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Currently Reading: The Undivided by Jennifer Fallon

Friday, December 10, 2010

Good intentions

I had some good intentions to make something of the blog this week, but final preparations for a six-week holiday to Europe have won the battle for my time.

I won't promise, but you can expect occasional updates about my European adventures over the next couple of months. This blog has been officially hijacked.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A very lean November... and an obese December

In previous years it has felt like the school year really winds down in the last few months (I'm a high school teacher). Of course that was not to be the case this year. In fact November, the month I had hoped to set aside for a genuine tilt at NaNoWriMo, proved to be the busiest work month of the year. As a result I completely bombed out on the 50,000 word challenge (I wrote 0 useable words, though I felt I did some worthwhile outlining) - if you follow me on Twitter you may have already seen me lamenting that fact. Any time I had I tried to devote to writing rather than reading/reviewing/blogging. I haven't thrown in the towel for this blog after only a month or so.

In five days my wife and I leave for a six week tour of Europe. Over the next few days I will actually put up some content for the blog that reflects its intended purpose, beginning tomorrow with my favourite reads of 2010 and possibly two or three reviews I drafted at random points throughout November. I know my rabid subscriber base is starved for new book-related content.

However, for the six weeks or so after that the majority of any posts I make will be holiday related. Before the end of the week I will probably upload my journal from our trip to Japan in January (as peripheral pages attached to the blog, rather than posts). If that interests you, brilliant!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NaNoWriMo Update

In spite of the fact that I only started the blog a month or so ago I have been taking a break from it to help my NaNoWriMo progress. Not that there has been much of that. Most of my time has been devoted to planning and plotting. I think that's my method. I haven't written much that would appear on a page in a book, and that's disappointing (but it's been that way all year, not just in November). It's hard even yo disclose a word count when I've done so many little things all over the place. Suffice it to say, I won't have 50,000 words come November 30.

I'm behind the times in posting about this, but it turns out that several professional writers aren't big fans of NaNoWriMo. I completely understand the agents and editors that read through unending piles of slush in December not being enthused by it, but I agree with the comments of Mary Robinette Kowal and John Scalzi, who leapt to the defence of National Novel Writing Month (International if, like me, you're Australian).

Essentially, NaNoWriMo is terrific if it encourages expressions of creativity and gives would be writers the extra bit of motivation they need to cross the line from thinking about writing to doing it. Would I let someone else read a story I churned out in a month? Now way. But I would edit and build on what I produced in that time frame, and use it to propel me forward. Mary Robinette Kowal in particular revealed that her debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, started in this way.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi (Published 2005)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Military
Completed: September 11 2010

Of all the novels I have read this year, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is the book that most reminded me of a movie. The story itself is cinematic in terms of scope and the images the author conjures, but it was the effortless nature of reading it that most recalled the movie-going experience. It is a fairly short novel, but it was definitely my fastest read this year.

I think I am fortunate in that I can review the book purely on its own merits. I can’t comment on its place in the tradition of Heinlein having never read Starship Troopers (or any Heinlein at all, to my shame). My reading of science fiction in general has been quite limited, so Scalzi’s ideas are mostly new to me and more intriguing for it. For example, the development of the skip drive, for faster than light travel (of a sort), was pretty mind bending.

Of course the central premise of Old Man’s War is equally thought-provoking. In Scalzi’s setting, humankind has begun to colonise outside our own galaxy and unsurprisingly met the resistance of other sentient species with varying levels of technology. The soldiers who are fighting to protect human expansion are men and women who join the military at age 75, the theory being that their life experience makes them superior soldiers. Through the eyes of central character John Perry we see the inevitable process of regeneration and training, before the old folks head into battle.

At first Scalzi seems utterly neutral when it comes to the cloning and regeneration of the aging soldiers. As the story progresses however he begins to raise questions of identity and self with regard to this area of science, concluding that people are much more than their DNA. Memory is particularly significant for Scalzi’s characters, most of whom have lengthy life experience. However, these issues aren’t strictly couched in moral terms. Indeed the character who has the most cause to be angered by these processes seems quite ambivalent towards them.

Moral ambiguity is practically a theme of the story, in terms of both the science discussed above and when Scalzi looks at the expansion of human civilization in a way that is necessarily at the expense of other species. Technological development and pure survival seem to be the guiding principles for the humans in Old Man’s War, and the author quite deliberately avoids judging the actions of his characters, from sexual promiscuity to killing.

Old Man’s War gets 4 stars. It isn’t literary genius, it’s very commercial, but it is a very engaging and entertaining read. For fans of epic fantasy like myself it may feel lightweight (at barely over 300 pages), but this is not at all to the detriment of the story. The best compliment I can give to the book is that although I’m not a massive fan of science fiction I will definitely be reading more Scalzi in the future.

Read it – to enjoy a fast-paced story of space exploration and the future of humanity, even if you don’t normally like sci-fi
Don’t read it – if you just refuse to read sci-fi, otherwise there’s no reason not to

Review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks (Published 1987)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Space Opera
Completed: May 16 2010

Consider Phlebas has been my most disjointed reading experience for some time. It took me over a month to finish it when I had been averaging close enough to a novel per week. The issue was not necessarily with the book - I have been extremely busy at work. Ultimately the experience lacked continuity for me.

