Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Blogger Hop January 29th - February 4th: Jeppe Carlsen Created a Video Game Named "140"

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Can you pass by a book store without stopping in?

It really depends upon the kind of book store we are talking about.

For a regular book store like Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble, unless I'm looking for a specific new release, I'm probably not going to just stop by and browse. Even then, I'm generally likely to skip shopping for new books at a book store in favor of waiting until I am at a convention and can make my purchases from the book sellers in the dealer's hall.

Used book stores, on the other hand, are essentially unskippable for me. If I am in the vicinity of a used book store, it is virtually guaranteed that I will swing by and see what they have on the shelves. Half of the fun is wandering through the disorganized piles of books and combing through the shelves, looking to find just the right books to add to my collection and my ever-growing Mount To-Be-Read, and I pretty much never voluntarily pass up an opportunity to do so.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: Hadrian's Tomb Was Completed in 139 A.D.
Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: 141 Is a Blum Integer

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review - Ms. Marvel: Last Days by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Short review: In one half of the book, Ms. Marvel helps her fellow Jersey City residents deal with the end of the world. In the other half, she helps Spider-Man rescue a baby from a maniacal Kree geneticist.

The end of the world
Khan takes care of her loved ones
Spider-Man team up!

Full review: The fourth installment in the Ms. Marvel series featuring precocious teenaged super-hero Kamala Khan, this volume is split into two parts: In the first, Kamala must face the impending end of the world alongside her friends, family, and a guest appearance by her super-heroic idol, while in the second, Kamala finds herself in Manhattan fighting alongside spider-man. Both parts of this book are well-written, but they are completely disconnected, making this more like two works of shorter fiction rather than a single narrative. In addition, this volume suffers from the problem common to many works set in the Marvel universe, as elements of the plot intersect with other stories which means that certain things happen in this volume that are neither explained or resolved within its pages. Even so, this is an excellent book that shows what it means to be a true hero.

The first half of this volume is dedicated to the title theme of the book, as Kamala Khan and Jersey City face what could be the end of the world. That all seems far away on the opening pages as Khan is still trying to deal with the heartbreak of over the end of her brief fling with Kamran, the perfect Muslim boy who turned out to be an Inhuman just like her, but who also turned out to be a deceptive scoundrel intent on recruiting Kamala into the employ of a supervillain. That is all forgotten in fairly short order, as it turns out that a small planet seems to be hurtling towards Manhattan, and everyone is panicking. The important part of this section is that Khan and Jersey City face this impending disaster together, or at least Khan, as Ms. Marvel, attempts to help her fellow Jersey City residents deal with the oncoming doom.

For much of this story line, Ms. Marvel isn't duking it out with powerful villains. Instead, she spends her time helping her friends to safety, ensuring her family is taken care of , and helping organize her community into a shelter that will take care of their needs in this unsettled time. This section also has a guest appearance by Carol Danvers, better known as the original Ms. Marvel, now operating under the name Captain Marvel, who has come to check up on the teenager who has taken her former heroic name. Together, the pair turn some looters from exacerbating the problem to helping ameliorate it, come across an apartment full of kittens, and track down and save Kamala's missing brother Aamir. Along the way they deal with both of the villainous Inhuman teenagers who first appeared in the previous volume Crushed, and discover that Kamran's plans for Aamir have taken an unexpected turn.

After bonding with Carol Danvers, it is time to part, but not without some affirmation from Kamala's role model, and also some rather sobering words: Kamala desperately wants to save everyone who needs help, but there's only one of her, and she simply cannot. In a rather ominous bit of conversation, Danvers  tells Kamala that she will one day have to choose who to save and who to leave to their own devices. This entire volume highlights how super-heroes, if they existed, could change the world for the better, at least as long as they were as idealistic and empathetic as Kamala Khan is. In the midst of chaos, rather than rushing off to punch a villain in the head, Khan spends her time and uses her powers to help those around her in relatively mundane ways, and becomes the glue that holds together her community.

Even when Khan is dealing with the world ending and a visit from the original Ms. Marvel, the core of the story remains her relationships with her friends and family. Most of the volume is taken up with Kamala rushing about Jersey City to put out metaphorical fires caused by the mysterious oncoming apocalypse, but she also has to deal with more intimate, personal issues. Driven by the urgency engendered by the crisis, Kamala opens up to her mother, and receives unexpected support. In other parts of the story, Kamala discovers that her brother is a more complex and loving individual than she thought, and also that he does not share her desire to be a super-hero, but is rather content with who he is. The story also delves deeper into Kamala's relationships with her peers, moving away from the action and adventure of many super-hero stories to focus on the emotional support system around her - and spending some time illustrating how her costumed activities have caused her to neglect some of these friendships.

As with many other stories set in the Marvel universe, one might expect Last Days to suffer a bit from its obligatory intersections with other titles put out by the publisher, but in this volume the confusion resulting from the unexplained events intruding upon the story serves to enhance the experience. Kamala doesn't understand what is going on, what kind of mission Captain Marvel has to run off to complete, or even what the nature of the threat is, so the reader's disorientation stemming from these unexplained elements parallels the that of the protagonist. In some cases, keeping the reader in the dark is a mistake, but this is not one of them. This particular story line does end quite abruptly, which is a little jarring, but considering the subject matter, this is probably to be expected.

The other story line contained in this volume is a cross-over adventure that pairs Ms. Marvel up with Spider-Man, and also includes an appearance by Silk. When a group of masked criminals kidnap some patients from a hospital while being led by a blue woman in the original Ms. Marvel's old costume, Kamala leaps into action, saying the Ms. Marvels need to stick up for one another. At the same time, Peter Parker, in the middle of trying to run his start-up company with the distraction of having Cindy Moon in the same room. When an attempt by Anna Marconi to convince Peter that he doesn't have to rush off to save everyone as Spider-Man backfires, the web slinger finds himself teamed up with Khan as they fight the kidnappers, who turn out to be led by the rogue Kree geneticist Doctor Minerva. A fracas ensues, highlighted by Kamala's fangirlish excitement over being teamed up with Spider-Man, and Parker's usual dry wit and gallows humor.

This story is much more typically "super-heroic" than the apocalyptic story line it is paired with in this volume, involving a super-villain and her henchmen in the midst of committing a crime being confronted by some super-heroes trying to stop her. Much of this section is simply a knock down fight between the super-heroes and the villain, punctuated by pithy quips and dastardly monologuing. Despite the high drama and danger posed by the deadly Kree villainess this portion of the book feels almost frivolous after the weight of the Last Days material, making it an almost necessary counterbalance to the darker tones of the earlier story line. That is not to say that this segment is entirely given over to punches and laser blasts: As always Kamala's primary concern is with saving the innocent rather than defeating the villain, and that focus turns one of her foes into a friend. There is also a minor but meaningful redemption arc contained in these pages, as Parker shows that he believes in second chances. Also included is the unveiling of Silk's new costume, an event that is almost entirely unrelated to anything else in this book.

