July 15, 2020

Review: Tiamat's Wrath

Tiamat's Wrath Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eight doorstopper-sized books in (with one more remaining in the series), The Expanse is still chugging along. This makes it sound like the series is slowing down, and it most certainly isn't. Quite the opposite: it's revving up for the final showdown with the enemy, the aliens that destroyed a galaxy-spanning civilization a few billion years ago and which our stupid humans woke up. You would think this would steer into "Bambi vs. Godzilla" territory, but the authors (James S.A. Corey is actually two people, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) have seeded quite a few things which should come to fruition in the final book.

(However, there's a good reason this book was dedicated to George R.R. Martin, and if you think about it for a moment, you'll realize what it is. Anything else would be descending into some pretty severe spoiler territory, so I'll leave it at that.)

I've read the first four books in the series, then skipped Nos. 5-7. However, with three of the main viewpoint characters in this book being familiar faces (Alex, Naomi and Bobbie, as well as Elvi from book 4, Cibola Burn) it didn't take long for me to get up to speed. The crew of the Rocinante is split apart, dealing with a military dictatorship that took over Sol system using alien protomolecule technology. Alex and Bobbie are on another ship entirely, engaging in Belter-style guerrilla warfare; Naomi is hiding, working for the underground; and Holden is being held as a political prisoner in the dictatorship's home system. Elvi is on the dictatorship's science ship, visiting systems with billion(s)-year-old artifacts in an attempt to learn more about the long-extinct makers of the ring gates. But this mission has a hidden motive, a "tit-for-tat" response to humanity's discovery of the second alien species. (Which, on its face, is profoundly stupid, but you know. Dictatorships gonna dictate, even when all rational response shouts that they should quietly tiptoe away.)

These books are big, sweeping space opera, with some fairly hard science fiction in the worldbuilding. Multiple POV characters are used here, but since many of them are familiar to us from previous books, it's easy for the reader to slide into the flow of the narrative (although you shouldn't start the series with this book). Of the new characters, Teresa, the teenage daughter of the Laconian dictator Winston Duarte, goes on the most interesting journey. And then there's Amos...but that's a paragraph's worth of spoiler territory all by itself.

This book was 530 pages, but it held my interest throughout. I don't know when the ninth and final book is going to come out--sometime next year, maybe?--and the way this is setting up, that's going to be a helluva ride.

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July 14, 2020

It's Hugo Time! Best Fan Writer

Fan Writers come in two flavors, it seems to me: Reviewers and Analytics. The Reviewers are just that: they take a book/story/movie/video game and break it down into Good/Bad, Read/Don't Read, Watch/Don't Watch categories. The more entertaining Reviewers, of course, have their own well-thought-out definitions of what falls into their personal go/no go, and can explain their conclusions about a specific work in sometimes excruciating detail. (I've been guilty of that myself.) If you stumble upon a good Reviewer, many times the bad reviews are more entertaining than the good ones.

(The late, sorely missed Roger Ebert, of course, was the master at this, as shown here. For my money, he produced the most eviscerating review of a movie I've ever read, commenting on Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.)

The Analytics are a bit more wide-ranging: they take an SFF-related subject and drill down into it, commenting on theme, text and subtext, and history. These are generally longer, chewier reads than the Reviewers. Neither approach is better than the other, of course; it depends on what the reader wants at a given moment. But I tend to lean towards the Analytic side of the spectrum (depending on the subject and how well the Analytic tackles it) and my ratings in this category reflect this.

So, this is divided into two parts.

The Resourceful Reviewers

James Davis Nicoll

James is the purest, most voracious book reviewer on this ballot. In 2019, according to his Hugo packet, he read and reviewed 244 books. This works out to about a day and a half of reading and writing per book. Of course, he gets paid for it, so he certainly has an incentive to be fast. But because of this, his reviews are sometimes...a bit shallow. Not that swift and shallow doesn't have its place, mind you, to help you determine quickly if a book might be for you. I just prefer something with a little more meat on its bones.

Alasdair Stuart

Alasdair expands the canvas a bit, as he has a newsletter and also does podcasts. In his packet, he offers examples of all of these, which turns out to be quite a bit of (to me) unfocused scattershot material. Again, this is fine if it's your thing. It's not really mine.

