The OF Blog: October 2007

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Recharging the batteries

I read very rapidly and I try to read a book a day, if possible. With almost 300 books read so far this year (my highest in about 10 years, when grad school almost wiped out my mind), I have found the need to read all sorts of fictions and non-fictions in order to keep myself relatively sane.

Last week, a certain lovely someone alerted me to the impending publication of a companion piece to Umberto Eco's excellent illustrated 2004 book, On Beauty, called (naturally) On Ugliness. Like its brother volume, On Ugliness is around 450 pages printed on very glossy paper and very nicely bound (listed price is $40, but I was able to buy it for $29 with free shipping). Although I am only about 50 pages in, I am hooked.

The book is structured similar to On Beauty. There are a wealth of famous and vividly done illustrations and paintings that accompany Eco's essays, as well as copious citations from contemporary writers on the theme of ugliness. Since this isn't intended to be a full review (otherwise, I would have waited until I was finished with the book!), I'll just be content to say that Eco is much, much more than a very talented novelist. His literary criticisms and scholarly works are also worth reading and if the remaining 400 pages holds up to the promise of the first 50, On Ugliness might be a worthy addition to the number of outstanding works Eco has written.


I also received my purchased copy (alas, no freebies for this one!) of the second part of Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tale, In the Cities of Coin and Spice. Fitting that I would receive this now, just a day after its official publication date, considering that the first volume, In the Night Garden, is a finalist for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (see my review of the book and my ranking of the WFA finalists in the October 2007 archives).

I am greatly looking forward to reading this continuation of those fascinating stories-within-stories that Valente constructed so well in the first volume. Hopefully, I'll have a review of this up around the end of the week or perhaps early next week.

And after these, probably some non-fiction or non-genre works. Or maybe some early Nalo Hopkinson or Sheree R. Thomas's anthology, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. Have to keep mixing it up, or else the batteries will run dry.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Personal Rankings of the WFA Finalists for Best Novel, Best Collection

With the exception of three novels that I had read back in November and December of 2006, I have spent the past two months reading and reviewing each of the finalists (5 each) for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and for Best Collection. In my reviews (which may be found by clicking on the tags below), I did my best to note not just what I myself felt were the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, but I also tried to examine these stories from how the authors approached telling them and to what degree they managed to accomplish their apparent aims. So here are my "rankings" in order of preferred finish, with some commentary to follow:

Best Collection (Single-Author)

5. Glen Hirshberg, American Morons

4. Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes

3. Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

2. M. Rickert, Map of Dreams

1. Jeffrey Ford, The Empire of Ice Cream

With the exception of the Hirshberg (whose stories for the most part did not "work" as well for me as perhaps they might have for others), it was very difficult to rank #1-4. In most ways, the authors managed to achieve their apparent aims within most of the stories, so in the end it came down to inventiveness and substance. Lanagan came in at #4 more because of the shorter-paged stories than because of any perceived lack of talent or imagination, of which she has scads of both. Considering her "target" audience, the YA market, she has done very well with a difficult task.

I almost placed Clarke at #2, but held back due to this feeling that her stories were a bit too polished, that they lacked a sense of roughness and exploration that many of the finest SF and fantasy short story classics over the years have contained. Clarke does extremely well-drawn characters and situations, but there is a sense of "distance" that developed between me and the stories. Although I certainly could see her winning this award, I believe that the next two are even better in the sense of capturing a mood to which I could relate well.

I went back and forth between Rickert and Ford for the #1 and #2 positions. Each of these authors displayed a wide range of styles in their collections and I enjoyed virtually every single one of them. Rickert in particular captures that sense of people longing for something better in their lives, that belief that there is something "different," if not "better," around the corner. However, Ford not only shows these sorts of emotional longings as well, he also manages to depict human worries, motives, and uncertainties just a bit better than Rickert, and it is for this reason that I have chosen The Empire of Ice Cream as the best of the finalists for Best Collection.

Best Novel:

5. Stephen King, Lisey's Story

4. Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

3. Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword

2. Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Sidon

1. Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden

It was a little bit easier for me to place these five books into a #1-5 ranking. While I spent some time elaborating within their individual reviews the degree of "award-worthiness" that I saw (while also trying again to take into account authorial intent and accomplishment of apparent aims), I shall briefly explain why I placed these in this order.

King was the easiest choice. While the writing style at times engaged, too often it was a bit clunky and just annoyed me. I felt the pacing was a bit erratic and could have been streamlined without losing effect. While the "personal" nature of the story was done fairly well, as a whole, the story just didn't "click" with me.

It was a tough battle between Lynch and Kushner for #3. In the end, I felt that Lynch's first novel in the planned seven-volume Gentleman Bastards series, while better than average for the caper subgenre of the heroic/epic fantasy branch, showed some weaknesses in style and in pacing. While I understood the point and need for the flashbacks to convey mystery and to help explain plot events using minimal print, they did interrupt the flow of the narrative a bit too much for my liking. It was a first (published) novel and with the usual rookie mistakes (which I feel confident will be addressed in future volumes as his writing matures and he develops his voice), Lynch maybe should not have appeared so quickly on the World Fantasy Award shortlist.

Kushner felt like a "safe" choice for nomination: Nice, fluid writing style, with characters who were developed quickly and yet were mostly well-rounded in this installment of her Riverside series. But "safe" is a two-edged sword here. There were no really daring chances taken with the prose, such as what Hal Duncan did last year with his WFA-nominated debut novel, Vellum, nor did it ever feel as though this "coming of age" story would ever approach the powerfulness of Haruki Murakami's 2006 winner, Kafka on the Shore. Kusher's book was solid, but only that in my opinion.

When I first read the final two back in late 2006, I debated for a long time in my personal ranking of my Best of 2006 which ought to be higher. There is much going for either choice. Wolfe is a master prose writer, in both the short and long forms. In this third volume of the Latro/Soldier series, he equals the mystery and the nuanced feel of the first two volumes. Latro is one of my favorite Wolfe characters and I found his development (such as it could be) here to be fascinating. There was a more palpable sense of urgency in Wolfe's story than there was in Kushner's, however it was trumped in my opinion by what Valente manages to achieve in her first major-release book.

Valente's prose is very poetic and flowing, but more importantly, her story was easily the most inventive of the five in regards to how the book was structured. Eschewing a linear approach, Valente takes The Arabian Nights as a model and then just mods the hell out of it, akin to what video game fanatics would do with their machines in order to fit in other appliances and thus applications. Valente's tales within the overall frame story structure begin as familiar motifs. Quickly, however, those motifs are torn apart and we are thrown into a wild and often unpredictable melding of Eastern and Western fables that have a multitude of twists. I came out of that with a very deep appreciation for the chutzpah that Valente displayed and amazed at how well she managed to accomplish all of that. For those reasons, I choose Valente as my #1 read out of the WFA finalists.

Books That Merited Consideration or Should Have Made It:

It is a very difficult choice for the judges to select among hundreds of books each year, and individual tastes will play a major role in determining which books are shortlisted each year. Doesn't mean, however, that reviewers and genre fans such as myself cannot provide a list of books that would have made good alternates for those ultimately chosen. So below are some of the books that I believe were deserving of at least consideration for the shortlists:

Jeff VanderMeer, Shriek: An Afterword. Out of the 2006 books that I read in 2006, this was my #1 choice for Best Read of 2006. VanderMeer expands upon a character introduced in his City of Saints and Madmen mosaic novel, the Ambergris historian Duncan Shriek, and this "afterword" of his life, mysterious disappearance, and his relationship with his sister Janice was told in a fashion that I found to be engaging and wanting more. It had just enough of a balance between the rather unique style of "edits" and backstory to make for a read that I felt was very "personal" in tone and thus one that has remained in my thoughts well after I finished reading the last page back in late December.

It is rather fitting that Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o's first novel in almost twenty years, Wizard of the Crow, is next, as it was due directly to VanderMeer's mention of it in a Locus Online article back in January that made me aware of a novel that already is one of my top choices for my Best Read of 2007 for a Prior Year. A "magic realist" novel set in an imagined African country (but which has quite a few parallels with Kenya's post-colonial history), it is in turns a comic and a heartbreaking novel about the corruption and grandiose dreams of those from the immediate post-colonial era whose desires for a different political reality became corrupted by the lure of power and wealth. The eponymous "wizard" is an everyman of sorts who manages to make his way through this land of torture, paranoia, and graft and it is his story that makes this tale a perfect complement for Dave Eggers' What is the What, which I hope to review shortly on my other blog.

I was surprised to see that Neil Gaiman's most recent short story collection, Fragile Things, did not make the WFA shortlist, especially since many of the stories contained within had won multiple awards in recent years. I certainly found it to be better than American Morons and I believe that a collection containing major award-winning stories such as "A Study in Emerald" and "Closing Time" (which I believe deserved their wins) ought to have been considered for this prestigious award. Surprising that it was not.

Campbell Award-nominated author Sarah Monette's second volume in her four-volume The Doctrine of Labyrinths series was a very enjoyable read whose dual first-person narratives within each chapter allowed for a greater ability to depict other characters and scenes while still maintaining the strong personality approach that makes the use of first-person narratives effective on occasion. Monette is a very talented writer and perhaps in the very near future, whether on her own or writing in collaboration with Elizabeth Bear, or perhaps for her own short fiction, I think she might develop into one of those authors who appear regularly on the awards shortlists.

M. John Harrison's 2006 UK release, Nova Swing, merits mention here because of its selection as the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner for Best Novel. Although perhaps it'll be eligible for the WFA (although I suspect that may not be the case) next year, after reading it recently after its recent release here in the US, I cannot help but place it on this alternate list. I'll try to write a review of it in the coming weeks, once I've given my mind enough time to process everything that happened within that excellent novel.

Since a secondary value for awards and their shortlists is the discussion value and the prompting of alternate selection mentioning, it is my hope that my comments on each of the shortlisted books/collections and this list of five alternates that I would have held up for consideration will be of some interest and perhaps benefit. Please feel free to share here what you thought of the books, my alternates, and perhaps post other deserving books that I too may have overlooked among the many excellent 2006 releases. I hope to have a similar list for the Best of 2007 coming up in late December or early January 2008.

WFA Best Collection Finalist: Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

When Susanna Clarke released her charming first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in September 2004, it quickly was lauded as being one of the wittier and more genteel of fantasy novels to have been published in recent years. Many readers noted the stylistic similarities to Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, and Anthony Trollope among others, and it is this Regency/Early Victorian style of writing, with sentences and phrases that appear to be as well-mannered as the characters that people her stories, that perhaps was one reason why Clarke very quickly became a crossover success, becoming a bestseller and winner of the 2005 Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

However, there have been many fans who have been clamoring for more stories set in that Regency period world of magic's "reawakening" and the mysterious figure of the Raven King. Although most of the eight stories contained within were first published before Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the recent release of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories ought to serve as a good appetizer while we await further news of more Strange and Norrell (mis)adventures.

The stories themselves are structured in much the same way as events in the novel. There are many sly turns of phrases, the satire is subtle and yet usually spot-on, and the stories feel as though they are extensions of the copious footnotes found in the novel (in fact, the title story explains in full a certain footnote found in Ch. 43 of the novel). While only the first story explicitly refers to Strange and Norrell, most of the others in this collection hark back to events that were mentioned in passing in the novel, especially those related to the Raven King. Related in tone but not in events to the others, there is a story about the Duke of Wellington that originally was included in an extension of sorts of Neil Gaiman's Stardust.
I am of two minds when trying to evaluate this story as an award finalist. While I do believe the stories are uniformly well-written and well-told, there just was not that "spark" in them that I got out of a couple of the other finalists. This is not a criticism of Clarke, who fairly much accomplished her story goals, but rather a statement of personal taste. Those who were enamored with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will very much like these tales, but others might find them to be a bit too well-mannered and dressed-up for the rough-and-tumble sort of fantasy short that many laud as being the best in the genre. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories certainly has to be one of the favorites for the WFA Best Collection Award, but I hold it as being slightly lower in my personal appraisal of the finalists.

WFA Best Collection Finalist: M. Rickert's Map of Dreams

All life is death. You don't fool yourself about this anymore. You slash at the perfect canvas with strokes of paint and replace the perfect picture of your imagination with the reality of what you are capable of. From death, and sorrow, and compromise, you create. This is what it means, you finally realize, to be alive.

This quote, taken from near the end of "The Chambered Fruit," the last story in this wonderful debut collection by World Fantasy Award-nominated short story writer M. Rickert, serves as a recapitulation of sorts some of the themes that run through its 313 pages. Fantasy does not have to be about re-creating down to the tiniest detail facets of our shared life on this planet. It can, and does here in Map of Dreams, illustrates just what imaginative wonders and horrors that we can conjure up from the depths of our hurt, anguish, frustration as well as from our joys and hopes. The stories contained within Map of Dreams are not always cheerful ones. Some very bad things are happening to the characters, but yet even through this we come to see allegories to our own worries and troubles in our own lives and in the lives of those near and dear to us. The word "fantasy" originally had a meaning of "revelation" or of the unveiling of mysteries that bedeviled people. Rickert has written these stories collected in Map of Dreams.

The collection begins with the eponymous story, which is really a 100 page short novel dealing with a woman witnessing her daughter's murder and her real (and imagined) flight across the globe trying to relive the event and to prevent it. From Australian Aborigine dreamscapes to the familiar world of family and friends deserted in her quest, the story becomes haunting, with literal and figurative illusions marking Annie Merchant's Quixotic quest. By the time the powerful ending is revealed, the tone has been set for the other stories in this collection.

For the most part, these stories live up to the promise of the first (or rather, since the first tale was published last, it lives up to the promise of the other stories). There are scenes of obsession and terror, but also tender and moving moments. In his Afterword, editor Gordon Van Gelder compares Rickert's stories to those of the great magic realists, such as Gabriel García Márquez, especially for how the events in "The Chambered Fruit" unfold and conclude. There is something to this, I agree, but I ought to note that Rickert is not slavish in holding to this form, as each of her stories shows a willingness to experiment. The results may not always be pretty, but I found them to be enjoyable, provocative stories that have stuck in my head perhaps a bit more than the others. Definitely worth consideration for the WFA this year, maybe as a top 3 selection.

Publication Date: October 1, 2006 (US), Hardcover

Publisher: Golden Gryphon Press

WFA Finalist Review: Stephen King's Lisey's Story

This is the last of the five World Fantasy Award finalists that I am reviewing. The only true stand-alone of the five, Stephen King's Lisey's Story is also the only story set in contemporary times. Whether this results in a greater sense of familiarity and an ability to relate well with the characters deals much more with the author's writing skills than it does with the milieu. Going into reading this story, I had some qualms about how well King might be able to pull off a complex and touching story without irritating me in the process. King has been such a hot and cold author, being the source of such outstanding shorter fiction such as "Children of the Corn" and "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," while some of his full-length novels (such as the latter Dark Tower novels) have been so dull and clunky that I have not managed yet to even attempt the sixth or seventh volumes in that series. Lisey's Story contains elements of both, as it alternately drew me in, only to then make me lose interest.

The Basics:

Lisey Landon's husband, Scott, was a world-famous author who has been dead for two years as the story opens. Lisey has not quite recovered from that and much of the first section of the book deals with her grief and the memories found within old clippings and photographs from their time living in Nashville before moving to Maine.

During this rather long exposition, the reader is introduced to Lisey's catatonic sister, Amanda,
as well as to various people associated with Scott's life and work, including some obsessive fans who may be modelled on King's own stalkers or perhaps on the infamous garbage-sifting "Dylanologists" that plagued singer/songwriter Bob Dylan for years in the late 1960s and 1970s. When Lisey discovers a "hidden" writing of Scott's and when Amanda starts speaking in a hauntingly familiar voice one night, it is the beginning of a supernatural thriller that draws them and those keenly interested in the sources for Scott's creativity into a terrifying past and a world whose dangers become very real for Lisey and others around her. But yet within this terror lies a story of an enduring love and in some senses, the ending returns to the opening section's meditation on love lost and turns it on its head. King thus takes the joke about playing a country song backwards and achieves something that may be appealing or frustrating to those reading this 513 page novel.


Lisey's Story has a rather "personal" style about it. Although told in third-person PoV, King's prose is very idiosyncratic in order to attempt to capture the "hidden" language of love and affection that Scott and Lisey shared during their 25 years of marriage. At times, this prose permitted closer understanding and connections with the characters, so in that sense, it worked. The end part, when Lisey has come to understand the quiet moments in Scott's life that he couldn't then begin to think of sharing with her when he was alive, was also written well.


