Monday, 29 April 2013

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was another nominee for this year's Andre Norton award like David Levithan's Every Day that I read a few weeks ago. I enjoyed that one, but I think this is the better of the two.

The kingdom of Goredd is living in a time of peace many years after a war between the humans of the lowland countries and the dragons who live in the mountains surrounding them.

All is not well though. The human countries fear the dragons and anti-dragon groups are rabble-rousing as the anniversary of the human/dragon peace treaty-signing approaches. There is even support for the anti-dragon sentiment amongst the nobility of the country and a part of the religious community that is fervently anti-dragon.

The dragons themselves are coldly unemotional and don't understand the irrationality of human society even though they can take human form and participate in it. In fact, they have their own issues with an internal group of gestapo-like Censors who are empowered to do mind-surgery on dragons that they feel have been tainted by human emotion.

Seraphina is a musical prodigy who is struggling with the attention her talent brings her and that she needs to keep an important secret about herself: she is half-dragon. This secret becomes critical when she is involved with the ruling classes of both species.

There are many things to love about these books. Both societies, Goredd and dragon get some attention and you get some idea of what the other human countries of the plains are like as well. The way that religion is approached here is very good with it being seen as a source of intolerance as well as spirituality. The belief in the Saints of this religion is at the core of social life in Goredd and this clearly comes through in the text. Fantasy world-building often neglects this aspect of culture even though not a single human culture has evolved without it.

Politics is also at the core of this book and it's clear that the societies of both these cultures have a strong influence on the way they approach the treaty. If I have an issue with these books, it's that I have trouble seeing how the treaty has lasted this long when the people in charge of each society are so clueless, although the brief tale on how the treaty came to be would make an interesting novel itself.

One other thing I thought was well done was the understated romance subplot. Unlike many of these supposedly YA novels, this isn't the main story; prevention of war and survival is. And that's as it should be.

Overall I quite enjoyed this although it was very slow to start with and I felt that it went to pieces a bit at the end. Pacing issues mainly and when Seraphina is revealed you're left wondering what all the big deal was. Looking forward to the next one.

Currently Reading: I just finished Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson and I'm currently reading To Walk the Night by E. S. Moore.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Podcasts: Science Fiction and Fantasy (Part One)

Between a reasonable commute time and a kitchen well away from the family television I get a fair bit of time each day to listen to podcasts. Predictably, many of the podcasts I listen to concern science fiction and fantasy reading. (Science and politics round out the rest.)

The topic is relevant to the blog, as these podcasts are often the reason a book gets added to my to read list or gets bumped up.

A case in point is The Writer and the Critic, an Australian podcast that reviews a couple of books every month (except for a recent hiatus). The format is a conversation between horror and fantasy writer Kirstyn McDermott and podcaster and critic Ian Mond over books they have selected to read and review. It's an interesting podcast for me because they have such a different taste in books. Kirstyn has a real taste for dark and complicated and Mondie is a bit of a snob (of the school of it was hard to write, it should be hard to read).

This month's reading were Some Kind of Fairytale by Graham Joyce and Feed by M. T. Anderson. Some Kind of Fairytale is a magical realist novel set in rural England where a girl disappears for twenty years and returns looking much the same age and with a bizarre story.  The tale deals with how the various people in the community deal with her return and with all the different levels of belief, from one character who knows she's telling the truth to complete disbelief even when faced with incontrovertible evidence. The story isn't about being kidnapped by fairies as such; it's far more about faith, belief, love and being touched by things a bit beyond the ordinary. It's also very literary, so probably isn't for everyone. In term of the podcast I'm reading it for, Ian Mond is going to love it because it's a literary book that leans towards the fantastic, and Kirstyn is going to love the story's dark side.

Feed, on the other hand, was harrowing. It's one of these heavy-handed dystopian future science fiction books, this one warning/critiquing the ubiquity of internet culture, advertising and consumerism. In this future nearly everyone in the USA is connected to the internet via a direct brain implant which they have little control over and pipes continuous and uncontrollable advertising directly into there heads. The main character is a vapid teenage boy who reads like the absolute worst caricature of a modern teenager but is nevertheless better than most of his friends. He meets a girl who is one of the few people who still has some idea of what life is like without the feed. It gets a bit tragic from there as both the society and the girl collapse in horrible ways as the book grinds on. It's heavy-handed, but still brilliant and therefore very unsettling. Unfortunately, I think it falls to one of the classic issues with dystopian books in that I don't think that this is a plausible path for our society. It's a bit like the Hunger Games - I don't think you can get there from here.

