Thursday, February 28, 2013

Elizabeth Bear's DUST #OneBookAtATime

Not since I committed the slight error of letting the Wizard-Knight series be my first Gene Wolfe reads have I been so baffled and yet intrigued by a book as I was as I started Elizabeth Bear's Dust, the first book in her "Jacob's Ladder" series.

Superficially, the two works have a fair bit in common: mysterious, half-mythological worlds strange technology that looks like magic/magic that looks like technology, strong theological overtones*, opaque and ambivalent secondary characters, puzzling and multilayered sub-worlds. Ultimately, though Dust is better regarded as a more accessible version of some other Gene Wolfe work, his Long Sun series, which takes place aboard a generational spaceship inside a comet, governed by "gods" that are software copies of the consciousnesses of various rulers from the homeworld's deep and almost forgotten past. But where the Whorl is one complete world through which characters can travel just like they might have on Urth, Jacob's Ladder, the dying generational ship through which our two protagonists move trying to prevent a catastrophic war, is compartmentalized to the point of atomization, with each sub-world either denying the existence of others or hostile to them. Pseudo-feudalism prevails, with the most important class distinction between those whose bodies have been altered and lives extended via colonies of nanomachinery and those who have not.

As our story starts, an "Exalt" woman (i.e. a person benefiting from nanomachines) from the "Engine" world, named Sir Perceval  (don't ask), has been captured in some kind of skirmish and awaits the pleasure of the petty tyrant of another sub-world, the Rule. By a Dickensian coincidence, the Mean (no nanites) assigned to keep Perceval alive turns out to be Perceval's long-lost sister**, Rien, who brings news that the petty tyrant has designs on taking over the whole of Jacob's Ladder and ruling it the way her distant ancestor, the Captain did long ago when the ship actually moved around. Naturally this ambition is inimical not only to the ways of life of every other population on the ship, but to the ship itself, which is just barely held together through the efforts of weird and mutually hostile fragments of the machine consciousness that once ran and directed the ship on its journey of exploration and colonization before disaster struck centuries ago.

Part of the story is told from the perspective of one of these god-fragments, Jacob Dust, who watches events unfold from deep inside the substance of the ship and who is only able indirectly to influence them, through a set of nanomechanical wings he has managed to graft onto Perceval's back to replace those cut off when she was captured. His motives are unclear; his interactions with other fragments intriguing but weirdly directionless, his love for Perceval and Rien infectious. The mystery of what he/it was really up to is what really propelled me through this novel.

And I needed some propelling, because once the setting and situation became clear, so did the fact that pretty much every person or entity on board Jacob's Ladder is pretty repellent, with the possible exception of Rien and Perceval, but sometimes even they are hard to take. And not in that fun, love to hate 'em way. These beings are nasty pieces of work, and descended from even nastier pieces of work, and seem kind of naturally inclined to take decisions that are, well, repellent -- even with the excuse that the deeds they contemplate are necessary for their survival.

Dust has two sequels so far, Chill and Grail, but I don't see myself hurrying to read them anytime soon. Their blurbs indicate to me that the alienating qualities that made me sort of drag my feet in reading Dust are still very much a part of the greater narrative, and I have too many books on the infinite to-be-read pile as it is, you know?

But still -- interesting.

*Though I strongly object to the cover blurb "Can a broken angel save a fallen world?" Even combined with the pleasingly H. R. Gigeresque cover art, that's a pretty misleading bit of copy, and one that put me off the book for quite a while; this is not a religious allegory or bible story in genre fiction trappings, after all.

**Everybody who is anybody turns out to be related to everybody else in this novel. It thus teems with weird bits of dialogue like "Chief Engineer, I need to talk to your about our brother, and our daughter." Um.

My Podiobooks Narrating Debut is NOW LIVE!

I'm thrilled to finally share with everybody what I've been up to in the wee hours of the night lo these many months: recording a podiobook! No, this is not a novel of my own; I narrated it for a most remarkable gentleman I met over on Google Plus, James Calbraith.

I'm not even going to try to be objective about the novel itself right now, except to say that it's got an extraordinarily fun premise (an alternate 19th century, in which the Roman Empire still exists and is duking it out with Victorian Britain and several other empires for supremacy, in which magic not only exists but is a major shaper of events great and small, and in which there be dragons of both the eastern and western variety). The characters are charming as hell, except when they're mysterious or sinister, and I had a great time narrating it once I got used to pronouncing all the Welsh place names. Yes, Welsh! For this novel is set in Wales, China/Qin and Japan/Yamoto!

And did I mention dragons? Because DRAGONS, y'all!

