Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep vs. The Just City by Jo Walton


The fourth and final match-up in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Letters to Zell by Camille Griep going up against The Just City by Jo Walton. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Letters to Zell: 47North, July 2015, 326 pages. Letters to Zell is an epistolary chick-lit fantasy novel, consisting of letters written to Rapunzel ("Zell") from her good friends CeCi (don't call her Cinderella!), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty). Letters to Zell outfought Originator by Joel Shepherd to get into the second round.

Through 50 pages, CeCi has gotten excited about studying cooking Outside (in our world), but she has to hide her activities from her husband, who doesn't think a princess should be doing the servants' work. Meanwhile, Rory finds she has about nothing in common with her rescuer prince. And Bianca is making her wedding plans and getting chummy with Maro, the princess from The Princess and the Pea in Zell's absence. ("Maro" is a type of pea. The title character is never named in The Princess and the Pea.) This friendship could get even more chummy, since Bianca confides she is attracted to both men and women, but there is a complicating factor: Rory detests Maro.

The Just City: Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings was published in June 2015. The third book, Necessity is just out. The Just City overpowered Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith to get into the second round.

In the opening 50 pages of The Just City, the goddess Pallas Athene determines to create a city modeled on Plato's Republic, apparently just to see if it can be done. A group of 300 scholars are designated to run the place, including Maia, a young woman who felt limited by her options in 19th Century England and prayed to Athene for a way out. Maia and the other leaders bring in some 10,000 young people to be educated in Plato's fashion, heavy on the philosophy and naked calisthenics. Among these students is Simmea, a young girl rescued from slavery in the distant past.

The Battle: This match-up, featuring a chick-lit reworking of fairy tale mythology and a philosophical fantasy leaning heavily on the classics, underscores what the Battle of the Books is all about. The winner in Battle of the Books is not always the book I'm enjoying the most. It's the book I most want to keep reading.

Through 50 pages, Letters to Zell is a fun, easy read. I'm enjoying all three princesses' voices, especially Snow White's:
Yes, I flirted with a Human. Big fucking deal. I mean, I know what I used to say. But I can change my mind, just like the rest of you, can't I? Humans can't all be assholes, right? Head of Soufflés herself can't be responsible for techno music, Chia Pets, and pies in a jar.

Besides, here I am, back where that nonsense exists safely between the covers of Cosmo. So yeah, maybe I'd like one of those cell phones. But who wouldn't? They're a lot more pleasant than pigeons (sorry, Cliff) but only because they don't shit all over the floor.
The theme about the characters wishing they could break out of the roles and storylines assigned to them is clearly meant also to apply to women who aren't in fairy tales.

In comparison, The Just City has a bit of a ponderous opening. Most of the opening 50 pages consist of Simmea, the naïve former slave girl, looking around in wonder at her beautiful city. If I had to pick which book I've enjoyed more through 50 pages, I think I would have to pick Letters to Zell.

But here's the thing: Letters to Zell is made up of repeated variations on the same joke: fairy tale princesses kvetching in the voices of modern women. It's a funny joke, yet I'm not especially excited about reading almost 300 more pages of the same gag. I can't help wondering if the story wouldn't have worked better as a novella or novelette.

Meanwhile, The Just City is building slowly, but it's developing some intriguing possibilities. How will all these beautiful people get along, now that they have the chance to put Plato's theories into practice? The leaders are fond of breaking into committees and seeking consensus. It seems unlikely the City will function well under this approach indefinitely. It also seems not to have occurred to the scholars in charge that all the former slaves in their City may eventually balk at being told what to do by those scholars, whom they may regard as merely a new set of masters. I want to see how these complications play out.

