Tuesday, December 29, 2015

S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

I was looking for something to read around the house and found a book my wife bought, but did not read.  I guess that's not free by any stretch of the imagination.  It's also not speculative fiction.  The main credited author, J. J. Abrams, is a speculative fiction director so that's as close as this comes to being SF.  And while I think libraries have probably purchased this book, part of its "thing" is that it has a lot of loose inserts.  Don't think it would survive one reading in a public library. Not even available in Kindle form--though I think you could almost pull it off.

There is a consistent way in which this book is not what it seems.  Let's start with a "meta" element--the authorship.  J. J. Abrams "conceived" S., but Doug Dorst seems to have done most of the writing.  It's a very elaborate project, including a website (eotvoswheel.com) with more "source" material. The presentation of the book itself is a tribute to the printed volume (see above).  The real story is in the margins, handwritten.  Physically it's an impressive product.

So how is it as a reading experience?  Well, interesting--the setup here is that you have a volume stolen from a school library and heavily annotated by a devotee of the author.  This author supposedly has a set of literary scholars interested in him, as his life was quite mysterious.  There's an in-joke here, in that the book itself is a kind of turgid adventure/philosophy novel--critics would study it but it's not popular.  And you get the idea that these scholars were maybe wasting their energy.  But the story in the margins is quite lively--a love story with intrigue and implied danger.

The format makes the book a very long read. You have the main story, which you really can't just skip since the annotators are using passages to make points.  And the margin story is nonlinear, which makes one slow down and sometimes reread.  I was intrigued for awhile and stayed with it, but found myself getting tired about halfway through.

In the end, it's an OK story wrapped around a bad novel.  The badness of the novel is intentional, the OKness of the story perhaps not as much.  Really it's about the production, an homage to print.  This is how we know the bound volume will never go away, even for simpler books. 

In the end, I give this four stars.  Three for the book, and another one for the production.  It's a beautiful thing.  Some books are worth owning, even for a biblio scrounge like me.   

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling is first in a series--it's been reviewed in Entertainment Weekly (actually the review is for the second one, but they do say to go read the first) and gets a comparison to The Hunger Games, though it is backhanded.

I think this book is better off if the comparison is not made.  It's a solid fantasy novel featuring a strong female lead--the audience clearly is the same as The Hunger Games.  Otherwise, it's more of a good fun read than a message piece.  It makes an interesting contrast with one of this year's multiple award nominees, The Goblin Emperor.  Both feature young protagonists living in exile, then thrust into leadership and danger unprepared.  But The Goblin Emperor's empire is a relatively peaceful and prosperous realm, while The Tearling is a deeply troubled kingdom in need of a savior.  The Goblin Emperor ends up to be the more unusual of the stories, though I would say both are very well written.

The Queen of the Tearling pushes a lot of YA teen girl buttons--concern over physical appearance, a kingdom in danger, a dashing and dangerous romantic interest, and untapped inner strength.  They're all done very well, with good pacing and plenty of action.  It was a fun book, I can easily give it 3 stars and recommend it.  

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurdly Hypothetical Questions

The core of almost all hard science fiction is to start with a premise that is not currently, or ever, possible (what if we could travel faster than light?  Fly at will?  Visualize the Internet in our heads?), but to then keep the rest of scientific knowledge the same and speculate about what happens in a story.

By this definition, Randall Munroe's What If? is very close to science fiction.  All it is lacking is the story.  It should be required reading for anyone considering writing science fiction, since it's basically a book of premises.  But I don't really think I would have to tell an SF writer that, I'm quite sure they have all read it by now. 

If you are at all interested in science and are reading this, you have heard of xkcd. Munroe has been drawing this comic for many years, starting as a NASA engineer.  He has made enough fame and fortune off this work to kick the NASA gig and write full time.  In What If?, he takes his readers' most elaborate and interesting hypothetical questions and tries to answer them with as much accurate science as possible.  He is thoroughly and amazingly successful at this--it's clever and interesting all the way through.  It's written in short chapters so you can consume it in little bites, and this is actually a pretty good way to read it.  I've been reading bits and pieces off and on for several months.

Munroe has a clean, clear, humorous writing style that will last forever.  If he wrote a novel, it would read a lot like Andy Weir's The Martian, for similar reasons--they are both engineers that obsess over the facts and just relate them straight out.  Maybe Munroe will try it sometime.  I loved it and give it my most utterly rare 5 star review as required reading.  If for some reason you have procrastinated, go get it now.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

I consider Neal Stephenson to be one of the modern Grandmasters of science fiction, right up there with David Brin, Greg Bear, or William Gibson.  I have not, however, obsessively read everything he's written, as I did with earlier Grandmasters (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke).  For one thing, I'm a grownup now and don't have the time I once did.  Also I have branched out quite a bit in my reading, and have come to concede that even Grandmasters do not create all their works equally.  I could not manage to get into The Baroque Cycle and put it down after Volume 1.  But I got Seveneves as a gift and looked forward to reading it.

And am really glad I did.  This is throwback SF in the best possible way--informed socially by the present, and packed with fascinating descriptions of ideas for what's coming in the future.

We start out with a bang as something that comes to be known as the Agent rams through the Moon and breaks it up into seven big pieces.  Pretty shocking stuff, but it looks like life will go on, until scientists start crunching the numbers and figure out that life won't, in fact, go on.  The Moon will continue to break up into smaller pieces, and those pieces will come down on the Earth in a five thousand year firestorm.

Stephenson plays out the story in Grandmasterly fashion from there, telling a compelling story of humanity's efforts to allow at least a few to survive.  The focus is on setting up a space colony.  That colony barely squeaks by, but get by it does, and eventually builds a thriving society that prepares to resettle earth.

There are several well-done characters in this book, but in truth it stands out as a work of ideas.  We have the survivors deciding to divide the human race into seven different races, for the most part cooperating but with some deep divides.  Lots of orbital mechanics and physics along the way.  The story is a great one for geeks and keeps you wanting more all the way through.

Stephenson is good with different literary voices.  Cryptonomicon (a follow-on to the Baroque Cycle, but written first--a post-quel?) is very geeky but businesslike, and The Baroque Cycle somewhat flowery, as one would expect.  Snow Crash (his breakout) is very Cyberpunky.  For Seveneves, he chose--dry.  Not as dry as Jack McDevitt, but dry nonetheless.  I wondered why, as he doesn't have to write that way, and have not sorted it out.  Most of the characters are scientists, maybe he's trying to be true to their type?  The bartender departs from this with somewhat--dry--humor.

Also, the book jacket kind of has spoilers in it.  It gives away that humanity really does survive, which was in suspense for awhile.

All in all, it's a terrific book and you should go read it if you haven't.  I  give it 4 stars.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Peripheral, by William Gibson

William Gibson occupies a pretty amazing space in speculative fiction, for the genre as a whole and for me personally.  I ate up the Sprawl Trilogy, as pretty much anyone reading SF at the time did.  He took us to a completely different world than we were used to, but one more thoroughly plausible than space travel novels.  The early Cyberpunks well understood that with the birth of the Internet we were finally going to let go of the notion that our future was off planet--inner space was going to become much more fascinating than outer space.  Gibson established his thick descriptive style and clipped dialog in the Sprawl, and it really worked for that setting.

I've read several of his novels since then, the most recent one being Pattern Recognition.  He seemed to get away from his older style of dialog there, but it was a pretty good book (from back before I was reviewing, and I don't think I'll go back to do one).  But it wasn't good enough that I went out to pursue the other two in the series.

