Aug 30 2018

Dragon Coast by Greg van Eekhout

With his trilogy about a darkly magical California — California Bones, Pacific Fire, and Dragon Coast — Greg van Eekhout has created an interesting world that puts wizards and fantastic creatures into a roughly contemporary setting and spun exciting stories of adventure among the people who shape that world. Earth is home to many magical creatures, from the kraken of the depths through the mammoths and sabretooth tigers on land to dragons in the air, all the way to the great beast at the heart of the world. Some trained humans gain access to these creatures’ power and other kinds of magic by eating their flesh and bones. They take the beasts into their beings and become magical themselves. That also makes them vulnerable, because any sorcerer who consumes their body will likewise gain the power of every beast they have absorbed. It’s a harsh society that calls California’s mild climate home.

The first followed Daniel Blackland as he upended the magical order in southern California; the second followed Daniel and his ward Sam, a golem of potentially immense power as they try to stop the creation of a Pacific firedrake, a massive dragon stronger than anything else known on the whole of the coast. Discussing the plot of Dragon Coast is impossible without revealing the ending of Pacific Fire.

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Aug 28 2018

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Why was Raising Steam, the penultimate Discworld novel, so much better than I expected? I had reason to worry. It clocks in at 475 pages, and for the last 10 books, I have much preferred the shorter ones to the longer ones. Both of Raising Steam‘s immediate non-YA predecessors, Unseen Academicals and Snuff, had seemed particularly self-indulgent. It’s programmatic: Pratchett has written about the post office, banking, and foot-the-ball; now he is going to write about railroads. It takes Moist van Lipwig as its central character, but Moist is not so much a character as a show and a collection of enthusiasms. He’s heaps better to read about than Rincewind, of course, but he’s nowhere near as interesting a creation as Captain Vimes, Granny Weatherwax (or even Nanny Ogg), or Tiffany Aching. The start is a bit shaky, too. Pratchett writes the dialog of Dick Simnal, the most important new character in Raising Steam, in the thickest dialect of any character that I can think of in all the Discworld books. I’m not sure what Pratchett is getting at with the dialect, unless it is referring to a specific regional English origin for the character, at the price of baffling anyone outside of England. He has managed to convey the humble origins of Captain Vimes and many other characters, or the country life in Lancre without resorting to ostentatious dialect.

With all of these factors arrayed against it, Raising Steam should just limp along as a serviceable late-Discworld book, a late-afternoon local on a line that is soon to be discontinued. But no, it works, splendidly, maybe even gloriously, barreling along its narrative tracks to a climax that’s thrilling and an ending that’s satisfying. Why? How?

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Aug 23 2018

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff, the thirty-ninth Discworld book, turns out to be the last one starring Sam Vimes, who has gone a long way in the world since his first appearance in Guards! Guards! There will be one more Moist van Lipwig book, one more Tiffany Aching book (although I am still drafting my thoughts on I Shall Wear Midnight), and that is the end of the main sequence of Discworld books. By the time Snuff was published, Pratchett’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s had been public for four years; he would live for another four. I don’t know if Pratchett knew that Snuff would be his last outing with Vimes, but I tend to think not. There is nothing elegiac about it, and although there is an epilogue saying what happened later to various characters, it is almost exclusively concerned with minor characters whose futures support a point made by Vimes in the book’s middle and provide a few last laughs.

The book sends Vimes on a busman’s holiday, or more accurately, a policeman’s holiday. He is persuaded, well, practically ordered, to spend a couple of weeks at his wife Sibyl’s considerable estates in the countryside at some distance from Ankh-Morpork. She accompanies him to the manor house that she loved as a child but has not visited in eight or nine years. They bring along their son, Young Sam, not least so that he may have some of the same treasured childhood experiences that Sibyl recalls so fondly.

Vimes is out of his element. He is a city boy, through and through, and he finds the countryside vaguely unnerving. Nor is he much better with the people. He is quite used to being in charge as commander of the Watch, but he is not at all accustomed to being lord of the manor. His egalitarian instincts clash with what the people expect from someone at the top of the hierarchy, and he is equally clueless about the ranks and rivalries among all of the people who serve him and his family on the estate. Sibyl, of course, is to the manor born, and she prevents Vimes from making greater mistakes, even as she guides him to a place in country society.

All is not well, or it would be a very short book. During a dinner party, Vimes is told by one of the local gentry how quiet things are and how little there could be to interest someone who is used to the criminality of the big city. Vimes’ ears immediately prick up. Sometime later, he accepts a challenge to a fistfight from the local blacksmith who has egalitarian views similar to Vimes’ and isn’t afraid at all to share them at great volume and with great resentment. The blacksmith, Jethro, is young and strong and fast, but he had the decades of fighting people who are actually trying to kill him that Vimes has had, and it’s a short and one-sided fight.

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Aug 21 2018

Foundryside (Founders #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

Hands down my favorite fantasy novel of 2018 so far. In large part because it isn’t a fantasy novel or, as I described it to Bookclub chat, is really a meaty sci-fi novel in a delicious fantasy shell. It’s smart and witty and heartfelt, and I laughed and cried and gasped in sheer astonishment in turn. It is a terrific book, easily one of the best fantasy novels of all time (and if the sequels are just as good — or even better — whoo boy, are we in for a treat!)

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t too enamored when I first started reading it: street urchin is a skilled thief by virtue of having special spooky secret powers, who gets sent to steal something so super secret, she’s not supposed to look in the box to see what it is she’s stolen. We know how that always goes, and I was just flipping pages, nodding along, when Clef enters the scene and all of a sudden, I realized that this was not the book I thought it was. Clef is hilarious, and has been described by the author as a fantasy version of the hacker on overwatch talking in the hero’s ear as she navigates an unknown and probably deadly area. There are, as a matter of fact, a lot of decidedly tech-based story angles given their fantasy analogues here, set in a city-state where capitalism has evolved into its worst possible structure, where people are seen as commodities and justice is a privilege extended only to the rich. Foundryside tackles tough political and social topics with the kind of verve you usually find in sci-fi a/o thriller novels. The last time a fantasy novel moved me with its philosophy and ethics was Vic James’ terrific Gilded Cage but even that is a pale shadow to the yummy intellectual and ethical goodness that is Foundryside.

To start, nearly everyone is a person of color. The romances are handled deftly and there is terrific non-heterosexual representation. Old people aren’t relegated to thin supporting roles with no or inactive personal lives. The bad guys, while still being obviously evil, are complicated and interesting. Friendship is important. And that ending is so enormously satisfying while still making me want the next book right now. Barring the first bit, this is an almost distressingly perfect novel.

I’ve now added Robert Jackson Bennett to my list of must-read authors, and just bought a Kindle omnibus edition of his other fantasy series for $3! Speaking of Kindle, his notes on Foundryside on Goodreads are a delight. I have a crush, for sure.

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Aug 19 2018

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Short story collections are often hit or miss for me. Particularly when they’re the collected works of a single author: I often find myself rooting for said author to do well with each new story even as I’m quietly disappointed by the sum of the collection. This is especially true for writing that’s critically lauded as being “literary”, most of which I find deeply dull or, at best, pedestrian. I often wonder at how sheltered critics must be who rhapsodize over incredibly tedious short stories about interior lives and impressionistic emotions as being somehow novel or undiscovered. It genuinely makes me wonder how much reading these critics actually do otherwise, and makes me want to shove a copy of any Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling edited anthology into their hands. And writers, if you feel the need to write a literary short story, tell it in a way that doesn’t make me roll my eyes like a know-it-all teenager. I want to be impressed. I want to love your story. And if you’re sure you only need to use a short story and not a novel to tell me your tale, tell me something complete unto itself.

Fortunately, Her Body And Other Parties doesn’t evoke my brattiest behavior but it’s still not as good, I feel, as the hype would have me believe. I honestly didn’t care that much for the critically lauded The Husband Stitch because, while the parts about the narrator’s marriage and family were quite entertaining, the inclusion of the green ribbon was a metaphor that wasn’t properly explained. What in the actual hell was the green ribbon supposed to signify? I’m surmising that it means a woman is allowed her secrets and interior motivations, but the ending, while mirroring the source material, winds up having the exact emotional impact of said source material to anyone who’s decades removed from the first time they heard this story: a sense of profound unsurprisedness. Like, what is the point?! Don’t just borrow the story for the sensationalist frisson, do something with it. Sure it’s got more gravitas because of all the filled-in family stuff, but I didn’t actually care any more about the protagonist than I did the woman in the original.

