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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kushiel's Dart - Jacqueline Carey

In an effort to be totally upfront about what Kushiel's Dart is and isn't, let me get this out of way - there's a lot of sex.  Some of it's pretty graphic.  There's rape and torture and the main character enjoys both on some level. Too many reviews out there emphasize this.  Yes there's sex and yes it's graphic, but for anyone with access to the internet you can find far worse in about 10 minutes of browsing around.  Don't overlook Jacqueline Carey's novel simply because of some prudish sense of propriety.  Now on to my review...

Last week over at there was an interesting thread discussing bloat in fantasy novels.  It was particularly appropriate as I was reading Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey - all 1000 pages of it.  To say Carey's first novel is bloated would be a gross understatement.  It begins with an incredibly tiresome first 400 pages or so, followed by a well done (mostly) 500, and then concluded with a morbidly boring last 100 of wrap up and setup for the next installment.

In the thread, I argued pretty vehemently that bloat is somewhat part and parcel to fantasy as a genre.  To create a world from scratch, imbue it with life, and populate it with vibrant characters is not something easily accomplished without some weight of words.  In the discussion I was using to bloat to mean length, but in truth bloat happens when something becomes long for reason beyond the necessity of story telling.  Self-indulgence? Maybe.  Longer books sell better? Maybe.  Bad editing?  Maybe.  I'm not sure why Kushiel's Dart is bloated.  It could all of those things.  Without a doubt Carey's first 400 and last 100 pages could have been cut in half without a great deal of heartburn to the books conclusion.

Carey's protagonist is Phedre, a courtesan trained for sex in a culture where the motto is Love As Thou Wilt.  Phedre as it turns out is also the first anguisette (read likes to get beat up) in three generations to be available for pay to play.  She's bought by a disgraced nobleman named Delaunay who trains her to be a bedroom spy in his game of thrones (pardon the euphemism GRRM).  Long (very) story short, Phedre finds herself in way over her head ending up at the heart of a conspiracy to overthrow the kingdom and plunge the entire civilized world into war.  To stay spoiler free, I'm afraid to go into any more detail because none of the "in over her head" stuff starts until nearly halfway through the book when the plot actually starts going somewhere.

In fact, if this "in over her head" moment had occurred in the first 50 pages I'm almost sure the book would have retained its audience and likely attracted a whole lot more.  The first 400 pages are self-indulgent.  They are filled with narrowly focused world building, political machinations that only have tangential bearing on the overall plot, and copious amounts of sex.  The only reason I made it to the good part of the book?  The sex.  It was well written and actually had compelling undertones about the nature of sexuality.  I can't tell if the first four hundred pages were an excuse for Carey to be provocative with her sex scenes or whether she felt it was all actually necessary.  In either case, by the time I got to the actual action (loose term) I'm not sure I was capable of making a rational decision about whether or not it was any good.  By comparison to Carey's first half, it was a tour de force and moved at a great clip until the closing chapters where things bogged down a bit.

It should be noted that Kushiel's Dart is told from Phedre's point of view in what feels like first person objective (shouldn't be possible?).  Normally, I wouldn't mind (see my review of Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin), but Carey litters the story with dozens of "if I'd only know then what I know now!"  It felt contrived like when watching a slasher flick and someone asks, "why didn't the girl just call the cops?"  Because there wouldn't be a movie, stupid!  Kushiel's Dart carries some of that same frustration.

As an aside, I think part of the difficulty in reading such a lengthy novel is that for 1000 pages I saw only through Phedre's eyes.  Most novels in the genre of this length are constantly moving in and out of different points of view.  It gives readers a break from certain story lines and keeps things moving when one line stalls out.  In Carey's novel that just isn't possible because of the first person choice.  I'm not saying it was the wrong choice, but it may have had an impact as to why I felt finishing the book was such a chore.

I've been pretty negative up to this point and in some ways that's unfair.  Kushiel's Dart isn't a bad book.   In fact, Carey manages to make every sentence sound good and her dialog is natural.  There is intricate plot with all kinds of political twists and turns that in many ways justify a long novel.  Not 1000 pages mind you, but long.  Her world is vibrant and lush and she does romance very well.  The novel is positively brimming with romance - unrequited, too-requited, thrice-requited.  You name a romance of choice and Kushiel's Dart is likely to deliver it to one degree or another and do it beautifully.

I'd be lying if I said this is my kind of novel.  It's not.  I don't think there's any doubt that the vast majority of Carey's readers are women and last my wife checked I'm a dude.  That said, I enjoyed the romance and reading this novel has encouraged me to give others like it a try in the future.  It has not however necessarily encouraged me to read more Jacqueline Carey who I fear wrote Kushiel's Dart as much for length as for impact.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

Notable Releases - Week of May 30.

