody ever did the Jaynes thing right in the first place, as far as I know) -- but, as I said, this book has a trick. It doesn't matter that they've been done. That's just part of the simile. The author will rub it in your face if you don't notice. It's unclear whether AIs are really sentient -- but it's impolite to ask. Fearing corruption of the Hosts, a character commits assault -- screaming about lies and the Garden of Eden. Threatened by a mindless horde of mindless enemies, humans cower indoors -- watching 20th-century zombie movies. (They're like the girl who was hurt in darkness... right?)

Mieville leashes his love of transgressive creepiness for this one. Sure, hyperspace is weird-ass land, and Host biotechnology could give Perimal Darkling a run for its interdefinitionality, but it's restrained -- part of a consistent background, not a distraction from the plot. Between this and The City... I now have faith that he knows when to put a cork in it. (Kraken is Mieville popping the cork out. Iron Council was him not being able to find it.) The book is fairly grim, and effectively terrifying towards the end, but not ultimately bleak. So, in short, I recommend this one.

Ford, Richard
This is the strain of "sociopathically brutal hero" SF/F that gives the entire genre a bad name. Thaddeus Blaklok is a thug with a heart of thug. That's his whole characterization. He beats people up, people beat him up. Later on, the beatings continue. It's basically a comic book -- not an actual comic book, but the stereotypical Bad Comic Book where the only tension is "will Batman win this fight?" (Answer: yes, and he also pulls a new superpower out of his shorts just for this issue.)

Also, the writing hits my personal trifecta of annoyances: dropped commas, "he was so much more than that", and palmed narrative. (That's where the narrator picks up something important but doesn't tell us what it is for three chapters.)

Reynolds, Alastair
Deep Navigation
A collection of short stories. Only a couple were any good. The rest were horror-shaped without the horror, or gimmick stories insufficiently written to hold up the gimmick. "Fresco" and "The Sledge-Maker's Daughter" were the ones to bother reading, I guess.

Kushner, Ellen
The Man with the Knives
A love story pared down to essentials, raw and distant at the same time; lyrical. You can read it as an after-thread to other "Swordspoint" stories (one of the people involved is named Campion), but to take the shorter wordcount as a slighter story would be to miss the point.

Sharp, Stuart
Court of Dreams
"Writes like Douglas Adams!", my friend said while recommending the book, and that turns out to be true. However, Adams had a fine sense for when to shut it off, and this author doesn't. The smartass remarks just keep coming, one after another, whether in descriptive narrative, dialogue, or action scenes. Work on that.

The story is a human college student falls into Faerieland, followed by elf politics and the expected dose of "Mom how could you." Other plot threads follow the elf (spoiled brat) princess and her Huntsman, who would make a great character if he weren't stuck in a book that wasn't about him. Overall, my reaction -- and I'm sorry about this, but it's the most accurate summation -- is "mostly harmless".

Miyabe, Miyuki
Ico: Castle in the Mist
I suppose I should write two reviews here: one for folks who love Ico the videogame, and one for folks who have never heard of it. (If you're in between, flip a coin and read both.)

Ico was a 2001 videogame (for the Playstation). I loved it; I still love it. It remains a landmark in atmospheric, engaging videogame storytelling. Notably, it was almost entirely wordless. Everything was conveyed through architecture, lighting, the body language of the protagonists, and -- most important -- the physical struggle of the game's challenges. If you haven't played the game, this makes no sense to you. Let me put forth that the most important button on the game's controller, the one about which the story revolves, is "hold hands".

So how does this experience translate into a novel?

A direct transcription of the game's events would be tedious and interminable. The author, sensibly, has expanded the story in several directions.

So: a young boy mulls his fate. Ico has horns on his head, sprouted on his thirteenth birthday, and that means he is to be taken off to the Castle in the Mist -- a sacrifice to its never-seen master. That much, we knew (more or less) from the game. But the book begins with the village elder, pondering his responsibility to send a student to an unknown doom. And then we meet Ico's best friend, and learn something about why the village has such a horrific custom. Quite a bit happens before the journey to the Castle itself (which is the game's first scene).

Once inside, the narrative hews closer to the game; enough so that readers might be put off by the focus on architecture, and all the scrambling Ico has to do through it. (Interactive fiction fans won't be a bit surprised.) But he soon discovers Yorda, a girl locked in an iron cage in the Castle's tower. Here the author takes her strongest liberty. In the original game, Yorda was seen only from the outside. She does not speak Ico's language; he does not even learn her name for a good fraction of the game. She is not passive, but she is part of the story's enigma.

The book, in contrast, freely switches to her viewpoint. When she and Ico join hands, he gets flashes of her memory -- more of the story's background than the game ever gave us. Parts of the Castle gain unexpected depth and history. And then we move entirely to Yorda's frame. The middle third of the book is entirely her narration, showing us (though not Ico) her childhood in a Castle full of courtiers, scholars, tournaments, and secrets. I found this the most compelling part of the book, no doubt because it was entirely new to me.

(I would be willing to describe it as Yorda's book, with an unusually broad frame story from Ico's viewpoint. Okay, except that the beginning has the elder and the buddy kid also. The structure is hard to get a grip on, honestly.)

Eventually we reach the end of Yorda's episode, and return to Ico -- blithely ignorant of the last 125 pages of narration, and therefore no longer quite our protagonist. He's still the go-clobber-the-baddie sort of character we expect from the game, and so the story wraps up.

The author's interpretation of what's going on is rather different from what the game presents. Thus, her ending diverges as well. Which is fine; I can replay the game any time I want. The tang of familiarity is in the sunlight, the sound of the sea -- the rhythm of two children running along a parapet, holding hands.

And for the reader who never played the game? I can't give you a completely fresh viewpoint; I know the game too well. But I was startled, halfway through the book, by the realization that I was reading an unabashed fairy tale. It's a form that written fantasy (at least, published English-language fantasy) has largely abandoned. We seem to prefer either added grit or the "urban" grounding of the modern world. Ico has an ethereal princess, a sturdy village boy, a curse, a castle, and an evil witch-queen; stir well and swallow in a gulp. There's nothing ironic or fractured about any of it. (Not that I mind those directions either -- halfway through the first season of Once Upon a Time right now, thanks.)

The language is a bit weak, prone to fantasy-conventionality and (as I said) too much physical description. (The text is Japanese, translated to English.) Nonetheless: engaging, moving -- if you're willing to buy into fairy tales -- and a fine addition to the Ico universe.

(No, I don't see anything on the net to indicate she's working on Shadow of the Colossus. I'd read it, though.)

Wilson, F. Paul
Reprisal [e-book purchase]
Catching up on the bad-guy thread of the Repairman Jack universe. It is a respectable book except that it doesn't have Jack in it, and I'm sticking with this stuff for familiarity (Jack) and continuity (Secret History background) rather than because I love Wilson's writing. As usual, I agree with his underlying theme of "people who hate people are the loneliest people, and will also destroy civilization" but it's played way over the top.

Pratt, T. A.
Poison Sleep [e-book purchase]
I wrote a fairly bitchy review of the first Marla Mason book, but the series was re-recommended (and I had a long airplane flight) so I tried the second one. It works better -- but still scrapes against my tastes in unfortunate ways.

As friends have opined, Marla comes off better on her home turf, where she is the generally-aggravated but not-usually-sociopathic gang leader for a gang of powerful magicians who would all be worse for civilization than she is. Also, she interacts with very few muggles in this book (the one nonmagical major character, she is completely fair with). I don't mind so much when she is vindictive and mighty-makes-righty towards other sorcerers, because that's clearly their social norm.

So my problem has been clarified: I get very little sense of Marla caring about anybody or anything. (See earlier reviews about the brutal-hero thing.) Story events try to demonstrate it -- she cares about her assistants, she cares about her city, these are crucial plot points -- but each time it feels out of place with the narration. We are told that she kills only as a last resort, and my response is "really? uh, I guess." Maybe this is on purpose; not all of the characters in the book buy it either.

I think it's a ground-level stylistic thing, really. The author is doing third-person intimate without the intimacy -- at least, that's how it comes across to me. No doubt fans would say she's doing it without the wallowing in angst and maudlinry. (I just started the thirteenth-ish Weather Warden book, so clearly I have no claim to restraint or subtlety.)

Anyhow, the fireworks are exciting enough (this book has assassins, treason, an excellent secretary, and an insane universe-warping dream-weaver on the loose) that I am willing to keep on with the series and see where it goes.

Sanderson, Brandon
The Alloy of Law [e-book purchase]
The Mistborn setting rolled forward a couple of centuries. (Yes, there was that whole reset business, but you know what I mean.) It is now the Industrial Age in town (trains, waistcoats, butlers) and the Wild West out in the country (guns, bandits). Also a couple of new metals have been discovered, so the author has new magic powers to play with. What else do you want?

It's basically a character romp, with the disillusioned retired sheriff, the loveable rogue, the tougher-than-she-looks society girl, and the wastrel scion of a rich family. (Not necessarily four different people). Oh, and the bad guys. And some leftover gods from the first trilogy, although they're almost completely offstage. Anyhow -- things get stolen, plots get plotted, fights get fought. It looks like Sanderson is planning a trilogy in their setting, but it also feels lighter-weight and faster-paced than the first trilogy. Which is fine.

Green, Simon R.
A Hard Day's Knight [e-book purchase]
No better or worse than the last sixty-three in the series. Excalibur shows up, Taylor attempts to cope.

March 2012

Anthropy, Anna
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters
Have not read all of, embarrassingly.

Jackson, Paul
Folding Techniques for Designers
Picked this up as a resource for a paper-folding game idea. The game has not yet condensed.

Caine, Rachel
Unbroken (Outcast Season, book 4)
Conclusion of second (sidequel) series in the Weather Warden universe. I was just snarky about these books, so I'd better back up and say why I read them. Answer one: I started the series and I usually finish what I start. This is a lie. I've dropped plenty of urban-fantasy serieses after one or two books.

Better answer: these books are really good at kicking the protagonists' heinies. The characters are human -- magically gifted, but human. (Ignore book 2 in the first series, that's temporary.) Their opponents are immortal Djinn who can rearrange reality on a whim. Also: hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, city-sized wildfires... these things are convincingly bigger than you. When the characters have Djinn allies, they find themselves up against super-Djinn, or avatars of the entire Earth's life force, or what have you. At any given moment, our heroes are on the point of being vaporized like ants in a blast furnace. They do not solve their problems by turning into bigger blast furnaces. Generally they are saved by more powerful allies -- who have their own agendas, or bring their own additional troubles to the sandbox. And thus the books are about politics, negotiation, loyalty, and betrayal. (With an obvious undercurrent of adrenaline.) This is way better than a series based on fireworks and supernatural slugfests.

That said, here's why I'm not reading any more by this author: she goes on too long. This is the conclusion of a four-book series that could perfectly well have been two books, which occurs in parallel with a nine-book series that... well, I would have enjoyed it just as much if half the plot threads and two-thirds of the pages had been excised. I realize that I bought all thirteen books and therefore the author wins, but I'm done with that game, honestly.

Downum, Amanda
The Kingdoms of Dust
Necromancer (or entropomancer, if you prefer) goes to mythic Arabia (by some name or other). Usual crowd of apprentices, old friends-and-enemies, princes, djinn, assassins, etc show up for the ride. Once again, I had trouble tracking all the names. Also, everybody is a spy. I think the author has decided that the only interesting people are people who make hard decisions, meaning decisions about other people, meaning they all have to be spies (unless they're princes or high priests). I'm not objecting, just making a note.

The problem at hand (which secretly ties back to the previous two books, I think, or would if I remembered all those plot details from two years ago) is that a secret order of desert priests has captured a nest of shoggoths. They have shoggoth leakage. Leakage is bad, c.f. "Sea of Glass", "Irim/Iram/Irem of the Pillars" (my favorite Arabian legend that I never heard of until Tim Powers came along, thank you, Tim). Everybody on several sides wants a necromancer to solve their problems. They want her very, very badly. The necromancer deals with this by playing to her strengths, which are not what you expect.

I have decided that I like this (I think) trilogy (the third book ends at a good stopping point, anyhow). However, it's in a strange mid-ground between standard protagonist structure and ensemble casting. I wonder whether the whole thing would have worked better if Isyllt had been a pure NPC, seen only from the outside, with her companions carrying the story. No? I know, it wasn't my decision, I didn't write 'em.

Ahmed, Saladin
Throne of the Crescent Moon
Faux-rabian desert city! Egyptian-like ruins! Necromancers! Djinn, ghouls, and jackal-headed demons! Just like the last book! Okay, not really. This is a bouncing over-the-top adventure story about the last ghul-hunter in town. He's old, fat, profane, and would really rather be home drinking tea and making out with his girlfriend. Unfortunately nobody else can do the job, so he keeps putting his ass on the line versus undead horrors. (His girlfriend, understandably, is not speaking to him.)

Unlike Kingdoms of Dust, this is very firmly city-based (and ensemble-structured). We venture into the deep desert just long enough for a ghul-fight and to round off our band of protagonists (the young dervish, blinding death with a sword, not so good with spells or kissing girls; the orphaned Bedouin, also deathy, particularly after she turns into a spirit lion and starts ripping heads off). The bulk of the story is in town, with undead horrors against a backdrop of Tyrannous Khalif and Heroic Rebel politics. Our hero would much rather ignore all that and concentrate on the ghuls. The plot does not cooperate. It's pretty much pure fun, sprawling with vivid characters and a big, crowded, noisy, stinking, history-filled city. Big sequel-hook at the end, mind you.

