Monday, August 10, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, Second Round :: Untimed by Andy Gavin vs. Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

After getting distracted for a while with the Hugo nominees, we return to the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books. Today's match-up, our third in the second round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books, has Untimed by Andy Gavin going up against Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Untimed: Mascherato, December 2012, 326 pages, cover art by Cliff Nielsen. Andy Gavin is a successful video game developer. Untimed is a young adult time travel story. Untimed handily defeated Bad Apple by Kristi Petersen Schoonover to advance to the second round.

The first 25 pages of Untimed introduced us to Charlie, a boy nobody seems to notice, not even his mother. Charlie followed a clockwork man through a strange rift into 18th Century London. He quickly befriended a girl named Yvaine, who explained that Charlie and Yvaine are time travelers. Unfortunately, males can only travel to the past (although this is suspect — there are strong suggestions that Charlie's father has traveled to the past and returned). In the second 25 pages, Charlie meets Yvaine's group of companions, young pickpockets and ruffians straight out of Oliver Twist. Charlie ends up in a fistfight with the leader of the group, Donnie, but the whole thing is more ritual than conflict, and it seems the group will accept Charlie.

Libriomancer: DAW, August 2012, 305 pages, cover art by Gene Mollica. Libriomancer is the first volume in Jim C. Hines' latest series, Magic Ex Libris. Libriomancer easily beat out Dead Religion by David Beers to advance to the second round.

The hero of Libriomancer is Isaac Vainio, book-lover and SF/F fan and libriomancer. Isaac can reach into a book he has read and pull out objects described in them. He works as a librarian in the service of a secret magical society called the Porters. In the first 25 pages, he defended his library in Michigan's Upper Peninsula from vampires, with help from his pet fire-spider Smudge and a dryad named Lena. In the second 25 pages, we learn that a huge battle has erupted among the world's magical folk, and the world's first and greatest libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg, has disappeared. Isaac meets up with Deb, a powerful libriomancer from the Library of Congress, but Isaac and Deb are not sure they can trust each other.

The Battle: In this battle we have a time travel story targeted at young adults and a contemporary fantasy targeted at book lovers. Through 50 pages, both authors are having fun setting up their storylines and both have done a nice job of pulling me into the tale.

After a fast-paced first section, the second 25 pages of Untimed slow down a bit to let us get to know the characters. The best part of this section is an unexpected detail about Charlies' potential love interest Yvaine:
"Thanks, Nancy," she says, taking the bundle from the lady.

Only candles light the cramped space, but now I can see that Yvaine's holding a baby. It opens and closes its little mouth like a guppy.

"You hungry, Billy?" she says. "Mama's got somethin' for you."

She tugs open the drawstring of her shirt and presses the infant close.

I'm not sure what surprises me more — that she's a teen mother or that I just saw my first glimpse of tit.
I like that Yvaine is a young mother, and the time travel framework sets up obvious possibilities that Charlie could end up the father of that child or maybe the child himself. Unfortunately, this passage also exemplifies my biggest problem with Untimed so far: in a first-person young adult story, the voice is critical; the narrator must sound like a teenager. Charlie in particular is portrayed as a painfully shy and awkward young man, except he often sounds instead like a middle-aged wiseass. "My first glimpse of tit"? Really? For a shy and awkward young man (and believe me I was one), seeing a pretty woman's chest for the first time is an occasion for reverent joy not a smart-alecky quip. Several times through the second section of Untimed, the narrator did not sound to me like the character he is supposed to be.

Meanwhile, I have no such quibbles with the writing in Libriomancer and I am having all kinds of fun with the story premise. In the second section, Isaac is subjected to an interrogation using a truth serum SF fans will recognize as fast-penta from Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series. He pulls an herb out of Homer's Odyssey to cure the resulting headache. He then uses a personal shield generator from Dune to stymie an attack by machine gun. He obtains further help for his defense from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Starship Troopers, but the assailant responds with chlorine gas from a World War I history book. Luckily, the magic potion from the The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe is up to that challenge.

Jim Hines is having a lot of fun writing a book incorporating all the other books he loves to read. If you love to read them too, you should enjoy this one tremendously.

THE WINNER: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Libriomancer advances to the semifinals to take on either A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer or Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Three-Body Problem for Novel :: Aaron's Take on the 2015 Hugo Nominees

Best Novel is by far the strongest of this year's Hugo Award fiction categories, because only two of the nominees are Sad/Rabid Puppy choices (the Butcher and Anderson books), and it seems to me those two were chosen because a number of the Puppies actually like the authors' work, not merely because the author is friends with Brad or published by Vox, which is refreshing. That said, they're still not legitimate nominees and I'm still making liberal use of the No Award option. But all of the nominees in this category are at least written at a professional standard, and two are certainly Hugo-worthy.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novel:
1. Cixin Liu - The Three-Body Problem
2. Ann Leckie - Ancillary Sword
4. Jim Butcher - Skin Game
5. Kevin J. Anderson - The Dark Between the Stars
6. Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) - The Goblin Emperor

The last two choices fell to the bottom simply because I found them rather dull. I could only fight my way 200 pages into The Goblin Emperor, because Monette never gave me a sense of what was at stake. I never felt any sense of urgency, as the protagonist made a series of choices that as far as I could tell were entirely trivial and unimportant.