Although I said above that the prose at times permitted the reader to draw closer to the characters, the style was a bit too much and became rather annoying. I believe that a more streamlined approach taken after the characters were established would have allowed for a smoother transition from the very long exposition stage into the series of conflicts that built up to the climax and then the resolution. It just wasn't a very exciting beginning and even in the end parts, there were times that I felt the pace was off, that it was taking too long to get to the point of the story. Although it didn't "ruin" the story for me, it certainly made it difficult at times to enjoy.


This simply was not one of King's best efforts. It was flawed, but at least it was flawed from trying to capture those "special moments" that loving couples share. As an ambitious near-failure, I would still rate it higher than those stories who just tell a well-written tale of nothing. But in a field in which each of the finalists is expected to showcase something remarkable within its pages, Lisey's Story is rather lacking. There are other books that should have received a WFA nomination over this one.

Friday, October 26, 2007

WFA Finalist Review: Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden

Catherynne M. Valente's first "major release," The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden, differs significantly from the other finalists. While the other three finalists that I reviewed so far were either the beginning or the continuation of a multi-volume saga, Valente's book is not so much a novel as it is a frame story that has dozens of other stories nested within it. This makes for a reading experience that is unlike most of the fiction that is published under the SF aegis every year. Whether or not one will enjoy this type of story depends heavily upon the skills of the author and how well each story relates to each other and to the frame story.

The Basics:The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden is the first volume of a duology (the second volume, The Orphan's Tale: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, is due to be released next week in the US). It opens with a deceivingly simple frame story: A girl with odd, tattooed eyes has been sequestered in a garden. Nearby, a boy prince lives. Curious, this boy wanders into this forbidden zone and he and the girl strike up a conversation. Fascinated by her eyes, the prince becomes more and more enthralled with the stories that she begins to tell. These stories, which often involve people, animals, and situations that might at first glance seem akin to those of The Arabian Nights, quickly bend and twist preconceived notions of how a fairy tale ought to commence and end. Monsters have a sensitive side. Transformations occur that are not wholly undesired. Dreams beget dreams and a whole host of possibilities and alternate meanings arise within the texts of stories that feel "familiar" to readers. And through it all, these themes revert back to the frame tale and perhaps to our own fascination with stories and the imagined possibilities that fairy tales bear. This volume ends with dawn breaking and the stories ending; albeit only for a time and perhaps with a more ominous tale to emerge from this meeting of the prince and the mysterious tattooed girl.

Valente demonstrates here the ability to create vivid tales that bear only just enough of a passing resemblance to "traditional" European fairy tales to seem familiar, but which also contain elements of Eastern legends and things more modern in scope and feel. She displays a great talent for turning a phrase and to making the various characters and situations feel as though if they were first told by bards or minstrels rather than being composed by a single author in the first years of the 21st century. In the Night Garden shows more creativity and imagination than virtually every other recent release in fantasy literature. In a field where the created vistas are praised, Valente's prose and the resulting imagery stands out.

This is not her first novel, but it certainly is more reader-friendly than the beautifully poetic/prose works like Yume no Hon that she had published prior to In the Night Garden. As I said above, she really demonstrates an ability with the English language, but in this case, it feels more "natural" and less "distant" than what I have read of her earlier works. In the Night Garden very well may be her masterpiece and that alone ought to earn her praise for years to come in genre circles.


In the Night Garden
is not a book that you can read quickly, if one even ought to desire to do so. As a series of interconnected stories, it is easy for the inattentive reader or one with a short attention span to get "lost" among the myriad shifts of setting, characters, and motives. Although Valente keeps the descriptions to a relatively concise level, some readers used to a more spare writing style may find her writing to be a bit too ornate for their tastes. Finally, some people would rather read a linear novel than to read a rapidly-changing series of stories that in places only vaguely connect to each other and to the frame story.

If the World Fantasy Awards were awarded solely on the basis of inventiveness, In the Night Garden would certainly get the nod. But since they are distributed as much on the ability to craft a story and to create a memorable setting, it is tough to predict how In the Night Garden will fare. Personally, right now (with the King still remaining to be read and reviewed) I would say that the two most deserving candidates are Wolfe and Valente. Not only does she demonstrate an ability to imagine a vivid world in which to people her creative stories, but her writing and characterization are up to that huge task. I chose In the Night Garden over Soldier of Sidon last year in my Best 2006 Releases post here on the OF Blog, and I'm again going to give the edge to Valente, although it certainly would not surprise or disappoint me if Wolfe or even Kushner were to be chosen the winner.

WFA Finalist Review: Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Sidon

The third of the five WFA finalists to be reviewed, in many ways this third novel in Gene Wolfe's Soldier series (the first two, Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete, are now available in the omnibus Latro in the Mist after having been published almost 20 years before Soldier of Sidon) fits perfectly between the books already reviewed (Kushner, Lynch) and the next WFA finalist to be reviewed shortly, Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden. Wolfe's book shares many elements with each of these others, while still containing plot devices and a style that make this work stand out.

The Basics:

Latro is a mercenary (indeed, we learn that the word "latro" just means that, as the narrator has forgotten even his own name) who in the first volume suffered a mysterious head wound on the battlefields of the Persian War (499-479 BCE). Left bereft of most of his memory of prior days when he falls asleep, Latro is a man whose identity (and in some key ways, personality) shifts from day to day and from the people he associates. However, Latro was also "gifted," if one dares to use such a word without an ironic qualifier implied, with the ability to see and to converse with the gods of the ancient Mediterranean world. Instructed by a goddess (who seems to appear in many guises in the novels to date) to seek the headwaters of the Nile if he wanted to have his memory restored, Latro writes down each day's events on a papyrus scroll. Along the way, he meets many people familiar and strange alike, some of whom he apparently knew in his forgotten past. By the time Soldier of Sidon opens, Latro is on his way to Egypt.

There, he encounters sorcerers, enchanted places, and people whose personalities seem to change with each passing "day." Latro begins to half-remember some of the events of his past, but the contents of those remembrances are questionable and the reader has to pay very close attention to the narrative, as Latro perhaps is not the most reliable of narrators. The novel concludes with Latro approaching his original goal, but with some additional motives now.


It is nigh impossible to summarize the plot concisely and without spoilers. This volume flows very smoothly from the previous two volumes, despite the 17 years that separated this volume from the previous one. Latro is an engaging character and many readers will relate to his struggles. The ancient world is a fascinating and mysterious place, and Wolfe's narrative approach of leaving much unsaid or altered allows for a very high re-read factor, as it is almost certain that the reader will not get everything the first or even the second time reading it. Loaded with allegorical possibilities, Soldier of Sidon is a novel that contains a wealth of symbolic meanings. The more a reader knows of the time period and its cultures, the more Wolfe's breadth and depth of knowledge will impress.


Soldier of Sidon is not a book for those who want a quick and simple read. Those who want just a fun adventurous romp would best be advised that reading Wolfe requires more mental commitment from the reader. While this is not a "weakness" per se, it does hamper the novel (and series)'s "accessibility." Dense as it is, many readers may just grow frustrated with it and quit, although if they have reached the third volume, generally this will not be an issue.


Despite the accessibility issue I raised above, Soldier of Sidon is one of my two co-favorites to win this award. Wolfe's writing is very sharp, even sharper than that of Kushner's, and there are some adventurous moments that rival those of Lynch's first novel. What sets Wolfe apart from the previous two (and only Valente manages to match this in her own way) is his ability to layer his text with all sorts of allegorical, religious, and historical allusions without having a bloated work. At 319 hardcover pages, Soldier of Sidon is the shortest of the five finalists. However, with the possible exception of Valente's book, it contains more internal and external action per page than any of the others. This book certainly deserves its nomination and likely will be the winner or runner-up this year.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Review of Steven Erikson's The Lees of Laughter's End

Although The Lees of Laughter's End is the third novella starring the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach and their manservant Emancipor Reese, it is in chronological sequence the second of the three novellas (Blood Follows being the first; The Healthy Dead the third). It is of a whole with these two, as Erikson manages to showcase once again a very biting satiric wit in the course of telling the story.

