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Friday, March 30, 2012

If you liked... The Gentlemen Bastards

My goal is to recommend books for fans of a larger book franchise. For example, if you liked The Wheel of Time, you might also really like Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga. Easy enough, right? Except I'm going to try to be less obvious than that. I fully expect half of the people reading this post to say, 'no shit dude I read that like 10 years ago!' To you I say, you're right. Most of this stuff will be widely read, but I hope not all of it. I also hope to recommend things outside of genre that will appeal to fans. We'll have to wait and see. Hopefully, this post, and others like it, will turn people on to things they've never heard of, or never considered reading.


Scott Lynch's debut novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora, has become something of an icon in the modern fantasy lexicon. I presume everyone reading this post has read at least Lies, and hopefully its sequel Red Seas Under Red Skies as well. I also hope those same readers are chomping at the bit to read Republic of Thieves later this year. If not, let me illuminate. The Gentleman Bastards series is a buddy heist/con novel with a big river of violence and inequality that resonates throughout it. Is it a literary exploration of any particular theme? God no. It's mostly a raucous good time and I think that's reflected in the list below with the exception of one of my choices that offers a deeper look at some of the meatier elements Lynch only touches on.

Without further ado....

If you liked The Gentleman Bastards then you might really like:

Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

I'm starting recent and obvious, but I do so with a reason. It's because I can't imagine anyone enjoying Lynch and not doing the same with Douglas Hulick. That is unless first person narrators are a non-starter. Hulick's protagonist, and narrator, is Drothe, a criminal information broker. His best friend, Bronze Degan, is a master swordsman. They have light hearted conversations, they have deep conversations, they have conversations in the midst of fighting, spying, and flirting. And they do it all in a city not dissimilar from the Venetian style of Lynch's Camorr. A man against the world mentality and a stark separation between the haves and have nots, fits Among Thieves right into Lynch's niche on bookshelves around the world.

Yet it's an entirely distinct novel in its own right with a more mature approach to character, really cool thieves' cant, and some showing off by Hulick, who is a trained swordsman. This is, above all, the novel that has to be read for those who salivate for more of The Gentleman Bastards.

The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubenstein

Non-fiction! Julian Rubenstein's Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is an improbably true story of a gentleman thief named Attila Ambrus. He's a goalie for the biggest hockey team in Budapest, who takes up bank robbery to make ends meet. Arrayed against him are the most incompetent team of crime investigators the Eastern Bloc has ever seen: a robbery chief who's learned how to be a detective by watching dubbed Columbo episodes; a forensics man who wears top hat and tails on the job; and a driver so inept he's known only by a Hungarian word that translates to Mound of Ass-Head. And it's all true.

Like Lynch's series, Whiskey Robber features a main character who... well... just read this. If that doesn't sound a little like Locke Lamora I don't know what does. Along with that, Rubenstein does a phenomenal job of capturing the nature of crime, the unfortunate circumstances that lead one down its path, and the resonance of a subversive criminal in an unequal society.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

If I'm ranking my favorite novels of all-time, I suspect this Dumas novel would rank in the top ten. Given the kind of novels Lynch writes, I would imagine he's a fan of it as well. Falsely accused of treason, the young sailor Edmond Dantès is arrested on his wedding day and imprisoned in the island fortress of the Château d'If. Having endured years of incarceration, he stages a daring and dramatic escape and sets out to discover the treasure of Monte Cristo and take vengeance on his enemies.

Fans of Gentleman Bastards will find a lot of similar motivation between Locke and Dantès: revenge for those who wronged him, a love for a woman he cannot have, and a certainty of purpose. Likewise, once  Dantès becomes the Count of Monte Cristo, the story is one big con, full of disguises and bluffs. Not as swashbuckling as some of his other work, Dumas still manages to include plenty of action and adventure in this psychological thriller.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Say what, Justin?! Charles Dickens is probably the further thing from anyone's mind when imaging this post. But, put aside the action and adventure of Lynch and consider who Locke is and where he comes from. A little boy, orphaned, rejected by society, and alone. Taken in by the Thieftaker, and later Chains, Locke is forced to survive by any means necessary. Sounds familiar?

Admittedly, Chains is a fare more cuddly figure that Fagin, but there is some similarity between the two stories. Dickens surrounds the novel's serious themes with sarcasm and dark humor, which Lynch does to a lesser degree. Not to mention, are you going to tell me you didn't finish Lies of Locke Lamora and immediately say, "Please, sir, I want some more."

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Ranajiemi

Of all the novels listed thus far, this is likely to be the most challenging for readers. Oliver Twist is more archaic and slow, without the action of genre fiction, and only tangentially connected to Lynch's work, but Quantum Thief is a whole other world of fiction. It's science fictionally dense. What the hell does that mean? It means lots of undefined neologisms, abstract concepts in brief phrases, and a boatload of plot compacted into a sub-300 page novel. It's genre fiction for the genre die hard. This is probably the least likely novel to ever recommend to someone who says, "I'd like to try this SFF thing."

All that aside, the caper nature Gentleman Bastards caper is on full display in Ranajiami's post-human criminal protagonist Jean le Flambeur. Flambeur, meaning gambler in English, executes a flawless bait and switch heist with the law right on his tail. In a nice change of pace, Ranajiemi also delves into the other side of the law, writing half the novel from the point of view of investigator Isidore Beautrelet that lends the novel an edgy noir flare. I admit Quantum Thief may be a stretch for fans of Lynch, but those that invest the time and brow furrowing required to finish it, and appreciate it, will find themselves rewarded.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Return Man - V.M. Zito

The jacket copy of The Return Man by V.M. Zito doesn't mention zombies. The closest it gets is "he tracks down the dead and delivers peace." That could mean it's about a guy who finds lost people, confirms their death (or not), and gives the family peace. It could mean that, but it doesn't. It means the novel is all about killing zombies. All the expected themes, tropes, and tones (the three T's if you will) that description calls to mind are likewise present. In that, Zito's debut novel is a competent piece of zombie fiction. Unfortunately, that's all it is.

Set after an outbreak of zombie-itis, Return Man tells the story of Henry Marco. Marco lives in the Evacuated States, or those states west of the Mississippi which have become a ravaged wilderness that the Safe States are trying to forget. It's there that he makes his living tracking down shambling corpses as a contract exterminator for grieving families back east. Four years Marco has lived alone, scared to death he'll wake up to find his missing wife's corpse walking through the front door, but times change when Homeland Security calls.

Homeland Security! Dun dun dun! This may be hard to believe, but in a zombie/outbreak novel, the government is the bad guy. The political party in charge, who's using fear to control the U.S. population, is the New Republicans! And guess who's out to destroy the U.S.? China! I'm being snarky, but it doesn't make my point any less valid. The premise is beyond trite and I had hard time with it throughout the novel. All of it's window dressing to the actual narrative that condenses down to: go retrieve an item from a prison full of zombies 375 miles away and come back without getting bit by one of the million shuffling corpses roaming the countryside.

Perhaps it's unfair of me to criticize a novel for doing exactly what it sets out to do. Zito isn't trying to rewrite the zombie novel the way Mira Grant did in Feed or Max Brooks did in World War Z. Social dynamics of the non-infested territory are barely addressed, and the nature of the spread of the infection doesn't hold up under scrutiny. What's left is a series of zombie dodging (rather convenient dodging at that) scenes and moments of lament over the sad state of affairs that Marco's life has become. There are moments of tension, but by the fifth or sixth near bite I'd lost any sense of fear. Furthermore the ending... well... I just didn't buy it.

For all those shortcomings, Zito does the story he's telling justice. He writes a strong prose that flows well and the novel is paced beautifully. Marco is a well drawn character and as a former resident of the California desert, the landscape is rendered accurately and with care (he even gets all the freeways right). It's just not enough. If science fiction is a fiction of ideas then the Return Man has to be found wanting. 

All of that goes to say, I've read this before and I'll probably read it again. Perhaps it's unfair of me to criticize a novel for doing exactly what it sets out to do. Especially when it does it well enough to have me reading to the end, but I'll forget The Return Man within a few weeks. I'll forget it so thoroughly that the next time a zombie novel shows up in my to-read pile I'll pick it up and give it a shot. I'll probably have the same reaction. For those who don't remember history, are doomed to repeat it.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Clarke Award, Genre, and My Arrogance

When the Arthur C. Clarke Award released its shortlist yesterday, it result in the standard push back on how the judges got it wrong. The largest objections seemed to come from those who believed By Light Alone by Adam Roberts and The Islanders by Christopher Priest should have made the list, generally in place of The End Specialist by Drew Magary and The Water's Rising by Sheri S. Tepper. I can't really comment since the only novel I've actually read on the short list is The End Specialist and the two suggested replacements haven't been released in the U.S. yet (at least I don't think they have).