Adam Whitehead

I subscribed to Adam's blog, "The Wertzone," on the strength of his Hugo nomination this year. In looking at his Hugo packet entries, I see he has a great interest in what might be considered minutiae, such as the size of the planet Arrakis, and he definitely has a thing for maps. Unfortunately, I....don't.

Paul Weimer

Paul's Hugo packet was a bit difficult to read, as the Epub formatting was...rather weird, shall we say. (Edit: I went back and tried the PDF version and that was a lot better.) His work is a mix of reviews and interviews, written in an unpretentious, engaging style, with nice details and delving into the books he reviews.

The Accomplished Analytics

Bogi Takacs

Bogi mainly does reviews, but has a laser-sharp, distinct focus: e reviews marginalized authors, and a lot of eir work deals with trans/intersex issues. One of the highlights of eir packet was eir deep dive into Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (which I really must get around to one of these days).

Cora Buhlert

(Disclaimer: When Cora was putting her Hugo packet together, she asked on her blog for suggestions as to what to include, and I made a couple of suggestions. So if you don't like something in her packet, I suppose I'm at least partially to blame...)

Cora is a full-on Analytic, and it shows in pretty much everything she writes. She turns out the kind of deep, detailed, long-form pieces you don't see much on the internet anymore. Her Hugo packet shows this off well, with subjects including space opera, hopepunk, steampunk, Star Wars, Star Trek: Discovery, the Dragon Awards, Margaret St. Clair, and--my personal favorite--"Ian McEwan is Clueless About Science Fiction," a delightfully snarky takedown of authors writing in the SFF field without any knowledge of its tropes and traditions.

On this ballot, amidst this competition, Cora Buhlert comes out on top, for me.

Next up: Best Series

July 12, 2020

It's Hugo Time! Astounding Award for Best New Writer

The Hugos have opened for voting!

Fortunately, the deadline has been extended a week (to July 22, although that might make it tight on CoNZealand's end).

This category used to be called the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer, until the acceptance speech of last year's winner, Jeannette Ng (itself a nominee for Best Related Work this year, which I will get to). After that uproar, Dell Magazines, the owner and administrator of the award--it's included in the Hugo ceremony, but is quote-unquote "not a Hugo," the same as the new Lodestar Award--changed the name to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

This category is a bit different in that there were no nominees I actively disliked: no "Sorry, No," in other words. Instead, there were two that made the final cut and four that were on the border, as it were.

Knocking On the Door

Nibedita Sen secured this nomination on the strength of her short stories; indeed, her "Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island" is a finalist for Best Short Story (although I preferred another story she included in her packet, "Leviathan Sings To Me In the Deep," a twisty little horror tale of a whale who gets the ultimate revenge on her whaler). It is a bit unfair to compare the writers of novels to the writers of short stories, as the book writer gets more of a chance to show off her skills at longer lengths. On the other hand, it is a testament to Nibedita Sen's skills as a writer that she made the ballot with her short stories, even if she didn't ascend to the top spot, for me.

Emily Tesh made the ballot on the strength of this novella, a retelling of the Green Man legend. This was...okay, but it didn't excite me all that much.

(Full review here)

This is a chunky doorstopper fantasy from Jenn Lyons, if you like that sort of thing. It was a bit more focused than the usual, not succumbing to the cast-of-thousands-and-dozens-of-POVs that tend to put me off reading them, so I did manage to finish it. Having said that, I doubt I'll jump back into the series again.

(Full review here)

Sam Hawke's book is definitely a step up from the previous finalist, both in characterization and worldbuilding. As a first novel, it did have some pacing problems (as they usually do), especially at the climax, but the characters were well-drawn and engaging. 

We Have a Winnah!

(Full review here)

Tasha Suri's novel was a most pleasant surprise, and one I might have overlooked had she not appeared on the Astounding ballot. This novel, inspired by Indian history with a magic system based in Hindu beliefs and rites, is a damn fine debut. 

(Full review here)

R.F. Kuang's outstanding second novel was one of my five-star reads from last year, so it's no surprise that Kuang takes the top slot (although Tasha Suri gave her a bit of a run for her money). This is a brutal, bloody story of war and insane gods, and needs just about all the content warnings you can muster, so be warned. 

