Books I Bought in 2014

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 56 books in 2014.

Left Over From 2013

Moers, Walter
The City of Dreaming Books
An entry in a genre which I'm not sure exists in English: talking-animal fairy tale adventure for adults. (The author is German.) Let me triangulate.

Optimus Yarnspinner is an aspiring author-lizard from Lindworm Castle, a city of highly literate dinosaurs. His dying uncle leaves him a manuscript -- not his uncle's manuscript (the uncle wrote only one tedious book about cauliflower) -- no, this is the work of some mysterious unknown. It is the perfect ten-page short story. Who reads it laughs, cries, shouts in exaltation, and gives up on aspiring authorship forever, because the perfect story already exists.

Seized by curiosity, Optimus seizes the manuscript and sets out for Bookholm, the city where everything is about books. All the business are bookshops, hotels for people in between bookshops, restaurants for people book-shopping, etc, etc. Everyone is an author or a critic or a bookshop-owner. Book-hunters organize safaris into the crypts to find lost treasure-books. The booby-traps are poison books, the monsters are books with teeth. The lamps are phosphorescent jellyfish (to reduce the risk of fire). You get the idea.

So, this sounds like whatever The Phantom Tollbooth is -- allegorical satire. It's not that. It's not about a child, and it lacks Norton Juster's insightful innocence. Instead, this is a straight-up adventure story: Optimus is kidnapped, dumped into the underground labyrinths of Bookholm, meets literary gnomes, comes face to face (-ish) with the Shadow King, and (of course) finds his muse.

But "adult" fantasy adventure is supposed to stomp along in the mimetically-plausible tracks laid down by Tolkien. World-building! Ecology! Convince the reader that this could really happen! (Presuming the principles of magic, as laid out in Appendix B.)

...I exaggerate. But this sort of semi-allegorical setting really is confined to kid-lit, in my experience. And then, becoming an author is not at all a kid-lit trope. What else could I compare this thing to? The Hero from Otherwhere? Lud-in-the-Mist, for goodness' sake?

Oh, I'm going on about genre boundaries, I don't know why you're still listening. The City of Dreaming Books is a fine little adventure story: creepy in places, triumphant in places, with lots of charming pen-and-ink illustrations by the author. There are many terrible puns. (Bookholmian authors are all anagrams, starting with Aleisha Wimpersleake.) Pixar could make a terrific film out of it (probably skipping the anagrams). It is not the perfect 450-page fantasy novel that will end literature, but it's a good read.

Purser-Hallard, Philip
Of the City of the Saved...
Second (or third, or twoth) of the Faction Paradox spinoff line.

Stop me if you've heard this one: at the end of history, the entire human race is resurrected on an alien world, to live all together in immortal bodies. (SF writers take this premise as an excuse to throw lots of entertaining historical figures into the story. ...Yet another demonstration that Dante was an SF writer.)

Anyhow, this is the same trope as Riverworld and vulgar Christian eschatology, but it embraces the space-time-opera gonzosity of the Faction Paradox setting. The City of the Saved (parse that term as Calvinism or a flash drive, your choice) is not planet-sized; it's galaxy-sized. It's inhabited by every human being in recorded history. That is: every human being in the history of homo sapiens -- tens of thousands of years of prehistorical rock-banging, thousands of years of technological development, and then millions of years of interstellar civilization. Civilizations. Colonies, empires, republics. All of them. Prehumans, posthumans, part-humans, cyber-humans, mod-humans, uploaded humans... a population measured in septillions.

(Or, perhaps, trillions of times greater than that. Whenever a time-travelling Warship alters history, the City seems to contain all the human lives from both alternate timelines. And with the Time War raging, histories are being altered and re-altered all the... well... all the time. As it were.)

One fears that the storyline might be unable to stand up to this fantastical backdrop. One would, regrettably, be right.

It's a murder mystery. Among N-illions of immortal beings, one politician gets stabbed (this is impossible) and bleeds (impossibly) (and messily) to death all over his office. Why? How? Has the War finally reached the City? (It's tried before.) Will death's foothold in Heaven prove contagious? (Hint: yes.) Is it a good murder mystery? Not really.

We get a bunch of narrative viewpoints and a bunch of narrative threads; I guess it's trying to pull same trick as This Town.... But it fails. The characters aren't interesting and threads don't stick together. Worse sin than either: Of the City... is fanfic in the way that This Town... isn't; it relies on canon. The story (and solution) depends on knowing the history of Compassion, Timeship and mother of Timeships, in the Doctor Who novels that Faction Paradox originally split from. Oh, the book tries to introduce the necessary backstory -- it's packed with sidebars and footnotes -- but it's both insufficient and too much information. It doesn't work.

So, whither Faction Paradox? I've read three volumes, which score two idea-packed failures and one success despite itself. I have three more volumes on the shelf, plus a collection of short stories. I expect the success ratio to remain low. And yet I'm still interested. Faction Paradox is an inchoate narrative fog which may contain nothing but will-o-wisp and ambition. How can I say no?

(Added afterwards: I have now looked up some of the drama from fifteen-odd years ago -- when the Who novels in question were being written. I am adding this footnote to say: don't. I shouldn't have looked. Maybe that should taint this whole review, but you know, I'm just gonna go back to reading the books.)

Parkin, Lance
Warlords of Utopia
Third-ish of the Faction Paradox novels. This one is by Lance Parkin, who has established credit in the more-canonical Doctor Who line (New Adventures, the BBC line, and Big Finish scripts). So I had some hopes for it.

The good news is, it works better than ...City of the Saved. It moves along pretty well and it doesn't rely on you being a Who fan. The bad news is, it's more or less a pulp SF novel of the Golden Age: lots of scenery, lots of events, no characters to speak of.

Marcus Americanius Scriptor is born into an alternate Roman Empire, two millennia young and still going strong. The entire Earth is Roman, peaceful, and prosperous (though the historically Roman form of slavery continues). Marcus is settling down to a life as a literary dilettante when he comes across an anomaly: a bracelet dropped by an old man who materialized in the Forum one fine day. Marcus grabs the man as he attempts to dematerialize again, and... zap. Welcome to a different alternate Roman Empire.

We follow our protagonist (viewpoint person, anyhow) as he starts setting up a timeline-spanning meta-Empire of Rome -- on behalf of his own world, which is of course the best Rome. This goes great, until he runs into a timeline-spanning meta-Third-Reich. And then there's some trouble.

As a high concept, this is terrific stuff. As a novel, it's not much of one. Lots of events, as I said, but Marcus might as well be a faceless passive voice. The closest he gets to coming alive is in his (first) experience of London's fall, dodging the Blitz, where he meets a doppelganger of his Celtic wife. This storyline is rapidly handwaved away in an unconvincing three-way, and Marcus goes back to didactically narrating war history. He loves Rome, and that's about all there is to him. He's got some historically appropriate blind spots (see slavery) but the story doesn't do anything with them.

The Nazis consolidate with the aid of another timeline traveller; a Roman homeworld is invaded; the Romans consolidate back with the aid of yet another timeline traveller; they kick some Nazi ass. Time-travelling gods show up and Marcus manages to make them hesitate, if not blink. That's pretty much it. Marcus writes his memoir. The end.

We get rather a lot of clever references. We get the requisite hints of canon and Paradox lore. (The original traveller is described as the eighth of thirteen fugitives. And then there's the War, unseen but far vaster than the petty struggle between thousands of Roman timelines and thousands of Nazi ones.) It's fun, but it can't make the book. The author goes big, but he doesn't manage to make it weigh much.

Miyabe, Miyuki
The Book of Heroes
A very strange book. I didn't connect with it, but I can't tell where the blame falls between me, the author, and the translator.

I only know the author from her novel inspired by (or tie-in to, if you're ungenerous) the game Ico. This felt weirdly like a tie-in to that; a great deal of the book's imagery reminded me strongly of either Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Not the story, mind you, that's new. But when you start with a cursed nameless land and a giant tower in the middle, with nameless robed monks scurrying around, you wonder.

Anyhow. The main story involves Yuriko, a schoolgirl in contemporary Japan. Her older brother disappears after apparently going nuts and stabbing two classmates. This is straight-up realism, as shocking as it sounds -- including the reactions of Yuriko's own classmates.

The author waits a beat, and then introduces a talking book to give us back the comforting veil of heroic fantasy. Yuriko's brother has been seduced by an ambiguous story, the archetype of the Hero (if good) or the King in Yellow (if evil). On either side, it is the fantasy of the powerless everyman taking control of his destiny. Which is exactly what heroic fantasy is, so maybe that veil isn't as comforting as we thought.

Yuriko is quickly handed great magical powers and a new name (U-ri the allcaste); she is dispatched to an imaginary land (yes, as in fictional) to follow and perhaps save her brother. She is accompanied by a cute mouse (nee dictionary) and a nameless boy monk. Also by a ton of further ambiguity. Everybody, but everybody, keeps secrets from her. Sound familiar?

There is lots of adventuring, lots of scenery, lots of horrible monsters and semi-trustworthy allies, and at the end... a very qualified victory. It's exactly what a fantasy novel promises. But.

...The ontology is hard to get hold of. We get lot of discussion of stories and how they affect the world; it's all faintly obscure (or obscured by translation issues? "Allcaste", for a start, I have no idea what to make of that word.) We are introduced to a lot of history of the fictional world, the Haetlands; some of it is thrown at us quite late, and being fictional, are we supposed to take it at face value? I'm not sure. Everything seems to be wrapped up in a tidy knot at the end; the nominal moral is to not try to live your life as a story. Don't be a hero! ...says the fantasy novel. I am suspicious.

It's a good read. It falls short of a compelling read, for me; I took several breaks for other books. But then, I finished it. I truly do not know what the author was getting at, and I look forward to reading other people's commentary.

Halliday, Mags L.
Warring States
Peking, 1900. An time-travelling steam-train pulls into an imaginary station, carrying two Cousins of Faction Paradox. They've come to investigate artifacts discovered (by Westerners) in the legendary White Pyramid of China. Not the actual Chinese pyramidal mausoleums, mind you, but the legendary one. Cousin Octavia will soon encounter a translator named Liu Hui Ling, and then everything will go to heck in a hurry -- the Boxer Rebellion, you know.

For the first time in this series, the Faction isn't hidden between the lines. We get a Faction narrator, someone who knows the score. The story gives us a blizzard of references from The Book of the War: witchblood, biodata, the Eleven-Day Empire and the Thirteen-Day Republic, shadow weaponry, timeships. Or a timeship, anyway -- Compassion, the thread running through all the Faction books so far -- no points for guessing how she manifests to the Chinese.

I'm pleased to finally get a "real" Faction Paradox story. The description of time-active ritual magic/technology is pleasingly evocative; it has a sense of depth, rather than just being a stack of notions out of a lexicon.

Of course I'm using "real" ironically. I'm glad the earlier books took an outsider slant to the Faction. This Town... is great the way it is! Anyhow if four novels in a row had rolled through the same set of Faction tropes, I'd long since be sick of it. (Like Lin Carter's Cthulhu stories, each of which iterated Lovecraft's gods and grimoires to the point of exhaustion.)

