Books I Bought in 2011
I'm afraid book reviews are on hiatus. You will find
here brief reviews of books through 2011, longer reviews through fall
of 2014, and then nothing. Sorry! I got distracted trying to
finish a game and then never got back to reviewing.
I acquired 102 books in 2011.
On a day in the 1980s, two men commit suicide: one for ambiguous
reasons in ambiguous ritual magic; one for the worst of both. This is
their story. It wants to be supernatural intrigue thriller a la Tim
Powers. The author gets the motley crew of magically damaged amateurs
down pat, and the picaresque of too-weird-to-be-fictional locales. She
falls down on the bad guys. Tim Powers is a Catholic, but he knows
better than to make all his villains be cackling child-raping
- Levene, Rebecca
- Cold Warriors
I stopped at least once per page to say "I wish I had written that
sentence." Aside from that... it has already been well observed that
this book rethinks many of the elements of the Matter of Hed. Not
because they were poorly done the first time, of course. I guess
McKillip just wanted to play with bards and harps and students and
riddles and inexplicable contests and wizards turning up out of legend
at your dinner table, one more time. I can't blame her a bit.
- McKillip, Patricia A.
- The Bards of Bone Plain
Layers of story set in the land of Aristotelian foreignity -- the
place with faces-in-their-bellies people and people with giant ears
and people with giant hands and monopods and so on. Also, of course,
the Fountain of Youth and Prester John. A monk travels there and
finds three accounts of those days growing on a tree of (possibly
lowercase) knowledge; he starts copying them down before they rot.
Does any of this not sound like a Valente book?
- Valente, Catherynne M.
- The Habitation of the Blessed
What's in this book is a lot of colliding between "our" Western
culture and Utopia, aka "did these virtuous pagans of legend really
need a Christian emperor?" I feel vaguely disconnected from the
argument. I mean, I'm as much an American white guy as the next
American white guy, but why-should-I-care-about-your-Jesus is not
an interesting argument no matter which side wins. The prose is
This confirms the impression I'd always had, which is that David
Wingrove is not a very good novelist. (The Millers aren't very good
novelists either, but that wasn't their job. It was Wingrove's job to
take their mass of story ideas and make a novel out of it.)
- Miller, Rand; Wingrove, David
- Myst: The Book of Atrus
So we start with the childhood of Atrus (the daddy guy from the Myst
games), caught between his awesome grandmother and his psychopath
father. This would have been more captivating if the father weren't a
lead villain from day one. The book tries to give us a sense of the
kid's attempt to love his dad, but really, it's impossible. Seeing the
ruins of the D'ni civilization was probably cool in 1996, but now
we've visited them (Uru and Myst 5), so that's shot too -- at least
for me. The plot thickens into a morass of attempts to play god,
confusing plots involving somebody getting married, and a set of
twists whose only clear purpose is to set up for Myst and Riven.
It would have been great if it had come together, but it just doesn't.
The only genuine thrill is reading Atrus's last journal entry, which
is the opening narration of Myst; that's a virtue in fanfic, but it
can't be the only support of a novel.
The first book in this series was about a gang of kids. This one is
about a gang of kids and the possible subjugation of the world by
demons. The contrast is unsettling, but I think the author keeps the
stakes high in both narrative frames: some of the kids disappear, and
not in the "off having adventures" way. I don't think I'm going to
have any idea whether this series works until it's over. (Contrast the
Elantra books, which are nowhere near over but which hold their
"mundane" and preternatural elements together comfortably.)
- West, Michelle
- City of Night
Follows a few years after The Spirit Lens. The plot to destroy the
kingdom is slowly turning out be a plot to destroy the universe -- I
think. This book is narrated by Anne de Vernase, the daughter of the
evil sorcerer who got away at the end of the first book. Now she's
been summoned to the capital, where, as you might imagine, her social
prospects are on the dry side. Also, her mother has gone mad and her
sister has been murdered. The plot speeds up from there.
- Berg, Carol
- The Soul Mirror
The neat thing about this structure is that the protagonist has no
reason to trust the protagonists of the first book, and vice versa.
Nor does the reader necessarily know better: Dante, the rogue mage
with a heart of copper-at-best, may well have thrown in with the bad
guys. Whoever they are. Including or excluding Anne's father. There's
plenty of suspicion to go around, plus poison, ghosts, blood, curses,
blood curses, and plotters using other plotters. But -- in keeping
with the structure -- all comes to a triumphant conclusion, leaving
open only the fate of the universe for the final volume.
You know how the canonical fantasy badass is described as an nasty,
violent person? It's interesting to read one who actually is. I don't
mean he beats people up at random; I mean that when a fight starts, he
wins by getting in close and causing damage until the other guy stops.
I don't know. Maybe this is normal for movies, but this book gets it
across as not stagy or cartoon violence. Maybe I'm just making excuses
for finding a character interesting whose type usually repels me.
- Akers, Tim
- Heart of Veridon
This book has zeppelins and clockwork engines, but it's
Mieville-dark-fantasy in tone rather than anything one could describe
with a "punk" suffix. The cogwork is mostly (and ickily) implanted in
people, for example to make them cyborg pilots capable of interfacing
with a zeppelin. Jacob Burn crashed his first zeppelin and thus ruined
his life. He's a passenger on another, on Business, when someone runs
amuck through the bridge and leaves him in charge with a macguffin
ticking in his pocket. It's all angels, chase scenes, criminal
masterminds, and crashing zeppelins after that. Burn is just
sympathetic enough, I guess, due to nobody telling him what's going on
and having police and monsters constantly on his ass. Downside: his
girlfriend exists only to demonstrate every single love-interest plot
trope in as few pages as possible.
Carly Hsing takes a knotty new case, has to go back to Prometheus.
This felt a little forced, for some reason that I can't quite pin.
Maybe it was just too easy to cruise into and out of Nightside City,
which (as I distantly recall) dominated the earlier book so
effectively. Still, it's a good solid private eye story.
- Watt-Evans, Lawrence
- Realms of Light [e-book purchase]
More hijinks for the London sorcerer with pronoun problems. I continue
to get a kick out of this series. I wasn't sure at first; the author's
writing technique is the prose equivalent of a car chase through a
shopping mall stocked entirely with brass bands and fireworks. For 550
pages. And yet it works. The monsters are terrifying, the allies are
terrifying, the magic feels right under your skin, and Matthew -- who
is just beginning to get a handle on being the blue electric angels --
gets the ever-lovin' shit kicked out of him. He also, it seems, gets a
job offer or two. I want the third book.
- Griffin, Kate
- The Midnight Mayor
A book of mad little stories -- short enough that I sat down and
re-read the whole thing before writing this review, and,
unfortunately, just unmemorable enough that I had to. The author wants
to be Borges, and perhaps could even have managed it if Borges hadn't
done it first. Or if I were thirteen and still stunned by the idea of
meta. Mind you they're perfectly good mad little stories; I just think
that their virtue is several decades past fresh.
- Zivkovic, Zoran
- Impossible Encounters
The one published Raskin novel that I never read. (There are several
picture books that I'm leaving aside here. Also some unpublished
manuscripts which might escape someday? I haven't heard any recent
news. Anyhow.) It turns out I read this one as a kid after all. I
remember that the secret of art is not drawing every brick in the
brick wall. Dickory Dock (no jokes please) gets a job as assistant to
a mad artist with a Holmes obsession. There is no single formal
mystery, as there is in The Westing Game and Leon I Mean Noel, but
it's all about mysteries anyhow. Also the secret of art, and names.
Sorry -- the book is all about names. My mistake.
- Raskin, Ellen
- The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues
I read Pinkwater (as well as Raskin) when I was young, and then bought
reprints when I was a grownup, but I didn't read much of his newer
stuff for fear that it was Not As Good. Well, it is. This book (not
brand-new, but recent) is everything that Pinkwater has always done
right: the life of us as kids, the world that we were always convinced
lay hidden around us, and the ways that world worked. If anything he's
gotten better. This book is set post-WW2, rather than the "current"
suburbs of Alan Mendelsohn and the Snarkout Boys, but it is just as
recognizable -- but with more railroads and ghosts. See, I'm even
talking like Pinkwater now.