Anytime a shortlist comes out, that someone might impugn, the first question should always be, what was submitted? Thankfully the Clarkes came prepared with a list. Looking at the list I see several novels I would happily swap with Magary's and one major oversight (one every award committee seems to be making in my estimation) in T.C. McCarthy's Germline. Interestingly, several overt fantasy novels were submitted in The Straight Razor Cure (Polansky), The Last Werewolf (Duncan), The Fallen Blade (Grimwood), The Last Four Things (Hoffman), and several others that straddle the line. I say interesting because after all:
The Arthur C. Clarke Award is given for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during the previous year.
Whether these novels were discarded for not meeting the criteria of the award, I can't speculate, but given that Lauren Beukes's Zoo City won the award a year ago (another novel I consider fantasy, not science fiction), I suspect they were.

Regardless, all this speculation sparked a brief exchange between myself and Jared Shurin (Pornokitsch editor and Overlord of the Kitschies) related to God's War by Kameron Hurley. It should be noted that God's War isn't on the Clarke's submission list, which seemed perfectly normal to me as I don't consider it science fiction. Jared was flabbergasted that I wouldn't put a science fiction label on God's War, just as I'm sure he'd be surprised to see me withhold it from Beukes's award winning novel. Zoo City is clearly set in the future and Hurley mentions space ships with some advanced technology. Both seem science fictional.

They aren't. To explain why, let me first ask what the difference is between a Western and Historical Fiction set in 1840's America? The answer is theme. The fundamental theme of a Western is man versus nature, and the subordination of it by 'civilization'. There's also the idea of personal justice and a code that supersedes the law of the land. Those are themes that can be played out in space (Firefly) or in cyberpunk tales (Cowboy Bebop) or in post-apocalyptic America (The Stand). A story that doesn't have those themes, set in the Wild West, isn't a Western. It's just historical fiction.

In the same way, science fiction means more than 'set in the future'. It means more than just having some level of technology that's deemed arbitrarily science fictional. For me, science fiction has themes that make it so, particularly a discussion of how technology alters, retards, or advances humanity. The relationship to technology is what makes a novel science fiction. God's War, for all its technology, isn't about that relationship. It's a story of war and faith. Technology changed the human population when (if) it dropped them on the planet, but that has nothing to do with the story Hurley is telling. Hurley's story doesn't engage technology or science at all. To me, that makes it 'future fiction' at best, and given the existence of magic and few cues that code for planetary expansion, my money is on pure fantasy.

By the same argument, let me throw out Prince of Thorns. Mark Lawrence hasn't hidden from the fact that his novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, much like Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun. I haven't heard anyone call Lawrence's debut science fiction, but it's easily as science fiction as God's War. Just because it has swords and horses it's fantasy? That doesn't wash for me.

I'm sure someone reading this is thinking, what about Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land? It's a reasonable point as Heinlein's classic is clearly social science fiction. Technology is only tangentially related, but the fundamental point is that Smith is only introduced to society through technology. Humanity's expansion into space made contact with extraterrestrial life possible. Everything that comes after, while not a direct discussion of technology, is the fall out of that basic paradigm.

But Justin, genre is arbitrary. Of course it is! This isn't a criticism of the Clarke Award. It's a round of applause because here I am talking about this stuff. I hope they continue to recognize novels that aren't just science fiction. Recognize the best novels! Zoo City was certainly one of the best novels in genre in 2011 (2012 in the States!). In a world of semantics though, calling it science fiction is a stretch. Maybe 'future fantasy' makes more sense. Or 'futuristic fiction'. Or 'Ask Justin And He'll Tell You What Genre This Is'. I'm going with the last one. What do you think?


Monday, March 26, 2012

The Games - Ted Kotsmaka

As a widely published short fiction author, Ted Kosmatka's first novel The Games is hardly a debut. Since 2008, Kosmatka has seen eight stories reprinted in Years Best anthologies and received multiple award nominations, most prominently the Nebula for his story Divining Light. He's also a writer for Valve, creators of the massively successful Half-Life video games. With that in mind, I was looking forward to the The Games being a polished, layered, science fictional novel. What I got was a polished, straightforward, near term technothriller that calls to mind a taciturn Michael Crichton.

Set sometime in the near future, the games in The Games refers to the Olympics where the main event has evolved into a gladiator like competition with only one rule: no human DNA permitted in the design of the combatants. Silas Williams is the geneticist in charge of preparing the U.S. entry whose designs have led them to the gold in every previous event. Looking for an edge in the upcoming Games, Silas’s boss engages an experimental supercomputer to design the genetic code for a gladiator that cannot be beaten.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the guy who invented the supercomputer, Evan Chandler, is batshit crazy and he's got more to accomplish that creating a genome never before seen on earth. Aided by the beautiful (aren't they all?) xenobiologist, Vidonia João, Silas must find a way to understand what he created and how to keep it from ruining everything he's built.

Before I go any farther I think I should disclose the fact that I wanted a lot more gladiator action. When a book is sold as containing genetically engineered gladiatorial combat, I'm looking for Jean Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport with chitinous armored sentient chimeras. Or maybe rabid vorpal bunnies. While The Games delivers on the crazy genetically engineered monster factor, very little of the novel actually takes place in the arena. Kosmatka instead focuses on the overworked 'you-can't-put-technology-back-in-the-box' angle.

As far as those kinds of stories go, The Games is a success. It's fast paced, full of tension, and just the right amount of blood and guts to sustain things. There's a little romance and the whole thing is a tragic story of technology run amok. Except, replace the Olympic setting with a remote island and the genetically engineered gladiator with a velociraptor or two and the end result looks an awful lot like Jurassic Park with a (very) slightly altered cast of characters. That's just not going to do it for me.

The characters themselves are likeable enough. Silas is a bit miscast as a once in a lifetime genius geneticist, but that's part of his charm. He's smart and athletic, loves to hunt with his bow and arrow, and no one can seem to get over how big he is. Everything about his character to me screams big time executive, not genius level scientist. Nevertheless, he comes across as incredibly conflicted about what he does and why he does it. The other motive character, Evan Chandler, is even more interesting. A functional (barely) autistic (maybe?), he struggles to interact with the real world, choosing instead to live within the virtual confines of his super computer. Outside them, the cast is archetypal and bland. The major villain, Mr. Baskov (the Olympic Commissioner) and the love interest, Vidonia João, fit into tidy boxes that eschew any sort of eye opening moments.

Considering Kosmatka's exceptional short fiction and his work experience in research labs, it comes as no surprise that the novel is well written and authentic seeming in its science. He presents the latter in a clear way that allows for suspension of disbelief without becoming Tom Clancy didactic. The tension is well structured and peaks at the right times. What I'm getting at is that this is perfectly good novel. It's just a novel I feel like I've read a half a dozen times.

Ted Kosmatka's first novel, The Games is a paint by numbers technothriller separated from its peers only by its level of polish and the interest ignited by the Olympic backdrop. For readers who rabidly seek out this kind of yarn, I suspect they'll find a great deal of enjoyment. For me, I kept waiting to be engaged at a deeper level, or caught off guard by a twist, or sucked into some bad ass monster fighting. Unfortunately, I'm still waiting.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Today I Wrote Posts Somewhere Else

Stefan Raets, owner and operator of the excellent blog Far Beyond Reality, joined me here on my blog a few weeks ago to talk about the Hugo Award (here). I decided to reciprocate and wrote a post for his blog today. Stefan has a regular feature called 'Fifty Page Friday' where he gives a book he would normally not read fifty pages to win him over. At which point he writes it up. I took a stab at my own 'Fifty Page Friday' with Chrysanthe by Yves Meynard, a new fantasy from Tor.

Check it out at Far Beyond Reality.

I also joined Stefan Fergus at Civilian Reader today to talk about why zombies have a biological imperative to eat brains. While authors Myke Cole and Sam Sykes weigh in on the subject as well, I find my account to be the most compelling and hilarious. But, who am I to judge?