I similarly found it difficult to get into The Dark Between the Stars, partly because it picks up where Anderson's last multi-volume space opera left off, so there was a lot of catching up to do. But I think my trouble with it goes deeper than that. I was once lucky enough to have a great author critique one of my stories. He suggested I rewrite a scene where the main characters had a conversation while driving through an alien city. He told me there's nothing interesting about driving in a car, and I shouldn't make my readers see the city through a piece of glass. In The Dark Between the Stars, I persistently felt like there was a piece of glass between me and the best parts of the story. For example, early on we meet a viewpoint character who has abducted his own son and left his wife, because she refused to believe him about an imminent danger to their home. This would be a terrible, heartbreaking choice, but for some reason it all happens offstage and we only hear about it later, as the guy is staring into space twiddling his thumbs.

I rate Skin Game ahead of The Dark Between the Stars and The Goblin Emperor because Jim Butcher's storytelling has more immediacy to it, and so I found it easier to read. And yet I don't much care to see the Hugo Award go to the umpteenth book in a series, addressing story elements that this author has covered ten times before and other authors have covered a thousand times.

The two nominees that I find Hugo-worthy are The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. Both of these novels are well-written and thought-provoking and original. One could make a case for either. I have a slight preference for The Three-Body Problem, especially since Ann Leckie already won a Hugo Award last year for Ancillary Justice, which introduced many of the same concepts that make Ancillary Sword so interesting.

I urge you to vote for Liu or Leckie for Best Novel, and perhaps we can end the Hugo Award ceremony on a high note after stepping through all the Puppies' messes in the previous categories.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

NO AWARD for Novella :: Aaron's Take on the 2015 Hugo Nominees

Like the short story category, the Hugo nominees for Best Novella were all stuffed onto the ballot by the Sad/Rabid Puppies. I urge you to vote No Award in the novella category so as not to reward bloc voting for a slate, and because none of the nominated stories is Hugo-worthy.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novella:
2. Tom Kratman - Big Boys Don't Cry
3. John C. Wright - Pale Realms of Shade
4. John C. Wright - The Plural of Helen of Troy
5. John C. Wright - One Bright Star to Guide Them
6. Arlan Andrews, Sr. - Flow

Starting from the bottom, "Flow" is yet another novel excerpt appearing here thanks to Puppies who didn't care to take the time to find five actual novellas to stuff onto the ballot. The piece is part of an ongoing serialized story, with no beginning, no ending, no point. Events happen and characters pop up for no apparent reason, because the pay-off will be in a forthcoming section. If you think Arlan Andrews is an underrated writer (which I don't dispute), it does him a great disservice to push this obviously inappropriate story fragment onto the Hugo ballot. And of course, it's insulting to anyone who published an actual novella last year.

This brings us to the John C. Wright show. The Puppies have struck a blow for diversity on the Hugo ballot by jamming three novellas by the same author (all published by the contemptible Vox Day) into the same category. Luckily, they don't all read the same.

"One Bright Star to Guide Them" is Wright at his most annoying. The story's characters are adults who took part in a Narnia-style adventure as children. I loved stories like that as a kid, didn't you? But as far as I can gather from this narrative, Wright has nothing but contempt for such tales. Certainly this piece has none of the sense of fun and adventure one expects in a YA-style fantasy.

"The Plural of Helen of Troy" is Wright at his most sloppy. The voice changes jarringly, as the narrator forgets whether he's a poet or a Depression-era private eye, and the narration is filled with nonsensical lines like how a character "looked young for his age, which I pegged somewhere between forty-five and fifty." The story is peopled with historical figures, and these little mistakes kept me from believing in any of them — e.g., do not invoke Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to Jack Kennedy, and then speak without irony of how well she hits the high notes.

"Pale Realms of Shade" is Wright at nearly his most tedious (it doesn't quite reach the standard of "Parliament of Beasts and Birds"), as what starts out as an amusing story of a ghost who's kind of a jerk turns into a dry theological piece about a jerk seeking redemption from the Lord. John C. Wright has written good work in his career, and has received legitimate nominations for major awards, including a Best Novel nomination for the Nebula. Hopefully everyone understands the Puppies are a joke, so they don't hold this year's sham nominations against him in evaluating his career.

After reading so many slow, message-laden Puppy nominees, in a way it's refreshing to read "Big Boys Don't Cry" by Tom Kratman, which actually is the kind of story the Puppies claim to like: an action-oriented military SF adventure in which a futuristic battle tank reminisces about all the planets it's helped bomb into submission. Unlike many of the Puppy nominees, I don't believe the writing in this story is objectively bad. But for me, a little of this kind of thing goes a long way:
Meanwhile, the Ratha's secondary armament, a 75mm KE cannon, electrically driven and coaxially mounted, plus two similarly mounted 15mm Gauss Guns, the twin gatlings in the bow, the three on the cupolae atop her turret, and the top deck-mounted AP/AF guns, kept busy, whirring out a nearly continuous stream of smaller, hypersonic projectiles, eviscerating Slugs and blasting their sleds into wicked, black clouds of fragmented metal.
I can't support giving this one a Hugo, for fear that some unsuspecting reader looking for award-worthy fiction might stumble upon this nearly continuous stream of pseudomilitary jargon, eviscerating their eyes and blasting their minds into wicked, gray clouds of fragmented brain. But I'm glad somebody's still writing this stuff, in case one day we all simultaneously lose our copies of Hammer's Slammers.