- Pinkwater, Daniel
- The Neddiad
A short graphic novel, set in the movie Aeon Flux universe rather than
the original animated shorts. It's adequate for what it does, but --
okay, it's doing the wrong thing, I'll just say it flat out.
- Kennedy, Mike; Green, Timothy
- Aeon Flux
Embarrassingly, I still haven't read this.
- McGonigal, Jane
- Reality is Broken
Graphic-novel series; I read them off iPad. It's a series of riffs on
famous fictions -- Ellis does the League of Gentlemen. (Yeah,
Extraordinary Gentlemen, sure, go on.) The invocations are deeper and
better-used than Moore's, and bitterer -- the main villains of the
story arc are the Fantastic Four -- but it's still basically gosh-wow
awe-and-wonder science fantasy. Which there's nothing wrong with.
- Ellis, Warren; Cassaday, John
- Planetary [e-book purchase]
Book three (of four) in the Weather Warden side-series. The main
series is now complete, and I remember more about the contortions this
book goes through to stay out of Total Eclipse's way than I do about
the plot. Cotton candy, in the sense that it melts away upon eating.
- Caine, Rachel
- Unseen (Outcast Season, book 3)
Concludes (in some sense) the Norse-ish future (probably) history
trilogy. The protagonist of the first two books is no longer on-stage,
and everyone else is trying to cope with unexpectedly being in the
"rebuild civilization" kind of post-apocalyptic world rather than the
"it's all over" kind. Well, almost everyone else. (Gotta have a
villain, and Norse myth provides. No, not Loki, try and keep up.)
- Bear, Elizabeth
- The Sea Thy Mistress
This series is strangely... historical, for being a series about the
end and beginning of the world. The vibe is "stuff happened to these
people". It's not wrong but it's unexpected, even the third time.
Have not yet read. (This was a freebie from Boskone, so I haven't been
as motivated to read it as I would for a book I chose to buy.)
- Sedia, Ekaterina
- The Secret History of Moscow
Second book about the post-traumatic ARG game designer caught up in
politics. An intelligence agency wants a favor, and... This nicely
conveys how squalid and awful spy work is, while still having all the
thriller material that we want in spy stories. The puzzles described
aren't quite accurate for the real-world puzzle community, but that's
the narrowest of expert-syndrome nitpicking.
- Williams, Walter Jon
- Deep State
Dumas with dragons, translated from the French. This is one of those
less-realistic spy stories (albeit three-musketeers-era spying) where
absolutely everybody is involved in at least one plot to betray
everybody else. I don't know if that's true to Dumas or not. I more or
less completely failed to keep track of who was doing what to whom.
- Pevel, Pierre
- The Cardinal's Blades
This is the most gorgeous physical construct of a book I have bought
in years. It is not a very good novel. It's got brain-hacking and
dogfighting in the skies of Mars, but it all turns out to be the
depressing kind of brain-hacking and dogfighting. Also the kind of
prose that wishes it were pyrokinetic New Wave writing, but that
doesn't support a novel all by itself.
- Korogodski, Leonid
- Pink Noise
It is also the sort of book that has a glossary and a postscript
about the author's hobbyhorse physical model of the universe, although
to be fair, that isn't a flaw in the novel itself.
Apparently Egan has always wanted to have written Dragon's Egg. Now
he has, but it's not much of a book. To be precise, it's two short
stories, one of which is a decent "how does their world work and can
they save it?" bit of alienry and one of which is pointless. Padding
them out with extra Newton and pasting them together does not add up
to a novel, and while Egan must be proud of his tides-not-gravity
re-rendering of basic physics, I did not need that many pages of it.
- Egan, Greg
I saw this in a bookstore in 1997, flipped through a few pages, and
thought "Cyberpunk in Venice. Good hook, but maybe I'll wait for the
paperback." Fourteen years later, the paperback is out (from a small
press I noticed at Boskone). This may be the longest I have ever
waited to buy a book after it made it into print.
- Lewitt, Shariann
- Interface Masque
So a bunch of demi-corporate tech groups mostly run the Net, and are
now conspiring to get the last few percent locked down. Also, jazz is
illegal in Venice. Counter-conspiracy occurs among people who want to
free the Net and also jazz. This ought to be good stuff, except, one,
it's hard to take the jazz thing seriously -- the Venetian choirs have
all been coopted to sing Handel and Palestrina to keep everybody's
minds placid. Jazz and rock must be stamped out! Whatever. And two,
the protagonist has a terrible case of tell-don't-show. She manages to
make all her discoveries of conspiracies and murder and aliens
(spoiler, there are aliens) sound run-of-the-mill. It's a pity,
because the future-of-1997-Internet cyberspace is pretty juicy and so
is the society and its crazy mask fashions, Baroque mind-control
A few otherwise-uncollected stories about the Lovecraftian protagonist
of The Bone Key. (Lovecraftian as in "bookish, reclusive, socially
inept, and prone to discovering preternatural horrors under every
tea-tray.") These show a nice range of tones, from straight-up
campfire ghost story to a night-time children's-fairyland adventure
that even Kyle Murchison Booth cannot make anything less than
- Monette, Sarah
- Unnatural Creatures
Foundered generation ship crawls at last to its destination star, and
finds that the damn home planet has invented FTL in the meantime --
isn't that always the way? Also someone has murdered the Captain's
mother, and the fact that all the bad guys were executed in the last
book isn't much of a comfort on a starship where death is just a
matter of bad record-keeping. I love the scenery in this trilogy (I
figure it's what Art Nouveau would look like if someone obsessively
mistook it for an engineering diagram) but the plots always seem to
come from somewhere in the left field of Bear's left brain, and this
is no exception. A suspicious first-contact situation is mixed in with
murder and mutiny, and then -- look! It's the Winged Victory of
- Bear, Elizabeth
Wizard finds himself in deeper shit than usual. I'm not sure about
what I even should be saying about book twelve in a series. If you've
never touched a Harry Dresden book before, for pity's sake don't start
here. If you've read the first eleven, for pity's sake don't stop now.
- Butcher, Jim
- Changes (Dresden Files, 12)
A novel which is actually set in the fantasy Arabian-Nightsian Baghdad
that all the Prince of Persia games pretend to be set in. (I don't
blame Jordan Mechner -- he was young and enthusiastic when he wrote
his first game -- but it's nice to see someone going back to the
source material.) Assassins, djinn (scary ones, wish at your own
risk), zombie monkeys, a pair of magic doorknobs (from the lost city
of Ubar) -- but also the caliph's dealings with the Byzantines, the
Zoroastrian cult, the Bedouins, and so on. Plus the sort of
interesting greater glimpse that I like in fantasy. Plus it's a solid
standalone adventure, although I understand there will be more books
with these characters.
- Jones, Howard Andrew
- The Desert of Souls
Vampire and girlfriends visit Moscow in 1903, with flashbacks. A
murder mystery with complications -- nasty little vampire family
- Bear, Elizabeth
- The White City
Boy at wizard school goes to classes, then takes a semester abroad.
This is a fat book two in a fat-book trilogy, but the shapes of the
author's intent are starting to show through the persiflage and
aw-shucks narration. If you think this is just a self-indulgent magic
adventure story, you're wrong -- go read it. If you've read it, go
look at the ongoing analysis posts at tor.com; a hell of a lot is
going on that you probably missed. I did.
- Rothfuss, Patrick
- The Wise Man's Fear
Again, a collection of Borgesic short-shorts, this time on the themes
of time travel. (Themes, because each story treats the idea
differently.) Again, Zivkovic is fascinated by his own role as a
storyteller (and I just typoed "storytelling", which he would probably
find fascinating too); but again, his fascination doesn't make the
- Zivkovic, Zoran
A small RPG with an outside-in model. A group of players (no GM)
decide how the story begins and ends, and then they go in and fill in
how everything got there and why. "The story" may be a millenium of
empire or a day in the salt mines, and you can focus in on any given
subset and keep going. (The designer's aim is bigger canvases rather
than constrained ones, mind you.)
- Robbins, Ben
Picking up a series after ten years is a hard climb for any author.