While the two halves of this book are very different, and pretty much completely disconnected from one another, this is an enjoyable and important installment in the Ms. Marvel series. The two parts are connected mostly by Ms. Marvel herself, but they are also connected thematically by Kamala's interactions with the older, more established super-heroes Captain Marvel and Spider-Man, both of whom take the time to tell the young teenager that she's doing the right thing. More important to Kamala is the moment when she receives the same reassurance from her Ammi, reinforcing the dominant theme of this series that it isn't the super-powers that are critical, but rather how one relates to those around them. In both of the story lines contained in Last Days, Kamala shows that she is a kinder and gentler super-hero whose most important characteristic is that she cares about others, which is her greatest strength, and may be, as hinted at in this volume, her Achilles heel. What makes the Ms. Marvel series truly special is not merely Kamala herself, but also her cast of supporting characters, and they are at the core of this volume, and it is their relationships that make it an excellent book.

Previous book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Crushed
Subsequent book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Super Famous

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

G. Willow Wilson     Adrian Alphona     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review - Ms. Marvel: Crushed by G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, and Elmo Bondoc

Short review: Kamala Khan has gained some mastery over her super powers, but she's still a teenager, and just as susceptible to a crush as any other high school kid.

A case from S.H.I.E.L.D.
Plus a visit from Loki
And bittersweet love

Full review: The third volume in the Ms. Marvel series, Crushed is an even more personal story for Kamala Khan than the first two were, thrusting her into the middle of problems, some of which are typical of an American teenager, some of which are probably typical of a Muslim-American teenager, and some of which are unique to a super powered teenager. With a cameo by Loki, agent of Asgard, and a plot involving some very intimate choices, this is both a larger story and a smaller story than that contained in previous volumes, but it is still an excellent portrayal of the problems faced by and the worries of an immigrant child thrust into being a super-hero.

This volume opens far from Ms. Marvel's Jersey City home, in the halls of Asgard as Loki attempts to explain why his efforts to stop a frost giant invasion resulted in copious amounts of horse manure being spread about the realm. This misstep earns him a brief reassignment to Jersey City to hunt for traces of the Ms. Marvel's foe the Inventor, which puts Loki right in Kamala Khan's path. Or rather, right in Kamala's friend Bruno's path. Once Loki discovers Bruno's secret crush on Kamala, he steps in to try to help out, but being Loki, his well-intentioned assistance is just about as close to the opposite of helpful as one can get. Through some twists and turns, Kamala, Bruno, and Loki all end up at a high school dance, and then things come together, with Loki spiking the punch with some truth serum, and Kamala taking exception to that sort of thing. Everything sorts out reasonably well by the end in this mostly humorous interlude in the story, but it does serve to highlight some aspects of the world in which Kamala lives. While she clearly loves her parents, she chafes at the restrictions they place upon her, both the ones imposed because she is a teenager, and the ones imposed upon her because she is a Muslim woman.

The portion of the story does prime Kamala for romance by suggesting to her the heretofore unthought of possibility that someone might be smitten with her. But for Kamala, the path to a relationship is full of hazards, not the least of which are the expectations of her culture and her parents. Almost on cue, Kamala's parents introduce her to Kamran, the son of a family friend. Her parents favor him because he is both a promising student applying for early admission to M.IT. and a Muslim. After some initial resistance, Kamal falls for him when she discovers he is also a fan of online games. While out on something of a date (under the watchful eye of Kamala's brother), Kamala has to shift into her alter ego to deal with an unexpected threat, and Kamran ends up revealing a secret of his own. The romance between the two rushes along, with Kamala feeling the heady rush of falling in love for the first time.

This being a super-hero story, Medusa's fears expressed early in the volume are all too prescient, and the true dangers Kamala faces are not physical at all. The story line following Kamala and Kamran's budding relationship exemplifies what elevates Ms. Marvel above the ordinary graphic story: Despite her considerable super-powers, Kamala is still a teenager, and Wilson never forgets this salient fact. Wilson also doesn't ever forget that having super-powers doesn't actually help very much with the struggles that a teenaged girl is likely to find important. On the other hand, having super-powers is likely to make Kamala a target for those who would attempt to manipulate her, which means that rather than ameliorating the confusion and emotional vulnerability that comes from being a high school aged girl, the ability to embiggen one's limbs serves to exacerbate them.

Though the emotional story of this volume is excellent, the book does fall down in some areas, mostly due to the shared nature of the Marvel universe. When Loki passes through in the early pages, his introduction feels somewhat arbitrary, and his departure is incredibly abrupt. His presence feels almost artificial in nature. In addition, there is a story line in which some agents from S.H.I.E.L.D. blow through Jersey City's Coles Academic High School that seems quite forced, and doesn't really seem to go much of anywhere or add much to the story other than to further establish that Kamala is a big fan of her universe's super-heroes and heroic organizations. These intrusions side track the story, although they add some chaos and action. The main story, on the other hand, feel maddeningly incomplete. A villain is introduced more or less from nowhere, and the politics of New Attilan seem to have been turned upside down without warning or explanation. I don't think these issues are really Wilson's fault, they are simply the almost inevitable result of a fictional universe comprised of dozens of intertwined titles, but they do detract from the book and make it less accessible than a self-contained story would be.

Even with these quibbles, Ms. Marvel: Crushed is still an excellent book and a superior example of how to develop an interesting character in a graphic story. While the action and adventure are well-done, the real key to the title is the character of Kamala Khan and her cadre of friends, all of whom feel like very real teenagers dealing with the very real problems of growing up. Kamala's Muslim family, with all of the baggage that comes from being immigrants in a country they are still struggling to fit into just adds an additional, deeper layer of complexity to the story. While the super-heroes and super-villains who interact with Khan in the story help drive it forward, they are less important in some ways than the mundane inhabitants of her world: Kamala Khan is, quite simply, more interesting than Ms. Marvel, and it really is her story, and that is what makes Ms. Marvel such a brilliant piece of work.

Previous book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Generation Why
Subsequent book in the series: Ms. Marvel: Last Days

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

G. Willow Wilson     Takeshi Miyazawa     Elmo Bondoc     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, January 25, 2016

Musical Monday - Write Like the Wind (George R.R. Martin) by Paul & Storm

A few weeks ago, George R.R. Martin revealed that he was not finished with the draft of The Winds of Winter. This caused some rather predictable dismay among fans of the Song of Ice and Fire series. After all, the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996, and the last one, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, five years ago. Needless to say, some fans of the series have become just a little impatient with the long gaps between the release of each of the books. This somewhat goo-natured ribbing of Martin was first recorded and released in 2012, and now it is 2016 with no book yet in sight.