Also, the Faction setting is nicely balanced with a well-researched Boxer-era Beijing. Not that I know anything about the period, but the detail comes thick and fast and laden with the smell of the streets. Later, the smell of the streets on fire.

This is an excellently bouncy adventure. And yes, the Westerner Cousin Octavia and the Chinese Liu Hui Ling wing up getting equal time in the story. Liu turns out to be trained in kung fu, and if the book is somewhat fuzzy on how that happened, it's absolutely worth it. A wuxia heroine squaring off against a Faction shadow-fighting ritualist -- that's the cover art, and it's selling the right stuff.

Really the entire story skimps on setup, preferring to throw you straight into the action. If that's an error, it's on the correct side. Some early comments lead me to believe that this is Octavia's second adventure -- following something about Princess Anastasia -- but I'm not sure where that was published, if anywhere, outside of Book of the War entries. At any rate this one stands on its own. If you've been befuddled and intrigued by my Faction reviews so far, hit This Town... and Warring States and you'll be in good shape.

Miles, Lawrence
Dead Romance
So here I am at the prehistoric roots of Faction Paradox. This book is from 1999. It comes from the Virgin New Adventures line, at a point where they had lost the license to write "Doctor Who" books, but before Lawrence Miles leaped off into his own idiosyncratic "Faction Paradox" line. So it's... quasi-almost-canonical but not semi-heterocanonical?

But still idiosyncratic, of course.

London, 1970 -- the Autumn of Love, as it were, with Charles Manson ranting in prison about the End of Days. Druggie-hipster-wisekid Christine Summerfield (note last name) is arrested in London for being stoned out of her gourd. The police soon decide they have more important fish to fry, with a serial-murderer suspect being dragged in. Christine ducks out the back... and immediately runs into an actual murderer, who possibly grows wings and flies away.

That's the least strange occurence of her week.

(The previous suspect is named Chris Cwej, by the way. Note this name too. Regular readers of the New Adventures line will recognize him. I recognized him from the Book of the War; he's one of the few characters to cross over directly from "official" books to the "what the hell is Miles up to" books.)

Dead Romance is a mad dash through concentric apocalypses. It's very dark, and it works very well. If you were wondering -- you probably weren't, if you read these books in publication order, but I was wondering -- whether Miles's jazzy snarky narration in This Town... was a fluke: it isn't. He can pull this off repeatably. Or at least he could a decade ago. This is a first-person retrospective story, rather than the three-strand omniscient narration of This Town... -- but it's got the same compulsively readable energy.

The drive comes from those apocalypses -- casually mentioned by Christine Summerfield, writing notes to herself in the rubble of civilization. (Some civilization.) The book, in fact, has what I have called the "incompetent narrator", the next step beyond the unreliable narrator. (Though Christine is also unreliable; she warns us of this straight off.) I'm not saying Miles is a Gene Wolfe, but he tackles Wolfe's trick: a story told hopelessly out of order, by a character who can't be bothered to build up tension or conceal upcoming twists -- but which artlessly manages to reveal what you need to know, when you need to know it, for maximum narrative momentum. It's a hell of a trick, is what I'm saying. Miles pulls it off.

He also pulls off his trademark sense of fantastical-cum-existential horror. Monsters are not giant tentacled scaly things; they're ruptures of reality, redefinitions of the known into the monstrous. Oh, you may get a night-black wing blotting out the stars, but it's also a core leak in the universe's operating system. An army marches in, but they have no interest in exterminating humanity, only in changing the conditions of its existence.

I said This Town... was not fanfic, in this sense: it is entirely appreciatable by a reader who does not know or care about Doctor Who and who will still not know or care about Doctor Who after enjoying the book. (This is not the only definition of fanfic, but it's the one I'm using right now.)

Can I say the same of Dead Romance? Yes, I think so -- mostly. (Even though this book appears in a sequence that started out as Doctor Who novels.)

The shadow of the Doctor lies more heavily on Dead Romance, and I suspect it will be stronger for Who fans. The Doctor does not appear directly. He's a story told to Christine by Cwej; a distorted story, the evil scientist who kidnaps people in his time machine and twists their minds. The idea that Cwej's memory itself has been twisted is quite explicit. And yet one of the book's strengths is the portrait of Cwej, a programmed agent of the Time Lords -- hating the Doctor, but nonetheless indelibly shaped by the Doctor. A monster, trying to imitate a hero that he can't even remember accurately.

(Assuming, of course, that the Doctor is still a hero. You want to believe that this book is in-continuity enough for that. And yet -- it's all about how far an "official" continuity can get from canon. I doubt that Cwej -- not originally Miles's character -- was introduced as a monster. The utter destruction of the Earth is another tipoff.)

There is no happy ending. I truly don't know where Miles intended to take this storyline; by the time it reaches The Book of the War it's changed (again) beyond recognition. I am assured that no single trope of Dead Romance is really consistent with any other Who or post-Who storyline. And yet -- so what. This book must have knocked 1999-era Who fans on their asses. It still works. Good for the author.

January 2014

Nix, Garth
A Confusion of Princes
Lightweight YA SF. Khemri is a Prince in a vast, overbearing galactic empire. "Prince" is a caste title; babies are selected at birth, augmented out the wazoo, and conditioned to be effective military/bureaucrat/administrators. This is nice, because you get to treat the rest of humanity as peons and slaves, but not perfect, because there are millions of Princes in the Empire and assassinating each other is totally cool. Princes are considered disposable assets. (Lower castes are considered fungible machine parts.)

Khemri comes of age as (unsurprisingly) a sociopathic snot, but he gets a break; he's recruited for the Adjustment group. (Think "Special Circumstances.") This involves a couple of years of training without his tech augmentations and his coterie of slaves, out among the normals of society. Thus he learns humanity, falls in love, etc. Plot occurs and resolves. (The book does not invite sequels.)

It's a decent idea, but not very involving. Khemri's life as a Prince is flat superhero fantasy. Supervillain, I guess, since he has no redeeming features at that point. (Oh, he's cheerful and hardworking and not vindictive towards his fellow Princes, but this doesn't make me like him either.) The storyline after that is adequate, and there's certainly a lot of flashy super-high-tech to draw the eye, but nothing stands out.

Footnote: the book came out of the author's design for a videogame setting. Didn't realize that until after I'd finished reading. Not that this affects my review; but it happens to make a good pair with the next book I read, which was based on Darksiders.

Marmell, Ari
Darksiders: The Abomination Vault
This is a tie-in novel for the Darksiders videogame series. (The series was cancelled after two games when the development company cratered. But they commissioned this novel first.)

The writing is not the high point of the videogames. Neither is the characterization. Or the worldbuilding. To be blunt, these games are about great visuals and really excellent level and puzzle design. I was curious if those qualities could be translated into prose. Surprise! They can't. It's not a very good novel.

The setting, if you're unfamiliar with the games, is an extended Miltonian universe -- demons, angels, Hell, Heaven, and a liberal mash-in of whatever else the designers could think of. The protagonists are the Four Horsemen, here retconned as the four survivors of the extinct Nephilim. They go around pissing off Heaven and Hell on the orders of the mysterious Charred Council. The games take place after an Apocalypse-gone-wrong destroys the Earth. (Yes, Apocalypses can go wrong.) The book, in contrast, is set long before the birth of the human race. A cache of superweapons turns up; Death and War are sent out to deal with it before either the "good guys" or the "bad guys" can make a mess.

The author makes a serious attempt to capture the high-speed button-mashing combat of the game. Lots of lovingly-described acrobatic butchery. There's also lots of lovingly-described scenery (some beautiful, more horrific, just like in the games). It recalled the games to mind very well, but I don't know if non-players would get anything out of it.

The same goes for the characters. War and Death (plus their siblings^ Fury and Strife, who would have starred in the next two games) are basically grunting hulk-monsters waving oversized anime weaponry. They get to be sarcastic in cut scenes, is the extent of them. To his credit, the book author sets up some character development -- the Horsemen have an actual sibling-like relationship, which is informed by their already-eons-old history as immortals and survivors of a dead race. But there's not a lot to it.

(^ Fury is a Horsewoman, in case you were wondering.)

Abraham, Daniel
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
Novella about a pair of British secret agents who investigate Lovecraftian creepy stuff. (This is the 1880s.) Balfour is laconic and likes stabbing things; Meriwether is voluble and likes shooting things. (I got a whiff of Croup and Vandemar, although these guys are no more brutal than the average secret agent.)

They get an assignment, visit a sanitarium, and then descend into the bowels of the earth to discover... well, the Harrowmoor Dogs, if that's not too much of a spoiler. The story is brief, tense, vivid, and leaves a lot of threads hanging for more stories.

Running through the story is the Victorian-era view of homosexuality. I'm not sure it fits in smoothly -- there's a story frame whose only purpose seems to be to give baby Alan Turing a cameo. But again, this may make more sense in the context of more Balfour and Meriwether stories.

(Upon searching, there are two earlier ones and the author hasn't decided whether to write more.)

Lyle, Anne
The Alchemist of Souls
European explorers sailed to the New World and found elves, aka skraylings. (There are also human Native Americans, in case that's a thing for you.) Now it's 1600-ish, there are skrayling ambassadors in London, and they like theater. Thus: a competition to put on the best play.

We get this from two viewpoints. Mal Catlyn is a rogue and swordsman, a scion of French nobility (much good it does him in Protestant England; he's dead broke). Coby Hendricks is a costumes manager in a theater, staying out of the limelight because she's secretly a girl. Okay, Mal's sidekick Ned also gets some page time. (Ned has a crush on Mal. Coby winds up with a crush on Mal. Surprisingly, this is not a romance-triangle plot.)

My problem with this book is that it takes damn near forever to get going. There's vast swathes of minor politicking around the theater, the skraylings, the collision between the theater and the skraylings, the murders in the theater, the attacks on the Skraylings, the spies... Naturally Walsingham is involved. (Kit Marlowe is only namechecked; he's dead.) But none of this seems to be going anywhere, until more than halfway through the book. Then Mal's persistent nightmares about skraylings turn out to be all sorts of relevant and a nasty, nasty scheme makes itself known.

Things kick into high gear for the final third of the plot -- kidnappings, fires, divers alarums as they say -- but I'm afraid that my interest never quite caught up. Plus of course only the most immediate threads are wrapped up, because sequels. That didn't help. The characters are engaging, but I wanted a reason to care where they wound up.

On the plus side, the author has researched the heck out of the Elizabethan era. It shows -- not in a "let me show you my research" way, but in ubiquitous fine detail. Character cut their pens, buy clothes, play tennis, and go drinking in period-appropriate ways. It's the sort of thing you don't notice is missing in other books, until you see it done right in this one.

Wendig, Chuck (ed.)
Don't Read This Book
Collection of short stories in the Mad City setting of the Don't Rest Your Head RPG. I read a couple but then got distracted.

