Friday, July 29, 2011

The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

I have once more funded a "free" sf item, in the public interest--now that I am finished with the 2010 award nominees, they can go to the library.  The last is one I was particularly looking forward to--The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.

In my last post I stated that Africa has a relative shortage of speculative fiction on it.  But Turkey--damn near none.  I had a great time reading this novel, perhaps the most pleasurable part being rolling the place names around in my head.  McDonald offers a brief pronunciation guide at the beginning, and as I went through the book it became a real pleasure to be able to properly pronounce names like Sarioglu (though the accent marks are not possible here). 

The story is set in near-future Istanbul.  Near-future work is always a real challenge--one is either not speculative enough and it reads like yesterday's news, or completely wrong.  Istanbul's age grounds the speculation, though, and gives it a very full and real backdrop.  Nanotechnology as a mental aid forms a solid backdrop for the story, and a tech start-up tale (one of five well-managed narrative threads) makes it geeky enough to hold interest while McDonald develops all the characters those threads require.  The characters don't make you cry or anything, but they are very genuine and insightful.  I learned a lot about Turkey and people generally.  The book is not an easy read, you have to keep paying attention, but it rolls along well and picks up at the end just as it should.  If you missed out on this one, go back and get it.  4 stars!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

I have again reached into the ol' wallet and found a used copy of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.  I had planned to donate this to the library, but the Amazon vendor sold me a page proof copy.  Not real cool, but that's for the Amazon review later.

For now, I enjoyed the book.  Many ethnic mythologies have been done to death in fantasy (Celtic, early Britain) but Africa has a long way to go.  This one is based in some future/alternate Sudan, where dark Okeke and light Nuru live as slave and master.  But of course there is much more to it.  Sorcery is a major force in people's lives, but sorcerers are very dangerous and no one would envy one.  The protagonist, Onyesonwu, is Ewu, a child of rape and thus shunned (a real practice in Sudan, the afterword says).  Her mother wishes sorcery upon her, and from there she is destined to change all.

The novel isn't furiously gripping, even though the imagery and situations are often pretty ugly.  Mostly one can detach from it.  Okorafor's descriptions of magic and how one invokes it are unique and interesting, though, and the characters are refreshing and lively even in their sadness and desperation.  The feel of the African desert is clear throughout.  If you want a good unique read, this would be one for you.  Hopefully your library has it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Feed, by Mira Grant

This week I reached into my wallet and bought a used copy of Feed, by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire), first in a trilogy.  Time to give back.  And overall I am not sorry.  Feed was a fairly good feed for the action itch.  This is basically a YA novel, though it does have enough development of the zombie virus (that's how they become zombies in this book) to count as semi-hard SF.  The rest of the speculation--is not very speculative.  It's 2039, and there have been zombies since 2014.  Bloggers are closing in on traditional media (yep, happened already, as was said in the Afterwords) and we figure the traditional media to be in bed with the powers that be anyway (check, again).  But as suspense, the novel works fine.  Grant builds the story effectively, and has that martyr-cynical voice down very well, so it is convincing.  The plot carries along at a good but not hectic pace.  The ending is telegraphed, but somewhat deliberately so it isn't disappointing. 

Grant has bloggers in her story getting government-issued licenses and breaking down into classifications (Newsies , Fictionals , and Irwins ).  Irwins?  Really?  And SF writers do seem to be attracted to having people put labels on themselves, for whatever reason.  I hadn't seen that trope in awhile and it was something of a flashback.

So read this one for the strong and direct plot, and good execution.  The speculation, not so much.  It got nominated for the Hugo in 2011--one normally expects more ambition in awards--but you gotta round out the category, and the thirty-third installation in a shared universe won't cut it.  3 stars.