The Big Meow began appearing in 2006, on the author's web site, but
it fell off the radar for a while. Happily, Duane is shipping novels
again, and this is one of them.
- Duane, Diane
- The Big Meow [e-book purchase]
Worth the wait? It was fun, but I've never been hit by the cat-wizard
books quite as strongly as the better Nita+Kit novels. And the basic
composition of the wizardry universe is getting a little long in the
tooth. The N+K series deals with this by allowing the protagonists to
grow up and encounter more complexity in their world, but for an adult
cat and her coworkers, this metaphor doesn't hold up. I'm not saying
it's not fun, mind you; it's just getting... workaday.
Picking up a series after fifteen years is an even harder climb.
Moran's audience is twenty years older (and, we like to think,
smarter) since The Long Run came out. Our expectations have bolted,
flowered, gone to seed, and probably been pressed and dried in a diary
- Moran, Daniel Keys
- The Big Boost (The AI War, book 1) [e-book purchase]
With that all in mind, I read The Big Boost (an e-book on the
author's web site, although he's hinting at an upcoming paper
edition). I enjoyed it. So there. I didn't enjoy it like I enjoyed the
earlier novels, but there are so many angles to that reaction that I
couldn't possibly sort them out. This is half of the original AI War
story, for a start, and barely begins to touch what "the A.I. War"
might be. It's a classic Trent-on-the-job romp; it has none of the
scope that The Last Dancer added to the universe. To an extent it's
just reiterating The Long Run. But I don't know whether that's a
deliberate structure which sets up its second half. The whole story
might disappoint me, or clinch itself as a worthy successor to my
college-age-self's book-crush, or anything in between.
And then I still won't know whether the author can write more books
in the series (leaving aside the question of whether he will). This is
an old manuscript, which has clearly been revised for publication --
there are vintage-2010 in-jokes -- but I don't know how much. (No, I
haven't compared the first chapter to the version that's been online
since wayback.) Will we ever get a full picture of the Continuing
Time? After fifteen years, I'm still waiting to find out, I guess.
I don't know if Daniel Keys Moran still has it, but Brust does. This
is a collection of story-bits, ostensibly organized around a bit of
silverwork in the shape of a tiassa. We see Vlad early in his career,
and then in the "present" of the Vlad stories; we see Devera and Verra
and the rest of the gang around the edges. We see Khaavren, and then
we see Vlad from Khaavren's point of view, and if you haven't been
waiting for that for twenty years, there's something wrong with you.
All of this is so effortlessly tossed out, and so readable, that you
barely notice that the whole forms an answer to some crucial questions
about Vlad's life and Deverra's.
- Brust, Steven
Third Chinese-mythology multithread rebels-vs-Emperor story. (Come to
think of it, this is probably a riff on the same period as the Guy
Gavriel Kay book -- see below.) Dragons, jade, priestesses. The
storylines and characters continue to do stuff, and sometimes stuff is
done back at them. I'm not sure how long this series is supposed to
run. I will keep reading them.
- Fox, Daniel
- Hidden Cities
The start of another fat-book series, in the traditional form: a
prologue from ancient legendary history followed by a thousand pages
of fantasy-world politics and extremely detailed magical theory.
Sanderson tackles a multiple-POV story this time around, with an
exiled ninja, an enslaved war hero, and an impoverished noblewoman.
Meanwhile, giant storms are trying to scour the world clean of life --
that is, they've always done that, but they might be getting worse. I
suspect that the author is deliberately taking a GRRM tack, and he's
no GRRM, but he's still Sanderson and capable of whacking out a good
readable story for as long as you're willing to read it. Which I guess
will be another nine thousand pages.
- Sanderson, Brandon
- The Way of Kings [e-book purchase]
The prologue has a US Army lieutenant being chased by a stampede of
ghosts and buffalo across the Dakota badlands in 1869. Promising!
Unfortunately the book is about a vile supergenius child in Ohio in
1844. He travels across the country, invents the flying machine, gets
laid, and I think meets aliens and/or the Illuminati. It's hard to
tell. It's not pleasant reading. The flaws and squalidity of the
nation in that era are presented with loving detail, when they're not
being ironically multiplied; and if the plot connects up with the
prologue, the connection is in some sequel which I will not be
- Saknussemm, Kris
- Enigmatic Pilot
Followup to The Neddiad, starring Yggdrasil Birnbaum. I don't think
this one works as well -- the adventure leads off to a secret world of
talking dogs that doesn't have the resonance of the first book's
ancient turtle god. However, the continuing references to Pinkwater's
older books are cute.
- Pinkwater, Daniel
- The Yggyssey
A collection of photographs of crazy museum architecture. I like crazy
architecture. (See Garden, below.)
- Zeiger, Mimi
- New Museums
These are sort of... engaging in a late-1980s
let's-have-big-starships-and-space-stations Analogish way. Less
excusable in the late 1990s, of course, which is when they were
- Cook, Paul
- Fortress on the Sun [borrowed book]
- The Engines of Dawn [borrowed book]
I think this author is just not a natural plotter. Both of these books
require levels of contrivance that would disgrace a third-rate
videogame. I think the nadir was a fight scene in variable gravity
that invoked both "it seems these alien life forms become brittle in
zero-G!" and "wow, it's a good thing I've been wearing sixty pounds of
gold as a fashion statement for the past three years!" Also, both
books have a basic plot of "alien scheme destroys all human libido",
which was a book and a half too much of that and now I don't want to
read any more Paul Cook, ever.
Elf politics. This was an unfortunate mix of interesting fantasy notes
(elves being as drawn to human mortality as humans are to elven
beauty) and done-to-death cliches ("Going Into the West"? Come on).
The plot is also strained, with several plot threads circling and not
running into each other enough. Also, each thread kept jumping
viewpoint characters, often to characters introduced as antagonists.
In theory I like having bad guys turn sympathetic, but this book
doesn't manage the GRRM trick and I wound up just disliking everybody.
- Kelleher, Anne
- Silver's Edge
This is my favorite comic that starts with a guy drinking his own
urine. That's not why I like it. It is a tremendously geeky little
comic, a short fantasia on the puzzle-solving trapped-in-a-room theme,
where every plot beat is a logical or mathematical conclusion. You
have to swallow a somewhat caricatured amnesia setup, but hey, better
that than your own urine.
- Shiga, Jason
A young man (Shiga's drawing style doesn't distinguish between eight
and thirty) wrenches himself out of California existence to go visit
New York and his best friend / crush / something. This is one of those
stories unquestionably full of autobiographical elements, not that I
know, but which is its own story nonetheless. Jimmy is a romantic but
aware of it; Sara is a cynic but honest with it. "Stuff happens to
these people" -- not SF stuff, just life -- but I liked it.
- Shiga, Jason
- Empire State
Mind you, reading this and Fleep together paint a fairly angsty
picture of the author's storytelling outlook, and Meanwhile (for all
its awesomeness) doesn't alleviate that. I should re-read
Bookhunter, that was pure joy.
Kids' adventure graphic novel, volume three. Talking animals and elf
politics. Still cute, but I suspect it reads better in a lump than in
- Kibuishi, Kazu
- The Cloud Searchers (Amulet 3)
An infinite number of people sneak into an architectural garden. That
is the sum and totality of this thing. It isn't a story. The
characters (all stylized and distinct, none named) wander through
examining things (equally stylized) and remarking on them. Here is a
house made of trees. There is a tree made of houses. The dialogue is
just like that. It gets weirder and more involuted (blizzards of
photographs of the people, replayed video of the scenery, branched
sub-explorations of previous scenes) but does not end anywhere.
- Yokoyama, Yuichi
I confess that I bought this thing because I thought it would be
interesting from a game-design standpoint. Games (particularly
narrative games) are stuffed full of architecture, frequently for
architecture's sake. But even games with awful storytelling are still
obsessively interested in storytelling, and this book is not at all.