Scalzi, John (ed.)
A set of short stories (originally audio readings) on the subject of The Future Of Cities. It's more interesting than the flying-car or pave-the-planet cliches of olden times. The world's petroleum civilization has collapsed, let us imagine, so what takes its place?

The authors give us a cluster of answers, overlapping and bumping up around the edges. Radical freecyclers; urban-squatter tribes; nomadic communitarians; and, most interestingly, virtual citoyens crosshatching their invisible cities over the existing ones.

All the stories are thoughtful and good. The weakest is Scalzi's, which doesn't manage to elevate itself past the shaggy-dog level, but it's well-told anyhow.

February 2014

Carey, Mike
Thicker Than Water [e-book purchase]
I read the first three Felix Castor books a while ago, but then (I think) the fourth took a while to appear in the US. So I don't have a whole lot of recollection of the previous plots, but I remember the main characters okay, and this turns out to be good enough.

Castor has a problem -- several problems, but the long-running one is that his best friend is possessed by Asmodeus. He does not have a fix for this (sorry), but he can help a little, for example by cracking his friend out of a psych ward. (This doesn't mean relaxing the anti-Asmodeus precautions, but they can at least get the straightjacket off.)

A good deed, this; but also kidnapping and trespassing and probably indecent exposure (Castor's friend the succubus helps out, which must count as indecent something), and you don't want the cops mixed up in that. Unfortunately the cops come looking for Castor anyway. Something about his name found written in blood.

Book four is traditionally when a fun-and-guts urban fantasy series starts getting good. The author has had time to chew the scenery, settle in, and start thinking about long-term character arcs. This series was pretty darn good already, and book four is a major step up. See, it's about family: Castor's family, the family of his family, and all the little and large screwed-up families around him. They're all broken and trying to live anyway. Some mostly succeed, some mostly fail. They're all very human. (Even the one which includes a succubus.)

And this wraps around a lot of pain, a whole lot of narrative tension, several linked unpleasant revelations, and a dirty, dirty cliffhanger. I will be moving on to book five very soon.

Rajaniemi, Hannu
The Fractal Prince
Tried to read this, bogged down in the first few chapters. Twice. Will try again someday.

West, Michelle
Back in the Elantra series I said "Sagara is a very prosaic author." People politely pointed out that I skipped eight of her books, and I maybe shouldn't make assumptions. So maybe she's a writer of very mannered, abstract fantasy who took a sharp turn to write about Kaylin Neya, pragmatic beat cop? And then used some of the same tropes to construct Jewel Markess's childhood?

If so, Battle is back to the mannered-and-abstract stuff. The important characters are all politicians, tailors, butlers, or immortal elf-mages, and so they all have impeccable manners and perfect poker faces. Yes, there are cracks and strains and subtle implications. But I'm starting to suspect that the author threw in three cranky talking cats just so that somebody could swear and claw the furniture once in a while. On Jewel's behalf.

It's a solid story. Stuff happens. But the book is just a little bit of an impenetrable foot-thick slab. I had to take a break halfway through to inhale a Peter Grant novel.

March 2014

Aaronovitch, Ben
Broken Homes [e-book purchase]
Fourth book about London cop seconded to the Ministry of Magic (much reduced in these trying modern times).

This series has gotten so deftly episodic that I don't have much to say about it. Ordinary-looking cases turn up, and then they turn out to have slightly non-ordinary elements about them, and then they turn out to be tied into supernatural threads running back through decades of London history. And then plot happens. Several of our continuing main characters are involved.

(Second book I've read in a row dealing with a fictional rotten housing estate south of the river. Wonder if there's been something in London news that I missed.)

Peter Grant remains entertaining to read: not just first-person snarky, but first-person nerd snarky. Also rather a sweetheart. Grant doesn't have the undercurrent of bitter self-despite that, say, Vlad Taltos does. (I assumed self-hatred went with the snarky-narrator territory, but no, it turns out not.) He is in some respects rather a cluebag -- as the last bit of the book shows, among other things -- but this is part of the charm. Presumably he will gain bitter experience as the series goes on. Probably have to have a talk with Lesley at some point, and with Beverly, and Nightingale come to think of it... well, we'll see.

Abrams, J. J.; Dorst, Doug
Honestly I'm afraid to tackle this. It is the same kind of book-artifact as House of Leaves.

Carey, Mike
The Naming of the Beasts [e-book purchase]
Fix Castor book five, and the conclusion of a major plot arc. Not, indeed, a conclusion to the series, for we are just starting to discover that the twenty-year-old re-emergence of ghosts (zombies, demons, etc) into the modern world was just the leading edge of... we don't know yet, because the author hasn't written the next book. But probably bad news for the breathing-enabled segment of the human race.

In this book, Asmodeus is loose and making life hell for Castor. Of course. Also, something is wrong with Juliet, which is a terrific plot tag any way you look at it. (Juliet is supposed to be a sociopathic sex demon. And not Sherlock-style woobie-sociopath, either.) So Castor has to team up with the real monsters, and it's all fun and near-fatal beatings from there.

Adams, Guy
Once Upon a Time In Hell
Very uncharacteristically, I picked up a sequel without realizing it was a sequel. (Part 2 of a trilogy.) So that's why the intro seemed to have weird pacing -- introducing a bunch of characters very quickly, and then pushing most of them into the background. But after that the book didn't suffer much from being read standalone. So good job, author.

A ghost town appears in a steampunky alternate Old West. (The steampunkiness of it all is only hinted at, however. The book I missed must have covered that stuff.) Pilgrims gather, having been told -- mysteriously -- that this town will offer tourist trips to the afterlife, one day only.

The offer turns out to be something of a cheat, of course. The story primarily follows a retired preacher-or-something and a nameless gunslinger-in-black, who sneak into Wormwood. (The gunslinger knows a trick or two, and has business inside.) They wind up doing the full tour of Hell, accumulating a crowd of sidekicks as they go. We occasionally jump back to the frustrated crowd lined up outside.

Hell has great scenery; the Old-Weird-West ambience is a great fit. (Better than Los Angeles, I have to say.) But -- as is so often the case in these Milton riffs -- the author doesn't have much to add to the story of Lucifer-vs-God. Or civil-war-in-Hell, which is even more common in recent fantasy. Calling Hell "the Dominion of Circles" (c.f. Dante) doesn't really shake things up. As for the closing gag, well, DeChancie did it decades ago as I recall.

Also, I've had enough succubuses for a while, thanks.

In addition to discovering an unread prequel, I discover that I read an (unrelated) earlier novel by the same author. The World House had good scenery, but an unengaging narrative and annoying characters. This series has good scenery and engaging narrative and (some) fun characters, but it's thematically not going anywhere. I mean, maybe the concluding book is full of electrifying insight, but nothing leads me to think so. Thus, I figure I should skip it and try the author's next series. He's improving but not there yet, at least for me.

Martinez, Michael J.
The Daedalus Incident
One might ask, when picking up science fiction, whether one wants a steely-hard realistic near-future novel about a techy mining base on Mars -- or an extravagant planetary romance where alchemical galleons swan around the Solar system, firing cannons at each other.

Or, as the author of this book, one might say "Ha ha! I will do both at the same time! Mua ha ha ha!"

(The "mua ha ha" is not attested, but I am morally certain that's how he said it.)

The chapters flip back and forth between 2132 and alt-1779. On one side, inexplicable marsquakes threaten the mining operation; a gritty but slightly career-shadowed lieutenant attempts to investigate. On the flip side, the HMS Daedalus catches wind of alchemical pirates off Mercury, and (a different) lieutenant draws extra duty in the chase.

This is amusing -- and it would make a flashy TV miniseries -- but there's not all that much to it. The characters are all pretty much what you see on the surface; they do their thing and good triumphs. With sequel hook. Yay. A couple of charactery twists appear and are quickly disposed of. Also, the author isn't quite as hard-science as he thinks he is. (The dialogue has that overexplained tone that means the writer has just read a lot of articles. Also: "ionizing radiation", not "ionized".)

The alternate history pulls the cameo gag. Ben Franklin, the learned alchemist of the rebellious colonies on Ganymede, would have been enough. Throwing in Benedict Arnold, John Jay, Horatio "Hang-a-Lantern-On-It" Nelson, and a couple of spoilery other historical figures is too much.

There's probably something to say about the planetary romance trope, which is even more blatantly colonial here than in Burroughs. It's leavened by the lurking presence of the Saturnite race, who are as far ahead of 1700s humanity as humanity is ahead of the poor primitive Venusians, but the Saturn folks are isolationist (a Prime Directive?) and so the tables aren't really turned. And then the author falls into the erase-the-American-continent trap, which I suppose closes the topic for anybody who was interested in the first place.

It's a fun read. It's neither outstanding or broken. That's about all I can say.

(Yes, I picked this book up because I'm working on an age-of-alchemical-sail-in-space game. Fortunately the author has a completely different take on it than me. I would have been tempted to steal his moons-of-Jupiter gimmick if I'd seen it a couple of years ago, Ah well, my design is long since nailed down...)

Pratchett, Terry
Raising Steam
I do not want to analyze Pratchett's books through the lens of his illness. I do not. This is the book where I have to start.

I'll do it from two directions. Prose, first. When I opened the book I found the text Pratchetty, but different -- the rhythm was all kiltered. Too many little phrases and parenthetical asides, the "indeed" and the "as it were" and the "so to speak". It's not clean. The Pratchett I know can run you through with a sentence and make you laugh at the same time, and do it again twice a page. This isn't that.

Pratchett can no longer type. "After falling out with his keyboard, he now talks to his computer", the blurb dryly notes. I remembered this and went back, and yes: this is spoken Pratchett. That's the balance. (I heard him speak once, at a Worldcon, years before his illness.) I don't go for audiobooks, but I think this must work best as an audiobook; that's how it was composed. The printed text is a word-for-word translation from voice; it shows.

Then, the story.

It's soft. I can't excuse that. This is the book of how the railway came to Ankh-Morpork, and the railway comes, and there really isn't a lot more to it. The story steams along and everybody is along for the ride. Oh, there's resistance and an antagonist (conservative dwarf priests) but they don't provide much resistance. The good guys wipe the floor with them. It's easy. Pratchett has never done easy. Even when he's doing pure farce, the protagonist is (...Rincewind is...) terrified and that has weight. Victories cost. This book has no cost. Even the conservative dwarfs just wind up in jail, except for the ones who don't surrender and get killed by the good guys, and that has no cost either. I'm not happy.

Conservative dwarf priests are an easy target to begin with. Look, I get plenty irate about conservative real-life priests. In the middle of reading this book I read articles about the World Vision affair -- you can google it -- a bunch of conservative evangelicals rose up to defend their principles, and their principles turned out to be "Better a thousand children starve than one Christian stop hurling shit at gay people." They won, too. (For now.) But that's all we get of the dwarf grags. They want dwarves to stay dwarfish, and that means blowing up clacks towers and steam locomotives and (eventually) being beaten up by victorious good guys.

Look (again); I know Pratchett has always loved the absurd, the over-the-top evil villain. He does lots. More than one have been closed-minded priests. But there should be... empathy, if not depth. Even as the villain is utterly crushed, we should feel sorry for the fragment of him that is in us. That's what Pratchett does. This book doesn't carry it.