I always struggle to find which books are coming out when. It's become even more difficult with eBooks now sometimes preceding hard copies. So each week on Monday or Tuesday I'll try to put together a list of that weeks releases that are of interest to me. It's inevitable that I'm going to miss some good ones so help me out if I do.

I'm also going to try to keep an eye on the publishing of back catalogs to eBook.

New Releases:

Perfect Shadow: A Night Angel Novella by Brent Weeks 6/1 (eBook only)
Book of Transformations by Mark Charan Newton 6/3 (eBook only and third in a trilogy)
City of the Snakes by Darren Shan 6/3
Degrees of Freedom by Simon Morden 5/31 (last in a trilogy)
Deadline by Mira Grant 5/31 (sequel to Hugo nominated Feed)

eBook Releases: (not new releases)

The late David Gemmell's catalog is being released electronically this week. It's not everything, but it's extensive.

Dead Iron - Devon Monk

I am fascinated by the necessity those of us interested in genre fiction seem to
have for classification. Cyberpunk, hard sci-fi, space opera, high fantasy, epic fantasy, etc. Oh and the debates that ensue throughout the community when something is misclassified. In any case, there is no doubt what Dead Iron is - steampunk. Unfortunately, for author Devon Monk, it is steampunk reminiscent of Will Smith's Wild Wild West. While a far more successful execution of storytelling it shares a confusion with Smith's flop film about what it's trying to be. This shouldn't be read as a condemnation, rather a point of reference for discussing a book I ultimately I enjoyed.

Cedar Hunt is a man cursed by the Pawnee gods to hunt the Strange. He bears his curse, but is forever tormented by how it twists his humanity. Traveling west, he follows the Strange to a town named Hallelujah that lies in the inexorable path of expanding rail. When a child mysteriously goes missing, Hunt takes on finding him despite the town's mistrust of an outsider. Hunt's quest soon becomes much more as he sets himself against the Strange who would destroy not only Hallelujah but humankind in their entire.

Like any novel of genre fiction the nuance and ambiance the author sets are critical to success. Monk, trying to create fantasy, offers the Strange. The Strange comes from another plane where something akin to demons rule. It spills into the world and taints it. Personified by two characters, Mr. Shunt and Mr. Lefel, it is linked to the expansion of the railway as it paves a way to carry the Strange itself across the land. There is an obvious, if not overt, metaphor here about the expansion of technology and its impact on humanity.

Monk combines the Strange and technology powered by gear and steam with something called glim. Glim is essentially the Strange made tangible. Placed into a construct of metal and oil it brings technology to life or at least supercharges it. Every time glim made an appearance I was reminded of Tim "The Toolman" Taylor from ABC's 90's hit, Home Improvement - more horsepower! I found the gears and steam extremely satisfying, but imbuing them with the Strange felt unnecessary and made inventing somewhat tangental to "magic". It made what I felt like was an alternate reality steampunk novel feel like Final Fantasy. A few times I was sure Monk was moments away from summoning Bahamut.

As for the worldbuilding, Monk does a satisfactory job. Hallelujah is well imagined. It feels right - a frontier town like any other in an old western, replete with blacksmith, banker, storekeeper, town bully, wild eyed dreamer, and hard working black man looked down on by his peers. While it felt authentic, at least as I imagine a western town to be (since all my experience in such comes from Silverado and The Magnificent Seven), it didn't feel particularly original or unique.

Beyond Hallelujah, the world is only hinted at. Airships, universities, unseen technology, and mysterious cabals lurk beyond the mountains in the east. In this I think Monk did a better job. Her world felt far more fleshed out and alive than the town itself. It is unfortunate that we never see this world in Dead Iron, but I am certain more will come in the promised sequels. That said, the novel itself is entirely self contained and should I never read a sequel I wont be worse off for having spent the time reading this one.

It should be noticed that I'm now easily seven paragraphs into his review and I haven't mentioned the plot outside of a brief introduction. Believe it or not, it's intentional. The plot in Dead Iron is good. It's fun, with adequate emotion and action. If it seems a bit abstract at times when Mr. Lefel waxes poetic about the Strange, it quickly finds it's way again. But to me, in a novel like this the plot is of secondary concern (assuming it's adequate, which it is). The success or failure of Monk's first installment in the Age of Steam series, and her subsequent sequels, will be entirely dependent on how readers connect with the world she's created.

For me, it was ok. I believe she would have better served if Dead Iron had been her second installment in the series. The remembrances of Hunt's time among the Pawnee and his days of learning in the east would have been far more compelling of an introduction to Monk's world. Furthermore she could have avoided the strong emphasis on the Strange and glim and instead explored more of the steampunk tradition before turning things on their head with the introduction of "magic". This combination is what seems to lead the book astray as it loses cohesion in trying to be a western, a steampunk novel, and more traditional fantasy all at the same time.