A bit of pleasantry about a servant boy in the world of Sorcery and
- Stevermer, Caroline
- Magic Below Stairs
The first collection of the Erfworld webcomic. A wargamer grognard
from our world is snatched, Cheeto stains and all, into a fantasy
kingdom at war. The gag is that Erfworld's laws of nature are
wargame rules -- territories are hexagonal, every sentient creature
has stats, and you can only attack in turn order. Everything, but
everything, is a terrible pop-culture pun. So the gimmick is that,
despite this, it is all completely serious: the creatures there live
out their lives with the hopes and concerns and terrors (and sometimes
terrible jokes) of any fictional or real world. The author carries it
all off pretty well. Since it's a webcomic, you can read it all
online, so don't take my word for it.
- Balder, Rob; Noguchi, Jamie
- The Battle for Gobwin Knob (Erfworld, book 1)
Spunky girl -- hang on, I've got the subtitle here -- "Gambles All to
Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save
Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)". This
series remains entertaining on the edge of twee, and when I say
"edge", okay, I mean "hanging three feet below the edge from a tree
root". However, it's hard to complain when racing along a plot that
jumps through time and sacred space without pausing for breath. The
Norse-Empire-on-the-Bay feels more solid than some hard-SF settings,
from the disaffected teen music fans to the gleeful nicknames (Tiny
Doom!) to the uncomfortable receiving lines at state dinners. (Nobody
likes shaking hands with a Huitzil priest.)
- Wilce, Ysabeau S.
- Flora's Dare
Pulp SF from the 30s, when planets were planetary, men were
blaster-packing men, and women were their mortal enemies. Seriously.
This collection starts with seductive alien vampire women
("Shambleau"), and then runs through seductive women pimped by demons,
seductive women baiting dimensional traps... okay, it's more varied
than I'm making it sound. The theme is definitely there, though. The
sexuality is not explicit by modern standards, but it's suggestive as
heck and must have been on the edge for its era.
- Moore, C. L.
- Northwest Smith
Half-elf detective gets herself turned into a fish. (Every reviewer
must start out with that line; it's just too quotable a setup.) Years
later, she drags herself out of the fishpond, tries to remember how
hands and feet work, and goes looking to put her life back together.
This is elf politics in buckets, and many people have recommended it,
but I wasn't as hooked -- er, sorry -- as others. The pacing is weird.
The book is trying to fill in Toby's backstory at several levels
simultaneously (as a child, as a teen on the streets, as a maturing
fae with powerful fae allies, as the wife of a human and mother of a
child). They're all important to the plot, but the story jumps around
too much and it doesn't gel. The elf politics do in fact interest me
-- I want to know what the Queen's game is -- but not enough to read
- McGuire, Seanan
- Rosemary and Rue
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have adventures in Lankhmar, go sailing for
more adventures, and then get swapped to our world (a vaguely
Greek/Phoenician era of our history) for a novella-length jaunt
against an evil wizard.
- Leiber, Fritz
- Swords in the Mist (Nehwon 3)
Leiber must have gotten excited about mountaineering, because a good
third of this book is Fafhrd and the Mouser climbing a mountain, in
detail. (Naturally, they take a break halfway to bed some magical
princesses, then fight a duel at the top.) (Not with each other.)
Later they get involved in politics in some underground empire.
- Leiber, Fritz
- Swords Against Wizardry (Nehwon 4)
This one is a novel. Rats try to take over Lankhmar. Naturally, some
of them are sexy, sexy rats. But not nice ones.
- Leiber, Fritz
- The Swords of Lankhmar (Nehwon 5)
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser get laid. This is a strange collection. It
starts with a scene of Death picking off heroes around Lankhmar --
certainly a direct antecedent of Pratchett's first Discworld story.
Then we get some quick scenes of women falling out of the air onto our
heroes, or vice versa -- barely stories at all. (This includes the
scene in which the Mouser, after five books of chasing or being chased
by all manner of women for honest lust or, at worst, honest cash,
casually rapes a would-be assassin. The text doesn't even try to
handwave it. I don't know what Leiber was thinking.) The body of the
book is another long sea voyage with wacky magical antics and gods
fighting at the end.
- Leiber, Fritz
- Swords and Ice Magic (Nehwon 6)
So, now that I've read the bulk of the F+GM stories? They're still
tentpoles of the canon, as far as I'm concerned. The prose very deftly
slides between action, humor, and lyrical tone-setting. (The image of
the world of Nehwon as an airy bubble rising through an infinite sea
will stay with me; and, again, it must have been an inspiration for
Pratchett's ironically clunky worldbuilding.) Nehwon is a very
tangible place, Lankhmar more so, and the repeated intersections with
our world, if patchwork, are confidently so.
As for the Fairies of Infelicity -- I think they've pooped less upon
these stories than you might expect of the era. Nehwon is a big place
of many nations and ethnicities; we see national stereotypes (the
Mingols as outskirt nomads) but not unmixed ones (our heroes spend
several stories sailing with a Sea-Mingol boatman). The women in the
earliest-set stories wind up dramatically dead, but for most of the
series the female characters show up as plot instigators rather than
plot tokens, and pull our heroes into bed or not as appropriate to
their schemes and desires. (With the blatant exception noted above.)
So, overall: worth keeping in one's library.
GGK applies the GGK treatment to what Wikipedia tells me is the An Shi
Rebellion (China, Tang Dynasty, second Thursday). Imperial
China-I-mean-Kitai is one of those eras where saying the wrong word to
the wrong person can easily get you decapitated, disemboweled, or
exiled to Mongolia-I-mean-whatever. Thus, a perfect setting for Kay's
love of silent realizations, knowing glances, and allegorical poetry.
If you've read any Kay at all you should know whether you'll find this
evocative or want to throw the entire historical period through a
brick wall. I kind of went back and forth.
- Kay, Guy Gavriel
- Under Heaven
No, no, that's my love of sarcasm talking. I enjoyed this a lot. The
storytelling has a very stylized tone, but again, that's the style of
the period. The characters are all interesting and kick ass. It's not
exactly subtle that the exotically beautiful women are the green-eyed
blondes, but it fits, and they're as distinctive and relevant in the
plot as the other female (and male) characters. There are ninjas and
they think the protagonists are funny. I can go with it.
First Bordertown collection in -- well -- the in-story gimmick is that
Bordertown slipped out of phase for thirteen days, except, whoops, in
our world it was thirteen years. So you'll still catch some of your
old friends from the old collections, unchanged; but they're dealing
with a sudden influx of kids with iPhones and Nintendos. But check it:
an influx of kids who grew up hearing that there used to be a place
called Bordertown, they thought they'd never get there... So, a mix of
the old Bordertown authors (Yolen, Bull, Shetterly, de Lint) and
fantasy newcomers (Tim Pratt, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Catherynne Valente,
Cory Doctorow). Seriously, it's so meta you could bite your lip.
- Black, Holly; Kushner, Ellen
- Welcome to Bordertown
Smartass gimmicks aside (and the Doctorow story aside, because he's
constitutionally incapable of not smarting ass) this has some good
stories in it. And some very good poetry. Also some stories that are
just okay. Par for the Borderlands course, I suppose. The stories
brush past each other in a way that's occasionally interesting but not
really genre-changing. (I don't remember whether that's par for the
course; been too long since I read the old collections.)
I think I have never been in the Bordertown target audience. My
adolescence doesn't fit the metaphor; or else, as a so-called adult, I
don't fit the ending. (The opening story does nod to the "Bordertown
isn't for me" angle, and I appreciate that, but I can't get
seventeen-year-old-me's take on it.) So whatever's YA about this
doesn't quite satisfy me, and everything knowing-adult strikes me as
clunky. I enjoyed the stories but at a distance. I'll recommend the
poetry direct, though.
The worn thread in my Reynolds novel commentary is "he can't write
grownups". I pulled that out after finishing this book, and... it
doesn't fit. I'm not saying he's become a deep gem of maturity, nor
are his characters, but they're as much grownups as any random
adventure SF protagonists, and decently written. So, good for
Reynolds, improving skills.
- Reynolds, Alastair
- Terminal World
That said: this book is a not-very-successful Vinge riff. I wish it
were a better one. The Zones were a great idea; more people should
have been riffing them in the past oh god twenty years; and in fact
Reynolds has a nice take on the Zones themselves. The world (rather
than the Galaxy) is divided into regions of variable technology,
particularly in tiers up the suspiciously beanstalk-like Spearpoint
Mountain. (In fact the zones go past "no electronics" to "no
machinery" and eventually "no cellular biology, sorry, you probably
want to stay the hell out of there." And yes, Reynolds has a good
However, the appeal of AFUTD was not the Zones per se, but the sense
of a multileveled Galactic civilization and all its attendant wonders.