That brings us to . . . nothing. There's nothing else here to choose from. *Sigh.*

I'm voting No Award in this category because none of the nominees was nominated legitimately. But even if I were inclined to overlook that and vote on the stories' merits, the only one that comes anywhere close to award-caliber is the Kratman story. But it's pretty hard to muster enthusiasm for an author who has publicly proclaimed, "I want the Hugos utterly destroyed." If you take SF/F seriously, there's not really any alternative to No Award for novella.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"The Day the World Turned Upside Down" for Novelette :: Aaron's Take on the 2015 Hugo Nominees

Yesterday I (Aaron) went through this year's Hugo nominees for Best Short Story, all of which were stuffed onto the ballot by the Sad/Rabid Puppies, and recommended voting No Award in that category. Today we look at the nominees for Best Novelette. In this category, there is a single well-written nominee to which I could justify giving an award, "The Day the World Turned Upside Down." By an odd coincidence, it's the only nominee we've looked at so far that was not a Puppy choice. I urge you to vote for "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" and to rank No Award above everything else in this category, because they're not legitimate nominees and because they're not Hugo-worthy.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novelette:
1. Thomas Olde Heuvelt - The Day the World Turned Upside Down
3. Rajnar Vajra - The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale
4. Michael J. Flynn - The Journeyman: In the Stone House
5. Gray Rinehart - Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium
6. Edward M. Lerner - Championship B'tok

The people selecting the Puppies' Hugo slate was an exceedingly small group, perhaps no more than Brad Torgersen and Vox Day. (Puppy supporters like to tell a tale about the nominees being chosen democratically, distilled from a recommendations thread on Brad's blog. Here's the thread. You will not find a single one of the Puppy nominees for novelette mentioned anywhere on the thread. One of the short story nominees is mentioned, but only by the story's author.) I've concluded that they were not sincerely looking for the best stories they could find, but rather used bloc voting for a slate as an unethical means of getting their friends on the Hugo ballot, regardless of the quality of the nominated work.

Here is one of the obvious giveaways: many of the Puppy short fiction nominees are not short fiction at all, but rather excerpts of novels in progress. Analog has an editorial practice of printing many of its authors' novels one section at a time, essentially serializing the novels, just not in consecutive issues. If the readers don't mind, there's nothing wrong with Analog doing that. But it's pretty near impossible to claim with any sincerity that part two of a four-part novel is also one of the best novelettes or novellas published in a given year. (In theory, an excerpt could stand alone just fine, but in practice one seldom does, and really there's something wrong with your novel if it does, but I digress . . .)

"Championship B'tok" is a case in point. This story picks up right where the previous section (printed in Analog as "The Matthews Conundrum") left off, and the first part of the story hastily catches readers up on the story so far. Then "Championship B'tok" ends right in the middle of the tale — the editors might as well have printed "To Be Continued" at the bottom of the page. The narrative doesn't do much for me, but even if you really enjoy it, it's only part of the story. There's no real beginning, no ending, no resolution; the whole thing exists to be plugged into a larger story that will be published as a novel sometime. What a slap in the face to everyone who published an actual novelette last year, to suggest that this fragment is more deserving of Hugo consideration than their complete stories.

"Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium" is at least a complete story. But I find the writing awkward and the characters lacking in any personality, other than telling each other bad puns. I don't think this story reflects the best work of Gray Rinehart or the best of the work published in InterGalactic Medicine Show last year (which I'll disclose included a story of mine), and it certainly does not rank with the best novelettes to appear in the field in 2014.

"The Journeyman: In the Stone House" is another novel excerpt (as suggested by the colon). It was preceded by "The Journeyman: On the Short-Grass Prairie," and Flynn has already followed up with "The Journeyman: Against the Green," which appeared in the very next issue of Analog after "In the Stone House." I rather like the writing of "In the Stone House," but the story does not stand alone — nothing is resolved at the end — and this section is rather short on SFnal elements. Flynn's appearance here is also puzzling given the Puppies' stated intention of nominating works that would not have been considered by the damlibruls running SF fandom, since Flynn has previously been nominated for the Hugo Award six times.

"The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale" is written in an amusing style. But the absurdities in the plot pile up so fast — did the researchers posted on this planet for the last thirty years ever do any work at all? — that it's difficult to tell if the story is even meant to be taken seriously, or if it's intended as a parody of the kind of Golden Age tale the Puppies hold in esteem.