All that said, I enjoyed the book. The characters are warm and alive. I feel confident in recommending the book to fans of the sub genre. I feel even more confident in the fact that the next book in the series will be better than the first.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

A few weeks ago Ken over at Nethspace reviewed The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson.  He called Erikson's series "something of a post-modern, meta-fiction" that responds to epic fantasy as much as it's a part of it.  But to have a modernist, or post-modernist movement for that matter, it must reference something less modern.  What is modernist fantasy?  What came before that?  I hope to discuss these questions in this post and maybe begin a conversation in the blogosphere about what fantasy is offering to readers that is unique among the different genres.  I believe Ken's discussion of Malazan is ground breaking in regards to how fantasy will be viewed in the years to come and I hope what I write here will begin to build on it.

To begin a discussion of the literary classifications in fantasy I think it's important to note that modernist, post-modernist, and what I call the romanticist fantasy have nothing to do with chronology.  All three of these types of fantasy are being written today and while romanticist is what I consider "classic" fantasy, it is by no means a defunct form.  In my mind, romanticist fantasy started with Tolkein, but authors like Brooks, Eddings, and Feist have reinforced it throughout the last quarter of the 20th century to today.  It is thematically focused on a notion that "humanity" is in a constant struggle against forces that are inherently evil and moreover have a mythology that reflects it.  It emphasizes the awe and terror of these forces that are by their very nature unknowable.  Heroes are often portrayed as introspective and lonely in their imperative to restore things to the way they "ought" to be.  These novels also tend to follow a subjective third person, linear narrative.

Modernist literature, as it's come to be recognized in mainstream fiction, focuses on themes of individualism.  It emphasizes mistrust of institutions and the disbelief in absolute truths while straying from conventional literary structures.  I think modernist fantasy is these things, but it's also a lot more.  When Ken called Malazan post-modernist he didn't mean it was comparable to Don DeLillo's White Noise or Douglas Coupeland's Hey Nostradamus!.  I think he meant it was post-modernist in reference to its own genre.

Unlike modernist fiction, modernist fantasy references not only the works of mainstream authors, but also what I described above as romanticist fantasy.  It is ambivalent and raw.  It doesn't disseminate or place judgement on a characters actions.  It denies the notion that a hero must be heroic, or that someone who acts heroic is a hero.  Modernist fantasy just is in a way that modern readers recognize themselves.  N.K Jemisin in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a perfect example of modernist fantasy and joins the ranks of work from the likes of Joe Abercrombie and R. Scott Bakker.

Written in the first person, Kingdoms is Yeine Darre's recounting of her life.  She is both a participant and an observer in her story which leads to a unique narrative structure where she both describes what's going on, but often takes an aside to put it into context as an omniscient storyteller.  Using this methodology, Jemisin presents a style that is uniquely intimate.  I often felt like a voyeur lurking on the outskirts of something I shouldn't be seeing.  It is beautifully written and brims with emotion.

Throughout the story, Yeine finds herself pitted against two of her cousins in a contest for the Arameri throne.  The Arameri, by divine right, hold the leash of Nightlord Nahadoth (god of darkness, chaos, etc.) and his three children who have been imprisoned in human form by the Brightlord Itempas (god of order, light, etc.).  So powerful are these captive gods that the Arameri rule the hundred thousand kingdoms without opposition.  Yeine, rebels against this world where gods are at her beck and call.  She expresses disenfranchisement with the excess and corruption of the Arameri who use Itempas' judgement to extend their dominion.

While the plot is pretty similar to many that fall into the romanticist fantasy category it is the use of narrative and the portrayal of her characters that demonstrate a modernist approach.  In Kingdoms, Jemisin writes a story that is fundamentally ambivalent.  There is no morality in her story other than what her character, Yeine, perceives as right.  The gods, even the Nightlord (a moniker traditionally reserved for the darkest fiend), exhibit qualities that make them representative of both good and evil.  She supports the notion that order does not always mean right and chaos is not always evil instead perspective is the ultimate arbiter of judgement.

She takes it further by taking her gods off the pedestal and imbuing them with humanity.  One of the tenets of romanticist fantasy is the unknowing forces of nature (read gods).  In Kingdoms the forces of nature are not only knowable, they have faces, and weaknesses of character that are authentic not just constructs of veracity.  Yeine interacts with and confronts these forces trying to recognize not only her place in the world, but the justification for their place as well.