Check it out at Civilian Reader.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

If you liked.... A Song of Ice and Fire

This is a new feature I'm going to try out here on the blog. My goal is to recommend books for fans of a larger book franchise. For example, if you liked The Wheel of Time, you might also really like Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga. Easy enough, right? Except I'm going to try to be less obvious than that. There are gads of tremendous books out there in the ethos that are largely ignored because they aren't sexy anymore. Either they're not new enough, or they never quite caught on, or it took too long for book two to show up and everyone forgot about it, or the author is a real asshole, or the publisher is an asshole and didn't put resources behind it, or the agent is an asshole and won't give up the eBook rights, or this blogger is an asshole and never reviewed it. Not to belabor the point (too late), but the main character might be an asshole. Long story short, no one likes assholes.

Regardless, I'm going to start with some low hanging fruit and start my 'If you liked...' series with George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. I fully expect half of the people reading this post to say, 'no shit dude I read that like 10 years ago!' To you I say, you're right. Most of this stuff will be widely read, but I hope not all of it. I also hope to recommend things outside of genre that will appeal to fans. We'll have to wait and see. Hopefully, this post, and others like it, will turn people on to things they've never heard of, or never considered reading.

Without further ado....

If you liked A Song of Ice and Fire then you might really like:


  • With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz
  • The Deluge by Henryk Sienkiewicz
  • Fire in the Steppe by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Called, The Trilogy, Sienkiewicz's three book series has been described by the New York Time Book Review as "a Polish Gone with the Wind." With Fire and Sword is set in the 17th century and follows the struggle of the kingdom of Poland to maintain its unity in the face of the Cossack-led peasant rebellion. Like Martin's ASoIF, Sienkiewicz trilogy is a sweeping epic that covers a large span of time, telling the story of a nation caught in the throes of a civil war, of a people struggling for survival, and of events that changed the face of the world.

If there's a problem with Sienkiewicz's novels it's that they're translated. There's no avoiding the awkwardness that this occasionally engenders. It also means that names and places are difficult to grasp, not unlike some of the more annoying fantasy series that unnecessarily use apostrophes every other syllable. But, with a little commitment, The Trilogy offers everything fantasy readers love about Martin's series sans dragons and Melisandre. Given the rise of the 'silk road fantasy' (per Paul Weimer), Sienkiewicz offers fantasy readers tremendous perspective on the historical and cultural references being used in many recent novels.


  • The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu
  • The Straits of Galahesh by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Interestingly, if this post was titled, 'If you liked Henryk Sienkiewicz' Bradley P. Beaulieu's Lays of Anuskaya series would still make the list. The story centers around Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands. Serviced by windships bearing goods and dignitaries, Khalakovo's eyrie stands at the trade crossroads of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya. The protagonist, Nikandar, Prince of Khalakovo (although not the heir), is set to marry the daughter of a rival Duchy. Of course, he's not in love with her, instead he showers his affections on Rehada, an indigenous Aramahn whore. Amid this tangled web of love, a conspiracy begins to brew with other Duchies vying for power, and a fringe Aramahn group known as Maharraht who would see the entire system upended.

Very much in the tradition of the multiple points of view epic fantasy, Beaulieu tells a story so wide in scope that it fears to overwhelm his efforts to contain it. The character stories are intimate and personal, but their actions resonate across a canvas that encompasses the entire world and reverberate through history. Or something really important sounding like that. This is a brand new series, so perhaps it's inclusion here is a bit premature. Nevertheless, Beaulieu appears to be one of the few newer authors out there who's writing epic fantasy with the of depth and nuance achieved by Martin's ASoIF.


  • The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker

In the Vesani Republic, the First Citizen's word is nearly law. Elected by the people, he administers the largest economic power outside the somewhat fractured Eastern Empire. Today, the First Citizen is Bassianus Severus (Basso). Deaf in one ear and brilliant in business, he killed his own wife and brother-in-law after finding them in bed together. Alienated by his surviving family, he uses his influence to become the most powerful man in Vesani which of course he uses to do all kinds of screwed up and Machiavellian things.

Folding Knife is an epic fantasy - just not traditionally so. It follows a man through thirty years of his life describing his rise and fall from power through war and peace in 400 some odd pages. While the novel itself is far tighter than anything Martin's included in his epic series, Parker's prose and characterizations are a near perfect fit. There is a veracity in everything Parker writes, as though anything contained within the book's cover is possible, a trait exhibited time and again by Martin. Basso could have absolutely been a POV in ASoIF as head of his House. If there's one author everyone should be reading in the current fantasy climate other than Martin, it's Parker.


  • Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham

This is an epic retelling of the legendary Carthaginian military leader, Hannibal and his assault on the Roman empire. Hannibal is drawn from the scant historical record as a terror on the battlefield, yet one who misses his family and longs to see his son children grow up. Whether portraying the deliberations of a general or the calculations of a common soldier, Durham captures the personal and political nuances of war in the ancient world. And there's quite a bit of head lopping.

Most would probably suspect that if anything by Durham made this list it would be his Acacia Trilogy. I considered it, but it lacks the hard edge and gut wrenching reality that permeates ASoIF. In Martin's series consequences are everywhere and they never take a day off. Things aren't neat and tidy. They're like a Roman battlefield filled with offal and discarded bits of flesh and bone. Pride of Carthage captures that feeling for me. I'd also heartily recommend his fantasy trilogy, but not necessarily for someone looking to capture the Westeros feel.


  • The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham

I was going to do a similar write-up for this one as I did for the others. It's really not worth it because Jared from Pornokitsch has done the work for me (READ THIS REVIEW). Suffice to say Abraham's series is a political and emotional masterpiece that does everything ASoIF does without resorting to the battlefield. It makes the series a bit slower and less engaging in the early going, but the pay off is tremendous as he ensnares the reader is a high stakes epic game that reflects the Cold War sensibilities of the 1980's. There's no such thing as coincidences and Abraham status as the "unofficial" protege of Martin isn't one either.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Triggers - Robert J. Sawyers

Robert J. Sawyer is one of those names that float through the genre world that everyone presumes everyone else has read. Especially since his starring role on the hit television show Lost -- he's really good looking isn't he? Regardless, I was ashamed to admit that I'd never read Sawyer, who isn't quite genre and isn't quite mainstream, falling instead into an odd gully occupied by the likes of Michael Crichton, Margaret Atwood, and Peter F. Hamilton (that's a joke). Triggers, his newest novel set in a very near future United States, broke that pattern of behavior for me, but didn't entirely convince me of his status as an industry icon.

In Sawyer's vision of the future, terrorism and fear have overtaken America. Bombs in Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia have been detonated to catastrophic result. President Seth Jerrison has had enough. On the day before an unprecedented strike against the Middle East, an assassin's bullet strikes him during an address to the nation at the Lincoln Memorial. Rushed to the hospital (not George Washington Hospital?), surgeons struggle to save his life.

At the same hospital, researcher Dr. Ranjip Singh is treating a soldier suffering from PTSD. An expert on memory, Dr. Singh has developed an experimental device that can erase traumatic memories. When another terrorist bomb detonates, destroying the White House in the process, the blast perverts Singh's device, causing a group of people to access one another's minds. Now someone has access to the president's memories -- including classified information regarding the upcoming military mission. The task of determining who has switched memories with whom falls to the agent-in-change of the President's Secret Service detail, Susan Dawson, who's got problems of her own.

For all intents and purposes, Triggers is more psychological thriller than big idea science fiction. Sawyer's premise that an experimental memory machine gone haywire causes individuals to share memories isn't all that out there in a world where Flashforward and Momento have run the proverbial traps. He lays enough scientific foundation to suspend the reader's disbelief, but not so much that it becomes the novel's focus. Instead the focus remains on his cast of characters, how they interact with one another, and the inherent biases that make up their perceptions.

In that way, Triggers is not unlike the 1957 Sidney Lumet film 12 Angry Men, which was a character study of twelve white men sitting in judgement of a Latino teenager. In the film Lumet has:
"the self-made man who angrily remembers his son's defiance of authority. There is the garage owner seething with racial prejudice. There is the calm stockbroker who seriously has arrived at his verdict of guilty. There is the wise-cracking salesman anxious to vote so as to be able to get out to the ball game. There is the handsome, vacillating Madison Avenue advertising man. There is an old man, wise and benign with the years. And there is a refugee watchmaker who is appreciative of the ideals and freedoms of democracy." (N.Y. Times, A.H. Wheeler, 1957)
Sawyer likewise delves into the heads of each of his afflicted and disparate subjects, from the racist eighty-seven year old woman, to the opportunistic and libido driven attorney, to the misguided, but committed leader of the free world. Rather than a young man on trial for his life, Sawyer's defendant is the President's response to terrorism and the rightness of an eye for an eye. By the novel's conclusion his position is self evident. Using his cast of characters to ask what makes people unique and how those attributes color their interactions with the world, Sawyer ultimately focuses on those that unify.

