Wednesday, February 03, 2016
10 years ago I uploaded the first post to this blog (please don’t judge me by the quality of my first post J). Those that know me in real life would not consider me particularly introspective or such (my wife would laugh at the concept), but those who have read this blog over the years have seen a different side of me. And as one may expect from a blog post about a blog’s anniversary there’s a fair bit of introspection (or self wankery?) below. Read as you will, but at least let me say that it’s been a wild ride for 10 years and I have no plans to stop anytime soon.
This blog began rather simply – as a place to throw up a few attempts I had made at writing reviews. I had been active on a few forums (mostly Wheel of Time forums – remember wotmania?) and people actually seemed to care what I thought of books I was reading. The format of wotmania was rather terrible, so I threw my fledgling reviews up on a blog as a repository of sorts and because blogs seemed be gaining popularity in genre circles and even drawing attention away from forums and the like. I never actually expected people would read that blog, so I was quite surprised to find that people were – I was even more surprised when I learned that some of the people commenting on the blog worked for publishers. Eventually I worked up some courage to ask for a review copy of a book – and then I discovered the key to blog happiness – free books, or at least a way to finally address my book buying habit and cut that annual expense by several hundred dollars.
OK, it’s not really about the free books and it never was, though I’d be lying if I pretended it hasn’t been a factor. It’s pretty cool to get books early. It was really cool to be in on the early trend of blogs. Did you know I was the first blogger to interview Patrick Rothfuss – he was completely unheard of and the publisher was trying hard to get his name out there (this was for another forum I was a part of and it seems to be lost to the intranets junkyard). Anyway, I’m indulging the wankery, so let’s move on.
What I really want to say with all this has little to do with the opportunities that this blog has afforded me or even the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve received over the years. I want to talk about how writing this blog has been an agent of change for me. I’ve said many times over the years that the reviews I write are really for me, and for the most part that’s actually true. The majority of my reviews are a conversation that I’m having with myself. And many of them are full of obscure references and jokes that only my warped sense of humor would find funny or even recognize as a joke. And through all of those conversations with myself, with other reviewers, with authors, with industry people, and with the multitude of fans I’ve had the opportunity to interact with, I’ve grown as a person.
Let’s face it, my life is an excellent example of cis-gendered, white male, privilege. 10 years ago I would have joyfully informed you how I was not racist or sexist and that I’m completely ‘colorblind’ and ‘genderblind’ in my selection of books to read. And the fact that 90% of the books I was reading were written by white men would have been written off with one excuse or another. Over the years I have become aware of this. Informed. I now strive to recognize the unconscious sexism and racism buried within me that’s been fed to me by society my entire life. I actively seek out diversity. I will look at the books I’ve read and say ‘gee, that’s 3 book in a row written by men, I need to read a few written by women’ or ‘when’s the last time you read a book written by a non-western writer, you need to do something about that’. Am I perfect? No, absolutely not. I have not achieved parity in this or even what is probably a reasonable balance. But I do continue to strive. Last year I think about 50% of the books I read were written by women, though I’d guess that only about 20% were written by people of color, non-western writers, or other disproportionally ‘overlooked’ peoples. So, there’s a lot of room for future growth.
But, what’s really making the difference for me, is that this all goes beyond reading and beyond the blog. Because in the real world I have a job where I interact with people and even supervise a few. In the real world I am a family man with an 8-year old son and a 5-year old daughter. I am more aware of the nasty racist and sexist messages society is trying to engrain in my children. I am aware of some of the ‘extra’ challenges faced by the young women I supervise. I am more aware of the challenges my wife faces as a research scientist surrounded by men who have the ‘freedom’ to work 80 hour weeks.
And I use this awareness. I’m the father who seeks out children’s books about girls and minorities. I’m the father browsing feminist book recommendations for children. Yes, I do this to help my daughter. But I don’t let my son off the hook – I read those books with him too. Books about girls are just as cool as books about boys. I’m the father who starts the conversation with my son about how Rey is my favorite character in the new Star Wars and how I admire how Finn makes very difficult decisions and comes around to make the right decisions in the end. And these things work – before such conversations he would talk about Han and Kylo Ren and such. But now, he talks about how Rey is his favorite too. I seek out ‘dolls’ for my daughter to play with that are engineers and scientists. I actively try to break societal expectations and show my children that it’s no accident. These are only a few examples of many that I can point to, but the point of all of this is that it began in a very different place with very different ideas and expectations 10 years ago with the start of yet another blog in yet another corner of an exponentially growing internet.