Some blame must go to the book - the list of places where I fell asleep while reading this book is quite long. The strange thing is, I don’t recall being bored by the story at any time. I just struggled to read it. The similar experience that I had with Neuromancer suggests that Science-Fiction may not be my thing – but I’m too intrigued by it to give up.

Consider Phlebas is the first of Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. These books are linked through their setting, rather than story. I, however, am something of a completionist. I had heard that Consider Phlebas is not the best novel in Banks’ universe but it is the establishing shot. I felt that reading Consider Phlebas would earn me a better experience when I get to the later novels. Time will hopefully prove me wise.

I knew that I was in for a novel likely to be heavy on set-up. There is plenty of techno-jargon that I’m sure went over my head, though there was usually enough for my mind to picture what was going on. The descriptions of the world and its incredible Science-Fiction creations were vivid and exciting for the most part, but occasionally felt intrusive and excessive. In some cases, for all of the imagination at work, certain characters and events felt out of place in the world, as if they were designed primarily as allegorical comments then somewhat artificially inserted.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the world-building is that Banks often has to pull back from the characters in order to establish elements of the setting and to explain the part their actions play in a broader conflict. Yet it was of course the characters that I was interested in... even if I didn’t really like any of them. I found them somewhat unsympathetic - I didn’t really agree with any of the perspectives that Banks created through Horza, Baveda and Xoxarle - but the contrasting philosophies and motivations were the most intriguing part of the story. Essentially, if Consider Phlebas is viewed as a fable designed to validate the existence and beliefs of the galaxy spanning Culture it is very effective.

What was lacking was any clear understanding of the importance of the characters in the broader conflict. The resolution of Consider Phlebas is anticlimactic at best. If you proceed to read the (brief) appendices it becomes even more tragically apparent that the efforts of the characters were irrelevant in the context of galactic conflict. I was left with a fairly strong feeling of ‘so what?’ which was particularly disappointing given that the execution of the conclusion was much more fast-paced, engaging and exciting than the preceding chapters. Banks utilized unconventional and rapid viewpoint switches to ratchet up the tension while still disguising from the reader exactly what was about to transpire.

Consider Phlebas gets 3.5 stars, with some degree of benefit of the doubt. When I was able to give the book the chance to impress me, it did. I certainly churned through the last quarter, and I can’t wait to get to some of the later books in the Culture series. For all of the issues I have pointed out with the structure and broad thematic picture I can’t help but feel that Banks is a seriously good writer.

Read it – if you intend to read further in the Culture series, or if you have read other Culture novels and are keen to see where it all began.
Don’t read it – if you hate books that seem designed to explore and establish their setting as much as tell you a story.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Note: I originally read this book earlier in the year (see the date completed) but have chosen to share this review as part of my focus on Science Fiction this week.

Neuromancer – William Gibson (Published 1984)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Cyberpunk
Completed: March 24 2010

I chose to read Neuromancer because it’s a recognized classic of the Speculative genre, having won the rare Hugo/Nebula Award double. It had also been identified as one of those books with tremendous opening lines: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." I certainly read on.

This is the first pure Science Fiction novel that I have read and reviewed this year… and sadly I didn’t enjoy it, no matter how much I wanted to. I had been racing along with my reading, averaging at least one novel per week. Neuromancer, by far the shortest book I have read this year, took me over three weeks to get through. I wasn’t motivated to keep picking it up.

My theory is that I don’t like Cyberpunk. The major elements of this novel that I struggled with or just plain didn’t like are all established Cyberpunk conventions. Grim anti-heroes from the fringe (or gutter) of a near-future dystopian society - it's seriously bleak. Neuromancer was the sub-genre defining novel, so I can recognize the value of Gibson’s contribution. Unfortunately the sheer amount of imitating media that I have been exposed to makes this original and provocative story feel clichéd and uninspiring to my mind.

Nearly thirty years from the writing of the book a lot of the technologies described, particularly ‘cyberspace’ and artificial intelligence, feel more familiar than Gibson would have intended. Nonetheless the way Gibson glibly describes most elements of his settings forces you to engage your imagination to fill in his deliberate blanks. It was particularly fun to read the setting of Chiba (the book’s most developed locale) onto places in Japan which I recently visited. I would describe the setting as under-developed (but I typically read Epic Fantasy which I'm sure feels painfully over-wrought to a sci-fi reader). It seems like the whole idea is to exclude the reader in a sense – it isn’t your world, and Gibson doesn’t want you to be comfortable in it.

You won’t feel comfortable with the characters either, especially the protagonist Case. He begins the novel with his hacking abilities crippled by a former employer (who he ripped off), marking time as a small-time crook until he can kill himself with enough drugs. He is more or less forced to accept the lifeline offered by a mysterious figure named Armitage, which of course kick-starts the plot. Case is the sole viewpoint character, and while the supporting cast is colourful and often engaging they didn’t impact me anywhere near as strongly as Case. And what I got from Case was unadulterated nihilism. So much so that I found it utterly artificial that the love interest Molly would be attracted to him. He really has nothing to offer.

I pitied Case, but I never cared for his success or failure. It will always be difficult to engage the reader with distinctly amoral characters, and I never felt that Gibson made Case interesting enough for me to at least be intrigued by what happens to him. I assume that Gibson sought to avoid the didactic moralizing of earlier Science Fiction, but it made the story feel empty for me.           

