Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Review - Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Short review: Agnieszka is chosen by the Dragon to be locked away in his tower. Things don't go as planned.

Unexpected choice
Unexpected magic skill
Unexpected end

Full review: Uprooted is an absolutely brilliant coming of age story set in a world that straddles the line between fantasy and fable. Centered on the precocious young teenager Agnieszka, the story follows her as she goes from being a clueless and somewhat naive young girl to a self-assured and confident woman who is embroiled in political intrigues and enchanted entanglements that threaten not only her, but everyone she loves as well. Novik is best known for her excellent Tremeraire series, which is essentially Horatio Hornblower with dragons, complete with very proper British officers. Uprooted, on the other hand, is a secondary world fantasy tinged with eastern European folklore and myth. This makes it a serious departure from Novik's previous work, and it is a departure that has produced an excellent book.

Agnieszka is a fairly ordinary young girl living in the country of Polnya in a small village in the valley, almost in the shadow of the Wood. Unfortunately, the Wood is a cursed and dangerous place that threatens the entire nation - full of horrors that sometimes leave the shade of the twisted and rotten trees to seize hapless villagers and spirit them away, never to return. Fortunately, the village is under the protection of the Dragon, who rules over the entire valley, who works assiduously to hold back the encroaching Wood, and is sometimes able to push it back for a time. In return, the Dragon only asks for regular tribute of food and goods, and once every ten years, a seventeen year old girl. Agnieszka is the right age to be one of the girls offered for tribute, but she and everyone else assume that she is safe because they assume that the Dragon will choose the beautiful and vivacious Kesia, who has been all but groomed by her family to be selected.

Needless to say, the Dragon doesn't choose Kesia, but instead chooses Agnieszka, much to everyone's surprise, and at least for a period of time, the Dragon's apparent dismay. This flip, while fairly predictable, is also packaged with Novik's mild sleight of hand as she reveals that the Dragon isn't actually a Dragon, but is instead a long-lived human wizard who just happens to be named "the Dragon". To a certain extent, this seems like Novik playing a small joke using her reader's expectations - after all, her previous series of books was a historical fantasy whose only serious point of departure from the real world was the addition of dragons. In a way, this signals to the reader that the meta narrative in this story is that things are not going to match their expectations, and this turns out to be a recurring theme throughout the book.

The story itself weaves together Agnieszka's growing into adulthood and her own power, and the story of the Dragon's ongoing war against the Wood, which eventually he shares with Agnieszka. It turns out that Agnieszka has an affinity for magic, which the Dragon has somewhat reluctantly undertaken to nurture - as he explains at one point, the alternative would be to leave her latent talents undeveloped and ready to be claimed by the power that inhabits the Wood. But Agnieszka turns out to be fairly inept as a wizard's apprentice, always flubbing her attempted spells, and even somewhat less than skilled at mundane tasks such as cooking daily meals. Before too long, a crisis drives Agnieszka to push herself, and she discovers that her magic doesn't work in a manner that the Dragon expected. This untidy and unorthodox approach to the practice of magic annoys the Dragon to no end, but it does result in Agnieszka figuring out how to actually accomplish some useful things with her abilities.

The dismay expressed by the Dragon at the way Agnieszka uses magic is a thread that runs through the rest of the book. When Agnieszka finds a book by the legendary witch Jaga, the Dragon declares that he had already looked at it and determined that it is useless, because he couldn't make use of the information the book contained. Except that the book makes perfect sense to Agniezska, and forms the basis for her own magical endeavors. Every time Agnieszka is introduced to a new wizard, they often refuse to believe that she can actually work magic, because her magic is "wrong", and doesn't fit into the categories and methods that they are used to. Father Ballo, the curator of the royal library of magical works, even refuses to believe that Jaga is an actual historical figure, and claims to have culled vast numbers of books from the arcane collection because they were "wrong". From one perspective, the story is that Agnieszka is an oddball whose magic simply doesn't fit into the normal and accepted modes, but one has to wonder if the resistance that Agnieszka faces is because she is a woman, and she approaches the practice of magic in a manner unfamiliar to that of her male counterparts. The erasure of Jaga from "official" history seems to be another piece in the puzzle. In short, there seems to be the suggestion that the magical contributions of women are being suppressed when those contributions don't meet the expectations of the male wizards who control the levers of power.

This lack of respect for the magic that Agnieszka embodies seems to have cost the Polnya dearly, as her power complements the power used by the Dragon, making some spells and enchantments possible that the Dragon claims are either too difficult to pull off or actually impossible. It is Agnieszka's power that changes the nature of the battle between the Dragon and the Wood, making the conflict both more dangerous, and potentially winnable. But to get there requires a circuitous and deadly route, because the Wood turns out to be more devious and more insidious than anyone ever expected. The story seems to be one of Agniezska bumbling about getting into trouble and having to work her way out of it, usually with the Dragon's assistance, and then others following her lead and getting themselves into trouble and having to be helped out of it, but eventually it becomes clear that there is a purpose behind the poor decision-making displayed by so many characters in the story, and that purpose is the result of the influence of a malevolent magical power.

As the story progresses, Agniezska learns and grows, shedding her innocent and naive ideas about the world, and coming to a greater understanding of the true powers that exist in her world, and exactly how much more danger there is in her world than she had previously known. The key to the book is that things are almost never as one thinks they are to begin with, with the expectations of the characters (and alongside them, the reader) turned upside down at almost every turn. This theme recurs in trivial ways, such as an abortive friendship Agniezska strikes up with a young lady at court, and in large ways, such as the resolution to the conflict with the Wood, which turns on understanding the somewhat legitimate rage that motivates the malign entity that resides within its heart, and figuring out a way to turn that rage aside.

Overall, Uprooted is a beautiful story with an intriguing and engaging central character, a supporting cast that consists of fully-fleshed out people, and a villain that is both horrifyingly evil, and all too recognizably human in their motivations. The world that underlies all of the action is equal parts lovely and terrifying, although to be honest, even though it draws upon eastern European folklore, it feels more like the product of Novik's own imagination than it feels like something from a fairy tale. While the book does have some weaknesses - Agnieszka seems to master the magical arts improbably fast, and gains an adult level of maturity similarly rapidly - but these are minor faults that can be overlooked in the service of such a magnificently told story. In the end, Uprooted is a wonderful bildungsroman with a magical mix of intrigue, adventure, and horror, that delivers on all fronts.

2015 Locus Award Winner for Best Fantasy Novel: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

2015 Mythopoeic Award Winner for Best Adult Fantasy Literature: Tales from Rugosa Coven by Sarah Avery

2015 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Fantasy Novel
List of Mythopoeic Award Winners for Best Adult Fantasy Literature
List of Nebula Award Winners for Best Novel

2016 Hugo Award Finalists
2016 Locus Award Nominees
2016 Mythopoeic Award Nominees
2016 Nebula Nominees

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

Naomi Novik     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, March 28, 2016

Musical Monday - Marble Machine by Wintergatan

This video has been circulating on the geeky parts of the internet for a few weeks now, so chances are that you've seen it already, but I'm not necessarily interested in the music video as I am interested in what this says about the importance of both art and technology.