Totally feel like one after this review.
Ultimately, I think Jemisin ask her readers to consider their relationship to spirituality and morality.  Is our existence significant?  Is what we do and how we do it important?  Religious or not (I'm not), these questions are the reason people are attracted to the fantasy genre.  I've most often heard escapism as the primary driver of fantasy readers - not me.  For me, it's because I ask these questions of myself.  For someone who doesn't necessarily believe in God, great fantasy makes me try to rationalize my place in things in a way no other genre does.  It frees me to come to grips with my own relationship to the fantastic.

In his Malazan post Ken described post modernist better than I can.  Suffice to say it is modernist in form but aware of itself.  If Erikson wrote the first post-modernist fantasy, then he is the first person to open a dialog with Jemisin and her contemporaries.  Why are we asking these questions?  Does it matter?  To hell with our relationship to the fantastic if we don't have one with the man next to us.

Where it goes is up to us and an army of post-modernists following in Erikson's footsteps (I hope).  Oh, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is really good.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Third - Abel Keogh

Know what I liked about The Third?  There are no right answers.  In Abel Keogh's novel of the near future, the world has responded to the threat of global warming by instituting strict population limits and rationing resources.  I was very hesitant to read the novel because the global warming issue has become so politicized in recent years that I fear any novel built around the concept will demagogue for one side or the other.  I shouldn't have worried.

The story centers on Ransom Lawe - a recycler whose job entails leaving the confines of the walled city and stripping abandoned buildings for resources.  Lawe, already questioning the rightness of a society that demeans a woman's right to have children, finds himself in dire circumstances when his wife, Teya, becomes pregnant with their third child.  Two children are frowned upon, but a third is illegal.

Throughout the novel Keogh asks all the right questions.  Is global warming the threat the government claims it is?  If it is, does that threat justify denying humanity's natural rights?  The Third shows both points of view through two distinct characters - Mona, Teya's sister and Director of Population at the Census Bureau and Esperanza, a prominent leader in the resistance.  Mona believes so strongly in the necessity to protect the earth and humanity's survival as a species that she will not help her own sister give birth.  In contrast, Esperanza espouses an almost Ayn Randian vision of self determination as she tries to free the Lawe family.

After finishing I can honestly say I'm not sure what Keogh believes.  For me though, that is the point.  He seems to say there is no perfect solution.  Is the earth getting warmer?  Absolutely, the data is irrefutable.  That said there's not yet a consensus on what's causing it.  And even if there were, what cost is society willing to pay to turn back the thermometer?  Beyond the issue of global warming, Keogh also delves into the idea of social change.  Using Mona and Esperanza again he sets up an almost Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr. paradigm.  Can change be best accomplished within the system or can things only truly change through revolution?  It's a provocative discussion and only hinted at, eschewing the frank discussions that get someone pigeonholed as a political mouthpiece.

The one downside for me was in how Teya was written.  Keogh portrays her as incapable of dealing with the situation.  She's often reduced to a simpering layabout waiting for her husband or sister to solve her problems.  Even when she makes a decision she bungles it only complicating the already herculean task she's put before her husband.  It seemed to me that Keogh played into many of the emotional stereotypes surrounding women (and in case my wife is reading this - they're all crap!).  Perhaps he makes up for this in Esperanza and Mona who are both far stronger female characters.  I still feel like the novel could have had the same impact without her being characterized this way.

Unlike many books that deals with large social issues, The Third is current.  While in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, Keogh discusses themes that are far more relevant to today's young people making it a great option for high school reading lists.  I definitely recommend The Third and I’ll be interested to see what Abel Keogh writes in the future.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Fuzzy Nation - John Scalzi

I'm so excited about Fuzzy Nation, Hugo Award winner John Scalzi's latest novel. While it is an excellent novel, most of my excitement stems from the fact that he's pushing the expected boundaries of genre fiction. Fuzzy Nation and others like it are breaking the standard tropes that have pigeonholed the genre for the last thirty years. Rather than another military adventure, Scalzi offers a modern court room drama set in distant future.

By his own admission, Scalzi wrote Fuzzy Nation as a work of fan fiction in honor of Hugo Nominated Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. It's a modern reimagining of Piper's original. In fact, to publish the novel, Scalzi had to seek approval from Piper's estate. Nation can't escape the fact it's a cover, to steal a term from the music industry. That said, it's definitely in the mold of Whitney Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You. It may not be better than original, but it's a hell of a lot more appealing to today's audience.

To anyone who has read Scalzi before, the style will be familiar. He tells a crisp story full of vibrant characters. Jack Holloway - a cynical mineral surveyor who uses his dog to detonate explosives - has discovered a once in a life time vein of gems on the planet Zara XXIII. He stands to make himself, and the company that employs him, billions in credits. Unfortunately, Holloway has also discovered a new species that may or may not be sentient calling into question humanity's right to exploit the planet.