Powers, Tim
Hide Me Among the Graves
I have survived a string of Tim Powers novels that I didn't care much about (but also Declare, which I loved). So I worried about a long-interval sequel to The Stress of Her Regard. Unnecessary! This is one of the good ones.

The original book had Byron, Shelley, their crowd of artsy associates, and (protagonist) Michael Crawford. This one, set a couple of decades later, has Christina and Dante Rossetti, their crowd of artsy associates, and (new protagonist) John Crawford. Plus the vampires, of course, in all their shape-shifting, deliriant, disease-or-Muse muddled glory.

Powers is in full form with the creepy grotesquerie. The plot is wall-to-wall sewers, London bird-sellers, quantum interference patterns, surgery, laudanum, and poems buried in coffins. He also manages to work in ghosts and earthquakes (recurring favorite themes that the previous book somehow missed).

I will make complaint only by way of comparison: the story goes by in several fits (from 1845 to 1882), and while each section works well on its own, there isn't as much drive from section to section as there probably should be. Also, the sequel doesn't have nearly as many "holy crap" history or worldbuilding moments as the original. That's inevitable and to even classify it as a complaint is to blush; nonetheless, it was my reaction. Eventually I will re-read the pair in order; perhaps by then I will have internalized enough of the real-life Rossetti, Swinburne, and Trelawny to feel how nicely their fictional histories dovetail. (It's not like I knew anything about Byron or Shelley when I first read Stress.)

McGarry, Neil; Ravipinto, Daniel
The Duchess of the Shallows
Street urchin attempts to inveigle her way into the Thieves' Guild in a fantasy city. Expected trimmings include prostitutes, secret societies, priestesses, and a theft caper through high society.

The book does a decent job of solidifying these stock elements. Duchess is an orphan but not a street orphan; she's been working in a bakery since she was seven. (Yay for baking in fantasy, although this (sadly) does not achieve Sunshine levels of pastry obsession.) The setting is non-magical (so far) fantasy; the city has a history, with class tension and revolution hovering (so far) in the background. And there are several shady-and-or-criminal organizations in the city, with complicated interactions. This book most directly shows us the Red, a straight-up protection racket, but the interesting folks are the Grey. Schemes are clearly afoot. Sequels to follow.

The strong points here are lots of politicking and negotiation, not just within the underworld but at and between every level of society. Shopkeepers pay off the Red, brothel-keepers manage rich clients, nobles hire poor workers as servants. The book gives good glimpses of all these facets. On the down side, the setting a little too unexamined-standard-Euro-fantasy, and the Grey -- which ought to be the most distinctive element -- is underexplained and taken for granted by the narrative. Should have had either more focus or more sense of mystery. But this is a marginal complaint.

(Interest: I know Daniel Ravipinto on the Internet, and he sent me a free copy of the book.)

Laffoley, Paul
Secret Universe 2
If Laffoley had decided to post to Usenet instead of paint pictures, he would have been a memorable crank. As is, he is a painter of gigantic, memorable, beautiful, crackpot infographics.

April 2012

Scalzi, John
Fuzzy Nation
I have read Little Fuzzy and Fuzzy Sapiens, but it's been twenty years now and I only remember scenes and plot threads. I don't remember how they hold together as stories. I suspect Scalzi's take is tighter.

The original was sort of a science-discovery idyll with a courtroom drama tacked on at the end? I think? This version drills right down into the courtroom vein and sticks there: Scalzi's Jack Holloway is a disbarred lawyer, arguing contractual points with his ZaraCorp manager right from chapter one. He's also a smartass, a showboat, and irritating. Not incidentally, this makes for some bouncy fun courtroom scenes. Really, nothing in this book is incidental. All the ducks -- or, should I say, all the charges are planted in a neat line and fire on schedule. (Triggered by... but that would be telling.)

I suspect, in the end, that Scalzi is having fun with the 50s pulp portrayal of the rugged individualist SF hero. Holloway is that, in an updated context; the text is not shy about what that means and what he is good for. And at. And what he's not. What kind of person he really is, the text leaves in your hands. It's a charming ride, anyhow.

Buckell, Tobias S.
Sly Mongoose
This was a heavily-delayed paperback, which means it's been almost four years since I read Ragamuffin. But then, I recall having trouble absorbing the space-opera background even then. The history behind everything is big and complicated, and we've been getting barely a soda-straw view of it per book.

In any case, we now alternate between Pepper (semi-immortal defender of humanity, cranky bastard) and Timas (a teenager growing up in a ramshackle-poor mining town). Pepper drops into down just ahead of an invasion force of zombies. I honestly didn't need the zombies. I mean, I just read that Gibson screenplay for Alien 3, which has essentially the same plot, and how long has that been floating around? There's nothing wrong with it as a zombie plot -- we get chase scenes, fight scenes, pirate battles, secret enclaves of aliens, the usual. Not to mention that everything takes place a hundred miles up in the air above a Venus-like planet (with bonus scenes down in The Murk). All plausibly grimy and nuts-and-bolts-y.

Pepper is interesting, now that we get a closer look at him. (He may have been interesting last book but I didn't get into him then.) Throwing him into a narrative with a teenager is surprisingly effective; not only is everybody a kid to him, but Pepper is, in some senses, too old to be a mature adult. Things wrap up with suitable drama and enough space-operatic scope to satisfy me. A fat straw's-worth of new history, you know, like you get for the bubble tea.

Bear, Elizabeth
Range of Ghosts
We recall that Windwracked Stars started with a protagonist lying in the middle of a battlefield, covered in blood, surrounded by two armies' worth of corpses plus a magic pony. Apparently Bear wasn't done with that trope.

This is the most conventional fantasy novel Bear has done. I'm not quite sure what I mean by that, but I'll try to pin it down... the book has a plot and the characters pursue it? No. That makes all her previous books sound like plotless wonders, which they're not. But Bear's characters have a tendency to be buffeted by history, come to rest, spend a few years making ironmongery, and then get walloped by another few events. It's the way life actually works but it's outside convention for fantasy novels. This one has a more familiar structure. I wonder if it will do better in the market.

Mind you, it's the start of a trilogy, so possibly the structure will veer off my expectations. I'm not hoping for or against that, I'm just noting the possibility. For the moment: you want a quest story with a band of heroes (mostly women) kicking various kinds of ass through Central Asia, this is the one to read.

I'd bet some money that Bear got into an awesome-flinging contest with Amanda Downum. Kingdoms of Dust had manticores and zombie cobras; Range of Ghosts has rocs, bloodthirsty ghosts, cat-people (not the cuddly kind), and ninja assassins. Also a legitimate usage of "the sun rises in the west", for which I give great credit.

My only quibble here is that there's fractionally too much "let me show you my research" detail. No instance is obtrusive, but the total was a little distracting.

Jones, Adrienne
The Mural Master [re-read]
I decided to re-read this after a chance mention of the word "massif", which caused me to say "what, like the Hooneran Massif?" and nobody knew what I meant. (Google has zero hits, except for me raising the question.) (Correction: if you search, you'll find the book in question.)

This is an early portal fantasy that I was fond of as a kid. On the reread, it's a whole lot shorter than I remember, and more unrealistically optimistic about the notion of overthrowing an evil king with zero bloodshed. But it stands up pretty well anyhow.

Carrie and her cousin Digby meet up for their regular summer vacation in the nowhere town of Pawthany-on-Ilse. This year, however, a stained-glass shack has popped up, labelled "Mural Shop". The (only somewhat hobbit-like) Mural Master invites them inside, along with two other visitors, and -- if I say they wind up painted into a corner, you'll hit me, right? Magic country, greedy king, beautiful daughter, prophecy, evil magician, monsters, adventure, true love, all in due order. (Note: prophecy is not actually prophetic and its import is rather nicely explained.)

The magic land is the best part here (okay, except that it's named "Pawthania", but ignore that). It's vivid, full of high-concept scenery, and surprisingly not beholden to D&D fantasy tropes. (Even the short hairy-footed Mural Master turns out to be his own kind of thing, and certainly no Bilbo clone.) The brushstrokes (sorry) are broad but distinctive. Same goes for the protagonists. The group is both less white and less stereotyped than you might imagine for 1974; Tonio Dias is the storyteller -- favoring Poseidon, rather than anything culturally Hispanic -- and Leo Lopopolo (of some Caribbean ancestry) winds up the de facto team leader. Carrie could be described as "spunky" and she screams a couple of times, but everybody gets their turn in the doing-things spotlight. I suspect the book never got a second edition, so you'd have to go trawling the used-book networks, but I recommand it anyhow.

Smith, Sherwood
Banner of the Damned
Starts out with an seductively quotable opening statement, which I won't quote. Instead, I will say that the author seems to have written an entire book to address a single offhand complaint I made in a one-paragraph review of Inda in 2006. (To wit: "...the narration has potholes; it's mostly tight-third-person, but sometimes jumps heads or goes omniscient to make some point.")

I know this is not possible. Instead, the author must have set up a stylistic rifle on the mantel in a 2006 book, based on story elements going back to her earliest stories, and then let it percolate in our subconsciouses for six years before giving us a (partial) explanation.

This is playing the game at a very high level. Smith is not the only author doing it these days, but GRRMartin and Steven Erikson and even Pat Rothfuss are Big Names in Fantasy. I say that Smith needs some attention in this regard. Norsunder deserves credit as one of the great Dark Powers in modern fantasy, a boogeyman whom nobody knows what they want. They just pop up occasionally (all ancient history, of course, doesn't happen these days) and instigate some trouble or make some people disappear. And by "they" I mean this ordinary-looking guy, who isn't scary until you read some history and realize he was mentioned two thousand years ago. And he isn't even one of the important ones. I'm not conveying this very well. It's really good setup.

Banner takes place about four centuries after the Inda books, in Colend, the other side of the continent from Marloven Hesea. The tone couldn't be more opposed: the Colend court is mannered and leisurely to a Guy-Gavriel-Kayan degree. However, the Marloven empire is still lurking, military as ever -- though not in the same way as Inda's nation. (Another lurking theme is how the history of Marloven Hesea is the history of the Marloven military academy. This is never stated, but after N books it's absolutely clear.)

The viewpoint is Emras, a young scribe. Scribes are rigorously trained to be honest and apolitical; naturally, Emras winds up ass-deep in politics and lies. The frame text (still not quoting) makes it clear that this ends badly; the book is about how. As with the Inda series, there are princes, princesses, wars, betrayals, and epic tragic romances -- although Emras is mostly an observer of the latter. Unlike with the Inda series, this book gives us some meta about the Inda series: one of Emras's jobs is to translate the four-hundred-year-old memoirs that (presumably) become the quadrilogy. (There are several versions, not necessarily all reliable.) And then the head-jumping comes into it... As I say, meta. And intriguing.

Tidhar, Lavie
The Bookman
Victoriana with a vengeance. The first chapter mentions Detective Inspector Adler, Prime Minister Moriarty, Oscar Wilde, and Henry Irving (I checked Wikipedia, so can you); not to mention that whales sing in the Thames, an android Lord Byron is giving recitations, and the Queen herself is a lizard-person. The parade of historical and literary allusions is charming -- for about the length of the first chapter; then the gears start to squeak.

It's a pity, because when the story itself is in gear, it's very well done. The protagonist (yclept Orphan, surely a twenty-one Chekovian-gun salute of a name) is flung out of London obscurity into a desperate quest for the occult terrorist (or anti-lizard freedom fighter) called the Bookman. The tone wavers between Gaiman homage, Powers homage, and a pure hot love of the fannish genres. The latter is convincingly sincere; I wish the author had left the former in the margins.

And then, halfway in, the whole thing revolves in your hands into a dark, perhaps-Singularitarian breed of science fiction -- neatly taking apart the steampunk tropes (and perhaps some classically fantasy ones as well). This is an awfully good trick and entirely worth the uneven opening. I'm not convinced that the sequels will tidily explain the library (stumbled across early on) containing volumes by Ashbless, Eustace Scrubb, Princess Irulan, and so on. I am not, however, convinced they won't.

Schroeder, Karl
Ashes of Candesce (Virga, book 5)
After an onerous wait, Schroeder assembles the main characters from the first four Virga books plus a new protagonist, and attempts to wrap up the series in a multi-viewpoint blaze of glory. I can't say all the threads held together for me. I can't say he should have spent more pages gluing it together, either -- this series could have bloated out into another three volumes of resolution, and I give Schroeder credit for avoiding this.

Instead, he appears to followed the "write all the awesome scenes, skip everything else" model of novel construction. The result is undeniably full of awesome, but leaves me wishing he'd spent less time setting up and more structuring a single coherent series arc.

The worldbuilding mystery of the series -- "what does Artificial Nature mean?" -- is pretty well answered, but in a tell-not-show way; I didn't find it a satisfying Big Idea. Yes, aggressive oak trees and killer tulip planters are nifty. No, they don't add up to a good portrayal of posthuman/postconscious ecosystems. Schroeder has been tackling this one since Ventus. (Stross has taken stabs at it too, with "Missile Gap" and the Economy 2.0 stuff and so on.) I hope he (they) keep at it; I think there's something down there, but the great Idea SF Novel for it has yet to be written. Unless it was Blindsight, in which case eww.

(There's also a quantum-gravity-math macguffin which I don't buy at all. To be fair, it only shows up in one scene. To be fair in the other direction, it's crucial to the Virga setting and its weakness undermines the whole series for me. Oh well.)

