Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

*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

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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

Mini-Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

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.

The Hum and Shiver (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Long Black Curl (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Mini-Review: Heaven’s Queen by Rachel Bach

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.

Heaven’s Queen (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

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. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Few Weeks Ago I Got to Hang Out With a Bunch of Cool Authors

Or, how I make myself look cooler by namedropping actual cool people.

Phoenix Comicon happened back in May and it’s fast becoming recognized as a very strong convention for SFF authors, which I’m told is strategic goal of the comicon. Well, I didn’t have time to attend the actual Con, but I did happen to be in Phoenix the night before the Con where there was the Elevengeddon author signing event at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore (you can get signed books by all those authors by contacting them). It was the brain child of Kevin Hearne and it ended up having around 17 authors signing books.

I would guess that about 100 people showed up. The event was rather loosely organized with so many authors – basically just a signing. Kevin Hearne’s line was the longest, which meant there was a great opportunity to chat with the other authors. I only took one picture of the event, which is posted here. I’m pretty sure Sam Sykes had a live feed of the signing for the first 15 minutes or so, I have no idea where that lives on the internet, but if you were so inclined, you could find yours truly lurking at various points of that.

Anyway, the event seemed like a who’s who of my Twitter feed. I brought 3 bags of books to be signed. I bought another bag’s worth at the event. Without counting, I probably had about 30 books with me to sign. The link to the event lists all the authors that were present – the names below are authors who’s books I got signed (in no particular order)

And even with the 30 or so books I had signed, I still missed some. When I got home I realized that I had other books by Naomi Novik and Myke Cole that didn’t make the trip. I also had books by Jason Hough that didn’t make the trip. Add that to me bringing a couple of books by Kevin Hearne that were already signed, and it was a bit frustrating. There’s always next year.

At the signing even I had some nice conversations with a few of the authors. Myke Cole was awesome – especially once he realized I ran this blog. He was very complimentary and fun to chat with. Brian Staveley was also fun to chat with as we discussed his books, the forthcoming final book of his trilogy (he had just submitted a draft of before coming on the trip), and ideas for future books in the world.

But if it was just a signing event, I probably wouldn’t bother with a blog post. Because then I headed to the bar with a few of the authors. This is where the name dropping gets more fun because drinks were involved. Sam, Myke, Kevin, Wes, Delilah, Jason, Brian and Brian all headed to a nearby bar, with a few others, including Myke’s significant other.

Some hilarity ensued – first I proved to be a rather worthless blogger by calling Brian McClellan by the wrong name – I confused him with Chuck Wendig. Laughs were had. Later I once again got something wrong about Brian by assuming he lived in Utah (he lives in Cleveland) – not that it was such a bad assumption because he used to live there. Anyway, Brian was a good sport about it. We’ll see if that holds up if I read and review his books one day and intentionally throw in a bunch of factual errors just to be consistent with my past behavior.

Sam was there, so poop was discussed.

Myke was quite amused that in Arizona it’s necessary to post signs about not bringing your guns into bars. Kevin shared that his family had been coming to that specific bar for generations. Several of us are relatively close in age and have young children – so we chatted a bit about that.

And of course there was a fair bit of industry gossip that I even contributed to a bit. Apparently I could contribute some interesting info since I’m on the receiving end of marketing. I’d love to name names and dish out the dirt, but then I wouldn’t get to play next time. In the end it was declared that someone must have something on someone else. #nocontextforyou

So, does this make me less objective as a reviewer? Well, I’ve never claimed to be objective anyway, so I don’t care. I’ll continue to say what I think of books in my reviews. But, the last three books I’ve read were by authors at that signing. And I have plans to read others in the near future. So, there is that.

Anyway, lots of fun was had as I actually interacted with real people that I have known from the internet. And next year, hopefully I can actually attend the Con.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

Hello good readers, I know that you are all fans of epic fantasy so I have this book that I just have to introduce you to. I believe that this is as close to a perfect match as you’re going to find in this crazy world and I just know that it will lead to a long-lasting relationship. I’m sure you’ve seen it pop up through the internet matching sites, and maybe you’ve flirted with the idea, or maybe you’ve been reluctant to explore further, but this is the one. First, it’s a classic and even nostalgic epic fantasy that we recognize from the glory days of the 1980s and 90s, but trust me in this, it has modern sensibility. I know that this is the second book in the trilogy and I was a bit mixed when I met the first book, but this one builds on the first book so well that those previous problems go away. It grows, it improves, it actually makes its world a better place….well we hope it will. But I’m sure it will because this book is just perfect.

