February 13 2014

A Storm of Swords

We finished “A Storm of Swords” over on the tor.com read through. I’ve been reading along at the same rate as the read along–roughly one or two chapters a week.
I’ve adopted the following reading process for this book:
On Friday morning I read the next chapter and jot down thoughts. Then, when Leigh makes the post, I check to see how many other chapters (if any) will be in this weeks read. I read through Leigh’s comments on the first chapter. Then I read the other chapters.
this is proving to be an interesting reading methodology. It is really different than my usual mode of reading (read large portions quickly). I find that reading the chapters in these discrete segments tends to blur out some of the details from earlier sections. However, mulling about a chapter or two for a week as I wait for the next Friday, tends to sharpen some of the small details within a given chapter. Interesting effects.

Below the cut are the posts I made over at tor gathered together. The format is a link to the particular full article on tor followed by my comments. I think that for A Feast of Crows I may post these a tad more often as this was a rather large post to gather up.

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January 27 2014

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie is a wonderful novel. That it also happens to be Ann Leckie’s debut novel adds even more wonder as it is quite a book for anyone to have created.
Ancillary Justice is a quest set in a mystery/thriller set in a space opera set in a dual first person narrative. In the present, Breq, tells us the story of her quest to find a weapon with which she can fight the Lord of the Radch. We gradually find out what this means and who and what Breq is. In the past, Breq also narrates the events that led her to the present and we see what she was like. The flow of the book is done quite well with these inter-leavings and they each add to our knowledge of the story and the world that Leckie is building.
In the past, we learn (quickly) that Breq was once a part of a distributed consciousness. Her point of view is contained in multiple bodies all of which are ancillaries for a military star ship. Leckie explores this mode very well as we see a scene through multiple vantages but within a discrete tale.
Another very interesting story methodology used is that the language of the Radchaai does not usually use gendered pronouns. Breq has to make an effort to assign pronouns when she is in non-Radch space and her default mode is to use the pronoun she. I found this really interesting in that at first, I kept trying to figure out the gender of whomever Breq was thinking about. Eventually, I was able to relax my mental background processing and go with it, but it displayed how immersed our culture is in pronoun assignment. This, even more than the multiple-consciousness, really helped to underline that the Radch was a very different culture from our own. A very interesting and simple way of injecting a feeling of alienness into a story.
This was a very enjoyable book and I am very much looking forward to more of Leckie’s work. Highly recommended.

December 14 2013

Something More Than Night

Something More Than Night by Ian Tregillis is a wonderful, razor tight combination of noir and physics-both meta and quantum.
When Ian first posted the idea for the novel on his blog in February of 2012, I thought it sounded great as I am very much a fan of Chandler and my expectations were high. I was not let down at all. The book is fantastic; the writing is lovely.

We begin with the death of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel was one of the Seraphim and was very dead as his reentry set the sky aglow and drifting bits cause an odd snow in Australia. Bayliss, one of our narrators notes this and reminisces about Gabriel that:

He wasn’t just lovely, he was the kind of lovely that could make a bishop stomp his miter and curse a long blue streak on Easter Sunday.

Bayliss is also an angel although he has bummed about on Earth and has adopted the mannerisms of a hard-boiled detective. Hard boiled, but like the best of them, he seems to have a soft spot for women in a tight fix and a desire for knight-errantry. That and a touch of rye in his coffee.

During the light show of Gabriel’s fall, Bayliss clues us in to why the humans moving around him with downcast eyes aren’t noticing much:

But nobody looks up anymore. That stopped soon after the last satellites died. In the minds of most monkeys, thirty years of meteor showers was weak tea compared to the loss of decent long-term weather forecasts.

This also gives us a nice piece of world-building. The story happens in the not too distant future (50 or so years I would guess) and there has been a war that destroyed the satellites and prevents any new ones from the debris layer. From the early blurbs I was expecting the noir, the angels and the mystery, but Tregillis also mixes the fantasy elements with a strong dose of physics and math:

The light of a distant quasar twinkled with chromatic aberration as the fine-structure constant gave him a farewell salute from the twenty-first decimal place.

So, is the book fantasy or SF? I would have to go with a lovely confluence of the two.

With Gabriel gone, Bayliss starts trailing “a mugg with a bit of high-class fluff on his arm.” The “fluff” is Molly, who will be our second narrative voice and will also turn out to not be so fluffy:

Curls like brushed copper fluttered beneath the brim of her cloche. Her stride was firm and purposeful, like that of a CEO or dominatrix, moving without hesitation on the slick snow-dusted paving stones. She walked like the world was made of red carpet.

Molly turns into a strong independent voice through the course of the book. This is a departure from the classic noir line where the woman is usually there for the detective to react to or react for. Indeed, it’s a departure even from the majority of modern fiction. I addition to being a sharp operator in her own right, Molly is fully fleshed out as a character. She makes mistakes but then she takes action for those mistakes, Nothing passive about Molly.