Next up: Fan Writer

July 11, 2020

Review: Middlegame

Middlegame Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is definitely a leveling up for Seanan McGuire, technically: the prose is tighter, the plot more complex. This tale of rogue alchemists who (as best as I can understand; the worldbuilding is more than a little confusing) want to control the universe by embodying aspects of it--specifically, mathematics and language--in human bodies. These are lab-created sets, one male and one female. The mathematician of the pair can calculate the way to the Impossible City, the home of the alchemy that has been banished from the world, and the linguist can speak it into existence. Together, once they manifest and come into their full powers, they can control the so-called Doctrine of Ethos and reshape the world.

They also have to have rhyming names for some reason, hence our protagonists: Roger and Dodger. Really? This grated on me every time I read it. Which may sound like a petty thing to be picking on, but it's a symptom of why I had an uneasy relationship with this book: it felt like it would just get going and toss out something so pretentious and twee I could hardly stand it. It wasn't helped by the third person present tense narration, which seemed to be there just for the sake of being "edgy," or something. This may be a different sort of story than the author has ever written, but I don't think it's up to her usual standards. The last Toby Daye book far more depth of characterization and worldbuilding, as far as I am concerned, and even the formerly-fluffy InCryptid series is getting serious.

No, this book just comes across as an experiment, and a not entirely successful one. I'm glad the author wants to challenge herself, and I certainly think she's turned out better examples of this in the past: I thoroughly enjoyed the Parasitology series, for example, and it doesn't seem to get as much love. This book seems like a stand alone, and I hope that's the case. If it turns into a series, I'm not going any further with it.

July 4, 2020

Review: Empire of Sand

Empire of Sand Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Had it not been for the author's name appearing on the 2020 Hugo ballot (part of the Astounding Award ballot for best new writer) I would most likely have overlooked this book. That would have been a shame. This is a lovely book, beautifully written, with a sure hand rarely found in a debut novel.

According to the author's interview in the rear of the book, a lot of the worldbuilding is based on India's Mughal Empire (the map in the front is obviously the real-world country with fantasy names slapped on it) and the magic system is drawn from Hindu beliefs and rites. I'm not an expert on any of that, of course, but it certainly makes this book different from the usual run of European-derived fantasies. I'm glad we can now get books like this, especially when they're as good as this one.

What impressed me most, however, is the protagonist, Mehr. The description "strong female character" has become something of a cliche, especially since it was undermined by the bare-midriffed, butt-shaking cover poses of such protagonists during the urban fantasy craze. (Which I know a bit about, because I bought, and still own, a LOT of those books.) Mehr is a well-written subversion of that trope. She does not know martial arts or wield a katana; she is the daughter of a provincial governor raised in the Ambhan society's suffocating protection and seclusion, to the point where she does not even know how to sew a rip in her own clothes...but her inner strength and drive causes her to change the world.

The second impressive thing about this book is the slow burn romance that becomes a vital part of the plot. Mehr and her husband, Amun, are married to each other very much against their wills, to exploit the magical power they wield. The relationship that develops, and the sacrifices they are willing to make for each other, enable Mehr's ultimate triumph. The themes of sacrifice and choice are prominent throughout this book, which gives it poignancy and depth.

I would liked to have known a bit more about the history of the Ambhan Empire, which is the only knock I have on this book--the worldbuilding is not as deep as it could be. That is minor. The characterizations are spot on, including the alien, otherworldly daiva. This is just a damn fine novel, and it's astonishing that it's the author's debut.

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June 28, 2020

It's Hugo Time! Best Graphic Novel

Sorry, No

Mooncakes, Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

This love story between a teenage witch and a werewolf was cute, sweet, light and fluffy as a feather, and about as memorable. I'm sure it's just the kind of story some readers need right now. I am not that reader. 

Knocking On the Door

LaGuardia, Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford

This alien-invasion story of intelligent plants and discrimination is very on the nose, a thinly disguised metaphor for the United States today. It sorta grabbed my interest, but didn't hold it for very long.

Die, Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans

This was a grimdark and brutal story, and the art reflected that. I think it would have more appeal to gamers though, and I don't fall into that category.

We Have a Winnah!

Paper Girls Volume 6, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

After time travel from the far past to the distant future, Erin, Mac, Tiffany and KJ get back to where they started. Quite satisfying ending. One of my nominees.

Monstress Volume 4: The Chosen, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

The art is as gorgeous and unique as ever, even as the story gets more convoluted. What I appreciated about this volume is Kippa the fox girl coming into her own. She is a voice of compassion and kindness in a bloody, grimdark world.