But, setting aside my inner twelve-year-old's "I want my mind-blowing idea" tantrum, the series wraps up with a perfectly acceptable action blowout involving end-to-end avalanches, missile attacks, bug hunts, triple-intertwined hostage rescue missions, fleet actions, and (of course) a chase scene into the heart of a live fusion reactor. So you can read it for that.

Powers, Tim
The Bible Repairman and Other Stories
A nice collection of nice (that is to say, disturbing) Powers. The final novella is a Trelawney story that bridges between Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves. I'm not sure I needed it, but if you were looking, here it is.

May 2012

Adams, Guy
The World House
I love the "weird surreal infinite house" genre of fantasy. I flat-out love it. James Stoddard, Kit Manson, John Bellairs, Patricia McKillip, Mark Z. Danielewski -- just off the top of my head. Zelazny did it once, and he was riffing on William Hope Hodgson. I love that the TARDIS partakes of the Weird House. I keep coming back to it in my own IF work.

The World House is a Weird House novel that I couldn't manage to enjoy. I think I wanted it to be a species of fantasy that it just isn't. It is a character drama, and it spends a long time introducing wodges of characters to bounce the focal-point character off of. This means (a) you spend more than half the book meeting people who are apparently in unrelated plot threads, and (b) there really isn't a protagonist at all. People explore the house, but any association you have with any of them is fragile and temporary. Also, there are little interludes about aliens or demons or something in Earth history which don't seem to fit in at all.

The story eventually coalesces, but not in a way that makes you think "Ah, I should have seen this coming!" That's the kind of fantasy it isn't. Nor is it the kind where you can just enjoy the wacky (or creepy) architecture. There are clear indications that It Makes Some Kind Of Sense, but the Sense winds up coming out of the blue (or black) and was not satisfying to me. The world-building was neither poetically nor logically sound, I guess I'm saying, and I need one or the other. Also, I need a protagonist.

All that said, the architecture is both wacky and creepy. The character writing is pretty good, if I can tell from characters I wasn't engaged with -- the voice shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint, in a way which is not over-the-top. (Exception: the obsessive-compulsive kid. She was annoying. If I had liked the book, I might have bought it as realistically annoying.) The non-viewpoint characters are mostly over-the-top stereotypes, but they're drawn from a range of time periods so the contrast is appropriate. The plot, as we finally see it, ends with a big bang and a sequel hook. If you are into this kind of book, you will probably be happy with this one. I know that's a near-contentless thing to say; sorry.

Griffin, Kate
The Minority Council
Fourth book about Matthew Swift, recently-dead sorcerer and secret servant (or something) of magical London. This volume is considerably more sedate than the first three; we actually get to see Swift patrol, plan, negotiate, recover, rest, and maneuver in between bouts of getting the absolute crap beaten out of him. In fact, he gets nearly a third of the way through the book before something overpoweringly awful gets on his tail, and he has significant respites after that too. Somebody even brings him coffee and sandwiches a couple of times.

With this leisure, we get to see a story told without the all-fireworks-all-the-time mode. Good news: it's even better this way. The author continues to demonstrate a fine grasp of what makes magic work, the emotional roots which get metaphored (from one side) and reified (from the other) into a convincing fantasy theme. (In this case: adolescent temper, and the logic of addiction -- finally putting right what Buffy season 6 got wrong.) The supporting cast sparkles (yes, sometimes literally) and then lands with a solid or delicate impact when needed; nobody is underdrawn. I was already sold on this series, but now I am sold on it continuing as long as the author wants to write it.

Pratt, T. A.
Dead Reign [e-book purchase]
Marla Mason goes to Hell. It isn't exciting. The author has a talent for describing supernatural events in a bland, workaday mode that fails to bowl me over -- either with the protagonist's reaction or the sheer special-effects awesomeness of it all. I realize I'm picky about this sort of thing: I regularly excoriate Simon Green for putting in special-effects narration that's over-the-top but bad. Richard Kadrey fell down at the job too. For what it's worth, Kate Griffin hits it dead-on.

So, there's my prejudices about fantasy writing laid bare, and I think I'm done with Marla Mason now. (So is the publisher, although the author is web-publishing sequels. If you enjoyed the first few, go hunt up the rest, by all means. I see some series arc shaping up -- the second book was about love, the third about death, the teaser for the fourth implies family.)

Schroeder, Karl
Lady of Mazes [re-read]
This came out in 2005, and I described it then as "The-Future-as-Livejournal". (If I'd been hipper I would have said "Friendster"; younger, "Facebook".) Pick your social network, the principle still applies. The people of Teven Coronal can filter their realities: select friends and family and scenery and technology, and live the lives that they choose. Then evil invaders start knocking down the walls.

The Archipelago, the civilization beyond Teven's horizons, has picked up a bit more resonance in the past seven years. There, the same world-filtering technology serves a different purpose: it gives people's lives meaning. You are steered towards people you can care about, careers that fit your talents, causes and projects that will satisfy your soul. And if you don't like the way the narratives run your life? There's a narrative for that too! Your struggle against the system will be gratifyingly effective! As far as you can tell.

You could describe that as an Internet dating service run mad, but the better analogy is personalized search, right? Google is my view of reality, to a large extent, and if it decides to show me what I need to become (Google's idea of) happy... I sure wasn't looking at Google with such suspicion in 2005. If Schroeder was, he gets a very large gold star.

Futurism aside, how does Lady of Mazes do as a book? Eh, it's okay. The setup is good, but the plot gets murky in the latter half, and the parts that come clear feel contrived. It's perhaps an inevitable flaw: the point is that nonhuman / superhuman intelligences run everything, so why should their plans be comprehensible? Half the time they're opaque scenery, enforcing rigid rules for no obvious reason but to make the setting work. The other half, they talk and act like human characters; then the sense of awe falters and gives us only petty scheming in return.

One can easily see sketches of the Virga series here. Teven is the (relatively) low-tech enclave in a vast post-human civilization. The question of living in a universe of "artificial nature" arises; so does the question of extracting meaning from life in a post-scarcity (or post-physical) reality.

At the same time, the character writing (while vivid) is clumsier and less subtle than in the Virga books. I might say the same for the plotting, but then I thought Virga wound up as rather a plot-mess too. Well, if nothing else, Schroeder is learning to keep a story moving for more pages at a time.

Mieville, China
The Scar [re-read]
Still among Mieville's top novels, for me; Bas-Lag done right. (I thought Iron Council was a waste of time, and I never even got past the first few chapters of PSS.)

The descriptive writing is over-the-top; the narrative writing even more so, dipping at whim into hallucination or stream-of-consciousness or madness-of-crowds. More, Mieville is pushing hard against genre tropes. His protagonist is cold, disdainful of social contact and emotional display. She does not fall in love or discover her true calling in this story. Her environment, the entire world of Bas-Lag, is described in terms of ugliness, cruelty, sickness, sin.

But. Nonetheless. The story grips you and hauls you away -- it did me, I'll say that much. Bellis Coldwine is on the run from New Crobuzon (she will eventually say why). She figures a few years on another continent will settle things down. Instead, her journey is hijacked by Armada, a floating pirate city of lashed-together ships and social customs. And then -- plans, plots, schemes open and covert, lies, betrayal, boom-boom-boom until the last page.

There is just enough warmth -- conditional and hesitant as it is -- running through the story that it is a story, and not just a gratuitous assault on my reading-senses. There is just enough titanic wonder under the broken landscape, just enough beauty. (Again, for me. I can easily imagine that this is an individual balance.)

If that were all of The Scar, I would have been happy with it. It is more. As I wrote of Embassytown, Mieville has a gimmick and he makes it work.

(Spoilers here:)

The Scar is ultimately about Armada's quest (or the quest of some Armadans) for the Scar, a vast distant crack in the world. The Scar is a fracture of physical law, of reality, of certainty; the Scar was caused by forces that broke Bas-Lag long ago. Implicitly, the Scar is the cause of all the transgressive impossibilities of Mieville's setting. It is the First Cause of his fantasy world.

Armada never exactly reaches the Scar. That's the point. They turn around at the last minute and head home -- sort of; in a sense they don't. It is frustrating, a contravention of the accords of epic fantasy, and that's the point -- everything breaks down at the Scar, up to and including your quest plot and the resolution of what happened. Mieville fantasy world is broken. Live with it.

June 2012

Brooke, Keith
A depressing grim-dark-meathook future, but not in the SF-traditional moralist way. Humans didn't do anything so-didactically wrong in this book; the aliens have just moved in and taken over. Lots and lots of aliens. They're nearly all incomprehensible aliens, with incomprehensible technology, and they've remade most of the planet into an unending array of what is, from our point of view, nightmare.

It's a depressing book because the human characters are convinced (correctly, and convincingly) that this is normal. They have some leverage (our protagonist hacks RFID microbes so that his friends can circumvent a few rules) but they don't think of themselves as an "alien resistance movement"; they're just humans who have avoided being killed (or mind-controlled, or randomly cyborged, or melted or whatever). They speak an alien-punctuated argot. They don't even think of Earth as their planet. They know they are "indigenes", but to most of them it's just a word, generally found in sentences like "You are not cleared to be outside the Indigenous Population Preserve after curfew."

So after all this is introduced, their terrible life gets worse; some faction of aliens has gone from violent indifference to plain old violence, and flying saucers are razing the human IPPs. Behold! Rumors of a far-off place where humans live in safety! The scrabbulous petty gangs of the city attempt to join up and migrate. In the meantime, a mysterious stranger is the destined...

This is about where the story goes off the rails. Phrases like "destined" and "mysterious quality of the human soul" start popping up. We eventually learn a little more about this world's history, but it anti-explains things; the book gets less plausible the farther it goes. The ultimate gimmick (there is an ultimate gimmick) is cute; I mean, I liked the idea and I see why the author wanted to write a book underneath it. I would probably have been impressed, way back when I was a teenager trying to find obscure Ann Maxwell novels. At this point, however, the grim-dark squalor is not shocking and the metaphysical gallimaufrey is not convincing, so I did not buy into the plot. This is a pity because it's really well-written.

Bear, Elizabeth
Ad Eternum
Vampire visits the 20th century, in New York. This series has always hovered between story and a series of grace notes; it ends on the latter.

Sinclair, Alison
Shadowborn [e-book purchase]
Conclusion of divided-species trilogy. This worked very well for me in some ways, and fell down significantly in others. Biggest fall: the storyline overlaps the previous book in the series. But I read Lightborn a year ago and I just don't have the details to hand. The viewpoint characters here are explicitly far away from the previous batch, so they don't know what's going on, and this is part of the story. Nonetheless, the plot threads do pass occasionally, like trains in the night. (Literally, at one point.) When this happens I wind up noticing only belatedly and only what the narrative nudges me with, so all the fun of the intertwined plotting is lost. The titanic battle of magic at the end wound up kind of confusing, simply because all these threads came together and half of them were blurry. I know what happened -- it wasn't unclearly written -- I just wasn't in the moment.

This is the sort of storytelling where everyone goes through hell, and the sort of trilogy where the hell ramps up to a carefully orchestrated sequence of catastrophes. I like that in a trilogy. Plenty of variety (military assault, then kidnapping, then assassination -- take politics for granted as a running theme) and all very personal, both for the protagonists and antagonists. Many, many awesome people in these books. Then we finally get to meet the Shadowborn, and of course they and their problems are just as complex as the ones we've gotten familiar with.

Another good point: this series really gets across that your average semi-immortal semi-omnipotent sorcerer is not a healthy member of society. Last time I was theorizing the Lightborn nobility are nuts because they get assassinated three times a week and sometimes twice before breakfast. Here it's clear that the higher-level mages are just plain nuts, as a group. We're not talking genteel robed chuckleheads and Voldemort-style evil. By and large, they regard other people as toys -- malleable toys -- and hundreds of years is plenty of time to get into a rut.

This was my other problem with the book. The rationale for the setting was always "Mad Archmage Imogene cursed the entire population of the continent," which is an awesome premise because it's clearly crap. One, nobody gets that mad just because their daughter was killed; two, if you are you probably can't convince your whole mad-mage's guild and mad-sewing circle to join you in enacting the curse, especially when the backlash will certainly kill you all; three, revenge usually involves horrible murder and not, say, handcrafting two new species of human being who are perfectly adapted to their new lifestyles. (Vengeance curse comes with free sonar senses! Really? Plus the earlier books note that the Darkborn have zero incidence of congenital deafness; similarly the Lightborn and blindness. Stuff like that.)

So we get to the end, and -- spoiler -- the truth is that Imogene really was that crazy, after all. (Albeit also good at mind-control, which helped out with the sewing circle business.) This is a small disappointment amidst a generally satisfactory wrap-up, but I wish there'd been more to that. The young crazy Shadowborn mage is a great character, but everybody from the Elder Days (on-stage or in historical recollection) is to some degree an opaque plot contrivance.

Williams, Liz
An extravagant mess of a setting; the Library of Alexandria is stolen by the Powers and set up in the middle of a world-spanning city outside of time... or something. Story-pathways open into everywhere. It's Pratchett's "L-Space" taken three-quarters seriously, with cod-Miltonian angels and demons butting heads with djinn as Loki stirs up trouble. At one point the White Witch shows up, or a close calque of her, zipping along with a bag of kings' heads in the back of her chariot. I loved that. I love a lot of the razzmatazz that goes on here, but just as often it trips over its own feet. (If you put Loki on-stage and he doesn't steal the entire show plus half the theater, you're doing it wrong.)