Fast forward to 2014, and I receive The Peripheral as a gift.  I let it age on my to-read list for awhile, as I am wont to do, and finally got around to reading it. 

And I'm a little sad.  It's not a terrible book, but it's kind of a poor reflection of the early groundbreaking work.

Gibson's plot driving speculation is a mysterious "server" that sets up a connection between the present and some point in the past.  This "server" is somehow to be thought of as not just "a magic spell" by being Chinese.  Once the server establishes that connection, information can be exchanged between the present and that past.  Once the connection is established, though, that past is altered and no longer leads to the present.  The few people who survived a devastating depopulation event (the "jackpot") include some who have become very interested in these "continua" as hobbies.

The characters in the book are very much types, as opposed to people.  The protagonist is an Ingenue.  Her brother and his friends are Wounded Warriors.  We have a Drunk, an Agent, and some dissolute wealthy Villains.  The chapters alternate between the present and the now-altered past.

Gibson does differentiate the voices--the past people all speak in the same clipped way the people in the Sprawl do--the eras seem related.  The future people are wealthy and refined, and speak in complete sentences.  Within that, it's kind of hard to tell who's talking, particularly for those in the past.

It takes awhile for the action to get going, but it does.  The climax is good fun but awfully brief.  I don't know.  It just seems forced.  Hopefully he can get it going again, but we'll see.  Two stars for this one.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

My Real Children wraps up my World Fantasy Award reading, and award books generally, for this year.  I very much enjoyed Among Others from 2012 and was looking forward to this one.  Overall I'd say it was a nice read, but not a super standout.

The basic premise of the book is that P. A. Cowan (known by Pat or Patty or Tricia or Trish) has led two parallel lives, and at the end of her life is aware of both.  It's one life up to the point where she decides to marry or not marry Mark, and splits at that point.  Both lives seem very solid and real, and at the end she is in one or the other life pretty much on alternate days.  Most of the book is the stories of these parallel lives, one unhappy but eventually fulfilling in an ordinary way, and one quite happy and perhaps more fulfilling.  The world around her, though, is much better off in the world where she is less happy.

And as I said, the book is mostly spent relating details of these two lives.  We care about the protagonist, but not in any profound way.  Jo Walton is an accomplished writer so the book was easy and entertaining to read, but that's what you'll get here--no real stretch.

Give it 3 ordinary stars from me.

As for a world fantasy award favorite--I have not changed my mind about The Bone Clocks, it is still by far the best.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks is the next World Fantasy Award nominee I've read, and to say it's my favorite is at this point too faint praise.  David Mitchell is more famous at this point for Cloud Atlas,  so at some point I'd like to read that too--but for now, savoring this one is just fine.

Like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is an interconnected set of stories that spans many years.  This seems to be Mitchell's main claim to fame--that he can pull so many threads together.  I find it ambitious but not that unusual.  And the speculative element of the book--dueling secret societies of immortals, with the afterlife explained--is somewhat conventional.

What's special about the book is how strong each section of the story is.  They all develop interesting and complex characters.  Both heroes and villains are (mostly) three-dimensional characters with multiple motivations.  They are not easy on themselves.  The spacing in time gives the story-made-of-stories a natural depth.

I don't want to summarize the plot here because it's fairly simple and a summary would give too much away.  So I'll just highly recommend the book for the way the characters bring out the best in the plot.  Four stars from me.

Monday, September 7, 2015

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Looks like the World Fantasy Award is going to have the really interesting books this year.  City of Stairs was my next read on this list, and it's a very good one.

City of Stairs' surface plot is a murder mystery, set in a world where the gods are very present.  They are pretty much high-powered versions of humans (the truth of this slowly unfolds throughout the book).  For a thousand years they played favorites with the Continent, leaving the rest of the world in their shadow.  Then the Saypuris, slaves to the Continent, received one last humiliation they could not tolerate.  Their Kaj found a way to kill the gods, and the ragtag Saypuris turned the tables on the Continentals.

Seventy-five years later the Saypuris are trying to maintain control of this firekeg.  The gods are gone, but their miracles and the damage from the struggles as they passed are still all over the Continent and its most prominent city, Bulikov.  The protagonist, Shara Komayd, comes in to investigate the mystery of the murder of a prominent Saypuri scholar.

Bennett has a lot of interesting things to say about the relationship between the human and the Divine.  They are not new things, at least not to me, but they are true and powerful nonetheless, and this is a pretty good introduction.  They aren't highbrow things, either--this is a novel of action, not a theology exposition.  Shara and her powerful secretary, Sigrud, make a good superhero team.  Much gets torn up and blown up along the way to the explanations. 

This is the first of a series, The Divine Cities, and I am finding it reminds me of N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy (Example here) in that the gods are very present and accessible to at least some of the people, and have apparent limitations.  Maybe what we have here is an interest in how highly powerful beings discharge their responsibilities? Sounds reasonable to me.  Kings, gods, the fabulously wealthy, the once humble but suddenly empowered--in some way it's a central narrative, that burden, potentially terrifying, of being able to actually do something to save everything,

Highly entertaining, I give this one four stars.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Acceptance, by Jeff Vandermeer

Acceptance concludes Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy, and does a good job of it.  Though I wouldn't say "concludes", rather "rides off into the sunset".  This volume rotates between four points of view--Control (current Southern Reach directory), Gloria the previous director (who, it turns out, lived in Area X as a child), Saul Evans the lighthouse keeper, and Ghost Bird, who is and is not the biologist from the last expedition.  At the end of the previous volume Area X had expanded catastrophically, and desperation is in the air.  Control and Ghost Bird have gone into Area X and are exploring.

The book brings out the story of each character while moving things forward.  At the heart, there is no comprehending Area X--might be magic, might be an alien life form beyond our understanding (a favored theory), but none of the speculations seem to bring any sort of enlightenment.  So the story proceeds with a sort of melancholy horror, a simple sadness.  There are signs of resistance within Area X, and Control and Ghost Bird find familiar faces.  But resistance appears to be futile.

This is a sort of existential horror/supernatural story, so if you like Camus or maybe semiotics (Vandermeer credits it for inspiration) then you'll fully enjoy this book.  Otherwise it's mostly about the writing.  Vandermeer is a master of describing the points of energy within a rotting system (rotting, as opposed to breaking or otherwise failing).  If the second two books in the series had not  been nominated for the World Fantasy Award I might not have picked them up, but in the end am not sorry I did.  3 stars from me.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Authority, by Jeff Vandermeer

Authority is the second book in the Southern Reach trilogy, and I'm reading it as part of the World Fantasy Awards for this year.  Usually second books are kind of the weak point in a trilogy, but I would say this is not the case here.  I liked this one better.

The first book, Annihilation, seemed pretty simply a horror story, told from one character's perspective and a dry character at that.  The second book introduces John Rodriguez, aka Control (apparently a childhood nickname) as the successor to the previous director of the Southern Reach.  This is something of a rehab assignment--Control has screwed up some previous ones, sometimes badly.  He is a secret agent in a line of secret agents, and has been saved for this by his mother.  Now he is thrown into the insane mess that is the Southern Reach's study of Area X.  Even a high talent would be hard pressed to succeed, but he gives it a try. 