On the one hand, these complaints are understandable: Fans love the Song of Ice and Fire and want to be able to read more of it sooner rather than later. On the other hand, as Neil Gaiman has famously said "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch". Martin gets to decide how he will spend his time, and he has chosen to spend a fair chunk of it enjoying being the author of the most popular fantasy series currently being published. He is also enjoying being a consultant on the very popular HBO television series made out of his books. And Martin hasn't exactly been sitting around doing nothing else. He's published numerous novellas, edited a couple of anthologies, and completed a fair number of other projects in the years between 1996 and now.

On the gripping hand, beyond the fact that Martin doesn't owe readers anything, and hasn't exactly been resting on his laurels anyway, there is the reality that there is more fiction available for fantasy readers to consume than anyone could ever possibly keep up with. Authors such as N.K. Jemisin, Zen Cho, Naomi Novik, and others turn out excellent fiction on a regular basis. There are literally hundreds of works of fantasy available to read while waiting for Martin to complete his next book. I personally own several thousand volumes of genre fiction that I can read in the interim. While I understand that there is a desire to read more of this particular series, there is so much else available to read that waiting for a bit more before The Winds of Winter hits the book stores should pose no real hardship. One could, for example, look to the wide selection of books contained in Appendix E of the most recent edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook to find a large number of alternative fantasy books to choose from.

In any event, Paul & Storm's song is still hilarious.

Previous Musical Monday: Obama Mic Drop: 1999 by The Gregory Brothers
Subsequent Musical Monday: Shore Leave by Five Year Mission

Paul & Storm     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Book Blogger Hop January 22nd - January 28th: Hadrian's Tomb Was Completed in 139 A.D.

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Can you recall a time in your life when you were not reading?

Not really. I can vaguely remember learning how to read in kindergarten, so I suppose that my few memories from before then were of a time I couldn't read. On the other hand, I remember I had a board game about going to the moon (that didn't have a board, but rather just had a plastic sheet that served as a board) , and I can recall being able to read that even before I went to kindergarten, so maybe I pieced together some of the basics of reading before I got into the classroom. To be perfectly honest, when one goes that far back, all of my memories get a little bit hazy, so I can't really be sure.

Previous Book Blogger Hop: The Misfits Wrote the Song "We Are 138"

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Vol. 128, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2015) edited by Gordon van Gelder

Stories included:
Prisoners of Pandarius by Matthew Hughes
Lightning Jack's Last Ride by Dale Bailey
Jubilee: A Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer
Portrait of a Witch by Albert E. Cowdrey
Farewell Blues by Bud Webster
Telling Stories to the Sky by Eleanor Arnason
Out of the Jar by Eric Schwitzgebel
History's Best Places to Kiss by Nik Houser
The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner by Alan Baxter
The Man from X by Gregor Hartmann
The Gazelle Who Begged for Her Life by Francis Marion Soty

Poems included:
Robot Agonistes by Alan Ira Gordon
An Undiscovered Country by Robert Frazier

Science fact articles included:
Falling into the Unknowable by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy

Full review: Some issues of genre fiction magazines have themes that run through their stories, whether intentional or not. The January/February 2015 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is not one of those issues. There are a couple of stories that can be bundled together - there are a few folk tales, a couple of humorous works of light science fiction, and a couple of stories featuring the occult, but none of these connected bind together more than two of the stories in this volume's pages. If anything, the theme of this issue is "eclectic genre fiction". Fortunately, despite the disparate style of the various stories contained in it, this issue is mostly full of pretty good stories, and even the few stories that miss are worthy efforts.

Prisoners of Pandarius by Matthew Hughes is a heist story that turns into a mystery with a twinge of political intrigue all set in what seems to be a fairly standard fantasy world. Raffalon is a somewhat unhappy member of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Purloiners and Purveyors who was recently disappointed by what he judges to have been an unfair ruling by the masters of the Guild. Approached by the provostman turned sorcerer Cascor, Raffalon agrees to perform a break-in in exchange for information. After the robbery produces some unexpected results, Raffalon winds up imprisoned in a foreign city before a fortuitous turn of events sets everything to rights and the story ends. The characters are fun to follow around, and the individual scenes are well-crafted, but the story suffers somewhat due to the overly rushed ending and the fact that the nature of the nefarious plot that Raffalon almost unwittingly unravels is never actually explained.

A former NASCAR driver turned romantic outlaw, the title character of Lightning Jack's Last Ride by Dale Bailey hearkens back to the roots of stock car racing when moonshiners would try to outrace Federal authorities on the back roads of rural America. Except this story is set in the future, after NASCAR has collapsed due to gasoline shortages, and Lightning Jack's crimes are high stakes robberies involving hijacking moving tanker trucks full of precious gasoline. The story is told from the perspective of Gus March, former crew chief for Lightning Jack turned fellow outlaw as Gus looks back decades after Jack died, apparently in a car wreck during his final attempted hijacking. Except it turns out that isn't the true story, and the reality is both grimmer and more depressing than the dashing end provided by the video records. The story isn't so much a post-apocalyptic story as it is a mid-apocalyptic story, taking place during the chaos of a collapsing United States as sectional powers duel with central authority and ordinary folk just try to cope as the world bakes from global warming while coping with a decaying infrastructure built around the dying gasoline culture they grew up with. For anyone wanting to scratch their Mad Max or Car Wars itch, this story is perfect.

Jubilee: A Seastead Story by Naomi Kritzer is, unsurprisingly, another installment in Krizter's series concerning Seastead, a collection of offshore colonies of fugitives, libertarians, and desperate people living on ships converted into artificial islands in international waters. In this segment of the story, just on the brink of Seastead's Golden Jubilee, not one, but two plagues have swept the ships, either incapacitating or killing large numbers of seasteaders. One is a nano-tech plague that causes people to become fixated upon some task, and is called the "worker bee disease". The other is simply cholera. Beck, dealing with a newly arrived mother who wants to take her away to California, volunteers to help the Humanists as they attempt to get the surly and suspicious denizens of the various ships to let them try to halt the spread of these maladies. Under Beck's guidance, the Humanists navigate the quirky culture of the seastead and figure out what was causing the cholera epidemic, with the solution to the mystery illustrating in blunt terms why leaving the provision of public amenities to an unregulated private concern is probably a really bad idea. Despite Beck's affection for the place, seastead as presented is a nightmarish hellhole, which is about what one should probably expect from a lawless society run almost entirely by people seeking profits above everything else. The story itself rolls along fairly quickly, and in the end the plagues are put on the run, although it seems pretty clear that had there been some sort of functional government in place, many lives could have been saved.