So, here is The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley – I just know you’re going to love it.

As mentioned above, I reviewed the first book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series, The Emperor’s Blades and found it a bit mixed. In the end I enjoyed the book very much because of just how compelling the book is, how much fun it is to read. I had a few qualms about the worldbuilding (mostly me being picky), an issue with a female character not getting the screen time she deserves (and that we were promised), and what bothered me most was that this appeared to be yet another book about restoring the status quo in epic fantasy without any move toward actual progress in the world.

Staveley must have laughed at my review, knowing what he was going to do in The Providence of Fire.

It’s the second book of the series – and as proper, worldbuilding takes a back seat to the story and continued character development. And when it’s needed, Staveley deftly weaves into the rest of the story. Picky problem I had with book 1 neatly goes away.

This is Adare’s book in many ways. The Emperor’s Blades was mostly about the brothers, but in The Providence of Fire Adare comes to life. The brothers are there, and I’m guessing there’s pretty equal time, but Adare isn’t left behind in this. The book still has too few female characters overall, but those that are there are the real deal. Issue 2 I had with book 1 shows great improvement.

One of the biggest and least recognized problems with ‘traditional’ epic fantasy is that it is inherently conservative – it fights for maintaining the status quo, or a return to the past, and it’s often some form of governance that is tyranny by another name and keeps peoples firmly in their ‘place’. The Emperor’s Blades is presented as another version of this epic fantasy – the heirs to an empire fight to keep the empire intact. The Providence of Fire throws a wrench into the machine – a giant wrench, a hugely progressive idea. Where will it go…it’s too soon to say after book 2. But I love that The Providence of Fire isn’t fighting for the status quo of epic fantasy.

All of that great improvement I point to above is almost secondary, because, what The Providence of Fire does best, and better than just about any other epic fantasy book that comes to mind as I write this, is keep the reader guessing. The Providence of Fire plays coy, amps up the mystery as it slowly seduces the reader. It is irresistible.

This is the second book in a trilogy, and I still can’t say with any certainty who is the bad guy/gal. I don’t know – there are too many layers of possibility. And this is not a structural problem of the book – it’s as compelling as ever. In fact, it’s what really makes things stand out, because this may be a classic style epic fantasy about an empire in turmoil, barbarian invaders, court intrigue, ancient races, tyrannical sorcerers, meddling gods, and everything in between THAT DOESN’T HAVE A ‘BAD GUY’. This might be a case where everyone is a little (or more) bad and a little (or more) good with the ultimate challenge to find an ultimate balance that works for the world.

Or I could be completely off and there is a BIG BAD that the ‘good guys’ will defeat. That could work too (though former sounds so much cooler to me). It’s an amazing act of balance that has allowed Staveley to keep the reader completely guessing at such a relatively late stage in the trilogy without it destroying the credibility of the plot and the development of the characters.

So…..now that you’ve met The Providence of Fire, what do you think? Simply irresistible, am I right? Have fun together, remember me fondly and behave.

Pssttt…I also have my eye on The Last Mortal Bond and I’m not-so-secretly hoping it gets kinky.

Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne

The Emperor’s Blades (My Review, Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
The Providence of Fire (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
The Last Mortal Bond (Forthcoming: Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Blogger Interviews Blogger About Blogging

Every so often over the past (almost) 10 years of blogging, the view is reversed and I go for an interesting journey into the looking glass. What am I talking about? When a blogger interviews another blogger about blogging. Sometimes it's not even as boring as I imply it is - and I hope that's the case with this interview where 'S' of SCY-FY: The Blog of S.C. Flynn asks me a few questions. I offer some 'wisdom', make some jokes, and even follow my own advice to not take myself too seriously. Am I zen blogger, or just a crotchety old blogger? Choose for yourself.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it and thanks to Stuart for the fun interview!