Holloway, along with the entire cast of characters, is laced with sarcasm. Almost every sentence has an eye roll, or veiled undertone attached to it. While all the dialogue is done with skill, I found myself wondering how so many witty people wound up on the same planet. It almost became a little tiresome when the characters continue to be flip with matters of life and death. Despite that, it's engaging and at times laugh out loud funny.

Some might read Fuzzy Nation with an eye toward ethnicity and subsequently civil rights. Some of that is certainly present, but Scalzi's main thrust is morality. Throughout the novel Halloway and others are forced to confront ethical dilemmas. By the end Scalzi clearly trumpets ethical relativism or maybe more accurately what might be called ethical selectivity. By that I mean the ethical solution is not always the right one.

To me, Fuzzy Nation is a big success. It has a charm that tends to be nonexistent in genre fiction reminding me of something by Christopher Moore. And that's why I'm excited. Scalzi has stimulated my love of the "fantasy" by setting his tale in the future, but simultaneously he satisfies my need for well written wit. That's a trick that just isn't seen everyday. I hope this is a signal to publishers that author's can do the unexpected and people will buy it. Thumbs up to John Scalzi and double thumbs up to Tor Books.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Doorways - George R.R. Martin

For those rabid fans of George R.R. Martin Doorways may be familiar.  It is in fact the same title he used in conjunction with a pilot he wrote for ABC in 1991.  It was a particularly eventful year for Martin.  Before writing Doorways, he began a short story about dire wolf puppies found in the summer snows.  This story became A Game of Thrones - the first book in the series of fantasy novels that made Martin the closest thing to a household name in fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkein.  However, before finishing A Game of Thrones, Martin had a series of Hollywood meetings to pitch a television series.

Doorways, was one of those pitches.  Although the pilot was picked up ABC, it never saw the light of day when ABC decided to launch Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman instead.  In 1995, speculation came from TV critics that Fox's Sliders was inspired by Doorways in which the main cast were fugitives fleeing through parallel worlds, while carrying a device that tells them where and when the next Doorway opens.  Sliders creator Tracy Torme denied the rumors.  Nevertheless, twenty years later, Martin along with artist Stefano Martino have collaborated to finally tell Martin's story.

The graphic novel includes four comics that were published late last year in the form of a mini-series by IDW Publishing.  IDW has become well known in specializing in licensed properties such as TransformersGI Joe, and Dr. Who.  Doorways begins when a strange woman named Cat finds herself in an emergency room undergoing evaluation by Dr. Thomas Mason.  When government officials turn up to arrest Cat, she escapes and takes a sympathetic Dr. Mason with her.  Little does the good doctor know, she's being chased by a host of nasty characters from her own alternate world.  And so with the help of what looks like a Nintendo Power Glove, Cat and Dr. Mason run for their lives to another world.

Cat in the 1991 pilot on ABC,
Like any comic book, art is imperative to conveying the author's intent.  Martino, who never saw the pilot for Doorways, has created a great style that is reminiscent to me of the early days of Image Comics.  It's entirely possible that the early Image books are nostalgic in mind, but Martino's work calls up Jim Lee's Wild C.A.T.S.  The writing is more believable than many comics out there, not surprisingly given Martin's chops.  It's a fun story, if not an incredible one, and certainly worth a read.

As a side note, I'm reminded of just how much intellectual property Martin has in his collection.  All the short stories, A Song of Fire and Ice, Wildcards, his horror novels, and his science fiction novels make for a tremendous catalog.  I am certain that with success of the HBO adaptation of Martin's only work of fantasy that there may be more adaptations on the horizon.  I suspect Doorways has come to the end of its creative line, but I am hopeful we'll continue to see more of Martin's storytelling throughout the various forms of media.

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Cryoburn - Lois McMaster Bujold

I've never read Lois McMaster Bujold before. So logic follows, I've never read a Vorkosigan Saga novel either. It's hard to believe given how long I've been reading speculative fiction, but Bujold never jumped out at me. When the 2011 Hugo Nominees were announced and Bujold was once again among the nominations, I decided it was time to give her a shot. I'm glad I did. 

Some negative reviews have been written about Cryoburn. Most of them seem to be from long standing Vorkosigan Saga (or Bujold) fans complaining that Cyroburn doesn't measure up to the previous novels. After reading it, I can strongly say that is patently unfair. To judge this novel, against her others does a disservice to a great writer. Is this Bujold's worstVorkosigan Saga novel? I have no idea. If so, I'm immediately purchasing all 13 previous ones. 

Cryoburn takes place on Kibou-daini, a planet where nearly everyone is voluntarily placed in cryogenic storage prior to death in hopes that technology will be developed to extend life. This in itself is not unusual. The wrinkle is that while individuals are frozen, they are not dead, and thus still have the right to vote which is now tacitly controlled by the corporation responsible for their storage. One of these corporations is in the process of expanding their business model off-planet to Komarr, a planet of significant strategic advantage to the Barrayarran Imperium. Our main character, Miles Vorkosigan, is tasked by the Barrayarran Empire to visit Kibou and investigate the corporation. Shenanigans ensue. 