This machine is a fairly impressive piece of engineering. It is designed to produce music. Without the engineering, the music cannot exist, but without the music, the machine is pointless. This, I think, encapsulates a reality of the modern world that is often forgotten. One hears a lot of commentary talking about the importance of encouraging kids to study in the "STEM" fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and those are definitely important. But without the humanities, such endeavors are stunted, and in a sense, almost pointless.

We are creatures with needs. Physical needs, like the need for food and shelter to be sure, but also the need for art and beauty. We don't just throw the bare minimum of the required nutrients onto a plate - well, some people do, but they are rare - rather we usually take time and effort to prepare food with herbs, spices, and other flavorings, and sometimes we even present the food in a visually pleasing manner. Eating isn't just for sustenance, it is for pleasure. We could turn over the design of all buildings to structural engineers, but we don't. We have architects, who are praised for their artistic abilities as much as they are for their technical knowledge. Buildings that are built without an aesthetically pleasing design are frequently regarded as being somehow wrong, even though they serve their functional purpose just as well as attractive buildings do.1 And so on.

Science and engineering make the modern world possible, but they aren't enough. We need the lessons taught by the humanities to make the society that science and engineering produce into something that is worth living in. Engineering can make the complex box, but it takes music to make the box worthwhile.

1 As an example, the University of Virginia is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful universities in the United States. The Rotunda and the Lawn are famous historical landmarks because of their beautiful architecture, and most of the other buildings on the University Grounds are built to reflect the same design aesthetic. There is one notable building on Grounds - Gilmer Hall - that does not fit, and is actually a fairly bland and boring building. It isn't actually that unattractive and it does its job as a classroom building perfectly well, but it sticks out, and, at least when I was there, was the butt of a fair number of jokes. It was, in fact, the subject of a story line in the student-written comic strip Hoover in which it is revealed that Thomas Jefferson designed the building, much to Jefferson's embarrassment (Jefferson was a character in the strip). Because Gilmer Hall is not as beautiful as the rest of the buildings on Grounds, it is regarded as a lesser building, and is subjected to a fair amount of criticism.

Previous Musical Monday: Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) by Stary Olsa
Subsequent Musical Monday: Arwen's Song by Peter Hollens

Wintergatan     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Blogger Hop March 25th - March 31st: "147-Break" Is a 1983 Documentary About Snooker Featuring Steve Davis

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: How much of your day is devoted to your blog, and how much is devoted to reading?

I really don't have a good idea what my per day averages are. I generally read for at least an hour every day, usually while riding the bus during my daily commute, but I often read more in a day. How much could range from some snippets of time grabbed here and there while waiting for something or otherwise in the interstitial periods of life, to extended lengths of time while sitting at my desk or on the couch at home. So the amount of time I spend reading in a day can vary from about an hour to several hours. There's no real pattern to my reading habits, I just grab whatever time I can whenever I can.

Measuring the amount of time I spend on this blog depends on what one counts as time spent on it and what one does not. I don't actually write most of my reviews directly on the blog, but rather write them using a separate platform, and then transfer the review to here and format it for the blog. Writing an actual review usually take two to three hours. I try to aim for about a one thousand word review for a novel, although I usually overshoot by several hundred words. Reviews for short fiction collections usually end up being longer, often exceeding two thousand words, and sometimes topping five thousand. Those reviews take proportionally longer to write.

When I transfer a review to this site, I put in all of the internal links that form the infrastructure that makes it possible to navigate to pretty much every post I've ever made on this blog without too much difficulty. That process usually takes a half an hour or so per post. I try to post at least four blog posts a week, but would ideally like to post six, although I think I've only managed six posts in a week a handful of times. I also have a fair amount of background work that needs to be done on a regular basis, such as new author and musical artist pages and updates to the various award tracking pages as I complete reviews of books that are contained within them. I try to work on those when I have a day that isn't as busy as my usual.

So the answer is that there really isn't a "usual" for either how much per day I read, or for how much per day I spend on this blog. It can vary wildly from an hour or two, to, on some days, ten or twelve hours of work.

Subsequent Book Blogger Hop: The Numidian King Masinissa Died in 148 B.C.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, March 25, 2016

Follow Friday - The City of Rome Celebrated It's One-Thousandth Anniversary in 248 A.D.

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Kati Bookaholic Rambling Reviews.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Short Stories (as companions to a series): What do you love about them and hate about them?

Science fiction and fantasy both have long traditions of publishing short fiction. Although the market for short fiction in these genres has declined somewhat since the days in which there were literally dozens of monthly magazines on the market publishing science fiction and fantasy stories, these genres are among the very few that still seem to have a reasonably active commercial trade in short fiction.

Short fiction works that tie in to a larger series are not entirely unknown in the genre fiction world, but stand alone short fiction is much more common. Science fiction has also established a history of serializing stories: Many classic science fiction novels were first published over the course of three or four months worth of magazine issues. The Larry Niven novel Smoke Ring was published this way as was the Lois McMaster Bujold novel Falling Free, and a whole host of others. Many works that appeared first as short fiction have been expanded to novel length later such as the Frank Herbert classic Dune (which was originally called Dune World) and the Nancy Kress novel Beggars in Spain.

But none of this actually answers the question at hand. As far as I can tell, most short fiction that is attached to a longer series is kind of a side show. Most authors appear to know that the bulk of their readers won't actually read the short fiction that is ancillary to the novels in the series, so they don't usually put anything of great importance in them, focusing more on character development and world building. So while most of these pieces of related short fiction are interesting, they are often not much more than a light diversion. Light diversions are enjoyable.

Follow Friday     Home

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Vol. 128, Nos. 3 & 4 (March/April 2015) edited by Charles Coleman Finlay

Stories included:
What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu (translated by Ken Liu)
A Residence for Friendless Ladies by Alice Sola Kim
The Mantis Tattoo by Paul M. Berger
Things Worth Knowing by Jay O'Connell
La Héreon by Charlotte Ashley
This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang by Brian Dolton
Last Transaction by Nik Constantine
Little Girls in Bone Museums by Sadie Bruce
A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell by Jonathan L. Howard
How to Masquerade as a Human Before the Invasion by Jenn Reese
A User's Guide to Increments of Time by Kat Howard
Bilingual by Henry Lien

Full review: The March/April 2015 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is not the first issue edited by C.C. Finlay, but it is the first issue edited by C.C. Finlay after he took over that position full-time. If one can take the collection of stories found in this installment of the magazine as evidence for "how with the shift from van Gelder to Finlay will affect the magazine", then the answer is more or less "not at all". This issue contains the usual mix of strong selections of science fiction and fantasy stories that cover a broad range of styles, themes, and subgenres.

Originally written in Chinese and translated by Ken Liu, What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu imagines a world in which history moves backwards with the story beginning with a strange celestial event a handful of years "before" China hosts the Olympics and then regressing through much of the twentieth century to the depths of World War II. Despite history moving backwards, people live their lives forwards, existing in a world that becomes less technologically advanced and overall less prosperous as they advance in age. Told from the perspective of Xie Baosheng as he lives through this reverse history and experiences the economic stagnation of China, takes part in the protest at Tiananmen Square, sees the rise of Communism and eventually the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, and finally, endures the civil war that rages between the Communists and the Nationalists as the Japanese take advantage of the chaos to claim large portions of the country. Woven through these large-scale historical events is Xie's ill-fated romance with Zhao Qi, in which the pair are doomed to be separated by political realities, and alongside this romance is Xie's life with his wife Shen Qian, a marriage that through no fault of any person is just one more piece of the tragedy. As the story progresses, the reader is aware of the big events that lie in Xie's "future", and can feel the rising dread that comes with that foreknowledge as one can almost see what will happen to him and those he cares about before it happens. The story is sad and melancholy, and very aware of this fact, climaxing in a conversation between Xie and Sartre about the nature of reality. Despite some stiffness that seems to be characteristic of Chinese science fiction, the story is brilliant on many levels, and quite emotionally moving.