The spark that infused the Detective Inspector Chen books is still visible -- the niftily tangled magic/science worldview, some fascinating scenes exploring the geography of the world's story-space. ("...Down past the Holdstockian layer...") However, the Chen series was more tightly focussed; or at least, it built its foundation of ancient-vs-future-China solidly before it started branching out into other mythologies. This is... a mess, I'm afraid.

Abraham, Daniel
The King's Blood (The Dagger and the Coin, 2)
I went back to the first few chapters of the first book, and I can now say: Abraham is an author who loves setting his toys up early. (I don't even mean the prologue with "the apostate" and its ominous prologuing. No, look at the book Geder is translating when we first meet him in The Dragon's Path, and what it says about the Timzinae. Too, the business of "cutting thumbs" turns into a riff every bit as nice as GRRMartin's offhand comment about messenger ravens.)

This book continues with our four protagonists: Marcus (old soldier), Cithrin (young banker), Geder Palliako (shy, bookish sociopath), and Lord Dawson (aristocratic patriot and jerk). With Master Kit (apostate) as an occasional look-in. Life in the Empire is going to hell in a hurry; we follow this trend from the various viewpoints. Each of the story arcs progresses nicely or surprisingly, and some (though not all) of them intersect in various ways.

The interesting question to discuss here is: what game is the author playing? Several games, of course, starting with "write a bunch of engaging dialogue and exciting scenes that will carry the reader along." But beyond that?

In the large, we seem to have a developing argument for why the spider goddess and her priests are bad news. The first book's prologue tagged that with a big "looky here", and set forth executioners with poisoned swords, followed in short order by creepy mind-influencing powers and an apparent yen for world domination. This book, if I may be a bit spoily, continues on interesting lines: the spider priests, obsessed with truth and conviction, are inherently biased towards fanaticism -- both in themselves and in others. Furthermore, they are biased against the written word (since they can only detect spoken lies). I think this is building to a full-on collision with modernity -- personal, face-to-face power is unable to encompass the world of written law, written history, written contract and commerce. It is no wonder that the counter-thread in this series concerns a bank.

Beyond that, we clearly have the business of unreliable history and subjective viewpoints. The characters in this book see common events (and each other), and interpret them differently, over and over. But -- the narrative's lading varies, and here's where I become unsure.

Marcus and Cithrin are straight-up protagonists. Both make mistakes and neither is a paragon -- we learn more about Marcus's nasty past in this book, and Cithrin, as people repeatedly point out, is a fraud and an extortionist. But they are nowhere near the line that makes an antihero. (Does anybody see Cithrin as anything other than triumphantly resourceful at the end of book one?) Their chapters show us their viewpoints, some of which turn out to be false views, and this is fine; this is the game of subjectivity and tight-third-person.

Then we have Dawson, who can be admirable by parts, until he (or his tight-third-person) reminds the reader that he's a racist, sexist, class-mired ass who has barely been kept civilized by a lifetime of pressure from his way-smarter-than-him wife. (Clara, you may be interested to know, is promoted to first-class POV by the end of this book.) And then we have Geder, who is continuously awful; his tight-third is a litany of "yes, dear reader, this man is a goddamn idiot".

But that isn't the same game, is it? If Abraham is trying to garner our sympathy for Geder, he's been failing dismally since That Scene In Book 1, and I don't know why he's still trying. Geder's POV is clear but it's wrong, all the time. No subjectivity in that, see? I think the closest we get to a sympathetic moment is when Geder lies to a woman so that she'll like him more.

And then we have the spider priests, who are unequivocally creepy, all the time. Even when seen from Geder's POV. He trusts them, but the narrative can't manage to.

If the point is to riff on the uncertainty of history, I don't know where all of this is going. Geder isn't going to turn out to be secretly a good guy, and the spider goddess isn't going to turn out to be benevolent. (If I have to come back and eat those words after book 3, I'll be really impressed, mind you.) If the point is to see people's mistakes from the inside, Abraham is running about 2.5 out of 4.

I suppose Geder might turn out to be capable of learning. Honestly that's the only motive I can imagine for his storyline at this point.

Anyhow. That's a boatload of analysis for a book that I blasted through on the basis of good dialogue and exciting scenes. Will keep reading series.

Huff, Tanya
The Truth of Valor (Confederation 5) [e-book purchase]
Ex-Gunnery-Sergeant ("there is no such thing as an ex-Gunnery-Sergeant") Torin Kerr attempts to settle down to a quiet life of civilian salvage operation. Then there are space pirates. This goes bouncing along with verve, fistfights, and explosions. My only reservations are, one, her relationship with hunky boyfriend is mostly a plot device; the romance is an excuse for her to turn into a pirate-stomping ex-Marine terror when Craig is kidnapped. Which is fun to watch, don't get me wrong. It's just a lot of I will find him and steely glares rather than, you know, an on-screen relationship. And two, the author is awfully casual about the di'Taykans and their sex-pollen pheromones, when used by bad guys. I wouldn't raise the issue except that the last Huff I read (Enchantment Emporium) also had this cutesy-ha-ha-sexual-abuse theme. Someone needs to raise an eyebrow at her.

Hanover, M. L. N.
Killing Rites (Black Sun 4) [e-book purchase]
Heroic, sexy demon-fighting college student is -- really not what you would have expected from the first novel in the series. At this point we know a lot of what's going on, and (no spoilers) Jayne attempts to deal with her problems. It goes poorly. Further books expected.

The strength of this series, and it is a mighty shining strength at this point, is taking the "band of wacky misfits" cliche and broadening all the characters into complicated human beings. The Buffy-gang is not together at this point, because the serious shit they've uncovered in previous books involves several of them in different ways, and you don't just come back after 44 minutes of that, form up, and march away through the Stargate into the credits. (Sorry, show slippage.) Even more serious shit arises in this book. We get more of Ex's background, in the form of his old Buffy-gang -- who have shit of their own to deal with. (The new-introduced characters are as solid as the series regulars. Best Catholic priest I've seen in years.) And, of course, we start to get some insight into a character who's been on-stage since the beginning, but not... up front.

(My secret theory of where the series is going is neither confirmed nor denied, to date.)

Zahn, Timothy
Judgment at Proteus (Quadrail 5) [e-book purchase]
Conclusion of space-train-thriller series with mind-control aliens and politics and plots and betrayals and -- ooh, everything. I've been hoping the author wasn't going to string out the story too far, and maybe it could have been three books instead of five, but no complaints; this is a satisfying finale. Unless you think too hard about all the tech constraints that are supposed to make the plot make sense. Don't do that.

Pratchett, Terry; Baxter, Stephen
The Long Earth [e-book purchase]
Oh, this is the most 1970s SF novel I've read in a long time. One day, plans appear on the Internet for a gizmo. You or any idiot can make one out of nails, wire, a switch, and a potato (for power, yes, Glados, we know). Flip the switch to step to an adjacent parallel Earth. The sequence of Earths runs in both "directions" for as far as anyone can explore; they're all uninhabited by sentient life, unending primeval wilderness. So what happens next?

In one sense, a complete rewrite of human society, as people turn around and walk out of prison, marriage, job, or whatever it is in life they were tired of. In another sense -- nothing at all; this book has only the barest traces of plot. Sense of wonder, absolutely, in buckets. Characters, yes: we get the solipsistic explorer, the jovial-but-opaque sentient computer (nee Tibetan motorcycle repairman; reincarnation appears to interact oddly with technology), and a mess of associated folks. They're all reasonably solid and amusing to hang out with.

No story, though. This is a tromp through Rama, a flycycle picaresque across the Ringworld. It's yet another infinitely-extended geography of the American frontier (and I'm beginning to think it's my fault authors keep writing them; I keep being unsatisfied...). One might be intrigued by a whiff of non-human step-capable sentients, or worried by a few scenes about political dissent and terrorism; but this isn't a mystery or a thriller. It's a trip.

Jemisin, N. K.
The Killing Moon (Dreamblood, 1)
The city-state of Gujaareh has a thriving economy of dream-magic. Specially-trained priests gather one sort of energy from nightmares, another sort from sex dreams, another sort from the dreams of the dying; these are then distributed through the city to keep the populace healthy, sane, prosperous.

Or, from the point of view of foreigners: Gujaareh is a city where these seriously damn scary ninjas sneak in through your window while you're asleep and kill you by sucking your soul out. You will note a certain amount of tension between the views.

The story is split between a pair of death-ninjas and a foreign ambassador (read "spy", of course). There is political tension in the city, which means that all sorts of buried evil and nastiness is about to come to light. Serious nastiness. Remember when vampires were a terrifying devouring force of darkness, before they turned into commonplaces? This portrayal of dream-magic is fresh enough to get back to that. Also, absolutely every side of the conflict is wrong.

The theme is that power corrupts, I guess, and magic is awfully powerful. The author has visited this theme before, of course; the Arameri in her first trilogy were world-class bastards because of their magic. But in those books, the gods got a free pass -- they were exemplars and reflections, but they were supposed to be powerful. That wasn't questioned. In this series, magic is questioned all up one side and down the other: the cost, the ethics, who controls it, who deals with misuse. I seriously wondered, reading, whether the answer would turn out to be "Wow, this was a total frickin' mistake, let's exterminate all knowledge of dream-magic." (Not this book, but I haven't ruled it out for the sequel.)

Gentle, Mary
The Black Opera
It is 1835-ish, Naples, with a twist: the Church has miracles down to a science. Or a reliable consequence of the Sung Mass, anyhow; their choristers can cure disease and reshape metal, praise God for His blessings. Only it's not just them. Any opera-goer will tell you that, just occasionally, the secular music of the opera-house will also invoke a supernatural result -- albeit without the control and direction that the priests can muster.

The Church probably isn't happy about that, but, hey, you can't tell Neapolitans to shut down the opera.

Conrad Scalese, librettist and atheist, has just premiered Il Terrore di Parigi, which is a hit, in more senses than one: the opera-house was struck by lightning. The Church definitely isn't happy about that, and Scalese's butt is about to be impounded (for heresy or whatever else the Inquisition can nail on) when he gets an offer which, under the circumstances, he can't refuse. It seems that King Ferdinand wants a miracle.

See, a decade or so previously, there was this volcanic eruption -- Mount Tambora. Devastated Indonesia, beat the crap out of Europe ("Year Without a Summer"). Ferdinand has evidence that this was caused by an evil operatic miracle -- a Black Opera, in analog to the Black Mass -- and that it was merely the test run. He is trying to put together a counter-opera.

I was diffident about this book at first, because our introduction to Scalese is his cranky theological arguments with everybody (up to and including the Inquisition). My problem here is that I am an atheist, and moreover an atheist in modern America, and moreover I'm not eighteen any more, which means none of this stuff is new to me. I've read all those arguments (back in my talk.religion.misc era) and I can skip them these days. Yes, it's a valid way to characterize history -- drop in someone who matches the reader, show first-person how they mismatch the times -- but the idea of a novel of the Great Rationalist Debate bores the snuff out of me.

That is not what this novel is.

This book is -- I'm going to regret this phrase, but what do we call over-the-top SF with starships blasting each other out of the skies as planets explode in the background? We call it "space opera". It comes out of the older idiom "horse opera". (Cowboys blasting, horses explode... yech.) Well, this book is opera opera. I'm sorry. It's unavoidable.

You have a hastily-auditioned group of opera stars. You have Scalese, the librettist, and the prickly composer Roberto Capiraso. (Who only avoids the label "prima donna" because this is opera and they have literal prima donnas to deal with.) You have the Gnostic secret society that wants to reprise Vesuvius -- this is not their ultimate goal, mind you -- who are therefore trying to sabotage every step of the counter-opera. And you have a deadline, which is six weeks away. Commence the rehearsal insanity. The good kind of rehearsal insanity, with everybody playing at the top of their game, and then higher.

(You also have men singing the roles of women, women disguised as men, castrati singing women disguised as men -- frankly the whole thing is so Mary Gentle that I'm surprised she didn't take up opera twenty years ago.)

Emotionally, this thing pulls out all the stops right at the start -- on high-tension artistic temperament alone. It then adds a steady stream of emotional time-bombs: ambushes, betrayals, secret relatives, secret relationships, extremely public arguments, feuds, fires, ghosts and zombies. And it winds up (this is merely the predictable part of the denoument) with an opera performed in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

Why Are You Not Reading This Book.

It is rare, at my advanced age, that a story moves me to a ceaseless, subvocal expostulation of "Holy crap. Holy shit. Did she just...? Is she going to...?" Because Gentle goes there. Wherever "there" is. Then the next plot point comes up, and she goes there too, turned up to eleven. There must have been a point where I might have fallen off the train -- lost my sense of belief, and then the whole enterprise would have turned ridiculous -- but I never hit that.

I think this is not a perfect book. Chunks of the beginning and ending are too talky. I'm not sure if (spoiler cameo) really needed a walk-on role. But if it is too talky, it is the enthusiastic chatter of the true fan -- the opera fanatic, here -- who wants to convey the wonder of it all. I am always a sucker for that. And, really, how could you leave (spoiler cameo) out?

July 2012

Moore, Alan; O'Neill, Kevin
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 2009
Pretty much all you need to know about these volumes is that they take the piss out of Harry Potter. If I may use that idiom.

I miss 90% of the references in these books, and then catch up using Jess Nevins's annotations. I am fine with this.

Stross, Charles
The Apocalypse Codex (Laundry, 4)
Bob Howard goes forth.