So, it has been a journey, a really spectacular journey. Maybe even a hero’s journey (OK, that’s way too far, but maybe you see the kernel buried in that analogy). I am thankful for journey and grateful that it has helped me improve as a human being.
And the journey will continue. I have no intention of stopping blogging anytime soon.
And be excellent to each other!
Posted by Neth at 2/03/2016 08:00:00 AM
Monday, January 18, 2016
Last November I visited Asia for the first time, specifically Japan. From the moment that I learned I would be going to Japan, I began to look more and more forward to it. One of the things I wanted to do in preparation was read a couple of SFF books from Japan. Not just the big stuff by the likes of Murakami but something that was maybe a bit more authentic, and even pulp-ish. So I turned to the specialty publishing house of Haikasoru and browsed their catalog for interesting sounding books. Of course I found many, but had to limit to a couple of choices.
One of those choices was MM9 (Monster Magnitude 9) by Hiroshi Yamamoto. I chose it because it’s more or less contemporary, plus obviously from the same lineage as Godzilla and just sounded fun. MM9 tells a series of related stories (think pulp fiction here) of a special unit called the Meteorological Agency Monsterological Measures Department (MMD) as they protect Japan from the growing threat of natural disasters in the form of giant monsters, or kaiju. Of course there’s a grand conspiracy at foot.
As I said above, this is pulp fiction – it feels as if it were a series of episodic short stories that were brought together. It also feels snarky – this may be a translation issue, but I really think that these stories don’t take themselves entirely seriously. It’s especially interesting (or funny) how so much emphasis is given to ‘rating’ the size of the monsters and then gifting them with a name (nice and corny – names like ‘Princess’, ‘Megadrake’, and ‘Seacloud’). And it really does fascinate me to wonder if it’s something lost in translation, that the book is truly snarky, or if like the first, this is an aspect of Japanese pop culture that just feels snarky to us in the USA.
MM9 has all of the campy fun of good pulp fiction and it provided exactly what I was looking for. Something a bit different than I usually read as well as a different sort of perspective of Japan in advance of my trip. And yes, it did give me some interesting perspective that I wasn’t going to find in the Lonely Planet guides. Specifically some ideas on the general economic malaise of a country that has been in one recession or another for almost 20 years, and a bit of hint on just how much the pop culture in Japan leans in its unique direction (in addition to the snarky fascination I mention above). I will not even try to describe that uniqueness of the pop culture in Japan beyond an image I saw on my first evening – a man of around 40 dressed in his every day suit (much nicer than the one I own), reading a graphic novel on a bullet train while eating a quick meal and drinking a beer, with a very loud, cartoonish advertisement on the wall above him.
Anyway, MM9 was a fun book to read and just what I wanted. I certainly recommend the books of Haikasoruas a source of some great Japanese SFF.
MM9 by Hiroshi Yamamoto: Amazon
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
In a time where if you look at the posts on this blog you are just as likely to find a post explaining why I’m not posting very much because of all the @$%# life throws at me as to find an actual review or other genre-related post, it’s not all that surprising that I am reading a lot books that are simple fun. Call it escapism or whatever. But one of the most important criteria for me to choose a book is just how fun it will be. I’m certainly not looking for something that will reflect life too much (like when I bounced off Last First Snow).
Anyway, one series that I love to come back to for some nice, simple fun is The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. Staked is the eighth book in this series and by far the best yet. The star of the show, Atticus, has always been the driver of the series, but Hearne has been building the scope and leaning more heavily on other characters. Most notable is Atticus’ partner, Granuaile, who has been a growing presence in the books. In Staked, it feels like Hearne finally gets her voice ‘right’ and believable (rather than cringe-worthy as the early points of view were). Granuaile has been largely on her own and independent from Atticus for 2 books now, and I think that was what was really needed to bring her into her own.
Atticus’ arch-druid, Owen is also a growing and welcome presence. While not (yet?) nearly as strong as a character as Granuaile, he is an interesting foil and fun addition to the books. Plus, it looks like he’s putting roots down in my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, so we’ll hopefully get to see more of the area as time goes on*.
So, the fun continues. Consequences from earlier actions come due. Gods die. Vampires are staked. Action-packed, nerdy wish-fulfillment complete!
I know that Hearne is growing his career and expanding into other areas of writing (Star Wars, epic fantasy, etc.), but I’m so glad that he’s primed this series to continue and I’m hoping that we get at least 8 more!