Both disturbing and uplifting, A Residence for Friendless Ladies by Alice Sola Kim is an emotionally powerful tale about the preservation of self-identity in the face of oppression. The unnamed narrator of the story turns to his grandmother as a last resort to avoid being shipped away to Jamaica, but finds that life in the restrictive halls of the titular residence requires giving up his hard-fought masculine identity and returning to living as a demure, feminine, and obedient woman. He knuckles under for a bit, making a few friends, and obeying the rules, terrified of the alternative. From the start, the narrator is told never to answer the late night knocking on her door. At first he scoffs, but when he actually hears it, it fills him with an existential dread. As the story progresses, the reader gets hints of what kind of woman is able to leave the residence - how they are shaped and molded into something more "acceptable", losing themselves in the process. Eventually, the narrator rebels and pushes so far past the boundaries that he is considered irredeemable, but he realizes that this also frees him, and in the final lines he steps out to embrace his true self, regardless of the cost. The story is a powerful treatment of gender identity mixed with just a little bit of classic horror elements to show the very real struggle faced by people trying to assert their identity in the face of a society that just wants them to disappear into the box it has chosen for them regardless of their wishes.

Set in a dystopian future in which the U.S. has degenerated to a collection of slums interspersed among a collection of multinational corporations, Things Worth Knowing by Jay O'Connell tells the story of Stanley, the last teacher working at a public high school. As the story opens, it seems that calling Stanley's job "teacher" is a bit of a stretch, as all public education in this fictional world is automated and the only real role Stanley has is to keep a lid on things if the students get out of hand. Then Joel walks into Stanley's boring, stable school and displays talents that get multiple mega-corporations interested in his services. From there the story becomes one of heavy-handed corporate arm-twisting while Stanley, wishing he could still have the kind of impact on a kid's life that he used to have, sticks his neck out so Joel can make his own choices. The story is a brief glimpse into a somewhat bleak world, but shows that even in a depersonalized educational system, a teacher can still make a difference to a student.

Resting at the border of fantasy and fable, La Héreon by Charlotte Ashley follows an enigmatic rapier-wielding female duelist who goes by the name "La Héreon" as she enters an illegal tournament. After recruiting a young nun (who has some reservations about being a nun) to be her second, she engages in a series of fights with odd opponents from the land of faerie. Each foe presents a unique challenge, and each victory results in a unique reward in return.  The duels are staged well, and fun to read, and the characters are interesting, but the story feels more like the prologue to a bigger story than it feels like a complete story in itself. Another story told ins a folk tale style, The Mantis Tattoo by Paul M. Berger follows Nudur, a young stone age hunter and member of the "Human Beings", who is chosen by Mantis, one of the powerful spirits that guide his tribe. He is sent northward on an errand to find the Fathers of Man and lead them to their new home. Finding the Fathers proves to be easy, but when Nudur arrives in their camp, things don't go the way he expected. The Fathers want Nudur's tribe's greatest secret, which will give them power enough to drive Nudur's people out of their home and claim it for their own. Forced to try to outwit the stronger and more numerous Fathers, Nudur engages in a series of increasingly desperate schemes, each of which is almost casually countered by the Fathers. The story seems to be framed as an encounter between Neanderthals and modern men, and is just mystical enough to be satisfying as a piece of fantasy fiction.

This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang by Brian Dolton imagines a distant future in which the entire universe is populated only by a handful of virtually immortal sentient beings. Titus happens upon something new, which is quite unusual in the waning years of reality, but when she investigates, she is attacked by the Galasphere, another immortal entity. After fending off its attacks she discovers that the novel object is an engine, and is confronted with a mystery. Woven through and integral to the story are the various alliances who all have different ideas about how to confront the impending death of the universe: The Faction are simply content to expire along with the rest of their reality, the Conclave hope to pass through to the next iteration of time and space, while the Cabal seeks to return to the beginning of the current universe and relive through it from the beginning. Titus discovers that there is a conspiracy to speed up the end of everything, and Titus follows the increasingly disturbing clues to an even more disturbing finale. This story accomplishes the neat trick of making the inevitable end of the universe into something that is tense and uncertain.

Told with a series of commands and computer responses Last Transaction by Nik Constantine gives an extremely limited view of a financial crime in progress. Through the back and forth, citizen 79867 discovers that their account has been overdrawn by many thousands of credits. What follows is a series of interactions showing various efforts to work around the computer system and engage in a little larceny. The story is decent, but not particularly interesting, with the only notable element being the somewhat unusual way in which it is told. Just barely science fiction, Bilingual by Henry Lien is told as a series of tweets from Akari Yamaguchi, a young girl horrified at the Taiji dolphin hunt, all of them sandwiched between a pair of corporate memos, one from Seatopia's CEO, the other from Seatopia's counsel. In the opening memo, Seatopia's CEO wants to prosecute Yamaguchi for the actions subsequently detailed in her attached tweets, which describe her plan to create a warning for dolphins to keep them away from Taiji. Of course, Yamaguchi has to make a warning that the dolphins can understand, and that is where the science fiction (and Seatopia's unhappiness) comes into the story. Yamaguchi works at interacting with some of Seatopia's dolphins to try to figure out how to communicate with them, all the while dogged by the security guards at the park. Eventually she decides she has figured out dolphin language and, presumably, executes her plan. This is, essentially, an alien contact story in which the protagonist has to try to figure out how to communicate, and it is both reasonably interesting and told in an unusual enough manner that it is pretty good.

Laced through with macabre ideas about beauty, Little Girls in Bone Museums by Sadie Bruce explores the lengths women will go to be seen as attractive and the disposable nature of those women. Part of the story explores the life of Piedra, who becomes a "bone knot", a young woman who has gone through a procedure in which the muscles in her contorted body atrophy away until she is frozen in one position, to be displayed as a piece of art. The other part of the story follows a young girl, fascinated by the skeletal remains of such "bone knots" after viewing them in a museum, and the child's grandmother, who hopes to dissuade her from volunteering for such a fate. The reader follows as Piedra endures the painful process to turn her into living sculpture, becomes part of a wealthy man's collection and is put on display to be admired at parties and social events, and is relatively quickly forgotten to be set aside in a back room, and eventually donated to a museum, where her short life comes to an anticlimactic close. Interspersed throughout Piedra's story is the conversation between the admiring child and cautious grandmother, with the child having thoughts only of the glory and prestige of becoming a "bone knot" and entirely discounting the cost. This counterpoint makes Piedra's story seem all the more tragic, as one can see the motivations that caused her to choose the brief and limited life she has, and highlights that she was once potentially so much more than a wealthy man's toy. Tragic and frightening, this story is a brutal and bitter taste of the pressures placed on young girls, and the cost they pay in the name of beauty.