Terminal World wants to portray that -- a vast future world and all
its history -- but the scope doesn't stick. It's just a trip, there
and back again. A perfectly good adventure trip story, sure, but all
the little background details just sit there on painted canvas. Yes, I
got the (smartass) hints about the history of the world. They're not
worth the effort Reynolds put into them.
It's 1914; Europe is divided between Prussia's giant diesel mechs and
the giant bioengineered living dirigibles of Britain, France, and
Russia. And then guess who gets assassinated? This is a YA adventure
which is sufficiently fun that you won't care how absurd it is. I
mean, the dirigibles host warrens of gut-engineered bats that eat
metal spikes and crap death upon command, and how can you say anything
to that beyond "more please"? We get two protagonists, an Austrian
princeling and a girl playing Handsome Cabin Boy in the British
aeronavy; the book's pacing is a little awkward until it gets them
into the same place, but it never slows down. More to come, of course,
with the Ottoman Empire in book two.
- Westerfeld, Scott
Second book of the country where half the population can't survive
sunlight and the other half can't survive without it. Despite the
title, this book is divided between Lightborn viewpoint characters and
the Darkborn Lady Telmaine of the first book. The difference, it turns
out, is that the Darkborn have a Regency-I-guess formal society, with
all the familiar trimmings, plus a soupcon of socially unacceptable
magic. Whereas the Lightborn are all over magic -- understandably, as
they need it to survive each night -- and also have a formal society
of advancement through assassination, at least in the noble families.
Result: any given Lightborn noble has been shot, poisoned, and
dismembered any number of times, and healed (they hope) just as often.
Result, and I'm pretty sure the author intended this explicitly: they
are all batfuck insane. Murderous paranoid psychopaths with a creamy
posttraumatic filling. The Darkborn who have to deal with them aren't
much better (the spymaster is a piece of work, and I do mean
well-written). Against this background, murderous paranoid
psychopathic plots play out. We don't learn a hell of a lot about the
underlying Shadowborn plot, but that's the title of the third book, so
I look forward to the conclusion.
- Sinclair, Alison
Boy and dragon go to Australia. You'd think this would be out of the
way, but no, China is smuggling trade goods, the British Empire runs
on trade money, therefore trouble. This series has enough books that I
can no longer get excited about them. New ones will appear at
comfortable intervals until the end of time. (The afterword promises
that three more are outlined, nor do I imagine that'll be the end.)
They will always be comfortable reads but the war will go on, as
foretold in the prophecy. I mean in Patrick O'Brian.
- Novik, Naomi
- Tongues of Serpents
Mieville's bent sensibility of urban magic turns up in London, where
you always suspected it grew. Someone has stolen a giant squid. A
giant squid! Stolen! I suspect this was a mad idea that turned up in
Mieville's head during a museum visit and had to be exorcised by
writing. The plotting isn't slapdash, exactly, but it's full of random
things which aren't quite as compelling on paper as I suspect they
were behind the author's eyelids. Yes, it's cool that the "kraken" is
the name of a fairy chess piece; no, it's not cool enough to make you
the new Tim Powers. Yes, it's cute that you can write London dialect
so over the top that it lithobrakes back into plausibility from the
far side. ("If you step closer, my lad and I will take you sailing,
and you will not enjoy what's under the mizzen. We'll run you up a
dress in taffeta. Do you understand me? If you speak we will bake you
oh my god but the worst cake.") All that said, and believe me Mieville
does say it, this is a bouncing little plot with plenty of special
effects and the characters are all awesome in interestingly different
- Mieville, China
I watched the original S&S TV show last year. It was fascinating in a
Lovecraft sort of way -- I don't mean batrachian; I mean that it was
creepy, atmospheric as hell, implied a far longer reach of detail than
it expressed or explained, and didn't quite work. The plots tend to
resolve by fiat, lacking force -- tragic but not tragedy. (If there
was an exception it was the fifth episode, the Dr. McDee dinner
party.) Sarah Monette has a long diatribe about this somewhere.
- Sapphire and Steel (Big Finish Productions audio plays, season 1, ep 1-5)
But the upshot is a fanfic vortex; you want more and you want it done
right. A few years ago Big Finish picked it up, with David Warner and
Susannah Harker voicing McCallum's and Lumley's roles. (Scripts by
Steve Lyons, Joseph Lister, David Bishop, and Nigel Fairs.) (David
Collings, the original Silver, guest-stars in two of the episodes.)
Having run through these five new episodes, I can say that they
capture the tone and the flaws of the original. The acting is good and
the audio evocations of the supernatural are brilliant. Sapphire and
Steel themselves are probably a little caricatured; Warner and Harker
do credit to the roles, but their interactions seem stuck in a pattern
and never have the spark that McCallum and Lumley had, either with
each other or with the characters of each story. However, the show's
main problem is unchanged: every story is a chilling buildup to an
arbitrary tragedy. Okay, X is dead and Y (or sometimes X) is
responsible. Problem solved, in story terms. We never have a sense of
the implicit rules which make the calamity inevitable.
Nonetheless, I still want more, so I will probably pick up the two
following seasons and find out if they improve.
More future-of-police procedural. The theme is mostly Make Your
Neurological Problems Work For You; which is to say, one of the
characters is a paranoid schizophrenic. Curiously, he's not the most
uncomfortable character to read. I recall this as fun, but I can't
recall specific reasons to recommend it, so maybe we should just stick
to Stross's Laundry novels.
- Stross, Charles
- Rule 34
Not ambitious, but does a couple of interesting things. You know the
(rare) SF novel with no human protagonists? This is a fantasy novel
with no human protagonists -- a world inhabited by tribes of
demi-humans, bipeds with fur or scales or carapaces. Yes, Adrian
Tchaikovsky is doing that, but his bug-people are distinctly humans
with knacks and the (slightly hard-to-swallow) mechanical inaptitude.
These folks are people, but a step to the side of human: instinct,
social reflexes, sensory ranges, living arrangements.
- Wells, Martha
- The Cloud Roads
The protagonist has a tail. He also, unusually, can shapeshift into a
winged, scaly, dragonish form. He keeps this secret, because the
region gets regularly invaded by the winged, scaly, dragonish Fell,
and he doesn't trust any of the locals to recognize the difference.
(He knows the difference; the Fell stink, to his nose.) This is
the other interesting bit: it's the fantasy novel where the "orcs" are
smart. The Fell intend to take over the continent, and they use
every trick in sight: treacherous peace treaties, assassinations,
sneak attacks, divide-and-conquer. Or all of the above, at the same
time, in layers. They lie whenever there's any tactical advantage in
it at all. They're not very nice people. (This appears to be a racial
trait, although the text does not engage this aspect of orc-fantasy --
at least not yet. No Dark Lord is in sight, in case you were
Anyhow, our orphaned-at-an-early-age hero meets up with more of his
kind, and they fight off the Fell. No surprise there. The surprise is
that this is resolutely non-epic fantasy; it's one clan of good guys,
one clan of bad guys, several local clans of bystanders, and
everything is personal. The core plot arc is our hero's dragonny teen
romance. (Okay, he's supposed to be 35, but he's shy and uncomfortable
in groups -- due to having not met anyone of his species since he was
a kid -- and, basically, it feels like that.) So, an unassuming book
and nothing about it made me bounce around in my chair, but it's
solid, and the series may be headed somewhere I don't see yet.
When the author pulls amnesia in the sixth book of a series, it's a
strong sign that she is out of material. This isn't purely a book of
"erase the protagonist's memory so we can retread everything cool from
the previous books"; there's some attempt to work in character growth,
as Monster Boy and His Brother react to the situation. But -- not
enough to justify a sixth book. I'm sorry; the fun has not run out of
this series, but this is not the way to stretch the fun.
- Thurman, Rob
- Blackout [e-book purchase]
More Nightside, and then more Droods.
- Green, Simon R.