I don’t want to spoil any more, because with a setting and a protagonist that would feel clichéd to most of us the plot still packs some punch. It does contain hacking and interaction with A.I., but it's Cyberpunk and you knew that already. Neuromancer gets 2.5 stars from me, but I’m glad I read it. I can only imagine that reading it in 1984 would have been quite a different (and better) experience, but I was only two years old.

Read it – if you thought the first hour of The Matrix was more exciting than the second.
Don’t read it – if you enjoy likeable characters and happy endings.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Review: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Towers of Midnight – Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Published 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: As Epic as it gets
Completed: November 3 2010

I am a devoted, long time reader of The Wheel of Time. I imagine so is anyone contemplating reading the book or bothering to read this review, so the disclaimer may be redundant. Nonetheless, the hardcover versions of all thirteen novels in the series to date have pride of place on my book shelf and I’ve been reading the series since early High School. I desperately wanted to enjoy this book.

For those who are unfamiliar with the series, attempting to summarise what has come before and therefore how this story fits into the bigger picture is virtually impossible. Fortunately, you have probably read the series so I can skip that nicety. After the focused nature of The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight was always intended to fill out the story. The name of the game is progression. The plot tears along fuelled by long awaited revelations and resolutions, though the speed with which I read the book may have been equally attributable to my investment in finding out what happens to these characters. The hard work of getting the reader to know and love the characters was done long ago by Robert Jordan. Towers of Midnight is about taking big steps toward the ultimate (and long awaited) pay off.

This is not to say that there aren’t tremendous character developments alongside the forward momentum of the plot. There were multiple moments that gave me chills, and one which brought me as close to tears as I have ever been while reading a book in a relatively public place. Robert Jordan’s skill in growing a character’s strength to see it become their weakness will always leave me delightfully frustrated. Some highlights for me included Perrin finally coming to understand himself and Mat turning the tables on enemies that have stalked and taunted him. The Last Battle has begun but the light manages to hold firm. I also loved Rand’s transformation. Chapter 1, Apples First, had me literally quivering in anticipation for where the character was headed.

I have always admired Robert Jordan’s strength in foreshadowing key events way back in The Eye of the World. One of the problems for someone who has enjoyed the books enough to discuss them ad nauseum is that the impact of some scenes was diminished because they played out more or less as anticipated. It didn’t help that some of these scenes also felt somewhat abrupt, almost as if the plot resolution box was being ticked. Towers of Midnight covers an incredible amount of ground, yet still seems to leave a lot for A Memory of Light to bring to a conclusion. The reality is of course that the magnitude of the task of wrapping up the myriad plot threads doesn’t leave space for lengthy resolutions. Having said that, my opinion of the book might have benefited from a touch less Perrin and a bit more Mat. How could it deliver on 15 years of waiting (20 for some people)

I don’t want to comment on the writing style, Sanderson vs Jordan. I’m just happy that Sanderson stepped up to finish the story. I have nothing but respect for the commitment and guts that has required.

I rate Towers of Midnight 4 stars but I do so as a long-time fan (as in 15 years) who has waited for many of the moments and resolutions contained in this book and willing to forgive weaknesses more than any ‘objective’ reviewer. Although I believe I can look critically at stories I have enjoyed, there’s no way that I can avoid bias with The Wheel of Time.

Read it – if you are a long-time reader of the series, and have enjoyed all of the preceding volumes
Don’t read it – if you haven’t read the twelve previous books (yes, 12). There is just no way that you can dive in at this point.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Epic Fantasy... my favourite genre?

There is no doubt that my favourite books fall into the genre of Epic Fantasy. However, I’m not certain that Epic Fantasy is my favourite genre. I grew up with The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien), moved onto Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (Tad Williams) before flirting with The Riftwar Saga (Raymond E. Feist) and finding my ultimate favourites. So what are my top picks – if I’m choosing with my heart it’s The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan), if with my head it’s A Song of Ice and Fire (George R. R. Martin).

The current leader in the
Epic Fantasy genre?

Although I can’t begin to imagine composing a multi-book epic, the majority of my writing will probably be in this genre of Fantasy. Yet, I remain unsure that this is my favourite genre, primarily because I’m not especially enthused to launch into another series. They’re just so damn long.

I have the first books of The Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson) on my bookshelf waiting for me, but frankly I find the idea of committing to such a series intimidating. Giving one author so much reading time, when there is so much to read, feels impossible. Frankly, even knowing how much I love it, if I was confronted with 14 books of The Wheel of Time I probably wouldn’t start reading it. I feel like a trilogy is about as much as I am willing to give my time to, so Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy is an example of an ideal recent read.

You can kind of see
why my wife doesn't want
our shelves dominated by
books that look like this...
Ironically, I recognise that one of the reasons why I love The Wheel of Time so much has been the anticipation between books. I know there will be a let-down when the books are over, even if A Memory of Light is the greatest Fantasy book of all time. I’ll be glad to have A Song of Ice and Fire to turn to, and I am currently trying to dump myself in the middle of a bunch of other series so that there will virtually always be a book for me to be anticipating.