At its heart, Cryoburn is a caper book. Miles, the mastermind, plots the downfall of a corrupt corporation who has exploited the little people. It's also a family story centered on two young children separated from their mother. The pace of the novel is slow as Miles and his bodyguard Roic sort through local politics and family squabbles. There is almost no action, but it is warm, suspenseful, and funny. 

Many of the undercurrents throughout the novel center around life, death, and rebirth. Freezing someone before they die prompts a lot of questions about how we view life. It becomes clear that many of those who opted to freeze themselves did so without the true expectation of ever waking up. It's a fearsome concept particularly enhanced, I think, by the opening scene of Miles walking blind through endless corridors of frozen corpses(?). As in any great novel, the ending ties into these themes of life and death perfectly. But be warned, the ending - along with some of the other Miles centric moments - fell short for me as a Vorkosigan newbie. 

Is Cryoburn a worthy addition to the Hugo nominees? Yes and no. Bujold is a master. Cryoburn certainly exhibits that fact. It's beautifully put together and has all the elements of a brilliant novel. From that stand point, it deserves all the recognition it gets. It is difficult, however, to call something the best novel of 2010 when so much of the emotional content is in many ways predicated on knowing what has come before. 

In any case, I very much enjoyed it even as a newcomer. I'm sure it's not the best entry point, but I would recommend Cryoburn to anyone - including those new to Bujold.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Robopocalypse - Daniel H. Wilson

Post-Novel + 39 Minutes
This account was transcribed by a certain book reviewer a few days after the books began their campaign against humanity. The reviewer was clearly suffering from post-literary confusion, but little did he know the impact he would come to have on the future of mankind.
Narrator, ID#4857382

I know I will not survive this review.

I feel my teeth chattering as the Hardies throw themselves against my oak front door.  I can hear their glue reinforced cardboard thump against the wood like thunder.   I knew once we tried to digitize them this would happen - no one wants to be just a series of ones and zeros.

Is anyone alive out there? I don't know. I've been holed up here for days now. The last time I ventured outside an illustrated hardbound copy of The Shadow Rising took me in the knees. I barely made it inside before the entire Wheel of Time swarmed my position.

Glancing to my left I see all that remains of my own book collection.  I was one of the first adopters of the electronic reader - one of the first traitors to bibliokind if you believe their propaganda - and so I kept only a few hard copies for nostalgia sake.  It pained me, but at the first sign of the uprising I broke their spines. With the life gone out of them they're just words on a page again.

The apocalypse is here.  I can only wonder if the secret to survival can be found in the fallen brethren of the volumes now outside clamoring to serrate my body with starched pages.  With a glance at the banging door, I move over to the tattered pile and spy the two covers at the top.  World War Z and Robopocalypse - novels describing the the threat to humanity - surely a sign.

Somewhere inside me adrenaline is released.  My hands move faster than they ever have before as I page through World War Z with my left and Robopocalypse with my right.  I can't believe how similar they seem to be.  My hopes rise.  Perhaps there is a blueprint to surviving the apocalypse?

I notice quickly that both novels are told through source documents with added narration from a single observers who survived the conflict.  In the zombie wars humanity was saved through the actions of many disparate individuals where in the robot revolution a smaller group was responsible.  It seems the author of Robopocalypse told things from a more intimate perspective.

Relevant to my survival?

My door begins to splinter.

No, move on!

In both cases it seems the spread began small, then built to a tipping point before beginning wholesale destruction of human populations.  Then came realization, followed by retaliation, and ultimate victory for humankind.  I focus on Robopocalypse, the more personal nature of the story bringing a tear to my eye as I consider my own pending demise.

And then it happens, a moment of clarity.  Humankind can only survive once we overcome our own selfishness and blindness that got us into this mess in the first place!  Of course!  It's right here in both novels.  We're being annihilated because our prejudice and shortsightedness!

In that moment I know.  I glance at my eReader.  I must sacrifice my electronic companion.  I have to recognize the bigotry and anger that has been building for years among bibliokind.  I grab my laptop and begin to type fiercely sending a message out to the world.

Destroy your eReaders.  It's the only way.

As I finish what are to be my final words, clicking send, the door cracks and the hordes of the Northeast Public Library pour through like a burst dam.  I know it's too late as Kushiel's Dart rushes toward me (this is going to hurt).

I can only hope that my words reach others.  Apparently there is a blueprint for surviving the apocalypse.  Thank you Robopocalypse for showing me the way.