In particular, I want to see how things work out on a personal level for Maia and Simmea, who come into the Just City with so much hope. Here, for example, Simmea describes her excitement at all the new experiences:
How could I not have been happy? I was in the Just City, and I was there to become my best self. . . . Ikaros, one of the youngest men among the masters, set us to read provacotive books, and asked fascinating questions about them. Sometimes he and Ficino would debate a question in front of us. I could almost feel my mind growing and developing as I listened to them. I was twelve years old. I still missed my parents and my brothers, sometimes, when something recalled them to me. But little did. My life was so different now. Sometimes it truly felt as if I had slept beneath the soil until I awakened in the City.
Maia and Simmea may not come up with as many wisecracks as the princesses in Letters to Zell, but I think they have more potential to develop into complex characters about whom I want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City advances to the semifinals to take on Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz vs. Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson


For our third match-up in the second round we have Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz doing battle with Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Flex: Angry Robot, March 2015, 423 pages, cover art by Stephen Meyer-Rassow. Flex is the first book in the 'Mancer trilogy. The second volume, The Flux, appeared last October. Steinmetz was a Nebula Award nominee for his novelette "Sauerkraut Station." Flex overpowered Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson to get into the second round.

In the universe of Flex, 'mancers can perform impressive magic (and anyone can do it with the help of a drug called "Flex"), but there is always a backlash (called "the Flux"), so dangerous that use of this magic is illegal in the United States. In the first 25 pages, our protagonist Paul Tsabo, a former cop turned insurance company bureaucrat, was surprised to find he could do "bureaucromancy," magic performed with paper. But the first time he did it a fire ensued, severely injuring his six-year-old daughter. In the second 25 pages, Paul learns that the insurance company he works for has declined to pay for his daughter's reconstructive surgery, because it has determined the fire was deliberately caused by another 'mancer. (The fire was a backlash not only from Paul's use of magic but also from magic done by a young man in the same apartment building who was intentionally given an overdose of Flex, bad luck for Paul and his daughter, but just the kind of bad luck that tends to happen with the Flux.) Paul is afraid of his magic, but it appears he will have to use it in order to track down the offending magician (the one who gave that kid his overdose) and get his daughter the surgery she needs.

Hexed: Pyr Books, May 2015, 278 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Hexed is the opening volume in the Sisters of Witchdown series, which is based on Michael Alan Nelson's Hexed comic books. Hexed beat Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson to get into the second round.

In the opening 25 pages of Hexed, a teenage girl named Gina went with friends to a haunted house called the Worcester House. A creepy old woman she saw in the mirror there followed her home and later pulled her into a mirror right in front of Gina's bewildered father. The father then begged our young protagonist, Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves (Lucifer, for short), to use her knowledge of the occult to help. In the next 25 pages, Lucifer visits the Worcester House with Gina's boyfriend, David. He tells her one of Gina's girlfriends got hold of an old book they used for a summoning in the Worcester House. Gina visits the friend, who needs immediate help with the demon who has possessed her.

The Battle: Doing battle in this match-up are two urban fantasies with an "X" in the title. I admit urban fantasy is generally not my preferred subgenre of SF/F, but so far these are both well written and fun to read.

Hexed moves along a nice pace, making it easy to keep turning pages. Lucifer is an interesting character, a teenager leading a lonely life as an outsider, who feels resentful at times but doesn't let that prevent her from helping other people. The strength of the book is the wry humor, which comes through both in the narrative voice and in Lucifer's snarky dialogue. Lucifer tells David she is a thief and when he asks her why she decided to become a thief, she says, "The brochure said I'd get to do a lot of traveling." I'm not in the target audience for a book about a teenaged girl battling demons and witches, but I'd be happy to keep reading this one.

The opening chapters of Flex are also nicely written, engaging the reader in the story very effectively. The opening passages have quickly gotten me into Paul's skin, as he is nearly overwhelmed by everything happening to him: pain and dread from his daughter's injuries, confusion when confronted by his ex-wife, fear but also excitement over his new-found magical abilities. By the end of 50 pages, he decides his only way to help his daughter is to find the magician out there using Flex to destructive ends and compel that person to help Paul learn how to use his powers safely. It's a dubious plan, but I want to see how it plays out for him.

So how to choose between two books that I'm enjoying through the opening 50 pages? Since I'm not usually an urban fantasy reader, the key is for a book to convince me that it's got more going on than the run-of-the-mill urban fantasy. While I'm enjoying Hexed, so far it feels like it could have been a script for an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's not a bad thing, but it doesn't make me feel especially compelled to keep reading.