This series has turned a corner and become more serious, with this volume. Or the author has decided to take it more seriously. I don't mean it's stopped being funny; it's still Bob's irate-nerd edge-of-over-clever voice narrating, and that still turns the pages nicely. Nor do I refer to the escalation of the story arc, which is indeed escalating (The Stars Are Right, more or less now, as of this volume).

No, I mean that the early volumes were gonzo horror, starting with Nazis From Space, more or less literally. The set pieces were genuinely spooky, but shallowly so; monsters and mind-invading demons from beyond space and time.

This time, the on-stage threat is an American televangelist. There are of course monsters and mind-invading demons lurking behind the plot curtains -- but the televangelist and his thoroughly-human brand of evil grounds the story, in a way that I don't think previous volumes managed. We start to see what occult threats mean to civilians, to us; not as a hypothetical future catastrophe, not as cinematic heroes-vs-goons bloodbath, but in lives ruined and destroyed.

(Well, I should say, as that and the looming planetary catastrophe and the cinematic fight scenes. Each at appropriate times in the story.)

Also: the author has some words for American fundamentalism. He's not saying that the real-life Christian megachurches want to summon Cthulhu and destroy civilization... but Lovecraftian horror is big on religous cults, and Stross isn't shy about pointing out how close some popular religious movements are to cult-land. The repressive, controlling, (...sexist, anti-intellectual, power-hungry, self-righteous...) elements of the religious right are the explicit villain here. The monsters, to some degree, are just reification.

(Just last month I was reading -- thank you, Fred Clark -- about the five points of Calvinist theology. But it had not occurred to me that if you start with a classic Lovecraftian cult story, all over people going hopelessly insane and corrupt bloodlines coming out to overwhelm them... well, those five points wouldn't seem even a little bit out of place, would they? No, they wouldn't. Thank you, Charlie.)

I don't want to give the impression that this is a Message Book. It's the same thriller ride it's always been, with plots and horrors and spies and stuff. I'm saying that the tone-tension used to be between cosmic horror and petty bureaucracy. But the petty bureaucracy is slowly revealing itself as the high-stakes game-playing of serious espionage; the tension is now between cosmic horror and real-life horror. I don't know if Stross intended this curveball from the beginning (I doubt it, really); but I like it.

Scalzi, John
Redshirts [e-book purchase]
If Fuzzy Nation was Scalzi doing H. Beam Piper, I guess this is Scalzi doing G. A. Effinger? No, it doesn't quite aspire to that level of humanity (or whimsy). This is a nicely-thought-out minor etude (take that both ways) on the subject of terrible TV science fiction.

The codas are more interesting, particularly the long one about writer's block and the writing process. It's not going to change any upcoming writer's career (no essay will), but if Scalzi wants to blog about writing in semi-fictional form rather than on a web page -- and attach an entertaining SF novella to the front -- why not?

August 2012

Pratt, T. A.
Spell Games [e-book purchase]
As noted in the last book's tag, this is Marla Mason vs family. (As noted in the last book's review, I decided to drop this series. Then I changed my mind; so much for me.)

This is distinctly better-written, or clashes less with my descriptive kinks, anyhow. Being more firmly grounded in the real world helps a lot. The series arc is (only now) kicking into full gear, as an unfriendly mushroom-wizard and Marla's no-good mundane brother roll into down on different but colliding roads. The no-good brother is the contrast we've needed to our no-good protagonist. I also appreciate that everybody plans and takes sensible precautions, and information gets screwed up anyway because you can't know everything.

(Warning: the e-book conversion is terrible. It's a minefield of missing periods and spurious line breaks.)

Rosenberg, Joel
D'Shai [re-read]
As good as I remembered it. The world of D'Shai is a wonderful creation: vivid, overwrought, over-the-top, colorful (for once Darryl K. Sweet is the appropriate cover artist). Influenced by mythical/historical Japan and China, but not a simple appropriation of either. Viciously caste-bound, but with enough social hypocrisy to make the rules dangerously permeable. Filled, top to bottom, with kazuh: the magic of skill, which builds on whatever you do (swordsmanship, juggling, carving wood, plowing a field) and raises talent and experience into genius and the splintering edge of human ability.

Kami Khuzud is a young acrobat -- a good acrobat, after years of practice with his itinerant troupe -- but not a kazuh acrobat. Acrobats are legally of the peasant class, but they entertain the nobility, which means they get to mix above their social circle. Mind you, being noticed by the nobility means you might offend the nobility. An offended noble can cut your head off; as can an angry noble or a mildly bored noble, for that matter. Kami Khuzud is something of a cynic about what he calls "our beloved ruling class". But the banquets are nice.

While entertaining the imposing Lord Toshtai, the Khuzud troupe is struck by tragedy. Kami Khuzud does not believe the death is an accident. Lord Toshtai, for his own reasons, declares that Kami Khuzud shall discover what really happened. Disappointing a noble is about as wise as offending one, so off goes the acrobat, poking his nose where peasants really shouldn't, if they value their heads.

If I try to list what's good about this book, I fall over in a burble: Lord Toshtai is awesome, Kami Khuzud's acrobat family is awesome, the juggling is awesome, the ironic formal customs are awesome, the food is awesome (oh powers, the food) (and the liquors too). The castle wizard and the castle swordsman. The aristocratic D'Shai culture, which is equally full of dung-footed peasants and lower-class boarding houses and bourgeois castle servitors. The fact that castle guards are required to have good singing voices, so that they can announce newcomers and raise alarms in four-part harmony.

The magic is brilliant -- I can't believe other writers haven't stolen the gimmick -- because what is either more numinous or more familiar than the moment of hitting the zone and doing it right?

On top of that, it's a formal mystery, with suspects and clues and motives and all that good stuff. One will not be surprised to learn that Kami Khuzud finds the murderer, and learns something about his kazuh along the way.

There is one sequel, equally good (The Hour of the Octopus). Sadly the series didn't sell well enough to justify further entries, and now the writer is gone, so two books is what we've got. Read 'em.

Wells, Martha
The Serpent Sea (Raksura, 2) [e-book purchase]
More Raksura, and I mean "more" in a very episodic way. The flock has migrated to their historic home in an epic-level treehouse, but the place was raided by bandits in their absence, and our team has to go hunting a missing artifact.

I see Wells has writing credits on Stargate tie-in novels, and the setup of this book is strongly reminiscent of the Atlantis setting. (The moving-into-abandoned-city scenes are dead on, and the missing artifact might as well be a ZPM.) However, the author indulges her love of splendiferous settings -- this world really has Mieville-esque depth of detail and variety, without the ick quotient; maybe I should say Whelan-esque or Froud-esque -- and the story winds up closer to sword-and-sorcery than anything else. Only without the swords. When your protagonists are shape-shifting flying lizard beasts, they don't need to muck around with sharpened metal sticks.

As before, there is no world-spanning, turning-of-history crisis; this is still not epic fantasy. The scope is strictly a city, another city, and the city they fly past on the way between. The author could keep this up for as many volumes as she wants, or she could stop here; that sort of series. We do get character development, but it's in the that-sort-of-TV-series way.

Butcher, Jim
Ghost Story (Dresden Files, 13)
You remember how Harry Dresden wound up at the end of the last book? If not, the title of this one should remind you. This continues the trend of the series (and protagonist) as more thoughtful, mature, and dealing with higher stakes. (The snark quota is still met, of course.) The mess from last book has caused some serious shit for Harry's friends, his city, and the whole world -- everybody has been coping in his absence, but at high cost.

If Butcher had tried to run "Harry's death is a world-spanning catastrophe" early in the series, it would have come off as rank Sue-ism, but at this point he's got the chops to rig it properly. ("Harry's mistakes have killed him and also caused a world-spanning catastrophe;" easier to swallow.)

With Harry mostly intangible for the duration, we get our ensemble cast back to carry the real-world part of the plot. Expect plenty of Murphy, Molly, Butters, Mort the necromancer, and many others. Some are absent, for interesting reasons.

I sense there is a discussion to be had about Molly -- no longer an apprentice -- but I don't know if I can start it. I can note that she has become an adult, a wizard in her own right, and terrifying; Harry absorbs all these facts with surprise but no shock. (Power is always terrifying in this series. Molly has been playing the humble student for several books, but if you thought she wasn't dangerous, you've forgotten her introduction.) At the same time, Harry still does not hesitate to judge her as a student. You can take that as the author's blindness or the protagonist's. I think the author leaves the argument pointedly unresolved -- and there are more books coming -- but we'll see.

(I can also note that Molly stars in a brilliant psychic battle scene late in this book. I don't know who plays Molly in the (nonexistent) seventh season of the (actually cancelled) TV series, but she's going to have so much fun filming this story...)

Butcher, Jim
Side Jobs (Dresden Files, anthology)
A range of Dresden short stories. Individually these are all fine. En masse I am getting a little weirded out by Butcher's repeating of the themes (a) Murphy gets slapped with a love spell (b) Georgia the werewolf lady gets kidnapped.

Tregillis, Ian
Bitter Seeds
Dark, grim, and (yes) bitter WW2 fantasy: British warlocks versus Nazi superheroes. Nobody gets out clean.

The German experimental subjects are monsters, but also victims of the moral monsters that created them; there's plenty of superscience cruelty to ground the (equally real) metaphor of the monstrous Reich. And then, on the British side, we have blood magic; and a plausible rendition of where the "keep calm and carry on" spirit would take a nation facing a war far more bitter than the Blitz of our history.

But this is not a war book. It is, I think, a hero-vs-supervillain book. (The hero is not a superhero; the supervillain is not who you think it is.) The sequel will -- of course -- be set in the Cold War (of course the Soviets get superhero technology), but I'm not sure what kind of book that will be. One would like to imagine the hero of this book gets a happy retirement, but...

Nasty magic and secret agents of course adds up to Tim Powers, and I think the comparison is valid, but not for clever history-twisting. (History is flat-out derailed, starting with pyrokinetics burning a fat hole through the Maginot line.) It's the spirit of people's lives getting horribly and almost irrevocably wrecked.

"Gripping" and "page-turner" are cliches, but yeah, this book's got it.

Bull, Emma
Falcon [re-read]
I recently read a post on the structure of this early Emma Bull SF novel; I was inspired to pick it back up for a re-read. (Thank you, ye-who.)

A couple of years ago I re-read John M. Ford's The Princes of the Air, and found that it was the book that I always mix up with Falcon. Returning to Falcon, I realize how very much it is a love letter to Ford. One can trace any number of plot elements and themes back to Ford's SF novels, Princes... and Web of Angels (both published in the decade leading up to Falcon). Spies, government plots, mind-altering poisons, the long con, passionate art, the grind of history, people being deeply human. The style, too, follows Ford: allusive, elliptical... haunted, I want to say. Not at all how I remember Bull's first novel, War for the Oaks (though I have not revisited that in years).

Falcon is two short novels, welded together. First: a young Niki Glyndwr, aristocratic scion and casual rakehell, returns from vacation to find a political crisis catching fire on his culturally-Welsh home planet. He grows up, or tries to, or tries at least to save something; he fails. And second: an older Niki, fled from the wreckage and his name, has volunteered for one of those experimental projects that lets pilots navigate hyperspace, while killing them slowly and romantically. (You know the type.) Having lived just long enough to recreate a life for himself, Niki now runs into the reality of his slow-motion suicide gesture while tangled in an interplanetary thriller plot.

Part one is narrated by Niki, tight third person. Part two is introduced by Jhari Sabayan (government agent), and then Chrysander Harris (musician and vid-artist), two of the people whose lives collide with Niki's. The bulk of part two rotates between Chrysander's narration and Niki's (third-person), with interludes from Jhari (first-person, future-framed).

First lemme say -- for those of you who have not read Falcon and clicked this link expecting a book review -- Falcon is an excellent (somewhat 80s, very emo) SF novel. You should read it. Then read Emma Bull's other novels (sadly few in number). Then read all of John M. Ford, because I have to say things like that. Okay?

So, back to the structure.

I get the time gap. The gap is necessary. Maybe it's my narrative biases, or the perversion of a lifetime in game design, or just "that's the way Ford does it", but I am a sucker for storytelling between the lines. Even if the lines are ten years and an emotional lifetime apart. We don't need to see Niki's despair, his desire for extinction, or the road that led him to the gestalt-pilot program. It's all drawn in by a few well-sketched reminisces and the reality of Niki ten years on. Nothing is missing here. Besides, Niki is way more interesting ten years on. A man who's picked up a few threads and is gripping them -- in the face of death -- has way more to say than an emo twenty-year-old.

(The novel has more gaps than I'm describing. Notably, when part two begins, we get Jhari's first-person narration -- but not her name. It is another chapter before we are introduced to Jhari Sabayan, and a few more before it becomes (indirectly) clear that she is the nameless framer of the (half-) story. The ending of the book then ties together all sorts of threads that, in retrospect, we didn't even know were dangling. In this model, putting ten years in the rear-view mirror is just another bounce.)

The real question, to me, is: why give Niki's viewpoint at all in part two? If you're going for the bold gesture, go for it: show him entirely from the outside. It should be possible; I don't think there's anything there that requires his internality. You'd have to rejigger the plot to balance Chrysander with more Jhari, is all. (Maybe run Jhari both in third-person and first-person.)

(The book needs more Jhari, anyhow. We mostly see her having a mad crush on Niki and then being angry at him. We know she has as much history as him, because calendar; but it's not sketched in the same way. So she comes off as a bit of a reflecting mirror.)