Which brings us to Thomas Olde Heuvelt's "The Day the World Turned Upside Down," the only nominee in this category not selected by the Puppies and, wouldn't you know it, the only one that actually reads like an award nominee. There are two things you have to allow the story to enjoy it: first, that it's a surrealist piece, not aiming for believability; second, that the protagonist is obsessive, not meant as any kind of role model. (The Puppies generally say they don't care for such complexities, even though works by the authors they claim to admire, like Heinlein, are chock full of them.) But then, neither is the protagonist evil. He is a person who has lost his bearings, and cannot get the world to make sense in his mind anymore. This is a feeling most of us have had at one time or another, but the story takes those feelings and externalizes them. It's nicely done and makes for fascinating reading, even if the author carries the metaphor a bit longer than he needed to.

I'm not sure "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" is a great story, but it's at least very good. Plus, it has something going for it that nothing else in this category has: it appears here because a lot of people independently read it and enjoyed it and decided to nominate it, y'know, the way the Hugos are supposed to work.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

NO AWARD for Short Story :: Aaron's Take on the 2015 Hugo Nominees

Hugo votes are due July 31. I (Aaron) have already expressed my contempt here for how the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies used bloc voting for a slate to game the Hugo nomination process and nullify the preferences of the majority of Hugo voters. In my view, the Puppy nominees are not legitimate nominees, and I will not vote for them for that reason alone. Others disagree and say we should vote for any deserving nominees, regardless of how they got on the ballot. In all of the fiction categories, the question is academic, since none of the Puppy choices are deserving nominees.

In the short story category, each of the nominees was a Puppy choice, resulting in surely the weakest Hugo ballot ever for short story. I urge you to vote "No Award" for Best Short Story, because we should try to discourage the Puppies and other potential voting blocs from attempting this kind of ballot-stuffing again, and because none of these stories deserves a Hugo Award.

(As an aside, let me say I don't much enjoy trashing the Puppy-nominated stories. Some of these stories were written by folks like me, fairly new authors still learning the craft. But if we're going to be honest, none of these stories is entirely successful, let alone award-worthy. To me, this is yet another unfortunate result of the Puppies' bloc voting: by forcing a slate of underserving nominees onto the ballot, the Puppies end up inevitably subjecting their own nominees to derision.)

Aaron's Ballot for Best Short Story:
2. Kary English - Totaled
3. Steven Diamond - A Single Samurai
4. Lou Antonelli - On A Spiritual Plain
5. Steve Rzasa - Turncoat
6. John C. Wright - The Parliament of Beasts and Birds

Starting from the bottom, John C. Wright is perhaps the most accomplished author in this group. But "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds" is not science fiction, not fantasy, not even really a story. It is a biblical parable, the sole purpose of which is to analyze the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. It might make for a fine discussion in a Bible study group, but it has no business on the Hugo ballot. It also renders laughable the Sad Puppies' complaints about message-oriented fiction on prior Hugo ballots. "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds" is nothing but message, every bit as heavy-handed as last year's "If You Were a Dinoaur, My Love" (a story with which the Puppies are strangely obsessed), but without that story's artistry or emotional impact.

"Turncoat" involves AI spaceships crewed by post-humans and a couple perfunctory laser battles, so I suppose you could squint and say it's the kind of old-fashioned space opera the Puppies claim to favor. But the writing is so awkward and the plot so simple and tired, the story is impossible to take seriously. It's possible this story could have found a home in Astounding magazine in the 1950s, but it would not have stood out, and it certainly would not have been nominated for a major award.

"On a Spiritual Plain" has a pseudoscientific premise — the strong magnetic field of an alien planet has the effect of trapping the souls of the dead — that could have been used to tell a moving story. It would be heartbreaking to learn that the soul of a person you care about has been denied a peaceful release. But this story features no such person. There is nobody here who cares for each other and nobody for us to care about, since the story features zero characterization. The person whose soul gets trapped is described simply as "an average Service 'grunt,' just another face under the dome." The apparently deliberate lack of characterization prevents the trip to release this fellow's soul from having any poignancy.

As far as I'm aware, "A Single Samurai" was Steven Diamond's first professional sale, and it reads like it: awkward writing (a crossing is "treacherous, but of no great challenge"), internal contradictions ("I feel no pain. I do not just ignore it, for that implies a recognition that it was there to begin with." Later: "The pain was the worst I had ever felt previously. It was a pain that, even as a samurai, I was unable to ignore."), POV errors (the protagonist is climbing the back of a mountain-sized beast, yet he can look it in the eye), etc. Yet I rate it as the second-best of this group of nominees, because at least it tells a story. There's a beginning, middle, and end, and at the end the protagonist does something meaningful. This is not the standard I should have to apply in rating Hugo Award nominees.

"Totaled" by Kary English is the only story in this category that is well-written, on a sentence-by-sentence level. The prose is effective and there is an actual character for us to care about. I suspect this story will win the Hugo Award, which will be preferable to any of the others winning, but still a shame. English has real ability, and may well write a Hugo-caliber story (or several) in the next few years. But "Totaled," a deeply flawed story, isn't it.

The problems with "Totaled" begin on the very fist page. Our narrator was grievously injured in a car crash, and now she is a disembodied brain. On the first page, she describes the accident. She says her sons were in the car, but they're fine; however, she was totaled. Ask yourself, How could she possibly know her sons are fine? She was effectively killed in the accident, and she hasn't yet learned to communicate as a brain. She couldn't know that. This is a rookie mistake by Kary English: reassuring her own protagonist that the boys are fine to go easy on her. But writing fiction is all about being cruel to your characters, not nice. English should have let her character agonize about her boys through the first section of the story.