Meanwhile, Flex feels more original and unusual to me. It introduces a non-standard magical system — I especially like Paul's emerging ability to do magic by paperwork. Also, I very much appreciate how Steinmetz has quickly painted his protagonist into a corner. The first time Paul uses magic, his daughter ends up severely injured. That's an awful thing for a parent, and would naturally make him want to disavow ever using 'mancy again. Except it seems Paul won't be able to help his daughter recover without using it. That's the kind of dilemma that does indeed make me feel compelled to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

Flex advances to the semifinals to take on either Letters to Zell by Camille Griep or The Just City by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri vs. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu



Our second match in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri taking on The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Fortune's Blight: Tor, February 2015, 363 pages, cover art by Kekai Kotaki. Fortune's Blight is Book II of the Shattered Kingdoms series. Book I is Blood's Pride and Book III, Strife's Bane, is due out in December. Fortune’s Blight defeated Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis to get into the second round.

Fortune's Blight deals with the aftermath of a revolution led by King Daryan of the Shadari, which has overthrown the rule of their telepathic Norlander conquerors. In the opening 25 pages, we've seen Daryan confronted with a populace struggling with post-war hardships and now nearing rebellion against him. The second 25-page section consists of chapters from the point of view of two members of a Norlander noble family, the Arregadors. Rho Arregador (owner of the sword "Fortune's Blight") left his home in the north, by his own account because he slept with his brother's wife. Now he travels by ship with the deposed governor of Shadar. They still have an ace in the hole, however: a young Shadari under their control with powerful telekinetic abilities. Meanwhile, Kira Arregador, the brother's wife in question, remains at home in frozen Norland. Her husband has died in battle, and she must negotiate a minefield of court politics, centered on a new Norlander king she holds in contempt.

The Grace of Kings: Saga, April 2015, 618 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. The Grace of Kings is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty series. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for a third Hugo by translating last year's Best Novel winner The Three-Body Problem. The Grace of Kings is his first novel. The Grace of Kings overwhelmed Infinity Lost by S. Harrison to get into the second round.

The Grace of Kings is set on the Islands of Dara, an archipelago with a culture similar to ancient China. In the opening 25 pages we met Kuni Garu, a clever but mischievous student, and Mata Zyndu, a huge young fellow bent on revenge against the emperor. The second 25-page section jumps us ahead seven years, focusing on Kuni. He has been expelled from school and now lives a life of leisure, relying on the hospitality of friends and tavern-keepers who appreciate that a crowd tends to follow him about. But his lifestyle may be about to change as he meets the mayor's spunky daughter Jia Matiza, who sees his true potential.

The Battle: Here we have two complex secondary world fantasies going head to head.

Through 50 pages, to me the greatest strength of Fortune's Blight is Manieri's vivid descriptions of the different landscapes in her strange world. Here, for instance, Kira pauses to consider the courtyard in front of Norland's royal palace:
She preferred the narrow streets and little courts; here, she felt like she was being watched from every angle: from the towers and apparently empty slit-windows of Eotan Castle; from the huge green-glass terrace on the western side, supported by two twenty-feet-tall statues of wolf-headed Eotan the Progenitor; from the worn faces on the carvings of the ancient monarchs lining the rise; from the top of the hewn steps between them to the headland's highest point where the beacon burned day and night to guide ships into the harbor; and where the skull of Gargrothal, last of the great sea monsters, gaped down at them.
Although I appreciate the writing of Fortune's Blight, I find the story rather slow to get moving. In the second 25-page section, nothing especially significant happens. Rho Arregador looks over the water and thinks about stuff; Kira Arregador goes to a dinner party and thinks about stuff. Part of the problem is this is the second book in a series, and there's a lot of background information to catch us up on, but we've seen other sequels in Battle of the Books that have managed to keep the action moving more effectively early on.