Oh, and this is merely the first book in a series called The Year of the Dragon. So, go have a listen to The Shadow of Black Wings over at It's free! But watch out, you might get hooked!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tim Maughan's PAINTWORK #OneBookAtATime

Set in a tantalizingly attainable urban world of the near-future, the three somewhat related stories in Tim Maughan's Paintwork shimmer with the retinally-rendered pixels of a less dystopian cyberpunk.

And yes, I did say "tantalizing" -- to read "Paintwork" and "Paparazzi" and "Havana Augmented" is to all but ache to play the games,* see the sights, watch the action (especially, if one has predilections like mine, that of the robotic beetles who generate and maintain billboard QR codes by secreting weirdly indelible nano-pigments "in both colors", ink-jet style. I mean, who wouldn't want to watch that?), hang out with the graffiti writers, pro gamer stalkers and digital-culture heroes of Maughan's world.

"Paintwork" is a sci-fi/mystery genre mash of a tale of an Augmented Reality graffiti writer of rising reputation who is fending off a weird series of attacks on his work, attacks that don't obliterate it (just hours after it goes up) so much as riff on it in a viciously warped way. As an introduction to a world of Google glass-esque experiences of "consensual hallucination" that turn ordinary urban landscapes into overwhelming three-dimensional marketing sense-bombs, it's first rate. 3Cube isn't just a guy with a spray can in the night; he's a guy with a spray can and a QR code stencil that hijacks dumb marketing art and turns it into stunningly detailed pop art with lessons about his city's past and its potential. However one may feel about graffiti and street culture, a reader is likely to share his puzzlement and outrage when he discovers someone else is hijacking his hijacking.

In "Paparazzi" a post-post-postmodern filmmaker who specializes in turning hours and hours of recordings of immersive in-game experience into memorable and usually critical documentaries is seduced into trying his hand at celebrity stalking. A world-famous professional gamer is beta testing new content for the world's most popular MMORPG; John Smith's vision is to infiltrate the playtest sessions and catch in-game footage of the master at "work." Maughan has here not only imagined a highly plausible new artform for a new fully-immersive digital age, but has already imagined a way its finest practitioners can be produced to whore out their talent.

And in "Havana Augmented" two young residents of the world's last Communist regime find themselves at the forefront of Cuba's half-assed attempts at developing its economy beyond that of a tourist haven, via exploiting the pair's intricate and exciting hack of yet another popular game. Our heroes, pretty much cut off from global gaming culture by their country's policies and firewalls, have nonetheless managed to take a run-of-the-mill giant robot battling game and scale it up and make it mobile, the better turn it loose on the streets of the capital city. When word leaks out on how these guys and their friends are duking it out, mecha-style, in the actual virtual streets of Havana, corporate/gaming culture comes calling, and Cuba welcomes its promise of economic development -- though the government is ignorant of what these powers will do to Havana's virtual landscape and thus to its newly "spex" toting citizenry. Hard to indoctrinate people to hate the free markets of global capitalism when they're busy admiring the latest city-dominating Coca Cola ad via their augmented reality glasses. The resulting conflict finally and more effectively than I've ever seen realizes the idea that video games can be more than just video games. Take that, Last Starfighter.

Author Tim Maughan is also a quality follow on Twitter, funny, urbane and an entertaining speculator on where our technology is taking us. He is thus definitely someone to watch, if this debut book is any indicator. And I think it is.

Just the right mix of thought-provoking and fun. Fans of Jeff Noon and William Gibson take note!

*And this coming from someone who sucks at video games and who avoids MMORPGs like the time-stealing plague.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Scott Lynch's RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES #OneBookAtATime

After breathlessly all but clawing my way through the 500+ awesome pages of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, I did something I never, ever do. I tore immediately into its sequel. I did this not because the first novel left me on any kind of crappy cliffhanger -- quite the contrary; every loose end in The Lies of Locke Lamora is well-knotted by novel's end, and the ending is perfectly satisfying, if rather anguished. Had I not known there was a sequel just a click or two away, I might well have moved on to something else entirely, as I do so often, even when the sequel is just a click away. That's what the "want to read" list on GoodReads is for, after all.

But no, this time I kept going. I kept going because I loved the characters -- well, the characters that survive the first novel.* And the memory of the characters who didn't was still poignant, and I wanted to see what the survivors would be like without them.

Red Seas Under Red Skies starts off the way a lot of quality television episodes and films like to start these days. We get dropped into the middle of an arresting and unusual scene, in which our beloved characters are behaving very strangely, clearly under duress, and we are overwhelmed with curiosity as to how things came to that pass. And then everything flashes way back by way of furnishing that information. Knowing from the first novel that Scott Lynch is a writer who is capable of quite intricate plotting, surprises, and character juggling, we relax from the initial shock and watch the story begin rather sedately to unfold.

