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Currently Reading: The Undivided by Jennifer Fallon

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).

Review: The Alchemist and The Executioness by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell

The Alchemist and the Executioness – Tobias Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi (Released 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Heroic (perhaps… does it matter?)
Completed: 8 October 2010

The Alchemist and The Executioness demanded the attention of genre readers before a word hit the page. Paired novellas in a shared world created specifically for the audiobook format by two of Science Fiction’s rising stars, Tobias Buckell and the red hot Hugo and Nebula winner Paolo Bacigalupi, launching their first foray into Fantasy. I bought in, and I’m glad I did.

Bacigalupi and Buckell have created a unique world in which the use of magic fosters the growth of a deadly bramble. The bramble has destroyed the great civilization of powerful magic users and now threatens the city of Khaim, which has imposed strict laws against the use of magic in order to slow the bramble’s encroachment. Along with the obvious environmental themes, it is a setting ripe for the portrayal of moral compromise and uncertainty, which Bacigalupi latches onto brilliantly with The Alchemist.

Jeoz, the titular Alchemist, has devoted many years of his life to developing a means to destroy the bramble. It is implied that Jeoz was once a much more impressive and certainly a wealthier man, but his world has shrunk down to his slowly dying daughter and his obsession, the balanthast (it is very likely that I’ve spelt these names incorrectly, having only heard them spoken). Tragically, Jeoz’s preoccupation blinds him to both potential social interactions and the political maneuvering around him.

Buckell ranges wider with his story of Tana, The Executioness. In an incredible set of circumstances Tana is compelled to literally take up her father’s axe and mantle as an executioner for the city of Khaim. She is stripped of the security of family and her defining roles as a daughter, wife and mother. Yet the beauty of Buckell’s story is in watching Tana develop as a somewhat liberated individual while always holding to the believable behaviour of a mother.

As a middle aged female protagonist in a Fantasy story Tana is somewhat unique, and it makes her an interesting focus for what is in many ways a ‘coming of age’ story. The Executioness is more ambitious and in some sense more original than The Alchemist, but in his ambition Buckell takes the focus off the conflict with the bramble. The reader is left with an engaging, thoroughly character driven story that for its strengths doesn’t quite do justice to the setting. I would prefer to give Buckell the benefit of the doubt and point to the somewhat restrictive length he had to work in.

I was certainly moved and drawn into each of the protagonist’s conflicts and left wanting more. I wouldn’t say that I was unsatisfied, or that the stories were unfinished, but I think that as a long time reader of Epic Fantasy I draw a lot of satisfaction from that lengthy period of engagement you have with the characters. This is obviously not a flaw with the stories, simply a reflection of my reading habits. Indeed, I felt that the length of the stories was ideal for the audiobook format and the nature of my listening habits.

The Alchemist and The Executioness is definitely one of the best produced audiobooks I have enjoyed to date, which is hardly surprising given that it was designed as an audio project from the ground up (commissioned by Audible). Narrators Jonathan Davis and Katherine Kellgren truly captured the heart of their respective characters. Kellgren particularly shines with her portrayal of the much more expressive Tana. I can’t imagine reading the stories in a text format without hearing those voices in my head.

I really enjoyed both stories, but have separated my ratings because I found myself more engaged with the character and struggle of the Alchemist than with the Executioness (for reasons relevant to me as an individual, which I intend to discuss next week). Hence The Alchemist receives 3.5 stars and 3 stars for The Executioness.

Listen to it – for a pair of intriguing and original Fantasy stories that offer you a gateway into audiobooks (which are awesome)
Don’t listen to it – if you would just never listen to an audiobook… in which case, why not?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writing with a day job

At the start of the year when I decided to pursue writing I figured teaching was a pretty complementary job. There's good holidays, I can get home relatively early in the evening if I push myself and constant interaction with people exposes me to all sorts of levels of human experience (what some people might call, material). Of course, the year has hardly followed the ideal path I set out.