I’m hoping Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive will be a worthy replacement for The Wheel of Time. I haven’t finished reading The Way of Kings yet so I can’t say much more at this stage. The good thing about Sanderson’s work is that I’m getting in at the ground floor, as was more or less the case with Jordan and Martin. In an ideal world I would tear through The Malazan Book of The Fallen in time for The Crippled God, but I can’t see that happening.

I’ve just finished devouring Towers of Midnight, and intend to move on to The Way of Kings and The Black Prism (Brent Weeks). Firstly, I’ll be finishing up Shadow’s Son (Jon Sprunk) which snuck to the top of my ‘to read’ list by virtue of its brief length.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The City and The City (by China Miéville) wins the World Fantasy Award

One of the great disappointments of my trip to Aussiecon 4 (Worldcon) in September was the fact that I had to leave before the Hugo Awards Ceremony. I find awards pretty exciting, especially when I am invested in some way in the candidates, so I was eager to find out who would win the 2010 World Fantasy Award at the recent World Fantasy Convention. China Miéville continued on his winning way with The City and The City (full review) taking out Best Novel.

For those unfamiliar with the major awards in the speculative fiction field, here is a brief explanation of the biggest ones:

The Hugo Awards (which cover many more categories than simply Best Novel) are nominated and voted by for fans who are attending or supporting members of Worldcon. The breadth of voters means that the Hugo favours ‘popular’ works, though that doesn’t prevent the Hugos from claiming to be the most prestigious awards in the field.

The Nebula Awards are considered professional awards as they are determined by the members of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America). In spite of the name, membership, voting and eligibility to win are not restricted to Americans.

The World Fantasy Awards are given for fewer categories than the Hugo especially, and are decided by a panel of judges (notable professionals in the field). For this reason the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, somewhat like the Nebula, will often be awarded to books that are critically acclaimed but not necessarily widely read or known.

Interestingly, both the Hugo and Nebula Awards can be presented to Science Fiction or Fantasy stories. As the name implies, the World Fantasy Award is restricted to Fantasy. There is some controversy about this fact in fan circles, since the fandom of Science Fiction and Fantasy tend to intersect.

It stands to reason that the two best (at least most awarded) Speculative Fiction releases of the past year are Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (Nebula Winner - which is still on my ‘to read’ list) and China Miéville’s The City and The City), which most fans seem to agree deserved to share the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Review: The City and The City by China Miéville

The City and The City – China Miéville (Published 2009)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Urban with a strong dose of Hardboiled
Completed: October 25 2010

I will often read a book and admire the author’s specific skill with language, or their ability to evoke and develop character, or perhaps their focused and enthralling plotting. Occasionally I will read a book and be so disappointed that I feel like I could write a better story. After reading The City and The City I simply felt like China Miéville is much more intelligent than I am.

The City and The City defies genre classification. It has won numerous speculative fiction awards (including the Hugo Award for Best Novel), prompting purists to argue that it doesn’t actually contain any speculative elements. In my opinion, Miéville’s story requires more than enough suspension of disbelief to classify as Fantasy, though to describe the fantastic elements would spoil the story (I really regret reading reviews that explained too much).

Inspector Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crimes Squad is tasked with investigating the death of a young woman, found dumped in a typically dark and neglected Besz alley. Borlú determines that the victim was from the more advanced city of Ul Qoma, in spite of the fact that passage between the cities is heavily restricted. He goes through the motions of investigating, anticipating turning the case over to Breach, the mysterious group who punish those who breach the boundary between the cities. Of course, the case proves to be much more complicated than Borlú expected.

The City and The City draws in all of the tropes of hardboiled detective fiction and uses them masterfully to explore the themes of cultural identity, xenophobia and fear of unrestrained authority in a mind-bending and entertaining fashion. The first person structure of hardboiled fiction is used perfectly to allow Miéville to slowly unveil the mystery of his cities. Borlú, the protagonist and narrator, naturally provides the reader with detail only as it becomes relevant to his investigation. There are no patronising information dumps or simple explanations of the nature of the relationship between the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.

It could be argued that the characters, like the incredibly focused Borlú, are somewhat flat and the dialogue little more than functional at times, but these weaknesses are overshadowed. Miéville’s genius is revealed in his setting. The cities are almost characters with their own peculiarities, with details like names and language used so effectively to define and differentiate them. Yet it is what the cities have in common that provides the core of The City and The City. In exploring their common ground, Miéville effortlessly maintains his grip on a complex idea that is inextricably linked with his incredible conclusion.

In spite of the flaws that would have held back a lesser work, The City and The City is a monumental work of fiction unlike any I have read before. I give it 4.5 stars and am sorely tempted to go for 5.

Read it – if you are willing to work to enjoy your fiction. You’ll feel more intelligent for having read this book.
Don't read it - if you are looking for a mainstream read that won't tax you.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Diversity in Speculative Fiction

During a brief conversation I enjoyed with Karen Miller at Aussiecon4 she made me realize that I have read very few female writers of Speculative Fiction (along with very few Australian authors, but that’s for another post and another project). Very modestly, she pointed me to Kate Elliott’s work, describing Kate as ‘one of the best we’ve got’, or words to that effect. Incidentally, I had met Kate Elliott the week before at Infinitas Bookshop which pushed her latest novel Cold Magic to near the top of my ‘to read’ list. I have now finished it (Review).