Actually, scratch the "rather". It's actually very sedate, this sequel. Gone is the whip-smart banter, the hilarity, the infectious audacity of the Gentleman Bastards I fell in love with in the first book. As befits what became of most of the bastards; the survivors are mourning them. Locke is dissolving in self-pity and Jean is losing patience with him. It all threatens to become tedious, until Lynch reminds us that this pair tweaked the noses of perhaps the most powerful secret evil organization of all at the end of the last novel, and that's going to have consequences! But even then, this novel is a very slow burn, especially when contrasted with its predecessor.

This doesn't make it necessarily a bad novel, just a slower and more subtle one (a gambit involving ordering some very specific custom furniture left me scratching my head for a very long time and even now there's part of me saying "Really? That? Really?" It feels quite true to these surviving characters, sobered and made more somber by their huge setbacks last novel. They're sort of zombie versions of themselves for this one: still smart, still talented, still ambitious, but rather lifeless all the same.

Fortunately for us, even Zombie Locke and Zombie Jean are better fantasy heroes than the run of them. Zombie Locke could still go toe to toe with Tyrion Lannister in any battle of wits one cared to name, and Zombie Jean could probably wipe the floor with Westley or Aragorn in single combat. Maybe double combat. They're just not as fun.

But fun isn't the only reason to read a novel; this is a more mature work, less showing off (though there are still some bravura set pieces, like the Amusement War, a living chess game with some nasty consequences for the destitute human pieces who get captured) and more meditation on property and fairness, equality and justice, and the price individuals and societies pay when parties demand and take revenge.
"Here were the richest and freest people in the Therin world, those with positions and money but no political duties to constrict them, gathered together to do what law and custom forbade beyond Saljesca's private fiefdom -- to humiliate and brutalize their lessers however they saw fit, for their own gleeful amusement."
Scenes like that make one long for Locke and Jean to go all kinds of Robin Hood on the upper class's asses, and to a degree we get that. The two mandates of the Thieves' God Locke and Jean are raised to serve are 1. Thieves Prosper and 2. The Rich Remember -- remember that they're vulnerable, that their possessions are just things of which they can be relieved and with the loss of possessions can come loss of power. Our boys did a great job of fulfilling both mandates in the first book, but were at a loss as to what to do with their accumulation of loot until someone else took it away from them. Here, the second mandate takes on a darker and more desperate edge. Once Locke witnesses the Amusement War, all of his careful schemes and cons with Jean are deformed by his righteous anger, something Jean, who did not see the decadent cruelty of unfettered wealth and power at play firsthand, never completely shares (just as earlier he did not entirely share Locke's despair). This tension between the friends, both when it's real and when it's feigned in service of a "job", is something new to the Bastards, and it's not pretty. But it's always, always believable.

All this is not to say that there is no fun to be had here. Locke's and DVD's adventures in sea are exciting as hell! Neither man knows a thing about sailing, and their attempts to fake such would be hilarious, if they didn't have such serious consequences. The new characters met on the Brass Sea are fascinating, unpredictable, and unforgettable. A fierce female sea captain/pirate queen, Zamira, who is as protective of her crew as of her two children who are also aboard, is worthy of her own novel. I would read the hell of a spinoff series about her.

Indeed, once our heroes are shipboard, Red Seas Under Red Skies becomes an entirely different novel -- still dark, but dark in the service of rollicking pirate adventure. And who doesn't like that? Especially rollicking pirate adventure that also passes the Bechdel Test!

But so, I didn't devour it in one or two sittings like I did its predecessor, but I never wanted to set it aside for a different book altogether, either. I just wasn't always in the mood for it, at least not until its glorious seabound second half. So if you take this one up and find yourself yawning, stick it out at least until they weigh anchor. You'll be glad you did.

*Lynch's is very much post-Nedd Stark work.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Scott Lynch's THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA #OneBookAtATime

Every once in a while, I encounter a main character whose antics and misdeeds I find completely irresistible and whom I quickly come to adore beyond all reason, but whom I would never, ever desire to know in real life. Richard Sharpe, cold-blooded killing machine of the Napoleonic land wars comes to mind. So does Lymond. And so does Locke Lamora. Well, I would love Locke Lamora, but he probably wouldn't love me back.