I'm also a fan of the SF Squeecast, a panel discussion between a group of speculative fiction writers including Lynne Thomas, Paul Cornell, Seanan McGuire, Catherynne Valente and Elizabeth Bear and usually including guests. That's a formidable list of highly awarded writers and the mission of the panel is to "squee" about things (books, television, movies, etc) that the panelists love. It's a pleasantly positive approach to reviewing science fiction and fantasy and it has placed many a book on my to read list including Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis.

I'll add the rest of the science fiction and fantasy podcasts in the next post.

Currently Reading: I'm way behind with my blogging. I've recently read Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher (good, but with some major structural issues that made it quite difficult to read), the Cold King by Amber Jaeger (nice little self-published version of Beauty and the Beast), In the Company of Ogres by A. Lee Martinez (not his best) and Black Wings by Christina Henry (average urban fantasy). I'm actually reading Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Earth Strike by Ian Douglas

Earth Strike  is the first in  Ian Douglas's latest military science fiction series, Star Carrier.

The setting is the early 25th century and humans have developed an advanced technology base along the lines of the GRIN singularity (Genetics, Robotics, Information, Nanotech.) Humans have also encountered aliens who appear to be part of a galactic hegemony (ruled by the mysterious Sh'daar, but administered through various client races) that prohibits technological development past a certain point, and they have made a demand that humans come under their control. War follows.

The story follows the star carrier America through various view points, including the America battle group's Admiral Koenig, a fighter wing commander, an alien commander and the main protagonist Trevor Gray, who starts off as a fighter pilot in this one. The plot itself is fairly simple, with the first half of the book dealing with a conflict at Eta Bo├Âtis where a group of marines have captured specimens of the Turusch va Sh'daar, the Sh'daar client race that is currently prosecuting the war against humanity. The second half of the book deals with the Earth Strike of the title as the Turusch striking at the Sol solar system.

I'm not a huge fan of military science fiction. Some of the most common features of the sub-genre grate, and many of them are on display here, including:
  • Politicians are the true enemy
  • Civilians are naive, undisciplined and uncaring of the issues faced by the military (a civilian oversight officer in the first part of the book wants to leave the entire population of a colonist world to die, as long as the people the ship has come to rescue are saved)
  • The service as the true home and family of the protagonist
  • The noble chain of command, with the exemplary "old man" Captain/Admiral at the top, but he's not appreciated by his superiors. The only ones who really understand work under the old man, and they can do no wrong.
  • The screw-up low ranked soldier whose personal growth is mirrored by his increasing rank
It terms of a tedious checklist (as well as unbelievable and one-dimensional), this genre can be as bad as paranormal romance. Where this sub-genre does shine is where it's subverted, as in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. This one is no Forever War.

All that being said, I still really enjoyed this book. It is what it is, and the execution is just brilliant. The science in it is top-notch and mostly believable. The author has thought long and hard about space combat where relativistic effects are involved. (You'll want high school or first year university physics under your belt for this one.) The technology used with nanomaterial reconfiguration, spacetime manipulation, singularity control and gravitic projection, while fantastic, is both internally consistent and consistent with how we think those things would work if we could do them. The alien combatants are interesting too, with an interestingly alien point of view which you get to follow along with a bit and lots to explore in later novels with other Sh'daar client species and the Sh'daar themselves.

Currently Reading: Feed by M. T. Anderson

Monday, 8 April 2013

Blood Trade by Faith Hunter

Blood Trade by Faith Hunter is the sixth book in her popular Jane Yellowrock urban fantasy series. The series follows Jane Yellowrock, a Cherokee skinwalker who makes a living as a vampire hunter and security specialist. At the start of the series she comes to New Orleans to work for a senior vampire figure to hunt a declared rogue and she basically makes her home there in the following books.

I found the setting to be much like early Anita Blake, and the characters do share a lot in common. Both are mysterious powerful supernatural people, both have vampire hunting as an occupation, both have complicated love lives and both seem to spend their lives mired in vampire politics.