This mistake threw me out of the story at the outset of "Totaled," and I could never get back in, because the story is missing something. The main character never changes, she never realizes anything meaningful, she never accomplishes anything important. (She helps someone get a project done at work, but if that's vitally important, the story fails to tell us so.) There's no urgency, no significance to her extra time as a brain. She could have died on the first page and nothing would be different. So despite Kary English's nice writing style, I have to rate this story a miss.

Having read all these pieces, it's impossible to take any of the Puppies' complaints about past Hugo nominations seriously. The Puppies say they like action-oriented adventures, but there's little such to be found on this list; most of these pieces are quite slow and dry. The Puppies express disdain for message fiction, but there's plenty of that here. The only thing distinguishing this list from past Hugo nominees is the poor writing. A random sample of stories from, say, last year's issues of Asimov's or F&SF or Lightspeed would be far superior to this group of nominees.

I do not believe this list of nominees represents a good faith effort by anyone to identify the best SF/F short stories published last year. Rather, this is a list assembled by two or three people who used a group of gullible followers to hijack the Hugo nominating system to throw award nominations to some of their friends, with little regard for the quality of the work being nominated.

This ballot is a sham. No Hugo Award should be presented for Best Short Story this year.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, Second Round :: Osama by Lavie Tidhar vs. Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon

Our second match in the second round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Osama by Lavie Tidhar doing battle with Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Osama: Solaris, October 2012 (published in UK by PS Publishing in 2011), 302 pages, cover art by Pedro Marques. Lavie Tidhar is an Israeli writer now living in London. Osama won the 2012 World Fantasy Award. Osama defeated The Steam Mole by Dave Freer to advance to the second round.

The setting of Osama is an alternate universe where Osama Bin Laden is the hero of a series of adventure pulp novels called Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. Tidhar's narrative peppers in passages from those novels, which describe terrorist attacks that actually occurred in our universe. In the opening 25 pages, an enigmatic woman asks our protagonist Joe, a Western detective living in Laos, to find the author of the Osama Bin Laden books. In the second 25 pages, Joe travels to Paris, where the books are published. He asks a lady of the night about the books. She knows them, but when he seeks more information she bursts out, "They should leave Papa D alone," and promptly leaves.

Beyond Here Lies Nothing: Solaris, August 2012, 352 pages, cover art by Vincent Chong. Gary McMahon is the author of a number of books, mostly horror. Beyond Here Lies Nothing is the third book in the Concrete Grove Trilogy. Beyond Here Lies Nothing defeated A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder to advance to the second round.

After a prologue from a child's diary describing a bogeyman that goes "clikcety clikcety," the first 25 pages of Beyond Here Lies Nothing introduced us to Marc Price, who is researching the odd township of Concrete Grove. In the second 25 pages, Marc goes home with a strange woman named Abby, who he learns had a daughter who disappeared a few years earlier. We also meet a detective named Royle, driven to alcoholism by the unsolved disappearances in Concrete Grove. In a poignant phone call, we learn that Royle's pregnant wife has moved out until he can control his drinking.

The Battle: Here are two books with solid openings, both of which I genuinely want to keep reading.

Osama takes me to an intriguing universe where al Qaeda's terrorist rampage was somehow contained within the pages of a series of pulp novels. Beyond Here Lies Nothing introduces me to a memorably creepy section of London. Both books take the time for me to get to know their main characters, believable people with relatable problems.

Through 50 pages, I can already say that these are both strong novels well worth checking out. But the Battle of the Books rules devised by some idiot (me) require that I choose only one of the two books to keep reading. I know which one I have to choose, for a nitpicky reason and for a significant reason.

The nitpicky reason goes to the author's writing styles. The writing in Osama is, to my tastes, pitch perfect so far. If I had been in a writing group with Lavie Tidhar and had read this manuscript, I would have told him there's a typo on page 57 and had nothing else to say. The writing of Beyond Here Lies Nothing is also good, but I can find things to quibble with. There are some turns of phrase that don't quite work for me. (E.g., when Marc kisses Abby, "Her thin lips were hard; her large mouth was soft and wet" -- this throws me out of the story as I try to figure how someone could have hard lips but a soft mouth.) And there are several passages where a character perceives everyday places and objects as ominous, for instance:
The empty play park opposite looked different, as if subtle changes had occurred. The swings rocked slowly, the roundabout turned as if it had been pushed gently by an invisible hand; the climbing frame seemed as if it were tensed for movement, like a large spider waiting to pounce.
By itself, I rather like this passage. The problem is that there are a dozen other passages just like it, and for me a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. I prefer Tidhar's relative restraint, for instance pausing to describe airplane passengers as "like silkworm larvae in their soft cocoons" and then quickly moving on.