The Wicked and the Divine Volume 9: "Okay," by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

When I read this, I thought, "How in the heck did this not get nominated before?" (Also, I deeply appreciate Image Comics making all the previous volumes available--without watermarks, no less!--in the Hugo Voters' Packet. I couldn't have made sense of Volume 9 otherwise.) This story of twelve gods reborn as human beings every ninety years, living for two years and then dying, and their renouncing their powers and breaking free in the final cycle is excellent. I didn't think anything could have knocked Monstress out of the top slot for me, but this just might have managed it.

(And I'm still waiting for voting to open, hint hint. The calendar is marching on, hint hint.)

Review: Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker Die, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this, but it is dark. Both in subject matter and art. It's the story of six teenagers--Dominic, called Ash, his sister Angela, and their friends Isabelle, Chuck, Matthew and Solomon, shortened to Sol. On Sol and Ash's sixteenth birthday, they sit down to to navigate a brand-new role-playing game that Sol has created. They build their characters and receive their dice...er, "die"....roll them--and vanish. They reappear two years later, five of the original six, one with an arm missing, known as the "Stafford Six." When asked where they've been for the past two years, all Ash can say is, "I can't say."

The story picks up twenty-five years later, when Ash gets a mysterious package in the mail. Recognizing it for what it is, he gets all of his friends together, they open the package to find a single die inside (a magical D20), and just like that they're transported back to the grimdark fantasy world they were imprisoned in a quarter of a century earlier. And not in their own real-life bodies, but the bodies of their characters (which, in Ash's case, means a white-haired female).

(And I'm thinking, well, this is really a cliche. Why is Ash doing this? If he suspected what that package held, why didn't he just smash the thing with a hammer? Answer: because even after so many years, he's still crippled by guilt over leaving Sol behind. As it turns out, Sol is now the Grandmaster, who is going to force them to play the game through.)

This storyline is dark and the world is brutal, and the art reflects that. I have to say, however, that I'm sure this comic would appeal more to readers who are also gamers. I am not one. The writer is doing some interesting things with the world--it's sort of a subversion of, and a reaction to, Tolkien's Middle-earth, as is revealed in the extensive essays on the comic's creation at the back of the book. Still, this volume is pretty grim, ending on a cliffhanger, and I don't know if I'm invested enough to go forward with it.

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June 27, 2020

Review: City of Lies

City of Lies City of Lies by Sam Hawke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a first novel, and fairly impressive. (It's certainly more impressive than the one I read previously.) I did have some problems with the pacing, and the whole thing feels like it could be cut by a double-digit margin of pages. Still, this book tackles some weighty themes, and has well-drawn characters who live up to those themes.

The setting is a bit generic at times, save for a couple of interesting details. (Such as the fact that inheritance goes through a family's women, and the Chancellor needs his sister to bear an heir for him rather than siring one himself.) What's more interesting is the history of the world, and the political intrigue the characters are swept up in. The titular City, Silasta of the country of Sjona and its ruling Credol Families, are depicted as a place and group who have gradually lost touch with the common people, to the point where one of the protagonists has no idea the people taking care of his family's distant estates are not even being taught to read and write. This inequality, as well as the repression of various ethnic and religious groups, leads to grumbling and all-out rebellion, albeit whipped up by traitorous elements within the Families themselves. This is a war story, a murder mystery, and a bit of a romance as well (with a more adult touch, refreshingly lacking the usual teenage angst).

One of the protagonists, Jovan, is the Chancellor's heir Tain's "proofer," or food taster and poison detector. (Each chapter heading describes a new poisonous herb, plant, or other substance, how it is used, its symptoms, and its "proofing cues," or how it is detected.) The other main protagonist--in alternating first-person chapters--is Kalina, Jovan's sister. Jovan has a sometimes raging case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, described with sensitivity and understanding by the author (or at least I thought so) which actually comes into play in the story's climax. (Jovan fights one of the villains in a dark room, and he has paced and measured that room so many times he knows exactly where he is during the fight, even if he can't see a thing.) Kalina has some kind of chronic condition, never named although it sounds like asthma. Nevertheless, she persists, refusing to let her sometimes overprotective brother hold her down. She is not your typical kickass heroine, coming off more as the spy type, observing and listening and skulking in the shadows. Still, she presses hard against her limits, and at the story's end breaks free of the siege of Silasta to bring back the army to save the day. (Well, sort of. The last quarter of this book is all twisty-turny, plot-wise, and while the various twists and turns had been properly seeded, I sometimes thought they were coming a bit too thick and fast.)