- The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny [e-book purchase]
- From Hell With Love [e-book purchase]
I went back to read book four, A Feast For Crows, before jumping
into A Dance With Dragons. (I'm not the first person to think of
Gilderoy Lockhart, am I? Good.) So I am now sitting at the back end of
1600-odd pages of Westeros storytelling, and that doesn't count the
appendices. It's a hell of a lot.
- Martin, George R. R.
- A Dance With Dragons
My conclusions are twofold. First: yes, this pair of books could
have been shorter. 1200 pages, maybe. I'm all for dense storytelling
with lots of underhanded clues -- Rothfuss is doing a great job of
that these days -- and Martin does enjoy planting his clues and
symbols. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't have so much underhanded
information that he needed this much surface to hide beneath. A
prophecy here, a dream there, a damnably brilliant aside about ravens
elsewhere -- you keep it moving forward.
But second: if you asked me to swear that books 4 and 5 were too
long, I would mumble and wave my hands and then point at the Winged
Monkey of Samothrace. Because at no point was I bored, tired, or in a
hurry to get on with it. Every piece of story, every viewpoint
character, I wanted to know what happened next. If Martin does this
for another 1600 pages, and it's not over yet, I will read the books
and be happy because they're just good reading.
(Maybe I should hope he's not reading this review.)
I can remember thinking (back in 2005) that book 4 was bloated with
unnecessary scenes. ("I felt like a lot of time got marked," I wrote.)
But that was half a book, and it works better in completion. The focus
-- if I can use that word unironically -- the focus of book 5 is the
twinned struggle of Jon and Dany to rule their newly-acquired realms,
the Wall and Slaver's Bay. But this is really a triple struggle; it
goes back to Cersei at King's Landing, which took up so much of book
4. That is why we needed her viewpoint, small-minded and blinkered as
it was. All three of them are making a hash of it, but in different
(It's interesting that Tyrion is not involved in that command
storyline at all. I have always felt that, amid all the POVs, the
three protagonists are Jon, Dany, and Tyrion. But Tyrion is absent
from book 4 and essentially passive throughout book 5; Martin
literally turns him into comic relief. I'm sure that's just a matter
of focus -- Tyrion danced all over the early books, and he'll be back
on stage -- but he started out with the people skills that Jon and
Dany lack. I mean, aside from the skill of knowing when to not flip
out and murder people.)
So time passes, stuff happens, and the pieces move around the board.
You might expect more movement, but only if you don't acknowledge that
trying and failing (and flailing) is a movement, in story terms. Both
Jon and Dany will certainly be in new situations next book -- Martin
isn't being subtle about that -- and where will Tyrion turn up? I have
no idea. But I am still along for the ride.
The author admits his new series is in the lineal descent of Ice and
Fire (and he traces that lineage backwards to Thomas Covenant for one
-- the antihero surfacing in Tolkien's wake). So I probably shouldn't
have picked up right after 1600-odd pages of Westeros. A few
chapters in I was thinking "Okay, sharp-edged medieval riff with some
great banter, but it seems pretty stock, all in all." Then I remember
that I thought that about Unclean Spirits, and I was wrong; Abraham
is good at leading you down the genre path and then levering up the
flagstones to show wriggling worms. Here, as well. I'm pretty sure
he's running the Great Fantasy Quest Plot from both sides -- starting
from when the Dark Lord really was a sympathetic protagonist. (The
good and evil sides get more obvious halfway through this volume.)
Also, there are scary bankers and decade's best gruff sergeant. If
Brandon Sanderson is a guilty pleasure for you, try this.
- Abraham, Daniel
- The Dragon's Path
A fable set in mythical Ireland in the far future, only it's a spy
story. I can't make that sound any less ridiculous, but it's played
perfectly straight and it works great. Humanity's first interstellar
civilization was forcibly diaspora'd; a millennium later, the
fragments have rebuilt an uneasy cluster of stellar nations while
clinging to their mish-mash of half-remembered Terran history. Result:
people with names like Ringbao della Costa think it's perfectly
natural to write "Little Hugh O'Carroll" on the office door when they
go to work for the government of New Eireann -- it's not deception,
it's just good manners.
- Flynn, Michael
- The January Dancer
The point is, the galaxy ("Gaelaxy", by god) is a centuries-old
RenFaire gone to seed -- except it's not a joke; they have extremely
real national concerns and prejudices and fears, notably of the
Confederacy lurking on the other side of the Rift who threw them off
Earth in the first place. And into that mix falls the alien
MacGuffin, and pow, heaven's own chain reaction of agents, pirates,
soldiers, and spies, all merrily chasing each other's tails for 400
pages. Recounted in frame by a harper and a mysterious tale-teller in
a pub, of course. I can't say it never gets twee, but the author
only winks when the characters aren't looking, and the characters are
dead serious. So it works.
This is the book I wished The Twist had been: the American West as a
vast stretch of psychogeography, fragmenting into unformed potential
at its limits (thus "half-made"). Unlike The Twist, this was never
our world. The land is contested by two psychopolitical polarities,
the Gun (individuality and chaos) and the Line (eusociality and
order), as represented by sentient revolvers and steam engines.
Neither is healthy to be around -- they don't want humans, they want
heroes or drones, respectively. Correctly, the author doesn't pretend
to explain any of this; it's the foundation for the story, not the
story itself. More pragmatically, the foundation of the story is the
fall of the Red Valley Republic (they wanted no part of either Gun or
Line) ten years ago. It left unresolved wreckage. And yes, a hidden
axis shadowing the native peoples turns up, although its import is not
explained in this volume.
- Gilman, Felix
- The Half-Made World
Have not read.
- Miller, Rand; Wingrove, David
- Myst: The Book of Ti'ana
I keep hearing about this series, but what I keep hearing is that it
was abandoned after two books. I guess I can see why it had early
fans, but I wasn't that entranced. Jade Darcy, bad-ass with a phobia
of the human race due to some background trauma, is now a spaceport
bar bouncer on a planet so far out there are no humans at all.
Occasionally she takes more interesting jobs. The background of alien
social customs (in that mid-80s not-very-subtle SF way) is fun.
- Goldin, Stephen; Mason, Mary
- Jade Darcy and the Affair of Honor
Me, on previous book: "His stylistic quirks are... well, I can't say
they're under control, but they're adequately curbed." You know, I
think they are under control. Mostly. Donaldson does this thing
where he starts a simile, nails one of its feet to the ground, and
pushes it over backwards. "His hands made incomplete gestures like
truncated supplications." NO THEY ACTUALLY ARE TRUNCATED
SUPPLICATIONS. It drives me nuts. But then he also puts "may" where I
want "might" and that drives me nuts, and I know it's just me -- the
point is, Donaldson picks his words precisely and with care. He's
aiming at effect, and most of the time, he gets me there. Occasionally
he comes out with "surquedry" or "that dire fug" and I lose it, but --
fine, I'll say it. The bastard can write. Sometime in the past twenty
years, he figured it out or I started paying attention. I won't swear
- Donaldson, Stephen
- Against All Things Ending (The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, book 3)
So this is the penultimate Covenant book, and things are really
hotting up in the Land. Linden Avery has yanked Covenant back into
mortal life, one of those things you're Really Not Supposed To Do (my
caps), thus awakening the Worm of World's End (not my caps) and
everybody has about a week left to finish their Christmas shopping.
Thus, several mad races into and out of places after allies, power
sources, and possible solutions.
I oversummarize, of course. We get: a couple of really very tense
chase sequences; a couple of really very scary battle scenes; a lot of
not-tense but fraught what-the-hell-do-we-do-now arguments... and it
isn't cheap. By which I mean, this is not the third-hand fantasy gudge
of "will he put aside his fear" (hint, the hero always puts aside his
fear and finds magic in a giant burst of
gosh-I-could-do-it-all-along). This isn't about fear, it's about doubt
(and self-doubt) and trust. Linden Avery is a fuckup; she knows it;
accidentally setting off Armageddon was a big hint in that direction.
She has to keep moving anyway. The loops of second-guessing and
fleeing/grabbing responsibility are what fucked-up people do. (They
feel right to me, anyhow.) She can blast out magic in a giant
burst of etc, and sometimes does, but she has to figure out what to
do and what the cost will be. (Answer: usually irreparable.)