Time travel is inherently odd. In A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell by Jonathan L. Howard, time travel is also a source of wry and self-aware humor. Set in a bar named Helix, in the city of Helix, next to the tourist attraction called the Helix, the story is told from the perspective of a bartender as he interacts with a succession of time traveling customers, each of whom has a story that folds back upon the story told be one of the others, making what can only be described as a metaphorical helix. This sort of self-referential humor is woven throughout the story as the bartender uses his inner monologue to make pithy observations about what he is observing. Eventually the whole story turns on the existence of acronyms, and the whole adds up to a somewhat absurdist commentary on the futility of existence. Another humorous story, How to Masquerade as a Human Before the Invasion by Jenn Reese, provides exactly what the title says; A list of instructions for the inhuman agents of a distant alien invasion force that will be taking over Earth at some vague and unspecified point in the future. The story is quite brief, and manages to be both silly fun and fairly unsettling at the same time.

A tale of chronomancy and love gone wrong A User's Guide to Increments of Time by Kat Howard details the bitter fight between two ex-lovers who both have the magical ability to steal time. Siobhan and Finn each manifest their time-manipulating magic in different ways, and as the story progresses, we find out that they have different motivations for stealing bits of time. Unlike many romance stories, this one starts in the aftermath of the love affair, with the torrid passion only a lingering memory by the time the action takes place. But as we learn more and more about the two, one wonders how much they actually knew about one another, and whether they actually loved one another, or instead loved what they thought the other was, or what the other could provide for them. The back and forth proceeds almost methodically to its almost inevitable conclusion, but it is a bittersweet ride to get there.

Though there isn't really anything resembling a thematic bent to this issue as a whole, the array of stories found in its pages is well worth reading. The best stories in the issue are probably What Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear, A Residence for Friendless Ladies, and This Is the Way the Universe Ends: With a Bang but every story in this issue is at least average quality, with most of the stories being above average to excellent. Both La Héreon and A Small Diversion on the Road to Hell provide some humorous interludes as well, which is generally difficult to execute well in genre fiction. Overall, this is a fairly representative issue of one of the best genre fiction magazines in print, and as a result, is definitely worth reading.

Previous issue reviewed: January/February 2015
Subsequent issue reviewed: May/June 2015

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

Fantasy & Science Fiction     Charles Coleman Finlay     Magazine Reviews     Home

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review - The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

Short review: Demane is a caravan guard with unusual abilities. Then he enters the Wildeeps, and his life changes forever.

Brother sorcerer
With others in the Wildeeps
Fights the jukiere

Full review: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a difficult book to assess. Straddling the line between science fiction and fantasy, this story follows Demane, the descendant of long-gone alien beings now revered as gods, as he travels with a caravan to, and into the mysterious "Wildeeps", where he confronts an adversary and must come to grips with his own true nature. The book is a strange mixture of gritty realism, epic adventure, myth, science, and romance, all stirred together in a book that relies more on atmosphere than action, and at times turns almost dream-like, adding up to a reading experience that is at times raw and visceral, and at other ethereal and elusive.

The book opens like a somewhat pulpy fantasy novel, with a collection of caravan guards engaged in their daily practice to stay sharp. Among the usual collection of somewhat shiftless mercenaries and snooty merchants are two rather unique individuals. One is Demane, the titular sorcerer and constant presence throughout the book as the story remains almost unrelentingly focused upon him. The second is the Captain (also known as Isa), strong, fast, tireless, and under a compulsion to sing instead of speak. Once the stage is set, Wilson begins to weave together multiple threads that are an elusive melange of mystery and vulgarity, contrasting the crude humor and lusts of the ordinary caravan guards with the mercurial nature and almost delicate romance of Demane and the Captain.

In a certain sense, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a frustrating story to try to describe, a characteristic which I believe is intentional: Wilson seems to have constructed his story in a manner that reflects the almost inherently contradictory nature of its central figure. Demane is clearly gifted with physical and mental prowess beyond that of other men, and has knowledge and learning that is clearly much more advanced than that of his fellows. He even has a collection of items that are so high tech compared to that found in the society around him that everyone else regards his use of them as evidence of his magical powers. Despite these many gifts and advantages, Demane is a simple caravan guard, looked down upon as an uncouth lout by the merchants who employ him, and regarded as an out land barbarian by most others. In short, despite being one of the most gifted individuals in the world, he is relegated to what may be the lowest rung of society. The story is riddled with these sort of disparities, and the structure of how it is told serves to reinforce them.

The language of the story ranges from vulgar slang to epic lyricism to technical details, reflecting the many aspects of the story itself. Demane is sometimes confused and disturbed by the rough humor of his fellow caravan guards, but he works through these issues all the while trying to explain the things he understands to them in terms they can understand. The conflict of language reflects the conflict throughout the story, as Demane struggles to live within a society that simply doesn't comprehend him or his knowledge, and instead ascribes his capabilities to the supernatural: The reader is presented with a story that explores Arthur C. Clarke's axiom that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Demane (and Isa) reside in this netherworld of understanding, existing in a world that its inhabitants perceive as fantasy, but knowing that the reality is far different.

The story itself, when all of the layers or language, and all of the tensions of contradiction are stripped away, is fairly straightforward. Demane is a caravan guard. For much of the length of the book, the caravan has stopped in Mother of Waters, the last city before entering the Wildeeps, an interlude that allows the reader to see something of a cross-section of the world around Demane, although for the most part, the reader is only presented the seedy side of the culture where cheap alcohol, cheap prostitutes, and gambling are the order of the day, and rough justice is handed out to those who transgress against either the law or the customs of the city. But there are also flashbacks to Demane's earlier life among his people in what is regarded as a less civilized land, under the tutelage of his "Aunty", an ancient ancestor who reveals her wisdom to him before vanishing into the stars. Eventually, the caravan sets out through the Wildeeps where it is preyed upon by the beast that has been hinted at throughout the book, eventually forcing Demane to reluctantly embrace his true nature, and make a choice from which there is no return.

The story has a few weaknesses. The narrative wanders and digresses quite a bit, and the actual plot doesn't really get moving until the last quarter of the book or so. The lurching nature of the language, though integral to the story, is sometimes hard to follow. The greatest weakness in the book is its treatment of women: The only real female character of any sort is "Aunty", and she isn't so much a character as she is a plot device. The only other women who appear in the story are either prostitutes in the slums of Mother of Waters or far away wives and mothers who are only mentioned in passing.

With all of the elements thrown into it, plus some rather convoluted use of language, one would think that The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps would be too much of a mess to actually work as a story. Paradoxically, these elements only serve to make the story stronger, resulting in a tale that comfortably alternates between gritty realism and dreamlike fantasy, with a tiny bit of technological sophistication thrown in for good measure. Part romance, part grim cruelty, part epic poetry, and part legendary adventure, this book delivers a fascinating tale that aggregates them all into a bizarre and unsettling, but ultimately delicious whole.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

Kai Ashante Wilson     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, March 21, 2016

Musical Monday - Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) by Stary Olsa

Pink Floyd's music is magnificent. This song, about the depersonalizing nature of modern, industrialized education, is an unsettling vision of dystopian horror made all the more dismaying when one realizes that the references aren't to some future nightmare, or to some faraway place, but to the relatively recent (and possibly current) British public school system (and which many Americans can at least somewhat relate to). It is a song firmly rooted in the present: A brutal and savage satire of the way we educate our children today.

