Aug 14 2018

Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest

Isn’t it great when the last in a set of books is the best of the bunch? Not only is Fiddlehead, the fifth of Cherie Priest‘s Clockwork Century novels, easily the best of the series, it’s terrific fun from start to finish, a page-turner in the best sense of the word. It races from tension-filled opening to satisfying conclusion with barely a pause. I tore through the book, constantly wanting to know what happened next.

In the world of the Clockwork Century, the American Civil War is still running in late 1879. Texas is its own republic, and a source of advanced technology such as diesel motors and zeppelins. The Pacific Northwest is still largely unorganized. Seattle was decimated by a strange gas that turns people into zombies. The city has been sealed off behind an encircling wall, but because a distilled form of the gas is an exciting drug, Seattle has not been abandoned completely. Unfortunately, taking the drug eventually turns people into zombies too, as Union, Texas, and Confederacy are all finding out from the effects on former soldiers trying to ease their pain, and on various forms of thrill-seekers.

By the way, Abraham Lincoln survived John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt and served out the remainder of his term. He was succeeded by Ulysses S. Grant. As Fiddlehead opens, Grant is nearing the end of his third term, somewhat worse for the wear, and definitely worse for the drink. Lincoln is a respected elder and mostly keeps to his estate not far from Washington. Priest advances technology enough to provide Lincoln an electric and motorized wheelchair; it’s a prototype, but gives Lincoln some mobility to go with his one remaining good eye.

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Aug 13 2018

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

One of the hard problems of writing far-future science fiction is just how strange humans of that era are likely to appear to present-day readers. Quite apart from the changes that technology and any move of setting from the terrestrial are likely to bring, the ways that societies change over time are likely to render humans of a time centuries hence nearly as alien as any actual aliens that appear in the stories. They won’t be unrecognizable — going in the other direction, readers still recognize people in, says, Dante, Homer and the epic of Gilgamesh — but they will be strange in ways both big and small, and things that are perfectly ordinary in a far future will be very difficult to comprehend to outsiders visiting from somewhen else.

Most of the time, authors ignore this problem for the sake of getting on with the stories they want to tell. Or they may rationalize their writing as something like an implicit translation from the idioms and manners of then into the usages of today. “Of course people in the twenty-sixth century won’t say ‘Perfectly cromulent,’ but they will have a functionally equivalent expression, and anyway I am writing for a contemporary audience so I use dialogue that is pleasing to present-day sensibilities.” There is also the point about the inevitability of authors writing as people of their time, with many of the assumptions and commonplaces of the era. It has been famously noted that Isaac Asimov, for example, could imagine a robot doing a man’s job, but not a woman doing the same.

In Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer tackles this problem directly. “You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. … It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.” (p. 7) Fluent, too, in the language of the future. They care about things that strike us as unimportant, their daily interactions involve many of the same things, but are different in countless small ways that add up to a new society. Their motivations look odd, as of someone from a different culture, because of course that is exactly what they are.

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Aug 13 2018

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab

I nearly fainted with pleasure when I finished this book and realized, holy shit, it’s a complete book! Way too many genre authors nowadays — or at least those whose works I’ve had the misfortune of reading recently — think that writing a series means that each 300+ page novel doesn’t need to tell a complete story on its own. This is highly irritating to me but something I’ve resigned myself to, so I didn’t honestly expect better from V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade Of Magic, once I heard it was the first in a trilogy. But when the book ended and felt wholly complete while still leaving me interested in what might come next, the sequels leapt up my To-Read list. THANK YOU, MS SCHWAB!!!

Another reason I’m looking forward to sequels: the extremely delightful Lila Bard. Girl is a sociopath and I’m totally okay with it, probably because she’s a lot like one of my default RPG characters. I loved how she and Kell and Rhy interacted, and if there’s a nascent love triangle going on there, I don’t hate it, because it isn’t perfunctory and is entirely built up to. I also love the world building Ms Schwab has engaged in, and while I did find ADSoM a bit difficult to immerse myself in for the first half or so of the novel, I’m absolutely hooked now. Looking forward to reading more, once I dig myself out from under all the other obligatory reading I need to do rn.

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Aug 12 2018

Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

One of the niftier things that Cory Doctorow does in Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom is to show a basically sympathetic character making a series of bad decisions for reasons that I, as a reader, could understand why he was taking those actions but I wished he wouldn’t and hoped he would figure out a way to sort himself out before he lost everything we both cared about. Doctorow has garnered a lot of praise as a novelist of ideas — the edition I have features a blurb from Bruce Sterling saying, “He sparkles! He fizzes! He does backflips and breaks the future!” — but it’s Doctorow’s skill with people, even transhuman people, that makes the ideas work.

The character I wished would make better choices is Jules, Doctorow’s first-person narrator and readers’ window into a semi-distant future in which humanity has conquered death and overcome material scarcity. Bodies are ephemeral and extremely modifiable, consciousness and memories are backed up regularly and rapidly so that about the worst that can happen to a member of the Bitchun Society is the loss of a fairly short span of memories covering the gap between their most recent backup and whatever caused the current body’s untimely demise. People have also colonized near-earth space, and perhaps more distant parts of the solar system but that’s not Jules’ focus.

He has already lived in space for a while, and at present he chooses to live in Disney World, a cultural landmark that has been running for well over a century at the story’s opening. A little more than a generation ago, the park was liberated from corporate control by ad-hocracies, passionate groups of fans who are willing to devote their post-scarcity lives to maintaining and improving the park experience for guests and earning Whuffie, the reputation-based currency analogue that simultaneously tracks social standing and opens the door to non-material luxuries of the future.

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Aug 12 2018

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes an author is much more interested in a major character than I am. Writing about Raven Stratagem, the second book in the Machineries of Empire series, I already noted that Lee’s interest in writing about Shuos Jedao was starting to exceed my desire to read more about him. Revelations late in the book showed me why Lee had concentrated so much on the character, I understood what Lee had been up to all along, and I appreciated the skill involved in both setting up the apparent imbalance and resolving it in a satisfying fashion. Revenant Gun offers readers twice as much Jedao, the one who has appeared in the first two books, and a new one, created by one of the hexarchs to counter the threat that the first has become, but furnished with far fewer of the original Jedao’s memories.

The main action of Revenant Gun follows Raven Stratagem by nine years. I found this an awkward gap. Some of the external dangers to the hexarchate that loomed so large in Raven Stratagem have receded, without great explanation within the story and without great effects on the hexarchate. On the other hand, some of the internal political issues that stem from the end of Raven Stratagem are as important to the characters as if no time at all had elapsed since the events of the previous story. To tell the story he wants to tell about the two Jedaos, Lee needs a setting that’s settled into a more stable equilibrium than would be possible if the book were set directly after Raven Stratagem but he also needs the previous conflicts to be as immediate to the characters in the new situation as they were before.

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Aug 10 2018

Pretty Little Liars (Pretty Little Liars #1) by Sara Shepard

I love the idea of Gossip Girl with a murder mystery twist, so I was super thrilled when I finally got my hands on the first book of this series. I’ve read *every* single Gossip Girl novel (in all honesty, the TV show was a huge disappointment in comparison) barring the Psycho Killer mash up, which I have on a wish list and was hoping that reading Pretty Little Liars would whet my appetite for. And while PLL certainly provides us with the dishy goings on of privileged teenagers, albeit set in moneyed rural Pennsylvania instead of moneyed NYC, it is intensely annoying as a mystery novel because no actual mysteries are solved. Everything is setup. Very entertaining setup, granted, but certainly not a complete story on its own.

I had this same issue with Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious, but at least that made an attempt at solving one of the mysteries in the book. Also, I’m willing to cut a little slack to a trilogy, since I know that everything will be wrapped up neatly at the end of 900 or so pages. But PLL stretches out for sixteen books, y’all. I’ve heard that new mysteries crop up in the later books but I really don’t want to invest that much time in novels that have a high probability of giving me cliffhangers in lieu of satisfaction. I can absolutely see why people have enjoyed these books, however, and if I had all the time in the world, I’d read more of them. The characters are fun — I like Emily best, tho IRL, I’m definitely a cross between Aria and Spencer, barring the weird weakness for older men — and the situations for the most part relatable, if not completely believable. If this weren’t a mystery novel, I’d be much more delighted by the storytelling. As it is, it just felt like the first third of a book, one that I’m not interested in seeking out more of atm.