Oh, did I have the wrong
Unity, in the sense that there is or should be or could be some factor that brings 'us' all together, is a the underlying theme of Sawyer's novel and it's one I struggled with on a personal level. Perhaps that's why I found Triggers so underwhelming in the final moments. Sawyer carefully constructs tension built on the notion that the President's knowledge of a secret attack could be revealed at any moment, calling into question the safety and security of the United States. The resolution to the problem cuts through that tension like the Gordian Knot, not so much invalidating the narrative as rendering it obsolete. Even had I found the conclusion uplifting, as was surely intended, and not horrifying and off-putting, the consequences of it to the larger narrative remain intolerable to me.

That said, the construction and build-up to the conclusion are without peer. Sawyer demonstrates a tremendous ability to write compelling characters that cannot be ignored and a knack for pace. Going into the final pages I was already considering Triggers to be one of the better novels I've read this year. Of course, that makes my ultimate verdict so much harder to hand down. While Sawyer's newest novel contends for excellence, it fails to deliver on the promises made in the early chapters. What is presented as, and reads like, a techno-thriller, concludes like a novel with a philosophical agenda that's ill-suited to the trappings around it.

Fans of Robert J. Sawyer, and new readers alike, will find lots of like here, but I fear disappointment will be the most common outcome of its conclusion. Triggers is due out April 3, 2012 wherever books are sold.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Unveiled Art for Courtney Schafer's The Tainted City

The cover illustration for Courtney Schafer's forthcoming novel The Tainted City was released today (above). The new novel is the sequel to her well received first novel, The Whitefire Crossing, which I reviewed and recommended last year. First off, I'm glad to see the artistic style continued from the first novel (i.e. - artist David Palumbo). Night Shade has done some monkeying with covers between books in a series in an effort to jump start sales/interest and that always bugs me. For example:

However, I continue to be interested and concerned about how covers are used to attract certain audiences versus what the books contain. In Beaulieu's series, the The Winds of Khalakovo cover was perfect. It conveys an epic scope, but also understates action and adventure akin to the sweeping epics of the 19th century literature. The second novel, conveys almost the polar opposite. While I haven't read The Straits of Galahesh yet, I can't imagine Beaulieu's style has changed from what is perfectly represented on the cover of Winds. That said, the second cover will certainly sell better than the first, something I touched on in this post from early in the year.

Back to Schafer's newest cover, I can't help but code science fiction from it. Not Peter F. Hamilton science fiction, but something dystopian in the mold of Brave New World (Huxley) or Debris (Anderton). The dress of the characters, the textures of the buildings, and the force-field-like-light-show in the background, all call to mind the future. Without closer inspection of the standing character's hip, and the recognition of a dagger, there's almost nothing that shows swords/sorcery/horses. Don't misunderstand me, I think it's a great cover. I love the composition and having read Whitefire Crossing, I know what's depicted. However, to a new reader looking at the first and second book on the shelf I'm not sure there's a clear concept being conveyed.

I remember Schafer mentioning at some point that, on Whitefire Crossing's cover, the glowing red hands were added after the fact to communicate more clearly its status as a fantasy novel. Glowing hands, believe it or not(!), code magic.

Without that, a quick cover glance shows a couple of dudes climbing a mountain, just as Tainted City shows the same two dudes in non-era-signifying robes on top of multistory modern looking building in awe of a force field. If I were hypothesizing, and I am, I would guess Schafer's cover art has been designed to attract male and female readers equally, and, in the case of the newest cover in particular, a share of the massive urban fantasy market. 

Unfortunately, I think that screws with reader expectations. Schafer's novels are classically fantasy, featuring two male protagonists, lots of magic, and a fair share of pointy weapons and horses. While the cover for Tainted City may attract more readers, are they the right ones? Are they the readers who will love it? More importantly to the publisher and the author, are they the readers that will recommend the novel to others? 

I don't know, but it interests me. What do you think?

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Interview with Anne Lyle author of Alchemist of Souls

Earlier this week I reviewed Anne Lyle's debut novel Alchemist of Souls. It's an excellent piece of historical fiction that she blends with fantasy elements to create something wholly unique. A lover of historical fiction during a long stretch in my 20's, I found myself quickly drawn into the background of the novel. Before long I was neck deep in a Wikipedia wormhole following Lyle's historical threads and their real world simulacrums. After my supplementary reading, I wanted to ask her a few questions... Lyle agreed.

When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods--and a skrayling ambassador--to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital? 
Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador's bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally--and Mal his soul.

Justin: Thanks for agreeing to answer my questions, Anne. During my college days, when I thought I was way too cool for fantasy books, I started reading gobs of historical fiction. James Clavell, Stephen Pressfield, etc. In reality, historical fiction is as much fantasy as well... fantasy. Especially when you get into alternate time lines as you have in Alchemist of Souls. What do you think about the distinction between the two?

Lyle: I never considered myself too cool for fantasy - I was playing RPGs such as D&D and Runequest at uni! - but I did read Shogun and other historical novels as well. I think they appeal to a similar audience, in evoking nostalgia for a simpler time.

Some would say that all fiction is fantasy, in that it can never be a true representation of reality, but the lines blur more easily when it comes to historical fiction. After all, most human cultures throughout history have believed in ghosts and other supernatural creatures, so these things will be as real for your historical characters as magic is for Gandalf or Harry Potter. However I've noticed that many historical novels play this down, perhaps for fear of straying into fantasy territory. Their loss, I think!

Justin: How much research did you put into making the novel feel historical? Is Elizabethan England a passing interest or something you've studied extensively?

Lyle: It's an era I've always loved, but naturally I had to ramp up my knowledge level once I decided to write a book set in this period. I now have an entire bookcase shelf full of non-fiction about sixteenth-century England, and have made research trips to specific locations used in the book, such as the Tower of London.

Justin: Is it true you were locked up in the Tower of London after a controversial incident at university?

Lyle: Damn, I thought that had all been hushed up!

No, I went to university in Bristol, which is a long way from London. The city does have a tower, a Victorian edifice honouring the Italian explorer John Cabot, who sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497. And, in my alternate history world, found skraylings. They say write about what you know...

Justin: Your historical macguffin is that Elizabeth had children. It's not one of those great what-ifs that you hear about (what if Alexander went west, what if Hitler never went to Russia, etc.) Why this one?

Lyle: Late sixteenth century England was politically volatile because of Elizabeth's lack of a clear heir, giving rise to the many plots to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, and of course the Spanish Armada. I didn't want these problems - or the consequent high tension between Protestants and Catholics - to overshadow my fictional political struggles between humans and skraylings, so I took the decision to stabilise the Tudor dynasty, and that meant marriage and children for Elizabeth.

Justin: On top of that you throw in the Skraylings, some kind of mystical race living among the Native peoples in the New World. Where are you drawing the Skraylings from? It all seems significantly more imaginative than say... dragons in Napoleonic Europe (no offense intended to dragons in Napoleonic Europe) or pixies.

Lyle: There have been quite a few fantasy novels set in Elizabethan England, and nearly all of them draw on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and therefore have fairies as their main fantasy element. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I felt I didn't have anything new to add in that line. What interested me was the Age of Discovery and particularly the conquest of the New World. With bands of brave, reckless men crammed into those tiny ships for weeks on end, crossing the vast featureless expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, I saw obvious parallels with space exploration, and the thought came to me: what if the Europeans discovered "aliens" - people who weren't just humans speaking strange languages (though they exist too). I like the idea of stealing tropes and themes from other genres - crime and noir are popular additions into fantasy these days, but SF has such a rich history, it's just ripe for mining :)

Justin: You've got two story lines going on in the novel. One is court intrigue stuff and the other is the theater. Obviously the theater is a huge part of Elizabethan England, but what prompted you to use it as a major component in the novel?