So the perfect thing to do would be to cover the song in a medieval style using instruments from the period. This makes for an oddly off-feeling, but strangely enjoyable experience. Everything about this cover version is wrong, and it sounds wrong, but somehow it works.

Subsequent Musical Monday: Marble Machine by Wintergatan

Stary Olsa     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Book Blogger Hop March 18th - March 24th: New Horizon's Flyby of Jupiter Slowed the Planet, xkcd's "what if" 146 Works Out How Many Such Flyby's Would Be Needed to Stop Jupiter Completely

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: Has your contact with authors usually been in person, via e-mail, social media, or something else?

If we are talking about volume, then the answer is social media. Between Twitter and Facebook, most authors are easy to interact with (and most authors who are on social media are open to interactions with readers). I sometimes interact with authors via blog comments - usually on other blogs but very occasionally an author posts a comment here. I have exchanged a few e-mails with some authors, but that is fairly rare.

I do get to interact with authors in person a fair amount, although not as often as I do via social media. Most of my in-person contact with authors has come at science fiction conventions, which are usually fairly heavily attended by genre fiction authors. I've met and spoken with numerous authors at conventions including Catherine Asaro, Elizabeth Bear, Wesley Chu, Tom Doyle, Scott Edelman, Charles Gannon, Kameron Hurley, Alethea Kontis, Jay Posey, Lawrence M. Schoen, Ursula Vernon, and Fran Wilde, and so many others. Meeting authors, listening to them speak on panels, talking to them informally, and so on, is most of the reason I go to the conventions I attend.

Sadly, there is a definite limit to the number of conventions that I have the time and money to attend. This year I am planning on attending five conventions: Balticon in May, InConJunction in July, Worldcon in August, CapClave in October, and Starbase Indy in November. That is, by any reasonable standard, a fair number of conventions to be attending in a year. (I will note, however, that I know some very dedicated genre fiction fans who would consider double, or even triple that number of conventions to be a slow year). But that means that I will only have five weekends this year that I can expect to be able to meet and speak with authors - and to be honest, Starbase Indy really isn't a particularly good convention for talking with authors, since so few attend. Despite the fact that in-person interactions are usually of better quality than those that take place over social media, they are rare enough in comparison that they are swamped by the quantity of online contacts.

For the record, xkcd what if number 146 can be found here.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, March 18, 2016

Follow Friday - There Are Approximately 247 Acres in a Square Kilometer

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - The Book Goddess.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Top Ten Favorite Book Covers

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine
The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King
The High King by Lloyd Alexander
His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Time Salvager by Wesley Chu

Follow Friday     Home

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review - Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 39, No. 3 (March 2015) edited by Sheila Williams

Stories included:
Inhuman Garbage by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Pareidolia by Kathleen Bartholomew and Kage Baker
Twelve and Tag by Gregory Norman Bossert
Tuesdays by Suzanne Palmer
Military Secrets by Kit Reed
Holding the Ghosts by Gwendolyn Clare

Poems included:
Red Shift by Barbara Duffy
The Fates Rebel by Ruth Berman
Prince/Glass by Jane Yolen

Full review: As I have noted before, there are often unannounced "themes" that can be found in individual issues of most science fiction publications. In the March 2015 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, with three stories that touch upon the question, that theme seems to be "what makes someone human". The other stories in the volume are a mixed grab-bag containing ideas ranging from very slow time travel to very poignant mourning.

Set in her Retrieval Artist continuity, the murder mystery Inhuman Garbage by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the longest story in this issue. After the body of a young woman is found in one of the recycling crates on the way to the compost pile of the lunar settlement of Armstrong City, detective Noelle DiRicci is called in to investigate. Having dealt with some less than industrious colleagues, and a mostly disinterested recycling company owner, DiRicci's investigation takes her to the unsavory alleged crime boss Luc Deshin. From there the story makes numerous twists and turns, in large part because legally it turns out that despite the fact that the body found in the recycling crate is quite human, killing her was legally not murder. The story splits into two paths with the first being DiRicci's inquiry that is stymied by rules, red tape, and what seem to be somewhat unfair laws, and Deshin's efforts to deal with what he perceives to be a threat to his family - efforts which are much more pragmatic and direct than DiRicci's. Eventually the issue is resolved - solved on Deshin's end, and left in a much more unsettled state on DiRicci's, but the real question posed by the story remains: Who is human, and who is deserving of the protection of the law? The story also contains some rather ominous points relating to the vulnerability of interdependent ecosystems, although these aren't really followed up on in the context of this story. Although Inhuman Garbage isn't an outstanding story on its own, it is an interesting building block in Rusch's ongoing fictional reality, fleshing out her imagined world as part of a decently constructed story that raises some interesting issues.

Told from the perspective of an immortal cyborg working for a time travel company to collect and preserve collectible antiquities, Pareidolia by Kathleen Bartholomew and Kage Baker is a story of unintended consequences. After a brief introduction to establish the background of their fictional universe, the story moves to a seemingly innocuous interlude in ancient Egypt as the narrator Imhotep (who also happens to be Joseph) provides his fellow countrymen with standards to make sculpting and building more uniform. From there the story hops forward by fifteen hundred years to Byzantium, where the immortal Josephus is now running a caravan business shipping rare goods to the hidden locations where they will wait until collected by the company in the far future. A directive from his bosses in the future sends Josephus scrambling off to the construction site where the Hagia Sofia is being rebuilt to intercept a painter who has been making some religious icons that display rather unusual properties. After a death and some sleuthing, Josephus discovers the secret of the paintings, learning that they are an accidental crop sprung from the seed he had planted so long ago in Egypt. In the end, Josephus sets things right and the story ends. There isn't anything particularly deep or insightful about the plot, but the atmosphere set by the story is entertaining.

Set in a rough and tumble bar on Europa Twelve and Tag by Gregory Norman Bossert revolves around a "get to know the new face" gathering for the crew of an under-ice ship that work pulling valuable biomass from the vast and chilly ocean under the surface of the Jovian moon. To learn about their new work mates, the crew play a game called "twelve and tag" that involves word play and then a crew member telling two stories, one of which must be a lie and one of which must be true. The story is a bit confusing, as there are simply too many characters for Bossert to really detail, but for the most part the only ones that really matter are Cheung, the ship's pilot, and Adra and Zandt, the two newbies. All of the other crew members are essentially interchangeable, and their individual identities are mostly irrelevant. Through the series of stories told by the characters, Bossert is able to provide a fairly thorough picture of the future these characters inhabit, including the use of T.A.G. technology to "back up" people's brains so, among other things, they can be reconstituted should they die. For much of its length the story seems to meander aimlessly, not really going anywhere but providing some background material about the world. Eventually, Bossert ties everything together, and does so in a way that is moderately unexpected with a hint of rising horror as the reader figures out what is actually going on. About halfway through the story, I was sure I didn't like it, but in the end it turned out to be quite satisfying.