Covenant isn't a deus ex machina either; he's just a person who has
built some place to stand and trust. Their companions are, in various
ways, broken and dealing with the same issues. All the plot threads
reflect this, in various ways, and this is what good books are
supposed to do. So I'm on board.
Further adventures of Merlin's hunchbacked alcoholic son, if Merlin
had lived in a world with no Britain. I say "adventures" because this
is a series of semi-linked short stories, much in the line of (and
with stylistic references to) Zelazny, Vance, and Leiber. Haven't seen
that in a while, have you? The semi-linking is how Morlock keeps
running into his (interestingly insane) parents while on a quest to
rescue his horse. We get Morlock through viewpoints human
(interestingly varied) and nonhuman (not-so-interestingly insectile).
- Enge, James
- This Crooked Way
At this point I'm not sure what the series is about -- Morlock is
completely reactive, in the long view, and his involvement with his
parents comes off as two cases of "Eh, dealing with that sure did
suck." I think the first book benefited from bouncing him off his
sister, but she doesn't appear in this volume. His involvement with
the rest of the human race (and etc) is the point, I guess, which
makes these a curiously mainstream set of epic fantasy. But the third
book may be yet another change in form, so I shouldn't draw
Footnote: the sun rising in the west is a definitional mistake, not a
Third book about Merlin's cranky, alcoholic son, now abruptly
kidnapped by werewolves. Unlike the previous book, this is
unquestionably a novel. Morlock Ambrosius is not unquestionably the
protagonist; I think he winds up being the weird foreign sidekick of
his werewolf cellmate. Hint: they escape. Battles and electoral
politics ensue. (Werewolves love elections. They're pack sapients! Who
can fight to the death and heal it all back at moonrise! Now imagine
what their election rallies are like.)
- Enge, James
- The Wolf Age
There is also an evil wizard and a bunch of very Leiberian gods, none
of whom I am particularly convinced by. Unfortunately the wizard sort
of takes over the plot, and not in a good way. It's still a fun book,
and I am thoroughly charmed by a (good) wizard whose first reaction to
any problem is to invent, but I feel like each of these books is a
mix of story and random crap the author thought would be cool to throw
in. I'd love it if the random crap seemed to be going anywhere,
Footnote: Okay, I get it that the cosmology is not remotely Copernican
or even Aristotelian. I'm still not comfortable with the sun rising in
the west, not unless we get a non-solar account of what "west" means.
Dream Park was not from Niven's "early and awesome" period, but it
was an early favorite of mine, because it was about gamers and it
understood what gamers wanted out of interactive drama. (Yes, the
Games themselves were a stilted collection of LARP and D&D tropes, but
that's what would actually happen, right? I mean look at today's
videogame industry. But then check out the description of the
haunted-house attraction at the beginning of DP. That's proper game
- Niven, Larry; Barnes, Steven
- The Moon Maze Game
So then I liked the second Dream Park book a lot (interesting ideas
about the use of gaming), and the third one not so much (too much
real-world drama intruding on the gaming). I don't mean to sound like
a one-key pianist. The point of this series is a thriller drama
intertwined with a fantasy game, with a mystery underneath, and all
the parts have to work. I feel that The California Voodoo Game
failed to make the fantasy game work. Its mystery was weak. Its spy
story didn't repel me, but it didn't particularly drag me in either,
especially since its underlying motivation was "He was so sexy that
her brain stopped working."
That's background, so I can say: The Moon Maze Game also fails to
make its fantasy game work. On purpose. But it's still a failure. Let
me back up. It's a generation later; Cowles Industries is buying dome
space in the Lunar settlements for the first big off-world Game. At
the same time, revolutionaries are plotting to kidnap one of the
Gamers. The Gamemaster has a hate on for the Loremaster, billions of
dollars are on the line, the revolutionaries have hired psychos as
kidnappers, everything is about to go splat.
(That's introductory. Real spoilers begin here.)
So. The point is that the Game gets seriously interrupted, and the
last half of the book is everybody speed-running through a broken-down
Game environment, while trying to kill each other. On the Mooooon! As
a thriller plot, this makes sense. But I'm not in it for the thriller
plot, which is -- anyhow -- basically plotless beyond the "run! hide!
run! fight!" level. There is no mystery plot to solve. The Gamer
characters are a half-assed ensemble. (As in previous books, I admit,
but the previous books had colorful half-asses.)
And the Game, well, it breaks down. The shards make good scenery but
the magic is gone. I think it never gelled, because the authors knew
from the beginning that they would break it. I felt the hesitancy from
the beginning. (Too many introductories about kidnappers, Lunar
construction, and unstable African dictatorships. I could tell, in
retrospect, that this was never a novel about Gaming.)
The worst part is, the bastards did take care to invent a great
Game. They let us see it in the pieces.
I ask you, is anyone else in the "hunting urban monsters" subgenre
actually writing scary? Because this is the scary stuff. (Okay, F.
Paul Wilson can also do scary. I'm behind on his series.) Small-time
thief continues to hunt the alien horrors from outside space and time.
They're not sexy-scary, they don't have charming accents, and they're
not good in bed. They're also backdrop: this series is about the
Twenty Palace Society, who are not exactly the Happy Ending Club
either, and what our hero will do about it. We also learn more about
his past, and what his boss thinks. Annalise is pretty much the best
- Connolly, Harry
- Circle of Enemies
I think I've pinned this style: it's Teenage Noir. The characters are
streams of sardonic bon mots and clever comebacks, but it's not to
deal with the ruin and fatalism of modern life; it's to deal with the
loser kids in school. ("School" may be the Ministry of Magic or an
ancient cult of necromancers, in the event.) They're great reads,
don't get me wrong, but when I read three in a row I got a little
cranky about the repeated reliance on the confidence versus
socially-inept contrast. (Heroes and villains worth respecting are the
former; contemptible toadies white-hat and black-hat are the latter.)
Also a little too heavily beaten into the pavement: mocking Twilight
tropes. On the positive side: Valkyrie's relationships with other
characters, male and female, continue to grow and develop nuance. Also
on the positive side: smartass skeleton with big gun. Skullduggery is
just never not fun to hang around.
- Landy, Derek
- Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days (book 4)
- Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil (book 5)
- Skulduggery Pleasant: Death Bringer (book 6)
Have not read. (I think this, like the other Sedia I haven't yet read,
was a freebie on some table or other.)
- Sedia, Ekaterina
- The Alchemy of Stone
As noted in every review of this book by anybody: this is what happens
to Ravna and the kids on the Tines planet. Much politics, very little
Zones stuff. That ought to be fine; Deepness was the same way. But I
wasn't quite satisfied. I think I've gotten fed up with Vinge's flatly
over-the-top villains. On the plus side: the Tines characters get
equal time in plotlines with the humans, and the Tines plots are
resolutely Tines plots: they are character stories that couldn't
happen to human characters. Vinge does that very well. On the minus
side: enough dangling plot threads (particularly re Zones) that we can
expect a sequel, no doubt in 2020 or so.
- Vinge, Vernor
- The Children of the Sky
I enjoy this series more every book, and if I try to analyze why I
come up with: it alternates between esoteric discussions about magical
theory and incredibly uncomfortable social interactions. Occasionally
they're the same thing. (The only thing worse than interrogating a
Dragon about his reproductive habits is the Dragon knowing that
answering is important.) And this is awesome! I don't know why. It's
related to the Covenant thing, actually. It's the "heroine pulls out a
new magic power every book" trope done not as deus ex magicwand, but
as "oh my god, what complexities have I mired myself in this time,
what have I made myself responsible for". And the complexities are
now, what, seven books deep? and the author has not dropped the ball.
- Sagara, Michelle
- Cast in Ruin (Elantra 7)
Also, Kaylin Neya is now perceptibly a grownup. She'll always do what
she needs to do, and when that includes talking to other people like a
grownup, she does that. This may be why she's my hero. Must learn this
Trust Pratchett, publicly dealing with a terminal illness and
euthanasia issues, to pick the title... But if there's any visible
influence in his writing, it's a sneaking desire to get his minor
characters married off and his minor races un-two-dimensionalized. In
this case it's the goblins, previously known only as "so dimwitted
they collect their own nose-droppings". In this book we (in the person
of Vimes) (and son) (and wife, butler, ... don't neglect the butler)
learn more. It's not as multilayered as it could be, but still solid.