An occult tinged mystery. Portrait of a Witch by Albert E. Cowdrey takes place on Little Antenora in the Caribbean, as hapless accountant Alfred Engle is pressured by the FBI into taking a position with the wealthy Lord Pye to help them unravel a series of murders that seem to be connected with Lady Pye. The story moves along, slowly building tension as it progresses from depicting a fairly bucolic, albeit somewhat quirky manor house on a remote island with an apparently kindly and generous English patron engaged in some minor and moderately benign lording over the native population and from there ratcheting things up the the revelation of the nastiness of Lady Pye and a couple of unexplained deaths. The story is somewhat devious, first making the reader think it is going in one direction and then reversing the field and dashing in the opposite direction. The only real weakness to the story is that the mystery isn't solved, so much as it is simply revealed when a character, for no real apparent reason at all, just explains everything near the end, almost as if Cowdrey got to the point where he was tired of the story and just wanted to cap it off in a hurry.

Set in a small town in the Louisiana bayou, Farewell Blues by Bud Webster features a jazz band that finds itself caught up in strange supernatural events that end up costing them their coronet player. Told by Juney Walker, a jazz trumpeter from the backwoods of Virginia, the story focuses on the small quartet, including Jake, who Juney describes as the best coronet player of all time. While the band is working a gig in a roadhouse in a town named Bayou Cane, strange things begin to happen, including the dead returning to walk among the living, and strange frog-like beasts rising up from the swamps. Despite these rather obvious supernatural events, the story has a dream-like quality that always seems to circle around the story, hinting at what is happening and what is at stake but never quite making everything clear until the big climax at the end, and even in its resolution the story has a bit of an enigmatic feel. There is a lot packed into this story ranging from a visitor from the dream world, to mysterious wise bayou dwellers, to reunions with dead relatives, to an epic battle against evil, but even with this much going on, the story avoids overflowing its bounds - although there are a few plot elements that are hinted at more than they are explained.

A story about a poor beggar girl who yearns to be a storyteller, Telling Stories to the Sky by Eleanor Arnason feels like it is itself a folk tale of the sort that would be told by a storyteller in the market square of an ancient trading city. The main character is an orphaned beggar girl named Swallow who loves stories, but cannot be a storyteller because of her gender, so instead she writes a story on a kite which ends up being carried away by the wind. In short order the North Wind asks her to join his court and tell him stories, which is where many stories would stop. But for Swallow her breezy benefactor is both a source of happiness and a source of troubles, which causes some interesting twists and turns. This being a mixture of a folk and fairy tale, everything works out reasonably well at the end, but Swallow has to endure a few bumps along the way to get there. Another folk tale based story, The Gazelle Who Begged for Her Life by Francis Marion Soty is a retelling of a story from 1,000 Nights involving a jealous wife, a doomed concubine, a shepherd girl with aspirations, a husband on a mission, and, finally, a Jinn with a dead son who serves as the audience for the tale. When the story opens, the merchant, a man named Kafar, is leading a gazelle to its death, with seemingly cold-hearted immunity to the creature's silent pleas for mercy. After accidentally killing a Jinn's son by throwing pomegranate seeds, Kafar recounts the series of events that led him to this point as a means of trying to placate the furious and vengeful Jinn. What follows is a story of love, betrayal, murder, and magic. By the end of the story, the emotional tone of the opening pages is completely reversed, making the merchant much more sympathetic, and the gazelle much more sinister.

Eric Schwitzgebel tackles the question of theodicy in Out of the Jar by imagining a protagonist who turns out to be living in a computer simulated world run in the computer of a somewhat callous teenager who takes the position of "God" for this world. Most of the story is taken up with examining the different ways that the teenaged "God" of the world justifies his whims and cruelties to the protagonist, who starts as a philosophy professor, and later connives his way into being a robot dinosaur. As the author is a philosophy professor who examines the question of theodicy in his professional life, this story seems to be a little bit autobiographical on some points, which gives the story an even creepier feel as it progresses. One hopes that the autobiographical nature of the story ends with the protagonist contemplating how God can commit evil, but in the back of the reader's mind one has to worry that Schwitzgebel has spent some time serving as the almighty's pet dinosaur while plotting his downfall, which is a somewhat disturbing thought. As a story, however, this works pretty well, and is a reasonably interesting take on an old philosophical question.

Combining time travel, with a bit of humor and a bit of romance, History's Best Places to Kiss by Nik Houser follows Ray and Karen Fox as they journey backwards in an attempt to stop the relationship that they believe has brought them both so much pain. The pair manage to shake their TimeGuide and evade capture as they rampage through first their own pasts and later through all of human history as they unsuccessfully attempt to derail their incipient romance. Eventually the pair find themselves huddled in a cave in the prehistoric era, at which point the story takes a turn that seem predictable before deftly evading the expected. The story turns out to be quite funny and a little bit endearing. Another humorous story, but with a little bit more of a bite, The Man from X by Gregor Hartmann imagines a writer so desperate to be noticed that he attempts to emigrate from his enormously overpopulated planet of eighty billion to the relative backwater of Zephyr, a planet still being terraformed that is home to a mere 100 million people. It seems that the competition in the arts fields on "X" is so fierce that it is nearly impossible to make any headway, so our protagonist has concocted a scheme to secure himself a position on more hospitable shores. Unfortunately, his conniving doesn't work out as he planned, to somewhat humorous effect, although the humor is tinged with just a hint of bitter satire.

A sea tale of obsession and regret, The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner by Alan Baxter follows the bloody pirate captain Reeve as he pursues a map that leads to madness and despair. Unfortunately, burdened by too many moving parts in a space too small to accommodate them, the story just doesn't really come together very well. We are told Reeve was obsessed with gold, but gave that up to be obsessed with revenge, which he gives up in the story to be obsessed with a map, but without being shown reeve's successive obsessions, they are just a collection of assertions without impact. We are told that Reeve and the narrator were both in love with a woman named Esme before she died, although in different ways, but once again there is no space in the story to give weight to the lost romance. Reeve is supposed to have been close friends with his first-mate, a relationship that is clearly intended to make it shocking when Reeve turns on him, but the reader is given very little that shows this friendship, so the scene falls a little bit flat. The story opens up with Reeve recruiting a new crew because his old crew mostly got killed in an engagement with the Royal Navy, which seems like an odd thing to wedge into a story that is already as crowded as this one is. Further, the encounter with the Royal Navy is placed in the past, making it little more than a footnote to the story. With more space to actually show the reader the obsessions, relationships, and events that are referenced, a longer version of this story could be quite good. As it is, however, it feels rushed and hollow.

The first poem in the volume is Robot Agonistes by Alan Ira Gordon, which offers a somewhat melancholy take on the question of robot nostalgia. It imagines a retired robot actor spending its last days in front of a television set watching old science fiction movies while lost in memories of his former fellow robot actors. The second is An Undiscovered Country by Robert Frazier, a rather creepy little work about an exploratory expedition gone wrong.