Another story that imagines the consequences of the ability to record a person's brain and transfer their consciousness to another body, Holding the Ghosts by Gwendolyn Clare examines exactly what might happen to the body in question. In the opening paragraphs of the story we learn that Abby's parents can't afford to lease the body they use for her to visit since she has gone to college, so they only have her on weekends. This seems to work out well until Abby's body remarks that she isn't actually Abby, but rather merely a container for Abby's ghost, driving her mother to rush to the doctor's office brimming with questions. After the doctor reassures Abby's mother that the body has no mind of its own, we meet Chantal, on vacation with her husband, and then Max, brought back for her engineering expertise. As the pieces fall into place, it turns out that Abby wasn't really "away at college", and Chantal's weekend with her husband was probably a repeat experience. The story doesn't really answer the question of what being alive means, but it does pose some rather interesting conundrums.

Due to an error somewhere in the production process, the first page of Tuesdays by Suzanne Palmer was omitted from the printed version of this issue. To remedy this situation, the first page was printed in the April/May 2015 issue of the magazine, and the entire story was placed on Asimov's website. The story itself is a brief little vingette about what seems to be an unusual and inexplicable event in the early morning hours at an all-night diner. What makes the story slightly out of the ordinary is that it is told in short snippets rotating from one viewpoint character to another, as each of the witnesses recounts what they saw to a pair of mostly bored police officers. The story is also told out of order, jumping back and forth in time on a handful of occasions, although this does little other than pointlessly hide the reasons for each person's presence at the diner until later in the story. Everything builds up to a punchline that is mildly amusing but isn't really worth all of the work that went into setting it up. There are a couple of interesting tricks in presentation contained in the piece, but they are all in the service of a story that doesn't really go anywhere interesting.

Military Secrets by Kit Reed is light on the speculative fiction and heavy on metaphor, following the narrator Jessie as she comes to grips with the fact that everyone but her has given up on her missing Navy officer father. In the opening paragraphs of the story, a very young Jessie is separated from most of her classmates, leading to a long digression in which she explains how she learned her father was missing, and how she continues to hope that he is still alive somewhere, possibly clawing his way back to his family. With childlike faith, she continues to hope even though her mother withdraws from the world, her neighbor sympathizes and brings casseroles, and one of the nuns at her school reveals to everyone that Jessie's father is gone. Eventually, Jessie, along with her classmates Bill and Dorcas, is bundled into a "bus" that is a dark tube where they sit in the blackness of the back of the vehicle waiting, frozen in time. Though the speculative fictional element in the story is quite light, the metaphor it serves up for children forever trapped at the age their father vanished is quite powerful.

Red Shift by Barbara Duffy is a moderately opaque poem that seems to be something of a love song, using the motion of the galaxies and Miles Davis music as metaphors. As one might expect, The Fates Rebel by Ruth Berman is a brief exploration of what might happen should the three fates turn away from their usual habits and engage in a little mutiny. Somewhat darker even that fates run amok, Prince/Glass by Jane Yolen is a grim twist on the traditional fairy tale formula that has just the right amount of creepy.

Overall, while this issue has no real standout stories, it also doesn't have any really poor ones either. Oddly, the weakest story in the issue is probably the cover story Tuesdays, and even that is a moderately diverting and amusing piece. On the other hand, stories like Twelve and Tag and Holding the Ghosts are above average, and while Military Secrets is mostly lacking in science fictional elements, it is a gut-wrenching emotional journey. Taken as a whole, this is a fairly ordinary issue of Asimov's. Given that an ordinary issue of Asimov's is pretty damn good, that's a fairly strong recommendation.

Previous issue reviewed: February 2015
Subsequent issue reviewed: April/May 2015

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

Asimov's     Sheila Williams     Magazine Reviews     Home

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review - Updraft by Fran Wilde

Short review: Kirit just wants to earn her wings and join her mother as a trader, but a chance event derails those plans and puts her onto a collision course with the rulers of the City.

In the City's air
Flying on silk and bone wings
Beware the skymouths

Full review: Updraft is the debut novel of Fran Wilde that tells the story of Kirit, a young woman living in the City as part of a civilization above the clouds, who dreams of becoming a trader like her mother Ezarit. This book maps Kirit's journey from child to adult as she navigates the complicated web of customs and traditions that dominate the lives of her countrymen, an endeavor at which she is not always particularly successful. Along the way, she discovers a tale of loss, betrayal, corruption, and sacrifice that will change the City forever, and could very well end up killing her.

In the City, wings mean freedom. Most of the citizens live in towers, residing in the great tiered structures that grow high above the clouds, with the wealthy and privileged occupying the upper tiers, and the poor and disfavored relegated to the lower ones. The only way to move between the towers is to strap on wings and fly (or, more rarely, walk across one of the relatively few bridges that connect some of the towers). Those who cannot fly - the young, the infirm, or the outcast - are essentially confined to their home towers unless they can find someone to carry them from place to place. At the outset of Updraft, Kirit is on the brink of being able to take her wingtest and gain her wingmark, which amounts to a license to fly on her own and symbolizes a citizen's step into adulthood. Kirit's mother Ezarit is a skilled and famous trader who wings her way from tower to tower making deals and returning with the profits for the benefit of her home tower Densira. Kirit's greatest ambition is to win her wingmarks so that she can join her mother as an apprentice and gain fortune and renown for making her own deals.

All of these dreams are derailed when Kirit stays out on the family balcony just a little too long during a skymouth attack, both breaking the law and revealing an unusual power. This event changes the course of her life, and is the fundamental turning point of the book. This event also begins the process of revealing how Wilde's fictional world works, and how its reality differs from Kirit's perceptions. Kirit finds that her display of power has drawn the attention of Wik, one of the enigmatic Singers who effectively rule over the City as a whole, forming a power over the individual towers that binds the entire civilization of Updraft together. Because Kirit refuses Wik's offer to join the Singers (desiring instead to join her mother as a trader), the weight of the laws of the tower falls upon her. Kirit survives the skymouth attack, which is viewed as "lucky" by her fellow tower denizens, but as the powers that govern the towers and the city turn against her, she gets the tag of "unlucky", showing just how fickle popular support can be. Serving her sentence alongside Nat, her oldest friend who seems to have been punished in order to place pressure on Kirit to accede to Wik's demands, Kirit still believes in the fundamental fairness of the system she lives within, and looks forward to her wingtest, which she believes will result in her freedom from restrictions.

But the core story of Updraft is that unaccountable power inevitably results in a corrupt system, and the Singers rig the wingtest to deny Kirit her wingmarks even though she passes all four parts of the test. In a display of power and arrogance, the Singers don't even try to rig the individual scores, but rather simply assert that despite her passing all elements of the test, Kirit is not sufficiently capable to be trusted with her wingmarks. Nat also fails his test, but to highlight the unfairness, the daughter of a wealthy and politically important family in Densira tower passes, despite doing more poorly overall than Nat did. Enraged by the unfairness, Nat and Kirit go rogue, setting out to attack the Spire, the central fortress where all of the Singers dwell. This, of course, ends badly for the two, and Kirit finds herself imprisoned within the Spire and forced to join the Singers, where she learns that the world is not at all what she thinks it is, and the reader finds themselves given a first hand tour of the politics and corruption at the heart of the City.