The more significant reason is that Osama has managed to draw me into the story slowly, taking time for strong characterization, while still giving me a pretty good sense of what to expect. This is a tale of alternate universes, where the bin Laden of our universe becomes a pulp hero in another universe. The sorry detective sent to get to the bottom of this is not going to like what he finds. I want to read that. Meanwhile, Beyond Here Lies Nothing also builds slowly with good characterization, but it hasn't given me a sense of the story's big picture. I know it is a horror novel where people, especially young girls, are apt to disappear forever. But I have no sense of what's behind it all, other than that it goes "clikcety clikcety." That's not quite enough to hook me through 50 pages. (Even so, it's made me want to seek out a copy of McMahon's The Concrete Grove, to try this series from the start.)

THE WINNER: Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Osama advances to the semifinals to take on The Diviners by Libba Bray.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, Second Round :: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye vs. The Diviners by Libba Bray

We begin the second round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books with Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye against The Diviners by Libba Bray. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: Penguin Books, September 2012, 198 pages, cover photo by Simen Johan. Stefan Kiesbye is a German author now living in New Mexico. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone defeated The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker to advance to the second round.

In the first 50 pages of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, three different first-person narrators look back on tragic events from their childhood decades earlier, in the small German town of Hemmersmoor. In the opening 25 pages, Martin recalled how a new family to the village was killed after being accused (probably falsely) of cannibalism. Then Christian told us how at age seven he murdered his sister when a carnival worker instructed him to capture her soul in a glass vial. The next 25 pages consist of a long chapter narrated by Linde, daughter of the gardener for the town's wealthiest family. When that family took in a widow and her child, Linde's mother began harboring suspicions about her husband and the widow. The mother pulls strings for the widow to receive a pension that allows her to move out, with unintended consequences.

The Diviners: Little Brown, September 2012, 578 pages, jacket illustration by I Love Dust. The Diviners is a young adult fantasy set in the roaring 1920's. The Diviners soundly defeated Sharkways by A. J. Kirby to advance to the second round.

In the initial 25 pages of The Diviners, a malicious spirit was released into the world, and we were introduced to two young people with strange abilities, flapper Evie O'Neill from Ohio and Harlem numbers-runner Memphis Campbell. A single long chapter about Evie arriving in Manhattan comprises almost all of the next 25 pages. While in the big city, Evie will stay with her uncle, an expert on paranormal activities. She learns from him of a prophecy of a "coming storm," the only defense to which will be "diviners" who can foretell the future.

The Battle: This one surprised me. While I liked the first section of The Diviners, I came to this battle expecting Your House Is on Fire to advance, because it had such a creepy and memorably unusual opening. However, the Battle of the Books format demands that authors quickly build upon a strong opening. Reading through page 50, I find it's Libba Bray who has best met that challenge.

The second 25-page section of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is certainly not bad, but neither is it as tightly written or compelling as the opening section. Linde's first viewpoint chapter is perhaps too long, and it doesn't show the young Linde to have much personality (compared to the older Linde we've already seen piss on an old friend's grave). The chapter has a tragic ending, but it comes as the unintended consequence of a kind act, which doesn't match the punch of the previous chapters. Perhaps more importantly, Linde's chapter seems little connected to the prior chapters, giving the whole book an episodic feel through 50 pages.

Meanwhile, in the second 25-page section of The Diviners, Libba Bray hits all the right notes to build on a good opening. As with Your House Is on Fire, the chapter that makes up most of this section is longer than the previous chapters. But Bray effectively uses that space to let us better get to know her character Evie. Evie is a flawed young woman, much too concerned with what others think of her. But she is also fun-loving, despite her understandable insecurities, in a way that makes her easy to cheer for, for example in this scene when the first person she meets in Penn Station takes advantage of her friendliness:
Evie stood uncertainly for a few seconds. She stuck out her hand for a shake. With a smirk, Sam Lloyd drew her to him and kissed her hard on the mouth. She heard the shoe-shine men chuckling as she pulled away, red-faced and disoriented. Should she slap him? He deserved a slap. But was that what sophisticated Manhattan moderns did? Or did they shrug it off like an old joke they were too tired to laugh at?

"You can't blame a fella for kissing the prettiest girl in New York, can you, sister?" Sam's grin was anything but apologetic.

Evie brought up her knee quickly and decisively, and he dropped to the floor like a grain sack. "You can't blame a girl for her quick reflexes now, can you, pal?"
While this chapter focuses on development of Evie's character, Bray also manages to pepper in enough references to the larger conflict brewing around New York that the story still feels like it's moving ahead with a purpose.

YA urban fantasy isn't necessarily my first choice in sub-genres, but so far The Diviners is too much fun to put down.

THE WINNER: The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners advances to the semifinals to take on either Osama by Lavie Tidhar or Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Grim by Joseph Spencer vs. Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan

Our eighth and last first round match in Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Grim by Joseph Spencer taking on Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Grim: Damnation Books, September 2012, 168 pages, cover art by Dawné Dominique. Grim is the first novel by former journalist Joseph Spencer, who has since followed up with a sequel, Wrage. Grim combines elements of a crime thriller and a horror novel with a graphic novel sensibility. The main characters are Heath Grim and Detective Adam White. As hinted by the first names, this is a play on the Batman story. Grim is a very wealthy young man who spends his spare time fighting crime, only the criminals he fights tend to end up decapitated, their blood spattered about to gruesome effect. It seems Grim blacks out during these times, surrendering himself to a beast inside him. In the opening 25 pages, Adam White investigates one of these killings, and Grim comes under suspicion when a neighbor he mentions to White turns out apparently not to exist. Meanwhile, a local crime lord plots against the vigilante doing in his men.