Presenting Niki from the external view will dehumanize or deify him -- but come on, the book does that anyhow. The narrative (in Jhari's voice) isn't shy about destiny, teleology, and power chords as the camera pulls back on the gulfs of space. Note: I can visualize this cinematography because I have the same defiantly adolescent tastes in storytelling. No apologies. My point is, again, if the book is going to go there, it should wear the tights.

Well, we do not have the book I'm making up; we have the book Bull wrote. I am satisfied with it. It is over-the-top in some ways, confidently experimental in others, genre-aware and genre-unashamed -- a mode that I associate with the Minnesota Scribblies group of the era -- a style that might have been called the Second New Wave if it had sparked more widely. (Instead we just say "Wow, Steven Brust, he's awesome. Gene Wolfe, he's awesome. Iain Banks, okay, not from Minnesota, but awesome. Pamela Dean..." and so on. And then turn around to stare at cyberpunk and the new-hard-SF of the following decades.)

Zarf says: read, and then read its context.

Pratt, T. A.
Broken Mirrors [e-book purchase]
We've had Marla vs love and Marla vs family. Now it's time for Marla vs Marla. Which wraps up the first major plot arc, I guess. At least, we have enough apocalyptic catastrophe and consequence to count as the end of an arc, and scenery changes are promised for the next book.

As before, the parallels (Marla's brother last book, her evil twin in this one) serve as effective reflections for just how relatively not-horrible Marla is.

The book comes with author's notes attached (at and I found them salubrious. There are places where I was insufficiently suspicious of Marla's narration. I'd rather cheat than miss the clues entirely. (Although I read the notes after the book, not chapter-by-chapter interspersed.)

September 2012

Abraham, Daniel
A Shadow in Summer (The Long Price, 1) [re-read]
I am startled, when I think about it, how this book is entirely about slavery and abortion -- but not at all about the American context of discussion of those subjects. What's startling is not that the author did it, but that it's possible at all. Then Abraham makes it look like it wasn't a trick at all.

Abraham, Daniel
A Betrayal in Winter (The Long Price, 2) [re-read]
Works much better when re-read immediately following the first book. I upgrade my mark.

Thematics: the first book gave us the (long) price of slavery -- from several angles, each rendered as an abusive relationship. (Cruelty; internalized self-hatred; the generational passing-along of child abuse.) This book is then the price of patriarchy: the Khaiem's treatment of women, and of male children, rips the crap out of everybody.

Our friend Otah Machi -- not inconsiderably canonized by the narrative -- attempts to save everybody. (Everybody who's left, anyhow.) The fact that he more or less succeeds at the end of this book bodes really poorly for the next one. I theorize that these first two books form a story-arc rather like The Lord of the Ring -- a victory in their own context, but really just a story beat in the tragedy of their history.

Abraham, Daniel
An Autumn War (The Long Price, 3) [re-read]
My worry from the last book is not borne out: Otah Machi is not torn asunder by karma. (More than anybody else in the book.) He is more merely human now, though.

You want generational fic, this series is for you. The four books are set at roughly fifteen-year intervals, so people being born in one book are teenagers in the next and then parents after that. Or, not parents. You get the idea.

Reading this series in a lump is definitely the way to do. The author has a deft, deft hand with the dramatic unity of little details. (I see there's a compendium out of the first two books; that's a good start.)

(Baltasar and his lieutenant prefigure the heck out of Marcus and Yardem in Abraham's new series.)

Thematics: the price of nationalism, or patriotism. (I'd say "price of power" but they're all power.) The Khaiate cities have been lording it over the rest of the world for generations. The rest of the world (correctly) perceives them as a threat to everyone else's existence. They've been plotting to get out from under since the first book, but this is where it comes to a head.

Through most of the book, I was working up a thesis that Abraham's brand of fantasy (in this series) is unusually amoral. The andat have a magical price, but it's visited on those that don't get the power. There's no proportionality; magic is not (as it so often is) the author's proxy hand of justice or judgement. (Start with Tolkien, move on to the rest of the genre.)

Then I got to (and recalled the details of) the ending. Pretty much scrapped the thesis right there.

Enge, James
A Guile of Dragons (Tournament of Shadows, 1)
Okay, this was a weird book. Damn weird. It covers the birth, childhood, and young-adulthood of Morlock Ambrosius, so it acts as (part one of) a prequel to the previous Morlock books. But, here's the thing, it turns out Morlock was raised by dwarves. (Maybe this was mentioned earlier, but I forgot.) Dwarves have a complex culture and history, and the humans in that world also have a complex culture and history, and none of this history overlaps ours at all, and the upshot is that we're reading the foundation legends of a mythology that we're not familiar with.

Okay, when I put it that way, you reply (a) "You read the mythology, it's all in the three earlier books" and (b) "Doesn't all high fantasy do this? Drop you into an unfamiliar mythology?"

Yes and yes. But Enge is playing the game way farther into the outfield than I'm used to. Not only are the cultural assumptions obscure, but the story beats that he's hitting with those cultural assumptions are obscure. It's that "I can tell this is an in-joke, but I don't know what about" feeling.

On top of that, dwarf society is taciturn -- this is where Morlock gets his habit of talking in grunts -- and then half the characters spend half the book being mind-controlled by dragons. So there's a very great deal of people having silent realizations which turn out to be lies. Infer cultural assumptions from that. I'm not saying I don't enjoy the challenge, mind you.

In frame, we also get a little more detail about the multiverse: Merlin is the Merlin from our world, for example. Good to know. Also, Enge read my previous reviews and explains the business of the sun coming up in the west. Okay, not so much "explains" as "offers a steely-eyed line of bafflegab designed to make me shut up and enjoy the goddamn story already", which, fair enough.

Jemisin, N. K.
The Shadowed Sun (Dreamblood, 2)
Sequel to the book of scary dream ninjas. The city of Gujaareh is occupied by a foreign Protectorate, as a result of the aforementioned political disaster, and it's ten years later. Time for revolution! Or for something, in a multi-way clash between the city aristocracy, the occupying military, the priest-dream-mages, the desert nomads who are allied to some or all of the above in turn, and -- somewhere in the middle -- the Gujaareen people. Oh yes, there's a terrifyingly toxic nightmare plague ravaging the city. I mean "plague of nightmares", as in, you catch bad dreams and die.

The A-plot here is up to snuff, with the deposed heir and the city's first female dream-priest running around organizing liberation and falling in love and all that good stuff. I am not so satisfied with the B-plot, back in the city, dealing with the plague.

It's a great setup -- as I've said, Jemisin gets horror fantasy right -- but the focal characters here are Sunandi (from the previous book), doing a little bit of politicking, and Tiaanet, who is the most beautiful girl in the city and is also being sexually abused. We also learn that she is terrific in the sack. This is way too much what? for a character who barely takes any role in the story. It's not exactly a Mary Sue situation, but it's the sphere of emotionally indulgent storytelling that the Mary Sue lives in. The resolution of the B-plot, avoiding spoilers, is equally shallow -- yes, it's a bang-up dream-magic duel, but nothing in the book leads me to believe that it's either necessary or sufficient, so what's in there for? So that characters can be heroic and have emotional realizations. I didn't buy it, is what I'm saying.

But, to be clear, that's the B-plot and it's not the bulk of the story. The body is a solid romance political thriller thing; banter, great characters, great settings -- Gujaareh is not a utopia; none of the societies in the book are; they're all screwed up in various ways. (E.g., a woman entering the previously-all-male Hetawa priesthood is the influence of the pernicious occupiers.) The story is about people trying to chamfer them. That's good.

Bear, Greg
Hull Zero Three
Still have not read. I know, it's been months and months.

Abraham, Daniel
The Price of Spring (The Long Price, 4) [e-book purchase]
Good grief, I spent all the effort to re-review the first three books, and then forgot to write up the fourth one. This is a good book! You should read it. After the first three.

Theme: the price of self-respect.

Kadrey, Richard
Butcher Bird
I thought this was a new Kadrey book; in fact it's what he did before Sandman Slim and, in several ways, it prefigures it. And yet I enjoyed this one just as much. It's a little brasher, a little clumsier wrapping up, but also a little more vivid and a little more honest.

Spyder is a punk kid tattoo artist. Naturally he has a lot of ink himself, and it turns out that one of his cool-looking meaningless rune tattoos has a meaning after all, and it's "Hey you, mosquito-headed demon, come here and eat me." A blind girl with a sword comes out of an alley and kicks the demon's ass. After that life is more complicated.

Kadrey is following Gaiman -- showing us San Francisco Below, the crazy whirl of magical creatures that most of humanity is (pun surely intended) blind to. (What did Mieville call it? Sans Francisco, I think.) Honestly Kadrey is pretty damn good at it. And where Sandman Slim started out as a Hell-tempered killer and got Sue-er from there, Spyder is a hapless kid thrown into Hell. It works better this way. He's vulnerable, and when he runs a familiar-sounding smart-mouth, it comes off as the defense you'd expect of a kid scraping by in San Francisco.

As with the Slim books, there are Tom Waits references (though more with the Orson Welles). As with the Slim books, the fantastic tapestry is weakest where Kadrey leans on traditional Hell imagery and tropes, strongest where he just makes it up. (Though the quick tour of Dante-esque precincts struck an agreeable balance.) Unlike the Slim books, there's just this one, which I'm fine with.

Morgan, Richard K.
The Steel Remains [re-read]
Having re-read this one (but not yet started the sequel), I find it nifty how the premises gain depth when they emerge from the D&D stockpot. We have broad clues that this is a post-technological future. (There used to be a Moon, long enough ago that it's not even folklore.)

Now add some of what the Monster Manual calls "demi-human" races: long-lived artisans from underground, eerie lovely ageless creatures that can catch you out of time for a night or a year. Fine. But they have nipples and cocks and get horny for human tail (and vice versa). They interbreed with humans. In fantasy, this goes without saying. In SF, this means something! Are these homo-sap offshoots from other timelines? Tech cultures that have been off travelling? What does this imply about the gods, who show up in the world and grouch at people? When the characters (and, more blatantly, the gods) talk in modern idiom, does that indicate a line of cultural descent? (I don't imagine they speak American English as-written, any more than any other high-fantasy setting, but the author isn't leaning on the style for nothing.)

Sperring, Kari
The Grass King's Concubine
Aude, as a young girl, saw fairies dancing under a bush. She spends years covertly searching for them in her mundane life. Then, as an adult, she runs away with a guard from an industrial textile mill owned by her family. Travelling across the steppe with her new husband, she is kidnapped by -- not faeries, exactly.

It would be fair to call those sentences from completely unrelated novels; if I've made them sound like a smooth progression, I've done them an injustice. This book is what people call "a hot mess". It has immortal elemental spirits, the printing press, organized labor in an industrializing world, the Wounding of the Land from an industrializing-world perspective, the historical master of natural science (an Aristotle-like figure) -- all mashed up together -- I have no sense whatsoever of what they're all supposed to be saying about each other. What the story is, after Aude's high-speed childhood and marriage, is long scenes of Aude and her husband staggering around WorldBelow. Separately, mind you; with Marcellan (the naturalist writer) as a third point of view, indeterminately earlier. The linking element is the pair of shapechanging ferret sisters, who are inordinately charming, but in a way that makes me regrettably certain that the author keeps ferrets. (I have not tried to verify this in external reality.) Because that's why they're in the book. That's why everything is in the book, I'm sure; because the author has been carrying it around forever and wanted to Get It Into A Book.

There should be fantasy about the industrial revolution and factory girls and Triangle Shirtwaist and the catastrophic, civilization-destroying singularity of the printing press. But it cannot be constructed by flinging all this stuff into a blender! The blender-wodge that comes out just has no momentum. I put this thing down twice to read entire other books that had arrived. (Okay, one of them was the Bujold, and not many books should expect to compete with Ivan Vorpatril on my doorstep wearing his Imperial greens and a gamy smile. But still.)

Worst indictment, I think: the story wraps up at the end with neat explanations that make sense, follow from the imagery, and are thematically appropriate. But neatly! If you're going to give me chapters of eerie Faerieland -- and this is eerie, beautiful, blood-and-dust tangible stuff, redolent; Gaiman quality, the scenery is wonderful -- if you're going to do that book, you leave it all floating on the wind! Don't package it all up with a bow: here, this is what the bees were, this is who sabotaged the clock, mystery solved. For (John) Crowley's sake.

Pratchett, Terry
Good! And not Discworld. Oh, it's still Pratchett, and you'll see some familiar Ankh-Morporkian turns of thought; but the style is distinctly real-world Victorian rather than piles of entertaining cod.

Maybe I should say: the language is in the range we've heard Pratchett characters do, but the author has never done it at the narrative level. Anyway, the book is its own thing, not a retread.

The interesting Discworld comparison is in my reaction. The old 37-whatever-book turf has a comforting familiarity to me, I freely admit. Pratchett has been wise in adding new characters and locales to his canon, but there are always familiar whiffs as well, and they're an undeniable part of the fun. Reading Dodger, I had to get into the story; I didn't expect that. Silly of me, I know, and it was full-bore momentum once I made the shift.

Dodger's story is all for the love of Dickens, which puts me at a disadvantage -- I ain't read any, nor gotten closer than the Muppets interpretation. I guess Pratchett knows that much of his readership will be in the same boat, because he gives enough context for us to appreciate the pastiche -- or past-iche, pre-stiche, whatever you call a retrospectively-created invisible forerunner to canonical works. Also Charlie Dickens keeps writing down book titles. I laughed.