Aboard ship stories are rarely enjoyable reads for me, as all too often authors will devolve towards the most inane of stock expressions and "sailor talk." Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to see what Erikson tend to send up the naval talk, as it really made the story much more enjoyable than it would have been if Erikson hadn't played so loose and free with the PoVs and the events.

The Lees of Laughter's End involves various monsters not yet encountered in the Malazan world. Told (and then later shown) in a creepy, stutter-step quick fashion, these creatures are not just slightly redone versions of tentacle-laden krakens. Instead, Erikson uses ties to already-introduced beings, the ever mysterious Warrens, and a sense of cat-and-mouse play with some very, very wry observations that will make most readers chuckle or laugh in surprise during what might otherwise be a ho-drum sort of situation.

Since Erikson has developed his three main characters for this novella beforehand, I would argue that reading at least Blood Follows might serve to make this read here even more enjoyable. The "fishing" scene was really nicely done, but without seeing before what the necromancers have been up to in the course of their travels, it might not be as funny for many readers. But for those of you who have read the other limited-edition novellas, this certainly is on par with them, although I do not know if I would place this higher than the other two, as I see them all as being parts of a piece. But I certainly do recommend this and the other novellas to Erikson fans, as it fleshes out some of the world without giving away too much for the upcoming conflicts.

WFA Finalist Review: Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora

This is the second of the five reviews I plan on writing by the end of the month for the finalists for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Like the two that shall follow this, I first read this book last year and this review is more of an expansion of sentiments that I posted elsewhere and not a wholly new review as it is, in case the tone here is different than what might be expected.

The Basics:

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first of a planned seven novel sequence called The Gentleman Bastards. Set in a Venetian-style city called Camorr, with its gondolas and canals, the story might at first glance have a more "Mediterranean" feel to it than what might be expected out of what appears to be little more than a "fun caper" subtype of the multi-volume secondary-world fantasy. However, it is the characters that at least partially redeem the rather stock feel of the setting.

The plot here revolves around Locke Lamora, a sort of Robin Hood fellow without wearing those hideous green tights. He and a close childhood friend, Jean, head up a gang of thieves. Not robbers or strongmen, although when the time calls for it they can do just that, but thieves, because of this sense of responsibility and derring-do that makes for an interesting throwback to caper stories of the early 20th century. Their machinations and what results from them serves as a hook for the readers looking for nothin' but a good time, helping to ease the reader into what really is a very long story that depends in part upon character flashbacks for the entire picture to develop. So when the scene has been set and the real action begins, one will have already read close to half of the 500 page novel to arrive at that point.


Lynch's characters carry the plot here. Not enough of the slowly unfolding story has been revealed yet for that to drive the reader to push on past barrels full of "unique substances" and other quaint but ultimately small events. So it takes strong, interesting characters to get the reader involved and to care enough about them to wonder, "What happens next?" Locke and Jean in particular are the core here, with their long-running friendship, the struggles they have to overcome as the main villain makes his late entrance upon the stage, and how they interact with others in their group. These two characters I believe Lynch fairly much nailed for what he wanted to do in The Lies of Locke Lamora, and it shall be interesting to see how they develop in the upcoming books.


Although Lynch has a deft touch in regards to dialogue and small character detail, there is much work to do in order to make the overall plot leaner and meaner. While I understood the rationale behind the frequent flashback sequences, I felt it was a bit too much and that it detracted from the flow of the narrative. The pacing just felt like it was all over the board, first going fast, then slowing it down for some character introductions at length, to fast for a moment, then some more flashbacks, and then back again. Alternating between flooring it and slamming on the brakes is a good way to screw up a car's engine and I think this is true as well for pacing mechanics in a novel. I took a few breaks last year when reading The Lies of Locke Lamora precisely because I was starting to get a bit frustrated with how Lynch had developed his plot pacing.


The Lies of Locke Lamora certainly is a fine first effort from an author who entertains without being too shallow or predictable with his plotting or his characterizations. However, there are some concerns that I had about how the book was structured, things that I believe ought to be worked out in the future volumes, as Lynch does have the potential to be more than just an above the epic fantasy writer average author. But right now, out of the four novels I've read (the King will be read in a few days and reviewed next week), the Lynch has the poorest style and grasp of storyline mechanics. He is a good to very good author in a category where there are some really outstanding prose authors, so I just cannot see him winning this award. Rookies rarely win MVPs and I believe that also applies in fictional award balloting.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

WFA Finalist Review: Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword

Note: This is the first of the five finalists for the 2007 World Fantasy Award finalists for Best Novel that I shall review in the next couple of weeks. The format for this shall differ somewhat from recent reviews in order to focus on the award-worthiness of each of these books.

The basics:

The Privilege of the Sword, like all but one of the other finalists, is part of a larger series. In this particular case, it shares characters and setting with two earlier novels, Swordspoint (1987) and The Fall of the Kings (2002; co-authored with Delia Sherman). Unlike the other finalists, whose earlier books in their series I have read, this is my first exposure to Kushner's Riverside series. From what I have learned from reading about those works, this entry is some years after the end of Swordspoint and that one of that earlier novel's main characters, Alec Campion (the Mad Duke), has a rather rich and interesting backstory that would have enriched my understanding of his role in The Privilege of the Sword if I had read it. However, I found that I did not need to have read the earlier novels in order to follow the main themes and storylines in The Privilege of the Sword.

The main character here is Katherine, the young niece of the Mad Duke. She is sent for by him on a caprice to be trained in swordplay, in part to see what social conventions of Riverside society he can flout and also to see if Katherine indeed would be capable of mastering the sword. The story revolves around Katherine's training, her struggles to adapt to the often "scandalous" (when viewed from the conservative, country point of view in which Katherine was acculturated) habits and lifestyle of her uncle, and her developing relationships with the people in her uncle's social circle with whom she interacts and starts to "come of age" as a result. Since Riverside society revolves around a dueling culture, much of the conflicts in The Privilege of the Sword deal with matters of social etiquette and how to handle one's self just as adroitly as a trained swordsman is to handle his or her sword. This novel is more of a bildungsroman than an action novel and character interactions and development are key to driving the plot here.


Kushner has a very "human" world in this story. Riverside, although technically a "fantasy" setting, feels very "real" due to the very human foibles committed and the various ways in which the characters interact, sometimes misunderstand, and eventually relate with one another. Her writing is very fluid, with not much wasted on extraneous description. The events flow into one another very well, and Katherine's conflicts and interactions with others develop at a pace which does not slow down the plot. It is a well-told tale, with quite a few pointed comments about modern societal attitudes regarding gender roles, sexuality, and adolescent development that manages to be strong without becoming preachy or distracting from the story experience.


Although The Privilege of the Sword is very well-written and the plot unfolds at a satisfactory pace, it rarely fails to rise above the merely good or competent level for me. Although I did find Katherine and the other characters around her to be well-drawn, there just was no real sense of them being "special" characters for me. It was hard at times to relate to some of the situations presented, not because of a difference in gender, but more because despite the first-person PoV used to tell Katherine's tale, I just felt a sense of distance, as if I were reading the memoirs of someone trying to remember (and sometimes purposely forget) his or her past, instead of that PoV character capturing that sense of immediacy that often makes first-person PoVs so effective to read. This was a fairly major weakness for me, as it really lessened the reading experience. I just did not have as much emotional involvement in this story as I would have liked to have had, although for the most part, the writing and the plot developments, strengthened by the well-drawn characters, did make the story enjoyable in the end.


I certainly do believe that The Privilege of the Sword is one of the better-written books of 2006 among those that I have read. However, I just did not find it to stand out in such a way as to lead me to believe that I would be able to recall the characters and main plot developments years or even months from now. As I said above, it is a very competent novel. It appears to achieve most, if not all, of Kushner's probable aims when she was writing it. However, it just is not a very memorable story for me, as it felt like many other "coming of age" stories that I've read over the years. So while I certainly could see this being in the running for the award, I personally would not choose this as the #1 book among the five finalists.

WFA Reviews, Other Stuff

Since the World Fantasy Awards will be announced in about two weeks, I'm going to do my best to finish up my reading of the remaining finalists for the story collection category (still have M. Rickert's Map of Dreams and Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories left to read/review), as well as post longer reviews of the three Best Novel finalists that I read in 2006 (not to mention finish reading Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword and Stephen King's Lisey's Story). Expect to see those reviews starting either later this weekend or by next weekend at the latest.