Karen got me thinking about my favourite writers. The list reads like a who’s who of white, male (probably bearded, and therefore extra-male) Fantasy writers – Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon ‘The Beardless One’ Sanderson, and so on. In my favourite series, The Wheel of Time, the viewpoint characters I enjoy most are the males. The series is written by a male author and readers seem to be split on whether or not Jordan provided a good depiction of women. Either way, I often find them frustrating to read about.

I recently listened to the paired novellas The Alchemist and The Executioness by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell respectively, both male writers. The Executioness was a bigger, more passionate tale, but as I mentioned in my review I found myself drawn to The Alchemist. There may be an element of style that I was attracted to, but quite simply I found myself connecting with the character of Jeoz the Alchemist in his efforts to protect his daughter and his tendency, which I perceive as a very male trait, to work at his goal while allowing no distractions.

Am I really that narrow-minded?

Perhaps I have misrepresented myself somewhat. I would rate Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy very highly on my list of favourites. I am really looking forward to reading N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh. Unfortunately the thing that each of these authors have in common is that when I first heard about them I assumed they were dudes. There isn’t enough in their names to tell me otherwise, so I made that connection myself. Apparently being a 28 year old middle class white male has quite the impact on one’s assumptions.

It wasn’t until I had already finished the Farseer books that I discovered that Robin Hobb is a lady. I believe it was in an episode of Jonathan Strahan’s ‘Notes from Coode Street’ podcast that I heard that C. J. Cherryh was required by her publisher to use her initials to conceal the fact that she is female. I think most people have also heard the story of James Tiptree Junior, the pen name of Alice Sheldon, used to secure publication in Speculative field in the 1960s.
Author Mark Charan Newton has recently challenged book bloggers to broaden their coverage, specifically to consider the classics of the genre, not simply the latest blockbusters. I have a lot more broadening to do than simply delving into the back catalogue.

This is not an attempt to over-compensate. I’m not a big fan of overcompensating. I find it patronizing. However, I am committing myself to reading and reviewing work from the following authors:

N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms)
C. J. Cherryh (Cyteen)
Jennifer Fallon (The Tidelords)
Karen Miller (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker)
Lois McMaster Bujold (The Chalion Saga)
Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea)
Connie Willis (Blackout, All Clear, Doomsday Book)

Having said all of this, the next few books I will be reading include The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, The Black Prism by Brent Weeks and Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. I am incorrigible in some respects.

Review: Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Cold Magic – Kate Elliott (Published 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: A melting pot of Epic, Steampunk and Alternate History!
Completed: 23 October 2010

I met Kate Elliott at a signing in late August and had the opportunity to chat with her for quite some time. Naturally we talked about her work, but meandered around other topics. I mentioned that I am a history teacher. Kate responded by opening to the map page in my new copy of Cold Magic, saying, “Since you like history, I think you’ll like this...” I looked. I was intrigued.

Furthermore, after seeing Kate and Karen Miller at Aussiecon 4 (context here) I decided that Cold Magic would be the story to launch me into reading more of the excellent female writers in the field. I was investing a lot in this book. I wanted to like it. I’m not at all exaggerating when I say that expectation hung over Cold Magic like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. Not at all.

Fifty pages in, I was concerned. This was the point at which I had to pause. It wasn’t the story that troubled me – Elliott’s narrative had been unfolding smoothly and enjoyably – but I was worried that I wouldn’t end up liking the protagonist. I previously read Garth Nix’s (otherwise wonderful) Sabriel and struggled to connect with a character at a similar stage in life. I thought perhaps a 28 year old male just isn’t meant to connect with a young, female voice. This issue was exacerbated by the first person narrative. A reader must invest in the narrator. I just didn’t see myself doing so with Catherine Hassi Barahal.

Fortunately I was wrong. Elliott’s delightful tale breached my cynicism and effortlessly won me over.

As in many Fantasy tales, our heroine begins aware of the forces that exist in her world but in no way enmeshed in them. A few chapters into Cold Magic (after the school girl stuff that had me concerned) the scale and sense of urgency ramps up drastically within the span of about ten pages. And it makes sense! Cat didn’t fall through a mirror or a wardrobe. Her transition from student to tremendously endangered heroine happens rapidly and unpredictably, but believably. I was hooked. I read more than half the book in one sitting.

As the result of a family obligation, Cat is married to a young noble - an enigmatic cold mage. The further complication that blasts Cat’s into larger scale events really caught me off guard. In fact I regularly had my expectations overturned. Elliott effortlessly sets up intertwining mysteries that feel honest to the characters, never superfluous, and are genuinely engaging. There is uncertainty over the actions and motives of Cat’s deceased father, Daniel Hassi Barahal. She is also confused about her unusual link with the spirit world that bears implications about her heritage. Cat is a vulnerable and conflicted heroine who is able to find the strength to endure her circumstances. She is not the typical strong female with token weaknesses. The distinction is vital because Cold Magic is essentially a ‘coming of age’ story. Other characters display similarly genuine motivations, and relationships endure realistic complications. There is no convenient resolution of fractured relationships to be found here. Impressively, Elliott has ensured that Cat’s understanding of her identity seems utterly tied to the epic, world-shaping events that have caught her up.