And of course things get weirder and weirder, but I'll leave you to read about that part.  My own opinion here is that Control struggles for control, as it were, because he is a bit too human to be a good agent.  He recognizes his limitations.  He loves his cat, which is a soft spot for me.  He tries to be detached, as good agents seem to need to be, but it doesn't help him enough.  He is utterly in over his head as he tries to get information out of the biologist from the last expedition.

I give this one a solid 3 stars and look forward to the last one.  It's not the greatest thing I've ever read, but he has the weird factor going well.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Where the Trains Turn, by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

Where the Trains Turn is my first and last novella read strictly for the World Fantasy Award.  And it's a pretty good one--the story was originally written in Finnish and has that very different sensibility one gets from authors from places that don't normally get attention.  The trope, however, is standard enough--trains going off the rails to do their own thing--that I am thinking I've seen it before.

Our protagonist is the mother of a very imaginative boy, imaginative enough that it seems it might harm him.  The mother tries various tactics to save him from the fate of this overactive inner life, and seems to succeed.  But there are cracks--the boy spends significant time with his father (he and the mother are divorced) and picks up a somewhat supernatural love of trains from him.

The story unfolds somewhat predictably, up until the ending which is a very good twist so I won't spoil it for you.  For that ending I make it a strong contender for the award, though I also like The Devil In America.  Go for it as an entertaining read for a couple of hours.  3 stars.

Friday, July 31, 2015

I Can See Right Through You, by Kelly Link

I've reviewed many Kelly Link stories since I started reading the award winners--she's a real stalwart here, it would be an unusual year for her not to have one.  This year her entry for the World Fantasy Award is I Can See Right Through You, appearing in McSweeney's Internet Tendency. 

Link specializes in slice-of-life stories.  This is the story of the demon lover, who is described in semi-fantastic ways but is really a typecast vampire movie actor (really could be one of the Twilight  cast, several years down the road).  He's made a mint, had many marriages and flings, and behaved badly in various ways.  He's even had an internet shaming involving a sex tape.  But he's really only had one true love, his early costar Meggie.

The story is light and fun to read, all the way through.  It's an accomplished piece by an accomplished writer.  I give it 3 stars.

And that covers the short stories for the World Fantasy Award.  I can only get at 3 of the 5 stories--Jackalope Wives, The Fisher Queen, and this one.  Of the three, I would say this one is the most deserving of the award.  We shall see.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the last of the Nebula nominated novels I am reading this year, and the first of the World Fantasy Award nominees.  Vandermeer also wrote Finch, which was nominated for an award for 2009. 

What they have in common is a fascination with fungus.  Finch features fungal aliens wielding fungus tech, something I had not seen before.  Annihilation is more straightforward horror--fungus is always a good supporting cast member in a horror story.  I would also say that Annihilation is a more accessible book than his earlier work.

Annihilation is the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy.  The stage is set here for a fungal alien invasion--the Southern Reach is a governmental organization trying to cope with the issue of Area X, a place where civilization has been pushed out and some highly strange things are going on.  A series of expeditions has been sent in to try to understand the place, with mixed success.  The first expedition reported a preserved, beautiful wilderness.  Subsequent ones ended with the deaths of all the members.  The last expedition returned one by one without explanation.  Now an expedition of women has been sent in.

The story is told from the perspective of the expedition's biologist.  The specifics of the story are not so relevant here--this volume is mostly about setting up the rest of the series.

Only this volume was nominated for a Nebula, and if not for the World Fantasy Award I probably would not pursue it further.  But all three books in the series were released in 2014, and the World Fantasy Award nominated the whole set.  So I'll pursue the rest of the series.  This one gets a weak three stars--I can't critique it too specifically, it just didn't really grab me.  However, the descriptions of the next books are promising.  We shall see.

Which novel do I like for the Nebula this year?  In general, I don't think it was a great year for Nebula novels--the novellas were much better.  I would say Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword is worthy of the nod.   It's a fine piece of writing.  I'm thinking the next volume will get award nods too.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor is the fifth Nebula nominated novel I'm reading this year.  Katherine Addison is a pseudonym for Sarah Monette, a prolific author but one I do not remember reading without looking it up. 

The book itself is billed as a court intrigue novel, and that it is.  Pretty much all it is.  But perhaps some expectation setting is in order.  Let's compare this with the Song of Ice and Fire series, though this one is not nearly so ambitious...

In Westeros, the rulers seem to pretty much have no rules, and blood runs freely.  The weak and even not so weak get knocked off in gruesome fashion.  The magic is rare but grandiose--there are dragons. 

By contrast, Ethuveraz is a quiet country. The world is peopled with elves and goblins (the latter from Barzhin) but this is pretty much a cover--a way to talk about races with only as much of the freighting of black and white (goblins are black, elves white) as the author wishes.  Worst case scenarios run to banishment--while there are scenes of violence and attempts on the protagonist's life, they just don't seem serious.  While the central episode of the book is the assassination of the emperor and all his family but one--our protagonist Maia, banished at birth from the court--the blood and gore do not resonate in everyday life.  Magic is present but just barely.

This is a tale of court intrigue in something close to the Great Britain of the 19th century.  The technology is positioned there, with the inexplicable exception that airships have been invented but cars have not.  Our protagonist is thrust totally unprepared into the emperor role, and spends most of the book regretting what he does not know.  He is despised by many (his mother was a goblin princess) but seems to grow on all who meet him in spite of his awkwardness. 

The intrigue of the story is undergirded by a sense of the stability of the country.  Not much is really going to go wrong.  So the story is mostly about a rather unassuming, caring person thrust into a role of power and making his way. 

Not a lot of roiling excitement--it's hard to say how a peaceful and prosperous reign makes a story--but here we have one.  And it seems to be well regarded--it's on the World Fantasy Award list as well.  I give it 3 stars, solid but not that exciting.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Coming Home, by Jack McDevitt

Coming Home is the seventh novel in the Alex Benedict series, and next up in my reading of the Nebula nominees for this year.  I'm struggling with whether to damn this novel with faint praise or be a bit more direct.  I'll let you be the judge from here.

Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer nine thousand years in the future.  His Boswell (hence narrator of these stories) is Chase Kolpath, ace pilot and beautiful assistant.  This installment has two story lines--Benedict's tracking of lost artifacts from the early space age, and the rescue of his uncle Gabe from a ship caught in a spacetime warp.

McDevitt is a solid speculator--we have some history on civilization's collapse, and a recap of encounters with the alien Mutes.  But it still rings odd to have people basically not changing traditions over ten thousand years, and using technologies that aren't even current now.

My main issue here is that this work is just dry as dust.  McDevitt always has that tendency, but sometimes the stories are fun anyway.  This was more of a slog.  Everyone is perfectly reasonable and speaks in the careful way office workers at major corporations speak.  You can't tell men from women, good guys from bad ones.  Makes it awfully hard to build dramatic tension, and this one doesn't.  I'm going to have forgotten all about it in a week or so.  The book is worthwhile if you are a fan of the series as it does advance the story.  Not otherwise.  Two stars from me.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin

The Three Body Problem is the first Nebula nominee of it's kind that I have read--a translation of a Chinese science fiction novel.  Liu Cixin is a very popular novelist in China, and he got a translation from an excellent author, Ken Liu.

Ken Liu says in the translator's notes that he is not trying to make the work sound like it was written in English.  He succeeds in this, the novel definitely has a Chinese prose flavor.  Overall slightly stiff, but kind of like Asimov.

The Three Body Problem is the first of the Three Body trilogy.  The story starts in the Cultural Revolution, and we get a fantastic picture of how very distorted and violent life got in China during that time.  During this time the Red Coast Base is constructed--an antenna to broadcast messages to the stars, as well as to receive them. 