Lyle: I've always been interested in the theatre. My parents met through the local amateur dramatics society, which performed at a proper theatre in town, so I more-or-less grew up backstage, watching rehearsals. I even appeared on stage once myself when I was eight or nine, dancing in the pantomime "Babes in the Wood" (a traditional English tale featuring Robin Hood). In recent years I've seen many of Shakespeare's plays in performance, two of them at the reconstructed Globe, so I had a lot of experiences and imagery to draw on for the book.

Justin: Of course, men dressed as women was the default of the era. Interestingly, you went with a woman dressed as a man as the PoV character. And then also went with a gay character to bridge the gap between your two story lines. Both fascinating choices given the time period.

Lyle: My female PoV character Coby started out as an ordinary young woman, but I soon realised that it was going to be difficult justifying her running around London with these young men - Elizabethan society was very strict on the subject of proper female behaviour. So, I decided to have her disguise herself as a boy to earn an honest living (she's an orphan), which allowed me to riff on some of the Shakespearean clichés of that situation.

Likewise Mal's friend Ned was originally straight, and a promiscuous rogue to boot. When I made the girl into (apparently) a boy, that changed the dynamic between them - so I shifted it back by making him gay and therefore potentially still interested in her. It gave me a chance to explore Elizabethan attitudes to homosexuality and masculinity, which were very different from ours.

Justin: It made for a fascinating juxtaposition, I thought. So what's next? Will we get a chance to visit the New World in future books?

Lyle: Next is a sequel set mainly in Venice (one of my favourite places in the world), which reveals more about the skraylings, as well as moving the main characters' stories forward. I don't have any immediate plans to take the characters to the New World - that would require a lot more research to get it as authentic as the European settings!

Justin: Well, let me know if you need me to go the Native American Museum. It's right down the street! Thanks for joining me Anne. I really enjoyed the book and look forward to the next one!

Lyle: Thank you for having me!

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Rook - Daniel O'Malley

Daniel O'Malley's debut novel features the tagline, On Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service. It's an apt description of The Rook which to describe it more verbosely is James Bond meets Harry Potter if Money Penny was the main character. Cool, right? I thought so too. Unfortunately what begins as an entertaining and clever urban fantasy novel descends into a poorly structured, infodumptastic (made up word!) narrative that can't get out of its own way.

Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas is a Rook, a high-ranking member of a secret organization called the Chequy. It's their job to battle the many supernatural forces at work in Britain. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Myfanwy is more Urkel than Stefan. Despite her incredible power to control living matter she's become a desk bound budget hawk with the social skills of a dim witted honey badger. One night she 'wakes up' in a London park surrounded by bodies with no recollection of who she is or how she got there, a letter in her coat pocket the only clue. To find out who she is, who wants her dead, and why, Myfanwy will have to rely on herself, and her letters to herself from her other self.

If reviewing The Rook was a simple matter of endorsing its concept, the quality of its prose, and the strength of its characters, this would be a much shorter review. I give O'Malley's novel high marks in all three categories. The secret government organization is always a blast in light of the general predisposition to believe governments hide all kinds of awesome things. Along with the premise, O'Malley demonstrates excellent control of the action. He never leaves anything unclear and I never lacked a comprehensive picture of the scenes or the characters in them.

Those characters for the most part dazzle, with one major exception -- Dark-Phoenix-Myfanwy. She's not poorly drawn, but in comparison to a vibrant surrounding cast, and more importantly her previous incarnation, she falls short. While her humor is wry and she's an extroverted go-getter, the structure of the character is teeth-grindingly expected. I struggled to suspend my disbelief over her immediate and constant capability, as well as the response of a top-secret government organization to her obvious personality changes. 

Meanwhile, Jean-Grey-Myfanwy, who O'Malley only shows via letter, is utterly compelling. Her weaknesses and strengths, so distant from the expected 'hero' of the urban fantasy paradigm, provide The Rook with a unique flavor it would otherwise have lacked. Likewise, many of the ancillary cast members such as Myfanwy's personal assistant Ingrid, her bodyguard Anthony, and her Rook counterpart Gestalt, provide a staggering amount of life to the novel given their relative insignificance.

It's unfortunate then that The Rook reads like it was written for the sole purpose of showcasing O'Malley's imaginings of the Chequy and its inner-workings. Parts of the narrative (guestimate around 25%) are told through the text of dozens of letters -- some of which move the conspiracy plot along, others that simply provide background. Letter after letter, especially in the early going, reads like an RPG dossier, dumping a kitchen-sink's-worth of world building into the reader's lap. To paraphrase one example:
Myfanwy: Oh look, there are these elite units in the Chequy called the Barghast. I wonder if I wrote a letter to myself about this because I sure don't remember anything. 
Old Myfanwy: I thought you might want to know about the Barghat. They're special forces and let me give you their history. 
[Three Pages Later]

Old Myfanwy: And that's what the Barghast are. 
Myfanwy: Well, I'll be.
Many of the asides have little to no bearing on moving the narrative forward, instead focusing on self-indulgent information apropos of nothing. I found myself putting The Rook down every time a letter surfaced. I'd roll my eyes and go do something else. The phenomenon worked both ways. Once I returned to the novel, I'd get into the letter, engrossed in Original-Recipe-Myfanwy, and dread the return to Extra-Crispy.

Furthermore, why the hell wouldn't Disk-Format-Error-Myfanwy just read all the damn letters in the first weekend? O'Malley dribbles out the left behind knowledge all the way to the final pages. Obviously done for dramatic effect, I found it a lot more annoying than nail biting. My frustration stems from the fact that the amnesia story line wasn't necessary other than as a means to world build, which to be quite honest feels like a cheap gimmick.

Despite the negatives, and they are legion as they relate to pace and structure, I can still recommend The Rook to some readers, with some trepidation. The premise and characters are good enough to provide substantial entertainment and the conspiracy/mystery is well executed. I think many urban fantasy acolytes will find a great deal to enjoy here. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those. For me, the removal of the amnesia plot device in its entirety would have made for a stronger novel. It would have allowed the world building to occur organically and provided an opportunity for actual character growth as opposed to the convenient manifestation of the stereotypical snarky no-nonsense female urban fantasy protagonist.

But, that isn't the book Daniel O'Malley wrote. So I instead I can only say, maybe the next one will be better. I hope so.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Alchemist of Souls - Anne Lyle

Before I became re-enamored with fantasy, I was an avid reader of historical fiction (or as I like to call it -- fantasy for people who don't want to be seen reading fantasy). I read Shogun (Clavell), Pride of Carthage (Durham), Musashi (Yoshikawa), Gates of Fire (Pressfield), and their ilk. It's exciting to me now when I come across a fantasy concoction that blends that historical sensibility with the speculative. Anne Lyle's debut novel is just that kind of brew. Set in historical Elizabethan England, Alchemist of Souls shows what might have happened if the Virgin Queen had children, secured her rule, and made an alliance with a heretofore undiscovered alien race from the New World.

Lyle's protagonist is Mal Catlyn, a down on his luck swordsman with a checkered past and an unfortunate family connection to Catholicism. The skraylings, a new race from the New World, have been allied with England for a generation, but an ambassador had yet to treat with the Queen. With word of the first skrayling delegation, Mal is hand picked, rather unexpectedly, to serve as bodyguard during the controversial visit. Assassination attempts are the least of his concern as layers of espionage and political jockeying begin to pull him in unexpected directions.

Along with the intrigue, Lyle sets the stage with a tournament of stage performances in honor of the ambassador's visit. Put on by the three most esteemed theater troops in London, the tournament becomes a set piece for the larger story. The theater sections are told mostly through the eyes of Coby, a young woman hiding behind men's clothing, and connects to Mal's thread through his friend Ned, a scribe with a penchant for theater men. Between the three of them they'll be asked to prevent a conspiracy at the core of the monarchy.

There's one requirement in a historical novel and that's tone. Accuracy is important. I certainly don't want auto-loading revolvers running around 16th century London, but it's secondary to capturing the tone of the time. For Elizabethan London that means a lot of things -- religious tension, theater, foreign conflict, and the economic expansion from the New World, to name a few. While some modern affectations of character and language assert themselves from time to time, Alchemist embraces that historical tone from the opening pages and left me wondering whether I was reading a fantasy at all. References to the recent death of Christopher Marlowe, a tense tennis match, and the dropping of Bloody Mary's name all lend themselves to setting an ambiance that's decidedly Elizabethan.