I also like the writing in The Grace of Kings, and I feel connected to the characters, particularly Kuni, a rogue with a heart of gold. In the same chapter, he gleefully talks his way out of paying his enormous tab at a tavern, then intervenes to help a stranger desperate to keep her son from being conscripted into civil service. The mayor's daughter Jia, herself a willful young woman, first becomes interested in Kuni when she witnesses this moment.

In contrast with Fortune's Blight, 50 pages into The Grace of Kings, the plot is already well under way. This doesn't necessarily require a lot of action-packed scenes (although there has been one of those), only that the scenes feel important to the lives of the characters. In Fortune's Blight, Kira goes to a dinner party where nothing much happens. In The Grace of Kings, Kuni goes to a dinner party where he meets the woman one suspects he will marry. The dinner party in The Grace of Kings makes me feel involved in the story. I want to keep reading, to see more of the interactions between Kuni and Jia, and to see how their romance will ultimately impact the future of the islands of Dara.

THE WINNER: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings advances to the semifinals to take on The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler vs. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro



We begin the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books with The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler going against The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

The Banished of Muirwood: 47North, August 2015, 438 pages, cover art by Magali Villeneuve. The Banished of Muirwood is the first volume in the Covenant of Muirwood trilogy. The Banished of Muirwood defeated Forge of Ashes by Josh Vogt to get into the second round.

The heroine of The Banished of Muirwood is Maia, daughter of the king of Muirwood. Disappointed at not having any sons, the king has banished Maia from the capital and replaced Maia's mother with a scheming noblewoman. Sent on a very dangerous (perhaps pointless) mission, Maia soon finds herself and her "kishion" bodyguard pursued by "Dochte Mandar" wizards, who do not believe a woman should be allowed to practice magic, as Maia does. In a remote town, she meets a tough woodsman named Jon Tayt, who vows to help her escape. Despite his best efforts, the opening 50 pages end with Maia captured by the Dochte Mandar.

The Buried Giant: Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pages, March 2015, jacket design by Peter Mendelsund. Kazuo Ishiguro won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day. The Buried Giant overpowered Firesoul by Gary Kloster to get into the second round.

The Buried Giant takes place in ancient England after the Romans have withdrawn. Our main characters are an old couple named Axl and Beatrice. Frustrated that they don't remember him very well, they determine to leave their farming community and travel across country to see their son. It seems that nobody in this area can remember very much, something Axl and Beatrice attribute to a peculiar mist over the land. In the first 50 pages, they travel through a rainstorm to encounter a boatman dogged by an old woman furious that he took her husband across the water to a strange island but left her behind. Then they enter a Saxon village gripped by fear and paranoia, because a young boy has reportedly been carried away by an ogre.

The Battle: Here we have an epic fantasy going against historical fantasy.

The opening 50 pages of The Banished of Muirwood effectively pull the reader into the story. Wheeler alternates between present-day scenes, in which shit is going down around Maia in a big hurry, and flashbacks in which we learn how she ended up exiled into this mess. The pacing is just right to make it seem like a lot is a happening, while simultaneously taking time for us to get to know Maia and feel sympathy for how unfairly she has been treated by her father and by fate. It felt a bit contrived that this dynamic fellow Jon Tayt was waiting around in Maia's path with nothing better to do than risk his life on her behalf. Then again, that may yet turn out to be no coincidence.

The opening 50 pages of The Buried Giant have a slower pace, consisting simply of an elderly couple walking about talking to people, yet have pulled me into the story just as effectively. The affection Axl and Beatrice have for each other after a lifetime together is presented most endearingly, and the folks they encounter on the road are intriguing. I am very interested in the nature and effects of the mist that has fogged everyone's memories.

I am enjoying both these books and would be happy to keep reading either. But a decision must be made.

When a battle comes down to something I dislike about a particular book, that is usually easy to articulate. It's much harder to explain when a battle turns on my admiration for a writer who is far more skilled than I am.