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Mini-Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) was released to great fanfare and critical acclaim, which had been preceded by a good bit of buzz that began when the spectacular cover art and intriguing synopsis were released some months earlier. I was one of those who began looking forward to this book way before it was released. Then I heard the early buzz from early readers, though I waited until the book was released to read it, and I only got more excited. And of course I waited until a couple of months after I finished the book to finally write this review.

One result is that I have very little to say that hasn’t been said elsewhere (often much better than I could say it myself). First – the book is awesome, it easily lives up to the early buzz and critical acclaim. Second – this book has a wonderful, wonderful voice to it. The main protagonist, Karen Memery, brings life to this first person narration. It’s pulp fiction. It’s the weird west. And it’s beautifully told through the foul, honest mouth of a ‘seamstress’.

Come for the steampunk, weird west, alternate history, tale set in the low streets of a new city a lot like Seattle, featuring a classy bordello full of exquisitely interesting people as they dive into a murder-mystery and are aided by the real-life origin of the Lone Ranger and his fictional Native American sidekick. Stay for the addictively unique voice of Miss Memery, LGBTQ characters, romance, dirigibles, submarines, bio warfare, mind control gloves, and a sewing machine that doubles as mechanical armor. No worries – that doesn’t even cover it all, but it should give you a taste of just why you should run (not walk) and start reading this book right now.

Hyperbole aside (and the actual description is not hyperbole – it really is that cool), Bear gives voice to voices that are traditionally mute and go no further than ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’, etc. Subversive is a term that gets bandied about here. And as wonderful all that is – it’s the voice, Karen Memery’s voice that makes this book a great book. Miss Memery charms the reader, refills the bourbon, charms the reader some more, refills the bourbon again, and then she gets animated in her story as you continue to refill the bourbon between moments of laughter and anxious tension.  

Elizabeth Bear really is writing at the top of her game right now and getting long deserved recognition at just the right time. Few authors pull off such a varied bibliography half so well, and Karen Memory just may top it all (at least for the moment). Go ahead, jump on the steamwagon for this one – it’s a wild ride and one hell of a tale to hear told.

And now, I want to read this again. With a bourbon in hand.

Better make it a double.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Speculative Fiction 2014

So, it's my book day today, at least a book that is published today has me in it, which is just a bit weird when I still hold to the idea of not being a writer. Anyway, Speculative Fiction 2014, edited by  Renay Williams and Shaun Duke is out today (and published by The Book Smugglers). It features an all star mix of fannish writing that includes more than a few authors better known for their fiction. It's quite an honor to be able to (even tangentially) claim these contributors as my peers. 

Speculative Fiction 2014: The Year’s Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary (Amazon, Book Smugglers)

I'm particularly pleased to be in this book because I didn't submit anything for consideration. What this means is that someone read something I wrote here and thought it was so worthy that they submitted it for consideration. Or the editors themselves saw it. However it happened, I find that especially touching. It's pretty great to have others recognize what I write here as being worthwhile in some way - that recognition may not be the reason I blog, but it's certainly a nice touch. 

Anyway, I'm tempted to not spoil the book and force you to search out what my submission is, but my vanity is indeed getting the better of me, and you can find it at this link. I believe that review puts me in a bit of a 'critical minority opinion' regarding that book.

I suppose it's worth noting that I'm now 2/3 on the Speculative Fiction collection series. I was also in Speculative Fiction 2012 (Amazon) for this review. Hell, all this honor is almost enough to get me to post more than once a month. 

Anyway, it is an honor and it's also a great collection that I encourage you all to read. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mini-Review: Fool’s Errand by Robin Hobb

The books of Robin Hobb are some that have been sitting there on the shelf for a long time. I first read The Farseer Trilogy nearly 15 years ago and followed relatively quickly with The Liveship Traders Trilogy. I’ve always meant to read the books in The Tawny Man Trilogy, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened. And now, with Hobb returning to the story of Fitz in a new trilogy (The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy – first book Fool’s Assassin), and seeing people whose opinions I trust say how great that return is, I finally took the plunge with Fool’s Errand, the first book of The Tawny Man Trilogy.