Blood and Feathers: Solaris, August 2012, 364 pages, cover art by Pye Parr. Blood and Feathers is British author Lou Morgan's first novel, followed by the sequel, Blood and Feathers: Rebellion. She has also written a YA novel, Sleepless. In the opening 25 pages of Blood and Feathers, a woman named Iris follows her son into the maw of a set of giant teeth that appeared on her lawn. Then a young woman named Alice meets two strange people, Gwyn and Mallory, who claim to be old friends of her late mother's. When hands emerge from the ceiling and snap her father's neck, Alice bolts, but Gwyn and Mallory quickly return her home. They insist they are friends and begin to tell Alice incredible things she never knew about her mother.

The Battle: Both of these books have attention-grabbing first scenes.

Grim lives up to its title with a very dark opening scene in which Heath Grim returns home late at night, dripping blood, with no memory of where he's been, feeling feverish:
Yet, the reflection staring back at him in the mirror emitted an eerie glow so chilling that goose pimples broke out on the back of his neck and arms. Exhaustion slowed his senses to a crawl, and his eyes blinked shut. His heart raced. Bile crept up his throat.

The fiend broke its silence. "There's no escaping yourself, my son." The words came out of Heath's mouth, but the voice which said them wasn't his own. It was deeper, angrier.
That is a strong initial sequence. Meanwhile, Lou Morgan draws us in with an absurd opening scene that she makes believable, in which a woman's lawn is suddenly filled with tooth-shaped boulders leading to a throat. A throat with stairs. Stairs her son has just gone down . . . That's also good stuff.

However, while Blood and Feathers effectively builds on its opening scene, Grim quickly starts to lose its way. There are two decent scenes of a mob boss planning revenge against whoever killed some of his men. But the rest of the opening 25 pages are from the points of view of Heath Grim and Adam White, and all of their scenes are disrupted by unwelcome sidekicks. White has a resentful cop named Sinks trailing him everywhere, denigrating any women around and spouting idiotic lines at White like, "Let me show you how us real cops who don't get our names in the papers every fucking day do the dirty work for glory hounds such as yourself." Similarly, Heath Grim is constantly bombarded by wisecracks and lame puns from a Voice in his head, which sounds like his dead friend Craig. These sidekicks are unnecessary and unfunny and pretty much wreck the scenes with Grim and White, our two main characters.

In contrast, Blood and Feathers builds intensity through the first 25 pages. First, Alice sees her father inexplicably murdered. Then when she runs away, one of the two men she just met is somehow ahead of her, waiting. The two men tell her that her mother was an angel, a story she of course cannot believe, except that they don't allow her any choice:
"We knew your mother, Alice. We knew her better than even your father did. And we know you. Now it's time for you to know us." He closed his eyes, and the edges of the room suddenly seemed sharper, brighter. Everything grew lighter, and there was a sound like the wind in the trees, faint at first, then louder and louder.

As Alice watched, Gwyn unfolded his wings, and every bulb in the house blew out as one.
I am not a great fan of urban fantasies involving angels, but this is so well presented, it makes me want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan

Blood and Feathers advances to the second round to face A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Destiny's Flower by Linda Harley vs. A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

We are nearly complete with the first round in Bracket Eight in the Battle of the 2012 Books. This match-up features Destiny's Flower by Linda Harley versus A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Destiny's Flower: Infinity Publishing (a self-publishing service, not to be confused with Infinity Plus in the UK), September 2012, 312 pages. Destiny's Flower is labeled a science fiction romance. In the opening 25 pages, our leading lady Lynn Davis is abducted while teaching a college course and spirited away to the interstellar spaceship Destiny (although she doesn't yet know she's on a spaceship), which promptly has to battle past a fleet of enemy ships to get away from Earth. The dashing Lord Kyle von Talion needs Davis for something, we don't know what, and when he declines to tell her, she tries to escape through a ventilation shaft, putting the crew of Destiny in a tizzy. Linda Harley is a new author, with a PhD in Applied Physiology.

A Pretty Mouth: Lazy Fascist Press, October 2012, 227 pages, cover art by Matthew Revert. A Pretty Mouth is a novella collected with four related stories, all of which place Lovecraftian creatures in a slightly odd context. The first 25 pages consist mainly of the story "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs," set in Victorian or Edwardian times. When a Mr. Wooster loses a drunken wager, the price falls on his man Jeeves, who must confront a strange octopus-like creature. A Pretty Mouth is the first book by Molly Tanzer, whose latest effort is the Weird Western Vermilion.