(Other Victorian characters appear, both real and fictional. I had to look up Angela Burdett-Coutts, and then snuck a peek at Disraeli's wikipedia page too. Sweeney Todd makes an appearance (though not Sondheim's Todd) (though it may be Sondheim's Todd's knife). For a few pages I was sure we were getting a twisted "Scandal in Bohemia" too, but no, not really.)

As for Dodger, he is a fine character. Unusually headlong for a YA protagonist, I'd say. Self-doubt and slow maturation have become conventional in YA stories; we don't often get the adult-protagonist thing of stomping decisively off to get the job done. (Not in a foolhardy way -- that would be "headstrong", quite a different thing -- Dodger is quite self-aware.)

Morgan, Richard K.
The Cold Commands
Woo, the ride gets more rollicking. The incessant manipulations of the gods grow more blatant. The deconstruction of fantasy tropes gets more clear. ("Quests are a narrative blind," says a god, more or less exactly in those words.) The tech roots of the "fantasy" era become more obvious, up to the point in chapter 11 when I figured out the thing. Yow. That's a hell of a thing. I'm sure you're cleverer than me and figured it out back in the first book. That's fine, a years-long penny-drop is good for my soul.

I'm gonna have to go back and re-read and think about all the gods, definitely.

A couple things I forgot to note about the first book, but are still true: the writing is really very strong. A lot of fantasy (and SF) of this tough-guy brand leans towards utilitarian prose; Morgan has that straightforward feel, but he can wield a vivid phrase coming around the corner. And also: yow, there is a lot of blood. Pain, dismemberment, and murder. Dead burnt bodies and things in the characters' teeth. Morgan doesn't want you to forget it. I would be sad if all fantasy were this brutal, but I'm glad it can be done well.

Also: authors who rock-climb can be really show-offy about it.

Also: "Helmsman" is the same word as "Steerswoman", right?

October 2012

Banks, Iain M.
The Hydrogen Sonata
The great and glorious Gzilt civilization is about to Sublime. To Transcend, to achieve Ascension, to cross the Singularity, to pass beyond and join the bleedin' choir invisible. It's scheduled for the end of the month. And so all the Gzilt have settled down to do exactly what you'd expect of a Culture-level civilization on such a momentous occasion: one last round of cocktail parties, hiking vacations, and orgies (as suits one's preferred level of debauchery), while receiving congratulatory messages and ambassadorial handshakes from various civilizational friends and neighbors. Including the Culture, of course.

One such message is a letter-in-a-bottle left by the Zihdren, themselves long Sublimed. The Gzilt warship that receives it promptly blows the bottle to smithereens. Thus begins a political incident.

Banks's trick in SF -- which he does very very well -- is to convey the heft of civilization at the galactic and millennial scale, its concerns and views, by making it all immediate and personal and vernacular. Why not? A Culture Mind can recall everything that happened on a planet in the past century like you recall what you ordered for dinner -- and so a bunch of Minds working out what to do with a planet will sound like you and your friends splitting the check. The tone fits the scale.

Since it's Banks, the tone is also snark-tastically funny; or (when appropriate, in a different civilizational point of view) pompous and absurd. He's got control of it, is what I mean.

Culture books have trouble with plot -- since there are usually several might-as-well-be omnipotent beings hovering around, ready to pull off whatever ex machina is required. I think Banks got that figured out several books ago. This one is plot-shaped, as a spy thriller, with starships flying hither and yon searching for clues or trying to blow them up before they're found. But this is superficial; it's just to keep the momentum up.

The book is... history, I guess. History at many levels: a human (Gzilt) and her life, a military power-play, a political intrigue, a Culture Mind working group. (Seriously, the whole book is worth it just for the Minds bitching at each other.) The bits of history fall together, collide, and then fall out with gaps and holes and blatantly unpulled threads. If you try to read it as a spy thriller, it will probably be an unsatisfying disaster. What is it? Oh, right: a character novel where the characters may be humans, cities, governments, or civilizations. Each a personality, in presentation if not in literal Mind.

(Yes, my model is a little askew for the Gzilt, who are Culture-equivalent but eschew building Minds for aesthetic reasons. Not entirely clear how they make that work, by the way -- doesn't it undermine the implicit rationale of the Culture? The book doesn't go into this.)

Anyway -- thriller or history or character portrayal, it works great as a Culture novel. I loved it. There are probably classical literary models that fit better, but I'll stick with that.

Aaronovitch, Ben
Midnight Riot [e-book purchase]
This is the other end of the spectrum from the Midnight Mayor series: London urban fantasy, with all its modern multicultural juice, but built on London cop bureaucracy with the fantasy layered on top. The protagonist meets magic and starts experimenting with cell-phone batteries, rather than (e.g.) taking a flying leap into a hallucinatory cloud of fantasy alterworld. It is well done as a police procedural, but I prefer the flying-leap Gaiman-or-Kate-Griffin style, so I was slow getting into this.

(Also, the real-life grounding made the horrific supernatural crimes a little too brutal for my taste. I guess it bothers me less when it's a thug with a sword doing it to fantasy palace guards. Now you know.)

All that said, the supernatural pace picks up slowly as the book goes along, until it's a giant chewy ball of spirit-journey bouncing cheerily downhill into the tenpins of sanity and sense. And the police procedural stuff is good, with clues and sneaky villains and everything. So I am with this series and will read the next one.

McGuire, Seanan
Discount Armageddon
I read the first Fishgirl Daye book and thought, well, decent, but not worth investing into a series of. Pretty much the same here. Verity Price is from a renegade family of monster-hunters (renegade because they prefer negotiation to slaughter); she also does competitive ballroom dance. The snark is fine, the character writing is fine, I just feel like I've had this genre and it was Tanya Huff the first time. (Maybe Simon Green the second.) The setting reads like "Sanctuary" fanfic, which I admit is not the author's fault, but there too I felt a lack of anything-really-new. And then there was a romance, gah, I'm sorry, it was like a thousand "oh look you are hot you must be my assigned love interest" romance stories sobbed once and were silent.

Yes, the book had all sorts of good bits too, but do I need to talk about them? People have been shouting "Aeslin mice!" at me for months; you too, I'm sure. The dance-fighting scene needs to be filmed someday. Until then, I think I can leave these books aside.

(Verity's sister is named Antimony, which is a terrible missed opportunity. If the sisters had been named Verity and Antinomy, I would have been sold.) (No, I don't know what brother Alex should have been called.)

Swainston, Steph
The Year of Our War
Many of the inhabitants of the Fourlands have wings; Jant, unusually, can fly. He is also immortal (by the favor of the Emperor) and a junkie (by the grace of the needle). Nobody makes a fuss about the drugs, because a flying messenger is too valuable to the war effort. Invading waves of carnivorous, human-sized Insects, sort of thing.

The blurbs categorize this book as "weird fiction", which I don't think it is, really. The protagonist sometimes wears blue jeans, but it's straight-up epic fantasy -- except for the dream-world Jant slips into when he O.D.'s, which owes more to Michael Marshall Smith than to Mieville.

As a whole, this thing fails to be a whole; I never had a sense of what kind of book I was reading or where it was going. It's a war story, or recovering-junkie story, or a street-kid-has-weird- life-story story, or a political machination among the immortal aristocracy story, or a what is this quasi-rape scene doing in this book story... In the end the war wraps up in an awfully implausible plot twist, the cosmology is revealed to not make very much sense, the immortality is never explained at all, and Jant kicks the habit. I'm not sure where it leaves us. The writing per se is wonderfully vivid -- I don't think I've ever had as good a feel for what human flight would be like -- but I want the writer to settle down and put it in service of a novel.

Garrett, Randall
Lord Darcy Investigates [re-read]
I only had these stories in a compendium, so when I saw a good-condition paperback, I grabbed it. Then I re-read it.

These are still fun formal-mystery stories. (Occasionally too formal; the thing with the doors could have been a Martin Gardner puzzle column.) It struck me, however, that these stories are 100% setting and puzzle. Sean O Lochlainn is an amusing bundle of quirks, and Lord Darcy barely has a character at all, beyond Mister Solving Guy and a fondness for playing the clown.

November 2012

Bujold, Lois McMaster
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Finally, I have read the Ivan book. Delightful. It was also, and I did not expect this, the Simon Illyan book and the Lady Alys book; this was also delightful. They are not viewpoint characters, but we see rather more of them than we have before, even in Memory. (Established, past-middle-age adult characters with continuing story arcs!)

In focus, of course, we have That "Idiot" Ivan getting into more trouble than you can possibly shake a stunner at. With the dubious aid of his "pal" Byerly. On the other end of the stunner, we have Tej and Rish, two charming young ladies on the run from... well, you'll see. Chaos ensues, to a chorus of shouts of "Vorpatril!" and "Ivan, have you talked to your mother about this?" Will there be plots and catastrophes? Will Ivan finally, finally wind up tying the knot? To say "yes" is really not a spoiler at all. Trust me on this.

New viewpoint characters give Bujold a chance to introduce her motley crew, again. This is always charming, but it reminds me that this series has been going on a long time and maybe it's time to wave goodbye to it. Meeting people you already know is not an excuse for a novel. To be clear, the storylines about Ivan, Simon, and Alys are worth a novel. It's just going to be increasingly hard to keep the balance.

Scott, Melissa
Point of Knives
I really liked Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams, but Melissa Scott's co-author died a few years ago, so I didn't expect any new novels in the series. There still aren't, but Scott has written this novella instead. (Set between the original two novels.)

If you never read the novels, go back and start with Point of Hopes. It's a youngish (albeit not rookie) cop in a particularly distinctive and nifty fantasy city. With alchemy! But not standard-American-cop tropes transplanted to fantasyland. (Much as I enjoy the Elantra series, it leans pretty heavily on familiar police procedure.) The Pointsmen of Astreiant are officers of the Queen's law, but you're supposed to tip them when you put them on a case. It's not bribery, it's what everybody does. The system is just different enough, like that.

So anyway, here we have a straightforward case -- old Grandad Steen is found stabbed in an alley, who would do such a thing, everybody likes Grandad Steen and his goofy pirate stories. Adjunct Point Nico Rathe springs into action, and immediately collides with his on-again- off-again-lover Philip Eslingen -- currently off, because Philip is currently bodyguarding the local organized crime boss, and it would Look Bad. You can imagine how long that lasts.

I would have preferred a new novel, but this is the right size: it's one case (only a little bit political) and one episode in Nico and Philip's story. I think there's also a continuity error (re Steen's keyring), but I'm only mentioning that in case someone else has noticed -- it doesn't spoil the story.

Aaronovitch, Ben
Moon Over Soho [e-book purchase]
Second procedural about London cop dealing with magic. The running theme of this series is "magic costs, no really" but this book seemed to involve much less threat to main characters; I hope the author isn't going soft already. Also: no matter how hot the ex-lover of one of your victims is, you really should pay more attention to the possibility that she is involved in the case! Even in-story cops should have that much genre awareness.

Wilson, F. Paul
The Dark at the End
Technically this is the final Repairman Jack book. But Nightworld came out with the "Repairman Jack novel!" blazon on the cover, just like all the others, so we'll say "penultimate" and move on.

I dunno, I expected more oomph of a penultimate book. Tension-wise this series has been cruising along at about 3-out-of-10 for the last couple of books, and now the author has ratcheted it up to a 5.

This is not to say nothing happens -- stuff happens; but it's not strikingly apocalyptic. Jack goes after the evil mastermind Rasalom, guns a-blazing. Spoiler alert: Rasalom survives this. Then Rasalom begins his final plan of evil conquest, with Jack and the gang racing to cut him off at metaphorical pass. I won't spoil that, but there's a sequel called Nightworld, so take a guess.

Rasalom's plan is kind of dumb, it turns out. I don't want to complain too much, because the story moves along and there's some twists and some deaths and some seriously creepy stuff, but I got to the end and thought "That was it? That was the whole plan? But then why did he bother doing and and..." I think there was a peak several books ago, when the bad guys were melting holes in New Jersey and entombing human sacrifices in cursed concrete columns and it all seemed like fragments of a vast plan of evil conquest. Since then, Wilson has been trying to unify his mythology (e.g., the importance of the Lady) and it just doesn't work as well that way.

However: the creepy bits demonstrate that Wilson can still bring the creepy, so Nightworld should be satisfying in that way, at least. And if not, hey, the series will be done and I can stop complaining regardless.

Wilson, F. Paul
Indeed, Wilson gets back to his core strength: horrible stinking monsters that want to eat your face. Is this a worthwhile climax after twenty-odd books and thirty-odd years? When you put it like that, probably not! So let's put it differently.

This is a nice little semiapocalyptic horror story with callbacks to lots of the preceding books and characters. And lots of horrible monsters. A lot of people die, but the gruesome on-screen deaths are reserved for the deserving. People are heroic, stubborn, angry, and terrified in appropriate proportions. At one point it gets genuinely choke-you-up heartwarming. At another point it rains fish.

I am not sure I'm narratively satisfied with Jack's and Glaeken's ending. It's clearly bought, it's not a cheat, but I wonder how much it was stretched to fit Jack into this rewrite of the universe. At some point I will take a look at the original (1992) edition and compare. In the meantime, it was a good read.

Tidhar, Lavie
Camera Obscura
Second book in what-the-hell-is-going-on Victorian-punk series. Milady de Winter is investigating a murder in Paris. It turns out there are zombies involved, and a jade Buddha statue, and Milady is a six-foot-tall African gunslinger, in case you thought you were on familiar ground. We cycle rapidly through Tom Thumb, Mycroft Holmes, H. H. Holmes, Captain Nemo, and a bunch of other references before getting down to the alien invasion plot which is somewhere at the bottom of this mess.