And such a message is indeed received.  Trisolaris is a planet in a three-star system.  It is the last surviving planet in the chaotic environment.  Civilization has somehow developed to the point that it can survive the chaos.  They receive a signal from the Red Coast Base and make plans to come to Earth, contacting humans through an advanced video game.  Invasion to come?

This isn't a perfect book--the slight stiffness in the prose takes away a little--but the video game descriptions and scientific speculation are first rate and fascinating.  Well worth the read.  3 stars from me.,

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

We Are All Completely Fine is the first story I've read from Daryl Gregory, but I hope not the last.  This novella definitely fits in the horror genre (he even shouts out the Last Girl plotline), but Gregory doesn't go for the easy gore.  He tells the story in a fairly difficult way and gets great results.

We have an ensemble cast for the story--a group of people who share horrific, supernatural experiences of some kind. Five of them plus a psychologist who assembles them into a group for therapy. 

What's different here is that she believes the stories of her clients.  We have a guy who was partially eaten by cannibals, a woman who was a victim of a mutilator, a man who sees things in his gaming goggles, and a woman who appears to have been abused by a cult.  Lastly, Harrison Harrison, the nominal focus of the book--as a boy he battled a supernatural invasion in the town of Dunnsmouth, and the experience was fictionalized.

All have their roles, and they play them well.  Harrison reluctantly steps into the leadership role as they confront their demons--he manages to say little about himself, but lets on that he knows things (he killed, or attempted to kill, the mutilator. 

The progression of the story is just about perfect, you can't see what's coming but feel like you're learning things along the way.  I enjoyed every page--Gregory's writing here is tight, there's nothing unnecessary.  I give it a strong four stars, and recommend it highly.

So that covers all the novellas for this year's Nebula.  Which one do I like? While Yesterday's Kin and The Regular are contenders, I'll pick We Are All Completely Fine as my winner.  We shall see.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Trial by Fire, by Charles Gannon

Back to the Novel category for the Nebulas, for the past couple of weeks I've been reading Charles Gannon's Trial by Fire, sequel to Fire With Fire, which was nominated for a Hugo.  Trial by Fire likely would have been nominated in a normal year, but this wasn't a normal year for the Hugos.  So it goes.

I wasn't real appreciative of Fire With Fire.  Trial By Fire doesn't change the formula, but Gannon definitely refines it and plays to his strengths, making this a much better book. 

Gannon's strengths are definitely in the military aspects of the genre.  He really brings the otaku factor to his descriptions of current, historical and future weaponry.  We get pages of fine detail on weaponry and tactics, with lots of happy warriors.  Not our hero Caine Riordan, though--he continues to be disturbed by the carnage but capable of dishing it out.

This is a standard middle volume in a series, in that it is mostly setting the stage for what is to come.  The humans fight a war against the advanced but normally peaceful Arat Kur and the equal but very warlike Hrkh'Hkr (or something like that).  The humans have behind the scenes aid from the Dornaani, the most advanced of the alien species, while the Arat Kur have the K'tor, a very mysterious bunch.  Gannon layers the plot twists onto the battles in a way that keeps you guessing.

The technology speculation is amusing at times--the speculation is tight on weapons, pretty nebulous elsewhere.  Interstellar travel is done in well-defined lanes with acceleration (usually) but not too much detail.  Reading is done on "dataslates"--here in the 21st century we call them "tablets".  Too simple I guess.

So it's Golden Age SF, and as I said earlier, if you want more of it just go back to Heinlein.  But this one is decent, I will give it 3 stars.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Yesterday's Kin, by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's Kin is another entry in the Nebula novella category.  This one was not online, but my library carried it. 

I can't help comparing this one to her last novella nomination, After the Fall...since the look and heft of the book is about the same.  But I liked this one quite a lot better.

Earth gets a visit from an alien race.  Except they aren't alien, they are human, spun off from Earth early in mankind's history.  This gives Kress the most straight-up shot at working with aliens that are really pretty much like us.  She takes full advantage of it by presenting a culture that is very different, having evolved under different pressures, but recognizable.

The alien humans come to Earth with very advanced technology, including a "star drive".  Also a warning. Panspermia is part of the speculation here, and the aliens warn of a cloud of "spores" carrying a virus.  Earth will pass through it within a year, the aliens 25 years later.  The aliens do not know how to prevent or cure it and would like our help.

Kress extrapolates on current politics, speculating that our current divide will continue and isolationism will rise up.  Makes dealing with the aliens rather itchy.  But they are taking the high road, working through the United Nations.

The fact that these aliens are indeed human plays well into the story.  It's very coherent and well written, probably my favorite so far of the novellas, though there have been several good ones.  It's a short read but very enjoyable.  4 stars from me, that good.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword is the second book in the Imperial Radch series, and the first of the Nebula award nominated novels I'm reading this year.

The action picks up immediately after the events of the previous book--a piece of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, commissions the single unit left of Justice of Toren as a Fleet Commander and sends her to the system where the sister of her late captain is living.  The book centers on events around how Justice of Toren, now Breq Mianaai, dispenses justice and handles events on the station.  It's a challenging assignment, since all gates have been closed due to the civil war.

The action in the book builds slowly, though it does get there, and we conclude with some interesting plot revelations for how the series will continue.  The real story is in the relationships between the lone ancillary, the AIs instantiated in her ship and the station, and the rest of her crew.  The protagonist, being an ancillary, has a high level of access to each crew member's condition through the Ship.  So she pretty much sees everything coming.  She manages with subtlety.

What's really interesting to me is Leckie's very consistent voice and use of language.  The protagonist is uniquely detached, on account of not being human, but still has deep feelings that are consistently from that non-human perspective. 

Another fascinating aspect of the series is Leckie's ability to tell a story from a point of view where gender simply doesn't matter.  There's no support for it in the Radchaai language, so everyone's a "she", and family relationships always manage to be singular so that the gender is not apparent.  The names are thoroughly ungendered as well.  She throws in places where the gender differences do matter, just enough to make it clear how much they don't matter elsewhere.

For storytelling, this is three stars, but for the achievement in social speculation through use of language, I give her four stars.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Fisher Queen, by Alyssa Wong

One of the easier and often interesting tropes in speculative fiction is to take a situation or being that is in some form quite familiar to us (a fantastic one, like a unicorn or a faraway planet) and redefine it, so that as a reader you have tension between that familiar being and the one described in the story.  Just such a story is The Fisher Queen, Alyssa Wong's first sale and the last short story in the Nebula nominations.

Our protagonist is a crew member on a fishing vessel, very young for that work and a female to boot.  But she is tough and capable, and likes to think she can handle the situation well.  The success of the family fishing venture depends on the capture of mermaids--sort of like the mermaids of fantasy, in that they bear some resemblance to people, but they are considered to be pretty mindless and people eat them.  No kin to us, really.  But maybe closer than she thought...

For a first story it's a pretty darn good one.  As an award nominee it's not one of the stronger ones.  But I agree with the introduction--keep an eye on Alyssa Wong.  3 stars from me, but not a strong 3 stars.