So, what’s it like to return to the story of someone after a 15 year break? Well, when your reading ‘old-fashioned’, 1990’s/early 2000’s era fantasy, it works great. Fool’s Errand is quite long for the story that’s told – much of it is spent re-introducing the reader to Fitz and others, which is exactly what I needed. There are hints and remembrance of the Farseer books, and I vaguely remember what happened, but only in broad terms. So, the details don’t mean much, while providing me what I need to move on.

While I often avoid traditionally, BFF (big, fat fantasy) books, I can see a real value in the level of immersion that it provides. You really get to know Fitz, see what drives him, understand those motivations, and therefore, share in the journey – tragic or triumphant. This further impacted by the first-person narration that Hobb does so well.

As I read Fool’s Assassin, I felt a lot of nostalgia – this is in part driven to me searching my memory for books read 15 years ago, and in part because the style of Fool’s Errand feels like something from the past in comparison with so many of the books I read today. And it was like snuggling down into an especially comfortable bed and piling on those warm, soft blankets – it was pleasure.

Looking up, I see that this ‘review’ has rambled on about how I felt about reading the book, without much actual discussion of the book itself. Well, take it or leave it – most of you reading this review have probably read Fool’s Errand, or at least one book in The Farseer Trilogy. You are ‘the choir’. There’s a damn good chance that reading this review is your own form of nostalgia. Isn’t it great?

So, do I have you feeling all warm and fuzzy about a book that’s about an assassin coming out of retirement? Returning to the court that ‘executed’ him in spite of him saving the kingdom? As you remember The Farseer Trilogy, do you think this one is going to turn out well?

Warm and fuzzy.

The Farseer Trilogy
Assassin’s Apprentice (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Royal Assassin (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Assassin’s Quest (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

The Liveship Traders
Ship of Magic (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Ship of Destiny (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

The Tawney Man Trilogy
Fool’s Errand (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Fitz and the Fool Trilogy
Fool’s Assassin (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Over the past couple of years I've repeatedly heard the praise for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). That praise is basically summed up by some version of the following: if any of your formative years were spent in the 1980's and if you spent any time watching movies and playing video games, then this books is for you. Well, I did those things, so it should be for me, right?

YES! To repeat what I've seen one version or another – it’s like this book was written exactly for me. I did see all those movies, I watched those shows, I had that Atari game. And that one. I spent hours at the arcade plugging quarters into that machine. D&D.

This book was made for geek culture – particularly us geeks who spent time in the 1980's. It tells the story of a frightening, but all too likely future, that is if not dystopic, is the next thing to it. Only the stratification of that future, where there are haves and have-nots – the top is dominated by that geek who huddled in the corner, who had no life, who couldn't talk to girls. He went and took over the world – or perhaps, more correctly – re-created the world via virtual reality to suite himself. And then he made everyone like exactly the things he liked. Ready Player One works so well because it tells the story of that stereotypical nerdy underdog rising up and not just winning, but winning everything. It’s the story about the legacy of one such winner and the creation of another.

And it’s told almost entirely through references to the 1980's. TV shows, videogames, movies, computer games, D&D, etc. It’s very nearly perfect. It’s way fun. And it’s triumphant. Of course it’s going to be made into a movie directed by none other than Stephen Spielberg – how could it not be? The book isn't a journey, it’s a game, it’s a quest, it’s an Easter egg hunt. And everyone gets to play.

There’s only one issue I had with the book – an issue that fits in so well with a book rooted in geek culture of the 1980s. This is a dude book. The reality is that there is only one female character in this book, and she is completely defined as love interest number one. The geek goddess that the geek protagonist falls in love with. She serves no other purpose. It doesn’t matter that she’s, smart and capable (even ’badass’) – her purpose in this book is to serve the geek protagonist. This is an unfortunate reinforcement of so much of embedded misogyny of geek culture – one issue that geek culture is struggling so hard to get past now. Some will point to a spoilerific moment toward the end as a refutation of the above, but really, that changes very little in how ‘girls’ are framed in this book. Some may point to the final pages of the book to say ‘look, see, it’s OK dude’, but I’m sorry, the climax of geek’s wet dream doesn't fix anything. Essays could be written, but this review isn’t the place, and I lack the pedigree to pull it off as it should be.