To discuss this novel I have to spoil the rest of this series, particularly given the previous novel () was a major turning point in the story so far. Death's Rival featured the forced bonding of Jane with Leo and his heir while being held down by George Dumas. That's a massive betrayal by two thirds of her love interests right there, and the other third being PsyLED agent Rick LaFleur who Jane accused of trying to murder her at the end of the last book. Did I mention the complicated love life? The other main outcome of the previous book was Jane having shrugged off the bonding to Leo, only to have her Beast gladly take it on, and that she is now outed to most of the people she knows as a skinwalker.

So this book picks up a month or so after Death's Rival, and in classic Jane style she's busy avoiding her problems, this time by returning to Natchez to deal with the aftermath of the previous book (and to deal with some of the loose ends from there as well). This is an "unsanctioned" trip to the edge of Leo's territory. She's still bound to Leo, although it's not clear that Leo knows this as he appears to be giving her space.

While this book neatly wraps up the aftermath of the previous book in terms of plot, it's strictly treading water in terms of Jane and her life, and it's a bit of a let down considering the massive events of the previous book. But I guess it's very in-character for a protagonist who raises personal issue avoidance to an art form. But that's still frustrating as the central issue of the personal betrayal of her employers is just not dealt with at all.

Very much looking forward to the next one, where I hope we're going to start seeing some resolutions to some of these personal issues.

Currently Reading: Feed by M. T. Anderson to round out the rest of my Writer and the Critic podcast reading. Some Kind of Fairytale by Graham Joyce was quite brilliant and it's a very Writer and the Critic sort of book so it will be interesting to see how much they gush over it.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez

I don't understand why I don't hear more people talking about A. Lee Martinez. His books are incredibly imaginative, wickedly funny and deeply humanist ... especially when his characters aren't. Human that is. In the case of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain we're talking about a genius mad scientist squid from Neptune and a moralistic bird/lizard soldier from Venus.

Why aren't you reading this book right now? If you're in any way like me, you'd be hooked at "genius mad scientist squid".

In the books of his that I've read Martinez has taken a genre trope and run with it, injecting morality and humanity into places where you don't expect it. In Gil's All-Fright Diner it was urban fantasy with the story being told from the point of view of a werewolf and a vampire on a cross-country drive. In my favorite of his, Chasing the Moon, it's the the Lovecraftian concept of eldritch horror from beyond reality and In the Company of Ogres he skewers fantasy beautifully.

In this one, he takes on classic science fiction pulp. The entire solar system is peopled with intelligent alien species, even including the Sun with intelligent clouds of magnetized helium plasma. The Earth itself has many intelligent species including molemen, the Sasquatch nation, Atlanteans as well as humans. All of which were conquered years ago by Emperor Mollusk, who has since retired.

This book is full of all the accoutrements of mad science, with death rays, robots, time travel, dinosaurs, disembodied brains, exoskeletons and alien invasion, and while that's all great fun, it mostly takes a back seat to the interaction between Mollusk and his bodyguard/archenemy Zala which is just chock full of snark and occasional moments of affection and understanding. Not just beautifully written dialogue, but gleefully written as well.

In the end, I really enjoyed it. I didn't like it quite as much as Chasing the Moon as the bad guys in this one are really just mustache-twirling caricatures (as they have to be, given the genre) and usually the author makes his antagonists much more interesting that that.

Did I mention the giant rampaging radioactive brain of Marie Curie?

Why haven't you read this book yet?!

 Currently Reading: I'm getting really behind in my blogging. Since I read this one I've read Faith Hunter's new Jane Yellowrock book Blood Trade (good, but not as good as the previous one) and the first in Ian Douglas's Star Carrier series, Earth Strike (quite good military SF with a very hard SF bent). Next I'm going to read Some Kind of Fairytale by Graham Joyce so I'm ready for the next Writer and the Critic podcast.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Daughter of the Sword by Steven Bein

Daughter of the Sword by Steven Bein is a great read. Happily it's also the first in a series called the Fated Blades. This is a magical realism novel set in modern-day Japan with historical segments set in various eras of that country. 

The main story follows Oshiro Mariko, a driven policewoman in the prestigious Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and her involvement with a small group of ancient swords that bend destiny around them. Mariko's story is alternated with short stories from different eras of Japanese history demonstrating the ways that each of the swords works.