I suppose I could put this down to me just not being smart enough for this book, but I continued to find myself baffled by Carmen Maria Machado’s use of metaphor and technique throughout the collection. Inventory, I thought, was a strong entry because things actually happened in it that didn’t leave me going “what just happened?” Mothers was great until the ending that made no sense. As was… actually, most of these stories had endings that were incredibly weak. The coda to The Resident was some nauseatingly self-indulgent nonsense, and again, nothing was explained. Eight Bites was pretty great till its nonsensical ending. Real Women Have Bodies only works if you believe the narrator is an asshole who thinks it’s okay to tell other women how to survive, but given her sympathetic rendering otherwise, I’m pretty sure Ms Machado is okay with said narrator’s holier-than-thou bullshit. Especially Heinous has a terrific premise but just goes on and on, flogging a dead horse well into paste. I did like Difficult At Parties a lot, so that makes two outstanding stories of the eight, and six that had great imagery or ideas but just seemed to fall flat at the finish line.

It’s weird, part of the reason I thought I might like this “literary” collection is the fact that it’s rooted in some deeply weird horror/sci-fi, and as a feminist, I fully support stories of women owning/exploring their sexuality and asserting their agency/personhood. But either the finish on these stories is poor or I’m just not smart enough to figure out what the point of those six stories were, as you may choose.

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Aug 18 2018

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1) by Melissa Albert

Oh yuck, this has a sequel? Not that this wasn’t an entertaining book, but I liked how complete it was on its own. If anything, I’d like to read more of the fairy tales that are mentioned, but not fully imparted, over the course of this novel.

Okay, so there’s this journalist, Anna Parks, who goes missing for an extended period of time. When she returns, she changes her name to Anthea Proserpine, writes a book of fairy tales, then retreats to upstate New York to a secluded estate with her husband and daughter, Ella.

Years later, and Ella is constantly on the move with her own teenage daughter, Alice. Mother and daughter are exceptionally close, but for one thing: Ella wants nothing to do with Anthea or her estate, The Hazel Wood, or the book that made Anthea’s fame and fortune, Tales From The Hinterland. Alice doesn’t understand why. Nor does she understand the many fans and, bluntly, creepers who obsess over Anthea and, by extension, herself and Ella. But Alice is happy enough to respect her mother’s wishes… till the day Ella disappears, and Alice finds herself searching out The Hazel Wood for answers.

So this was a weird book for me. I very much enjoy fairy tales and their deconstruction and retellings, but I have to admit that I admired this novel as an exercise in such more than as a story. I enjoyed the philosophical questions Melissa Albert raises about storytelling and folklore and family and personality, but the pacing of her framing narrative didn’t quite work for me. Once Alice arrived at the Halfway Wood, the structure of her story overtook what, up till then, had been a vivid tale of personal choices. I did not enjoy losing everything that made Alice such a vital character to formula. Even though it was making a point about the genre, it made the story itself a whole lot less interesting for that stretch.

Which is a pity because Alice is one of the few modern protagonists allowed to be angry all the time. She’s violent, temperamental and self-absorbed, yet feels more excessively real than most fictional characters of any genre. There’s an especially awful interaction between her and Ellery Finch, the biracial schoolmate who is helping her, over a confrontation she has with a cop. Ellery tries to explain his well-founded concerns but she reacts exactly like a clueless, selfish white girl would. Alice can be awful, but that’s kinda the point of her, and I loved how Ms Albert was unafraid to portray all her flaws without condoning what she does.

Anyway, this was an interesting experiment in fairy tale deconstruction that had several distinct shortcomings in the storytelling but is still a worthwhile read, especially if you’re into metatextual fiction. Story-wise… eh. Maybe that’s something Ms Albert improves upon in the sequel.

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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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