Could Ready Player One both be the book that it is and deal with this issue respectfully and intelligently? I have to think the answer is yes. If geek culture is going to get passed these issues, then authors really need to step up to the challenge of making it so – and really, it’s often not such a great challenge at all.

But, as I said, this is a dude book, and I’m a dude. It was written for me. In more than a few ways, it was written about me. And yes, even considering that little big issue I mention above (of which I have my fair share of culpability for in my own time), I loved every fucking minute of Ready Player One. This is one of those books that kept me up late reading, it stayed with me after I stopped reading, it had me truly excited to read in a way that so few books can achieve.

In retrospect it’s damn near depressing how a book that is so rooted in a flavor of pop culture could affect me so strongly. Again, essays could be written about this. It’s Meta, maybe intentional, maybe not, but Ready Player One is paradox in what it rebels against as it embraces just that. Perhaps that’s THE paradox of geek culture itself. Which I suppose makes all the more appropriate in Ready Player One.

But in the end, I can only repeat what I said above…

I loved every fucking minute of Ready Player One!

Friday, April 03, 2015

Review: Wisp of a Thing by Alex Bledsoe

I find that some of the books I enjoy most are basically a form of modern mythic – sometimes this is called mythic fiction, and what feels like a long-lost time ago, many of these books were considered urban fantasy. However you choose to define them, these are books that are set in a modern(ish) world and contain a deep connection to some mythic past, often through or including nature, though not necessarily so, often through some form of spirit or mythic race, and music often plays a very important role. The books of Charles de Lint immediately come across like this and other names like Robert Holdstock fit just as easily. And now I’ve found another name to add to this list – Alex Bledsoe and his Tufa novels. Two are currently available, The Hum and Shiver and Wisp of a Thing, with a forthcoming book titled Long Black Curl.

The Tufa are a people in small area in Appalachia that have a mysterious past and deep connection to music and the land they live on – they mistrust outsiders and many rumors swirl about them – often dark, tragic rumors that are only whispered.

When I first came across the description of these books – something like that paraphrased discussion above – I knew these books were for me. I had the second, Wisp of a Thing and was very hesitant to jump in – once I was informed that while related, each book stands on its own, I could no longer resist the call and plunged into the deep, old forests of Appalachia and the Tufa.

I’ve often wondered why these mythic books appeal so much to me and I believe it begins with my love of the outdoors. But it’s way more than that, because these mythic books can succeed without ever stepping out of the concrete jungle of a city. I think it must be the combination of what is often a love and respect for the world that is beyond what is found in modern life, with a deep connection to the past in combination with an otherworld-ness that feels just out of reach. It’s that ‘irrational’ fear of that dark place, the ‘unnatural’ feeling of an old forest at night, the unexplainable connection of hugging a tree, the transcendence of music.

When stories achieve this place, they lose that common focus of an external goal – be it a quest, or vengeance, or whatever. It becomes a journey internal to those who experience it. The pace slows and the story takes over like a song while escape is an unwanted dream.

Wisp of a Thing does all of these. There is a deep, personal journey, not a hero’s journey, not one where the end is known, but a journey none-the-less. The old world music of Appalachia plays a big part, along with weathered epitaphs in lost, overgrown cemeteries. It’s tragic and hopeful. Love is lost and found. Old wrongs are righted. Blood runs deep.  

I loved Wisp of a Thing – now I crave a journey into the mountains of Appalachia, a hike down my favorite trail to visit that giant old-growth Ponderosa Pine, to look out over the beauty of the land around and listen to the music of the wind. For whatever reason, my love of mythic fiction doesn’t end, but it does fade to the back only to seemingly leap up out of nowhere. Through Bledsoe and the Tufa, I now have another ever-present beginning of a journey waiting for me. I will be back again…and again…and again…

The Hum and Shiver (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Wisp of a Thing (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Long Black Curl (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

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