Friday, May 19, 2017

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

I have not heard of Yoon Ha Lee, but plenty of people have.  The basis of his SF is math, and he is now devoting most of his time to the Machineries of Empire universe, of which Ninefox Gambit is the first full length novel.

The technology here is the calendar--the regulation of life by holidays and appointment.  The calendar can be used as a weapon, and rebels against it make use of those properties as well.  It's a sort of magic, though never discussed as such here.

There's lots of action and intrigue, and much to enjoy.  Yoon Ha Lee has plenty of fans.  But I have to say I found the book hard to read, and it never really took off for me.  It could be a lack of familiarity with the cultural context--it is apparent that Lee is making different assumptions from what Westerners would.  Still, I spent a lot of my time reading this book confused.  I don't think that's how action novels are supposed to work. 

I guess this reminds me of Aliette De Bodard's work--confusing when it should be transparent.  It still sort of works, but I can't say I favor it for an award.  A weak 3 stars from me.

Monday, May 8, 2017

This Census-Taker, by China Mieville

This Census-Taker is my first read for the Hugo Awards this year.  The Hugos are a clean enough list this time that Free SF Online is listing them again.  The book is up for a novella award.

Mieville is inconsistent, which drives fans nuts in some ways.  The City and the City was one of the most brilliant social speculative fiction books I have ever read.  He is incredibly daring in the topics he takes on, and his style is unique.

But sometimes he just misses, and gets published anyway.  This is one of those time.  This Census-Taker is set in a place with a recent chaotic past, where there is some technology but it's not all tied together.  I thought of somewhere like Croatia when I read it.  The protagonist is a young boy in a family that seems schizophrenic in a very detached sort of way.  The father is definitely mentally ill.  Neither mother nor father seem comfortable at all with the rest of their town, or the world.  The father has a talent for making "keys" that make wishes come true in a limited way, thus the speculative element.  He also has a thing for killing small animals.  The book opens as the narrator, as an adult, describes himself running into town shouting about his father killing his mother.

The perspective of the book is supposedly adult, as I said--the narrator refers to himself living in another country, writing in a different language.  But the point of view of the book never seems to depart from that of the boy.  A series of sad events are described in the limited perspective of a seven year old, and aren't really informed by the adult perspective of the narrator.  It just kind of ploughs along.  I kept waiting for the action, or resolution, or something to start.  It eventually does resolve, but you feel like it never really got started.

So I'm not real sure why it was nominated for a Hugo, beyond name value, and I can't really recommend it.  Two stars for me.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Borderline, by Mishell Baker

Continuing my reading of Nebula award nominees for this year, I read Borderline by Mishell Baker.  The basic theme of the book is that an agency exists (the Arcadia Project) that serves as a contact point between the world of Fairy and our world.  Now, this theme has been done more times than I can count--Charles Stross' Laundry series, Jasper Fforde, Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, and more YA series than you can shake a stick at--but it's a trope that keeps on giving. And this book has a lot to offer as an entry in the category.

The Arcadia Project uses the mentally damaged as its agents.  Our protagonist, Millie, suffers from Borderline personality disorder that has driven her to attempt suicide.  The attempt cost her parts of both legs.  We get detailed expositions of life inside a BPD person's head, and dealing with prosthetics ("every amputation's unique, you learn to do what works).

She and a crew of multiple personality, paranoid, psychopathic and dissociative agents investigate the disappearance of Fey visiting our world.  The worlds have much to lend each other--Fey value our social structure and organization, we value their creativity.  Highly creative people tend to have Echoes in Arcadia--Fey who are attuned to their person and can lend them creative vision.  The details are lots of fun.

The mystery and personality disorder elements are well woven together.  Millie is the only truly detailed character, but we get a strong supporting cast.  Her 19 year old boss Caryl is also well done.

This one is going to be hard to beat as a book to simply enjoy.  I can highly recommend it for a good, juicy read.  I had a hard time putting it down, and I have much experience with putting down good books.  I give it four stars.  Go get it now.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson

A Taste of Honey is Kai Ashante Wilson's second story set in his Sorcerer of the Wildeeps universe.  Goodreads readers rate it as a better book than the first, and I tend to agree.  It's a much richer story.