Also, I've received quite a few review copies in the past couple of weeks and while some regrettably will have to wait a bit before I can get to them, do expect to see reviews of the following before the year is out:

Josh Conviser, Empire

Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, Fleet of Worlds

Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, A Companion to Wolves

There certainly will be many others that I shall read/review, but with my professional life being what it is now, it's hard to predict how much time/energy I'll have in the next few months for reading/reviewing. I hope to get through another 50-60 books this year, but with many of them by necessity of my job being non-genre fiction, it's hard to say how many of those will be recent spec fic works. Regardless, it hopefully shall be an entertaining experience for me and one that shall perhaps lead to many good books for the readers here to consider.

P.S. One non-genre book that I'm reading now is Dave Eggers' "novelization" of the life of Sudanese refugee and activist Valentino Ackak Deng, called What is the What. This book has garnered lots of praise and "Best of 2006" accolades in newspapers across the US and 250 pages in, it has surpassed my high expectations. Probably will review it here in the next week or two.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Review of Shaun Tan's The Arrival

Before I write the review proper, I would like to thank Jeff VanderMeer for making me aware of this wonderful book in a short post on his blog.

2007 has been a very good year for new books. Whether it be re-working of iconic events in American history (Emma Bull's Territory, which fuses the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Chinese folk magic) or the long-awaited English translation of some of Andrzej Sapkowski's work (The Last Wish story collection), among a great many others that come to mind, rarely have I had such a ready supply of enjoyable and well-written books that I know I can re-read over and over again and still get enjoyment. However, it has been years since I have marveled over how a story was constructed and executed. Shaun Tan's The Arrival (published in the US earlier this month) is one of those rare stories.

I have tried to formulate my thoughts into a systematic review, but this may be one of the few times that I'll just say "Look at the cover! If you like that shit, wait until you see what's within, as there's more where that came from!" The Arrival is being billed as a "wordless" graphic novel, where the action is shown in images and any "writing" that appears is in an invented script. This forces the "reader" to focus on each individual illustration and then compare that to the ones before and after to see the story that is unfolding.

Although this one holds the potential for a unique form of storytelling, if there isn't an emotional story to be seen in the images, then all the excellent and detailed illustrations in the world would not be able to make the story memorable. Thankfully, Tan has chosen a powerful story that practically demands this form of storytelling: that of an immigrant to a new land. Using the late 19th century trans-Atlantic wave of immigration to the United States as well as the more recent migration move from the Pacific Rim countries to Tan's native Australia as a model, Tan shows us a fantastical voyage of a father parting from his family for a time to live in a strange new land, with these odd and yet sometimes endearing creatures that live among humans.

When viewing these images, I felt a shared sense of hope, sadness, frustration, anger, resolution, among many others. I have read many immigrant accounts and seen many photos of places such as Ellis Island over the course of my many years as a history major and a social studies teacher. This is the first time that a created world has managed to capture that same set of emotions as I have had when reading those historical accounts. I am considering photocopying a couple of these images (with proper attribution to Tan and with educational purposes, as per the Fair Use Act, before any worry about that) and using this in some of my classes to show in images just how powerful and traumatic of an event migration has been in human history. I also believe that regardless of one's own ancestral history, this book will make for a moving and enjoyable experience. Sometimes, a picture (or in this case, an illustration) is worth much more than a thousand words. This is one of those times. "Read" it.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Review of Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things

Neil Gaiman is a jack-of-all-trades; he writes in such diverse modes such as graphic novels (comics), short fiction, and novel-length fiction. He has turned two earlier short stories ("Snow, Glass, Apples" and "Murder Mysteries") into radio plays, and another story he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Dave McKean, Mirrormask, was turned into a film that Gaiman helped produce. He is an author of diverse talents and his range of storytelling modes is impressive.

In much of his work, Gaiman uses as rather conversational, empathic characterization approach to highlight dramatic tension in his stories, especially his short fiction. One of the more disturbing pieces from his first short short collection, Smoke and Mirrors, was the story "The Mouse Trap," which used both literal (the attempted baiting of a mouse) to underscore the figurative (the emotions that the female protagonist was feeling due to the events of the story). It was very effective and one of Gaiman's best short stories.

I mention these styles and devices employed in earlier works because in many ways, his latest collection, 2006's Fragile Things (which recently won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection) is more of the same. However, there are a few reservations that I have about the collection as a whole, which I shall address later.

Fragile Things contain mostly reprints of Gaiman's stories from 1995-2006, including those tales not chosen for 1998's Smoke and Mirrors. Many of the stories included here either won or were up for awards such as the Hugos, the Nebulas, and the WFA, among others both in and outside the United States. For the most part, those stories, especially the Lovecraftian/Conan Doyle-influenced "A Study in Emerald", are excellent examples of how effective Gaiman can be as a short fiction writer. Those stories set up the action quickly, are unsettling enough to make the endings unpredictable at first to the reader, the characterization and the internal and external tensions within all combine to create a satisfying conclusion. Other highlights of this collection are "Closing Time," "October in the Chair," the 2007 Hugo-nominated "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," and the underrated "The Problem of Susan."

However good these individual stories might be, their impact can be lessened if those around them are not as strong. Unfortunately, Gaiman has chosen to continue including some very short pieces and poems between these longer pieces. Perhaps he does so out of a combination of wanting to break up the pattern of having just the longer reprinted pieces, but I was left wondering if those stories were included just to pad out the volume. Those shorter tales just did not connect with me and I believe they detract from the overall experience of the collection.

As a collection, Fragile Things is only united in one aspect, that of the relatively fragile nature of many of the relationships discussed in these stories. For the most part, the characters are not assured, confident people and their apparent searches for meaning do drive much of the action. However, there isn't a consistent style that runs from story to story here and it became rather clear to me that this was more a collection of previous publications and a few new pieces than it was a thematic collection.

This, however, is a minor quibble. The stories I noted above are strong enough to make this collection on par with Smoke and Mirrors, but not enough to make it standout in comparison to that first collection. It is a collection worthy of consideration for many Best Of awards, so highly recommended for people here, especially for Gaiman fans.

Publication Date: September 26, 2006 (US), Hardcover; October 2, 2007 (US), Tradeback

Publisher: HarperCollins

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Reviews of Charles de Lint's The Ivory and the Horn, Promises to Keep

Ever found yourself in a bad place, feeling trapped, with hardly any way to go? A situation that perhaps seems so dark, so miserable as to make you just want to find any sort of release? Or perhaps have you ever seen people close to you become so despondent that they just seem to shrink into their own body shells and just wither away on the inside? If so, have you ever read stories that just seem to take those worst elements of our lives, twist them about, show all of their ugliness in a bright shining mirror, causing a fading of all that darkness and a renewal of hope?

In many ways, whenever I read a Charles de Lint story, it's as though he just knows what it's like to be down and out and he sets out to put it all there on paper, warts and mistakes and all, in order to expose those festering dark things to the light of a renewed hope. I know there are many who claim to read fantasy for "escape," but it is impossible to "escape" from such sordid things such as rape, abuse, neglect, and drug and other addictions when reading de Lint. Instead, he chooses to confront each of these fears and evils in his stories. The results may not always be pretty, but they certain are cathartic.

In the first of two de Lint books that I received and read this past week, the just-reprinted 1995 collection The Ivory and the Horn, de Lint shows through the eyes of many characters many of the places, such as the broken-down and ghetto-like the Tombs, that he would later explore at length in his full-length novels set in the mythical town of Newford. Whether it be the down-on-her luck Maisie, the aptly-named charitable worker Angel, the caring free-spirit/artist Jilly Coppercorn, or the self-conscious Brenda, each of these characters has a complex and dark history, one that threatens to overwhelm them in these 15 stories included here.

When I read these tales over a three-day period, I noticed that de Lint spends a lot of time concentrating on issues of salvaging what can be salvaged in a person. These characters, most of them women, have been through hell in many cases. Although I will talk about Jilly more later in this dual review, her plight, which is hinted at in bits and pieces in the centerpiece story "The Wishing Well" and in other stories and novels (including the novels The Onion Girl (2002) and Widdershins (2006)), is one that sets the tone for this collection. She is hopeful and cheerful, but under that is a determined fighter who cannot rest for a moment in her fight against her inner demons. She is there in crucial places to lend strength to friends such as Brenda, who have succumbed to their own inner demons. De Lint personifies these nefarious impulses and addictions by using various guises in these stories, but he also has fleeting forces of good to appear, sometimes in the form of a dead woman or a mysterious elder, in order to help that person make a new start.

"The Wishing Well," at around 70 pages, makes up almost one-quarter of the collection. It serves as a prime example of de Lint's rather personal, sometimes dark approach towards telling his stories. Starring Brenda, a newspaper editor friend of Jilly and Wendy, it is a cautionary tale of self-consciousness and the perils that our image-conscious society on those who just only want to fit in and not stand out. Told in a mixture of PoVs, from Brenda's to her friends to her new boyfriend, the tale jumps and skitters about. Sometimes, it appears it's about to go off the rails and lose its focus, only to return with a vengeance to Brenda. Slavic rusalka, water/fertility nymphs, make a mysterious appearance in this tale of longing and of self-loathing. Although I will not give away the ending, I will say that it is fitting for the general tone of the collection: there are no easy answers, only opportunities to live and fight another day.

As a collection, The Ivory and the Horn was very enjoyable to read. Despite the occasional passage that dragged or the sense that a few of the stories could have been pruned, de Lint has a strong, positive message of hope and possible redemption in these stories. Although this poem by Theodore Roethke is never cited in any of the de Lint books that I've read, I think the opening stanza from his "The Waking" serves as a perfect summation of The Ivory and the Horn:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

But perhaps after reading The Ivory and the Horn or perhaps maybe a novel, say The Onion Girl or Widdershins due to their shared main character, you want to read more about Jilly Coppercorn and her origins. If The Onion Girl reveals a darkness in Jilly's past that returns to haunt her or if Widdershins serves as a coda of sorts, what about the "lost years" not cover by either story?

In this just-released short novel (clocking in at 173 pages) published by Subterranean Press in a limited-edition format, Promises to Keep focuses on the period of time after Jilly fled her abusive home life as a young teen but before she had completed the transformation into the artist Jilly Coppercorn that fans of de Lint have come to know and love.

Promises to Keep, set in Newford in 1972, deals with Jilly's past confronting her in the form of a youth home friend, Donna, who has miraculously reappeared in Jilly's life about four years after she had escaped from a downward spiral of drug addiction and prostitution. Donna seems to have reformed her life as well, being a member of a proto-punk band, and she invites Jilly to a concert. However, this concert is scheduled in a location that appears not to exist in this world and it is from there that the story, told both in flashback and in the literary present, begins.

Jilly finds herself confronting her demons in a place that serves as a metaphor for our desires for an easy reformation of our lives. What if we were given a chance to be happy, with only one little string attached? Would we be content to live in a place where the rules were already determined and that "escape" would be nigh impossible?

De Lint uses this situation presented to serve as an allegory for addiction and dependency. This is underscored by the concern, fear, and anger that Jilly's friends and loved ones feel towards her when they learn that she has disappeared on them. Because addiction is as much of a condition as it is a disease, de Lint highlights via the plot tensions just how pervasive such things can be in our thought systems, even when addicts think they have it beaten. How Jilly deals with this in storyline form (it would not be a spoiler to say that since this is a flashback episode to a point earlier in Jilly's life, that Jilly survives this scary situation) makes for a very jarring but yet ultimately enjoyable read.

While Promises to Keep does not pack the emotional punch to the junk that The Onion Girl did for me, it is a novel that is well worth reading, especially for fans of de Lint's prior works. A caveat, however: although de Lint himself claims in the blurb that Promises to Keep can serve as an excellent introduction to his Newford novels, I would suggest that the reader read his other works first, as much of the power of reading this comes from knowing what traumas Jilly has endured after the events of this novel have transpired. This, however, is a minor quibble in what I consider to be a worthy addition to most anyone's reading list.

Summary: Both The Ivory and the Horn and Promises to Keep are excellent examples of this nebulous entity called "contemporary urban fantasy." The stories are set in a mythical North American town called Newford and contain various recurring characters, with Jilly Coppercorn being the main character in the novel Promises to Keep. Told in a mixture of first and limited third-person PoVs, de Lint's stories tend to deal with rather "adult" themes such as neglect, abuse, and addiction, as well as the ways that people are warned by "spirits" about the paths that they follow. In most cases, there is a sense of redemption presented for the characters to seize, but the reader is shown that this redemption is but the beginning of what probably will be a long and arduous journey for the characters. Despite a few passages that are a bit lengthy and expository in nature, de Lint's writing and characterization generally are strong enough to elicit strong emotional reactions from many readers. Highly recommended for those who prefer their fantasy tales to contain recipes on how to deal with some very difficult "real world" issues.

Publication Dates:

Promises to Keep: September 25, 2007 (US), Hardcover
The Ivory and the Horn: October 2, 2007 (US; reprint), Tradeback


Promises to Keep: Subterranean Press
The Ivory and the Horn: Orb (an imprint of Tor)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Jeff Somers, The Electric Church

The Electric Church by Jeff Somers

    The Electric Church by Jeff Somers is a near future dystopian techno-thriller novel. In Somers’ creation, some short time from present our world’s political structure breaks down in a series of uprisings and wars. From out of this chaos, a single ruling organization emerges, the System of Federated Nations, all the world is ruled by a single Joint Council. The System Police enforce the will of the JC and the System. Over the course of 20 some years, a number of riots, unifications, eliminations, etc. has created a mostly destroyed world, were a vast majority of the world’s population lives in poverty and in near constant fear of the System Police… with good reason as the System 'Pigs' are ruthless, corrupt, and as likely to kill the poor as look at them.

    Avery Cates, the first person PoV, is a bad man. He’s a contract killer, though an honorable one. In fact, he’s no worse than most anyone else, just trying to stay alive, when doing that past the age of 25 is something of an achievement. The only hope in this world is to make the most of what you can if you’re not already rich. Or, you can join the Electric Church and become immortal… of course, to do so, your body is killed and your mind dumped into robotic body so that one can ponder salvation for eternity. It is fitting and interesting how Cates, very much a non-hero, is portrayed in this book. One certainly doesn’t hate him, but you can only like him as much as he likes himself.

    Cates finds himself offered an impossible job by one of the top System officials, covertly of course. He’s to kill a very important man. He’s to succeed where much more skilled men have failed. Oh, and he’s not going to get much help, beyond what he can put together for himself. Cates puts together a rag-tag crew of talented criminals and sets about doing a job that will likely kill them all... and quickly.

    I found that I greatly enjoyed this story. It’s short, under 400 pages, and moves very quickly. Cates is a good PoV, and the first person style makes the action-filled story all that much more immediate. The action is good, the characters are interesting, and there is a good deal of fatalistic humor, a marker of any good crime/caper novel in my opinion. Somers world is stark, and the premise is very intriguing to me. While not overly visceral or gritty, the story is still dark, humorous and intense.

    One of the few weaknesses, that I could see, is that it with the exception of two characters, there really isn’t a lot of female characters in Somers’ world. There are a couple, but they are simply there… one gets the impression, while reading, that Cates sees a world predominately populated by men. I don’t know if there was a reason for this, but it felt like a hole to me. Other than that, this is a very strong novel.

    The Electric Church by Jeff Somers is an action/crime story with a compelling main character. This book is a quick and entertaining read, and will be the first in a series. I for one strongly recommend the story to anyone, and I do mean anyone. For those who enjoy the works of Richard Morgan, Matthew Stover, or movies like Blade Runner and Escape from New York… this recommendation goes double for you.

Tobias Buckell, Ragamuffin

Ragamuffin by Tobias Buckell

    Tobias Buckell’s second novel, Ragamuffin, a sequel to his well-received debut, Crystal Rain, follows the same form that Buckell established in his first. The novel comes in at a little over 300 pages in the hardcover form, tiny compared with most of books being published these days. However, the story being told is anything but small. Buckell is just not wasting any words.

    Unlike the first novel, where the entire story plays out on a single world, in a struggle between two primarily human forces, Ragamuffin greatly expands the scope of both Buckell’s universe, and the issues being presented by the story. The story begins on a far away world in the universe that Crystal Rain’s world, Nanegeda, has been cut off from for over 300 hundred years. There are a few alien races encountered, though more are dwelling behind the scenes of the novel. The focus of this book is the human plight in this Universe, subject to a race called the Satraps either directly or through the influence of other Satrapy controlled species.