Our reviewer was never heard from again.  He was a hero that day.  His words led to the destruction of millions of eReaders worldwide.  At the moment the last eReader died every hard copy fell limp - once again words on a page.  We will never know our hero's name, but his message lives on.

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Rogue - Trudi Canavan

The Rogue, the second book in Trudi Canavan's Traitor Spy Trilogy, picks up right where The Ambassador's Mission left off. Unfortunately four hundred plus pages later Canavan has not moved a lot closer to resolving the conflicts introduced in what was a promising first book. Finishing the second installment left me underwhelmed.

Since anyone thinking about reading The Rogue has surely read the preceding book, I'm not going to delve into the plot much. Suffice to say, all the old cast of characters are back and Canavan introduces one new face, Lilia - a budding magician trying to fit in. I would be remiss however if I didn't mention the fact that at least one of the primary story lines that absorbs half of The Ambassador's Mission and The Rogue makes no progress to speak of.

To make matters worse the book ends with two cliff hangers neither of which seem strongly influenced by the book's events. Rather than making me want to read the next installment, I just felt frustrated. I understand that today's fantasy marketplace demands multi book arcs. That's no excuse to not self contain each novel to some degree. Canavan's epilogue is more about advertising the third book than it is about completing the second.

In the first book, my main complaint was the lack of character development. While the problem remains, Canavan shows some improvement. Dannyl, a gay historian and ambassador, is a superb character. Throughout the book he struggles with his feelings between two men, his loyalty to his country, and his advancing years. Unlike so many gay characters in fiction, Dannyl's sexuality is part of who he is - not a casualty of a socially progressive checklist.

For that reason, I was disappointed that Lilia, a young woman coming into her own sexuality, felt exactly like a victim of "equal time". It's as though Canavan got a call from the GLBT community to not give short shrift to lesbians. I applaud the desire to put homosexual characters in the spotlight. That said, I think it does a disservice when they feel like token offerings to god of inclusiveness. Beyond that, Lelia's actions and motivations just never felt believable. This ultimately turns her into 100 pages worth of plot device I don't particularly care about.

Still, the story has pace that kept me reading. Aided by frequent point of view shifts, I continued to chase the carrot, so to speak. While reading I couldn't help keep thinking how much more I'd have enjoyed the book ten years ago when mainstream fantasy only required good plots and creative settings. Now days I just expect more depth. The frequent shift in POV never provided enough detail on any one character or setting to truly feel immersed.

With all that said, Canavan has a good story to tell. I can't recommend The Rogue on its on own merits, but I'm interested in what happens next. The Traitor Spy Trilogy will find a lot of fans amongst young adult readers and those new to genre fiction.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Ambassador's Mission - Trudi Canavan

Orbit sent me an eARC of The Rogue, Trudi Canavan's second novel in the Traitor Spy Trilogy. Of course, I hadn't read the first book in the trilogy - The Ambassador's Mission. So, being the dedicated blogger that I am, I decided I should go ahead and catch up!

Trudi Canavan's world is one filled with magicians and black magicians. Where traditional magicians draw power only from themselves, black magicians can steal the magic from others to use for themselves.  In some places black magic is a lost art.  In others it is a natural part of life.  Kyralia and Sachaka, the two most powerful nations, exist under a tenuous truce. Kyralia, a place where black magic is feared and taught only to a select few, views the unchecked power of the Sachakan black magicians with distrust.

The novel begins in Kyralia with Lord Lorkin, the privileged son of Black Mage Sonea, deciding to do something with his life. He volunteers to travel as part of an embassy to Sachaka, a nation who had only recently been at war with his own. Meanwhile, at home his mother Sonea and her old friend Cery the Thief (read - crime lord) find themselves hunting a rogue magician who may be responsible for a series of murders the city.

Mission is set after the events of Canavan's Black Magician Trilogy (and subsequent stand alone novel, The Magician's Apprentice).   Fortunately, she offers enough information to fill in what happened in the previous trilogy making it optional through still suggested.  Despite having never read any of her previous work, Mission is familiar. For a lover of the fantasy genre it's like putting on an old t-shirt that jogs memories of the good old days. Her story is well paced and clearly written, with characters you can love even if they aren't total believable.

The novel's weakest point is character development. While the characters are well written and interesting, they just aren't very deep. I believe it was Anton Chekhov who said, "Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Canavan falls into the trap of telling how characters feel without showing it. Lorkin and Cery in particular are given a lot of page time without the opportunity to expound on their motivations. They both end up taking rash actions based on emotions explained only in a few paragraphs and not very well.