Fantasy & Science Fiction has a tradition of having fairly basic science fact articles, and this issue is no exception with Falling into the Unknowable by Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy giving an overview of what black holes are and how they work. The article is fairly straightforward and won't supply much in the way of revelations for most science fiction fans who are reasonably well-versed in astronomy, but not everyone is, so there is definitely a place for this sort of piece. There appears to be one small error, as it talks about an event happening in 2014 as something to look forward to, and the article was published in 2015. Despite this, for anyone looking to gain a basic understanding of black holes, or just looking for a modest refresher, this is a decent place to start.

Ultimately, this is a fairly ordinary issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. On the plus side, even an ordinary issue of this magazine is a collection of pretty good stories, but on the down side, there aren't really any stories that are more than pretty good. From the intrigue-laden fantasy of Prisoners of Pandarius to the time-traveling hijinks of History's Best Places to Kiss to the libertarian insanity of Jubilee: A Seastead Story to the creepy occult mystery of Portrait of a Witch, this issue is filled with interesting and engaging stories. Even the stories that don't quite work, such as The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner are intriguing misses. Lacking in any stand out pieces of fiction, this issue is serviceable, but unspectacular, making it worth a read, but not particularly notable.

Previous issue reviewed: November/December 2014
Subsequent issue reviewed: March/April 2015

Gordon van Gelder     Fantasy & Science Fiction     Magazine Reviews     Home

Monday, January 18, 2016

Musical Monday - Obama Mic Drop: 1999 by The Gregory Brothers

Last week President Obama gave his final State of the Union address. It was, essentially, a victory lap and a fairly well-deserved one. By almost any of the normal measures used to assess such things, Obama has had a successful presidency. After inheriting an economic mess, Obama has mostly righted the ship. The deficit has been slashed to a fraction of its former size. Unemployment has dropped considerably, by any of the unemployment measures used, from U-1 through U-6. The stock market is up and job growth has been good. The highly controversial bailout of the auto industry has proven to be the right decision made at the right time. Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the mastermind behind the Benghazi attacks is in U.S. custody. Obama's signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, has mostly worked despite a few relatively minor hiccups. And so on.

To be fair, the nation still faces substantial problems. Incomes have stagnated for large swathes of the population. Camp X-Ray is still open. The U.S. is still mired in conflicts in the Middle-East. But when these drawbacks are compared to the upside of Obama's presidency, I'll just say I'd rather live in the U.S. of 2016 than the U.S. of 2008. What the State of the Union speech really highlighted was just how far the Republican Party has fallen. Paul Ryan sat sullenly for most of the speech, refusing to acknowledge almost anything said by the President, even working to avoid laughing at any of the humor in Obama's speech. The Republicans sat stone-faced, withholding applause for almost every point. Some were understandable: One wouldn't expect most Republican legislators to applaud for marriage equality. I think they are wrong to oppose it, but they do. On the other hand, they didn't applaud for providing care for troops and veterans or ensuring Americans have their voting rights protected. The Republican Party has become not merely partisan, but petty. Paul Ryan and the rest of his party were, quite simply, not ready for prime time.

Paul Ryan and the various Republican Senators and members of Congress look much better in this video. Backing up Obama, Ryan and Biden show some pretty nice moves, and Ryan even expresses some much needed emotion. Actually, when one thinks about it, learning a choreographed dance routine would probably be a good use of Joe Biden's time, since he's the Vice-President and probably doesn't have much to actually do. Learning the routine would probably a better use of Paul Ryan's time than he has been making of it. To be perfectly honest, most of Congress could be improved with some auto-tune, hip hop beats, and cool dance moves. Perhaps the State of the Union should actually be done this way every year.

On a side note, in my gaming group, Joe Biden has taken on a special significance. When we gather together to play, we eventually get tired and punchy, and at a certain point it becomes "Joe Biden O'Clock", especially when we are playing the game Say Anything, where everyone writes the answers to various questions on small whiteboards. There will come a time at which every answer to every question becomes "Joe Biden", and that's when we know the evening is pretty much over.

Previous Musical Monday: Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie

The Gregory Brothers     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Blogger Hop January 15th - January 21st: The Misfits Wrote the Song "We Are 138"

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Do you think you will ever get tired of blogging?


Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: Hadrian's Tomb Was Completed in 139 A.D.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review - The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Short review: Oma is rising, and entire nations, indeed whole worlds, will fall.

Cross-world invasion
War, murder, and genocide
Oma is rising

Full review: The Mirror Empire could be compared in some ways to the books of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and it does bear some striking similarities due to the complex politics, shifting point of view, and unflinching brutality. The comparison sells The Mirror Empire a little bit short, as it is much more than a simple imitation of Martin: Hurley's work is a triumph of imagination and world-building, with a diverse array of extraordinarily carefully-drawn cultures set in an often bizarrely alien world. As if that wasn't enough, Hurley crafted not one, but two interlocking fantasy worlds one on a collision course with another, and populated both with an array of complex characters that are at times heroic, at times pathetic, and at times repulsive, and always fascinating.

This is not an easy book, either in subject matter or presentation. Even though the story is set in a fantasy universe, and the characters are all drawn from the exotic cultures Hurley has crafted, she does not hesitate to portray the people who populate her world as being both as noble as humans can be, and also as depraved and vicious as humans can be. There are scenes of murder, mutilation, rape, self-harm, and every other form of cruelty and indifference to human suffering. This is not a story for those who are squeamish about such things. The story is also difficult to get a handle on, at least at the beginning. Hurley offers no compromises to the reader, throwing them into the shift narratives with minimal explanation of the beliefs and customs of the various cultures, or even much guidance in the nature of the world itself. Instead, Hurley trusts that the reader will sort things out by context, presumably confident that the quality of the writing and the story will keep the reader engaged until they can sort out the details. This makes the book somewhat foreboding at first, as the reader is thrown into the narrative deep end and expected to stay afloat without much help. This makes the early chapters of the book somewhat confusing as one works to make sense of the strange world and its exotic inhabitants, but this seems to reflect the confusion the characters themselves are experiencing, so the disorientation experienced by the reader may very well be an intentional choice made to enhance the impact of the story.

By treating world-building as an organic exercise, Hurley leaves herself plenty of opportunity to get right to the intricate multi-character plot, and she wastes no time on that score. From the very opening pages the reader is thrown into the heart of the action as Lillia finds her home invaded, her mother taken away, and herself thrown into an entirely different and unfamiliar world and a temple life that restricts and confines her. The story shifts viewpoints every chapter, rapidly introducing Ahkio, a teacher forced into the role of leader of his people after the death of his sister, Rohinmey, Lillia's friend who wants to be a dancer and a warrior, Taigan a mysterious and ruthless agent seeking after people with rare and specific abilities, Zezili, a callous military leader serving Dorinah, one of the dominant powers in her world, and finally Anavha, Zezili's much-abused slave husband, who turns out to be more than he appears at first glance. These characters each have their own often conflicting wants, needs, and desires, and Hurley moves the reader's vantage point from one to another while weaving a coherent whole out of these many threads.