But how could I not completely fall for Locke Lamora? From the earliest pages of The Lies of Locke Lamora (first in a series called Gentleman Bastard -- again, how can I not love this?), in which he is just a little kid, Locke is set up as the most devious, shifty, troublesome, prideful, thieving, amoral little turd no parent or teacher or citizen of the world would ever, ever want to encounter, and indeed, the "Thiefmaker" whose troupe of trainee-pickpockets Locke tricks his way into joining is at his wits end with the kid and all but ready to pay the guy in charge of the next stage of this world's elaborate criminal training enterprise to take Locke early. Let that sink in for a moment. The guy who gives little kids their first lessons in thievery can't handle Locke because he's too devious and precocious. Because Locke breaks all the rules of being a little kid thief (including picking the pockets of the guards who sold his batch of orphans to the Thiefmaker, thus putting the Thiefmaker's entire operation into jeopardy before the kid is even actually a part of it!).

And that's just the first 30 pages or so. And then Locke grows up! Fortunately, his new father figure, the shifty pseudo-priest, Father Chains*, while an even greater criminal than the Thiefmaker, is a man with a plan, and that plan includes creating the Gentleman Bastards. Locke shall be but one of them. Chains raises him alongside two Weasleyesque twins, the fantastic Sanza brothers, and a big lug with a head for numbers named Jean. The friendship these kids form is true and deep and lovely to behold, both when they're learning to be gentlemen and when they're acting like bastards. Hilarious, hilarious bastards. Like Dorothy Parker and Joss Whedon teamed up for the dialogue bastards. With plotting help from, say, Donald Westlake and Patricia Highsmith and Clifford Irving.

Which is to say, they grow up to be con men, and their central caper in this novel (well, aside from the actual plot of the novel, which I'll get to in a moment) is a wonder to behold: no less than a live action pseudo-medieval** enacting of the famous Nigerian phishing scam -- but Locke and the boys go it one better by also pretending to be what amounts to the FBI, coercing the scam's victims into cooperating with the scam, actually handing over the cash, as part of a supposed sting operation. I mean, delicious!

But where the first half of the novel feels like a Lymond story with a laugh track (and I'm not kidding about the dialogue, you guys. If you don't laugh with complete uncool abandon at this dialogue, you must have gone to Vegas and awakened in a bathtub full of icewater with your sense of humor removed), the second half is more like The Count of Monte Cristo with a pyrotechnics budget. That is because of the plot. Which, oh my goodness, the plot. But you know what? That's all I'm going to say about the plot because you just need to go read the book, my dearlings.

And, O ye readers of GRRM and the like who roll your eyes at the treatment of women in them, rejoice! The Lies of Locke Lamora features a whole bevy of kickass women of astonishing variety and importance. While it's never explicitly claimed that this is an egalitarian society (I speak in terms of gender issues only, here; it's still got all the trappings of feudalism, after all), men and women both can be fighters, thieves, priests, political authorities, scientists (well, okay, alchemists***) gladiators (actually, no, the kind of gladiators we see in this world are only female, and they leap from tiny platform to tiny platform over seawater because their opponents are ferocious mutant sharks that can leap 20 feet out of the water!), maybe even the Godfather (Godmother? Godsister?) of the whole damned underworld.

Be prepared though, when you take up this book, to do a bit of mental heavy lifting, because the chronology of this narrative is as complicated as it could possibly get without also containing time travel. It's quite seamlessly and masterfully done, most of the time, but it's not a straightforward beginning-to-end narrative. A few scenes are replayed from different points of view, and then there is a whole big thread of flashbacks in which elements that are important to the main plot are doled out in the midst of often hilarious stories of the Gentleman Bastards' upbringing, which means that exposition is pretty deftly handled and goes down easy. And pay attention to those bits, because no Chekov's guns go unfired in this story.

And now I'm going to do something I don't usually do, especially since I'm still committed to reading one book at a time this year, and that's to immediately start reading the sequel. Indeed, I have already done so. And it starts off with a real shocker.

Scott Lynch is the MAN.

*And I know what people are probably thinking. Shifty priest. Little boys. Well, stop it. It's not like that. Indeed, there's really no sex or romance at all in this book. And it doesn't need it, because stuff is always happening. Glorious, glorious stuff that is way more interesting to read about than kissing parts.

**Except there are all sorts of hints and elements of the world-building that indicate this is more likely a human colony on an alien planet than a pseudo-medieval standard fantasy past. The island city that is the setting for the novel is built on the ruins of an alien settlement, the basic architectural elements of which still remain in the form of vast, still usable towers and other structures of "Everglass" which is unbreakable, unmeltable, indestructible in every way, and beautiful, and in some way some kind of storer of solar energy, which it gives back after sundown in the form of "Falselight." Oh, and there are three moons. But that's it. Otherwise it could be any other standard Europeanish fantasy world. Well, except for the wolf sharks and the scorpion hawks and stuff.

***If I have a gripe about this book, it's the reliance on the hand-waving invocation of "alchemy" with no further explanation to explain everything from artificial light to how pack animals are kept under control. But it's a slight quibble. I'm over it.

Check out this amazing German trailer for @Hughhowey's SILO series

Last year I was blown away and very excited to see the British book trailer for Hugh Howey's Wool/Silo series. That's still pretty awesome, but check out what his German publisher cooked up:

I don't have nearly enough German to follow the voice over, but damn if this doesn't look PERFECT. Juliette looks very little like I'd imagined her, but who cares! She looks great. Everything looks great. And, more than ever, I want to see these stories on the big screen.

Dare to hope, indeed, Mr. Howey.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

MeiLin Miranda's THE MACHINE GOD #OneBookAtATime

Meilin Miranda was one of my first friends on Twitter and someone with whom I enjoy spending time in real life whenever I find myself in her home city, so it would be hard, if not impossible, for me to be objective about her work. But I'm not a book reviewer or a book blogger, so I don't have to be. So with that in mind, read on.

First of all, I demand The Machine God be immediately adapted into an anime screenplay and turned over to Hayao Miyazaki and/or Isao Takahata immediately. As in this story begs to be brought to the screen by Studio Ghibli.

The novel -- short by today's standards but packing a whole lot of everything good in its few pages -- takes place in a shared fictional universe with a lot of steampunk elements, a rich and interesting history, and a great big island floating above a sizable population center: A legend-shrouded cataclysm a thousand years ago tore a grand old city right out of the earth and flung it into the sky, where it has been ever since, casting a shadow over the gradually resettled land below and tantalizing scholars and engineers with its unattainable nearness.

Unattainable until the discovery of a semi-magical petroleum stand-in called variously "black mercury" or "ichor" allows the city below's "autogyro" flying machines to achieve the great heights necessary to mount an expedition up to the floating island. Are there people there? Are there solutions to the mystery of how that huge chunk of land decided to cheat the law of gravity? Are there artifacts to study and/or trade in, and thus make someone famous and maybe even rich?

Our hero is a charming and slightly naive academic, Adewole, master of languages old and new, collector of folklore, specialist in legends about the floating island even though he comes from a faraway land and only wound up in the Drifting Isle's shadow due to a series of mishaps and betrayals, only to embark on a life of little respect and not a little contempt from the dean and most of the rest of the university where he holds a "useless" token chair in the humanities -- taking up space and soaking up money that everybody else thinks would be better put to use endowing yet another engineering professorship at an already science/technology-heavy school.

Everybody, that is, except for the City Mother (the world of the Drifting Isle accords women a powerful socio-political position that threatens to nudge somewhat beyond equality into matriarchy, but not quite), who happens to be the one who gets to choose the team to make first contact with the denizens, if any, of the Floating Island. Someone with a gift for language, a feel for forgotten lore and a talent for uncovering the true elements of various myths and legends is just the sort such an expedition needs.

Soon Adewole and his best friend, Deviatka (an engineering professor) are exploring the ruins of the city above, getting acquainted with the struggling locals they find there, and fretting over how the dean of their university will doubtless exploit their discoveries for his own profit -- social and economic -- as he has done to Deviatka so many, many times before.

And then Adewole makes a discovery that blows even their worst and wildest worries right out of the water with its implications, its historical import and its threat, both physical and moral, to the present and the future, possibly of their entire world.

Like I said, Ms. Miranda packed a whole lot into just a few pages -- wry and pointed commentary on academic politics and the tensions between pure and applied research, the ethical implications of the quest for knowledge for its own sake, the public and private morality of holders of political and academic power, and yes, whether or not someone at some point actually managed to build a mecha so big and powerful that it could legitimately be referred to as a Machine God.

And I haven't even gotten to the best part yet, because the world of the Drifting Isle is a world in which more and more birds are turning up sentient and capable of using human language all the time. An early scene with sparrows lecturing Adewole about how if he doesn't share a bit of his pastry with him he's basically a rude selfish jerk sets the amusing and yet also deadly serious tone here. Plus there is a talking owl so wise and cool and drily funny that she knocks Bubo and Glimfeather right out of contention for for the title of Most Awesome Fictional Owl of All Time (and no, I do not consider Hedwig even to be an also-ran here, sorry, Potterniks). Owls get notions, you know.

But above all, there is Adewole, with whom you would have to be the world's biggest jerk not to fall in love with before you're even through the very first chapter. His personal history is full of heartbreak and struggle; his talents are prodigious (yet he is modest about them); his behavior when faced with a truly unique set of challenges is completely believable and completely understandable, which is all the more remarkable when one considers the cruel set of dilemmas his creator set before him. He is, in other words, a shining example of Miranda's signature sweet, deserving young male hero, whose life is circumscribed by women but who is man enough to think that's just fine and to go on and be awesome in a way that harms no one and helps many. When he meets someone whose lot in life has been orders of magnitude harder than his, he doesn't even think to compare his misfortunes to hers, just swears that he will do all in his power to find a way to make it as close to better as he can. He is, in other words, so loveable that you can't even roll your eyes at him, or hate loving him, or love hating him, or even think he's a bit too much of a Boy Scout. You just want to be his best friend. Especially since, well, spoilers.

Now I'm curious about the rest of the Drifting Isle Chronicles, which I should be getting my grubby hands on soon for being a backer for Ms. Miranda's Kickstarter to get this one published in style. Dudes, I have the best taste in Kickstarter projects.

Oh, and a little bird told me (hee!) that Ms. Miranda is going to write more books set in this universe, so HOORAY!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Andre Norton's THE CROSSROADS OF TIME #OneBookAtATime

My first ever Andre Norton -- I know, I know, but it won't be my last -- The Crossroads of Time is an interesting time/dimensional travel romp with some psychic power tropes thrown in. And a bit of a manhunt storyline.

Blake Walker, student, has always known he was a little bit different from other people, in that his little premonitions of danger are always correct. What he doesn't know is that he's a latent psychic, and that in the universe next door his ability would make him as common as he is unusual here. Hell, he doesn't know there are universe's next door, until his unique ability lands him in a heap of trouble with some agents from that universe, who tell him not only that time travel is possible, but that it is also possible, within a time or "level", to visit all the alternate versions of that time. One where, say, Napoleon won at Waterloo, or one where the petroleum economy got started a few hundred years earlier, or where Abed was the one who had to go downstairs to pay the pizza man -- basically, the many worlds theory with which any science fiction or comic book reader is pretty familiar.

The agents, several men about Blake's own age, are in pursuit of the worst kind of time traveler, one whose psychic abilities are developed to the highest possible degree, but who seems to be a stone cold psychotic megalomaniac, who is shopping for just the right world in which he can exploit his powers, knowledge and lack of scruples to become World Dictator. Hey! This could explain how Arslan got to be Arslan, am I right?

So this is all very well and good but since it's played straight (i.e. no Epicene/Mary Margaret Wildeblood types here) it would all be a bit ho-hum for the modern reader, except for two things: the chase and escape plot, and the protagonist. O, Blake, you orphan with latent powers, you should be dull as ditchwater, but you're just the right combination of intrepid and resourceful without being a complete over-the-top can-do Boy Scout, and I've grown fond of you in that kid brother kind of way.

The chase/escape plot is nicely taut while still giving us a chance to explore some of the radically different worlds (two words: robot dragons) in just enough detail. Norton really let herself go nuts there, with enjoyable results.

Ultimately, though, there isn't quite enough book here. The novel dates from a period when a lot of science fiction/fantasy authors, Norton included, were churning out stories at a fantastic rate. The deadline pressure and the need to keep it short and sweet are both palpable throughout this quick little read. With the luxury of conducting my reading life decades later than this period, I can't help but wonder what might have been if this had been the universe in which Norton got to take her time and spin this out into the epic it clearly wanted to be. And I wonder if that universe might not also have been the one in which Jorge Luis Borges spun out whole novels instead of just his weird little gemlike short stories. But I'll never know, at least until someone invents or discovers the Carrier and lets me visit and see for myself, right?

Until then, I must content myself with its sole sequel, Quest Crosstime, soon. Fortunately, this was an omnibus edition of the pair of them. Thank you, Baen Books!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S PREY #OneBookAtATime

We last saw Sharpe improbably serving as an honorary marine on board a fictional substitute for the ship that came to Admiral Nelson's rescue at a crucial stage of the sea battle at Trafalgar, a hilariously contrived plot in which to find our infantry bastard-hero but still jolly good fun. Sharpe's India adventures thus came to a rollicking closure, and Europe beckons....

As Sharpe's Prey opens, though, Europe, or at least England, has not exactly welcomed our man with open arms -- even though he came home from India a wealthy man (booty and jewels a-plenty!) and an officer to boot. If only that had been all. If only. But alas, the soap opera/shipboard romance/adultery plot that rounded out Sharpe's Trafalgar had its consequences. The upper class hasn't stayed upper by being kind to upstarts like Sharpe, after all. So it is a penniless, cranky, hopeless Sharpe whom we find wandering the streets of London, not even soldiering really as the Rifles regiment to which he was sent has the same prejudice against officers promoted from the ranks as everybody else, and they've made a quartermaster of him. We're off to battle; clean up the barracks, there's a good fellow.

Thank goodness some other good folk returned to England ahead of him, who think well of him as a man of action and effectiveness. Such is Colonel (now General) Baird, whose bacon Sharpe saved in Sharpe's Tiger (at the Siege of Seringapatam), and who, it turns out, has been looking for him for a while, for a special mission in which Sharpe shall become a secret agent!

Well, hey, honorary marine, secret agent, not that far of a leap, eh wot?

Soon Sharpe is heading off to glamorous, sunny, uh, Denmark, in the company of a mysterious half-Danish captain, on a mission to prevent the Danes from letting Napoleon have their navy to replace what he lost at Trafalgar. Pretty straightforward, right? Oh, except this captain is a complete bastard in the evil Major Dodd mode. Um. If a man is definied by the quality of his enemies, well, Sharpe is a most fascinating fellow, isn't he? And one who is never more dangerous than when he is completely screwed.

But so most of the action in this book takes place during Britain's 1807 attack on Denmark, which included a land skirmish the Danes remember as the "battle of the wooden shoes" (because so many of those fighting for the Danes were farmer/militiamen who wore those famous Danish clogs to battle) and several days of intense bombardment of the city of Copenhagen. Which is to say everything takes a bit of a darker tone, as a question that looms through the first two-thirds of the novel is whether Britain actually will bomb the city, which is full of women and children.

I don't recall Sharpe or anyone else worrying so much about civilian bystanders in India.

The bombing campaign itself -- shells and mortar rounds fired from huge wallowing British "bomb ships" in Copenhagen's outer harbor -- is described in harrowing detail, enough so to where it might make some readers queasy (as might depictions of how a spymaster gets interrogated by French agents. Pliers and teeth are involved. Ack). There are no strategic maneuvers to trace out on a map here; it's just brute force and siege warfare. It ain't pretty, but that's the way it was, and is. As Sharpe observes to himself as he sails away from the scene of his latest strange adventures, it's a soldier's world, and Sharpe is a soldier, and while he had plenty on his conscience before his Scandinavian tour, he's learned there was plenty more where that came from, and more still to come, for soon he'll be off to the Peninsula (as in Spain and Portugal) and even more war!

Lord, I do love Sharpe. Reading about him that is. I don't think I'd want to meet him in person. No. No, that wouldn't be very nice at all.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hugh Howey's THIRD SHIFT: PACT #OneBookAtATime

My anguish-filled love for Hugh Howey's Silo series, aka the Wool series, is pretty well established by now. One of these days, I'm going to have to read his other work, most of which I have acquired in various Kindle-stuffing sprees, but just when my gaze starts straying toward those, Howey spins out more of these fibers and I get all tangled up again.

Yeah, I went there. What? He started it. All that talk of strands and skeins... knitting and weaving, knotting -- and unraveling.

With Third Shift: Pact, Howey has sort of completed his Wool prequel trilogy, Shift, but has also, and more importantly, proven that he deserved every howled expletive I've hurled at him through these eight gut-wrenching tales of his. As in "most heartless bastard since Julian 'Downton Abbey' Fellowes" type expletives. And others.

He's also proven once again, as if he needed to, that he's a consummate pro who absolutely and without question deserves to be called a great damned storyteller.

I wasn't sure if I could expect the kind of neat knitting of Shift to Wool that Howey pulled off here; after all, First Shift: Legacy is set a few hundred years before* the first Wool story, and proceeded at a naturalistic pace, and Second Shift: Order followed this same pattern. Howey could just as easily have kept the two narratives completely discrete and still achieved great things with this series.

But that's not what he did!

Of course, in doing so, he also pulled a Feast for Crows on us (though, thank Bob, we did not have to wait years and years and years for more story), but went George R.R. Martin one crueler, in a way because where Martin just yoinked a bunch of fan favorites right out of AFfC and made us wait another mumble-grumble years, Howey spent the whole of Third Shift teasing us mercilessly** with the prospect of reunion with/continuation of the story of a much beloved character from the original Wool series, and then, like Lucy with her football even more than like GRRM with his dragons, yoinked at the last minute to watch us land with a thud at his feet.

It's definitely a testament to Howey's skill that Third Shift still winds up being a very satisfying read despite this authorial cruelty. Of course a lot of this is because he found so many other ways to put the emotional screws to the reader, such as a Robinson Crusoe-esque tale of a young sole survivor of a silo gone wrong, growing up and going crazy in the ruins of the artificial world the Shift crew created to allow humanity to survive an apocalypse -- a post-apocalyptic post-apocalypse, if you will. And, of course, the continuing saga of Donald, unwitting original architect of the project, and his "shifts" overseeing the whole silo project between long spells in the freezer, suffering a long slow torture of guilt and forgetfulness and discovery of just how utterly he was duped. A passage in which he recalls a visit to Washington, D.C.'s Holocaust Museum and freaks out at the internment camp blueprints is especially poignant and effective, if perhaps a little bit too on the nose.

But as you might have guessed, it all ends on a cliffhanger (which Howey himself mocks in a quick aside at the end that challenges the reader to just skip the epilogue. As if), which sets up the next Silo book, to be released soon, Dust.

Thank goodness Howey understands what "soon" means.*** The blogger says, channeling Veruca Salt...

*That "few" is key, because we don't know, reading First Shift, just how far into the past we're going. That it's the origins of the Silo world becomes immediately clear, but what is the gulf of time between the narratives? With the First Shift perps going into cryonic storage, any duration is possible.

**You who have read this novella already know exactly what I'm talking about. How many times did you all but stand up and cheer that [redacted] was on the scene only to find out that, nope, Hugh had fooled us again? Me? Three times. Ooh.

***I kid. Mostly. I do love that he was up front with his fans about a very, very slight delay in publishing Third Shift, because he saw an opportunity to make it a better book and wanted to get it right. The reaction that announcement, from what I saw, was positive -- it would be worth the wait. And it absolutely was. But, Mr. Howey, if you're reading this, and I bet you will, if teasing us with [redacted] so much was the improvement you made while we waited, well, you're not a very nice man.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dorothy Dunnett's QUEENS' PLAY #OneBookAtATime

I still think Francis Crawford of Lymond, the Master of Culter, is basically Lord Flashheart from Blackadder in subtler guise. But now, now he actually seems even more over the top than that.

In Queens' Play, the second of the six Lymond Chronicles, Lymond is amuck in France at the behest of the Scottish Dowager Queen Mother, Mary de Guise, whose seven-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, is being raised at the French court alongside her intended husband, the Dauphin, supposedly to keep her safe from the hated English. The little girl turns out to sorely need a guy like Lymond in her corner, because someone is making some truly outlandish attempts on her life. Elephants and cheetahs are used as would-be murder weapons, to give you some idea.

Ah, but good thing there is Lymond, the most accomplished and capable hero, maybe ever. I kid because I love, but really, there appears to be nothing this guy can't do. He is simply the best at everything, be it dialogue so subtle I'm not even sure he really knows what's going on (I sure never felt like I did, and I supposedly had the third person omniscient narrator on my side), as we already knew from The Game of Kings; fighting and sword play, ditto; disguise, ditto; but also it turns out he can juggle better than a professional entertainer, play all the musical instruments to a similar standard, sing like an angel... seriously, even given that his milieu is Life Before TV and all, who in the world ever had the time and energy to get that good at absolutely everything? I mean, the dude even competes brilliantly at what amounts to Renaissance parkour.

All this, and he spends most of the novel drunk out of his mind, too.

Lymond, in short, is the guy everybody wants on his or her side but whom nobody can be sure actually is, even when they're pretty sure he's said he would be. As in the previous novel, he spends a lot of his time concealing his identity from everyone, including the reader, who often thinks she knows which of the novel's other characters he's impersonating in a given scene but who turns out, often, to be wrong. It makes for maddening reading, but then, this is a great part of the fun, with Lymond, whose mystique Dunnett most carefully maintains by making sure his is the only point of view we never get to share, to whose thoughts we are never privy. Instead, entire, sometimes lengthy, scenes come from the perspective of a throwaway character like, say, a nobleman's wife whose dinner is incommoded, whose superficial impressions of Lymond's appearance and behavior are all we get to work with -- even as Dunnett adds an extra layer of opacity to it all by summarizing dialogue as obliquely as possible. We are often told of, for instance, someone using a unique and colorful phrase, but I guess we are supposed to work out which phrase all on our own? Based on our great erudition regarding all matters lexical, continental and Renaissance?


But amid all the bafflement, there is again some astonishingly good action writing. Swordplay, hunting, horse racing through a tower, the aforementioned Renaissance parkour, all have an immediacy and a breakneck pace that few writers could equal, in any age. It's as though Umberto Eco were writing a script for Tony Scott, or something. And yes, these scenes are well-placed, as if to wake up the reader who is getting a little weary of all the subtlety and archaic wit.

But speaking of wit, or at least of its cousin, humor, the thing that I missed this time around, though, was the entertaining array of supporting characters from the first novel. No Jonathan Crouch types here; everybody is in deadly and often dull earnest, and while the figure of Prince O'Liamroe seems to have been intended as a bit of comic relief in that vein, he's just not as fun. And no counterpart for Sybella or Lady Agnes appears at all. This may be the fault of the setting and the higher stakes, but I missed this element dreadfully, and no amount of cheetah coursing really made up for the lack.

I'm still in for the rest of the Lymond Chronicles, though. I just need some time to rest ze brain a little, from this one.