Elliott makes subtle use of other tropes of Fantasy to create red herrings which probably exist as much in the mind of the experienced reader as on the page. The layering of the narrative is so clever that although the story doesn’t fit with the ‘mature’ stories that I have enjoyed lately, the quality of the story telling sucked me in. I would recommend Cold Magic to my school library and to my 30 year old male friends with equal confidence.

The real pleasure for me, however, is in the world building. So much is effortlessly achieved in what is quite a short novel for the genre. In Elliott’s fantastical alternate history, the divergence begins when Rome failed to defeat the Carthaginians at Zama. As a mature writer Elliott ensures that this event has genuine geo-political ramifications. The world doesn’t continue on otherwise untouched, and events that bear similarities with real world history similarly play out differently. The Roman Empire lasted hundreds of years longer and still has influence of a sort in Cold Magic’s 19th Century setting. There was no real Dark Age, presumably due to ongoing empire and the existence of magic. The eponymous ‘cold magic’ derives from a mysterious combination of Celtic druidism and African shamanism, brought to Europa with the refugees from a ‘ghoul plague’ in North Africa. By the time of Cold Magic’s story, Europa is itself recovering from the attempted revolution of the general Camjiata.

One of the major themes of Cold Magic is the clash of industry and magic. Technological advancement, theoretically irrelevant in a world with magic, exists because the cold mages aren’t particularly forthcoming with their gift. The Mage Houses lord it over the people. For reasons partly explained in Cold Magic the cold mages actively seek to cripple and hold back the Industrial Revolution. Elliott brilliantly sets these forces up as diametric opposites - cold mages literally extinguish fires, including those of industrial furnaces, by their mere presence.

Objectively, Cold Magic is a book produced by an experienced and professional author. I can’t fault the writing structure or style. The impression I get, though I’m sure Elliott would disagree, is one of effortlessness (I’m fairly certain that I overused the word effortless in this review). Moreover, it’s a fun and engaging tale from a great storyteller.

Cold Magic is the first book in the Spiritwalker Trilogy. While some plot threads are tied off I can’t see a reader being satisfied to read Cold Magic as a standalone novel. There is a lot of story still to be told. For a reader like me, however, that’s fantastic. 4.5 stars.

Side note: I recommend reading this snuggled up on a cold night. It will be much easier to immerse yourself in the quasi-Ice Age world than it was for me, lying in the Australian sun.

Read it – because Kate Elliott is a high caliber Fantasy writer at the top of her game.
Don’t read it – if you demand a big serving of grit with your Fantasy.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front – Jim Butcher (Published 2000)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Urban, with a liberal dose of Hardboiled Crime Fiction
Completed: October 19 2010

Urban Fantasy… it’s been hijacked by vampires. Sparkly vampires. More than enough has been said about Twilight and its sub-genre companions, so I’ll simply say that if it pulls more readers into genre fiction it should be a good thing. Nonetheless paranormal romance informed (however incorrectly) and colored my impression of Urban Fantasy and I stayed away, even though on some level I knew that a series like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files was quite removed from these other stories.

The sheer popularity of Butcher’s work among readers who fit much more into my demographic, and the regular praise he receives on the Writing Excuses podcast was enough to push me to pick up Storm Front. I took the (very small) risk, blew one of my monthly Audible credits on it… and devoured it (um, through my ears). I’m pretty late to the Dresden Files party but I’m very glad I came.

Harry Dresden is the only wizard in the Chicago phonebook, which makes him the man the police reluctantly turn to when routine investigations get spooky. Unfortunately, it also makes him a potential suspect when magic has been used to murder a mobster and his girlfriend. Harry’s connection to the case also draws the attention of the mysterious White Council who have already placed him under the ‘Doom of Damocles’ for unethical use of magic. Suffice it to say that Harry lacks for allies in both the magical and mundane worlds.

Storm Front makes me want to use clichés! It’s an intense, action packed thrill ride. Enough said. I was utterly drawn into Harry Dresden’s world. The first-person narrative is so immediate and visceral, and in my opinion it is only enhanced by the audiobook reading (from James Marsters). Harry has a lot to like about him. He is a play on the hardboiled anti-hero (not the only trope Butcher borrows, but he does so with flair), but for his flaws he is actually quite heroic, refusing to let the supernatural world he inhabits harm the ignorant. He’s just an average wizard trying to pay the rent in a modern world that refuses to recognize the supernatural. Ultimately, he feels real.

Harry’s authenticity as a character means that his attitude is rarely politically correct. He can be chivalrous, and he can be chauvinistic. His experiences have made him a cynic, yet there are glimpses of a man who wants connection – he just inhabits a different world, and constantly has to hold back secrets from those he could pursue relationships with.

It’s amazing to think that Storm Front is Butcher’s first published novel. Had it been published this year it would have supplanted Bitter Seeds as my ‘debut of the year.’ It’s exciting to think about the fact that Butcher fans say the series grows, the writing improves and the story only gets better with each book. I want more. I give it 4.5 stars, and could nearly go the full 5.

Read it – if you have any interest in Urban Fantasy. This is the sub-genre defining series and Storm Front lives up to that level of expectation.
Don’t read it – if you can’t set aside your literary sensibilities. This is as genre as fiction gets.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ian Tregillis... a genuine debut author!