The story is built around the celestial bodies of this fantasy realm. The three bodies named Para, Sina, and Tira rise to ascendance and then decline on a regular basis. Certain gifted individuals are attuned to these patterns and can easily wield magical power when their stars are ascendant, but are much more limited when they have waned. The fourth star is Oma, which only appears once in a great while, on an apparently unpredictable schedule, and always heralds doom and destruction. It should come as a surprise to no one that as the book progresses, it turns out that Oma is due to ascend in the near future, and some are scrambling to identify and claim those who can wield Oma's power, as these individuals could shift the balance of power between nations, or even worlds. Along with Oma's impending rise, there are conflicts between worlds that seem destined to pit most of the characters featured in this book against the interests of their other selves in the adjacent "mirror" world.

The overarching cross-world conflict is one of the things that makes The Mirror Empire so interesting, because while each of the characters presented in the story have their own loyalties, they are all under threat. But they are all also embroiled in their own age-old animosities that set them at odds with one another. Each of the cultures presented in the book are radically different, and in many cases, despise one another. In Dorinah, the Dhai are held as slaves, and men are decidedly second class citizens who are unable to hold property or even travel without an escort. Dhai is a nation composed of former slaves who fled from Dorinah and settled in the most inhospitable region of the continent, leading to a deeply religious, very decentralized society in which personal autonomy is paramount, everyone recognizes five different genders, marriages seem to be happily polyamorous, and the inhabitants engage in ritual cannibalism of their departed relations. In Saiduan, the nation is ruled by a patriarch and has a bloody and seemingly almost arbitrary method of determining who holds that post, and while they recognize three genders, gender roles seem to be much more like what we would regard as being conventional, but same sex coupling appears to be regarded as simply an ordinary and accepted part of life. These descriptions only scratch the surface of the complex world-building that is found in this book, as each of these decidedly alien cultures is fleshed out in great detail, presenting them in interesting and unusual ways.

But the cultures are not the only alien things about this book. The world in which they live is a feat of incredible imagination filled with deadly fauna and cavalry mounted on bears. Metal weapons are considered inferior armament, as those who can do so wield branches infused with deadly power in battle. Buildings made out of "mere" stone are also considered to be second rate: Truly important structures are made from living plants, coaxed into place by magical means. There is a transportation system that involves people riding in a chrysalis. All of these elements emerge organically from the story, and are used in such a way as to inform the reader not only of the nature of the world, but also the nature of the inhabitants that live within it. For example, when the reader is informed that the Dorinah burn away the vegetation alongside their roads, it provides information about how the Dorinah deal with the natural world around them, and how that contrasts with the attitudes of the neighboring Dhai. Hurley has created a truly unusual world, and used the elements of that world to help convey culture and character to the reader: Quite simply, the environmental storytelling in The Mirror Empire is nothing short of brilliant.

Each of the nations depicted in the story eyes the other with paranoia and suspicion, and this doesn't go away even when Saiduan is in desperate straits after being partially overrun by mysterious invaders, or when Dhai discovers that some of their own people have been replaced by hostile doppelgangers. The true tragedy of the story emerges due to the fact that the reader is able to follow multiple characters and put the pieces of the puzzle together long before they are able to, unraveling at least some portion of the invader's plans without even having to have those plans spelled out in the narrative. When the powers that control Saiduan turn on scholarly emissaries from Dhai over a minor and essentially inconsequential slight, the reader knows that this will likely have the effect of dooming the entire Saiduan nation. When Zezili is tasked with and undertakes a genocidal mission, the reader understands the devastating import of what she is doing long before she does. And so on. Not only is each individual story line well-constructed and interesting on its own, taken together they all add up to a compelling larger whole.

The Mirror Empire is an excellent beginning to what promises to be a brutal and beautiful series. From the intricate politics, to the alien landscape, to the complex cultures, to the fully realized characters both large and small who dwell in its pages, this book is absolutely brilliant. Hurley even manages to avoid the problem so many first novels in a series face by giving the book an ending that wraps up several plot points in a satisfying manner while also leaving the door open to future installments. Filled with a healthy helping of political intrigue, seasoned with some brilliant world-building, and populated by a collection of well-drawn characters, this novel delivers on all fronts.

Subsequent book in the series: Empire Ascendant

2015 Locus Award Nominees

Kameron Hurley     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review - Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Short review: Nimona becomes Ballister Blackheart's sidekick and upsets all of the apple carts.

Mystery sidekick
Can shapeshift to anything
Full of joy and rage

Full review: Nimona is the story of Nimona, the cheerfully lethal shapeshifting sidekick to the villain Lord Ballister Blackheart who is opposed by the Institution for Law Enforcement and Heroics that is championed by Ambrosius Goldenloin. Set in a world that is an odd and delicious mixture of medieval fantasy and mad scientist style science fiction, the story is full of action and adventure, with plenty of twists and turns to keep things moving. Along the way, the story shows how the law and heroics are not always good, that heroes are not always admirable and villains are not always evil, and that having even almost unlimited power doesn't necessarily chase your inner demons away. Above all, the story shows what friendship is made out of, and how important it can be.

Nimona is a wild and unpredictable teen full of both boundless joy and barely contained rage who wears her emotions on her sleeve, but at the same time she is an enigma. She shows up on the first page of the book and inserts herself into Ballister's life as his sidekick, simply jumping into his service with no references and almost no explanation. Nimona turns out to be a shapeshifter of enormous power, able to change into pretty much anything, no matter its size, and even able to change herself into a form such that she can imitate specific people. Even her age is unclear: She appears and acts like a teen, but verious hints throughout the book suggest that she may be considerably older than she appears. The origin and extent of Nimona's powers is never fully explained, despite Ballister's intense curiosity on these subjects, leaving her as an unresolved mystery throughout the book.

Nimona's putative boss, Lord Ballister Blackheart, is an almost perfect counterpoint to the wild teen. Blackheart was originally a member of the Institute, and in the running to take the mantle as champion of the organization until an incident cost him an arm. In response, the Institute threw Blackheart out and turned him into its adversary. Although nominally a villain, he is only a reluctant one, and acts in accord with certain rules in his activities. For example, when given the opportunity to take revenge upon his nemesis Ambrosius Goldenloin by cutting off Ambrosius' arm, Blackheart declines.Needless cruelty is simply not in Blackheart's character. In contrast, Nimona is an almost elemental force of raw chaos, ignoring almost all rules and restrictions with a gleeful abandon. In their first caper together, Nimona kills some of the Institute's soldiers who try to capture them, an action that greatly distresses Blackheart. This tension runs through the entire story, with Nimona pushing the boundaries while Blackheart tries to restrain her frenzied abandon.