The Iron Druid Chronicles
*Kevin, if you’re reading this, there’s a nice new independent bookstore in Flagstaff –Barefoot Cowgirl Books. I’m sure they’d love to have you for a signing!
Monday, January 11, 2016
Some background information that you probably won’t care about:
A small sample of those hundreds
(thousands?) of books waiting to be
I’ve seen a fair bit of buzz around the books of Jason M. Hough, particularly his first trilogy (The Dire Earth Cycle) which is a form of military science fiction that I’ve just never found myself in the mood for, even though I have full trilogy collecting dust on a bookcase. Anyway, I had that privilege to meet Jason when he visited Arizona last year and converse over a beer or two (I’m still rather unhappy that I had forgotten his books to get them signed). So, I will be completely honest, I read his book because we had beers together – yes, I had copies of his books and yes, they seemed like fun books to read. But the distinguishing feature that made me read his book over the hundreds of others I have lying around my office was that I met him in person and enjoyed our conversations. And it didn’t hurt that in an earlier conversation that I had with Brian Staveley, Brian had very positive things to say about Zero World. Yes, book tours matter. Yes, there are sometimes ‘perks’ to being a blogger. And yes, I hope to meet Jason again, converse over more drinks, and hopefully I’ll remember to bring books for him to sign.
Zero World intrigued me initially because it sounded like a fun and interesting take on a spy thriller in a near-future science fiction world. Basically, and Asian James Bond in the future. And initially, that is exactly what Zero World is – a fun and interesting take on the spy thriller where our spy/assassin has his memory wiped after every mission. There are some interesting bits about the whole memory reset process, the moral ambiguity that comes from being a successful assassin with no memory of his actions, and of course just who is the ‘god’ voice in this assassin’s head and what are their motivations. This, and our assassin gets a physical boost in speed, strength, and healing through some nice chemical enhancements.
But, even though all of that is more than enough for its own story, it gets bigger. Before long, this near-future SF book becomes ‘portal’ SF to a parallel world, with things ending up in a near Space Opera scope, though we still see it all through our Bond-like assassin. Then we begin to see things through the eyes of another spy from the parallel world. With the broadening of the scope comes a broadening of exploration – our assassin questions his morals, his goals, his purpose. In parallel we learn to question the motivations of others, particularly those in power. The further up the proverbial tower of power, the worse things seem to be. In this respect, Zero World is a fresh take on old ideas.
But, don’t let me get too deep here, because I run the risk of skipping over the true strengths of this book. It’s the pacing – a lot of things happen fast. This is about 3 books in 1, and it works. Zero World keeps the adrenaline flowing, the mind begging to know what comes next, and it won’t let you go to sleep. This is entertainment. This is fun. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.
So, as usual, no plot summary here. And as is (sadly) becoming more and more common with my reviews, it’s rather short and doesn’t dig in as I like to do. But, in the end it doesn’t matter. In the end, a review is an opinion, and in my opinion, Zero World is great book written by a great guy.
Zero World (Amazon)
The Dire Earth Cycle
The Darwin Elevator (Amazon)
The Exodus Towers (Amazon)
The Plague Force (Amazon)
Monday, January 04, 2016
So, this is the periodic post to say that I'm not dead yet. This blog is still active and I do have a lot reviews that are forthcoming. Anyway, it's just been a bit of extra busy at home and work with many fall birthdays, holidays and stuff like having a son on a club soccer team (multiple practices every week, weekend trips for games, etc.). Plus, because we weren't busy enough, this little guy joined the family about 2 weeks ago.
So, still crazy busy. Will be for a while to come. But look for new content in January. And hopefully something to celebrate 10 years of blogging in February.
Posted by Neth at 1/04/2016 12:01:00 PM
Friday, October 09, 2015
First, let me be clear, I did not finish the book Last First Snow by Max Gladstone, so this isn’t a true review. Some people strongly believe that if you don’t finish a book, you should not comment on it at a blog like mine. Well, I disagree, because I think that sharing reasons why I don’t finish a book are just as valid as sharing the reasons why I finish reading and enjoy (or not) books. And let me be further clear that I believe a lot of why I didn’t finish this book comes down to the old standard excuse – ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. So, you have been warned.
I have heard many good things about the books that Max Gladstone writes in the Craft Sequence, so many that I’ve been waiting for a good place to jump in. It is my understanding that they are all written to be stand-alone books in a related sequence and that Last First Snow is ‘first’ in the sense of timeline. So, I thought it would be good entry point.