The story pushes Kirit further and further into the heart of power in the City, revealing to her the awful and deadly secrets that have rotted away the core of both the Singers and the City itself. Wilde manages to combine Kirit's personal coming-of-age story with the political maneuverings going on around her by revealing new sources of corruption and deception as part of Kirit's training. Some of the revelations are subtle - such as the differences in the songs sung by the denizens of the towers and the residents of the Spire - while others hit the reader with the force of a heavy hammer blow - such as the terrible secret hidden in the lower levels of the Spire, and what the Singers do with that secret. Step by step, Kirit is drawn into the hidden world of the Singers, and the reader is drawn in with her, with each new piece of shady crookedness explained away, making the next that much easier to accept, until outrages that Kirit has excused with polite fictions are brought home to her on a personal level and the entire rotten edifice comes crashing down.

The story of Updraft is more complex than merely being a case of a corrupt system that must be opposed. Kirit is presented with multiple possible role-models, each with their own vision of how the future of the City should be determined, ranging from the pure power politics of Rumul, to the blind adherence to tradition of Sellis, to Wik's determination to reform the Singers from within, to Nat's call for open rebellion. All of these possible avenues offer Kirit benefits, and all offer profound drawbacks, making every one of her decisions fraught with peril, and weighty with import. Among the most powerful pull is that of tradition, a phrase often invoked by City-dwellers who have imbued it with an almost sacred meaning. Every Singer faction, and most of the non-Singers Kirit encounters, view tradition as being of paramount importance in their lives, and it is wielded almost as a weapon to silence dissent and, in many cases, to protect secrets. But as the story makes clear, such adherence to tradition makes corruption possible: Many dark and underhanded developments are hidden from public view because of the ritual tradition of silence: Only those allowed to may speak, and then only on approved subjects. Following the rules means lying to your fellow citizens at the behest of the powers that be. Much of the book revolves around Kirit struggling against her own upbringing to find a clear path to dealing with the problems she faces, navigating what are, for her and for her society, essentially uncharted waters.

In 2016 Updraft was nominated for both the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the Andre Norton Award, making it the first book to achieve this double honor. Because of its teenage protagonist, this book is likely to be viewed as a young adult novel (hence the Andre Norton Award), but readers should be warned that the society depicted within its pages is violent and bloody. Legal and political disputes are settled by combat, often to the death. Human sacrifices are made to appease the City's apparent wrath. One of the means by which an apprentice in the Spire can achieve the status of Singer is to accept a challenge made by a tower-dweller and then either kill or maim them. Even the "friendly" sports contests of the City-dwellers involve taking to the air with knives and shards of glass strapped to their feet and slashing at one another. But this simply adds one more layer to the world-building of the book, showing the reader that the City, whose denizens fancy themselves to be much more civilized and genteel than their ancestors, is actually an almost horrific place filled with appalling levels of brutality and an almost casual attitude towards death.

Updraft does have a couple of weaknesses: With so much going on in the story, some elements seem to get something of a short shrift - for example, Kirit's mother Ezarit more or less vanishes from the story after the first third or so, and as a character was never really developed much more than "really good trader" to begin with. Some of the plot developments seem just a little bit serendipitous, as almost everyone Kirit comes into contact with outside of the Spire seems to have some connection to the conspiracy that drives the events in the book. There is also a somewhat predictable quality to many of the novel's "plot twists", Plus, there are tantalizing questions that are never answered: What is below the City? The denizens of the towers refer to the "Rise" as the seminal historic event that gave birth to their current way of life, but where did they rise from? The City is alive and seems to have desires, but what is it exactly, and what does it really want? And so on. Overall though, Updraft is well-crafted and engaging enough that the handful of weak plot elements remain minor issues, and after reading the book I have sufficient faith in the author that I believe the various questions about the world itself will be answered in some future volume.

At its heart, Updraft is a well-written bildungsroman that laces political intrigue throughout Kirit's journey from adolescence to adulthood, all supported by strong world-building. With lessons taught by a myriad of mentors both beneficent and malign, Kirit learns, grows, adapts, and eventually chooses her path, and by doing so, chooses the path for the City and its denizens. Despite being packed with Kirit's training and a moderately complex volume of political maneuvering, the book remains fairly fast-paced and action-packed, which seems perfect for a story in which the characters swoop and glide through the air upon wings of silk, bone, and sinew. In the final analysis, Updraft is a book that has a little bit of just about everything and mixes them all together into a stew that most genre fiction fans will likely find quite tasty.

2015 Andre Norton Award Winner: Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
2017 Andre Norton Award Winner: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

List of Andre Norton Award Winners

2016 Nebula Award Nominees

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

Fran Wilde     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, March 14, 2016

Musical Monday - You're My Honeybunch (The Cuppycake Song) by Amy Castle

Today is my wedding anniversary1, so this is for my redhead.

1Yes, we got married on π day. This was an intentional choice. Together my redhead and I are infinite and irrational.

Previous Musical Monday: Protocol (C-3PO's Lament) by The Doubleclicks
Subsequent Musical Monday: Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) by Stary Olsa

Amy Castle     Musical Monday     Home

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Blogger Hop March 11th - March 17th: Marcus Aurelius Became Consul in 145 A.D. (So Did Antonius Augustus Pius, But Most People Don't Care as Much About Him)

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 believe audio books are the future and why do believe?

For me personally? No. I simply can't pay attention to a spoken rendition of a book well enough to use audio books. I'll be consuming my books via the written word for the foreseeable future.

Overall? I doubt it. Audio books have been around for decades, and while they form a substantial submarket within the book publishing world, they probably won't ever supplant paper books. For all of their faults, paper books have the advantage of being an entirely self-contained product. It is ready to read the moment you pick it up off the shelf. An audio book, by contrast, requires a device upon which to play it: A CD player, an MP3 player or other audio file player, or for older books, a cassette player. Without that, an audio book is just an inert piece of plastic or an inaccessible collection of electronic memory. Audio books are an effective adjunct to printed books, but I don't think they will ever achieve primacy in the publishing world.

Book Blogger Hop     Home

Friday, March 11, 2016

Follow Friday - 246 Is the Smallest Number N for Which It Is Known That There Is an Infinite Number of Prime Gaps No Larger Than N

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - The Bookavid.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: What are some of your biggest pet peeves with books? (i.e. Love triangles, etc.)

I read a lot of speculative fiction. That means I read a lot of books that imagine worlds that have elements such as aliens invading the Earth in the middle of World War II, or the Napoleonic Wars being fought with air forces comprised of dragons, or humans have all gained the ability to teleport from place to place, or some people are able to read minds, and so on and so forth. I really love these sorts of books, so long as they are done well. What really annoys me are books in which the author clearly didn't think through the implications of the element they've introduced into their story.

As an example of this sort of book done well, I point to Alfred Bester's science fiction classic The Stars My Destination, which imagines a world in which people can teleport. The story itself focuses on Gully Foyle and his quest for revenge against those who abandoned him when he was marooned in space, but the world surrounding him is so well thought out that it makes the story that much better. Bester wondered how, in a world in which people could jump to any point they could visualize, houses could be built to ensure privacy, or how prisons could be constructed to prevent those incarcerated within them from simply jumping out at will. And so on. Every element of Bester's imagined world is thought out and holds up to scrutiny.

On the other hand, Naomi Novik's Tremeraire series has some annoying holes in its world building. Novik imagined what our world might have been like if dragons existed, and then set her stories in the Napoleonic Era, creating a series reminiscent of the naval adventures penned by C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brien. The problem is that even though she spent a fair amount of time thinking about how dragon military units might be organized and how to transport dragons by sea, she didn't really work through how the changes in the global balance of power would have affected the attitudes of her British officers. Despite the fact that nations in Asia and Africa have substantial dragon forces which almost entirely offset any European edge in technology, the British officers are continually surprised when their plans are foiled by the natives they encounter. The world is radically changed from our own, but no one seems to have informed the inhabitants of that world that they don't live in ours.