Simply put, Kazuo Ishiguro rocks. I wish I understood everything he is doing for me to be so absorbed in The Buried Giant, so I could do the same when I write. The narrative flows over me in such a way that each time I start reading, I do not want to put the book down. The characters' quest to find their son and regain their memories is personal in a way I find very affecting. For instance, after they learn that the boatman they met is not permitted to transport a couple together without first asking questions to test the bond between them, Beatrice confesses fear to Axl:
"But what's to fear, princess? We've no plans to go to any such island or any desire to do so."

"Even so, Axl. What if our love withers before we've a chance to even think of going to such a place?"

"What are you saying, princess? How can our love wither? Isn't it stronger now than when we were foolish young lovers?"

"But Axl we can't even remember those days. Or any of the years between. We don't remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured. We don't remember our son or why he's away from us."

"We can make all those memories come back, princess. Besides, the feeling in my heart for you will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget. Don't you feel the same, princess?"

"I do, Axl. But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn't like the raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I'm wondering if without our memories, there's nothing for it but for our love to fade and die."

"God wouldn't allow such a thing, princess." Axl said this quietly, almost under his breath, for he had himself felt an unnamed fear welling up within him.
After 50 pages, I'm enjoying The Banished of Muirwood, but feel compelled to keep reading The Buried Giant.

THE WINNER: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant advances to the semifinals to take on either Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri or The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith vs. The Just City by Jo Walton


The eighth and last first round match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith taking on The Just City by Jo Walton. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Towers Fall: Talos Press, November 2015, 386 pages, cover images by Thinkstock. Karina Sumner-Smith was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2007 for her short story "An End to All Things." Towers Fall is the third volume in the Towers Trilogy, after Radiant and Defiant.

The Towers Trilogy is set in a world of extreme social stratification. The elites live in floating towers clustered around a "Central Spire," while the downtrodden live on the ground in the Lower City. Among the poor folks in the Lower City is our young heroine Xhea, who has various magical abilities including the power to talk to ghosts, particularly her ghost companion Shai. Through her magical senses, Xhea has realized that a supernatural being has come to life underneath the Lower City. It seems in the prior books, there was a failed attempt to lift a new tower into the sky. When the tower came crashing down, Xhea persuaded the living Lower City to catch it and prevent utter disaster. This has alerted the Central Spire to the presence of the being under the Lower City and to Xhea. In the opening 25 pages of Towers Fall, the Central Spire orders all the inhabitants of the Lower City to leave, presumably so they can find this supernatural entity, and they send a ghost to place a spell on Xhea that seems designed to strip away her powers.

The Just City: Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings was published in June 2015. The third book, Necessity is due out in July 2016.

The Just City is set in a shining city created by the goddess Pallas Athene, modeled after Plato's Republic. Having no difficulty jumping about time, she decides to locate the city near Atlantis before its fall (which we learn will be triggered by a volcanic eruption). The first 25 pages consist of first-person chapters from the point of view of Apollo, who decides to become mortal to experience this city; a young girl named Simmea who was rescued from slavery in the distant past and brought to the city; and another girl Maia, who wants to be a scholar but finds no such opportunity in 19th Century England, so prays to Athene for the chance to live in Plato's Republic, and ta-da!

The Battle: We have two fantasy novels doing battle, each with a very different tone. Towers Fall arguably fits in the current dystopian subgenre, while The Just City is more of a utopian story.

Towers Fall starts with the disadvantage of being the third book in a trilogy. But Karina Sumner-Smith does a nice job of catching us up in the story without letting the summaries slow down the pace of the narrative. I feel like I have gotten a good sense of the story so far, and yet things have already happened, including the shocking announcement that everyone must evacuate the Lower City and an attack on Xhea and her magical abilities. It's actually The Just City which has the slower pace so far. We've met some of the characters and learned their backgrounds, but have yet to get much sense of Pallas Athene's eponymous city.