Brought into this authentic setting are the skraylings, a 'race' that I was surprised to learn was, at least tangentially, pulled from Norse history. Encountered in the 11th century, the skraeyling were a people of the region known as Vinland (maybe Newfoundland?), about whom almost nothing else is known. In Alchemist the skraylings are far more fleshed out, exhibiting an entirely different evolutionary line than humanity. Part Native American, part alien, part alchemist wizard things, they exist as Lyle's fantastic element and the impetus by which the narrative moves, woven into Mal's childhood and hopelessly intertwined with his future.

Taking things to another level, Lyle adds characters who exist in the historical space. Mal struggles with his familial responsibilities and his duty to the crown. Coby fights her lie and her faith. Ned reconciles his lifestyle to a world that rejects it. These values they struggle with and embrace in equal parts are so tied to the time in which Lyle has chosen to write that they could not have existed else wise.

Overall the Alchemist has great pace, moving through equal parts political intrigue, bursts of action, and fear of discovery for Coby and Ned. There are moments where Lyle jumps forward in a plot line too suddenly, making a supposition or connection that a character don't seem quite ready to make. Likewise, I raised an eyebrow or two at the social progressiveness of many of the characters who for the time are significantly more accepting of others than I might expect. These are minor complaints and seem reasonable solutions to difficult problems, most notably the fact that close minded bigotry isn't a lot of fun for a socially progressive audience.

Mysterious circumstances combined with historical authenticity and the strange, Anne Lyle's Alchemist of Souls is a 2012 debut I can strongly recommend. It will stand out in the Angry Robot catalog as a title with broad appeal across a wide swathe of genre readers, as well as a real departure from many of their titles that eschew genre classification.

Look for Alchemist of Souls in stores March 27 in the US and the following week in the UK. It's the first book in a planned trilogy titled Night's Masque. You can find Anne Lyle on Twitter @annelyle or on the web at

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Books Received - Week of March 5, 2012

I don't usually do these posts, but this was a particularly good week of arrivals. I'll probably be starting Triggers (Robert J. Sawyer) next, but I'm beyond stoked about getting to The Killing Moon (N.K. Jemisin) and The Return Man (V.M. Zito).

Wide Open (Deborah Coates) isn't typically my kind of book. Sarah over at Bookworm Blues just posted a pretty glowing review though, so I might give it a shot. My urban fantasy 'have read' list is pitifully short. Also from Tor is Chrysanthe (Yves Meynard) which appears to be a YA epic fantasy -- looks can be deceiving! We'll see. It's one I'd like to give a go.

This is my second copy of Touchstone (Melanie Rawn), so I'll have to be giving this one away. Maybe I'll send it to the first person who e-mails me ( asking for it (US only).

Any thing in there strike your particular fancy?

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Giveaway Winner and Next Week's Schedule

Last week I reviewed Tobias Buckell's Arctic Rising and ran a giveaway for a copy of the book courtesy of Tor. Through the powers of the RANDOM NUMBER GENERATOR and some assistance from Captain Planet (Buckell loaned him to me), we have our winner:

Jarod from West Des Moines, IA

Congrats Jarod, it's a great book. 

In other news, I have a few extra copies of books laying about that I'll be doing giveaways for in the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I'm mostly going to be doing US only giveaways when giving away my own books... the costs associated with international shipping are becoming cost prohibitive.

Coming next week:
  • Review of Anne Lyle's Alchemist of Souls from Angry Robot
  • Interview with Anne Lyle
  • Review of Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham from DoubleDay
  • Review of The Rook by Daniel O'Malley from Little, Brown


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Range of Ghosts - Elizabeth Bear

Up until now, I'd never read Elizabeth Bear. If I'm being honest, I couldn't have produced the titles of anything she'd written. That isn't to say I didn't know who she was -- she's a visible figure in the genre community and an active Tweeter -- just that I hadn't been exposed to her actual work. When her new novel showed up on my doorstep, I made it a priority. Joining a wave of 2011/2012 fantasy firmly couched in Middle Eastern and Asian influence, Range of Ghosts is an epic scale love story that tries to appeal fans of both romance and high fantasy and succeeds by any metric.

Egads! Did I say romance? Normally, the mere mention of 'romance' sets off alarm bells in my head, calling to mind smoldering glances and heaving bosoms (not that I don't like heaving... never mind). For those who share my reticence, don't worry. Range is a love story, but not a romance. With that in mind, my first reaction to what I was reading came around the fifty page mark where Bear writes the best sex scene I've read in fantasy. To whet your appetite:
She was softness, lush dimpled softness of arms and flanks wrapped around strength, like a bent bow. She was the fall of cool hair across his throat and his burning face, like water to a man sick with sun. She was the smell of sweat and pungent oils. She was the warmth of the night, and seventeen moons rose over her shoulders while she rode him with the purpose and intensity with which she raced her mare.
Of course, now all the readers of George Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Brent Weeks are saying, not for me! And they might be right. Range isn't hyper violent, or unduly action packed. The pace is smooth, and even. There is violence and action, but it's carefully inserted (not a euphemism), representing a culmination of tension and then over again in a flash.

Instead, Bear's novel is carried on the back of a thoughtfully constructed and flawlessly articulated world. That isn't to say she's dumping information left and right, rather she instills an inherent sense of wonder that pervades, and in many ways overwhelms, the characters and plot. It's not that her plot or characters are weak, the world is just that good. With a different sky for every kingdom, a system of magic that has costs and limitations, and a cultural depth that codes realism, Range is a thoughtful exploration of culture and the right to rule.

On the Khaganate steppe a hundred moons dot the sky, one for each of the male scions of the Great Khan's line. In the Uthman Caliphate those moons are no where to be seen:
Mukhtar ai-Idoj, al-Sepehr of the Rock, crouched atop the lowest and broadest of them, his back to the familiar east-setting sun of the Uthman Caliphate. Farther east, he knew, the strange pale sun of the Qersnyk tribes was long fallen, their queer hermaphroditic godling undergoing some mystic transformation to rise again as the face of the night.
Range is told from several different points of view, but operates primarily from the perspective of Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, and Once-Princess turned Wizard, Samarkar. Surviving a bloody war between his cousin and brother, who fought to rule the Khaganate, Temur looks to the sky every night and finds another cousin, uncle, or brother dead, their moon extinguished forever. Formerly the heir to the Rasan Empire, Samarkar has been replaced by her half-brother. Widowed and vulnerable, she renounces her position at court to seek a new power with the Wizards of Tsarepheth. In the midst of their changing world a cult begins to manipulate empires, bringing strife and civil war under every sky the world over.

Outlined as such, it's not a complex plot and the characters are somewhat archetypal, but the motives that move both are anything but. It's those motivations, driven in large part by the veracity of Bear's world building, that makes Range such a compelling read. Compelling, but not necessarily the kind that kept me up into the wee hours of the morning. The pace, and style, make it something to get lost in, to hang on to each detail and relish the creative process that birthed it. That's exactly what I did.

Over the last year I've observed a real trend toward non-western fantasy worlds. From Blackdog (Johansen) and The Emperor Knife (Williams), which share some DNA with Range of Ghosts, to the more Middle Eastern Throne of the Crescent Moon (Ahmed) and the Cyrillic Winds of Khalakovo (Bealieu), there seems to be a concerted effort by authors and editors to expose readers to something new. Some of that is coming from the desire to be different, some is coming from authors of different cultural backgrounds entering the field, and some of it is coming from a desire to mine a new market of readers. Regardless of its intent, fantasy is in the midst of a boom of non-western ideas and cultures. I find it refreshing and even moreso intellectually stimulating. It's an exciting time to be reading and Elizabeth Bear's newest novel is a great example of the times.


Range of Ghosts is due out March 27 from Tor Books. You can follow Elizabeth Bear on Twitter @matociquala.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Guest Post | Love a Blog? Nominate It by Stefan Raets

The deadline to submit your Hugo nominations is March 11th. The Hugo Awards are the fan awards, unlike, say, the Nebulas, which are voted on by members of the SFWA, an organization that has certain criteria in terms of membership. The Hugo Awards are open to anyone who was a member of last year's Worldcon or becomes a member of this or next year's Worldcons. That could be you. You can become a Supporting Member of this year's Worldcon (called ChiCon) for just $50, and for that amount you also will get this year's Hugo Voter Packet. We're not sure yet what that will entail, but last year's packet contained e-versions of every single novel, anthology, novella, novelette, short story and graphic novel on the final ballot, as well as a bunch of other goodies. If it’s something similar this year, the packet is easily worth twice the cost of the Supporting Membership - plus you get to be an active participant in the Hugo process and help decide the winners in the genre's biggest awards. If you're at all interested in SF&F, and I assume you are if you're still reading this, you should really consider becoming a Supporting Member. Now, to be absolutely clear, if you weren’t a ChiCon member before you started reading this article, you won’t be able to make nominations this year. That deadline has passed. But you’ll still be able to vote in this year’s Hugos, and you’ll be eligible to make nominations next year. So it’s still a good thing to do. Go ahead. I'll wait while you sign up.