- Pratchett, Terry
More Irish interstellar spy adventures. Same crazy characters, same
chase scenes, new gonzo planets, new MacGuffin. (We finally find a
planet settled (at least in part) by Americans, I think. It may have
been a mix of Americans and Tamil.)
- Flynn, Michael
- Up Jim River
I bought this because the first chapter begins in a city called
Mirrlees-on-Weep. Sold! The city (all of civilization, turns out) is
threatened by a slow-encroaching storm-zone of monsters and
zombie-spores. Somewhere in the background, millenia-old engineers
lurk with a possible defense mechanism, except they're almost as
creepy as the Roil. It's wonderfully picturesque, but by halfway
through I was still waiting for some kind of story. I kept waiting.
The two main protagonists spend the entire book running away. Not the
good Trent-the-Uncatchable kind of running; just predictable
action-movie running. Things happen but no plot; everybody is
completely reactive, except for the one Old Man on-stage, and he plays
cryptic wizard all the way through. Too bad.
- Jamieson, Trent
Badass sorcerer goes back to Hell. Hell turns out to be a lot like
L.A. I liked this series more when the scope was a little smaller.
Lucifer slumming around on Earth is an excuse for banter; but when we
go to Hell and meet a whole lot of demon princes, plus various
archangels and deity-figures and machines that run the entire
Universe, it stops being at all convincing. Whatever trick Gaiman had
for writing that level of numen, Kadrey lacks. This is nothing to be
ashamed of! But it means you should write about sorcerers and
second-string demons, not about God.
- Kadrey, Richard
- Aloha From Hell
The urban wizard is just starting to get his pronouns under control,
when a gang war breaks out between Faerie and a (nicely-realized)
opposite-of-faerie clan. (Not the usual Unseelie Court trope.) Also,
the sun keeps not rising and people don't notice. This series
continues to build itself on city-texture in a way I like very much --
e.g., the uncanniness of no-daytime is first visible in the
Underground, where morning commuters and pub-goers and dance-clubbers
are all milling around in a nonsensical mix. We also get background on
the scary not-quite-enemy assassin lady and the negative consequences
of knocking out the most powerful sorcerer in the city (book 1) just
because he happened to be an evil murdering bastard.
- Griffin, Kate
- The Neon Court
Third book (and concluding volume, although the previous two stand
alone) in series about cranky deities. It has only now occurred to me
that Jemisin gives us the first interesting theological alternative
to Worshippers-Give-Them-Power since Pratchett filched that trope from
Lankhmar's purse. These gods do fine without worshippers (although
some enjoy the sensation); what they need is to be true to their
Aspect. Thus, our protagonist Sieh, the god of childhood, literally
gains mana from playing tag, throwing tantrums, or jumping on the bed.
And yet he is an ancient being who watched his parent-gods create the
human race; his tantrums have devastated cities. Kudos to the author
for seeing that there's a whole novel's worth of potential just in
- Jemisin, N. K.
- The Kingdom of Gods
The book has an A-plot, nonetheless, involving a scheme to overthrow
the Arameri aristocracy. One will not be surprised to find some
commentary on privilege and power. The conclusions to all these
threads felt just a little overblown, sketchy, and/or precious
(depending on how seriously you take devastated cities). Nonetheless,
the character relationships carry the book. I include the internal
relationships between the gods and their natures, between the gods as
vast immanent beings and as people-like-us. (It is no accident that
each book in the series shows one of the gods being forced to live at
the mortal level, in some way.) Very well done.
Aztec fantasy procedural: imagine Detective Inspector Chen as an Aztec
priest. Acatl is the high priest of Mictlan, god and/or land of the
dead. This is a back-corner-office-in-the-basement position, as far as
the Empire is concerned, but he still gets called in to crime scenes.
One turns political. The world nearly ends. (But then, when is the
world not nearly ending, in that viewpoint?)
- de Bodard, Aliette
- Servant of the Underworld
Good stuff, as long as you are okay with buckets of spilled blood.
Magic costs blood, which leads to a lot of nicked fingers and
earlobes, but also several scenes where Acatl roots through the temple
livestock reserves for cute-and-fluffy mana supplies. (Routine human
sacrifice, as in the let's-keep-the-sun-rising trope, is not erased
from the setting, but it's way in the background. Not sure how I feel
about that.) I have some problems with the pacing, but they're minor.
(Also, between this and the werewolf book, I am completely full up on
books full of foreign names that I can neither pronounce nor
Have only read some of.
- Monette, Sarah
- Somewhere Beneath These Waves
Girls' Own Adventure, part two. The protagonist falls straight into
fairyland, which ought to be a hint that this book is immoderate in
its pursuit of awesome. (Most of the storyline takes place in
Hispaniola rather than fairyland, but only because zombies and soccer
are more awesome than fairies.) Our heroine drinks, screws, escapes
zombies, punches a shark in the snoot, does not quite start or prevent
a revolution, and copes with Napoleon and the Wild Hunt, not
necessarily in that order. To be fair, this book has more romance
formula than the previous volume, but I was okay with it. We also find
out what ice mages are the opposite of -- fire mages, unsurprisingly,
but the details are nice. Lawyer dinosaurs remain a favorite.
- Elliott, Kate
- Cold Fire
Fifth bug-people book. The previous four formed a rather sprawling
history-of-the-war quartet. This one is a standalone, and much
- Tchaikovsky, Adrian
- The Scarab Path (Shadows of the Apt, book 5)
The Wasp Empire has been quiet for the past couple of years, so our
protagonists (the ones who survived the previous book) (for bleeding
and haunted values of "survived") head off to the semi-lost Beetle
city of Khanaphes. The place is stone-age (an unsubtle riff on Ancient
Egypt), which confuses everybody: it's not that darn lost, and the
Beetle-Kinden who live there are not among the Inapt races of the
world. Why do they insist on living in the past? And will they change
their mind about crossbows and mortars when an army shows up? (You
didn't buy "quiet" did you? Ha ha.)
Big battles, big character reunions, interesting story progression on
many axes; tighter focus (one city, albeit with many threads); and a
deeper look at the Apt/Inapt divide and what it really means for Bug
World. I like it. I understand that book six is already out, and I
will go get it without hesitation.
Of the last book, I said: "...it wraps up the Tentir storylines and
advances the series arcs.... We have strong hints that Jame will be
off to the north in the next story." Turns out I was completely
wrong. All of that applies to this book. (Except south, not north.)
So, no points for pacing. It remains true that "Jame hits Tentir"
works better as a single (enormous) novel than as three, and it might
have been better if it were edited that way, too. As it stands, it
feels like a quarter of this book's wordcount is spent explaining what
happened in previous books. Actual events are packed in like eggs,
off-kilter; either their setups have been hanging too long (since To
Ride a Rathorn), or the setup and event come on the same page.
Hodgell is best when she can work a few strange details around from
"quirky background" to "oh god the plot" at leisure, and this book
lacks enough leisure.
- Hodgell, P. C.
- Honor's Paradox
All that said -- still a great story.
- de Bodard, Aliette
- Harbinger of the Storm
- Master of the House of Darts
- Haley, Guy
- Reality 36
- West, Michelle
- House Name
- MacAvoy, R. A.
- Death and Resurrection
Have not yet read. I am starting 2012 out well behind the curve. (But
this includes early January releases, I think -- I went shopping on
the 30th. Also, I expect the Aztec books to go by fast.)
- Berg, Carol
- The Daemon Prism
Retrospective for the year: Angry Robot has become the publisher for
whom I will give practically anything a try. I buy mostly "safe" books
these days (known authors, known series, known genres) but I picked up
three brand-new-to-me authors this year from AB (and one last year).
Not all of them have been great but they were all interesting
(allowing that I haven't gotten to Reality 36 yet) and worth the
Last updated January 1, 2012.
Books I own
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