This is a book that I should like and I genuinely feel that the concept at its core is brilliant. The book and the world combine social activism of the real world with a fantasy world full of Aztec-inspired deities and monsters. This is the story of a fantasy protest movement. It’s the story of magical lawyers and big city mayors who are undead skeletons. In short it’s full of a lot cool, unusual stuff with real depth and relevance to our own world.
But, I didn’t finish this book, and that is something that is pretty rare for me. Was it too dense? No. Did I not connect with the characters? No. So, then what is the problem? And further, I made it pretty far before I actually stopped – page 228 of 380.
I think that it’s because it’s all too real. Last First Snow expertly describes and identifies with so many social problems of our own world – in short, it works too well.
Part of why I read is for escape, especially at this point in my life when I have so much going on and I simply don’t have the emotional depth and strength to pile on any more. This book, as fantastic as it is, did not prove to be that escape. It pretty well just reinforced a lot of the issues I need to deal with. It realistically shows the conflict of one’s ideas with the family they love and care for and have committed to. There are no good choices. And it touches way too close to home for me. Also, all of my ‘senses’ kept telling me that something really awful was about to happen, again, something reflecting a real world all too close to my own.
All of this proved too much for me. I wasn’t enjoying reading, I was dreading it. It was time to put the book aside. Will I come back to it? Maybe…I hope so, but it’s hard for me to predict when. Most likely I’ll try another book in the Craft Sequence first, but again, it will probably be a while.
The Craft Sequence
Monday, August 24, 2015
If you regularly follow this blog, then you know that I can be a bit … delayed in my reviewing (and if you’re new, howdy and now you know). I’ve made no secret that I’m just busy and it can be hard for me to keep up. But I do keep up, just slowly. So, my reviewing these days runs roughly 3 months behind when I finish a book – unless it doesn’t, because some reviews beg to be written more immediately, but the muse is a finicky seductress, and I digress.
Anyway, my rambling does have a point and that is that I was very happy to see Wesley Chu win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the 2015 Hugo Awards. And that has inspired me to finally get around to my ‘review’ of his debut novel, The Lives of Tao.
Honestly, I don’t have a lot to add to the narrative that you’ll find out there, so details here are intentionally sparse. I will simply say that this book is tons of fun. It’s a (sort-of) weird book about alien possession and international espionage, about secret organizations that actually control the world, and even the evolution of humanity and its civilization. Or maybe it’s about a loser in a go-nowhere tech job. That description alone is enough to probably bounce a number of readers and probably the reason that The Lives of Tao found its home with Angry Robot publishing which is known for taking chances on books that the big publishers can’t envision a market for. But, don’t fall for the trap – this book is too much fun to pass up.
If you love the idea of near-immortal, body snatching aliens controlling everything, where one takes over the life a forgettable geek and turns him into an uber spy and international man of mystery – this book is for you. And if you like the sound of some of that, but the rest seems a bit too far out there…read it anyway. This book is fun. It’s well written, it is damn near impossible to put down, and it always leaves you wanting to read more and more. It’s awesome y’all – it’s the stuff that wins awards. It’s a summer read, a beach read, or hell, it’s a great read for tonight.
Get the point? Read it. And, there are sequels. Plus another trilogy is forthcoming. All is good.
The Rise of Io: Forthcoming
Thursday, August 13, 2015
One way I survive all that shit life throws at me is through compartmentalizing. I create (artificial) boundaries, I develop boxes for thinking within and without, I live in context, I have many limits. In many ways it’s a fundamental part of human nature, though some people do it more than others. However, we all have our own system.
Likewise, books beg to be shelved, and the system for shelving can be deeply personal. Sure there’s that Dewey Decimal system that anyone under the age of 35 can’t possibly fathom, and every time I visit a library I realize just how much I’ve forgotten about it, but I digress. How do books get shelved, categorized, or boxed? Do you first sort by read versus not read (I often do)? Then do you alphabetize? By author’s name, by book title? Do divide into genre? What about subgenre?
I’ve rambled through the beginning of this review because context is so important. The context I come from, the way I categorize books, and how I approach it. And more directly, all of these variables can allow one to see a book at many more levels than may be first evident.