Signing. You're doing it... unconventionally.
A few days ago I posted a review of the brilliant Bitter Seeds, the debut novel from Ian Tregillis. I intended to make this small addendum at the time. I had the opportunity to meet Ian at Aussiecon4, enjoy a reading from a short story set in the same milieu as Bitter Seeds and get my copy of the book signed. Ian was delightfully humbled by both the fact that I had a copy of his book (it hasn't been published in Australia) and that I wanted him to deface it.

It seems that Ian may not have done many signings, as the evidence indicates. No flashy, page dominating signature - just a simple message. Refreshingly fresh.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Things Scalzi and I don't have to think about today...

It certainly wasn’t my intention to base the content of my blog on the thoughts of others. However, for the second time in two days I find myself referencing a post from John Scalzi on his (insanely popular) blog, ‘Whatever.’ If you read blogs, and you’ve come to this one, chances are you already read Whatever. However if you don’t, read the post 'Things I Don't Have To Think About Today' here. Really, you should read it even if that means you navigate away from this page. If you don’t read it, what follows will be fairly meaningless. Scalzi is essentially drawing attention to the life of the privileged and the many difficulties that they (we) do not have to endure, most of which are related to the perceptions of other people.

This puts me in the dangerous territory of seeming like a Scalzi fanboy, which I can reasonably say I’m not. My attention was drawn to the post by the attention it received on Twitter.

See, there I go second-guessing myself. If I was a Scalzi fanboy, why shouldn’t I embrace and enjoy, instead of making excuses for the things I like that may conflict with other people’s tastes. I often find myself telling people about my writing or what I read, then I start defending my love of genre fiction and my desire to engage in the Speculative Fiction community before they even get a chance to respond.

Today I don’t have to think about the possibility that people will mock the things I love.

This is a relatively insignificant example, and citing it reminds me that I am about as privileged as it is possible to be. Yet I have been fortunate (if that’s the word I want to use) in having my perspective refined by some difficult experiences.

I can be shy about what is essentially my hobby – it isn’t a patch on how shy I can be in revealing something much more fundamental about myself; my Christian faith. I didn’t start this blog for discussion of beliefs, but the nature of Speculative Fiction material is such that I know it will come up. I won’t hide… but I’m sure times will come up when I feel like doing so.

In my experience the Speculative Fiction community, perhaps unsurprisingly, isn’t all that sympathetic to Christianity (and God knows plenty of people calling themselves Christians don't exhibit much sympathy either). I’ve heard or read comments from some of my favourite authors that were far from complimentary. Significant voices in the community will acknowledge their respect for the work of writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Gene Wolfe while strongly criticizing their beliefs. People are entitled to their opinion – that’s one of the joys of free will, and I am happy to engage in discussion or debate. I won’t conceal the fact that I am a Christian, even if that means losing credibility in some people’s eyes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds – Ian Tregillis (Published 2010)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Alternate History (with supernatural elements)
Completed: October 2 2010

As a student and teacher of history I was always likely to be a sucker for this story. On the other hand, if the history was all wrong I would have been lost to it. Happily, Tregillis lured me in with his thoughtful and accurate use of the historical setting. He successfully grounds his supernatural alternate history in a firm base of thorough research. This is no history book, but Tregillis has done his homework in depicting World War II-era Europe, particularly Britain, in convincing detail. Yet by the end of the book it is clear that Tregillis is taking the historical events he clearly enjoys and respects in a very different direction.

In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, British intelligence discovers the existence of the true German ubermensch. The Nazis have raised up gifted individuals with the ability to use a strange power source in order to do the impossible – walk through walls, manipulate fire and even see the future. Naturally, the British establish a force to address the danger and the Milkweed organization is born. However, recognizing their inadequacy, Milkweed allies with Britain’s warlocks, who offer a solution that the desperate government is forced to accept.

In spite of the wealth of historical detail Tregillis packs into the story he maintains a very poetic style that was emphasized particularly for me in the rhythm and flow of the audiobook reading (that cat is out of the bag). The strength of the writing belies the fact that this is Tregillis’ debut novel. He expertly weaves together an incredibly fast moving plot that never loses sight of his vividly drawn characters. At the heart of the story, Tregillis has latched onto Churchill’s willingness to win against the Nazis at any cost and explores the impact that such a victory has on those who bring it to fruition. That victory weighs particularly heavily on British agent Marsh and his lifelong friend Will.

The relationships between the characters are superbly developed, especially between Marsh and Will. The depiction of their relationship is utterly devoid of convenience or the kind of plot devices that force them into unlikely behaviour. Similarly, the relationship of the superhuman siblings Klaus and Gretel is appropriately unusual and conflicted. Tregillis wisely shows us the enigmatic Gretel primarily through the eyes of the brother who cares deeply for her (even as he comes to fear that she is manipulating him). Gretel would be beyond difficult for the reader to sympathise with if only seen from Marsh’s perspective. Suffice it to say, he ends up using the word ‘bitch’ a lot.

The challenging and believable development of these characters earns Tregillis his powerful ending. With so much built up emotion the conclusion to Bitter Seeds is heartbreaking, frightening and… abrupt. It is the first instalment of a trilogy and in no way is the story finished in this volume.

Bitter Seeds receives a richly deserved 4.5 stars. It is certainly the best debut novel that I have read this year. My only disclaimer is that I enjoy the historical period immensely, so Tregillis didn’t have to work too hard to engage me with his setting. I would describe it as a genuine page-turner, but I listened to it on audiobook.