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Aug 06 2018

Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach

It’s not too often that I pause while reading a book to admire the writing. I mean, just the craft, the way the words are put together: I really enjoy the way Dathan Auerbach writes. The writing falls apart a bit as the book progresses — you can almost feel the deadline looming, the way the transitions go from smoothly turned to unintendedly jarring — but this is still a solidly written horror novel. Set in the 1980s in the Florida panhandle, Bad Man is the story of Ben, a young man who is a teenager when his little brother goes missing on a trip to the grocery store. Five years later, Ben’s family is still barely coping with Eric’s loss. Ben himself has hardly recovered from the twin disasters of his brother’s disappearance and an earlier car crash that seriously weakened his leg. Desperate for work, Ben accepts a position as stock boy at the same grocery store where he last saw Eric. Spending long nights there, often alone, has him starting to believe that the place holds sinister secrets, and that if only he can uncover them, he’ll be able to discover once and for all what really happened to his brother.

Bad Man is a terrific exploration of guilt and longing and memory in small-town America, far removed from bucolic romanticism and nostalgia. I would have liked more of an explanation of the particulars of Eric’s abduction: I assume he was lured away but the details otherwise are elided a little too much for me. I want to know why his abductor did it (“crazy” is not a good enough reason for a book that isn’t afraid to dive deeply into Ben’s psyche,) and more about Blackwater and the blond kid. And, I dunno, I didn’t really like the ending. I can sorta get over what happens to Ben, but I think it could have been linked back to the beginning better. I also didn’t really get the point of the interludes, which I imagine are a story told by the blond kid to Eric. Again, I felt like it was something that could have been linked back more tightly to the main narrative.

Overall, however, I quite enjoyed the way this book dealt with the horrors of child abduction and its lingering aftereffects on everyone involved. Going back to the subject of craft, there were so many set pieces that begged for a visual adaptation that I’m kinda hoping this makes its way to a screen somehow. I don’t usually like horror movies, but I’d definitely consider watching that one.

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Aug 05 2018

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

In John Sclazi’s first series of science fiction novels, Old Man’s War and its several sequels and companion volumes, the Milky Way near earth (well, near in interstellar terms) teems with life and spacefaring civilizations. Humanity has to make its way in a galactic neighborhood that’s full of life, and nearly as full of war. The Collapsing Empire concerns an interstellar human civilization at the other end of the Drake equation: nobody here but us. In this setting, travel between solar systems proceeds thanks to the Flow, something like an extradimensional river that enables interstellar travel in a matter of weeks and months. Ships maneuver to an entry shoal that is more or less stable in space, translate themselves into the Flow, and follow it to an exit shoal in the destination system. Communication proceeds at the speed of travel, as it did on earth in the ages prior to the telegraph. Moreover, Flow connections are not symmetric: a route from A to B does not necessarily imply a route from B to A. The geometry of routes means that some systems are more important than others. Within the story, the ruling power set itself up about a thousand years before the book’s opening by controlling the most important set of Flow connections and building its empire outward from there.

Over that time span, the Flow has been stable with notably rare exceptions. Many centuries ago, the connection to earth was lost. This bit of narrative convenience gives Scalzi a much freer hand in shaping the overall setting for his space opera, which is likely to run for at least three books. (The second in the set, The Consuming Fire, is scheduled to be published in October 2018.) In a more recent century, the Flow to the planet Dalasýsla collapsed. Cut off from the rest of humanity, the settlement of some 20 million people on Dalasýsla also collapsed within decades.

Although the book’s title mentions an Empire, and one of the leading characters is the new Emperox, the star-spanning polity is actually known as the Interdependency. Not only is the universe of this story bereft of other forms of intelligent life, there is precious little habitable real estate in the systems connected by stable Flow links. Most of humanity lives in artificial habitats, either in space or under domes on planets that are otherwise inhospitable to human life. Rather than attempting to make every colony autonomous, an expensive and probably unattainable proposition, the leaders of human colonization chose to make the settlements dependent on one another. The resulting web of settlement is stronger and more prosperous than a string of autarkies would be, and they stand or fall together. For the better part of a thousand years, that has been an advantage.

At the book’s outset, there are signs that the Flow is not as stable over the very long term as humanity has assumed. Over the course of the book, these signs turn in to certainty, but plenty of power players are willing to overlook the fact that fundamental and inevitable change is coming to human civilization.

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Aug 04 2018

Axis by Robert Charles Wilson

When the first character a book introduces is a boy named Isaac, and the two adults closest to him in the odd collective where he is growing up are Avram (Dr. Avram Dvali) and Mrs. Rebka, even this heathen knows the book is going to be about encounters with transcendence and possible sacrifices. Axis is about a number of other things as well, but that is the heart of the story.

Axis is the sequel to Spin, which won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2006. I read Spin back in 2007 (Doreen read it in 2017 and wrote about it here) and only remember the general gist of the book: the earth was placed into a time bubble, such that time passed much more slowly than in the rest of the universe, with seconds on earth corresponding to thousands of years outside the bubble. At the beginning of Axis, earth has been out of its bubble for about a human generation; during the spin billions of years passed in most of the rest of the universe. The same beings who put the earth into a time bubble also placed an Arch, spanning a thousand miles or so, in the middle of the Indian Ocean that serves as a gateway to another world, one that is not only suitable for human life but that appears to have been seeded with earthly organisms at a date in the distant past. People have been exploring and moving to this new world for a few decades, but it is still recognizably a frontier, and sparsely settled outside of one major city. During the time of the spin, humans on earth also figured out how to take advantage of the time differential and seeded Mars with life. They followed that up with a colony on Mars. It, too, was eventually put into a temporal bubble, so by the time of Axis humans from Mars are distinct from earth humans but not a separate species.

The action of Axis takes place on the New World beyond the Arch. Wilson first introduces Isaac, some of the people in the isolated commune where he is growing up, and a visitor named Sulean Moi about whom Isaac observes, “Like the others at the compound, she was interested in the Hypotheticals—the unseen beings who had rearranged the heavens and the earth.” (p. 12) This is the community most directly interested in transcendence, as represented in the book by the Hypotheticals. In the second chapter, Wilson offers a counterpoint with Lise Adams, recently divorced and slightly at loose ends but trying to unravel a mystery from her childhood, and Turk Findley, a charter pilot who hadn’t exactly precipitated Lise’s divorce but hadn’t been irrelevant to it either. Events pick up when an annual meteor shower that Lise and Turk have gone to a restaurant to see is accompanied by the fall of massive amounts of what looks like volcanic ash.

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Aug 04 2018

The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1) by Rin Chupeco

I really wanted this book to work, and here’s the main reason why it didn’t, at least for me: 17 year-old Tea is just so full of herself that there isn’t room for anything interesting to be on display. The narrative is split into two, as with Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. There’s a first-person narrative of the hero growing up, and there’s a first-person narrative that intersperses those more interesting bits with the pov of an accomplished storyteller who is somehow drawn to the hero years on, after said interesting bits and, hopefully, before more interesting bits to come. Rothfuss’ series has the advantage of the interspersing sections featuring an intriguing cast who surround our hero, whereas Tea is all alone but for the entities she summons. Present-day Kvothe gets away with being elusive and uninterested because he is surrounded by the mild conflicts raised by his supporting cast. Present-day Tea is just… melodramatic and affected and deeply uninteresting in the way of all self-important teenagers.

Which is a shame because when the book is showing us Tea’s pov, growing up to discover she’s a bone witch and all that, she’s actually quite delightful. The relationship between her and her brother is one of the most convincing depictions of sibling loyalty I’ve ever encountered, and I really enjoyed the plot beats as they came up. But here’s the secondary problem: there’s a surprising lack of tension in this book. I thought the mystery of who was sabotaging Tea was quite elegantly plotted but poorly written, with virtually all the drama happening in the closing scenes. And even though I’m averse to love triangles in general, I thought that it was quite odd to have it alluded to only at the beginning and end of the book, and then for the characters involved to display very little attraction, much less affection, for one another over the course of the book.

I do like the world and viewpoint that Rin Chupeco has created, but I really do think that The Bone Witch would benefit greatly from more storyshowing in its storytelling. It’s very unlikely that I’ll pick up the sequels unless someone whose opinion I trust reads them, loves them and recommends them, but I am hoping that happens.

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