The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato is one such book. It’s set in a secondary world – so it must be fantasy? It has clockwork in its title and largely occurs on a dirigible, so it must be steampunk? But there’s magic, so back to fantasy? But there all these machines and clockwork technology – plus Victorian-like monarchy, so it has to be steampunk? But, there’s clearly a romantic story-arc, so it can only be paranormal romance? Oh please, can’t you tell it’s really a post-modern, weird western?
All of the above characteristics of The Clockwork Dagger are very real and inform what it is, but let’s approach it as a steampunk book, since that’s the way it’s dressed and it would seem that’s what it wants the world to think it is. In this respect, it has everything that a good steampunk book should offer – Victorian-esque world, mystery, secret agents, clockwork/steam technology, guns, and dirigibles.
But, look at what I’ve written above…does it matter? I’ve written about what box the book goes in, what shelf it belongs to. I’ve written about the setting, the world built to frame the book. I haven’t really touched on what this book is and what it has to say.
To get to what the book is and what it says, one must start with the heart of the book – Octavia Leander. Octavia is a young woman starting out on her first independent, professional venture in the world. She is a healer, a magical healer, one of great talent and who must be careful in what she shows the world around her. Her world is war-torn and she bears scars of that war herself. She is the maiden with a heart-of-gold who is out of her depth in the great big world. Predictably she meets a man who becomes a love interest, there is threat to her wellbeing, she is betrayed by someone close to her, and it all has big implications. But, just because those things are predictable, doesn’t mean they are bad. Because it comes back to Octavia who is a wonderfully compelling character with a perspective on things that is downright amusing even when deadly serious.
The Clockwork Dagger is also a (almost) traditional murder-mystery set in an enclosed space. Most of the book takes place on a dirigible where strange attacks keep occurring. Why? Who? It all gets mixed up with agents from the eastern wastes, agents from the crown, a long-missing princess, and of course, Octavia herself, who is slowly realizing that she’s not just an average magical healer, but something more.
And wrapped up in all of this are some really excellent ‘goodies’ that round out a great story and loveable protagonist with some meaty depth. In a secondary, Victorian-world, it’s hard to leave out those troubling bits of colonial, post-colonial, racial and ethnic tensions, and Cato certainly does not. Additionally, there’s a juicy bit of science vs. magic vs. religion wrapped up in the story. Rounding this out is another little bit that I always love to see in SFF books – realization that the status quo is not a good thing. There are implications of social justice, poisonous leadership and a real need for progressive change.
Now, I’ve rambled on for quite a bit, wrapping this review up in the context of boxes and shelves, then knocking those aside, rambling more, and I still haven’t flat-out offered up my opinion on all this, which is what I strongly believe is the most important part of a review. Did I like this book?
This book is a fun mystery and adventure through a creative, well-rounded (western) steampunk world. But it’s Octavia and her merry band of friends and conspirators that make it the fun book that it is. Of course, I want more, and more there is. The Clockwork Crown rounds out the duology and is available now, along with a (prequel) novella, The Deepest Poison.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
At immense and incomprehensible sacrifice, I agreed last night to bail Rocket Talk host Justin Landon out his lack of preparation by being a last-minute, unplanned guest on the Rocket Talk Podcast (this of course is a huge exaggeration as Justin had a family emergency to deal with). Of course, I had zero time to think in advance about how I would answer the obvious questions, plus I have a nasty summer cold and was medicated up, and me being me, I also imbued a bit of whisky (purely to numb my rasping throat). Not to mention this was my first podcast. I'm fairly certain the title of this blogpost is more articulate than what I managed last night.
Oh, and then we answered questions from Twitter. Thanks guys /sacrasm
BUT, it was lots of fun. I can only hope that I didn't make too big of an idiot of myself. So, if you are inclined, have a listen. And thanks to Justin who picked me out of what must have been dozens of willing volunteers to be a last-minute sub.
Posted by Neth at 8/12/2015 01:45:00 PM
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
I must preface this review with some necessary context about myself, which of course will ramble a fair bit as I often do.
Over the past several years I’ve come to realize that what I write at this blog aren’t really reviews, as my ‘reviews’ often don’t really summarize the books I discuss. Likewise, I’ve never claimed to be a critic, as this certainly isn’t an academic exercise and I (mostly) don’t critically discuss and analyze the text. What I write is both for those who haven’t read the book and for those that have. What I write about is my reaction to books – there may be some summary and there may be discussion on how a book converses with genre and other aspects of the world – but what I do here is express my opinion about the book and how I reacted to it. In short, my writings here (usually) are not conversations with those who have or have not read the book I discuss, but conversations with myself.