This sort of oversight happens with depressing regularity in speculative fiction. One might find a world in which a godlike superintelligent being has discovered an almost infinite energy supply, and yet the economy remains mired in an almost perpetual recession, or a world in which some humans have developed magical powers and this seems to have had almost no effect on the hundred or so years of technological development that transpired since magical people popped into the world. And so on. When world-building is done well, it adds an almost sublime element to a story that pulls the reader into the alternate reality imagined by the author, but when it is done poorly, the story lands with a clumsy thud that yanks the reader right out of it and has them asking what in the hell is going on. I love great world-building. I loathe clumsy world-building.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review - Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Short review: Karen Memery is a "seamstress" working for Madame Damnable in Rapid City. Then Priya enters their lives, Peter Bantle starts making trouble for everyone, and adventure ensues.

A boom town "seamstress"
Fights the meanest man in town
And then falls in love

Full review: Karen Memory is a steampunk flavored Western featuring a feisty young prostitute named Karen Memery living and "sewing" (as all of the hookers in the book call plying their trade) in the fictional Rapid City, a boom town in the Pacific northwest that sprang up following the discovery of gold in Alaska. Surrounded by the quirky denizens of the bordello in which she works, aided by the recently arrived U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves, in love with Priya, a foreign girl rescued from a nightmarish existence, and opposed by the brutal and villainous Peter Bantle, Karen embarks upon a fast-paced and exciting frontier adventure that seems inspired by the dime-novels that she and her friends are said to love to read in the parlor after all of their clients have gone home.

One might expect the working girls of the Hôtel Mon Cherie, the rather high-class cathouse run by the formidable Madame Damnable, to be a collection of pretty young waifs. Instead, they are an eclectic and interesting bunch, starting with Karen herself, who is described as a large woman, tall and strong shouldered, evidencing a hearty fitness apparently gained working alongside her late father in his business of breaking horses. Working by Karen as a seamstress (because in addition to her euphemistic "sewing", Karen does actual sewing to make clothes for the women she works with) is Miss Francesca, who, in addition to being good at making clothes, is pretty clearly a transgendered woman, and is described as having a rather particular clientele. There are other women in Madame Damnable's Sewing Circle, including Pollywog and Effie, plus a collection of other people who work in the establishment including Crispin, who is more or less a general handyman and bouncer, Miss Bethel the bartender, and Connie the cook. The strength of the book is that all of these characters are both interesting and well-drawn, with even the bit players presented in a way that makes them feel like they have full lives even if those lives are only briefly touched upon on the page.

Despite populating Karen's world with a number of engaging characters, Bear doesn't waste any time getting the plot going, and by the end of the first chapter, a woman named Merry Lee, who specializes in rescuing women who have been forced into prostitution, shows up in Madame Damnable's parlor with a rescued Indian girl under her arm and Peter Bantle and his crew of thugs hot on her tail. It seems that Bantle runs his own whorehouses, and doesn't pay attention to details like whether the women in his employ actually want to work as prostitutes, and keeps them locked up as virtual slaves to prevent them from running away. Merry Lee, who is described by Karen as being Chinese (although Karen is sometimes not particularly well-informed as to the ethnic origins of others), takes exception to this state of affairs, and has made it a practice to rescue as many of such imprisoned women as she can. The denizens of Hôtel Mon Cherie face down Bantle's gang in an encounter where the first real "steampunkish" element comes into play: Bantle has an electric glove, and apparently, some sort of mind affecting device that causes Karen to almost shoot one of her own friends. This confrontation turns out to be the first round in a conflict that dominates the rest of the book, with an ever escalating back-and-forth complemented by more than a few twists and turns.

The encounter adds a new character to the story in the form of the rescued girl, who turns out to be named Priya. She also turns out to be remarkably intelligent and well-educated, and entirely uninterested in becoming a seamstress under Madame Damnable, which seems understandable following her experience "working" for Bantle. Karen falls in love with the newcomer, and one of the strengths of the story is the halting and hesitant relationship that grows between the two women. Before too long, Bear adds the character of U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves to the mix, bringing the former slave turned federal lawman into the story by explaining that he is on the trail of a murderer whose modus operandi he is familiar with, but whose identity he does not know. Reeves is described as a massive man, and illiterate, but he is also kind, incredibly competent, and serious about his duties as a lawman. Reeves, like Priya, is almost improbably capable, and both characters seem to be a rather subtle condemnation of the wastefulness caused by the common American prejudices and practices of the nineteenth century (and beyond).

Once the various characters are in place, the story rolls forward at a rapid clip. Every event is told entirely from Karen's perspective, and the reader only knows what she knows, and hears everything in her rather folksy voice. Despite maintaining this rather relentless focus on Karen, the story never bogs down, and only occasionally seems to take an artificial turn necessitated by the limited viewpoint. This very focused viewpoint serves to give the entire book an immediacy, as Karen's almost raw emotions are on virtually every page. From her shock and pain when she is wounded in one of the many fights, to her shock and dismay when events turn against her and her friends, to her nervous uncertainty in approaching and courting the object of her desire, the story has an elemental feel that is made possible by Bear using Karen's eyes as the filter through which the reader sees the world.

The story does have a few weaknesses. Because of the limited focus, there are points where it is clear that Bear needed to move Karen to a particular location so she could be given information and, as a result, the reader could be given information. Consequently, there are a couple of rather abrupt scenes in which Karen is captured so the villain can either explain some of his plans or spirit her away to a location where she can see his villainous machinery at work. The book also has a lot going on in its pages, and at times seems to strain against its own length. There are subplots involving local politics, a murder mystery, a romance, and a threat to the nation itself, as well as a number of steampunk elements such as airships, sewing machines that can double as combat armor, and a Jules Verne-inspired sea vessel that are casually dropped into the story. On the other hand, given that my main complaints about the book amount to the fact that it is jam-packed with so much material that I would have liked to have had more pages for them to be more fully explored, that can probably be taken as a sign that the book is pretty strong overall.

One minor pedantic complaint that is probably entirely unique to me is that even though we are told that the story takes place during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, a major plot point is the ongoing gold rush in Alaska. The trouble is that Hayes' presidency lasted from 1877 to 1881, and there wasn't a major gold rush in Alaska until the 1890s (and actually didn't start until after Hayes had died). The book is, obviously, an alternate history, so this is probably nitpicking something that that isn't really a problem, but given that the handful of other major historical events that are mentioned in the book took place on the same schedule and in much the same way as they did in our world, this seems like an odd change.

Set in a steampunkish world complete with electrical gauntlets, magnetic personal location devices, and a city that is almost a character in its own right, Karen Memory is a tale of action and adventure with a rapid-paced plot and a collection of interesting characters who could have been ripped from the pages of a dime-store western. Centered on the feisty and no-nonsense Karen Memery, this is a book that is sure to scratch the itch of anyone who is hankering for a well-written combination of H.G. Wells and Zane Grey, with maybe a dash of Arthur Conan Doyle and a little bit of skewed history thrown in for good measure.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

2016 Locus Award Nominees

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