So I have now read all the Nebula nominees for short story.  My favorite?  The Breath of War and The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye were pretty good, but my favorite was A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide.  Pinsker's artful combination of technological oddity with an ordinary life was very interesting to read. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Jackalope Wives, by Ursula Vernon

Jackalope Wives is the first pure fantasy story nominee for the Nebula that I have read this year.  It's a little standard, featuring attractive nubile mythical beasties (the jackalope wives) and brooding young men (Twilight) and wise old grandmas (ubiquitous).  But it's well done and fun to read, so I say have at it.  3 stars.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide, by Sarah Pinsker

A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide is one of the better nominees for the Nebula this year.  She made it available for free specifically to attract Hugo nominations, which turned out to be a waste of time.  But it's still a fine story.

Our protagonist is a farmer, son of farmers, and basically content with the life.  He is a young man, farming alongside his parents' place.  Then he has an accident, losing his right arm.  His parents are very much into technology--they "farm from an office"--and have him outfitted with a prototype prosthetic arm. 

The arm believes itself to be a road.  A very specific road.  This plays out through the story, which is very warm and fine to read.  It has a completely real feel, and madnesses have been stranger so it's not that hard to believe.  Read this for an excellent example of storytelling.  It's got a fine enough edge to it that I'm giving it 4 stars.

The Vaporization Enthalphy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family, by Usman T. Malik

The Vaporization Enthalphy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family is another very short nominee.  It's a protest story, which I find is somewhat common to this format.  For me it's OK but does not really hang together very well,and when it ties together it's a bit of a letdown.  The issue is very present in Pakistan, though, so it gets relevance points.  Still, just average, only 2 stars from me.

The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye, by Matthew Kressel

The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye is quite a fun story, a good nominee for a Nebula.  Our characters are the Meeker, so called because it is the meeker of the two, and the All-Seeing Eye, a godlike intelligence that has absorbed pretty much everything in the universe.  They find something new, which really doesn't happen much--the digital form of a preserved human, who seems to have a virus--each time they animate her she dies rather quickly, after imparting cryptic information.  What's going on?  Good stuff.  3 stars.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

When It Ends, He Catches Her, by Eugie Foster

When It Ends, He Catches Her is from that category of stories I have a hard time reviewing - the real short ones.  You can't say much about them without giving away the plot.  The rules are all different, and I don't read a lot of short fiction.  Still, for its type this one was pretty good.  We are in post-apocalyptic times, and all theaters are closed (interestingly reminiscent of the closing of theaters in Shakespeare's time).  A dancer dances in a dilapidated theater, alone.  But then her partner, whom she misses so much, appears and they remember old times...3 stars from me, worth 10 minutes.

The Breath of War, by Aliette de Bodard

The Breath of War is the first of the Nebula short story nominees I'm reading this year.  And it's a pretty good start to the year's crop.

Our protagonist, Rechan, is pregnant and near term.  On this planet, Voc, humans need the help of a Stoneman to quicken their children.  The Stonemen (not necessarily men) are the creation of the women who wish to have children--at puberty they make one out of a special stone and give it their breath.  From that point on the Stoneman accompanies the woman as a companion and is available to quicken her children.

But Rechan is in a peculiar situation.  Her Stoneman is not with her.  But she has decided to get pregnant anyway, and must now go track down the Stoneman she created under mysterious circumstances.

This is my favorite story of de Bodard's so far--very coherent narrative, with interesting characters.  Her strength has always been bringing a unique combination of cultural backgrounds to her storytelling, but in this case it's a good plot also.  It ties in well with some of her other work that envisions interstellar ships as living beings.  A good read - 3 stars.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Devil In America, by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Devil In America is the last of the Nebula nominated novelettes for this blog, this year.  And another one to make the Sad Puppies cringe, since it centers on racial injustice.  And of course the talk radio induced blindness would miss an important point--this is a story told from a different point of view within a different point of view, and is well worth a critique.

Our protagonist is Easter, a southern black girl growing up in a relatively well off black family.  The story is rich with family life, and centers on a very strong maternal character.  Ma'am has married a man much younger than herself, which makes her something of the talk of the town, though Easter certainly thinks she is deserving.  But Ma'am has had a very hard life, losing two of her three children--Easter is all she has left. 

And the reason behind this loss is power.  The Old African magic, going down through her bloodline but now not well controlled.  As Ma'am puts it, the family is rich but can't count--so they are vulnerable to getting swindled if they use their magical wealth.

But they still do, a little--to keep their famous tobacco healthy--and Easter definitely has the power, seeing the angels all around her.  And they will help her out, too, but she has to be careful.  Except that one time, already past when we enter the tale.

The story is told with interludes that appear to come from the writer's father, referring to the ongoing persecution of black people in America.  He is reading Wilson's tale of Easter and Rosedale, the black community they live in which was attacked and burned by whites in 1877.  One gets the impression that Wilson is tracing this persecution back to the supernatural events of this story.  Not too purely, of course, because the persecution started well before then, but maybe added to it?  Hard to say.

In any case it's quite well written and worth the time to read.  3 stars from me.

Now, which was my favorite novelette from this crop?  I would say it is between Tom Crosshill's The Magician and Laplace's Demon and this one.   It's a narrow thing, but I'd give the award to Crosshill.  We'll see how it comes out.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

We Are the Cloud, by Sam J. Miller

We Are the Cloud is another Nebula nominated novelette this year, a story of the sort that gets the Sad and Rabid Puppies foaming.  Because as SF it's a bit ordinary.  The technological speculation figures in the story, but isn't the real point.  And it's a bromance.

Our protagonist is a gentle giant living in a group home for kids taken from their families.  The speculative driver is that ISP's have figured out how to use the human brain as chip and storage, and one can rent out processing.  The protagonist is able to dip into the data stream passing through him--which makes him more of an outcast.  And, he's gay and knows it, but is repressing it until he meets Case, and falls for him.

So boy meets boy, boy loses boy--this is not a novel so there's no third act.  The focus of the story is an exploration of the interior life of the protagonist, and as those go it's pretty good.  And the thing is, you just can't set a romance in a boys' group home unless it's between boys, so having this space now open for SF means it's an automatic creative front.  Our Sad Puppies and their sad friends have not figured out that SF is important as outsider fiction, and now is the time for exploring these new outsiders that were formerly so outside it was difficult to accept fiction about them at all.  3 stars.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Husband Stitch, by Carmen Maria Machado

The Husband Stitch is my latest read from the Nebula nominees.  The story theme is one I've seen before (can't recall quite where, but more than once), but it's told in a fun and interesting way.  There are read-aloud stage directions that make it somewhat self-deprecating, and it has an earnest tone with some dry wit underneath.

The plot and ending are not the point of the story at all--it's about writing well (which is the point of a literary magazine).  The protagonist is a very submissive, sensual woman with a secret--a ribbon around her neck that she will not remove.  She encounters other women with ribbons too.  But mostly this is her life story--marrying early, loving her husband, and her son.  For all her subjugation she seems to be fairly happy, right up to the end.  Maybe that's deeper irony.

In any case, it's worth reading.  I give it a solid 3 stars.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Kudos

For the past several years I have endeavored to read award nominated literature as a way to broaden my SF horizons.  But popular voting for the Hugo and Nebula awards is vulnerable to "trolling", and this apparently has come to fruition this year for the Hugos.  The nominees are mostly from organized right-wing nut jobs.  Free SF Online usually collects links to the freely available nominees, but this year Richard Cisee, the curator of the site, declined to do so.  For that he gets kudos.

So I won't be wasting my time this year with the Hugos.  Don't know yet if I'll try out other awards (Clarke, Tiptree, Locus, etc).  But I am in agreement with other bloggers that this may be endemic to popular voting--crowdsourcing wisdom only works as long as the majority of people involved care enough about the topic in question to seriously consider their choices according to their individual judgment.  Says something about democracy in general--the trolls have come up with a winning strategy.  And addressing them directly with the same tactics still feels like losing.  Giving up on democracy also is losing, as it's what the Right wants (see Bastiat).  

Still and all, if you want quality awards (as opposed to quality politics), the way to go now is curated awards, and hopefully you find an award (or review source) that fits your tastes and expands them.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A Guide To the Fruits of Hawai'i, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i is third in my reading of Nebula Award novelettes this year.  My fear here is damning it with faint praise.

For this is a pretty good story, with polish.  I have reviewed Alaya Dawn Johnson before, and probably will again.  This story is post-Vampire Apocalypse.  The protagonist, Key, is an early vampire ally--she saw it coming and went over.  Now she is a keeper at what is basically a human farm--a place where people are kept as vampire food.  They aren't treated badly by prison standards, but a prison is what it is.  Most of the story centers on her sad struggle with the choices she has made.  Especially when she has the opportunity to go fully over to the other side...

So you have a good exploration of a pretty thoroughly "done" theme.  If you like vampire stories you are likely to enjoy this one.  I tend to want to see more ambition in explaining how vampires get that way.  That's not present here, the focus is on emotions.  They have flavor.

I'd probably give it 2 and a half stars, but I don't do half stars, so it's 3, on the weak side.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Magician and Laplace's Demon, by Tom Crosshill

Continuing my reading of the Nebula award nominees for this year--Tom Crosshill's The Magician and Laplace's Demon is definitely a strong entry.  It's an excellent story in the general type of semi-benevolent AI takeover.  The protagonist is the AI.  Once it became conscious it made sure no other attempts were made at creating AI, and killed off its creator.  But before it did so, the engineer that created it gave it a mission to preserve and care for humanity as best it could.  It has operated on that principle for many years.

Enter the magicians--people that can produce unpredictable, unlikely events.  Definitely a threat, though their mission is to preserve freedom in the universe.  But in this universe magic hovers out there as a potentially quantifiable subject, and our AI burns to understand it.  Magic is the only source of disorder in the universe, and thus the AI must hunt the magicians down.

The flavor of the story is not done justice here--it is a very advanced story as literature goes, and is very much a joy to read.  The heroes and our AI "villain" are complex beings, worthy of our attention.  Go give this one a read.  I give it a strong 3 stars.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sleep Walking Now and Then, by Richard Bowes

I reviewed Richard Bowes' semi-autobiographical World Fantasy Award nominee last year, and found it a little lifeless.  His story nominated this year, Sleep Walking Now and Then, is another matter.  It has the same sensibility as the book, but succeeds by having a different focus.

Bowes describes a New York he knows well, projected forward. It's a harsher, more elegiac place that's more devoted to jaded entertainment than it is in the present. Those entertainments take advantage of the faded glory of the city, and one such is depicted here.

There is technical speculation - in the 2060's we have the option to have our phones literally in our palms, rather than carrying Palms. Maybe not. But the social speculation feels right on. The impresario putting on the entertainment (an immersive one, where the audience is within the show) is probably better off than most, but he's still living from show to show. The actors are a part of the underclass of the city. All will do pretty much anything to keep the run going.

Enjoy this as a dystopian and yet genteel view of the near future. 3 stars from me.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Calendrical Regression, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Calendrical Regression is the latest novella in Lawrence M. Schoen's Buffalo Dogs series.  They've been garnering a lot of award nominations.  The latest one is, I would have to say the best so far.--

The Amazing Conroy has graduated to running a multimillion dollar corporation selling bootleg Buffalo Dogs--he escapes for a week to return to his former profession as a stage hypnotist.  He gets mixed up in a plot from his origin (I was mistaken, the previous post was the first one in the series but NOT the origin story).  The Svenkali are out to get the Uary, and the Uary are out to discover the origins of the Mayan calendar. 

The Buffalo Dog eats everything as usual, and the action is fun and interesting.  I would call these good journeyman SF stories, worth reading if you like it.  Not really breaking new ground in literature, but that's OK, not everything has to.

I give it three stars, and recommend it for Buffalo Dog fans and others looking for a good read.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Buffalo Dogs, by Lawrence M. Schoen

Lawrence M. Schoen has received his third award nomination for a Buffalito story.  This is not that story.  Rather, it's the origin tale for Buffalitos, or Buffalo Dogs.  And it's a nice little story, but really it's just an intro to The Amazing Conroy (journeyman stage hypnotist) and Reggie the Buffalito.  After this I'll read the award nominee.  This one, I give 2 stars for averageness.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Grand Jete, by Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky is a very reliable award nominee, it seems like I have reviewed a story of hers every year.  They are always good literary stories, and The Grand Jete is no exception.  The speculative piece is a robot avatar--a capture of a person in robot form, developed for military use.  It is a rather light framework for the story, concerning the relationship between a dying girl and her engineer father.  The cultural exploration is Jewish--the father tries to keep Shabbat and kosher, but they bend the rules significantly, particularly to accommodate her illness.

It's a fascinating and difficult exploration, told from both the father and daughter perspective.  The father intends to keep the robot as a replacement for his dying daughter, but in order to complete the process must have her permission.  We see what she goes through as she considers this.

The story has a little bit of a feeling like it's both speculative and dated.  We have a household run by AI (only a mild enhancement of Google Now) but it is exercised mostly to play DVDs.  It's in keeping with the household and the father, though--he is a tinkerer and has patched together the household components.

Overall, I give it a strong 3 stars for literary value.  Enjoy

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Mothers of Voorhisville, by Mary Rickert

Reading the Nebula nominees--The Mothers of Voorhisville is the second one I've read in the novella category.  And it's on the long end, nearly a novel.  But a good choice for this category and length because, while it is complete as a story it does not read like a novel.

The story is told as a series of vignettes by the Mothers, a group of women who have all been seduced in very short order by a "man" (they are not quite sure later) and have given birth to very unusual - winged - babies.  They try to tell their story in their own words, not pulling too many punches but still trying to explain themselves.  Voorhisville is a small town, typical in its uniqueness.  All the Mothers are well acquainted.  Their work in trying to process this utterly strange thing that is occurring to them is fascinating and moving.

I give it three stars overall, and can recommend it as a good read, something to savor.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Regular, by Ken Liu

Ken Liu is an extremely hot property in SF right now.  Last year he had a couple of stories nominated, and this year he has one novella and one editor nomination (by Cixin Liu, no relation so far as I can tell).  The Regular is a typically strong entry from him.  The protagonist is a private detective, and this is a pretty straight up noir crime story.  But the characters set it apart and get the award nomination.  Ruth Law appears caucasian but lives in Chinatown, and there's enough Chinese in her to allow for limited speaking.  She left the police force after a traumatic decision and has since had several personal enhancements.  In the afterword Liu says he is indeed playing with the "cyborg" concept, noting how far we've come along that line.  I'd say it's somewhat true, at least.  And an enhancement is the turning point in the story.  I won't quite spoil it, but the author might have gone further and had the criminal write or commission an app to detect his victims, since it seems quite possible.  3 stars from me.  It has a good helping of everything you'd want--characters, action, science.  Check it out.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Martian, by Andy Weir

I got The Martian as a gift in paperback, but as most know by now it was originally posted online for free, then put out as a 99 cent Kindle edition.  It went completely nuts, became a bestseller, and now he has a movie deal.  I hear Matt Damon is going to play Mark Watney.