Against this backdrop, Blackheart's conflict with the Institute seems secondary for most of the book. In fact, at the beginning of the story, it almost seems like Blackheart and the Institute are working together in a strange way. Blackheart follows a certain set of rules in conducting his villainy, while in turn, the Institute seems to observe certain formalities when opposing him. This tacit understanding seems to serve the Institute's purposes, as evidenced by the fact that when, at one point in the story, Nimona expresses confidence that Blackheart will come up with a cunning plan and prevail, he replies that he has a track record comprised mostly of failure. As Blackheart experiences almost nothing but success following Nimona's arrival in his employ, Blackheart's admission seems to indicate that prior to Nimona's arrival, both the Institute and Blackheart were involved in a mutual dance in which Blackheart consistently lost, but the Institute treated him with kid gloves. This situation, in which the Institute had a congenial adversary that they could blame misfortunes upon and distract attention from their own activities, seems to have worked entirely to the Institute's benefit. It is by upsetting this implied balance that Nimona's impact is most noticeable, and in which she demonstrates herself to be a true agent of chaos.

Nimona's arrival on the scene sparks a cycle of escalation in the conflict between Blackheart and the Institute that spirals out of control, driven mostly by Nimona's desire to actually win the confrontations Blackheart's schemes create, and the Institute's often vicious responses. While the increasing level of violence is disturbing at times, it is only when spurred on by Nimona that Blackheart actually accomplishes anything, and without this push to move Blackheart out of his comfortable symbiosis with the Institute, it is likely that the various underhanded plots that come to light would have been found. Despite the fact that the conflict is ostensibly between Blackheart and Goldenloin and the Institute, Nimona is the catalyst that sets everything in the book in motion, placing her at the heart of the entire story. This is something of a radical act: Placing a female teenaged character who is supposedly a sidekick at the center of the story. This seems even more radical when one considers that there is no reason for Nimona to appear as either a teenager or a girl - as a shapeshifter she can appear as absolutely anything she desires, even taking on the appearance of Blackheart at one point. Nimona is a teenage girl because she wants to be a teenage girl.

The relationship between Nimona and Blackheart is more than merely that of villain and sidekick. As the narrative develops, so does the relationship between the pair, with Blackheart progressing from a reluctant mentor to a caring friend, and eventually displaying a fatherly affection for his young companion. It is the relationships the Blackheart and Nimona have with other characters that really highlights the relationship between the two. Both Blackheart and Nimona have been pushed to the position of villain as a result of factors beyond their control, but each has reacted in a different manner. Blackheart has a complex relationship with others in the story, most notably Ambrosius Goldenloin, who Blackheart blames for the disfigurement that led to Blackheart being forced into the role of villain. But Ballister isn't really seeking revenge, or even justice, but rather acknowledgement. He is estranged from others, but doesn't necessarily want to harm them. Nimona, on the other hand, has an incredibly simple relationship with most people other than Blackheart: She either simply doesn't care about them, or actively hopes for their demise. Hidden within her cheerful exterior, it seems that Nimona isn't merely bent on revenge, she wants the entire world to suffer as she has. The differences in how Blackheart and Nimona view others informed their relationship, as Ballister seeks some form of rapprochement, while Nimona decidedly does not, a difference that leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.

Nimona is, like its titular character, joyful, angry, violent, and tragic. Wrapped in relatively simple but effective artwork is a finely crafted story told with a perfectly balanced mixture of wry humor, lovely emotional relationships, silly superscience and fantasy, and barely suppressed (and at times, completely unsuppressed) rage. Blackheart is cunning and honorable, Ambrosius is clueless and noble, and Nimona is wounded, innocent, and terrifying. Stevenson takes these characters, plus the others contained in the story, and weaves their tales together to create a narrative whole that is at times jubilant, at times brutal, at times melancholy, and at times harrowing, but at all times, brilliant.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

2016 Nebula Award Nominees

Noelle Stevenson     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, January 11, 2016

Musical Monday - Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie

Goodbye Ziggy.

Goodbye Jareth.

Goodbye Thomas Jerome Newton.

Goodbye David Bowie.


You will be missed.

Previous Musical Monday: Thanksgiving by Paul & Storm
Subsequent Musical Monday: Obama Mic Drop: 1999 by The Gregory Brothers

David Bowie     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Book Blogger Hop January 8th - January 14th: Feynman Said Physicists Should All Put Up a Sign With the Number 137 On It to Remind Them of What They Don't Know

Book Blogger Hop

Jen at Crazy for Books restarted her weekly Book Blogger Hop to help book bloggers connect with one another, but then couldn't continue, so she handed the hosting responsibilities off to Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer. The only requirements to participate in the Hop are to write and link a post answering the weekly question and then visit other blogs that are also participating to see if you like their blog and would like to follow them.

This week Billy asks: Have you made any improvements on your blog since your started your blog? Did you change the format? Did you change your header? Did you add or remove items from your side bar?

I have tinkered with this blog several times since its inception in early 2008. Dreaming About Other Worlds was not originally conceived as a review blog, it more or less developed into that in the last quarter of 2010. Over the years since then, I've added a handful of static pages, found and used a workaround to overcome Blogger's limit on the number of static pages one can have, added sidebars, and added links in the sidebars, and so on.

I've expanded the content of this blog numerous times as well. When I first started reviewing, I limited my efforts mostly to books, and sometimes genre fiction magazines. I've since started reviewing movies and television programs as well, although on a sporadic basis. I've added a regular Musical Monday routine, highlighting music that speaks to me in one way or another. I've also added lists of award-winning and award-nominated material to help track my ongoing efforts in my major reading projects. I've created lists of all of the books, magazines, movies, and television series I have reviewed, and I am in the middle of an ongoing effort to create a list of all of the authors who have written works I have reviewed.

I have made numerous tiny changes to this blog over the years. I've added images to certain things that didn't have images before. I've expanded the range of things I track on author pages. I've changed how I refer to certain categories of things in my writing, and gone back and made appropriate modifications to things I wrote before for consistency's sake. At one point I had Amazon affiliate links on many pages, but repeated frustration with Amazon's program (plus a change in the way they render affiliate links) resulted in my abandoning the program and removing the links. To be perfectly honest, I've lost track of all of the small changes I've made to the elements of this blog.

Some things have never been changed: I've pretty much always used the same background image, and the same header since I started Dreaming About Other Worlds. I've also used the same display style of black text on a white background with links rendered in purple. Just about everything else has evolved organically over time, as roughly seven years worth of small decisions have brought this blog to its present state.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: The Misfits Wrote the Song "We Are 138"

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Review - Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Short review: Zacharias is the Sorcerer Royal, but his compatriots have no faith in his abilities, Britain's magic is waning, and he's perplexed by the headstrong Prunella.

A black sorcerer
Has to prove he is worthy
But then, Prunella!