    Nashara, the new prime character in this novel, is on the run from Satrapy controlled forces and attempting to find a free human holding in the universe. Nashara was from a planet called Chimson, founded by the same people who founded Nanegeda, and she was originally sent on a mission to try to reconnect with that settlement. Both Chimson and Nanegeda have been removed from the system, so Nashara is trying to improvise… with very mixed results.

    John de Brun, Pepper, and Jerome, primary characters from Crystal Rain, also play a prominent role in this novel, roughly 7 years after the events in CR.

    Overall, I enjoyed this novel, and found it just as rewarding as the first. Again, I maintain that the book could use another 20 to 30 pages to more fully develop characters, political situations, and even a few of the scenes. While the quick development and pacing of the story does lead to a very vibrant story, a little more here and there could do a great deal of help. Still this is a fun and entertaining read, complete with an interesting created universe, and the development of some interesting political and social dynamics to add depth to the narrative.

    My primary complaint about the novel is that I felt the very end of the novel fell more than a little short. The story had a great build to climax, then all of the sudden there are a quick succession of many short little chapters that jump from character to character, situation to situation. It isn’t exactly clear what is being addressed. What exactly is the fallout and development after the climax? What is the relationship between what happened and the the final few scenes? The book just seemed to blow apart a bit in the last 20 pages or so.

    Ragamuffin by Tobias Buckell is a solid space opera novel, a great sequel to a very strong first novel. Nashara, Pepper, and John de Brun are interesting characters. All in all, I certainly recommend both Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin to any and all readers.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Another thoughtful MJH blog article and a commentary on an obit

Although there was an earlier blog article back in February about a related issue of "worldbuilding," M. John Harrison has recently expounded upon this in a very provocative blog entry this week. It certainly is food for thought, especially for those readers such as myself who enjoy not knowing how each step in the story (or by extension, the writing process) was constructed. Sometimes, a bit of strangeness goes a long way in shocking us out of our "normal" trains of thoughts. Shall be interesting to see what the blogosphere will make of this, considering the ruckus last February.


Last night, I came across a link to an obituary of sorts regarding Robert Jordan's recent death. It was a rather odd read, careening from lamenting about how "popular" fantasies are not judged leniently (or fairly) by the "critical elites" (with a few odd references to Le Guin and Ligotti which were not developed) to a sort of lengthy breakdown of how the series didn't "work" for many. Dropping Gemmell like a hot potato after mentioning a anecdote about last year's World Fantasy Convention, the writer goes on to take a few potshots at Stephen King's The Dark Tower series while noting how it felt to many that the WoT series had "gone off the rails," although perhaps not "Crazy Train" style.

When reading it, I couldn't tell what exactly the writer hoped to achieve with this entry. Was he burying or praising RJ, or trying to do both at the same time? Was the intended focus on the person who just died, or on the problems with the eleven main WoT books published in the author's lifetime? Is RJ an author worthy of the mass lamentations, as the opener seems to indicate by inference, or was the corpus of work rather more of a colossial failure?

So many different ways of reading this article that it is hard to tell for sure just what really was the purpose of this piece. Perhaps in time it'll come to me.


Later this weekend, I hope to have a joint review of two recent Charles de Lint releases/re-releases, Promises to Keep and The Ivory and the Horn, as well as a review of Neil Gaiman's 2006 short story collection, Fragile Things, for people to read. Later this month, I hope to read at least some of the following novels for reviews here:

Karl Schroeder, Queen of Candesce

Martin H. Greenberg and Loren L. Coleman (eds.), Wizards, Inc.

Peter Dickinson, Angel Isle

Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Wyvernhall

Jeff Somers, The Electric Church

Faith Hunter, Host

Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory

As well as writing reviews of various novels/collections that I've purchased in recent weeks, including reviews of all the WFA finalists for Best Novel and Best Story Collection. Hopefully, October will be a much more active month for me on the blogosphere than was September. Looking forward to reading these and other books and reviewing them here and on my other blog.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Review of Jeffrey Ford's WFA-nominated The Empire of Ice Cream

Lately, it seems that every time that I click on Locus or search through the usual suspects on the Blogosphere, that I encounter Jeffrey Ford's name. It might be for a story of his being published in some upcoming anthology, or perhaps a recommendation on a website for readers to read his excellent trilogy of stories that star Cley the Physiognomist. Sometimes, I'll read a glowing review of his Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque or his recent 2007 Nebula Award-nominated novel, Girl in the Glass. The guy is prolific and based on what I have read of his works, he is a very talented writer.

But until I decided to purchase his 2006 short story collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, after learning it was up for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection, I never had read more than excerpts of any of his short stories. After recently completing a read-through of the 14 stories contained in The Empire of Ice Cream, I regret that I had procrastinated in reading them, as these are some of the more moving and well-written short stories that I've read in quite some time.

Although these stories were written over a period of years, there are some common characteristics that the stories share. In particular, I noticed that the narrators tend to have this sense of wonder, as if the world they are experiencing is totally new and unexpected to them. After reading many cynical and self-referencing stories over the years, this is a refreshing change of pace.

But without a gripping story told with a measured pace, the stories would mean little. However, although it's been almost a month since I read it, I can still see visual images such as that of the title story, where the narrator "smells" a new world with each fragrant whiff of coffee that floats to his nose.

Or perhaps I ought to spend some time discussing the novella "Botch Town" that is also up for a WFA for Best Novella this year. It is one of the cornerstones of this collection and it is, as Ford himself says in the story notes, a homage of sorts to the town where he grew up and to the various people, good and not-so-good alike, that he came to know during his time living there. This story in particular "lives" in the sense that one can connect with the narrator, empathize with what is going on, connect the supporting characters with people we've known growing up, all with a style that makes it feel both comfortable and mysterious at the same time.

As a whole, The Empire of Ice Cream reads very fast, as it was very difficult for me to read just one or two stories at a time. No, I wanted to read them all, to embrace them as old friends, to just reflect upon the emotions that reading these tales invoked in me. This was a damn fine collection from one of the more criminally-overlooked authors of the fantastic out there today. Go out and buy this ASAP.

Summary: The Empire of Ice Cream is a 2006 collection of short stories from 2002-2006, most of them reprints from earlier anthologies, that is up for consideration for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Ranging from nostalgic whimsy to something a bit darker and almost sinister, these fourteen tales are superbly-written, with the title story and "Botch Town" (itself up for a WFA for Best Novella) being the two firsts among equals in this collection. Might be one of the favorites to win in this category. Highly, highly recommended.

Publication Date: April 2006 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Golden Gryphon Press

Review of Glen Hirshberg's WFA-Nominated American Morons

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee:--
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest: I see thee still;
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.

MacBeth, Act II Scene I

Horror is more than just a sudden visceral image of splattered guts or corpse faces forever locked into twisted images of bloodcurdling terror. Horror is something of the mind, perhaps present, perhaps just a figment of an overexcited imagination. In some of the best horror stories, we do not know until near the end whether or not the sensations that the characters are feeling are due to real or imagined stimuli.

In Glen Hirshberg's World Fantasy Award-nominated short story collection, American Morons, there are moments in each of these stories where the characters have a palpable sense of dread. Sometimes, this sense is false and the characters move on, shaken but still alive, while at other times, the dread proves to be a harbinger for something more ghastly than what the characters (and by extension, the reader) might expect.

American Morons contains seven stories within its 191 pages. The strongest of these is the title story, which deals with an American couple whose car breaks down in Italy and their "help" may have other things on their minds than being Good Samaritans. This story manages to hit all of the emotional buttons at the right time, causing the reader to take heed of the characters' plight, of their psychological problems, of the rising tension where the heart starts to pound and the breaths come out ragged and quick. "American Morons" serves as the perfect introduction to this collection.

However, many of the other stories do not fulfill completely the promise of the first tale. Sometimes things are explained a bit too much, letting the perceptive reader see the mirrors being employed for the narrative illusion due to take place. Other stories, like "Safety Clowns," take too long to develop and that crisis moment feels more like a "this sucks" moment rather than a "OMG! What can I do?" one.

Although these relatively minor flaws in pacing prevent me from believing American Morons to be the best of the five collections nominated for the WFA this year, the stories are worth reading and considering.