So, to aid you in understanding this particular conversation with myself, I will provide some important context. Because this book, more so than most books I read, was very specifically set-up to be a book that I would fall completely in love with or became so annoyed with that I could not tolerate it even a little bit. This is a book that could almost certainly have no middle ground whatsoever. You may be asking yourself why. In a word: geology.
My day job and even where I put a huge amount of volunteer effort, is in geology, specifically engineering geology, but that is neither here nor there. My ‘expertise’ in this world is in applied geology. This is what I do, and since I live in a society that is defined by that career/jobs we are boxed into, in many ways, it is what I am.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is geology applied to epic fantasy in a way I have never seen it before. No, it’s not dinosaurs with people, or clever geologic names, or even a geologically influenced map. The Fifth Season is geology made into epic fantasy, primarily through magic. The magic of this book occurs through people (and other ‘beings’) directly manipulating geologic forces. The world is one in constant geologic upheaval and some people have the power to reduce or enhance these phenomena.
Hopefully, my long preamble is starting show some focus. The Fifth Season would live or die by me on all of the little, tiny details that won’t matter or mean much to 99% of its readers. I suppose, conversely, that means that this review (or reaction?), probably won’t mean much to 99% of those of you out there. But you’ve made it this far, so why not see it through to the end (no worries, I write about much more than just geology)?
Typically when I read fiction, and most of that falls squarely in the greater SFF world, I don’t have much problem with suspending belief. Particularly with geology. I can usually pretty well ignore any issue or inconsistency. It’s not hard – because hey, it’s fantasy. But with The Fifth Season it’s too much in my face – it is geomagic (my word, not Jemisin’s – hers is much cooler). This is the dying earth metaphor in the form of fantastic geology. The folly of humanity, geologic retribution.
So far I’ve laid hints, but not flat-out said which extreme my reaction fall into. So, I’ll say it now – I love this book! The geologic aspects are very well handled – and orogene is an excellent name for a ‘geologic sorcerer’ (for a quick lesson, while it’s not technically a word in English, orogene plays on orogeny, which can mean a lot of things, but at its most basic, it refers to a mountain building event in geologic time). If I tried really hard, I could come up with some nitpicking, but considering that I would have to try so hard in a book that puts geology front and center, well that is an accomplishment. Also joyfully worth noting, geologic names for characters – Syenite, Alabaster, Carnelian, etc. (all are rocks and/or minerals).
OK, I do need to talk about some other aspects of this book. First, I think a lot of people will be talking about this book because there really is a metric shit-ton of interesting stuff in this book (yes, ‘shit-ton’ is a geologic term…at least for me it is). I’ll start with what the book is – the synopsis I read speaks of apocalypse and post-apocalyptic happenings (usually this is an instant no-go for me in a book, but that is another essay altogether). It certainly fits the general idea of epic fantasy – there’s a quest, there’s magic, etc. But what it really fits is the dying earth motif*. Past sins of humanity destroyed the natural order of the world and humanity barely survived. And the cycle of disaster now repeats itself, with humanity ever approaching the point where they don’t survive. Is this the story of the end?
Additionally, the story is told through a beautiful mosaic of diversity. The cast is largely non-white, generally lacking specific analogs to the racial and ethnic breakdown of our world. In addition to a female lead, other descriptors of the major and minor characters include transgender, gay, and bisexual. What’s best is that none of those details matter all that much to the plot. They are simply there because that’s the way it is. Which is the way it should be.
Voice. Voice makes or breaks a work of fiction, and what may be the most significantly interesting characteristic of The Fifth Season is voice. First, there is second, as in second person. This rarely used narrative voice lends both distance and intimacy to the description of the end of the world. Particularly since it’s more than the end of the world, as the voice is that of someone whose world has already ended. There is a journey as a three points of view slowly converge on clarity in the face of chaos. The journey of woman – child to teen/young adult to mother. Conflicts and emotions are different, yet relatable. And the world ends.
The Fifth Season is the first book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. Emotionally and thematically The Fifth Season provides a full plot arc as the first book in a trilogy is supposed to do, if not exactly ending with the triumphant pause in the three-act play of a trilogy. Plot-wise, there’s something of a cliff-hanger that really has me wanting to read the next book now.
I’ve thrown around the term dying earth in this review a few times as it can be a very powerful metaphor for the folly of humanity. In The Fifth Season you can choose your own analog. And this blends well into the tragedy of single human lives that make for such compelling literature. Again, in The Fifth Season you can choose your own analog for that tragedy. The Fifth Season is the story of a dying earth, it is the story of an apocalypse in a world of repeating apocalyptic events, though this just might be the end of it all. It is also the story of very personal journey(s) through a time of upheaval, and one that creates opportunity to relate on many levels. As a mother, as an outcast, as a talented and ambitious professional, as a slave to society. As I say above – choose your own metaphor – Jemisin laid the ground work for at least half a dozen, which opens the door for even more.
The best fantasy does not strive to restore the status quo. It seeks progress, progress that can be ugly…very ugly. In many cultures and traditions death is not the end, but an end. In that end there is the implication for rebirth, the implication of progress along a greater journey. I have a sneaking sense that what Jemisin is doing in The Broken Earth Trilogy is not just the end, but also the beginning of progress toward something more.
So, my own journey with The Fifth Season began with the superficial connection to a single metaphor. Or you could say that it began with the earth (maybe even the Earth). And while I quite clearly reveled in that connection, drilling deeper, to the core of the story kills the connection to the earth. In that death there is the birth of the connection to humanity, which completes the circle for a personal connection.
The Fifth Season is SFF of potential, perhaps the most potential that can be had at this moment in time.
The Broken Earth Trilogy
*It’s worth noting that Jemisin has said that the Stillness of the The Broken Earth Trilogy is not Earth and was never intended to be Earth. It is a secondary world, though I stand by my assertion that at least in the case of The Fifth Season, there is far more kinship to Dying Earth motifs than the dime-a-dozen post-apocalyptic SFF series plaguing genre these days.
Thursday, July 09, 2015
There are thousands of ways I could begin this review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik and many ways in which to present it, but to start it must be simple.
I love this book – it is a wondrous read with a surprise around every page. As I read, I could never get enough – I lost sleep, reading ‘just one more chapter’ five or six times a night. I guessed at what would come next and was always surprised…until I simply stopped and just let the story flow. It’s timeless, evocative and every bit the modern fairy tale others proclaim it to be. It is a must read.
But of course Uprooted isn’t only simple as it’s as deeply layered as the best fairy tales always are. And so must my review be more than a statement or two about how much I love the book.
Voice. It can so often be overlooked in its importance, but particularly for first person, it dominates a story’s ultimate success. For Uprooted this voice is Agnieszka (Nieshka to her friends), a young woman who will find who she is and her place in the world through the growth of Uprooted. She is ignorant to the world yet rooted to her past, devoted to her loved ones, and contains a will strong enough to endure and shatter convention. Uprooted is certainly the fairy tale it’s proclaimed to be, though more so, it’s the story at the root of that timeless tale – the origin and the seed from which a magnificent collection of truths will descend. It is the tale of Nieshka and how she saves her homeland, a kingdom, a wizard, and a friend. And so much more.
One aspect of Uprooted that made it an absolute joy to read is that I began reading it with very few expectations, and the few I did have mostly turned out to be wrong. The jacket description of the book is all over and done with in a just a few pages. Afterwards is a blank slate. First one path forward emerges, then another, then another, and eventually the journey is simply enjoyed.
It took some help for me to see it*, but the ultimate theme guiding Uprooted is friendship. Every single significant moment in this book is rooted in Nieshka’s friendship with Kasia. Yes, there is a beautifully drawn out romance, and there is the ever present corruption of the Wood and the evil it brings, and politics of kingdoms and such as well. But it’s the simple, mundane (yet clearly so much more than mundane) value of friendship that Uprooted grows from.
For this reason (among others), I would propose that Uprooted should be thought of as an ideal ‘entry-level’ fantasy. Typically when that term is thrown about there are spaceships, aliens, battles, or dragons, swords and other battles. Probably an orphan or a soldier, likely magic or faster-than-light travel. But of course that view is from one (particularly loud) tradition, and Uprooted nurtures another tradition.
Fear not, if you feel that your fantasy needs swords and bravery, evil beasts to be defeated, battle and betrayal, you will find this. But let’s move on.
As with the best fairy tales, Uprooted has many layers, and many conversations that can sprout forth. Be it friendship as I indicate above, or the blooming of a love and the opening of a dead heart, or even the mundane conversations of genre.