As the novel progresses, Bayliss operates on Earth and in the meta space of the Pleroma where the angels male their homes out of their own desires. At one point he cases Gabriel’s joint and encounters some visitors. A classic noir scene, but not a classic location:

The newcomers were rummaging Gabby’s collection of sonnets; he’d liked to carve them into the crusts of neutron stars. Next they’d be cutting the mattress apart and pouring out the coffee cans. There were two of them. Each girded the heavens with diaphanous wings more transparent than a rich widow’s grief.

This juxtaposition of classic elements and complete originals continues through the story. In addition to the little details, you’ll encounter this lovely structure in the overall plot. Surprises aplenty, but I won’t say much about those.

I started the book here in Rochester and then read a big chunk on the plane and finished it on December 7th. That happened to be my 50th birthday and reading this was an excellent birthday treat to myself. Later that day, in the casino at the Bellagio the cocktail waitress asked what we wanted and I ordered a vodka gimlet. I tried it for flavor and it was just as I imagined and so I sat there thinking about cosmic strings and words more beautiful than ice on fire. 2013 isn’t quite over, but I think I’ll go ahead and call it for Something More Than Night being my favorite book of the year.

(For one last fun note, check out Ian’s glossary of noir terms here. While not needed for understanding the book, it is a fun and useful list in and of itself.)

October 17 2013

The Incrementalists

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White is a book of many threads. Two threads are the points of view of Phil and Ren. Phil is an Incrementalist, a member of a secret group who try to gradually improve the world by changing things for the better. A nudge here, a nudge there. They are also, functionally immortal. That’s a few more threads.
For you pleasure, there are also explorations of consciousness vs. memory vs. personality and the role of fear in causing damage to the bindings of society. You’ll get some observations on poker and on good meals with good conversation. Watch for cards as they get palmed and people who may not be as annoying as others have made them out to be.
Brust and White weave together a tale out of these slowly gathered threads. If you want to see the tapestry that emerges, you’ll have to pay attention. This isn’t a book that allows for a shallow reading. You get thrown in the deep end and the action starts quicker than you may even notice.
I enjoyed the journey contained in the weaving of the tale and won’t take that journey away from you with a bunch of explanation of the details that you should really experience as you reach them.
As I read this, I heard the sounds of pigeons under the chestnut trees on the Champs-Elysées, of purring cats and the smells of old bookstores and chocolate. I’ll leave it to you to find out why and just remark that this is a very good book.

September 13 2013

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is a fantastic multi-layered novel. I don’t want to get too specific about what the layers are as discovering them is part of the delight and sorrow contained in the book. On one layer, it is about the events that happen to two young English women in WWII. One becomes a pilot and one a spy who is captured by the Gestapo.
Both of these young women are brought to life in the pages with amazing vibrancy. We enter the tale as the captured woman writes of her story and the story of the pilot at the command and coercion of the Gestapo. This is another layer–a story being told as a story is being told.
I’m not going to venture with many more details other than that I enjoyed the book immensely and highly recommend it.

September 12 2013

The Thousand Names

I had a great deal of fun reading The Thousand Names by Django Wexler. This is a bright new fantasy set in an era roughly on par technologically with our own Napoleonic era but not in our world.
The story is mainly told from the point of view of two characters. One of the these characters is Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, the commander of what he presumes to be a soon evacuated garrison of Vordanai soldiers in the remote land of Khandar. He is pretty sure they will be evacuated as we find him settled in an out of date fort along the Khandar coast. The Vordanai have been forced to retreat here from the capital due to a religious rebellion among the Khandari.
The other pov character is Winter Ihernglass. We meet Winter as a ranker in the Vordanai forces who has been hiding out and masquerading as a man (we find this out right away). We get a view of the soldiers from the top and the bottom here.
When the new commander, Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, arrives both Winter and Marcus assumptions are overturned as Janus shows he is determined to advance into Khandar rather than load everyone back into the ships. I enjoyed Janus’ characterization very much. Some mystery and a very nice job of showing rather than telling.
The battle scenes in the book are very well done. I’ve read some accounts of battles with infantry squares and cannon work and this matched up very well.
The magic has a brief appearance at the start of the book and then slowly builds through the rest. There is a nice little mystery regarding magic use here also–you’ll see.
I thought all of the sides in the conflict (there are more than two) are portrayed well. There are good and bad characters among the Vordanai and the Khandari just as you will find at large in the world.
I am quite looking forward to book 2.