Read it – if you love the mysteries and strange gaps that exist in the history of World War II, and you’d like to let a quality story-teller fill them.
Don’t read it – if you are utterly uninterested in the period of World War II, or you simply can’t stand being cliff-hangered!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reading technology redux

Shortly after I made this post about emerging reading technology I checked in at John Scalzi’s Whatever and noticed a post covering similar territory (ebooks in particular). I link it here because in certain circles his opinion carries a little more weight than mine. For those contemplating clicking through, Scalzi briefly compares reading off the Nook (dedicated ebook device) with using his phone (Droid X), computer monitor, Ipod Touch and Ipad.

Scalzi also brings up a point I very much agree with and forgot to make myself. Even though I appreciate the ability to read on my phone, I do not think ebooks are going to kill paper books any time soon. For me (and Scalzi), the reason is the collector’s urge. A bunch of accessible computer files will never fulfill my desire to have stuff. I have heard authors like Brandon Sanderson and Cory Doctorow explaining their willingness to offer free content (in the form of entire novels) through their websites – they believe that people will continue to value hard copy books as souvenirs of the reading experience.

Anecdotal evidence incoming... I attended Aussiecon4 (Worldcon) in early September, meaning that I was entitled to vote in the Hugo Awards and therefore received the electronic voters packet. I now have electronic copies of The Windup Girl, The City and the City as well as every other prose work nominated for a Hugo. Yet I bought The City and The City in hardcover before going to Melbourne because I loved it. It didn’t hurt that I wanted Miéville to sign it. Author signings are not impossible with ebooks (I saw Cory Doctorow sign someone’s Ipad) but there’s only so much space to fill up.

On a similar topic, authors can’t sign your book over the internet. As I mentioned in an earlier posts, bricks and mortar book stores will always be the hub of the speculative fiction community (especially those specialist stores like Infinitas and Galaxy, for those in Sydney). Fans who want to continue to have the opportunity to meet writers outside of conventions, and people who want to participate in the speculative fiction community, need to support these book stores

No matter how easy the e-reading experience becomes, I won’t stop buying ‘real’ books any time soon.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My experiences with reading technology - Ebooks and Audiobooks

While I am hardly a luddite I wouldn’t claim to be up with the all the latest technology. Things are changing for me however, and the cause is easy to identify. I bought an Iphone at the end of last year.

I’m not going to trumpet the virtues of the phone. I’m not an Apple fanboy, I just jumped on the consumer band wagon with so many others. My actual point is that the Iphone represents the first portable ebook reader I have owned and, slightly more pathetically, the first portable audio player I have owned since the days of cassette tapes.

Podcasts – the gateway to ‘reading’ technology

Having an MP3 player opened the gateway to podcasts, many of which I enjoy regularly (and will discuss in a future post). A substantial number of my favourite casts are sponsored by Audible and I was being regularly encouraged to enjoy a free trial. Writing Excuses in particular advertises a particular audiobook each week, and hearing that I could listen to Stephen King’s On Writing narrated by King himself pushed me over the edge and I signed up (of course, it turns out that On Writing is not available to Australian subscribers).

I have listened to several audiobooks now. I started by using my Audible credits to purchase the books from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time so that I could ‘read’ my way through the series again before the final volume arrives (up to 6 of 12 at this stage). I have since begun to diversify my listening. Some highlights include The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett, The Alchemist and The Executioness by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell (review), and Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis.

While I am still scratching the surface I find myself a massive fan of audiobooks. I have managed to experience so many more books than ever before. Car trips, walks, shopping expeditions, doing chores – no time feels wasted when I am able to ‘read’ as I go. Driving by myself from Sydney to Melbourne for Aussiecon4 would have been incredibly painful without a good story.

Of course, I still listen to podcasts and tend to go for audiobooks when I know I have a substantial window of listening time. The length of some books can be pretty intimidating (a couple of the Wheel of Time books are over 40 hours) and make you wonder when you will ever have time to listen, but the small chunks add up. I’ve probably worked through 300 hours worth of audiobooks in the last six months.

Ebooks – the future of reading, at least for me

Aside from bringing me into contact with Audible, since many of the podcasts I enjoy are about writing and often touch on the publishing industry the issue of ebooks is frequently raised. The boys over at The Dragon Page are massive advocates of epublishing and the opportunities it offers authors and readers. At this stage I am simply engaging with ebooks as a consumer.

I have not yet purchased an ebook from an online store, or purchased a dedicated ebook reader for that matter. I’m using my Iphone. I have read Makers by Cory Doctorow (offered free on his website) and a few items from the electronic Hugo voters packet, including some short stories and novellas (ideal length for ebook format in my opinion, given the way I use ebooks) and China Mieville’s The City and the City. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which I have just started, is the longest story I have attempted on the phone screen.

The Iphone is far from an ideal platform for reading ebooks, given the relatively small size of the screen, but it is functional. It has been to my advantage that the stories/books that I have read so far have been relatively short. I couldn’t see myself sitting down on the couch with my phone at this stage, not when I have so many paper books, but it is fantastic to have available when out and about. My limited experiences with it have also convinced me that I will be a very dedicated user of ebooks when I have a better reading device (probably a year or so away, realistically).