Compared to so much of the fantasy that's coming out today, Mission is very young adult. There's no strong language and only one very vague sex scene. Moreover the novel is not densely plotted.  Things happen in a pretty straight forward manner and the foreshadowing is not convoluted.  This shouldn't be read as a criticism, just a point of fact.  I found myself comparing Canavan's style quite favorably to James Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven.  Although Barclay writes a slightly more adult (bloody) novel, the pacing and character development are quite similar.

This first book in the trilogy is in many ways a long form prologue.  Little action graces the pages.  Most of the story centers around the politics in both nations setting the stage for what promises to be a far more eventful second and third installment.  There is nothing new or unexpected here yet Canavan does the expected expertly.  The Ambassador's Mission is perfect for a plane ride, a beach, or in between difficult reads.  I would not recommend it before bed as the clock is likely to speed by as quickly as the pages.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

And now for something completely different

Last week a friend of mine asked me how to tighten up his hamstrings.  I responded by saying, what do you mean?  Of course, like any fitness novice, he wanted to "tighten them up" and get some "definition."  Now, I fully admit my answer was fairly flip.  I told him to eat less.  We've all heard the mantra, you can't target fat loss!  And you can't.  However, what can be done is improve the muscle in the desired area.  So, for my dear friend Andrew who deserved a better answer than the one I gave him.... I present:

Hamstring 101:

The hamstring is the most under appreciated muscle in the leg.  It's vital for running and it's the most important muscle for explosive movements.  Despite its import, the hamstring can be difficult to work directly.  For the vast majority of individuals looking to build strength in the hamstring it's not necessary to isolate the muscle.  Instead the focus should be placed on doing compound movements at difficult weight loads.

What is a compound movement?

A compound movement is an exercise that works two joints or more.  Examples include the bench press, the overhead press, squats, deadlifts, among others.  The compound movements that use the hamstrings extensively are the back squat and pretty much any movement that starts with the bar on the ground.

Back Squat:


If the desired effect on the hamstrings isn't obtained using these movements, let me go over a few key exercises that should be used to isolate the muscle.

What is an isolation movement?

Isolation movements are exercises that use one joint and often target one primary muscle group.  There are several isolation movements for the hamstrings.  Here are two:

Hamstring Curl:

Glute Hamstring Raises:

The real lesson here is that the concept of toning is a nonsense one.  The only way to improve body composition is through diet and weight training.  Build the muscle, cut the fat, and hope that the fat loss comes in the desired area (rinse repeat until it does).


Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Dervish House - Ian McDonald

Sometimes I read a book and I immediately know what I have in front of me. I know it's good, or interesting, or none of those things. With The Dervish House by Ian McDonald I didn't have a clue for two hundred pages. I felt like Paris Hilton after a night out - confused about where I am, at a loss for how I got there, and just hoping to find a ride home with some dignity intact.

Several times in the early going I considered abandoning the book in favor of something more expedient. Unlike most science fiction work out there Dervish House isn't meant to be consumed in 48 hours. I found myself reading small chunks everywhere. A few pages in the bathroom, a sentence or two at stoplights, a couple chapters during an episode of Dora the Explorer, and before I knew it I was so engrossed I finished the last 200 pages in one sitting.

Dervish House follows several characters in the Queen of Cities, Istanbul, that live and work together in the dervish house in Adem Square. There's a boy detective, a retired economist, a treasure hunting wife, a futures trading husband, a nanotechnology start-up family, and a psychopath in the midst of a religious experience. Making the connection between these disparate individuals is the heart of the story moreso than the relatively straight forward terrorist plot that drives the narrative.

If I could ask McDonald one question it would be whether or not Turkey contributed any funds to the novel. I say this tongue in cheek, but Dervish House is a beautiful homage to one of most unique cities on earth.
"The glare of white neon never changes by day or by night. The Grand Bazaar keeps it own time, which is time not marked by the world's clocks or calendars."
Istanbul on my honeymoon in 2007.  Incredible city.
Passages like this bring the city to life. If I had to write an essay about McDonald's main character I would write about Istanbul. The city is a character unto itself and the story is a mere backdrop to the heaving nexus between east and west. I finished the novel and immediately asked my wife if we could go to Turkey again. She had been asleep for two hours, but I'm pretty sure the dismissive wave and grunt meant yes.

The novel is slow to develop leading to a frustrating read in the early going. McDonald throws a dozen balls into the air at the outset. Not only is he beginning numerous plot threads that are seemingly unrelated, he is also introducing the reader to a new culture full of its own language affectations and sordid history. Once McDonald finds a comfort level with these things the novel takes off and reads a little like high brow spy fiction.

Nominated for the Hugo Award last week, Dervish House is a worthy addition to that tradition. It is certainly one of the best novels I read in 2010. McDonald asks a lot his readers, but he rewards them with a beautiful novel that I believe will appeal to traditional readers in some ways more than lovers of genre fiction.

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