It starts out as a sort of straight up gay romance.  We have a powerful, masculine warrior seducing an effeminate, closeted boy of royal blood.  But as we go along the story gets more complex.  Aqib, the effete prince, is physically weak but discovers a power in his voice--his words have influence.  He moves on from this early affair to marry and sire a daughter of great power.  He matures into a man of wisdom, strongly supportive of his wife and daughter "witches".  We see hints of how the "magic" is based in very advanced science and literacy, which here is viewed as "women's work". 

The story of the initial seduction and the prince's subsequent life are interwoven, and contrast well.  The writing is beautiful, just like the first book, but with more variety so it's even more interesting to read.  I think this one will be a strong contender in the Nebula novella category this year, and I give it 4 stars.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Runtime, by S. B. Divya

Runtime is the next to last of the Nebula Novella nominees I will read this year, unless they make John P. Murphy's "The Liar" available for free somewhere.  It's a fairly straightforward YA level competition story in the mid-future range.  Our protagonist is Marmeg, born "unlicensed" but later purchased, who is trying to get by on hacking while she arranges for a college degree in a (somewhat) robot proof area--elder care.  But she dreams of professional racing, specifically physically augmented off-road running.  She sets her sights on the Sierra Madre Minerva race, where placing would set her up financially.  She's up against much more sophisticated competitors though, so her odds are long.

This one is really different from any others I've read, or probably will read, this year.  The language is very plain and the description sparce.  It's very straight up reporting, even though it's told in the first person so we know what Marmeg (Mary Margaret) is thinking.  Smart termaexoskeletons that are reprogrammable are pretty much current day.  But there's some forward social thinking, particularly in the way she comfortably handles how the future will refer to transgender people.  She thinks discussion of income inequality and immigration will remain current 30 years from now, and I think she's right.

The best part for me is how real her characters end up being, even though they are described in very simple terms.   Marmeg gets both good and bad breaks, people are both devious and generous, all in a very realistic way.  There's tremendous potential here, because Divya has real talent for how to construct a story.

I highly recommend reading this story, it's simple but an eye opener.  4 stars for flashes of brilliance, from me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Art of Space Travel, by Nina Allen

The Art of Space Travel is my first read in the Novelette category for the Hugo awards this year.  They don't look too gamey, only two Sad Puppy nominees that I can definitely pick out.  Most of them look pretty good.

This one is the story of the head of housekeeping for a Heathrow hotel, one where the astronauts for a one-way mission to Mars in 2047 are staying.  It's a position she has settled for after trying to follow in her mother, "Moolie"s footsteps.  Moolie (not her real name) was a metallurgist, and is now suffering from dementia.

Moolie was working on the previous Mars mission, the New Dawn, that ended in tragedy in 2017.  She had her daughter during that time, but has told her daughter she doesn't know who her father is.

The story is very insightful, you really get to know the protagonist and the other characters.  The mission is very much a part of the story, which could pretty much be happening today.  The ending is just a little off, maybe could be a few paragraphs shorter, which takes it from 4 stars to 3 for me.   But still a very good read.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson

I have enjoyed reading Kai Ashante Wilson's works before, and very much enjoyed this one.  What stood out for me was it's very conscious literary beauty.

Our protagonist is Demane, a distant descendant of the gods, who still has quite a lot more going for him than the average person.  He is in love with another of his kind, Isa, the Captain of the mercenary band that will guard a trading caravan going through the Wildeeps.  They shepherd a band of brothers that have bonded deeply through their life and combat together.  The focus of the story and the beautiful prose is those relationships, though there's plenty of action, particularly at the end.

The book manages to strongly celebrate gay relationships, including the sexuality, without getting explicit.  Also, Wilson attempts to ground the magic in science, though it comes of pseudoscientific in places. 

This is a catch up item for me, the second in the series, "A Taste of Honey", is nominated in the Novella category this year.  We'll see how this holds up.  I give this one a strong three stars.