The author is a professor of Asian history and philosophy and it seriously shows through. There are hints and insights into Japanese culture and history (particularly of the samurai class) all the way through, including elements on the role of women as samurai which I'd never heard of before. For instance, anyone familiar with RPGs or other medieval Japanese books has probably heard of naginata (the European equivalent would be a glaive) which is a long rod with a huge curving blade on it (in-line with the rod, not like a scythe). What I'd never heard of is that it was the weapon of the female samurai and in Japan it is still considered a woman's weapon. The text is peppered with details like that.

October 2013
The historical stories are also really interesting, given the author's background, although the main reason for them being there is to illuminate the nature of each of the swords. The swords are as varied in their nature and abilities as they are physically different.

The main story is basically a police procedural and Mariko's struggle to catch the villain of the piece is at least as interesting as her struggle with the extreme sexism of modern Japan.

I thoroughly recommend and it I'm really looking forward to the next one.

Currently Reading: I just finished Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez (not quite as good as his previous one Chasing the Moon, but that's not faint praise as Chasing the Moon was one of my favorite reads of 2011) and I'm about to start Blood Trade by Faith Hunter.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Hugo Award 2013 Novel Nominees

Continuing with the awards season, this week featured the other big one: the Hugo Award nominee announcements. The Hugo Awards are given at the World Science Fiction Convention which this year is LoneStarCon 3 and are nominated and voted for by members of the World Science Fiction Society. That's anyone going to WorldCon in that year and anyone that's paid to get an affiliate membership (which is good value as you get the Hugo "packet" which amongst other things includes all novels that are nominated). As these are given by popular vote, the nominees tend to skew towards the more readable books so you can get some real shockers like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire winning in 2001.

The Hugos give awards across a wide range of science fiction (including some great podcasts that I'll talk about in another post), but as usual, I'm primarily interested in the novels. So, the nominees for the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel are:
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed and 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson which I already talked about in  my discussion of the Nebula nominees. Suffice it to say that I think both are very deserving, but I don't think either will win, even though I think 2312 is the best book in the field. You've also got to hand it to Saladin Ahmed with nominees for two extremely prestigious awards for his first novel.

While we're on the subject of the Nebulas, it's a small surprise that N. K. Jemisin's book didn't get on this list, but it's no surprise at all not to see Caitlin Kiernan's. It just goes back to this award being by popular vote, and while I can see that the Drowning Girl is incredible and worthwhile and would be a critic's favorite thing, I just don't think it's much fun to read.

Blackout by Mira Grant (pseudonym of Seanan McGuire). This series has been a bit of a darling of the Hugos with all three getting a nod in the years that they came out. (And I can just about hear the guys from the Incomparable podcast screaming from here), and it's also the only one of the field I haven't read yet. All I can say is that I haven't read a Seanan book that I didn't like and she's good enough that I have this zombie series on my to read list ... and I hate zombie books.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold is the latest (14th!) in her highly awarded Vorkosigan series. It's an interesting departure from most of the rest of the series because it follows Ivan, a bit player in most of the books and usually someone smart enough to stay out of the action. One of the things Bujold likes to do with these books is to muck around with genre, in that the series has included action romps, love stories, comedies of manners, war stories and murder mysteries. This one has a bit of a few of those, but it's mostly a romantic comedy. I quite enjoyed it, but it's far from my favorite in this series.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi is the novel I actually expect to win. In many ways it's just as much a love letter to science fiction as last year's winner, Among Others by Jo Walton and John Scalzi is beloved by science fiction fans everywhere as well.

This one has an interesting premise, in that the characters begin to realize that they're world is a science fiction story, and that it's a badly written one, and that they're role is that of Star Trek "red shirts" ie., cannon fodder for bad plotting. It's good, heart-warming and a great light read, but I'm not sure that it doesn't do anything that the movie Stranger than Fiction did a while ago (and better).

As an aside, I was really disappointed that the second James S. A. Corey book, Caliban's War didn't make it on to the ballot this year. I thought it was superior to the first book in the series, and that one was good enough to get nominated last year in a really stiff field. There were quite a few others that I thought were good enough to rate a mention on this list too, including Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (my review here) and Year Zero by Rob Reid.

Currently Reading: I just finished Daughter of the Sword by Steven Bein (brilliant) and I'm a couple of pages into Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez.