Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Updraft, by Fran Wilde

I have just finished another excellent Nebula award nominee, Updraft by Fran Wilde.  Thought I haven't read the winner yet (Uprooted is on my list and my Kindle) this had to have been a strong contender.  In fact it won in the young adult category.  It features a young protagonist, though the tone of the book isn't really youthful.  It's a good, challenging read.

The synopsis was kind of blocky and made the book sound kind of ordinary, so I wasn't sure I would like it.  In fact, I was fascinated by it.  Wilde has crafted an amazingly complex universe, with plenty of potential.

The people of the City (and the people know of nothing beyond the City, so far as I can tell) live in a set of living bone towers that rise up out of the clouds.  They apparently at one point lived below the clouds, but they fought constantly and were almost wiped out when the last few decided to Rise and inhabit the towers.  Now their entire universe is those towers, and the central Spire, where the Singers who interpret the City and protect its residents, live.

Basically they are parasites of some sort, though the nature of what grows the towers they live in is not explored.  It's a precarious existence, and the people are a hard lot.  Not given to assisting the weak or helping each other.

Our protagonist wants to apprentice to her mother as a trader, though their relationship is a cool one.  But she's not very careful, and an infraction marks her as a Lawsbreaker.  She is offered amnesty if she joins the Singers, and eventually does so.  From there the book develops the secrets of this universe, while continuing to clarify the character of the people.

The book is a fine, satisfying read.  And it has a real ending, even though it is meant to be a part of a series.  There is a definite sense of closure at the end, but plenty of room for new stories.

This is a book I'd highly recommend to adults of any age.   I look forward to many more.  4 stars!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Rattlesnakes and Men, by Michael Bishop

Asimov's eventually posted Rattlesnakes and Men for free for award reviewers, so I've picked it up for the Nebula nomination.  Even though it didn't win (Sarah Pinsker's Our Lady of the Open Road took the honor) it's a pretty good one.  But beware, highly political!

Our protagonist is part of a lower-middle-class family, working hard to get by.  She and her husband take an opportunity to move to a new town and work for a friend of the family.  But they find that the county they have moved to is drenched in "rattlesnake culture"--rattlesnakes, genetically engineered to be (less) dangerous to their owners--are the obsession of the men of the county, and it's a conservative area so they run the show.

The rattlesnake bit is a transparent parody of "gun culture".  The obsession with rattlesnake ownership extends to requiring everyone to own one (a reality with guns in a few small towns) and falsifying death certificates to cover up rattlesnake deaths (less clear that that is happening in real life).  If the Sad Puppies were infesting the Nebulas it would definitely be held up as an example of PC obsession, but this would be a somewhat harder sell because the story is actually pretty well written, by a master craftsman.

Overall I like it enough to give it four stars but I don't disagree with the award choice.  Read it to reinforce or stretch your echo chamber, as appropriate.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Barsk: The Elephant's Graveyard, by Lawrence Schoen

Barsk is a Nebula award nominated novel, and I think it has one of the most interesting backstories so far.  But let's come back to that.

Barsk is a story of uplift, which of course reminds one of David Brin's Uplift series.  B, ut in this case the sentient species have left mankind long behind--there are no people left.  Most of the uplifted species live in an alliance, governed democratically.  But the main driver of the story is an advance two of these species has made--the Elephs and Lox (African and Asian elephants, loosely) have invented a drug that can allow certain users to contact deceased people.  They do this by way of "nefshons", particles of personality that each person disperses as they live.  Schoen does a nice job of explicating this and giving it means to drive the plot through the book.

But back to the drug.  It is a byproduct of the isolation of the Elephs--the other species find them ugly and banished them to a gloomy, rainy world.  Other species have not been able to reverse engineer it, and they are now more intent on finding the secret.  O.  ur protagonist, Jorl, is one of those who Speaks to the dead.  He and his friend Arlo become the key to the future as developments in the drug threaten society as it is.

There's a lot more to the plot, and it's a pretty interesting one.  This is not an action novel--rather, it is driven by the interplay of the science of "nefshons" and the prejudice against the Elephs and Lox.

According to Schoen this novel was 20 years in the making, and it shows--it has much more depth than other Schoen items I have read, though the only things I've read of his are the Buffalito stories.  Schoen is much more allegorical in this tale, and though his reasons for prejudice against the honorable Elephs and Lox are superficial they are unfortunately believable.  This is a novel to ponder and digest, as opposed to a page turner--it is engaging, but the moral imperatives behind the story are its interesting points.  Read this if you want to spend some effort--it is worthwhile, and as far as I am concerned a pretty strong entry, though I know it didn't win and I haven't read the winner yet.  3 stars from me.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Builders, by Daniel Polansky

The Builders is another novella nominated for a Hugo this year.  Not available free, but I donated my copy to the local library. 

The author refers to The Builders as a "one-joke" story.  I think that is pretty much the case--and since I have not read anything else by Daniel Polansky, I am not sure I can judge his writing by this story.  Not that it's bad.

The story centers on the Captain and his group of hard-bitten mercenaries, back for another try at a failed conquest.  The characters are set as animals--more than one of the reviews supplied by the publisher in the paperback version make comparisons to Watership Down, but I do not see the connection.  Think of it more as a sort of parody of The Seven Samurai, except that there is no justice in their quest, it's pretty much about revenge.

The writing is very much over the top--the characters are caricatures.  It's fun to read because the irony is right on point--heavy and dark, just enough so to keep the story from being just silly.  Those caricatures, in fact, drive the story--the plot is somewhat secondary, and bears almost no describing without being spoiled.

I enjoyed this little tale, though given the theme of this blog I didn't like paying for it.  But if you can find it at your local library or even bookstore, take a couple of hours (with a coffee if you're at the bookstore) and give it a read.  3 stars.