The sci-fi puzzle-pieces here signally fail to fit in with what we know from the previous book, which is either an invitation to finish the trilogy or a warning not to. I will, because I have no idea what the author is leading up to and I rather enjoy the sensation.

This book, taken by itself, is just good old weird-tales adventure, which turns nasty halfway through. I don't mean it's bad, but it winds up as horror-adventure; Milady is put through some pretty traumatic crap, so be prepared for that.

Calvino, Italo
Invisible Cities
Bought for research purposes. I read this in college, but I don't seem to have the focus for this particular brand of atmospheric text any more. Or maybe I should stick to buying books I want to read, rather than books for research.

December 2012

Duane, Diane
Uptown Local and Other Interventions [e-book purchase]
Collection of fantasy stories. A couple I've read before, a couple I haven't, a couple of wizards-universe stories, a couple of very-nearly-our-universe stories. And a couple that don't mention Switzerland. Includes "Uptown Local" and that thing with the bears, both long-time favorites of mine.

Green, Simon R.
For Heaven's Eyes Only (Drood 5) [e-book purchase]
Most Drood and Nightside books can be adequately reviewed by saying "a Drood or Nightside book". This one surprised me by having an actual moment of emotion, where Eddie Drood is beating the snot out of some good guys and realizes that he wishes he didn't have to.

Martin, George R. R.
Dying of the Light [re-read]
I went back this month to re-read some of Martin's early SF. This was his first published novel, I believe -- he already had a short-fiction Hugo and a couple of nominations in his pocket.

Like nearly all of Martin's SF, this book is set in the Thousand Worlds: a loose far-future history spanning millennia of time and a range of narrative styles. The planet Worlorn is wonderfully named and wonderfully gothic: a rogue planet which happened to drift into the multiple star system called the Hellcrown, beyond the Tempter's Veil. The nearby stellar nations jumped on the opportunity for potlatch, and spent years terraforming and building temporary cities for a decade-long planetary Festival. And now the Festival is over, the tourists are gone, and empty Worlorn is drifting back into the interstellar night.

Tell me that isn't the best SF setting ever.

Dirk t'Larien is haunting some backwater of the Thousand Worlds when he gets a message from Worlorn: a psi-jewel etched with memories of his ex-lover, Gwen Delvano. They once traded promises to come, either to the other, if so summoned. So off he goes. It turns out that Gwen is studying the ecology of the dying planet, and is married... sort of.

The story centers on the society she has married into. The world of High Kavalaan has a history which will be familiar to Bujold fans: loss of spaceflight in a great interregnum, invasion by aliens, nuclear and biological assault, mutation, near-extinction -- and thus a societal swing to xenophobia, obsessive genetic purity, and over-the-top patriarchal wingnuttitude.

Unlike Barrayar, High Kavalaan isn't so much obsessed with honor as with face. Kavalars go armed and ready to duel for called insult. Their women are legally property, which brings us back to the storyline, of course. Jaan, Gwen's lover/husband/owner, is a cosmopolitan guy -- they met on the high-tech world of Avalon -- and their relationship wasn't a problem until he brought her home to meet the family. Specifically, to Jaan's shieldbrother/lover/husband Garse, who is, well, more progressive than Kavalar average but still a shock to Gwen.

The societal clash has pushed the trio out to Worlorn, nominally for ecological research, actually to get away from it all. Inevitably, they brought it with them. Plus there are other Kavalars on Worlorn, for their own not-so-progressive reasons. That's where Dirk walks in -- blind to the whole mess and still carrying a torch for the young Gwen. Tragedy encued.

This is unquestionably a novel about relationships, and unquestionably not a romance; I don't think Martin writes romance, ever. Don't go into this looking for hot OT3. All the relationships are broken, and the characters are trying to feel out new ones. The science-fictionality is that Gwen's position -- emotionally abused, caught between at least four men who all care for her and are hurting her in different ways -- is nonetheless a privileged one; most women on High Kavalaan are rape-fodder locked in basements. I think the point is to knock over the cultural norms and focus on the brokenness. (Readers may disagree about this. But it's safe to say that Martin never implies that Gwen should be grateful for what she's got, and at the end of the book she's created something better.)

Bujold, of course, spends books and years trying to draw what's admirable about Barrayar out from the mountain of blood and pain it rests on. Martin asks the same question about a tougher target. I think he's somewhat clumsy about it -- seriously, rape-fodder in basements, and people hunting humans for sport. We're supposed to believe that most of High Kavalaan has modernized, and is building starships and so on instead of fighting world-wars, but we don't get any sense of social change on this human level -- only Jaan's personal rebellion, and the varying attitudes of the other Kavalars. I think the story would have been stronger for a little more display of Kavalar society and its layers.

(Also, every other planet we might contrast it with is a total cipher. Dirk's viewpoint might as well be 1977-Earth-normal, and the other major society represented in the plot -- Kimdiss, home of another ecologist -- is pacifist cardboard.) (Although, to be fair, Bujold has the same problem in Shards of Honor. We really see nothing of Beta Colony, except as a "sane" foil to "mad" Barrayar, until that brief scene late in the book.)

Nonetheless, and after all that, Dirk does (and we do) get a sense of what High Kavalaan has that is valuable. It may not be much, it may not be what he was hoping for, and it may cost him -- the epilogue makes that clear. But it's better than clinging to a relationship that died seven years ago.

Kindstedt, Paul S.
Cheese and Culture
An enthusiastic attempt to chart the entire world's history of cheese, by a cheeseologist who became interested in history (as opposed to a historian who is interested in cheese). It's a tertiary-source sort of book -- everything's footnoted, but all his sources are academic papers and books and so on. I'm not complaining, I'm just saying that he doesn't come off as a careful historian sort of person. He's eager to speculate where evidence is lacking, and evidence is pretty well lacking when you're talking about ancient Hittite cheese-making recipes. Sad but true.

The book tracks what we do know about cheese in history, from those Bronze-Age civilizations up through Classical times, the Middle Ages, industrialization, and the modern artisan cheese movement, and caps off with a quick look at current legal issues. (The ongoing tussle about cheese-name protection -- who can call their cheese "Roquefort", e.g. -- and the equally ongoing wrangle about raw-milk cheese in the US.)

Rather than try to analyze the book further, I'll just tell you what I learned, which will either enflame your interest further or save you from having to read the book at all.

- Pretty much every civilization invents cheese. It's what happens as soon as you have a surplus of milk and need to do something with it.

- However, inventing a storable, shippable, durable cheese is trickier. (Most of the author's speculation is about who started using coagulants such as rennet, and when.) (Anatolia, 1400-ish BC, looks like the earliest definite date.)

- "Transhumance" is an awfully impressive word for having separate winter and summer grazing fields for your herd.

- Cheese is an important food throughout European history. (Not so much in China, etc.) The author falls short of making it a crucial part of every stage of Western civilization, but he does turn up a lot of interesting relevancies.

- The great enemy of the cheese industry turns out to be the butter industry. You generally want to skim off some of the cream before you start making cheese, and then you sell that as butter. But butter is more profitable, so it is tempting to skim off more and more cream. Pretty soon all your profit is coming from butter, and your cheese is this nasty low-fat stuff which is boring when fresh and turns into a rock if you try to age it. Give up and feed the whey to your pigs.

- Unless you are a Dutch cheese genius and figure out how to make an interesting spiced skim-milk cheese that doesn't suck, and then you sell that. Holland had a lot of cheese geniuses in the late Middle Ages; this is when Gouda and Edam and so on got popular.

- Most importantly, "cheese" is a funny word, and the more you read it the funnier it gets. Particularly in a book like this which goes on about cheese factors and cheese innovators and cheese technology. The author tries to keep the tone serious by throwing in a "transhumance" now and then, but it's no good against the tidal wave of "cheese". Cheese cheese cheese.

Aaronovitch, Ben
Whispers Under Ground [e-book purchase]
The author has now firmly settled on the what's-awesome for this series: (a) ordinary police work in London and (b) Peter and Lesley swapping snarky fantasy in-jokes. This is pretty ballsy if you think about it: an urban-fantasy detective series where the magic and the mysteries are distinctly not the big attractions. They exist, the plotline is a guy solving mysteries with magic involved, but they're not how the author intends to wow you.

An American idiot turns up dead in a London Underground tunnel. The body was stabbed rather than trained, so in comes the murder squad, and Peter Grant smells magic. This leads to -- well, by the end of the book you'll get a lot of sewer-trekking, a spray of gunfire, a trip to the art museum, and the world's most polite race of humanoid underground dwellers; but the mystery is solved by plenty of knocking on doors and talking to suspects. And writing out reports. That's what "procedural" means, and when an author can make that entertaining and throw in a bit of magic, I'm in.

We get just a hint of progress on the series' nominal arc-plot, involving a masked evil wizard, and a bit more on Peter's evolving relationships with his various cohorts and sidekicks. None of this seems to be evolving in a great hurry, so the author is presumably in for the long haul. Fine by me, except that I ran through the three extant books in three months, and now I have to wait like everybody else.

Duane, Diane
So You Want to Be a Wizard (NME) [e-book purchase]
Deep Wizardry (NME) [e-book purchase]
High Wizardry (NME) [e-book purchase]
(I am not attempting to review the Young Wizards series from scratch. I encountered them in college, I loved them, I still love them; take that as the baseline. This is about the "New Millennium Editions".)

This series was originally written in a "rolling present" mode. The first one is set in 1983; the third one takes place a few months later, but it's approximately 1990 and portable computers are hot; by the ninth, the characters are still teenage but they carry iPods.

Duane has started rewriting the series for a fixed time base: So You Want to Be a Wizard now begins in May 2008, and the rest follow from there. The "New Millennium Editions" are available through book 3, so far, as ebooks on the author's web site.

Is this what the series needs? It's not what I need, but I'm all grown up and stuff. I can certainly see the books being more accessible to young readers, now that Kit and Nita have cellphones like normal kids do. (And computer interfaces don't all look like DOS, and there are more than three Star Wars movies.)

Contrariwise, in twenty years it's going to look dated all over again. Or sooner -- maybe we'll all be wearing Q-Earrings in 2017. Who knows. All contemporary-setting fantasy has this problem, so it's just a question of how much time Duane wants to spend rewriting as opposed to writing new stuff.

There are a few (small) added scenes, quite a bit of updated slang, and some factual errors are fixed. (The gravity of Mars is correct now, thank you.) The only significant plot change is the bit about Olbers' Paradox; it has been gracefully withdrawn and replaced by a different spell. I rather regret it. No, the original scene made no sense whatsoever, cosmologically speaking... but it made a really lovely sort of no sense. It hit me right. The rewritten scene is way too on-the-nose. For me. I don't want to go telling the author to rewrite it again, that would be tacky, I'd rather have book 10 anyhow, right?

At any rate, this gave me (another) excuse to go back and read the early books in the series, so it's all good.

Jones, Howard Andrew
The Bones of the Old Ones
A new adventure of our favorite team of Persian monster-hunters. (Unless Saladin Ahmed's team is your favorite, in which case, your second favorite.) This book is not strongly connected to the previous one. It also runs somewhat outside the "traditional" Arabian-Nights-ish mythology. I like a good "ancient Powers of the Ice Age" story as much as the next Michael Scott Rohan fan, but this didn't quite gel for me. Nonethless, fun read.

Griffin, Kate
Stray Souls (Magicals Anonymous, 1)
This begins a new series in the same magical-London setting as the Midnight Mayor books. We have a new central character: Sharon Li, failing barista and (suddenly) urban shaman. Attempting to deal with unexpected at-one-ness with the entire city and an occasional tendency to walk through walls, Sharon does what anyone would do: she starts a Facebook group for people with magical problems.

This new series is a distinct shift in tone and story-shape. The Matthew Swift books were fire, terror, wild magic, and Matthew Swift generally getting the crap kicked out of him -- plus an undercurrent of humor. "Magicals Anonymous" has the humor on top. It is distinctly Douglas Adams, in fact: hapless, flustered people attempting to make sense of their lives. A hypochondriac vampire, a druid with hay fever, an extremely polite banshee, and a foodie troll walk into a support group meeting, right?

(But the fire and wild magic are still there, underneath. This author does know when to pass over the snarky comeback and scare you.)

I would say this introductory book takes a little too long to get started. Adams introduced Arthur Dent as a hapless prole, but a prole who lies right down in front of a bulldozer -- you start cheering for him immediately. Sharon Li spends quite a while stammering, second-guessing, trying to get enough biscuits for the meetings, and reading terrible self-help books. I was worried that she would be a nonentity, swamped by the colorful crowd around her. Nah. Eventually she gets fed up, starts shouting at people, and the narrative pace goes zoom like a rocket.

(The colorful crowd includes Matthew Swift, finally seen from the outside. Unsurprisingly, he's both scary as hell and a minor pain in the butt. He doesn't steal the show, which is the important thing.)

There is a crisis, of course. It is a crisis beyond the remit of the Midnight Mayor -- why? Because story; this isn't the sort of logical worldbuilding where you draw charts. Go read Sanderson for that. This is a newcomer shaman and her tribe, I mean Facebook group, flung in at the way-too-deep end and coping because they're basically decent people who refuse to give in. Did I say Douglas Adams? I meant Terry Pratchett, of course, my mistake. Adams was a cynical bastard. Pratchett loves people. That's this book.

Last updated January 3, 2013.

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