This book was well-written with engaging characters, but I wished the author had tightened up on the pacing and delved into the worldbuilding a bit more. Still, a promising debut, and a writer to watch.

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June 21, 2020

Review: The Ruin of Kings

The Ruin of Kings The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I usually don't care much for doorstopper fantasies. I've never been fond of books with casts of thousands and point of view characters in the double digits, which the majority of said doorstoppers seem to have. This book is something of an exception to that rule: for most of the story, the focus is on two characters. Kihrin is the nominal hero, the boy raised in a whorehouse who finds out he is rather more than he thought he was, and Talon, the centuries-old, horrifying "mimic," a shapeshifter who eats the brains of her victims and absorbs their memories and DNA so she can take on their appearance.

Their alternating chapters take the form of the record of their individual stories, inputted into a "recording stone," which is written out later for we the readers and bound, complete with (sometimes annoying) footnotes. (Although the footnotes do turn out to be a method of characterization for yet another character, so I suppose they're tolerable.) Kihrin's chapters are told in the first person; Talon's is a third person narrative, allowing for events Kihrin couldn't or didn't witness. The storyline is the typical epic fantasy, spanning thousands of years, involving gods and demons and backstabbing royal families, and culminating in a plot to bring back long-dead gods and take over the world.

Because of the overall mundaneness of the plot and characters, I couldn't get too invested in it. It was well written, and I liked it while I was reading it, but it's not staying with me enough to go on to the next volume. Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me, books like this are so huge and require such an investment of time to read that they need something outstanding to continue with them. This book doesn't have that.

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June 11, 2020

Review: Deeplight

Deeplight Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd never read anything by Frances Hardinge before, and this was a helluva introduction. I thought it was a little slow to get going--Hardinge is British, and this book has that deliberate English pacing, even at the climax--but once the central MacGuffin is retrieved, the story takes off. Our main character, Hark, has quite the character growth throughout, including facing the fact that he cannot save his toxic friend Jelt no matter how hard he tries. Hark and Jelt's convoluted, tortured relationship is the heart of this book.

But there is also some fascinating worldbuilding going on here. The setting is the Myriad, a group of independent island nations haunted by the ghosts of living gods that turned on each other thirty years ago. These gods, sort of a cross between a mutated deep sea monster and a Lovecraftian nightmare, ruled the Myriad for centuries, and human sacrifices were thrown into the sea in an attempt to appease them. No one knows why they killed each other off in a violent Cataclysm. The only things left are the scraps of dead gods harvested by the humans...and on occasion, some unlucky islander finds more than a scrap.

Hark is one of those unlucky islanders, and this is the story of his fight to save his islands from a nightmare returned. But it's also, surprisingly, a story about stories. Hark is a thief, a con artist, and a raconteur, and he collects stories both for their own sake and to use as bargaining chips. The stories of the gods he stumbles upon along the way make up a large and important part of the narrative. Those same stories are also central to Hark's personal growth, influencing the choice he makes at the end of the book as to what he will do with his life.

Stories, stories. He had always been a storyteller of sorts--eager to entertain, or win people over, or get something he wanted, or play the hero for a bit. Now other people's stories were the treasures he prized. He was a storykeeper for gods and heroes.

Once he could read and write, he would travel, he realized. He would leave Sanctuary and sail all over the Myriad. He would collect stories everywhere and save them before they could fade away from everyone's memory. You could keep people alive forever through stories.

As far as I know, this book is a standalone, but there is a whole series of adventures sketched out in these two paragraphs. We don't even need to read them. We can imagine the tales Hark collects throughout the remainder of his days, poignant stories and sad stories and dangerous stories, and the library of lives he builds on his home island. This is a lovely, thoughtful book, carrying a surprising weight. (One of the characters is a Deaf girl, here called "sea-kissed," who strenuously resists her mother's attempts to "fix" her.) I had some doubts about it in the beginning, but by the end I couldn't put it down, and that's one of the highest praises I can offer a book.

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