Yes, for those of us who have delved into the ‘community’ of fandom, there is conversation to be had. In fact, one could choose their own metaphor if they were so inclined. There is the prescriptive, rigid magic of the Dragon, complete with its long history and devote adherents. The precise requirements of diction, pronunciation and the corresponding expectations of courtly sorcerers. Nieshka’s corresponding magic of intuition and song, containing no prescription or predictive path is a foil to whatever establishment you choose. The corruption of the Wood, its pure evil and malice and the resulting lack of hope presents another opportunity for conversation. For all the overwhelming evil and corruptive power, there is redemption. Hope prevails though the indomitable spirit of Nieshka. The conversation is changed and the future rewritten**. And hell, I just know there’s a good ‘can’t see the forest for all the trees’ message wandering the Wood somewhere.
Of course it can be any community that takes a lesson from Uprooted, I merely chose the one closest to me as I write.
As many a review that I write grows from a beginning into a wild bramble of mixed thoughts and metaphor, eventually it comes back to the beginning. And so it ends in the simplicity of earned embellishment.
Uprooted is the seed that spawns a thousand generations of a tale and Novik has cultivated a magnificent, timeless beauty to enjoy***.
* The reasons why are probably several essays worth of material.
**Leaving grimdark for dead in ditch? This reviewer can only hope.
***Over and over again.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
As I sit down to write this review of The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe, I’ve come to realize that it’s hard. Not because I don’t have a lot to say about the book – I do. Not because I didn’t love the book – I did love it. But, really it comes down to that I’ve said it all before, most likely better than I could again. So, go read the review I wrote for Wisp of a Thing. Everything in that review applies to The Hum and the Shiver. Bledsoe’s Tufa books are probably the books I’m enjoying most right now, and that earlier review really says all I need to say.
Still here? OK, again, go read that earlier review if didn’t already, because this is where I simply get nit-picky. The Hum and the Shiver is the first Tufa book – in sequence of writing, publishing, and occurrence in ‘book world’. It tells – The Hum and the Shiver has a few bumpy spots that weren’t present in Wisp of a Thing. Most notably is the relatively slow start. This is because this is not an action book, and all the conflict is truly personal conflict that comes from within. This is tricky ground to cover in a society (and genre for that matter) that craves action and real, in-your-face conflict. Related to that, some of the subplots never quite melt into the full story. It’s just a little rough around the edges.
But for all of that, by about halfway through the book, it’s all gone. I was completely immersed into the story and couldn’t even come up for air. With these books it’s just best to let it all go and lose yourself in the music of the story.
Monday, June 29, 2015
Heaven’s Queen by Rachel Bach is the final book in the Paradox trilogy which falls somewhere in the area of new space opera or military science fiction, or whatever – really it doesn’t matter how you choose to (or not to) shelve these books. What does matter is that they are so much fun and such a pleasure to read1.
In my review of the first book in the series, Fortune’s Pawn, I get into a bit of discussion on entry-level SF and even the similarities of Fortune’s Pawn to urban fantasy. I think that all was an interesting discussion, but series has long-since moved forward and so should we. Heaven’s Queen takes us from the cliffhanger of an ending to Honor’s Knight and wraps up the trilogy in a very satisfying way.
So far in the series, Devi has spent a lot of time reacting to the situation she’s found herself thrown into – in Heaven’s Queen, she raises a rather giant middle finger to the entire galaxy and makes them play by her terms. Now it wouldn’t be a very fun book if everything went as planned, but it was a necessary shift in the narrative for her to get the chance to take charge of the big picture rather than just the tactical incidents of the past. This of course has been building through the series, but it’s great to see it truly play out.
As I had come to expect from the series, loyalties are challenged and unclear. Who is good and bad and ugly? What is the right thing to do? And let’s not forget the romance, because there is a rather beautiful romance underlying everything else.
As with the previous books in the series, it adds up to a great conclusion. Call it a beach read, an escape read, or what you read on Tuesday night – it has that feel. It’s complex and ‘deep’ enough to not feel cheap, but it’s still got plenty of explosions, violent encounters with aliens, lovely moments of romance, and a prison-break worthy of the Death Star2. All in all, this is a great conclusion to the series, right down to the neatly wrapped end of the end.
1 This is basically word for word out of my review of Honor’s Knight. I don’t care, I liked what I wrote then and I like it now – it applies. And I can plagiarize from myself as much as I please. In fact, this whole review is parasitic plagiarism at its best.
2 Ok, this is a poor analogy, because the prison break arc is well done and Star Wars never could actually explain the ease of their escape. Even if they did let them go.