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Sorcerer to the Crown imagines a Georgian-era Britain with the addition of magic, the fae, and a variety of other magical creatures. Cast from a similar mold to that which gave us His Majesty’s Dragon and Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, this novel seems to lean heavily towards Jane Austen style story-telling, providing the book with a quality that can only be called charming. One might think that the book would be full of well-mannered young women attending parties in the hopes for snaring a desirable and eligible bachelor, or witty gentlemen trading quips at the dining club, and there is plenty of that, but Sorcerer to the Crown is much more than that: Lurking within its genteel surface is a hard-edged story of political intrigue with murderous stakes and the fate of nations in the balance. Woven through this story is also some fairly pointed commentary about the racism, sexism, and classism endemic to the Georgian-era, which serves to add a second layer of sharpness underneath the pretty fa├žade presented by the novel.

Zacharias Wythe is a man with troubles, or rather, one might say he is a sorcerer with troubles. Despite holding the position of Sorcerer Royal, the head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, he is beset by opposition from all sides, including from within his own person. One would think that as the adopted son of the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias would be secure in his position. Unfortunately, Zacharias was born in Africa, and many of his fellow unnatural philosophers grate at the thought of being led by a black man. Further, the circumstances under which Zacharias assumed the position are regarded by many as being suspicious, with some even asserting that Zacharias murdered Sir Stephen to seize the staff of the Sorcerer Royal. Piled on to these personal troubles, Zacharias must deal with a worrying shortage of magic in Britain, as well as the fact that for the past several years no one has been able to acquire a familiar, which is regarded as the true mark of a sorcerer.

Despite the fact that the Sorcerer Royal is not an official part of His Majesty’s government, a representative of the foreign office almost immediately sets about dragging Zacharias into resolving an issue related to the rule of Sultan Ahmed of the island kingdom of Janda Baik, asking that England’s magic workers be turned to assist him in dealing with the elderly women of his kingdom, specifically the witches who oppose his rule. Though Zacharias rebuffs this request, this is the opening move in a long complicated multi-player chess match that will play out over the course of the book, as Cho weaves the story together using a half-dozen different threads. Soon Zacharias finds himself facing the formidable Mak Genggang, Sultan Ahmed’s primary opponent, who reveals that the dispute between the two is less clear cut than Ahmed had led the government to believe, and whose pursuit of her own agenda causes Zacharias no end of troubles. This part of the story serves as a strong indication that magic in the world changes the balance of power – despite the disregard that Britain seems to have for the power of Janda Baik, and the contempt that Britain’s thaumaturges display towards female magic, it is also obvious that they ignore and discount them at their peril.

Mak is not the only powerful woman that Zacharias encounters in the novel: While on a trip to speak at a school for witches – which, like all school of “magic” aimed at women is actually a school designed to train young ladies how to suppress their magical talents – he finds the vivacious Prunella Gentleman, who almost immediately contrives to accompany him on his journeys. His experience at the school, where he discovers that the girls are being taught to use a potentially life-threatening enchantment to drain away their magical gifts, convinces Zacharias that he must reform the education of women in the mystical arts in Britain, and he decides that Prunella's obvious gifts in the magical arts make her a perfect test case for him to begin with. What Zacharias doesn't count on is that Prunella has ideas of her own, and she is far too determined to allow the will of a mere Sorcerer Royal to arrange her future. This portion of the story both highlights the sexism of Georgian society, and the classism, as the prohibition on women using magic only applies to upper class women: Those working class women with magical talents are free to use their gifts to better serve their masters. Magic is allegedly too “strenuous” for the frail bodies of women, but only if those women are important enough for the upper crust care about. In at least some part, the greater amount of freedom that Prunella is afforded can be attributed to her somewhat unclear parentage, which rather obviously includes some non-European ancestors.

The odd thing about the sort of racism and sexism that the various characters display is that they do while actual non-human creatures exist alongside humanity. This is, after all, a world in which the land of faery is real. Talking dragons exist. Sorcerers seek familiars who take any number of forms raging from unicorns to sea-nymphs. Not only that, Britain relies upon the good graces of the rulers of the fae to ensure the flow of magic is uninterrupted. Foreign-born magic wielders can travel great distances in hours, or take shortcuts through the faery lands and cross the world as if it were crossing the street. As the reader works through the book, the parochialism of the British magical establishment appears more and more untenable, and more and more foolish. What is not in doubt is the murderous nature of British society, as Zacharias' enemies repeatedly make attempts on his life, through both clandestine and legal means. This is part of the brilliance of this book: While the events are presented in beautiful language, and often depict what appear to be charming scenes of genteel people politely sipping tea at delightful parties, this set dressing conceals sharp commentary and often vicious political infighting with brutally high stakes, providing a lovely story that is filled with magic, intrigue, politics, and romance.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

Zen Cho     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Challenge - Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge 2016

I am participating in the Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge 2016. Given my normal reading choices, this reading challenge is a natural choice for me, as I always read a fair amount of fantasy fiction every year. I already have several fantasy novels lined up for my 2016 reading, including Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley, Flux and The Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, Seraphina and Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson. I also would like to make some progress on my reading of the works found in Appendix E, and those will all certainly qualify for this challenge.

Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge 2016:

2016 Challenge Tracking Pages
9th Annual Graphic Novels and Manga Challenge 2016
100+ Books Challenge 2016
2016 Diversity on the Shelf Challenge
2016 Dystopia Reading Challenge

Not a Challenge:
The Big List of Everything I've Reviewed in 2016

2016 Challenges     Home

Challenge - 2016 Dystopia Reading Challenge

Another challenge I am taking up yet again for 2016 is the 2016 Dystopia Reading Challenge, a challenge that includes post-apocalyptic works as well. I'm hoping to be able to actually make some progress towards my long term goal of reading all of the Hugo award winners (and Nebula award winners for that matter), and as part of that goal I will probably be getting more than my fair share of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction.

2016 Dystopia Reading Challenge:

2016 Challenge Tracking Pages
9th Annual Graphic Novels and Manga Challenge 2016
100+ Books Challenge 2016
2016 Diversity on the Shelf Challenge
Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge 2016

Not a Challenge:
The Big List of Everything I've Reviewed in 2016

2016 Challenges     Home

Challenge - 2016 Diversity on the Shelf Challenge

I am participating in the 2016 Diversity on the Shelf Challenge, a challenge aimed at getting readers to read more books by authors of color. I have a fair number of books in my to-be-read pile that meet this criteria, including The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, and I'm sure I'll end up with more as the year goes on. One set of books I'm not certain about are anthologies: For example the Nebula Awards Showcase 2015 has stories by Samuel R. Delany, Ken Liu, and Alaya Dawn Johnson, but also has stories by non-minority authors such as Ann Leckie and Rachel Swirsky. I'm leaning towards saying it and other books like it count, but I am not certain on this point.

2016 Diversity on the Shelf Challenge:

2016 Challenge Tracking Pages
9th Annual Graphic Novels and Manga Challenge 2016
100+ Books Challenge 2016
2016 Dystopia Reading Challenge
Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge 2016

Not a Challenge:
The Big List of Everything I've Reviewed in 2016

2016 Challenges     Home