If you’re eligible to make nominations and haven’t done so yet, this would be a great time to do it, as the deadline is this weekend. Take a look at what you've read last year. There are a bunch of rules for eligibility, but roughly speaking, if it was published in 2011, you can nominate it. If you accidentally nominate something that's not eligible, they won't send the Hugo Police to your house to confiscate your membership badge, so go ahead, nominate the 2011 SFF publications you loved and see what sticks. That's what most people do. Also, an important note here. So you haven't read everything that was published last year. Fine. Neither have I, and neither has John Scalzi. Maybe you've only read a handful of novels. Maybe you haven't read any novellas or graphic novels. Don’t worry. Just nominate what you loved. Thousands of people are doing this. It'll all even out in the end, as long as everyone includes the books and stories they loved. Believe me, your nominations are very important to both authors and fans.

Now, for the interesting bit. You may notice a few categories in the bottom half of the nomination form that aren't so much about the novels and stories as about the people who write about the novels and stories. Fanzines, Semi Prozines, Fan Writers. The terms may be confusing. If you're unclear as to which is which, take a look at last year's final ballot for an idea of what may fall in which category. Or you can read the legalese in the WSFS constitution. I suggest the former option.

But now, finally, the main point of this post. In the last few decades or so, this here thing called the intertubes has become more and more prominent. SF&F-related writing used to make its way into the world by means of typewriters and Xerox machines and stamped envelopes. I know it may sound comical to some of you, but this award has been around since the 1950’s. There's history here. This whole blog thing is relatively new, in the larger scope of things. Now, first of all, I have the greatest respect for Fanzines, I wish for them to continue to garner awards and recognition and new readers and anything else their hearts desire. Yay for 'zines, okay?

But that aside, there's a serious problem here. At last year's convention, a rule change was enacted that would exclude blogs from the Best Fanzine category in the future. This rule may be ratified this year. That means this may be the last year blogs are eligible for the Best Fanzine category. This may seems absurd to you, but remember, this is an organization with a constitution and committees and so on. There are quorum rules and agendas and minutes that have to be approved and I wouldn't be surprised if there's someone with a gavel. It's official, as befits an organization with such a storied past. They're not evil. They mean well. They just want to make sure that next year people who try to distribute their reviews using a parade of tattooed elephants don't rouse up a storm because they're not included in a category.

Still, to me, it seems like a no-brainer. How many authors on the ballot have done blog tours? How many have websites that quote reviews from bloggers? How many have done interviews on blogs? How many, for the love of Tehlu, have only achieved the prominence and popularity they currently enjoy because of the enthusiastic, dedicated and unpaid work done by bloggers? AND YOU'RE TELLING ME YOU MAY NOT WANT TO INCLUDE BLOGS IN THIS CATEGORY IN THE FUTURE? For shame.

Seriously, the only justification I could see for this is to make sure the traditional fanzines don't get overrun by blogs. So, let's create a brand new category called "Best Blog". Somehow they have seen fit to create a new category called "Best FanCast" this year, so it's possible. The person with the gavel needs to consider this. Maybe he or she wants to go down in history as the person who brought the Hugos in line with the progress of history. We need a Best Blog category, or we need blogs to be included under "Best FanZine". It's one or the other. You can't reasonably exclude the place where 90% of fan writing happens right now. Not if you want to be taken seriously as an award in this day and age. Hands up how many of you have read a fanzine this year? And now how many have read a blog? I rest my case.

So! Enough with the speechifying. I'm hoping that enough fans and bloggers and authors will include their favorite blogs in the Best Fanzine category. Personally, I'm putting only blogs on my ballot. I'm hoping that at least a few of the best ones will make it to the final ballot. And I hope that one of them will win the award.

Aside from the Fanzine/blog category, you can also nominate individual Fan Writers. Things are a bit more straightforward and less exclusive there: you can nominate anyone who writes about SF&F in any format. Including bloggers. You don't have to use a Xerox machine to be eligible for Best Fan Writer. So, if you have a favorite blog, you can nominate "Aidan Moher" or “Adam Whitehead” under Best Fan Writer as well as "SF Signal" or “Staffer’s Musings” under Best Fanzine. Even if blogs don't count anymore in future years, you can continue to nominate the people behind the blogs in the Best Fan Writer.

It looks like a few people have put my name on their ballots in this category. I am very flattered, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart, but I want to make it clear that I'm not asking you to nominate me here. I'm asking you to support your favorite bloggers. If that's me, great. If not, also great. Just support your favorite bloggers, whoever they are. Buy a membership and nominate them.


Stefan Raets is the editor/founder of Far Beyond Reality. He also contributes to You can find him on Twitter @sraets.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Hugo Nominations - Because You Asked (trust me, you did)

Alright, I wasn't going to post these, but felt it was important for people to see what I was thinking. Am I that arrogant? You bet I am! The reason for my initial reticence is that I haven't read everything. It makes my nominations biased, incomplete, and a snapshot from a moment in time. I haven't read Embassytown, or Among Others, or By Light Alone, or Testament of Jesse Lamb, or a host of other books that I'm hearing talked about as the best of the year.

I also refused to nominate in the categories I don't feel "well read in". That includes: Best Short Story, Best Novella, Best Novelette (why do we even need this category?), Best Related Work, Best Graphic Story, Best Editor Short Form, Best Fan Artist, Best SemiProZine (I refuse to figure out what qualifies and what doesn't), Best Dramatic Presentation.

Do I hate how incomplete all this is? Absolutely. With that in mind, I'm not going to justify any of these nominations. They're my gut reaction to what I read this year. Trust me, once the nominations are announced and I read all of them, copious pretentious thoughts will follow.

Before I forget, the Campbell eligibility rules are dumb and not easy to navigate. Can we just agree to ignore when people sold short fiction and just make this a novel award? Maybe do a separate award for 'short fiction'? I'm just spit-balling here.

With that in mind here are my nominations:

Best Novel:
The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Orbit)
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
The Crippled God by Steven Erikson (Tor)
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday)
Infidel by Kameron Hurley (Night Shade Books)

John W. Campbell Award:
T.C. McCarthy, author of Germline and Legionnaires (novella)
Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale
Robert Jackson Bennett, author of Mr. Shivers, The Company Man
Hannu Rajaniemi, author of The Quantum Thief
Stina Leicht, author of Of Blood and Honey

Best Editor (Long Form):
Jeremy Lassen (Night Shade Books)
Anne Sowards (Ace/Roc)
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor)
Dongwon Song (Orbit)
David Pomerico (Del Rey)

Best Professional Artist: 
Raymond Swanland
Charles Keegan
Cody Tilson
Kai and Sunny
Kekai Kotaki

I lied. I'm going to justify the rest of these. First of all, for Fanzine and Fan Writer, I nominated bloggers, and only bloggers. Why? Because I think a blogger deserves to be nominated and I don't know who's going to get the most attention from the community. So I cast a wide net. I nominated people I thought other's would nominate. Is that intellectually dishonest? A little bit, but that doesn't degrade the work being done by these individuals, or the people I left off the list. There's tremendous work being done throughout the blogosphere and it's time someone got recognized by the 'old school SFF community'. 

In hindsight, I nominated all men... I guess I'm a jerk. I'll try to do better next year. I also nominated three UK based blogs and one Canadian blog. I apologize to America.

Best Fanzine: 
A Dribble of Ink
The Wertzone
SF Signal
The Speculative Scotman

Best Fan Writer: 
Aidan Moher (A Dribble of Ink)
John Stevens (SF Signal)
Jared Shurin (Pornokitsch)
Adam Whitehead (The Wertzone)
Stefan Raets ( Literature)

I nominated all the podcosts I listen to... which is four. So not really a justification. They're all good. I'm sure there are lots of other good ones too.