It's not the book I wanted. The whole story of Vetinari's Undertaking, the modernization of Ankh-Morpork, has been about Vetinari's death! Vetinari is one of the two Discworld characters who are absolutely irreplaceable -- when the Patrician dies, Ankh-Morpork collapses. Vetinari knows it and will not abide it, and book by book he's been making himself obsolete. He's been doing it since he sobered up Sam Vimes; he's done it step by step in the Moist von Lipwig subseries. This book could have capped that, written from Pratchett's knowledge of his own fate. It didn't. I don't know if I can forgive it.

(The other irreplaceable character is Granny Weatherwax, who -- in this book packed with cozy cameos -- doesn't appear at all. Hopefully Pratchett feels he's tied that off with the Tiffany Aching books. I don't know if I could stand a soft Esme Weatherwax story.)

(Okay, yes, Death is irreplaceable but he doesn't count.)

This is a crappy review and I don't like writing it. Pratchett has not succeeded in making himself obsolete, the indomitable bastard. (Although his daughter is kicking ass and will hopefully carry the Discworld torch, along with many others.) I know he's still publishing older work; I don't know if he's still working on new Discworld stories. I don't want to say that my expectations have dropped, but they have. I don't want to tell him to leave it alone, and I won't. I value both refusing giving up and knowing when to give up. There's no pat answer here.

Schroeder, Karl
Karl Schroeder produces a classic early-80s hard-SF adventure novel. Or do I mean early-90s? Heck, it could be early-70s, depending on whether I want put it in the genre of Ringworld or Fire Upon the Deep.

Lockstep is not as gargantuan as either of those, but it is a genuinely new idea for a hard-SF civilization. I didn't think any of those were left. Come to think of it, the last one was Schroeder's Permanence, unless it was Schroeder's Virga books. I guess he's chosen a metier.

I will not describe The Gimmick. It's not a book-length secret (it's explained in chapter 2) but if I get into it I'll derail into a discussion of how clever and/or plausible it is, and so what. I think it's very clever and mostly plausible. Totally plausible enough for 70s or 80s or 90s wacky-idea SF.

The story is intertwined with The Gimmick, but it's not a gimmick story. It's a story about a kid named Toby McGonigal, caught out of time by a hibernation accident, trying to survive in a world gone mad. (From his point of view.) (Okay, when people start worshipping him as the Emperor of Time, that's pretty mad by anybody's standard.) I originally wrote "boy hero Toby McGonigal", but that's wrong; he's an ordinary kid forced to cope with circumstances. Like I said -- classic. Carried off perfectly well. I liked it.

Looking back, I can say that that this book has a better-structured plot than the Virga series, a better ending than Lady of Mazes, and the Big Idea is solid. This makes it Schroeder's best book overall, even if I can name individual scenes in earlier books that I enjoyed more.

Gaiman, Neil
The Ocean at the End of the Lane [borrowed book]
This is a dark fantasy about children. I'm not sure it's dark fantasy for children, although plenty of kids will be in the audience. The kids for whom creepy gross wounds are awesome. (Perhaps this is a majority of kids, I don't remember.)

The subject is the child's world which is full of horrible and wonderful things, and adults are blind to both. Gaiman does an (expectedly) brilliant job at rendering this angle of childhood. (It is not a book which says that this is all of childhood.) It walks up to the line of adults being horrible to children, casts a considered glance at the territory, and walks it in the fantastical rather than the realistic or allegorical mode. This has probably started a lot of arguments in fandom but I thought it worked.

Gaiman has always been a wonderful storyteller and an awkward novelist. This is the first of his novels that's felt like a whole to me. One could complain about the frame story (the person who lent me the book did) but I thought it was necessary to see that the fantastical exists through one's life, even if it's not always in your line of view.

May 2014

Lukyanenko, Sergei
New Watch
It's been a few years since I pounded through the original four Watch books. For me, this is the long-delay-sequel entry in the series -- always a questionable prospect. In Russian... (checks Internet)... he wrote two books, then a delay, then two books together, then a long delay, then this one. So roughly the same, except he wrote the last one in 2005.

The point of the above is that I don't remember the previous books that well, but this one stands well enough on its own. Characters from previous books are woven in -- this is not an episodic series; Anton's life is an arc running through. But you could start here if you really wanted to.

It has a minor sequel-flaw, in that halfway through the characters have to sit down and say "Okay, we're not fighting that monster from book 3, and it's not another thing like we met in book 4, so... it must be something brand-new!" (Remember that scene in The Hallowed Hunt?) But this is brief.

I think the author's didactic tendencies may be rising. Again, I don't really remember, but one interjected lecture about the effect of the Communist Revolution on the balance of good and evil is enough. Two is too many. Any lectures about vampire physiology are too many.

Going on about the Russian character -- sure, I read non-US authors for the non-US point of view, but it's better conveyed through Anton's pop-culture references than through his speeches. I love that he reads Pratchett and Strugatsky and J. K. Rowling, and listens to Azerbaijani rock bands that I will never, never know about. And there's a Russian joke with the punchline "Shall we wash these children, or have new ones?"

None of this background stuff, good or bad, overbalances the plot. The ending comes off as sudden, but I think that's a translation issue. Things happen, one after another, and they need that thunderstorm sense of repeated shock. The translator doesn't quite catch it. Allow for that, and it's a solid story.

Bear, Elizabeth
Steles of the Sky
Conclusion of boy-and-magic-pony trilogy. And boy is it a conclusion. I don't know how you want your fantasy trilogies concluded, but if you were waiting for a giant battle with dragons and wizards and demons and mammoths and babies and magic ponies and multiple iterations of "The Eagles are coming!" (not necessarily with eagles), then have we got a trilogy for you.

It is interesting that this series follows several viewpoint characters, on both (every) side of a politically multifarious war of conquest, and they all get what they want. Sort of. More or less. Except the one big bad guy, of course. I suppose it's all meant to show that you can do everything opposite to George R. R. Martin and still be awesome.

McGarry, Neil; Ravipinto, Daniel
The Fall of Ventaris
Second book of baker-orphan-turns-master-thief trilogy. (Is this a trilogy? I forgot to ask. Series, anyway.)

The traditional middle-book problem is that the protagonist doesn't have a lot to do except suffer a disastrous, cliffhangery setback on the last page. This is not that book. Duchess gets into a whole stack of schemes, from guild politics to sabotage to undercity explorations to good old-fashioned heists. Some of them she starts; some just happen to her. (Some -- both.)

The city remains interestingly multileveled, and I mean that in every sense. There are alley-trawling thugs and high-society grandees and everything in between, but the interesting interactions are between the layers. The whole backdrop of this series is the War of the Quills, where a nobleman tried to change the political balance of the city by arming low-city bully-gangs, and it went... poorly. That history looms large in this book's story, too.

Duchess is not as extravagant or as dramatic (or as foul-mouthed) as some of the fantasy thieves we've known, but she's got a nice mixture of determination and naivete. (All her schemes are clever; none of them come out exactly the way she intends.) So I will stick with this.

I find that I now visualize Lysander as Jordan Gavaris in a blond wig. Perhaps you will have this problem too.

Looking back at my previous review: Yes, this book gives us a much better perspective on the Grey. On the other hand, I didn't feel entirely up to speed with the events of the previous book (which I read more than two years ago). So there's a general pattern of the authors not being quite good enough at inclueing important background. (I suspect this is a risk of the self-publishing world; experienced editors catch it.) If you read the books together, of course, this will be less of a problem -- but then you get to wait with me for book three. So it goes.

(Interest: I had dinner with Daniel Ravipinto and he handed me a free copy of the book.)

Jones, Diana Wynne; Jones, Ursula
The Islands of Ghaldea
Have not yet read.

Saunders, Graydon
The March North [e-book purchase]
Graydon Saunders is one of those ancient Usenet RASFW refugees, like me. Some of that crowd wandered off to other parts of the Net and continued their commenting ways. A few wound up as SF writers (Jo Walton, Ryk Spoor, etc). Graydon is one of the former who has abruptly become one of the latter.

(If you're Graydon, sorry about that "abruptly". Seems that way to the rest of us, mostly.)

This is a strange book, and not just because it is cliche-looking military fantasy that veers without warning into the murky waters of "What kind of society are we fighting for?" and "What does an emergency backup plan for a civilization look like?" And then wanders back to the grueling magical warfare.

The writing style is that very particular brand of prose beloved of software geeks who learned people as a second language. It is careful, structural, recursive, and you sometimes need to read a line three times to see where it came from. I write this way. I try to go back and stick in periods and knock everything down to no more than three layers deep. I am being less careful in this review, because I've just read all of The March North in a sitting (long train ride) and it's sunk in some.

I don't usually quote in these reviews but I think I need to give the flavor:

"Passing for a Creek just to look at is tough, and if you look like a Creek, being anywhere near here without being able to explain where the previous six generations of your ancestors lived and what they did is impossible."

Got that? Good. And you will need to read those lines three times, because the author tells you everything exactly once. Maybe twice, for foreshadowing and resolution, but then one of them will be indirect. Blink and you'll miss major plot elements.

Blink and you'll miss the fact that the prose is entirely free of gendered pronouns. I noticed halfway through the last chapter -- I suspect the author deliberately stopped making it unnoticeable, there at the end. It's not a gender-free story; the narrator occasionally describes someone as a man or a woman; it just doesn't come up that often because this is the army and they're soldiers first. Without the pronouns, if it doesn't come up, it's not in the book. Take a lesson.

I haven't said what the book is about. Consider a world where magical talent has been popping up in the population for hundreds of thousands of years -- with a power law. So in a nation of (referring to the book) seven and a half million people, you might have two thousand sorcerers powerful enough to be effectively immortal and therefore become more powerful sorcerers. Fifty-odd who are powerful enough to subjugate the nation. A dozen who could wrap the nation around their pinky fingers and move on to the rest of the planet without breathing hard.

Dozens of better-known fantasy series match this template, if you strip off the fake-Euro-medieval assumptions and look at the guts. Few of them go on to the obvious question, which is why do you have a nation still standing? You should have a flaming wreck of a slave-holding ruled by one sorcerer-king and whatever demons, monsters, and slightly-lesser sorcerers he's bothered to brain-ream rather than kill. Or she. Doesn't matter to the slaves.

This book pulls an answer out of one additional assumption: that it's more efficient to pool power voluntarily than to coerce it. (Philosophically palatable to you and me, I hope.) Thus, the Line: a volunteer army that marches under a standard sworn to the Law and serving the Peace. With staff thaumaturges.

(Why does the Peace need an army? Because they're surrounded by militant sorcerer-autocracies, and also demons and monsters galore. Magic has not left a lot of friendly terrain on the planet.)

The slant of the military lifestyle is convincing (at least to me); the protagonist knows what both sergeants and COs care about. The protagonist also knows what an ox cares about, which is relevant both to the military (no army without supply wagons!) and the greater picture (armies fight, but someone's gotta grow the food).

The author is up-front about drawing inspiration from Glen Cook's Black Company stories. I'd also trace lines to Steven Brust (see the enchantress older than recorded history), John M. Ford ("he had a horror of being obvious"), and Derek Lowe's "Things I Won't Work With" chemistry blog.

There is also a five-ton war-sheep named Eustace. If I haven't sold you by now, I don't know what the hell you think you're looking for in speculative fiction.

(The March North is self-published as an e-book. If you buy it from Google Play you can download a DRM-free EPUB file. I think it's in the Kobo store too.)

Williams, Liz
The Iron Khan [e-book purchase]
Fifth book about Detective Inspector Chen and (at this point) his coterie of demons, Celestial warriors, familiars, ghosts, and Emperors of Heaven. Okay, only one of that last.

This one never clicked for me. The problem is possibly on my end -- I read it while tired. But, for whatever reason, the story felt overstuffed. There are four narrative threads running through most of the book (following Chen, Zhu Irzh, Inari, and a newly-introduced shaman). There are two Big Bads who seem to be independent of each other. There's the occult city of Agarta, the White Pyramid, a talking book, a time-travel spell, a terra-cotta army, a quick glimpse of Rlyeh, and -- well -- a bunch of other stuff.

It was too much stuff. Normally I'm all about the "jam more in" approach, but the climaxes stepped on each other's feet rather than building bang-bang-bang into a torrent of awesomeness. Maybe this wanted to be two novels; if so, neither of them got developed the way I wanted.

I don't mean to complain too much. It's a fun book and plenty of cool stuff happened. I don't expect to give up on the series (assuming there are more forthcoming), but this entry was a little weak.

Jacka, Benedict
Fated [e-book purchase]
Today's urban fantasy gimmick: the wizard can see the future. (Probabilities only -- he's a guy with an edge, not Doctor Manhattan.) Then you have light mages versus dark mages, with a lot of magical artifacts and elementals floating around as scenery. No vampires, werewolves, or elves, though.

This had ups and downs. The love interest has a backbone. The protagonist is good with sharing information (after a bit of nudging) so we have scenes of collaboration rather than the "I must protect you by keeping secrets" cliche. On the other hand, the book offers us "A sorcerer can't hurt you if he can't see you" just a few pages after the lecture on all the ways sorcerers can detect human beings. (Life mages sensing life energy, air mages detecting your breath, etc.) It doesn't inspire me to trust the author with details.

The protagonist stole Harry Dresden's "raised by an abusive dark mage" backstory. This version goes deeper into how dark wizards think -- they're explicitly anarcho-libertarian "anything I can get away with" assholes. Sociopaths training new generations of sociopaths ad infinitum. Which, okay, it's psychologically plausible; but it's also unpleasant to wade through. And then the good guys are pragmatic, inconsistently ethical, occasionally outright bastards (just because you're not a sociopath doesn't mean you're not power-mad), and are in the process of rolling over for the dark mages because they can't be bothered. (Even in his worst days, Dresden had more friends.) Not sure I want to read three more books of this.

Avery, Sarah
Tales from Rugosa Coven
Urban fantasy on the New Jersey shoreline. Rugosa Coven is a batch of six eclectic low-rite pagans who get together for services (out of a tupperware ritual-in-a-box box), and to deal with each others' problems when problems arise. Because that's what you do for your friends. The problems get eclectic, too.

This is not urban fantasy as the genre has come to be systematized. The Rugosa folks are neither secret warriors in a world-wide fight against evil, nor wide-eyed discoverers of a secret history. It's just that... well, say your parents were old-school traditional Theosophists. (Bob and Sophie fled the family faith for kitchen-witchery.) Would you be surprised if they started bugging you about their funeral arrangements -- after their deaths? Okay, you'd be surprised, but not shocked. Plenty of Theosophists got notes from their Ascended Masters, or so the books say.

Or, say you're a cranky pagan rationalist-materialist, and a merman washes up on your beach. That's a problem -- a philosophical problem, not an epic-fantasy problem. Also an unexpected-house-guest problem.

The point is these characters deal with their situations because they're people, not because they're pagans. They are pretty solid people, and the stories about them are pretty solid. Sometimes a casserole is the best approach to a problem.

(The question is not addressed of how, say, a Methodist church congregation would deal with the same situations. Casseroles would presumably still be involved.)

The stories were written out of chronological order, which puts a bit of strain on. The first-written is the last-told, and it sketches out some backstory -- how Ria left the coven, how Jane dumped her husband, all in the past (but with consequences). But the previous story in the book, written later, narrates these events as they occur. Each story works, but taken together there's a bit of clash -- of focus, not facts. It doesn't sink the book; I just think it's interesting. One of the perils of writing out of chronological order, and maybe an argument for reading the stories in publishing order. You don't have to. You can skip this entire paragraph, really.

Read if you're hankering for some sense of community among very different people.

(Interest: I've known the author since junior high school, and I beta-read one of the stories, long ago.)

Sklar, David; Avery, Sarah (ed.)
Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic
Have not yet started.

Ackley-McPhail, Danielle; Al-Mohammed, Day
Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn
Billed as "a steampunk faerie tale", but the fairy tale isn't well mated with the rest of the story.

Ali bin-Massoud has a head for gearwork, so he's in England apprenticing with the famous Charles Babbage. Then a clockwork falcon drops him an antique magical puzzle-box, which sends him running back home to deal with his father's death and -- eventually -- a bottled djinn, a cave of treasure with forty thieves in it, and a number of other familiar story elements.

The storytelling is pretty good. The steam/magical gimcrackery is also pretty good. This is an alternate world where England has automata in common use, Afsharid Persia has charms and coal-powered cameloids, and it all fits into the familiar story better than you might think. The problem I had was the antagonists. Ali's brother Kassim is a nasty greedy monster; he has little point in the story but to show off how pious and good-hearted Ali is by contrast. Then there's Rassul, the chief thief, who is nasty, greedy, sadistic, and prone to Darth-Vadering his own subordinates at the slightest disappointment. Kassim's wife Malakeh is the only one who shows any depth (she's greedy but not just an extension of her husband's existence).

Cartoon villains are okay for a fairy tale, but this book seems to be aiming at more complexity. It generally succeeds when portraying Ali, who is a good Muslim without being cartoonish about it. Ali has moments of weakness, but regrets them. He has moments of cultural blindness -- treating Malakeh peremptorily because she is a woman -- but this is appropriate for his character, and not treated shallowly either. (There is a plot point of whether he will marry his brother's wife after his brother comes to a well-deserved end. Culturally appropriate, as I said.)

And then there is the djinn, who is not very human -- good -- but not very interesting to me either.

So, overall, a nice fantasy portrayal of the Ali Baba story, but with gaps. And I don't think Babbage needed such a large part. He didn't add much.

(Modern steampunk mythology forces me to wonder where Ada Lovelace is hiding during all the Babbage scenes. I think this book is set well after her death.)

Balder, Rob; Ye, Xin
Love is a Battlefield: Meet the Jetstones (Erfworld, book 2 issue 1)
Love is a Battlefield: It's Raining Men (Erfworld, book 2 issue 2)
Love is a Battlefield: Lots of Sects, and Violence (Erfworld, book 2 issue 3)
Second printed volume of the Erfworld web comic. The author has a lot going on; he's fond of leaving parts of it off-page; and he's not quite good enough at clueing me in on what's happened. Or I'm not quite good enough at catching the clues. It's a great story but I think I'm keeping track of one level less than I should be.

June 2014

Cornell, Paul
The Severed Streets
You gotta give the author credit for enormous gonads. Putting an unnamed Neil Gaiman cameo in your urban fantasy novel is cheeky. Having your protagonist run back a minute later and say "You are Neil Gaiman, right?" turns it into an eye-roll. Having the protagonists come back a couple chapters later and interview Neil Gaiman, as police officers, for important background on the nature of magic -- I don't know what that is. Then it gets ballsier than that.

I don't think I can tell you whether it works or not. My reaction to RPF ("Real (living) People (slash-) Fic") is a restrained no-thank-you. This is literally Real People Fic, and I have the same reaction even though the plot element doesn't involve sex. Only I can't back away because it's in the middle of a fantasy series that I'm invested in. Now that I think -- it's the horror format, making me read something I don't want to read, except my reaction isn't squick or gross -- it's this other discomfort.

Since I can't pass judgement on that part of the story, I'll skip around it. Here's the rest: Jack the Ripper is back, only now he's killing rich white guys. Our favorite squad of unwillingly-magic-sensitive broken coppers are on the case. They are forced to entangle further with London's magical underground, and this is both traumatic and fruitful.

At the same time, everyone has personal issues. (I did say "broken".) Costain and Ross are on the trail of a particularly juicy artifact -- separately, and later together. They need to trust each other and they are, basically, utterly incapable of it; it's the most screwed-up relationship I've cheered for in a while. It would make great TV.

Crap, if this were TV, they could get Neil Gaiman for it. Dammit. Now I have to want this.

Quill just wants to do his job, which is impossible. Lofthouse still knows something she isn't telling the team. Sefton... Sefton isn't completely screwed this novel, now that I look at it. This worries me. It's that kind of novel.

There's a lot here, even aside from Neil Gaiman. There's the Ripper, and an evil Rupert Murdoch-alike -- I mean, eviller than the real one -- and a London going slowly batshit with class riots, and parallel invisible tensions in the magical world. (The gentrification of London Below, you might say.) It's all part of the plot but I'm not sure it all gets the attention it deserves. On the other hand the author gets credit for avoiding bloat. I think it's a win but not an unmixed win.

Showing us more about magic is always a tricky path for the author. We get reasonably good navigation here. In the first book, magic was overwhelming and mad. Here we start to see rules. Some of what we see is still overwhelming; other parts become more clear and systematic. But then some of the system is horrible in its own way. (Magic is very much about sacrifice.) And we start to see the underlying series arc, which is... clearly a crime. Someone -- the Smiling Man -- has committed a crime against London. The motive, means, and opportunity are still completely obscure. Not to mention the question of how you stop the perp and bring him in. I guess we'll find out.

(Postscript: Only save the gibes about the "game designer's pixellated imagination", please. We're all in the same business here.)

Hodgell, P. C.
The Sea of Time
I don't suppose anybody's going to start this series on book six, so I'll just do the short comparison.

Sea of Time brings Jame to the southern city of Kothifir. It's as colorful and madcap and fey as Tai-Tastigon was back in book one, though in utterly different ways. Jame, too, seems to be getting back to her roots; she even pulls out the thief-weeds for some second-story work. But she is not the same Jame. She's got claws. She's got a mature rathorn ("horse-rhino!", my friend said, looking at the cover art). She's got a coterie, if not a power-base, among the Kencyrath.

I am coming to think that Hodgell has never been good at book-scale story flow. (Eventually I will go back to the early books to check this.) She does wonderful incidents and set-pieces, and terrific characters, and they all get thrown into a bag and shaken until a book falls out. This is not a bad thing. As I said, I think it's what we've always gotten. You go with the ride and ignore the bumps.

The ride, in this case, is excellent. We get a little more about the arrival of the Kencyrath on Rathillien. (Which we already knew was a disaster for all concerned, right?) We get more of Torisen's early life. (Also a disaster, and he's going to have to deal with it someday.) We get plenty of the fluid mad logic that underlies Hodgell's writing at its best. A lot of people fall down stairs, or fall off towers, or both. Sometimes it hurts. I forgot that, even when Hodgell is being gentle and funny, she's also bloodthirsty as heck.

Zelazny, Roger
The Changing Land [re-read]
I must have read this a dozen times when I was a kid. It is Zelazny at his most commercial -- that is, broadly appealing. But still inimitably Zelazny, of course.

The Changing Land is several leagues of territory beset by waves of transformation. Anything can happen there, at a moment's notice: volcanoes, acid pits, monsters sprouting from the ground, toxic magical winds. Pretty much everything that happens can kill you. Sorcerers from all over the world are trying to cross to the Castle at the center, on the theory that there's gotta be something good there. (If nothing else, an off-switch.)

Into this mess comes Dilvish, who you may remember from some short stories. He's still hunting his arch-enemy Jelerak. (The Castle in the Changing Land used to be Jelerak's castle.) All Dilvish has to do is cross miles of deathtrap territory, contend with any of Jelerak's servants who remain plus every other sorcerer as lucky as he is, and find the evil wizard. Dilvish is equipped with an iron horse and Boots of Elvenkind (Dungeon Master's Guide, p139). The horse may be the smarter of the two.

I should try to explain what it was about Zelazny, back in those early days of genre fantasy. His characters are... modern without being contemporary. The sorcerers in this book don't know what a grandfather clock is (the Castle is full of anachronisms), but they complain about office politics and being dragged out of bed when you crystal-ball them in the middle of the night. They have girlfriends. (Sometimes the girlfriends are smarter than they are, too.)

(Yes, there are girl sorcerers too. That's why the Brotherhood of Sorcerers is now officially called the Society, and don't you get it wrong, or a bunch of sorceresses, enchantresses, and wizardresses are going to land on your ass. The question is assumed to be settled. I said it was modern, but modern 80s, ok?)

There's also a better hacking scene than cyberpunk ever managed in that entire decade. Spell-hacking. It is absolutely recognizable to any programmer-type person. (This book came out the same year as Vinge's "True Names". SF about computers always dates itself by trying to be current with the future, but the spell-hacking is a metaphor and therefore timeless. It's genius. Someone needs to write a damn monograph about it.)

The story manages to be epic in scope while being homey and comfortable. Everyone is parading around in a castle older than time -- I didn't say Jelerak was the first owner -- but it's not about grand battles and charges of glory. More like a comic melodrama, with escapes and schemes and sneaking about. The (self-called) light wizards and dark wizards would rather talk practicalities, and even the villains manage to not do anything very horrible on-screen. Much.

The scenery is as wildly imaginative as fantasy has ever seen. Zelazny can just riff ideas forever. You may be used to it from Amber's shadowride scenes, but the Changing Land doesn't go by in the rear-view mirror. The characters are stuck in it and have to deal with it, demon or spell or volcano or rain of singing frogs, whatever it is.

And in all this genre-trope mummery, Zelazny still feels free to occasionally turn loose his narrative voice, unconstrainable and hilarious as starlings bursting up into the sky.

I don't think I can overstate how much of an influence this book has had on me. Oh, there are plenty of Zelanzy books, and plenty of magical-infinite-house books too, and I took something from all of this. This may have been my first of each, though.

Ellenberg, Jordan
How Not To Be Wrong
An engaging treatise about mathematics in ordinary life. The author is a mathematician and, er, math-pop writer -- is that the right term? He has a column in Slate, anyhow. He's enthusiastic about his subject, and he is able to enthuse about it without requiring the lay reader to follow him into the depths. The book is written in a hands-on way, but you can follow it with no more than high-school algebra -- as long as the idea of a little algebra in ordinary life doesn't scare you. And it shouldn't.

Most of the math is statistics, which makes sense, as statistics is the most familiar way in which math crops up day-to-day. You read about some scientific study (Facebook has just provided a newsworthy example), and it's got a sample size and a significance number. So what do we think about that? One should have a clue. There are deep arguments to be had, and the book runs back to the founding philosophers of statistics to sketch them; then it runs forward to the details of a lottery scam (or "scam") which ran in Massachusetts just a few years ago. And then it runs around through politics (elections!) and political science (making decisions based on statistical studies!) It's all pleasantly digressive, but math is the binding thread.

Carey, Mike; Carey, Linda; Carey, Louise
The Steel Seraglio [e-book purchase]
Somewhere in the deserts of Arabia (or maybe the mountains) is a city populated entirely by women. The merchants are women, the soldiers are women, the Sultan is a woman, and the librarian -- take note of the librarian -- is a woman.

That's the fairy tale version, but the history is more complicated.

This was charming but I'm not sure it quite lived up to its conceit. The gimmick -- how this city happened and how it vanished -- needed to be trumped by its characters. The characters are vivid and entertaining (the Merlinian librarian, the ninja assassin, the one who can organize, the one who wants revenge, many others) but I didn't think any one of them had quite enough heft to hold down the story. I guess it was supposed to be an ensemble cast; maybe it should have kept the librarian center-stage.

Nonetheless, full marks for storytelling in the (inevitable) nested-Arabian-Nights mode. Imagine if someone who wasn't Catherynne Valente decided to write a Catherynne Valente novel. (Or, hm, okay, I have no idea if that's a compliment or not. Sorry.)

Bach, Rachel
Fortune's Pawn [e-book purchase]
Devi Morris is an ambitious young mercenary; she works for a top-notch armored company. She's resigning, because she's got her sights set on the top armored company -- the private military guard of the Sacred Kings of Paradox. (Her stellar nation is a religious monarchy. The book doesn't really get into why.)

You don't just apply for a job on the Devastators' web site, so Devi decides to sign on with a crazy Terran merchant named Caldswell. That is, he doesn't look crazy... but his cargo hauler gets shot up, shot down, boarded by lizard people, and generally battered five times as often as anybody else. The word is that surviving a tour of duty with Caldswell looks really good on your resume. Devi is a determined young woman -- or, depending on your perspective, she can't resist bone-stupidly dangerous shortcuts -- so it's the merchant's life for her.

We thus have a zippy little space adventure novel, which is fine. The ship is crewed by eccentrics who owe more than a few inspirational drinks to Firefly, with some Star Wars for a chaser. In powered infantry suits. There are monsters, there are lizard people, there are secrets and lies. (No points for guessing that Crazy Captain Caldswell is more than he seems.) It's a fast read but satisfying for what it is.

Unfortunately, I have two problems with the book; or rather one problem twice. This is SF-romance, built around the trope of "he was such a hottie that my brain stopped working". I never had much truck with that cliche, and the book's romance doesn't have a lot more going for it than to follow the numbers. Devi is presented as a smart and pragmatic career woman, but as soon as the ship's cook walks on stage, pow, stupid. Trouble follows.

And then there's the bit at the end. (I must get somewhat spoilery.) Because of Trouble reasons, Devi winds up with her memory partially wiped. And yes, it is "to protect her", although the author sets it up so that all the options are terrible. Still: bad taste left in everybody's mouth.

Leaving aside whether the characters are justified in this mindwipe -- I'm sure there's a big ugly fannish debate about that -- I went completely sour on the story at that point. I just sat through the whole meet-and-fall-in-stupid-love chapter of the series. Now you want me to read book two, where they have to fall in stupid love again, only with unexplained repressed angst? Sorry. There's supposed to be a stage of the romance where they're actually in a relationship. I hear it's a pretty rewarding stage. Buckle down and write it.

I suppose they must manage it in book 3, but I've lost too much momentum to get back on the ride.

van Eekhout, Greg
California Bones
Bills itself as a fantasy heist novel, but it's actually post-apocalyptic dystopia with a heist on top. And a great first-chapter hook. I loved the first chapter and liked the book pretty well. I don't suppose that's what the author was hoping for when he was gloating over his awesome first chapter. But then, he's got my money.

California is ruled by osteomancers -- wizards who dig up fossil bones and devour their essence. The La Brea Tar Pits were the original California mana-rush, but there's extinct (and non-extinct) magical species all over the world.

(The book does not address how humanity could evolve in a world with krakens and cerberuses and so on, and still wind up with a California that had a Walt Disney in it. This is because it's unaddressable, of course.)

The protagonist is the son of a powerful magician who was killed by the Hierarch of Southern California. If eating the bones of a magical animal is good, see, then eating the bones of a magician is better. The Hierarch is the top of the food chain. It makes for a really vivid setting, rather Deviant's Palace -- yes, I can compare anything to Tim Powers -- but somewhat stomach-churning in the details. It's an autocracy of greed-mad cannibal monsters, unpleasant through and through. Putting a good-guy osteomancer-thief through amusing hijinks isn't quite enough of a distraction.

I always like convincing magic in my fantasy, and this is convincing, all right. Osteomancers operate by smell, above any other sense; that's not an angle I run into often. (A TV mini-series would be a challenge.) The characters are appropriately motley and the plot is appropriately twisty. Agendas everywhere. I just don't really want to go back.

Carrington, Leonora
The Hearing Trumpet [borrowed book]
An exceptionally unconstrained story about old ladies. It's genre writing from an outsider. The author was a surrealist painter (and old lady), and while her book concerns levitating nuns, werewolves, the Grail, and the end of civilization, it's not fantasy in the post-Tolkien sense.

Actually, I know exactly what tradition this book is in. It's magical surrealism, a genre that you know best as "that stuff Daniel Pinkwater writes". (Pinkwater is of course an attested Dadaist; there's an essay about this.) Pinkwater's stories concern kids falling into a world of absurdity, which they accept wholeheartedly because childhood is continuously absurd. Well, imagine dire old ladies doing the same thing -- second childishness, equally absurd -- and that's The Hearing Trumpet.

I don't think I'll bother thumbnailing the plot. As I said, it's got reams of everything, and nothing like a structure you'd expect. I suspect half of it is a direct reflection of whatever the author was cranky about that day (Theosophists and patriarchy?) and whatever she had a kink for (nonconforming women). You take a running leap at the rabbit-hole and see what you get.

July 2014

Huso, Anthony
The Last Page
It's rare to see someone get the New Weird tone right. It's not about transgressive body squick and creepy monsters (although those never hurt); it's the modernist tone taken to fantasy. Technologies of magic, bureaucracy of necromancy, financial transactions of the soul. Mixed metaphors that turn unexpectedly literal. Set it in this world and you get Matthew Swift; invent a new world and you have Mieville. (We will discuss Max Gladstone at another time.)

This book gets the tone right, but the story isn't strong enough to support it, I'm afraid. It starts out great: a university of magic (always a win), a library at the university (you've got my attention), petty students tangling with corrupt faculty and sneaking out to get laid. (Not my university experience but I'll accept it as a fantasy motif.)

Post this introduction, however, it gets thin. The protagonists are the heir to the High Throne and a witch. The witch wants to locate a magic book of magicness. The prince wants -- well, it doesn't matter what he wants, because a civil war just started and he's got to play realpolitik.

Nothing wrong with that stuff as a setup; I just don't think the author carries it through very well. The conflicts are all blunt and uninteresting. The witch needs to betray the prince to open the magic book, but she secretly likes him; the prince needs to use technology to save his city, but the technology is evil; the spymaster has a plan... it's characters built to support history, not vice versa.

Then, later, the plot outruns the author's ability to clue me in on what's going on. People scheme, go insane, run around, and betray each other. I didn't understand why. There's a royal ghost. Two royal ghosts? Not sure.

The language is fruitily over-the top. I wound up feeling drowned in synonyms. Well-chosen synonyms, but way overused. Ironically, at one point the witch explains that magic is most powerful when it uses as few words as possible. I think the author failed to re-read that bit. The use of diacritical marks is also over-the-top, although, to be fair, I enjoyed seeing fake language that went beyond apostrophes and Tolkienesque vowels-and-umlauts. (I'll spare you examples. I think they were in the style of romanized Vietnamese script?)

I think I want to revisit this author in a few years, when he's gotten some more experience. Will skip the rest of this series, try again on his next one.

Duncan, Dave
The Death of Nnanji [e-book purchase]
Everyone knows that the big fantasy mistake is to write a sequel to some series that was big twenty years ago. The Seventh Sword trilogy was big in 1988, it's still thoroughly readable, and... Dave Duncan has written a sequel that flows as smoothly as if it were 1989. I have no idea how he did it.

The book is set fifteen years after the trilogy. Long enough for Lord Nnanji to conquer half the World in the name of not-barbarianism. Long enough for Wallie Smith / Shonsu to have a bunch of kids and, well, he's still a great swordsman but maybe not as fast as he used to be, eh?

Then assassins climb over the wall for both Wallie and Nnanji, separately, on the same night. Nnanji is wounded. Wallie is not, but he knows that wizards are on the move, somewhere out on the River. And the wizards are supposed to be good guys now. But then, so are the swordmen.

The fun of this series is the mix of scintillating swordwork, rigid code-of-honor barbarian culture, and the clever twists that people come up with to do the right thing without either violating their cultural standards of honor or getting their guts scintillated. Also: the layer of pure-fun adventure on top of a story that's really about the birth of a civilization.

This fourth book holds up the bar. It concerns the next generation -- Wallie's adopted kid Vixini and Nnanji's heir Addis -- as much as the original characters, so we get both wild younglings and their somewhat-level-headed elders. And it plays scrupulously fair with the god's promise, at the end of the trilogy, that the age of miracles was over.

When I say "scrupulously fair", of course I mean that the god cheats outrageously. But within the rules! Like I said, clever twisting.

Stross, Charles
The Rhesus Chart
Bob Howard meets vampires. "But Bob, everybody knows vampires don't exist!" Yeah, funny you should say that.

I hardly need to convince you to read this after four previous Laundry novels and a handful of short stories. You're in or you're out. But I'm impressed with how the author has continued to deepen what was, at the beginning, a silly-concept zombies-and-Nazis procedural (with bureaucracy jokes). The jokes are still there -- committee meetings and security theater galore -- but the characters have accumulated real wounds. Both physical and psychical. They accumulate more; this is definitely the descent-into-Hell (or into CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN) part of the series.

Of the last book, I said that Stross had figured out how to bring real-world human evil to the forefront, with the supernatural elements as thematic support. It is now clear that this is a conscious turn for the series. We have vampires, but the notion of vampirism is grounded in several directions: financial shenanigans, addiction, predation (maybe you're a vegetarian; I'm not), and the brand of glamorous sociopathy that we call "being rich". Stross is careful to show us lots of vampires, and they are not all evil, all good, enemies of the Laundry, friends of the Laundry, or any other simple category. The vampires are, you know, human.

This being a Laundry novel, it is a spy-agency plot along with everything else. And there are schemes and plots and schemes on top of those. Perhaps too densely packed; the narrator has to go back and explain it all to us, from his post-facto viewpoint, a couple of times. But that's okay. It's not primarily a spy-agency plot. It's... I guess it's an episodic character drama set in a goofy-slash-horrific secret-history urban fantasy setting. Which is to say, it's the same model as several different television shows that I'm addicted to. No wonder.

Gladstone, Max
Full Fathom Five
This series has gone from "great" to "really damn excellent" in three books, and I'm not sure I have anything useful to add to that. Except to pass along the author's comment (at a bookstore signing) that the numerals in the titles denote chronological order. Might be handy to know.

Oh, I'll give you the setup. The island nation of Kavekana has been theologically empty ever since its gods swam away to fight in the God Wars. (The other side won.) But empty doesn't mean bankrupt. The priests of Kavekana now construct idols -- non-sentient constructs of soul energy -- suitable for worship on any terms, excellent rates of return on prayer, hedged against financial crises of faith, and immune to audit by any sacrifice revenue service. Imagine Hawaii as the Cayman Islands, only money is souls and magic is money.

Of course no financial instrument can guarantee return. Occasionally an idol goes bankrupt. The priestess Kai makes a last-ditch effort to save one, and trips over a web of shady dealings. Simultaneously, a street thief named Izza helps a fugitive witch -- or fugitive something, anyway -- and a poet gets writer's block. All these things are connected, of course.

The magic-as-capitalism-as-everything metaphor is the fizz in this series, but it's the character writing that makes it great. Everybody is awesome. Even the poet, who is a self-important snot, is awesome. Nobody is there just to hold up a length of plot; nobody is stupid. Nobody is entirely trustworthy, because they all want things, and nobody is entirely awful, because they all want things and you can understand why. Nobody is entirely admirable but they're all people. So.

Zielinski, Stephan
Bad Magic [re-read]
An old book (2004! -- relatively early in the urban-fantasy craze). Still very enjoyable, although in retrospect it doesn't quite feel like it's pulling in any particular direction. Retrospect includes the fact that the author never wrote a sequel, or any other fiction at all, as far as I know.

We are given an extremely motley crew of San Francisco occultists. Motley to the point of dysfunctionality, right? Chloe is a shaman whose spirit animal is the geoduck clam. Maggie-Sue is a misanthropic veterinarian and elementalist. Kristof Arbeiter is a psychopharmacist junkie. Joe Washington is a dead midget voodoo sorcerer. And others, ending with Al Rider, who practices the subtlest art: synaesthetic magic. In his spare time he makes sculptures out of traffic noise and the light reflected from stirred coffee.

The group are undercover operatives in the secret war, the war that underlies our reality, the war between... well, between Seattle and San Diego. It's a philosophical thing, or maybe just a lifestyle thing elevated to the level of philosophy. The war is real, though, and the skirmishes are ugly.

I'm not really communicating the tone, here. The point is, this book is understatedly and consistently hilarious. Violent, flamboyant, full of horrific monsters and fates worse than death -- but funny as heck.

You get one bookful of these characters, plus a bonus monograph on Zombi diego, the San Diego Sunbathing Zombie. (I haven't been to San Diego so I don't know how accurate it is.) Enjoy while it lasts.

Neumeier, Rachel
House of Shadows [e-book purchase]
In a city by the sea, a stone-cutter lived with his eight daughters. Not a poor stone-cutter -- really the owner of a moderately prosperous stoneyard business. But when he dies abruptly, the business affairs are left in a precarious state. Thus Karah, the eldest and most beautiful daughter is sold off to a keiso house; and Nemienne, the middlemost and quietest daughter, apprentices to a mage.

For keiso house, read "geisha house", at least the polite and perhaps bowdlerized definition. Keisos are social hostesses who grace high society with music, dance, art, and service. They do not put out. (Unless you're extremely rich, and then there's a formal contract which includes property and child support clauses.)

And then there's the mage's house, which is a high house of shadows and secrets and doors that open to obscure spaces in the middle of the night. My favorite trope!

I haven't read Neumeier's other books, so I don't know if this is her normal style. It is a direct homage to Patricia McKillip, I know that; thus was the book was recommended to me. We get the mage's house in the first chapter, and I'll give damn near anything a chance if it does that well.

Weirdly, the book does do the house well. The setting and the language work. The magic works. The characters and the story, those fall flat. That's the long and short of it. Imitating McKillip: not as easy as it looks, and it never looked easy in the first place.

Karah, the prospective keiso, is not interesting at all. The narrative (not just the characters!) makes much of her wonderful innocence and sweetness -- these being properties that might be spoiled if she is exposed to nasty spiteful people, such as the one nasty spiteful girl in the keiso house. I don't think I can express how little I care about that character arc. She should have spent her time learning to pick locks or tell dirty jokes or something. Woulda made her a better conversationalist.

Mage Ankennes starts out as an interesting contradiction. He is a patient and nonjudgemental, if cool, teacher to Nemienne. But he is also involved -- patiently, coolly -- in a plot of extortion and assassination. We see him from two contradictory perspectives, and I was keen to see how that would be resolved. Boring answer: one of them is wrong. There's no story between the student and the master because the master turns out to be the villain of the piece. It's not even a surprise betrayal; the reader suspects it by chapter 3.

Nemienne is not exactly boring, but she is seriously upstaged by Taudde, the bardic sorcerer caught in Ankennes's web. Taudde has choices to make, and if he starts off wrongfootedly with "Sure, I will let myself be blackmailed into murder" there's at least some level of consequence to it. Nemienne falls into things and survives them. We're told that Nemienne wants magic, but we see that Taudde needs magic, and that's where the story is.

And then there's Leilis, the middle aged failure of a keiso, who... I'm not sure what she's doing in this story at all. We're told that she's cursed -- to touch her is painful. So, okay, why does that matter in the keiso life? People aren't supposed to touch her! There's at least one keiso we meet whose skill is dance; she's never going to become a paid consort because her dancing brings in more money. So...

Look, I'm spending too much time on this. It's supposed to be an intricately jeweled fairy tale. But McKillip can make this sort of thing make sense, on some emotional level. Several emotional levels, in fact. The fact that I'm questioning this book's logic means that it's already failed.

Green, Simon R.
Casino Infernale (Drood 7) [e-book purchase]
Basically ridiculous as always. The author has managed to tone down his worst verbal tics ("so much more than that") which only makes his second-worst stand out more ("all over the place", "it would only upset you").

August 2014

Addison, Katherine
The Goblin Emperor [e-book purchase]
Maia is an indifferent grandson of the Emperor, by an out-of-favor fourth wife, living in exile with his equally out-of-favor cousin. Then, pow, page one, he gets a message: the entire Imperial family has been killed in an airship crash. The Empire is your hot potato now. Don't drop it.

This is a big fat fantasy novel which is not a big fat adventure novel. It is, as you might expect, all politics all the time; national politics, court politics, bureaucratic politics (which is different from court politics). Also elf politics, by definition, as this is an empire of the pointy-eared.

Maia has a long list of disadvantages: hostile established power structures, ambitious figures who resent him, total unfamiliarity with the business of ruling. Plus the likelihood that the old Emperor's accident wasn't an accident. Plus he's mixed-race, goblin and elf, which doesn't help anything. Plus he's never kissed a girl.

He has a short list of advantages. He's got a thorough schooling in court etiquette, forced on him by his cousin, even though neither of them thought he'd ever need it. (The cousin is an ass.) He's got a sense of decency. (Just what an emperor needs, right?) He has compassion, or tries to; his personal faith is something close to Buddhism.

He's also got a damnable sense of duty, and you'll have to decide whether that's an an advantage or not. Arguably Maia's best move would have been to head for the border on page 2 and never come near the Empire again. But he doesn't even think the word "abdication" until someone shouts it at him, halfway through the book.

You have to be prepared for names. The names are polysyllabic and they fly by rapidly; the whole social structure of the Empire takes some getting used to. (It was embarrassingly many chapters before I figured out that "Osmer", "Osmin" were titles rather than personal names.) The consolation is that Maia finds it nearly as hard to navigate, so forgetting who's who is in character for everybody.

There are no quests, no magic tokens of kingship, no battles. (A few scuffles.) The book is entirely about how Maia copes with the Empire and how the Empire copes with him, which means it's a branching fractal tree of character stories and very little else. I don't always go for this kind of book, but this one is tremendously readable because all the characters are great. Some of them are nice people, some of them are bastards, all of them have interests and goals and opinions and -- peopleness. Some of them make mistakes. (Maia makes a lot of mistakes.)

The book doesn't exactly end; there's no big quest to wrap up. It has the pacing of history, rather than epic fantasy. But a very tiny slice of history; it covers less than a year, and at the end, Maia still hasn't kissed a girl. But on the other hand, it doesn't beg for a sequel. Oh, I'm sure the author could write six more if she wanted, and I'd read them. But we have met Maia and learned to admire him, and that is sufficient.

Bear, Elizabeth
One-Eyed Jack
A strange little book. I think I use that phrase more when writing about Elizabeth Bear than any other author.

One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King are genii loci, the legendary avatars of Las Vegas. The Las Vegas of 2002, that is, because the city's symbology shifts from decade to decade. (And 2002 is roughly when the book was written, says the author.)

We find Jack and the King setting up a ritual at Hoover Dam. It happens that Las Vegas is involved in a mystical war with (no points for guessing) Los Angeles, and an avatar of LA shows up at the Dam to stop them. At the same time, a couple of fictional secret agents find themselves under fire from another fictional secret agent. Their fictional 1964 (the eternal Cold War) leads them to the real-world 2002, at the same time as... I think I won't name the rest of the characters. A large part of the fun is seeing everybody walk on-stage.

I don't necessarily get a lot out of seeing characters walk on-stage. I am not a watcher of the TV shows in question. For reasons of intellectual property, their names are never used, which means long chapters of text about "the athlete" and "the Russian" and "the American" and so on. I had to look some of them up. (Spoiler: it suffices to google "tennis-playing spy".) Yes, the author makes a plot point of how media ghosts are esoterically nameless, but it still feels like playing with action figures.

So the book is fanfic, in fandoms not my own; this makes it a rough ride. It's perfectly good fanfic, and in fact it succeeds at showing me how these characters are delightful. It doesn't rest entirely on familiarity. And the central viewpoint is that of Jack, an original creation. But I'm missing some of the fun, regardless.

It's in the Promethean Age continuity. Like most of that series, it involves a lot of running around for mystical reasons which don't make much logical sense but have solid gut impact behind them. The magic is good stuff. Since it's also a spy story (and a vampire story, and a Western) there's a lot of chasing and gunfights and sneaking around in the desert. So, more accessible than some of the Promethean Age books.

I feel like I'm making random stabs at description without saying very much. I fear this is because I enjoyed the book without loving any part of it. I'll leave it at that. If any of the above sounds like your thing, go for it.

Pagliassotti, Dru
Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind [e-book purchase]
Many years ago (2008!) I read Clockwork Heart. What I remember: (1) The setting was surprisingly well-considered, with economics and international politics playing into the background and ultimately into the storyline. (2) The romance plot offered a shy nerdy blonde brother and a brooding dangerous dark brother; the latter turned out to be a villain and the heroine wound up with the former. (3) Clockwork computers and antigravity wing suits.

(The flying suits and the computers both rely on the same plotdevicium metal. The physics isn't as well-put-together as the economics and politics. Give it a pass, move on.)

Now, in book two, shy-nerd-guy has been coopted as an ambassador (the curse of being high-caste) and his now-wife is part of the ambassadorial party. A surprising number of assassination attempts later, they discover that they've jumped from the romance genre into spy thriller. They have to stay alive, get home, and then foil a dastardly plot. I will let slip that the dastardly plot involves airships so that you can anticipate impressive wingsuit-vs-airship hijinks.

The writing remains good. All the character have natural cultural biases. They make assumptions and sometimes make mistakes; but they're not blind mistakes. Nobody is made out to be a stupid provincial.

Also, the author gets that when you put two random romance protagonists into a spy plot, they do not magically become spy heroes. Being wounded is horrible; killing people is horrible; being exhausted and wounded and hungry puts a serious crimp in your life. But our heroes grit their teeth and get on with it because they have to. Admittedly, the plot is contrived to make sure they're the ones on the spot, but it seems ungrateful to complain. I mean, ungrateful for me to complain. The characters have every right to.

Finally, it's nice to see a series start with "romance" and move on to "partners". I recently dinged Fortune's Pawn for failing to make that jump, so I should praise this one for succeeding at it. The protagonists are married, they love each other, they worry about each other, and they know each other pretty well. (They also don't have to stop the plot every other chapter to have mad sex. In fact, in most chapters, they're too tired and hungry and wounded to try. Realism!)

The closing tag promises that a third book will conclude the trilogy. I suspect that it will get back to the assumptions of Ondinium society. The country is a blatant police state and a strict caste society. Albeit a caste society with social mobility via (theoretically) fair computer-administered examinations. The protagonists, native Ondiniums, do not question any of this; others do. I hope the author is building up to questioning it, because the "papers please" attitude is creepy as heck to the audience.

Abraham, Daniel
The Widow's House (The Dagger and the Coin, 4)
Book four of five. In traditional fantasy arc theory, this should be where everything starts to really fall apart. In this series, we get a dragon, and... okay, that's when everything starts to really fall apart. I have to admit the dragon feels a little pro-forma. That is, the dragon is terrifying and should pretty much wreck the world on contact. The dragon stays more or less restrained because that's a plot requirement to reach book five.

Besides, nobody thinks book five will be about Slaying The Dragon -- although the dragon will wind up dead, I'm sure. The series is called "The Dagger and the Coin" because it's about armies and banks. That's what "realistically gritty fantasy" means, right?

No, what really starts to fall apart is Basrahip's religion. Here's one last fantasy trope for the series to deconstruct: the crusading Church Militant of single-minded cardboard priests, led in perfect unison by an insane but tactically brilliant vizier... No. Why would you ever expect that? Churches schism over the color of the drapes. The nature of the spider-priests means that when they were one monastery-full hiding away in the mountains, they were all on the same page, and Basrahip was just the most charismatic of them. But now Basrahip is in the capital and there are temples dotted all over the continent, which means -- remember the game-of-Telephone? -- there's linguistic drift.

Also, think about it. Basrahip is incapable of doubt. That means he's insane, maybe tactically brilliant, but strategically -- an idiot. A blind idiot. He can't be anything else. That becomes very clear to the reader, although not, so far, to Geder Palliako.

Arrayed against him is a dragon (good luck with that), various free cities (so far Geder's armies remain unstoppable), and our heroes. Our heroes continue to quietly travel the world, looking for ways to array better. Okay, Cithrin -- as a prominent bank official and Geder's well-known secret crush -- is travelling not-so-quietly.

Clara Kalliam meets up with other significant Kalliams. Marcus Wester meets up with Yardem Hane and doesn't bother to kill him. Master Kit sits back and argues philosophy. (I like the guy but he doesn't have much plot power at this point.) And Cithrin, ah, Cithrin pulls the banking plot thread which has been patiently waiting these past four books. I am very, very happy with Cithrin's story.

Yeah, I'm happy with this entire series. You can probably tell.

Leckie, Ann
Ancillary Justice [e-book purchase]
This already was on my list because everybody wrote good reviews, and then I happened to need new reading material the day after it won its Hugo. So fine. I read it.

It's an excellent book, a tremendously deft and assured book, but I never had that moment of my socks flying off my feet as the world moved. But again, I had more to think about, during and after, than any other recent read has offered me. That's worth a high rating all by itself.

(I consider the possibility that I spoiled my reading experience by reading too many reviews first. Usually I avoid that sort of thing; I am spoiler-sensitive. But the question is un-investigatable, so I'll set it aside.)

I'm not going to summarize the setup or plot; all the other reviews have done that. Instead I will talk about the protagonist.

The fun of this book, the fun I had -- again, leaving aside the fun of figuring out the setting, which I basically missed out -- was figuring out what the protagonist is.

Early on, I said "The narrator is not human." She (I'll also skip the pronoun discussion) describes events that she participated in, but with a sense of utter disinterest. She describes the horrific Radch civilization -- brainwashing, genocide, god-emperor autocracy -- with complete complacency. So I think, right, she is a computer. Her sense of human emotion is a medical data stream of hormone levels. She says "Awn was frightened" but has no human understanding of what that means.

Then, as the book runs on, we can see a trickle of what the narrator isn't telling us about herself. She has responses, involuntary reactions, which are only mentioned in retrospect or in implication. So I think, no, it's that style of unreliable tight-focus narration where you have to dig. The sort where our hero looks down after a conversation and sees that he's smashed his hand into the wall until it bled. (Not an example from this book, but you know the sort.) In that mode, the narrator is all sorts of human -- if perhaps not my sort -- but refuses to admit it.

Then the book gives us scenes where the narrator -- who is unquestionably a computer, on the literal level, no matter what else she is -- is being programmed. She has involuntary responses, beliefs, memories or memory lapses, which have been manipulated in obvious ways. Some of them are obvious to her, but there's no guarantee that's always the case.

So now the strategy of unreliable narration as character-building has been undercut, or mixed, with unreliable narration as a simple fact of the story. The character is divided against herself as a narrative theme, but also actually divided against herself. And the balance of these elements in the story is where I say, okay, the author is pulling off a serious stunt here.

Then, even further, we realize that this division-against-oneself is not an element of the story; it is the entire story. The Lord of the Radch is divided in exactly the ways that the protagonist is: by programming, by refusal to communicate, by the impossibility of reconciling with the self, by guilt, by the inability to perceive love. As the Lord of the Radch, so the Radch entire -- by definition. This series is about a civil war of a galactic empire, and the civil war is the same as the protagonist's struggle to exist and to tell us her story.

This is where I say, okay, I see why this book has awards raining down on it.

Last updated June 17, 2015.

Books I own

Comments on books I bought in: 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014

Zarfhome (map) (down)