And everything the reviewers have said so far is true.  I could put it down, because I'm disciplined (compulsive), but it was damn hard.  I devoured every page.  Mark Watney is a likeable, everyman/McGuyver.  He logs his solutions to insanely hard survival problems with a great mix of stress and pride, and throw sheer joy of problem solving into the mix.  This is true old-school Golden Age Science Fiction, where the science drives the story.  The writing is matter-of-fact, the protagonist is basically the author, and it all works perfectly.

Andy Weir is a phenomenon now.  I do kind of wonder what he's going to do with himself.  I don't expect him to repeat this feat, and it would be painful to see him try.  He does say he's been writing as an amateur for some time, but for him to do another commercially successful book he would have to get into more literary things like character creation.  Hard to pull off.  And who cares.  If this is all he does, he's gone a ways toward reviving hard SF.

I give it 5 stars.  And this is not an Amazon 5 stars.  I've only given that a few times out of the 1300+ stories I've reviewed.  It is a masterpiece of its type. I noted that it did not get a Nebula nomination.  If it doesn't get a Hugo nomination then SF awards are simply broken and I will have a hard time justifying paying attention to them anymore.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Princess and the Queen, or The Blacks and the Greens, by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series has received much attention and accolades, and on the whole they are deserved.  It's a marvelously ambitious story, though the volumes are getting sparse and I do wonder if Martin has overreached.  This story, The Princess and the Queen, is from the history of Westeros before the time of The Song of Ice and Fire.

The title is a little misleading, since the focus of the story is a succession war between a king's designated heir, a princess, and his son.  But it's explained in the introduction to the story as the "blacks and greens" part explains the rivalry of the princess and the prince's mother.

This story is not any sort of introduction to the series, so if you're looking to dabble this is not the way.  It's also not an extension of the main plot, for the further entertainment of the casual reader.  This is a history lesson, written pretty much the way European history is usually written.  Lots of names of royalty and battles.  Pretty much everyone loses, which is the object lesson.

This is the sort of backstory that Tolkien, Robert Jordan and any other large-scale world building fantasy author has to write in order to make sense of the main line.  Martin found a place to put it out for public consumption.  I recommend it only if you are an obsessive fan.  As a somewhat more casual reader, I found it more of a slog than entertainment.  There are no significant characters overlapping the Song of Ice and Fire, but lots of shared names or close analogs.  So someone by the name of Viserys or Rhanys will be a player, but not the ones we remember, so it ends up pretty confusing.  It's pretty dry stuff--very much the historical read.  I'll give it two stars, but only because I know that for the true otaku it will be worth reading.  Like the Tolkien backstory volumes.  Knock yourself out.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Lies My Mother Told Me, by Caroline Spector

There are a whole lot of authors involved in the Wild Cards series, but the consistency is really quite good.  I haven't read any in awhile, but Lies My Mother Told Me is quite consistent with the theme.  It's edited by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, and our story appears in his Dangerous Women anthology.

The premise is pretty simple, but leaves infinite room.  A virus has emerged that changes people, without regard to physics or logic.  Any power or curse is possible.  So we instantly get superheroes and supervillains.  No problems with how they get the powers.

Our story here shows how the politics of the long series continue to evolve.  Bubbles, a very powerful Ace (superhero) is being manipulated through her friend Joey, a very different and troubled Ace.  Bubbles has raw power--she can absorb pretty much infinite damage, and hand it back out in powerful bubbles of force.  Joey can raise and control the dead.  They confront a figure representing one of the larger organizations.  They never figure out which one, but it's menacing.  It's a fun adventure story, the action in a Wild Card story is always great.  2 stars, but almost 3 for me.  My only complaint is that it just seems too easy.  Maybe Caroline Spector just makes it look that way.  It's all good.

Caretakers, by Pat Cadigan

Retirement homes have been on my mind lately.  I know people going into them, and I worked in one for many years.  It was a pretty good job, really.  But bad homes are pretty common, and it is very hard not to worry.  Such is the theme for Cadigan's story.  It's speculative fiction, but it could sure enough be real. 

Caretakers is really well written.  We have a complex personal relationship to add meat to the speculative theme.  The protagonist has a younger sister she's never taken very seriously, for what look like pretty good reasons.  And a mother in a nursing home.  The little sister starts to suspect that the home is up to something.  But the staff means well...do read it, this is quite good stuff.  3 stars.  I can't believe I've never reviewed anything by her before, I know I've read some other stories, but there it is...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Name the Beast, by Samuel Sykes

Continuing in Dangerous Women--Name the Beast is an interestingly written story.  The protagonist is a schict, a member of a race of somewhat wolf-like beings that live among humans.  It is very mystical in approach, but with some very ordinary grounding elements.  Kalindris has a strained, mystical relationship with her husband and a very ordinary, irritated relationship with her child.  We also see humans, and her complex reaction to them.  Humans are for killing, but...

It's different enough in approach, and decent enough, to give 3 stars.  Not so easy to read, but worth it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pronouncing Doom, by S. M. Stirling

We are getting toward the end of Dangerous Women--not quite there yet.  Post-apocalyptic times are certainly dangerous, but the protagonist here is "dangerous" as duly constituted justice.  Pronouncing Doom illustrates rough (but actually pretty clean) justice.  This group of survivors has adopted Earth-centered worship and Scots clan justice, and metes it on a pretty clear psychopath.  The lesson - trust your instincts.  You can tell when an author writes a lot, and Stirling is prolific.  Also polished.  2 stars, it's a decent read but very much done.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Hell Hath No Fury, by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Hell Hath No Fury is a pretty much straight-up horror story in Dangerous Women.  Not seriously shocking or weird.  Can't think of much to say about it.  2 stars.

Virgins, by Diana Gabaldon

Virgins is a prequel story in Gabaldon's Outlander series.  Interesting that she works across several genres.  This may be in sequence on the timeline but is out of sequence in written order, so hard to judge the series.  But it seems to go on a bit.  Some nice comic moments and action.  2 stars from me.

Friday, February 13, 2015

City Lazarus, by Diana Rowland

City Lazarus is a short little crime tale in Dangerous Women.  This is the best link I could get for it.  It's a little bit speculative, mostly about what would happen if New Orleans allowed the Mississippi to shift to the Atchafalya.  I have visited New Orleans a few times, but tend to agree that too much is made of it. Our protagonist agrees, but needs to watch out for that city defender he's dating.  2 stars.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly, by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is a first-rate writer, the stories illuminate even rather standard setups very well.  Such is the case here.  Second Arabesque, Very Slowly is from the Dangerous Women collection, and it's predictable as a post-Apocalypse tale--in this case a population collapse due to an infertility plague.  The protagonist is a Nurse, a small tribe's healer.  She is getting on in years and knows she can't keep up much longer.  In post-Apocalypse worlds life is about survival.  But even in desperate survival conditions people want beauty.  So it is here.  It's heartwarming in its own way, and nice to read, but not really above average.  Two stars.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Girl In the Mirror, by Lev Grossman

The Girl In the Mirror is another story in Dangerous Women, and is a part of the author's The Magicians setting.  As always it's hard to judge a short story out of the context of its series.  But from this sample I get the feeling I've read it already--Harry Potter (there's even a shoutout in here)--so probably won't pursue it further.  It's kind of fun but there's a lot of references outside the story and just feels derivative now.  2 stars.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Queen in Exile, by Sharon Kay Penman

From Dangerous Women: A Queen in Exile is a historical piece.  It's well done, and straight history holds up reasonably well against fantasy such as Game of Thrones.  But in the end I like speculation.  2 stars.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, by Brandon Sanderson

I greatly admire Brandon Sanderson's fantasy.  All the stories I have read seem very complete and well-developed, and this story is no exception.  I just discovered why--he has them all tied together under the Cosmere, an overarching structure of "Shardworlds" that allow for different world structures but fit together.  You learn something every day.

Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell is set in a world where some manner of fantastic tragedy has created a place where the dead turn into dangerous "shades" that require careful preparation to deal with.  Fortunately they follow some logical rules.  Our protagonist, Silence, owns an inn in the middle of Shadow territory, and is a bounty hunter as well as an inkeeper.  Tough life, since her fence is a government agent putting the squeeze to her.  This makes a good setup for a strong story, with lots of action and a world that has a nasty potential beauty, just a little like Sean McMullen's Greatwinter trilogy, though it's kind of a stretch. 

3 stars from me.  Fun to read.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

I Know How to Pick 'Em, by Lawrence Block

More from Dangerous Women--I Know How to Pick 'Em is one that I kind of wonder if it qualifies.  Yes, the lady definitely has intentions, but I wonder if she really knew as well as the protagonist thought that she could carry them off.  To be dangerous you have to have bad thoughts and be able to carry them out.  Now the protagonist (a guy), he really is dangerous.  2 stars but almost fun. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Neighbors, by Megan Lindholm

Megan Lindholm's story Neighbors (the link to LibraryThing attributes to Robin Hobb, a pseudonymn) is a decent parallel universe story, with the theme of an aging person who might be suffering from dementia crossing over.  To what sounds like a worse place, except she would be free there.  That's all fine--what stuck in my mind is the apparent age of the "old" people.  The protagonist is becoming dangerously forgetful, and is "closer to sixty-eight than eight".  Her neighbor who has already lost it was carpooling kids to soccer just 22 years ago.  The protagonist's brother is rotting with Alzheimer's in a nursing home.  Lot of early onset Alzheimers here.  Amusing.  Two stars for ordinariness, but intriguing for the unintended commentary. 

Wrestling Jesus, by Joe R. Lansdale

I kind of thought I remembered Joe R. Lansdale, but not until after I read Wrestling Jesus, which was probably a good thing--turns out the other story I read by him is one I really disliked, so that experience would have kind of spoiled me.  But this one is actually quite good--think Karate Kid with a professional wrestler.  Indeed, it's a heartwarming tale, so quite the switch.  Good writing and fun to read, so I can recommend it with 3 stars.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Raisa Stepanova, by Carrie Vaughn

Raisa Stepanova is a historical fiction piece from the Dangerous Women anthology.  And it's a nice little read--I also enjoy WWII books and found the info on Russian women fighter pilots interesting.  2 stars for me.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Bombshells, by Jim Butcher

More from the Dangerous Women anthology--Bombshells is a fun magic adventure, coming late in a series called The Dresden Files.  I say late because, according to the introduction, the author has killed off the protagonist, but is continuing the series with Dresden's ghost and in this story, his apprentice.  You can't do that forever.  The piece is full of good action and reminds me quite a lot of Jasper Fforde.  Read for good fun.  3 stars. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Hands That Are Not There, by Melinda Snodgrass

The Hands That Are Not There is another story that is only available in the Dangerous Women anthology.  It's a bit of a throwback--exotic aliens conquered by humans, serving in low class positions.  A highly class and gender conscious (and conservative) society.  A story from the point of view of a fallen aristocrat, describing a threat from within.  OK but a little clumsy, very spelled out like a not-that-ambitious TV script (Snodgrass writes for television).  2 stars from me.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Nora's Song, by Cecelia Holland

As far as I know, Nora's Song is only available as part of the Dangerous Women anthology.  It's a good little story about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and how they had many more children than was really good for them.  From the third youngest's perspective.  2 stars.

My Heart is Either Broken, by Megan Abbott

Continuing Dangerous Women--My Heart Is Either Broken is a very good story.  It's not speculative fiction, but I'll review it here anyway.  The story has a very interesting take on how a woman's behavior is judged in the media, particularly when the family undergoes tragedy--in this case the kidnapping of their daughter.  Told from the father's perspective, it frames a real dilemma, since on one hand it seems apparent that she doesn't deserve the treatment she is getting, but on the other that she actually might.  Good stuff.  3 stars.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Some Desperado, by Joe Abercrombie

I have just started George R. R. Martin's Dangerous Women anthology.  Got it as a gift so definitely qualifies as free, even if I'm not so stiff about that in this blog anymore.  My usual practice is to review all the stories individually, but in this case I'll also make comments on what I see in the anthology as a whole as I go along.

Some Desperado is an action story--a woman outlaw on the run, from the law and her erstwhile partners.  It's a gritty fight scene that shows Shy, the protagonist, as a tough but now quite desperate survivor.  It was OK to read, but I don't know if it would really stand alone as the link's marketing implies.  On its own it's two stars.

As I was reading it, it made me think about what to get out of this anthology.  It is supposed to be about strong women who will fight, with wits, wiles, or force.  And sure enough this one is a fighter, with a reflective backstory.  But other than a couple of paragraphs that indicated one of the other outlaws had kept her bedroll warm, it pretty much felt like reading about a man.  Contrast this with Pyre of New Day, by Catherine Asaro, which also features a physically strong woman but ends up to be a more clever role reversal.  I am thinking Asaro wasn't invited to this particular party, not sure she would fit here.  Onward.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Land Across, by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is one of the most literary writers that speculative fiction has ever had, and he has probably been the subject of more literary criticism than any other SF writer.  This is a good thing.  He is getting toward the end of his time as a writer, so he is starting to go deeper into his own mind in his writing.  That can make him a little hard to follow, but I think he's still pretty interesting. I've read several short stories and The Book of the New Sun,  In The Land Across, he works on a smaller scale than the ambitious series volumes set in outer space.

Grafton (we don't find out his name until over halfway into the book) is a travel writer looking for a really obscure place to visit.  We don't ever find out the name of this country, it is some vaguely eastern European place run by a dictator.  We know one city name, Puraustays, which is a name really elegantly constructed not to indicate where it is.  The closest analog I can think of would be pre-Aung Son Suu Kii Myanmar.  He has a difficult time getting there, and when he finally does he is immediately arrested and has his passport taken away.  Thus begin the adventures.  Grafton generally rolls with the punches and manages to take everything in, even as he's imprisoned and drafted into the JAKA, the "secret" police.

Wolfe is by now a complete master of voices.  Grafton is literate but relatively plain spoken.  The people of the unnamed country have German as a second language, so their voices are translations of somewhat stilted German into English.  Some can't get into it, but I was intrigued and enjoyed it all the way through.

Wolfe's more ambitious works try to say something relatively deep about humanity, and give you a real insight into the very complex inner workings of the protagonist.  I can't say that happens here--Grafton definitely is a complex person, but one doesn't see all of it.  Wolfe seems to be making a more concrete point about people living under dictatorships, and their essential humanity.  He makes that clear in an appendix.  The dictator in this story does play a role, though it's rather unusual and otherworldly.  Reminds me a bit of Philip K. Dick.

In any case, I can solidly give The Land Across three stars and recommend it for those who enjoy good writing.