Best Fancast: 
Adventures in SciFi Publishing
SF Signal Podcast
Functional Nerds

So, am I way off? Am I terribly under read? Should I seek a new hobby?


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Jade Dreams - Wakefield Mahon

I held a drawing earlier this month to randomly select a self published title to read and review. Jade Dreams by Wakefield Mahon was the winner of that drawing. By the time I'm done with this review, he may regret entering.

The truth is I strongly considered not writing a review, despite my promises to do so. There's so little meat to the book, that I struggled with how to critique it. That felt like a cop out.

Additionally, although not relevant to my "review", the notion that this novella is being sold for $5.99 (it was $2.99 when I bought it) on Kindle is offensive to me as a consumer. As far as I'm concerned Jade Dreams is a classic example of why self-published has become a pejorative in some circles.


This is my fifth installment of posts featuring Cheryl (and Fizbane). If you enjoy this one, I suggest finding the Cheryl tag on the right sidebar for the others.

While I absolutely did not enjoy this book on any level, I have every intention of running another 'contest' like this in the future. I want to find good self published work and publicize it. Stay tuned for that.


*type* *type* *type*

Justin: Cheryl, could you please stop all the typing? It's making me crazy.

Cheryl: Sorry Mr. Landon, but your review of Pillars of Hercules a few weeks ago really inspired me to start writing my novel!

Justin: Seriously?

Cheryl: I think it's magical.

Justin: I'm sure you do.

Cheryl: You know, it's not OK for you to talk down to me like a four year old?

Justin: *sputtering*

Cheryl: Just because you pay me doesn't mean you can be rude.

Justin: I'm sorry Cheryl. What's the title of your book?

Cheryl: It's called Throbbing Python. It's about...

Justin: I'm quite sure that's all I need to know. Have you talked to an agent yet?

Cheryl: Oh no, I'm going to self publish it.

Justin: ... You really shouldn't. I review these things for a living...

Cheryl: No, you don't.

Justin: Yes, I do.

Cheryl: You don't make a dime. Most people call that a hobby.

Justin: What I do is important!!

Cheryl: Whatever.

Justin: But seriously, Cheryl. I just finished a self published novel. It's bad... really bad. I don't want that for you.

Cheryl: *gasp* You just don't want me to embarrass you.

Justin: Oh come on *cough*. You don't seriously think I could be that shallow? I really do have your best interests at heart. Look here, I just finished Jade Dreams by Wakefield Mahon. He won that drawing I did a few weeks ago to review a self published novel.

Cheryl: Oh it can't be all that bad. I read the blurb. It sounded like a lovely story of siblings who are destined to battle an ancient evil using a mystical sword!

Justin: Something like that. God, you make it sound even worse than it is... I worry for Throbbing Pythons.

Cheryl: It's singular... there's only one.. erm.. python.

Justin: Right. Anyway, see the story starts with Karen and Timmy learning of their parent's deaths. They're victims of a car accident on Breakneck Road near Storm King Mountain (I scoffed too, but those are real places in New York!). As they grieve, the siblings grow closer, bonding over their love of all things Japanese (manga, video games, anime, martial arts). Every night Timmy asks his sister to tell him a story and oftentimes she tells him of her vivid dreams that feel more like memories. In these dreams Karen goes into the past, living moments from the lives of famous heroes like Mulan and Joan of Arc. She never thinks much of them until she meets a Kendo master who begins to lead her down the path to destiny.

Cheryl: Oh Kendo! Sword fighting! Hi-ya!

Justin: That's a little racially insensitive don't you think?

Cheryl: You're calling ME insensitive?

Justin: Point taken.

Cheryl: It really doesn't sound bad!

Justin: You're right. The idea isn't terrible. I enjoyed the tie in with the historical figures and for a middle-grade fantasy the notion of a young woman fulfilling her destiny as the savior of the world is something I can get behind. It's trite, but there's still a place for it. Of course, Mahon never really runs with the historical flashbacks. He fails to make them at all relevant to the plot, nor does he adequately build Karen's character (and don't get me started on Timmy, or the other ancillary characters) into anything resembling believable.

Cheryl: I swear, it's like you think you Vladimir Nabokov.

Justin: And it's like you're my mom. You need to learn to appreciate the value of criticism! If you're going to release Turgid Viper into the world, you best prepared for this and worse.

Cheryl: Turgid Viper? Now you're just belittling me.


Fizbane: I'm sorry to interrupt, Cheryl. But as a representative of Amazon Digital Services, I'd like to show you the wide range of services we offer. Here's a pamphlet.

Justin: Amazon Digital Services?! I thought you worked for Google!

Fizbane: I'm a consultant. I have several clients. Wizards have to make a living too, you know?

Cheryl: *paging through the pamphlet*

Justin: Huh, well look here you hack, Cheryl isn't going to be self publishing anything.

Cheryl: *closing pamphlet* You know, Fizbane, this doesn't seem like a very good deal you're offering. In fact, it looks like you can change my price willy nilly. I'm going to hear Mr. Landon out.

Justin: Here's the thing. Once you put something out there with Cheryl Hufflepuff on the byline, you can't take it back. You're telling consumers, this is what I have to offer. Look at Jade Dreams. The author uses the first person point of view, riding inside Karen's head for most of the novel. Karen thinks mostly in simple sentences, never engages in introspection, and reveals herself as wholly motivated to do life threatening things to cheer up her brother. She also rarely, if ever observes much about the world around her. Although occasionally she seems particularly observant about things. Look at this quote:
Across from them sat two men that I assumed were Jewish. One wore a little skull cap, the other one wore a black hat and wore a long beard and payot. They seemed to be having a heated debate about Jacob and Israel and the 32nd chapter of the first book of the Torah.
Interesting that a Chinese-American teenager would be so interested in two Jewish men having a theological debate. Even more curious is that she could identify what they're talking about, and further the chapter and book of the text to which they are referring. And how in God's name does she know what payot is, but not a yarmulke?

And then, toward the novel's conclusion Mahon decides to switch POVs and goes into the head of two other characters, one of which is little brother Timmy who has this encounter while being held prisoner:
She leaned forward, whispered into my ear, and told me not to tell until it was time.
The use of these kinds of devices is just lazy. Not to tell who? The reader? Did Mahon just break the fourth wall? Why would Timmy hide this little fact from himself? While these are only two quoteable examples, I think they illustrate a major deficiency in understanding how to use the first person point of view. That's something a professional editor, or any responsible crit group would have pointed out.

Cheryl: That doesn't mean he's not telling a good story!

Justin: I'm sorry to say the story telling isn't very good either. The early parts of the novel move pretty well, engaging the reader in the family's grief coming to terms with loss of their parents. Once the main narrative gets going things get very random and  murky. Everything is told, not shown. No character is given proper motivation. The prose is painfully pedestrian. Things happen with absolutely no underpinning. And seriously... this:
"The one you call Raven controls the key. In order to return, you must make your way to the Dark Castle." 
Cheryl: *gulp*

Justin: Maybe he explains all this away by calling it "middle-grade" fantasy. I've read plenty of novels for young people... they still have to be engaging and they still have to make sense.

Cheryl: So you're saying no one should self publish?

Justin: Not at all! I think self-publishing is a perfectly legitimate path to make a living as a writer. As a test ground for someone's self indulgent and amateurish attempts at writing? No. Please no. It insults the reader, but also belittles the product. For every self published work like Jade Dreams the overall image of self publishing declines, making it more and more likely that no one will take a chance on something. It  also forces down the price at which people will buy them. Before you know it, no one will buy a self published novel for more than $0.99. Who wins in that scenario? Hell, not even Fizbane the corporate blood sucker can turn that into a net gain.

Look, I'm not saying Mahon shouldn't write. I applaud him for writing the book, it's more than I've ever done. But, why... why... why would you show this to the world and charge them for it? Hone your craft!

Cheryl: I can't believe I'm saying this... you're making sense.

Fizbane: *flummoxed* Am I in an alternate universe? Did I take the wrong gate? Should I be going by Zifenab?

Justin: I'm going to migrate to Wordpress if you don't take a hike, Wizard.

Fizbane: Eek. *poof*

Cheryl: Thanks for talking to me about this Mr. Landon.

Justin: No problem Cheryl. Let me know if you need any more help with Engorged Cobra.

Cheryl: It's Throbbing Pyt... *sigh* Nevermind.

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