Most advice that I hear about writing has a pretty simple message - write. Stop talking about it, stop thinking about it and do it. The follow up to that instruction is usually something to do with developing regular writing habits, which is where teaching is terrible. I'm not incessantly busy, but in the periods when I am busy my job can occupy my time to the exclusion of all else for a few weeks at a time (like at the moment). I stop reading, and writing is off the agenda completely - I can't even update a blog apparently.

I'm not about to quit teaching. I really enjoy it. I'm hoping the steps I have taken to shuffle my responsibilities will result in a much more steady working life next year. But this year isn't over yet...

I'll be unofficially doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November (even though I'm not American - I can bring the international flavour). My aim is a manuscript of between 80,000 and 90,000 words. That's alot of writing, but a few things at work will be falling in my favour to make it (at least slightly) possible. I will be finishing my outlining before the month starts, and the story is based on an idea that I've been considering and researching for quite a while now. I think the groundwork is done, and I think I'll be the type of writer who prefers to outline pretty thoroughly.

If it goes well, I'll then be spending the first week in December madly editing the manuscript so that it is in some sort of shape to enter into the Terry Pratchett Prize. I'm under no illusions about the quality of what I will probably produce, but it's important to have goals like that to write towards. My only other completed and submitted piece of fiction this year was also for a competition - I obviously need that motivation.

I'll be charting my progress on my fledgling blog, and I'll hopefully find some time to post thoughts about my reading and other issues that I come across. I can't stop reading altogether, Towers of Midnight lands in early November and it is a must read for a long time Robert Jordan fan like me.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The grey area of Speculative Fiction genres and sub-genres

When I first thought about starting a book review blog I put together a guide to the prominent Speculative Fiction sub-genres. I have since edited it somewhat and posted it here. My intention was (and still is) to identify the genre and sub-genre of each book that I review. I have written a number of novice reviews on Goodreads but haven’t previously tried to label books in this way, so unsurprisingly I was sand-bagged on only my third review on the blog (now posted here). Fortunately it isn’t just me who struggles.

I was inspired to think more on sub-genres a few weeks ago while listening to this episode of the SF Signal podcast. While the SF Signal crew pointed out most of the recognisable categories they emphasised the very blurry boundaries that separate sub-genres.

Enter Lou Anders (Editor at Pyr, involved in numerous anthologies and other projects, including the recent Swords and Dark Magic) who falls into the category of ‘someone who should know.’ In this recent episode of Adventures in SciFi Publishing Lou described sub-genre labels as “nebulous, nebulous terms.” Further, since these terms are vague, “you shouldn’t split hairs too finely in any sub-genre arguments, they’re just bookstore categories.”

Lou’s position isn’t controversial. It's fairly representative of the feelings of industry professionals. In a discussion over at Babel Clash, Jeremy Lassen (Editor at Nightshade Books, involved in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl), another ‘someone who should know,’ wrote “The marketing categories that books are shelved in, and the kinds of sub-genre tags we apply to books exist for one purpose, from my point of view as an editor and publisher.  They exist to help readers find the books that they will be pre-disposed to like.” Jeremy went on to describe sub-genre labels as “a bit arbitrary.”

So why am I bothering? Ultimately my aim in reviewing books will be to direct readers to stories they will enjoy (when some people actually read my blog), as is the aim of bookstores when they shelve books in different sections of the store. However, I’m hoping my labels will be a bit more informative than the broad category of ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy’ that is as far as most Australian book sellers take things.

Finally, I wonder how authors feel about the categories that get applied to their work. Some very clearly embrace it. I’m sure Cherie Priest loves being identified as a producer of Steampunk. Brandon Sanderson happily describes his work as Epic Fantasy. China Miéville calls his writing whatever the hell he wants (he describes The City and the City as ‘noird’ – don’t worry, there’s context). I have to imagine that there are some writers who don’t like having their work pigeon-holed, and others who deliberately combine elements of sub-genres (and tropes from outside the Speculative genres) in order to defy convention and create very original stories.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The price of books in Australia

Why do books cost so much in Australia? If I go into an Australian book selling chain and pick up a mass market paperback it will cost from $18 - $25. It’s pretty brutal to see that $25 sticker then flip the book over to read that it’s R.R.P. in the US is $7.99. To give perspective, according to the current exchange rate (which I realize is flexible, while book prices tend to be static) 1 Australian Dollar buys over 0.97 US Dollars. I heard numerous Americans complaining about the prices in the Dealers Room at Aussiecon4. John Scalzi complained about prices in general in Australia (naturally, he was lamenting the cost of Coke Zero).