The Battle: We've had some good luck in the Battle of the Books recently with self-published books that were written at a professional level. Untimed by Andy Gavin, for example, has already advanced to the second round of this bracket on the strength of a very entertaining opening section. Unfortunately, Destiny's Flower is not written to that standard. Linda Harley may yet develop into a fine writer, and if she does, she will look back on Destiny's Flower as an amateurish early effort. Comparing the first section of this book to A Pretty Mouth's strong opening illustrates what I mean.

Let's start with the descriptions in the two narratives. In the first few pages of Destiny's Flower, Lynn Davis is taken away from this planet and thrust into a bizarre universe of spaceships and quantum torpedoes. Except, it's not bizarre at all; rather, it's absurdly mundane. These people from another world sit on leather couches, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, decorate their walls with paintings of women in straw hats in fields of lilies, and sleep on "a Victorian double bed covered with a white comforter embroidered with blue flowers." Davis's interstellar trip, which should be bewildering, is about as strange as staying at a Motel 6.

In contrast, Molly Tanzer's setting is closer to home, but she quickly brings it to life:
Dolor-on-the-Downs is, like so many seaside towns, a place of distinct seediness. There was one street of hotels acceptable for human habitation, and the rest of the place was a hotch-potch of inferior lodgings, taffy shops, ice cream parlors, boardwalks, performers busking on streetcorners, teashops where the very windows bore a light sheen of grease, and, of course, public houses. During the season, children with sticky faces and sunburns run hither and yon without heed for the eardrums of others, and the beaches are clogged with their adoring parents, also sunburned, but less-often sticky-faced.
As this passage suggests, Tanzer is having a ball applying the voice of P.G. Wodehouse to a tale of suspense. For example, when Wooster boasts about Jeeves to the mysterious Lord Calipash, Jeeves narrates his response like this:
'Really,' said the Lord Calipash, and though I am neither a whimsical man by nature, nor the heroine of a Gothic romance, I felt a chill as his eyes raked over me.
That is wonderful stuff. Through the opening pages, Destiny's Flower has yet to find that kind of a voice.

Which is the better story idea, a modern woman being abducted and thrust into interstellar politics, or a Lovecraftian monster encountered by Jeeves the butler? The latter strikes me as more original, but really it doesn't matter which is better. Story ideas are plentiful, but they don't get you anywhere until you develop the craft to tell the story effectively. The opening of Destiny's Flower has done little to pull me into the story. Meanwhile, Molly Tanzer's confident and witty writing style has me convinced she has a story to tell that I want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

A Pretty Mouth advances to the second round to take on either Grim by Joseph Spencer or Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Two Will Walk With You" by Grá Linnaea :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

Our Story Recommendation of the Week feature has fallen by the wayside in favor of the Battle of the Books, but I'm determined to start posting story recommendations again. In light of the hot mess that is this year's Hugo Award ballot in the short fiction categories (more on that to come), I think it's important to call attention to how much wonderful short fiction is being published in our genre.

My first Story Recommendation of the Week of 2015 goes to "Two Will Walk With You" by Grá Linnaea, from the anthology XIII: Stories of Transformation edited by Mark Teppo.

"Two Will Walk With You" begins with 17-year-old Japanese girl Ayu desperately running from the keep where she has lived for seven years, learning Christian magic. She has killed a priest in self-defense, and she knows the punishment for her crime: a Socius, or Tomo, a demon companion that will never leave her alone.

Fleeing in a passing wagon, Ayu meets an old man named Hageatama who accepts her company, claiming to be "bored," even after he learns of her curse:
They trudged silently through the wet of the Azusakawachi swamplands toward the Maibara valley. The sun shone harshly, reflecting rainbows off the misty water. Canary grass grew close and sodden to the path they forged. Neither had spoken since the night before.

Midday Hageatama broke the silence. "You have a Tomo on you, girl."

Ayu said nothing. They walked further.

"The Socius." Hageatama butchered the Latin. "The Tomo. No one escapes." He poked his walking stick at her back.

Ayu spun and slapped the stick away. "I know!" Her voice cracked. "No one knows more than I do! The Socius is woven to my soul, it won't stop—"

Hageatama cut her off, his voice loud and gentle. "It can't stop. It is made from your soul. It doesn't have one of its own." He pointed a dirty nail at Ayu. "And you can't escape."

* * *

Ayu's fear was replaced with a surprising feeling. "I almost feel sorry for it."

Hageatama's head shot up. "The Tomo?"

She rubbed her chest. "It must be awful not to have a soul."
Between the curse of the Toro and Ayu's sexual preferences, it seems impossible that things could turn out well for her, and yet she and Hageatama refuse to abandon hope.

"Two Will Walk With You" exemplifies everything short fiction can offer: well crafted language, a memorable setting, a main character we quickly come to care about, an engaging story. And—dare I say it?—a message. A message that has nothing to do with politics, a message that is conveyed with subtlety, and yet it's what the story at its core is all about. "Two Will Walk With You" grapples with how we can live our lives in a way that is satisfying and meaningful, even when fate has stacked the deck against us. It's the kind of subject, relevant to all of us, that I expect a top-notch author to examine, even if there are no easy answers. Linnaea does that beautifully.

Grá Linnaea is a fellow Writers of the Future winner whose work has also appeared in Shimmer, Apex, IGMS, Daily Science Fiction, and other places.