Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One was published and got some fanfare, but no Nebula or Hugo award nomination, back in 2011.  I received it as a gift about a year ago and just got to reading it.  It's a fine novel and I'm glad I read it.  It also made the year 2011 a little more interesting for me, in that we had an attempt at a genre.  I'll call it the Name Dropper.

 Ready Player One is a paen to 70's and 80's pop culture, packed with more references to sitcoms, manga, speculative fiction, and particularly console videogames than could possibly be fully digested.  Many of the references are familiar, and for the less familiar ones Cline deftly weaves an explanation into the narrative. 

There was another book published that year to somewhat less external fanfare but it received both Hugo and Nebula nominations for 2012--Among Others, by Jo Walton.  Walton was much more focused on speculative fiction, and her references could very nearly create a catalog of the best SF of the era.

Both of these books were immensely popular with critics--fans of the genre who are deeply familiar with all of the references made.  They really make an old fan like me happy as they bring back all the good plots before them, as well as their own contribution.

On the flip side, these works are pretty much inaccessible to anyone who's read less than 100 SF novels or didn't live in those times.  Ready Player One in particular would be very difficult for many people under the age of 50 to appreciate, because only the author or his protagonist (impoverished, withdrawn Wade Owen Watts) would have the time and focus to catch up all those references at a young age.

My copy has a review on the cover that says "Willy Wonka meets William Gibson", which I find to be pretty much correct.  There is a large body of YA novels that feature an eccentric, wealthy man setting up an elaborate, immersive retreat from the world, who is ready to share that retreat with a worthy successor.  This is a slightly more grown up version, but not necessarily a lot more grown up.  In fact as I think about it, hardly at all.  The writing certainly isn't strictly adult level in terms of themes (the violence and sexuality is totally preadolescent safe), but it's clever and as said above carries the references well. 

If you like this sort of thing you have probably read Ready Player One already, but if you put it off like I did you should definitely retain your intention to getting to it.  It is worth the time.  Four stars for me.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wings of Sorrow and Bone, by Beth Cato

Wings of Sorrow and Bone was nominated for a 2015 Nebula award.  It is the second to last story in Cato's Clockwork Dagger series.  This story is told from Rivka Stout, the daughter of Caskentian princess Mrs. Stout.

Rivka is a talented mechanist, but was born with a cleft palate and is generally poorly treated in Caskentia.  She confronts Mr. Cody, the creator of gremlins, over his plan to construct a second large gremlin cyborg to compete in Warriors, the favorite action/strategy game in the area.

There's not a lot more to the plot, except for her complicated friendship with Tatiana Garrett, sister of Octavia Leander's paramour Alonzo Garrett from the previous books.  The story is a little blocky and pat, really just kind of edges in there as an award nominee.

There's one more story in the series, but I don't feel particularly compelled to read it.  I'll give this one three stars, weakly.  It's OK.

That wraps up my reading of Nebula nominated novellas for 2015.  I liked The New Mother, but Waters of Versailles probably comes closest to my style of story--velvet water pipes!  Wild!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Deepest Poison, by Beth Cato

The Deepest Poison is a precursor story for Beth Cato's Clockwork Dagger series.  It is from Octavia Leander's time serving as a medician in the Caskentian army.  The story is told from Miss Percival's perspective, and explains her enmity toward Leander.

The story is OK as explanation but it's kind of blocky as a story in itself.  Read it just for information on the series, I'd say.  2 stars.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric's Demon is part of a new subseries within Bujold's World of the Five Gods.  My library ordered a copy, but I believe it's been lost, and paper copies of this one are hard to come by.  So I paid 4 bucks to read it on Kindle, not quite free.

But still fun.  The title character is a minor son of a minor lordling, trying to make his way in the world.  He has some estate rights and is betrothed to a cute and somewhat rich girl, so things are going along pretty well.  Then he stops to help a fallen Divine on the road, and ends up in possession of her demon.

Penric has promise as a hero, he's a pretty quintessential Nice Guy, a contrast to the Hallowed Hunt's Ingrey.  He is going to try to enlist his demon, rather than master it.  He's off to a promising start.

I give it 3 stars as a readable fantasy romance.  Bujold knows how to make those exciting.

This also completes my reading of the Hugo Novella nominees.  I'd have given it to Branden Sanderson's Perfect State, but the nod went to Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.   

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full of Ghosts was the horror representative for this year's World Fantasy Awards.  Horror stories aren't my favorite, but this one is worthwhile as a very accurate and acerbic commentary on current American culture.

The main character is Merry, now 23 years of age, telling the story of the horror her family went through when she was eight years old.  The story centers around the mental illness or "possession" of her older sister.  The family is struggling--dad's been out of work for some time and is going through a religious revival, Mom is depressed.  The sister starts acting out in various horrific ways.  The family (mostly Dad) decides to allow itself to be the subject of a reality TV series in order to raise money for the afflicted daughter's care.

Of course part of the fun is the reveal, so I won't say much more.  But the novel is quite self-aware--the protagonist is writing a horror blog that includes a detailed dissection of the series, under an assumed identity.  Reality TV and religious conservatism come in for particularly harsh criticism, and linkage.

I can recommend it as a novel that uses shock effectively and makes good points.  3 stars from me.

This is also the last World Fantasy Award novel nominee for 2015.  The Chimes by Anna Smail won it, but my personal pick was Naomi Novik's Uprooted

The Aeronaut's Windlass, by Jim Butcher

The Aeronaut's Windlass is the first book in Jim Butcher's The Cinder Spires series.  This one is a book for pure enjoyment. I would say it's a sort of fantasy steampunk novel, with the setting specifically designed to support a navy.  The ships fly, but in every other way it's a naval adventure novel.

It's something of an ensemble cast, told from several points of view.  We have a noble scion, a noble whose house has faded, a captain with a stormy past (dishonorable discharge for cowardice, but that is of course not the real story) and others I am forgetting.  The culture is high British Empire, much honor and glory and commerce.  This novel focuses on the inhabitants of the Spires, incredibly durable constructs from centuries earlier, built to escape the dangers of the surface of the world (earth?).  The people live in "habbles", (I think sort for "habilitations"), layers of the spires divided by the same material as the exterior.

The focus of the novel is a war between Spire Astor and Spire Albion.  Albion houses the protagonists.  Power in this world is generated by tapping the Ether, through crystals (safely) or having the talent of Etherialism (leads to madness).  The main evil character is an etherialist, opposed by one on the good side.

The book is pretty much cotton candy--perhaps not masculine enough, make it beef jerky.  Fun to consume but doesn't threaten to change you.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and can give it a solid 3 stars.

This book bears comparison to Fran Wilde's Updraft, nominated for a Nebula this year.  The settings have a lot in common--two cultures that somehow contrived to build skyscraper dwellings in order to escape surface dangers.  They are both effectively imagined and interesting places.  Updraft's bone towers are organic and their complexity is readily apparent.  The Spires are made of stone and seem simple, though I imagine they are not.  Updraft seems much more original to me, with more potential to go somewhere.

This book is also the last of the Hugo award nominees I read this year.  I have to say that all of them were very much worth reading.  The Fifth Season got the nod, and I can't disagree.  Some of the shorter categories may have been crapped upon, but the novel nominations were solid.