I bought the entire Wheel of Time series (up to Book 12) in the US Hardcover (from overseas, so consider postage) for approximately the same price it would have cost to purchase the mass market paperbacks from an Australian bricks and mortar store.

I know there must be costs that I don’t understand, and I don’t want to see these stores fail, because even if I’m just browsing I enjoy being surrounded by books. People already talk about the Ebook revolution damaging these stores – if they’ve survived the competition of online stores for so long, maybe they are pretty secure, at least in Australia.

I’ve bought some things from Amazon, generally items I couldn’t get anywhere else. Their prices are great, especially with the Australian dollar up like it is at the moment, but because it’s those darn heavy books that I’m buying the postage often costs a similar amount to the book itself. Postage from the US to Australia is pretty prohibitive. Enter Book Depository – based in the UK and offering free postage, even to Australia! I’ve bought so many books from there it’s like a sickness. Because of prices in Australian stores shopping online is like walking into a sale where items are reduced by 50-70%. How can you not buy? Is the business model of these online stores, where they buy in bulk and bear the risk of not selling books themselves (they can't send remainders back to the publisher if I understand correctly) really so significant in lowering the price?

I really enjoy going into Borders, grabbing a coffee and reading a magazine or two, or the first few chapters of a new book. I don’t tend to purchase a lot of books from Borders (maybe 7 or 8 this year, which isn’t a tremendous amount relative to my purchasing habits) and those that I have purchased have been from Australian authors whose work isn’t readily available online.

For big fans of reading, whether it’s Speculative Fiction or any other genre, it will always be important to support book stores. I have particularly made the effort to purchase books from a local independent seller called Infinitas Books because they offer things that online stores can not. Community is often centred around these stores. Infinitas offers books clubs, writing groups, gaming meetups, etc. And they bring authors to meet the fans. Authors can’t visit you in the mail (yet…). Is it worth paying more, sometimes as much as double, to protect these stores and what they represent for the reading community?

Incidentally I used to notice the same thing with video games. A brand new Xbox title in the US would sell for US$49.99 while we would pay AUD$99.99 – is that markup really accounted for by exchange rates and import costs?

Why is everything so expensive in Australia?

Meeting author Peter V. Brett

I don't know if I'm obliged to do this, but in fairness I think I should point out that I was not interviewing Peter V. Brett, I am simply sharing and in every case paraphrasing some of his reflections on his two published works, The Painted Man and The Desert Spear. And it's all good.

Peter V. Brett - the life of George
R. R. Martin's party

One of the highlights of Aussiecon4 was meeting and talking to Peter V. Brett. In fact, it’s fair to say that for me he was the star of the Con. Although George R. R. Martin is a bigger name and meeting him evoked more fanboy glee, Peter (Should I call him Peter? I’m going to…) was humble, very approachable, and it didn’t hurt that he participated in my favourite panel. He was also at the party which I enjoyed the most (ironically, thrown by George R. R. Martin fans).

On the first day of the Con, after Peter’s signing, I had the chance to talk to him for ten minutes or so. It took me a while to get past gushing about his work, but eventually I got around to asking him about what I saw as one of the more controversial aspects of his books. I brought up the representation of Krasia in The Desert Spear (reviewed here). Those who have read The Painted Man and especially The Desert Spear (its sequel) would have noticed parallels between the Krasians and certain Middle Eastern cultures (at least, historical iterations of these cultures).

Maintaining momentum in fiction -
best panel of Aussiecon4

Peter replied to my rambling that he was indeed expecting to need to defend himself, but there had been virtually no backlash. I was glad that was the case, given that in my opinion he set out to make the Krasians as sympathetic as possible in the minds of Western readers. Yet there will always be those who get a sniff of controversy and jump on it.

As a history teacher in Australia I dedicate a lot of effort to helping students to empathise with Australia’s indigenous people. In particular, I try to teach students about aboriginal culture prior to contact with Europeans. Successfully encouraging students to engage with a thoroughly foreign culture with alien ideas is one of the most difficult aspects of my job. Through tremendous story-telling I believe that Peter succeeds in pulling his readers into the potentially unsympathetic society of Krasia in a way that causes them to understand, if not fully accept, this alien culture.

What is particularly interesting is that Peter is not only American but a New Yorker. As a History and English graduate (and now a History teacher) my education has been saturated with the concept that a writer’s experiences and biases will inevitably bleed into their work, be it fiction or non-fiction. One can’t help but wonder how the events of 9/11 impact on Peter’s writing, especially his efforts to depict the Krasians.

The humble Peter V. Brett reads
from The Great Bazaar

I managed to ask some sort of question along those lines. Peter explained that really the biggest effect that 9/11 had on his work was reflected in The Painted Man rather than The Desert Spear. He has lived in a city gripped and almost immobilised by the sort of claustrophobic fear that the nightly demon attacks create for the people of his fictional world. The major theme of The Painted Man (reviewed here), he said, was the different ways that people will respond to potentially overwhelming fear.

I was really impressed by Peter, just as I have been impressed by his writing, and I’m certain I’ll be a long term fan. Bring on The Daylight War!

P.S. Pathetically, I forgot to bring up one of the more controversial aspects of The Painted Man when I was talking to Peter – the depiction of the character Leesha, in particular her sexuality. Stop reading if you haven’t read The Painted Man. Leesha is very protective of her virginity and virtue throughout the story (she shows a bit of an attitude that no man is good enough for her) until she is tragically raped. Shortly after the rape she essentially throws herself at Arlen, the eponymous Painted Man. I found this behaviour incredibly unbelievable and a bit disturbing. Members of my Goodreads group had obviously felt likewise and posed the question. Peter replied that he had done some research into the response of rape victims to their sad situation and that in many cases victims seek out a consensual experience very shortly afterwards. As astounding as I found this fact, it demonstrates Peter’s capacity to approach his subject matter thoughtfully and sensitively.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

The Desert Spear – Peter V. Brett (Published 2010)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Epic
Completed: September 2 2010

Peter V. Brett takes his Demon Cycle in a brave and unpredictable direction with The Desert Spear. The risk of departing temporarily from the protagonists of The Painted Man to tell a related story pays off not only in the setup for future novels but in the story of The Desert Spear itself. This is not simply a filler novel that predictably moves pieces into place for the anticipated finale. The Desert Spear is a game-changer, forcing the reader to revise their expectations about the direction of Brett’s story entirely.

Brett worked hard to create an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and repression in The Painted Man. It would have evaporated had The Desert Spear simply told the story of the growing power of the Painted Man and his followers. Brett needed to introduce a complication which he found readily in human nature. Even with so dangerous and alien an enemy as the corelings, humanity isn’t going to simply unite and fight together against these demons. In addition, Arlen’s loss of the Spear of Kaji, the First Deliverer, was an event that bore much more significance than was originally presented. In The Painted Man it was a tremendously personal betrayal. In The Desert Spear it is an event which shapes nations. Enter Jardir, the man who stole the Spear of Kaji.

The first section of The Desert Spear is entirely devoted to Jardir, and we see the same sort of origin story that Brett gave us for Arlen, Leesha and Rojer in The Painted Man. Well, the structure is the same, but Jardir is Krasian. The experiences of his upbringing and the ethical code he develops are much more brutal and alien than those of the northerners, who bear an essentially ‘Western’ morality that will resonate with the majority of Brett’s audience (including myself). Jardir rises to prominence in Krasia, attaining the position of Shar’Dama Ka that he holds when the reader encounters him in The Painted Man. However, this is the story of Jardir’s ascension to Deliverer. He takes the Spear of Kaji from Arlen, asserts his control over Krasia and launches the Daylight War to establish control over the other city-states of Brett’s world. This is all established in the first chapter (i.e. those weren’t spoilers) before the complete story of Jardir’s rise unfolds.

Brett takes a massive risk and succeeds in two key ways. Firstly, the reader comes to understand the Krasian culture, if not accept it. It is a brutal culture with very foreign (some would say outdated) ideas about class and gender roles. The depiction of Krasia was especially bold, given the undeniable comparisons with (ancient iterations of) Eastern cultures it will evoke. Yet the militarized Krasian culture creates a very effective contrast with the northern lands. It allows Brett to emphasize how far the people of Deliverer’s Hollow have progressed in their war with the corelings when the Krasians are visibly impressed by them. Up until that point in the story, the exotic power of Krasia makes the northerners seem so petty and backward.
Secondly, we come to sympathize with Jardir, the character who perpetrated the most deflating and disappointing crime in The Painted Man. Although there were rapes and murders, in a very real way Jardir stole hope from Arlen. It certainly helps that Jardir begins to defy conventions of Krasian culture - I won’t spoil one of the best moments of the story by describing it here - and sympathize with ‘northern’ culture.

Brett has successfully set up an incredibly intriguing dichotomy between Arlen and Jardir, the two men who bear the title Deliverer, although they never quite come into contact with each other after the theft of the Spear of Kaji. Jardir wants the title, believes he is entitled to it, and actively tries to adhere to the prophecies (including allowing his wife Inevera to scar him with wards, since the Deliverer’s flesh is marked). Arlen is a much more reluctant saviour, filled with angst regarding his association with the demons, yet he is the one who seems to incidentally fulfill prophecy. Even more interesting is the fact that the mind demons introduced in The Desert Spear identify Jardir as more of a leader than Arlen. The seemingly inevitable confrontation between the two is going to be immensely personal and profound.

In the realm of the negative, once again I struggle to understand and sympathize with the character Leesha. Her motivations and her approach to her own sexuality continue to confuse me. It seems that her mother’s encouragement for her to pursue the joys of relationships with men wins out, but her choice of partner is staggering at the same time as Brett’s depiction of their relationship is quite tender and romantic. It feels inconsistent for her to reject one man because of his attitude about his otherwise noble actions, then develop feelings for another who is surely worse, even if she does bring about small changes in him. At least she remains prominent. Poor Rojer is demoted to the status of an important secondary character, which the character himself recognizes.

Given the overlap of events between The Painted Man and The Desert Spear the story lags in some places, and the structure reduces some of the intensity of Jardir’s story, but it gathers the trademark Peter V. Brett momentum towards the conclusion and focuses in on the stakes of the battle with the demons. It also helps that the corelings have been given much more of a ‘face’ in the mind demons, who are demon princes of some sort.

NOTE: Technically I did not ‘read’ The Desert Spear. I listened to it. Say what you will about Audiobooks (and in a later post I will) I felt that the reading by Peter Joyce added a lot to the story. It’s easy to forgive some of the slightly jarring character voices when the story is told so enjoyably. Furthermore Brett’s writing begs to be read aloud. He uses so many powerful terms and phrases that are even cooler when spoken by the narrator (especially Krasian terms and exortations like ‘Show them the sun’), and in my opinion Brett is a tremendous pure story-teller.

The Desert Spear gets 4 stars. In my opinion it’s almost as good as The Painted Man but for different reasons. It lacks the overwhelming sense of dread and incredible momentum of Brett’s debut, but it takes the series in an unpredictable and challenging direction, which I’m certain will pay off in later volumes.

Read it – if you are willing to confront some of your prejudices about culture and the way a Fantasy story should unfold… and of course if you enjoyed The Painted Man and want more
Don’t read it – if you aren’t willing to trust an author to tell their story as they see fit

Review: The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett

I originally wrote this review a few months ago, before I intended to start a blog, but I've posted it now in preparation for my post about the author, Peter V. Brett. I have edited it somewhat but tried to leave my initial impressions (before meeting and talking to Peter) intact.

The Painted Man – Peter V. Brett (Published 2008)
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-genre: Epic
Completed: June 7 2010

There’s something about The Painted Man that I just can’t put my finger on. I can identify criticisms, but I struggle to explain what is so good about the book. I can say that the story is a thrill ride that I powered through as quickly as any of the other books I have enjoyed this year. My guess is that it’s simply good story-telling.

The Painted Man is another of the recent Fantasy debuts that puts Peter V. Brett in the same class as Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, among others. Another writer (Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary fame) whose opinion I respect was so effusive in his praise of the book that I had to bump it up to near the top of my ‘to read’ list. When it was confirmed that Brett would be attending Aussiecon 4 the book found its way to the top of my pile.

The strength of The Painted Man is definitely the intriguing world. Brett creates an innovative and original setting which is very well realized and behaves consistently throughout the story. At the heart of it is a blend of vampire and demon mythologies – humankind is repressed by an unending demon horde that rises up at night and terrorizes the people until daylight. The only defense available to them is a system of magical wards which they cower behind on a nightly basis. Brett does such a terrific job of setting up the hopeless, frightened and oppressed state of humanity that my desire to see the Painted Man fight back against the unstoppable horde dragged me through the first few hundred pages. The anticipation for the wonderfully foreshadowed development of this character was sufficient to sustain my interest on its own.

Unfortunately the Painted Man is not the only major character. There are two other viewpoint protagonists who are weaker, in terms of both their development and prowess, and the intersection of their plot arcs feels contrived (as do their complementary abilities). The contrivance is necessary however to set up the exciting climax that will catapult most readers into the next book in the series. Characterization in general is not Brett’s strong point. Many of the secondary characters are one-dimensional, displaying little growth or development to change the reader’s perspective. Frequently they are cruel in a way that serves the plot but is not consistent or believable, as if it’s been decided that the main characters need to experience some sort of abuse in order to grow. Even the major characters tend to have singular, simplistic motivations. It feels unnecessary to develop three major viewpoint characters, especially reaching back into the childhood of each one. Brett treads close to breaking the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. But it still works!

The most difficult aspect of character is sexuality. It feels like Brett developed the sexuality of his characters as a function of setting (which makes sense, given that Brett is creating a primitive and alien world). Lives are typically short and an ‘eat, drink and be merry' mentality makes sense. Yet there’s very little subtlety, especially given that we witness certain events from the perspective of children, who aren’t apt to be subtle. Males in particular come off as quite animalistic when it comes to their sexuality. It feels like every male that crosses the path of the heroine is intent on raping her (this is not a tremendous exaggeration). Leesha's experiences in this area are certainly the most controversial aspect of the story - I felt that her response to certain events was unrealistic and almost disturbing, but I won't comment further to avoid spoilers.

The world is so rich and the eponymous Painted Man such an intriguing figure that I’m left feeling that an Epic Fantasy in which he is a more mysterious figure, or a Heroic Fantasy dedicated to the Painted Man himself would have also been interesting to read. Brett’s attention is instead split between three characters, two of whom are less interesting (and consequently have less time dedicated to them, as if the author realised it himself). I think what's at play here is that Leesha and Rojer are great characters who suffer only in comparison to the Painted Man. The contrast is actually very effective in drawing the reader into each of the character arcs.

I have to give The Painted Man 4.5 stars. If it wasn’t for the issues I identified I would have given it a full 5. It’s a testament to the X-factor that the book has that it scores so highly for me. I haven’t read Stephen King, but from what I hear of his writing I think Brett may be similar – I may criticize the writing, but the man sure can tell a story.

Read it – to be dragged through an exciting, fast-moving plot in an alien and innovative fantasy world.
Don’t read it – if you can’t look past literary flaws to enjoy a terrific story.