Summary: American Morons is a 2006 story collection that is up for a WFA for Best Single-Author Collection. Comprised of seven stories over 191 pages, American Morons takes "real-life" settings and twists and warps them in ways that provide moments of terror for the characters. Despite the strong promise of the opening title story, the other stories vary somewhat in mood and in quality, leading to a reading experience that ranges from superb down to merely good. Despite this, the stories have enough positives going for them to merit a read. Recommended for short story aficionados.

Release Date: October 2006 (US), Hardcover

Publisher: Earthling

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Thoughts on Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn novels and Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth

Although I finished reading both the two Mistborn novels (The Final Empire and the recently-released sequel, The Well of Ascension) by Brandon Sanderson and Brian Ruckley's just-released debut trilogy opener, Winterbirth, a couple of months ago, I have been searching for how best to say what I want about these novels that will not repeat what others (including my colleague here, Jake, has said about the two Mistborn novels and about Winterbirth). So, after almost three months of deliberations, I am going to be talking more generally about what these books brought to mind more than about specific strengths and weaknesses of the individual books. Hopefully, this will serve as a complement to some of the reviews out there.

Over the past couple of years, I have noticed a shift of sorts in the labelling and promoting multi-volume epic fantasies. Starting with the rise in popularity around 2000 of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series after the publication of its lauded third volume, A Storm of Swords, many more epic fantasies were published that eschewed the older formula of a naive adolescent or bumpkin isolated from the currents of his/her society who would, under the almost-always temporary tutelage of a mage/mentor, rise out of obscurity to save the city/kingdom/world realm from the evil machinations of some long-slumbering but finally awake dark evil force. Instead, series such as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing, or Gregory Keyes's latest series that began with The Briar King concentrated much more on world-wise and weary protagonists or on a "good" that wasn't necessarily Ivory pure or a "bad" that wasn't Thorogood-style bad to the bone. The characters often suffered in much more explicit ways than the protagonists of most of the earlier epic fantasies of the 1970s and 1980s appeared to suffer, and occasionally lead supporting characters would die rather than overcoming miraculously their wounds or surviving the long odds against them. The descriptor "gritty" was applied to these works, setting them off from the older works, which were often perceived as being puerile or outdated in the minds of many of their supporters.

Brian Ruckley's debut novel in his Godless World trilogy, Winterbirth, is the latest of these series to be labelled with this "gritty" tag. Alex Lencicki, the Marketing and Publicity Director for Orbit US, in the press kit describes Winterbirth as "invok[ing] the violence of 300 and the epic scope of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a book about honor, fanaticism, and war, set in a landscape that is as grim as it is dramatic."

To an extent, this is true. The action here is very unrelenting and grim. It opens with a prologue devoted to a heroic scene from a group that perhaps might best be viewed as being "the bad guys." This group, the Black Road, has an apocalyptic religious world-view and their flight into exile, depicted in that same prologue, ends up with them returning to their old stomping grounds over a generation later. In the interim, there are many tribal-like groups fighting for political dominance in a clan-based hierarchy, with leaders/rulers called Thanes leading each of these clans. Those familiar with Gaelic (Scottish even more so than pre-Strongbow Irish) history will almost immediately notice the similarities in these often chaotic power-sharing arrangements.

While I would agree with those who say that the setting feels "gritty" and more "realistic" than a great many other epic fantasies on the market, I cannot give unqualified praise to this novel. The first two-thirds of Winterbirth were rather sluggish, being overly devoted to showing Thane this and supporter that, not to mention there was this sense of an anachronistic world-view when it came to power arrangements. While the clan-like structures ostensibly represent a sort of cod-honor-based system, the religious movements and organization of the Black Road in particular was much more strongly aligned with the world-views and perceptions of people living after an Age of Science-type revolution. This clash in values probably explains why I had a difficult time relating to the characters and their situations, as I could not ignore this sense of "wrongness" about the societies and I think this boiled over into how I approached the characters. There were some seemingly important characters that were killed during the course of this novel, but I was unable to form any sense of attachment to them, thus weakening the novel's impact in my opinion. In many cases, the "grittiness" just did not lead to a very well-realized novel, although there certainly were enough positives, including the mostly well-done development of the apparent "bad guy" of the series, for me to at least desire to read the second volume to see if the promising glints that I caught might be developed enough to make this a worthwhile series.

Before I discuss Brandon Sanderson's novels, I want to use a quote taken from the Publishers Weekly starred review of Winterbirth to highlight a point about that novel and the two Mistborn novels:

The author's unapologetically stark yet darkly poetic narrative displays a refreshing lack of stereotypical genre conventions, ensuring a fervent audience of epic fantasy fans looking for something innovative in a genre that can be anything but.
This quote highlights a divide that appears to be occurring these days in epic fantasies. Many reviewers and readers have come to equate dark, "gritty" fantasies with "refreshing lack of stereotypical genre conventions," as if being all of this one style makes that style somehow automatically better than books that might be more closely aligned with an older style of genre conventions. It is hard, of course, to be "innovative" when everybody else is starting to move into what you are wanting to do, and I think this is something to keep in mind in the coming years as I suspect we'll start to see a backlash of sorts against the overly "gritty" fantasies, just as we've been seeing backlashes against the farmboy trope, the inclusion of doughty dwarves and aloof elves in D&D-style derivative narratives, or of the ten-plus volumes of a WoT-like mega-epic. I started college just when "Alternative" pushed aside the "Hair Metal" bands and when it was oh-so-cool to be ironic and non-conformist in a way that conformed with many others being ironic and non-conformist. Nihil sub sole novus est...

But just because one chooses to use some of the older conventions does not mean that the story cannot be enjoyable or even innovative in places. Those who believe this might point out Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, now with the second volume, The Well of Ascension, in bookstores. There are no real shades of grey characters driving the plot, nor are there buckets of blood waiting to be poured out on the battlefields with vultures circling off in the distance. Instead, we see something a bit smaller, something perhaps more akin to a naive country bumpkin stumbling upon a great inner power, but we see it done differently and perhaps with more sincerity behind it.

Sanderson in his novels has started with a rather interesting question: What would happen if a prophesized hero were to fail at his task? What if the destined Frodo-like character had instead seized the forbidden power and had become corrupted? What would happen in a world where a Dark Lord would indeed reign for a thousand years?

This is an interesting premise and in enticing teaser quotes that open each chapter of both The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension, we see that matters of good and evil can belie the simple surface layer and be complex without having to have explicit suffering and bloodshed. Archetypes such as the Thief and the Thief's Assistant are recast in these novels in ways that revitalize those character types and which introduce elements of surprise, attachment, and ultimately mourning. While Sanderson's prose is far from what I would call elegant, it certainly is serviceable for the needs of this tale and the characterizations and dialogue are an improvement over his first published novel, Elantris. The above-described Kelsier and Vin, while ultimately quite powerful in their mastery of a rather unique form of magic called allomancy (where there are 10 commonly-known metals that can be "burned" by adepts in short spurts to provide certain powers such as increased strength or the ability to mask oneself from other adepts), are rather more flawed and human-like in their actions and interactions with others than what often has been the case in multi-volume epic fantasies. It is rather obvious from reading Sanderson's novels and his interviews that the author is an optimistic person and in these novels, that sense of hope and joy of life pervades the pages and provides a lighter view of the imagined world than what one would find in the "gritty" novels such as Winterbirth.

While I ultimately liked the Mistborn novels a slight bit more than Winterbirth, I have to admit that each ultimately accomplishes most of their intended goals. While Winterbirth mostly captures that sense of a grim, rugged, violent "reality" that Ruckley sought to show in his narrative, Sanderson's Mistborn novels radiate a more positive, "light" approach towards storytelling that serves to demonstrate that one can take an older model and still find some innovative approaches left to explore. Although there are many flaws in both in regards to the pacing and plot structuring, I would in the end recommend both of these for readers based on whichever style they happen to prefer most.

Publication Dates: Winterbirth, September 10, 2007 (US), 2006 (UK), Tradeback (US), Paperback, Hardcover (UK). Publisher: Orbit Books

Mistborn: The Final Empire, 2006 (US), Hardcover. 2007, Paperback.

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension, August 2007 (US), Hardcover. Publisher: Tor
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