August 16 2013

Mark Reads — John Dies at the End

The epilogue for “John Dies at the End” was extra fun for me as I commissioned the videos. Mark Oshiro does various stuff, but in particular he reads things for the first time and writes about it on markreads.net. In addition to just writing about things, Mark will do a video of himself reading (and reacting) chapters from the book. “John Dies at the End” contains a bunch of weird things that are fun and disturbing and strange and horrifying and sometimes insulting and sometimes peg on. So, of course, it seemed like a good idea to watch Mark as he read the final part of the book. It was. Mark did an excellent job.
By the way, I liked both “John Dies at the End” and the sequel, “This Book is Full of Spiders” but then, I’m a tad twisted so they were almost bound to appeal to me.

May 14 2013

Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis

Necessary Evil by Ian Tregillis provides a grand conclusion to the Milkweed Triptych. The concluding volume starts with a fascinating point of view from Gretel at age five as she is sold to the mad Doctor Westarp. You can find this for free here.
The echos and re-echos of previous volumes in this book and this book in the previous volumes show how the overall title of Triptych really is appropriate to this work as the story folds about itself morphing like a hexaflexagon imagined through a fever dream of Poe.
It is hard to get a story containing an oracle right but Tregillis totally pulls off this delicate balancing act in across three novels. The plans of the mad oracle Gretel as she strives to shape her fate, the fate of the world and of Raybould Marsh are a joy (and horror) to watch as they unfold. I’ve particularly liked the places where I didn’t even realize a plan was happening until later in the book or the next book the reason behind certain events becomes clear.
This exposure of cause and effect as it relates to Gretel in turn exposes issues of free will. Does free will exist where Gretel can foresee exactly what will happen if she changes some small detail? A very good question that is addressed in a clever, indirect fashion. Another good question that comes up is where the lines of good and evil should be drawn. What price should be paid to win a war against an implacable foe. Can the price of the blood of innocents paid to the Lovecraftian horrors of the Eidolons be balanced in combating the threat and evil of a twisted Doctor and his Nazi supermen?
If you haven’t read any of these volumes you really should and you will see what I am talking about. The world and characters are fascinating and the prose is really top-notch. If you have read the previous volumes then you will know that (vol 2 spoiler)
Continue reading

March 4 2013

Gritty Futures and Good Reading

Recently, down in the comments, mentioned they were reading Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson and asked what else they might find that was similar that they might enjoy. I thought that might be of interest to others, so I’m promoting and expanding on my answer a bit.
A decent place to go after reading Neuromancer is to pick up the next to books in the “Sprawl” trilogy–Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988).

These books all share the same gritty feel of a future that sometimes seems almost possible. Elements of it–cyber criminals, are here already while we are just seeing the very start of orbital activity and AI.
From author John Brunner, the books Shockwave Rider (1975) and Stand On Zanzibar (1968) really can’t be beat. These are also set in a gritty future. Shockwave Rider is the origin of the idea of a computer worm (virus) while Stand On Zanzibar talks about the growing issues of muckers–people who seem to suddenly just start causing havoc. Both books deal more with the aspects of accelerating change–Future Shock and its toll on society.

The final volume I’ll mention here is Snow Crash (1997) by Neal Stephenson. This book is often credited with being the idea behind today’s MMOG’s and virtual environments like Second Life. Again, it is set in a world a bit further on than ours where things have decayed a bit more.

All of these books are jam packed with iconic ideas and realizations of futures that are maybe a bit too close for comfort. They are a good entry place into this area of SF.

February 18 2013

October Daye

I have just finished the first three “October Daye” novels by Seanan McGuire. October “Toby” Daye is a changeling-half human and half fae. When we meet her in Rosemary and Rue, we barely get to know her before she is turned into a Koi and lives in a koi-pond for fourteen years. Thus do we learn that life is hard for a changeling detective/knight errant. With each book in the series, I could see McGuire gaining in craftsmanship (it starts out at a high level). She artfully brings us into the world of the Fae and mortal San Francisco in the 21st century.
After her stay in the pond, Toby struggles to re-find her place in society and among her friends. Each book takes the form of a problem/mystery that Toby must solve. This is complicated by the fact that Toby’s essential fae nature really prevents her from doing many things that may seem obvious to the reader. She is subject to bindings and orders from the more powerful pure-bred Fae and the overall laws that govern relationships and actions within the world. For a simple example, Fae can not say thank you to one another.
At times, it seems that Toby is overlooking solutions to problems and causing herself more difficulty. For example, in “A Local Habitation”, she could have just asked some questions upon meeting the group of Fae she is investigating and that would have saved her a world of pain. However, her nature as a changeling and her interaction with the others prevents her from this simple path. Looking on Goodreads, I see that a number of people don’t see this essential characteristic and take it as willful stupidity on Toby’s part. I don’t think that is the case here–McGuire is being subtle and obeying rules that only gradually come out.
The world and the stories are very enjoyable to read and discover. Have fun!