But as I've noted before in the Battle of the Books, it isn't always action that pulls me into the opening passages of a novel. While Sumner-Smith opens Towers Fall capably enough, the story has yet to grab me. After 25 pages, I don't feel like I've gotten much sense of the main characters Xhea and Shai. I like the notion that the entity under the Lower City was created as an unintended byproduct of dark magic being dumped by the towers. And yet the blatant social stratification in the story feels heavy-handed to me, especially since the motif is getting overused lately:
It was clear that the Spire cared little for the people on the ground, nor for how those people might suffer as a result of the dark magic poured down upon them, night after night. The Spire did not care that Lower City dwellers' own magic was thin and weak; that they died young, or sickened frequently, or were poisoned by the very walls around them, the ground beneath their feet.
Star Trek gave this same scenario, with the privileged living in the clouds, a more even-handed treatment fifty years ago.

Meanwhile, I already feel a connection to the three viewpoint characters in The Just City, each of whom has a distinctive voice. Jo Walton's dry wit is on display. And while the story tells of the attempt to create a utopian society, Walton has already signaled from the first page of Simmea's narrative that such lofty goals can generate unintended consequences:
When I came to the Just City I was eleven years old. I came there from the slave market of Smyrna, where I was purchased for that purpose by some of the masters. It is hard to say for sure whether this event was fortunate or unfortunate. Certainly having my chains struck off and being taken to the Just City to be educated in music and gymnastics and philosophy was by far the best fate I might have hoped for once I stood in that slave market. But I had heard the men who raided our village saying they were especially seeking children of about ten years of age. The masters visited the market at the same time every year to buy children, and they had created a demand. Without that demand I might have grown up in the Delta and lived the life the gods had laid out before me.
After reading only 25 pages into The Just City, I am already absorbed and anxious to read more.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City advances to the second round to face Letters to Zell by Camille Griep.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep vs. Originator by Joel Shepherd


Our seventh and penultimate first round match of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books pits Letters to Zell by Camille Griep against Originator by Joel Shepherd. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Letters to Zell: 47North, July 2015, 326 pages. Letters to Zell is an epistolary novel, consisting of letters written to Rapunzel ("Zell") from her good friends CeCi (don't call her Cinderella!), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty). It seems Zell has abandoned their home in Grimmland to go manage a unicorn preserve. CeCi takes this gracefully, while Bianca begins her first letter, "Z, you silly bitch." The ladies are getting bored and so decide to travel Outside (i.e., to our world) to take a cooking class. Snow White ignores that she is officially "discouraged" from going, because her wedding has not yet happened, and therefore she has "unfinished Pages."

Originator: . Pyr, January 2015, 397 pages, cover art by Stephan Martiniere. Originator is the sixth volume in the Cassandra Kresnov series of science fiction adventures by Australian Joel Shepherd. This book begins with Sandy (Cassandra) at a school play starring one of her three children. Her enjoyment is interrupted by the announcement that the moon of Cresta has been destroyed by forces unknown. Sandy immediately moves her Spec Ops forces into action, beginning with trying to capture "Subject A," a mysterious figure they have been trailing. It turns out that Subject A is also under surveillance by FedInt and a League infiltration team, while meeting with an alien Talee. (Don't wait for me to explain who these various groups are, because I don't know.) Sandy has her cruiser shot out of the sky, but she survives to find a murdered Subject A. She meets up with her other people in time for a firefight over Subject A's companion.

The Battle: We have a chick-lit fantasy against an action-packed science fiction adventure. Letters to Zell faces an uphill battle, because I'm a huge science fiction fan, not much of a chick-lit reader. But upsets do happen . . .

The opening 25 pages of Letters to Zell are a lot of fun to read. Each of Rapunzel's three correspondents has a distinctive voice. They all have more attitude than one might expect from their Disney incarnations, but in different ways. I particularly like Snow White, who apparently came away from her years with the dwarves with a bit of a potty-mouth. Here Sleeping Beauty describes meeting up for their first visit to Outside:
Thinking our outing was to be an informal affair, I was enjoying five extra minutes of sleep when CeCi turned up attired as though we were attending a party, blond hair coiffed and complexion perfect, as if she'd been up for hours. As for Bianca, she managed to secure some sort of Outside clothing from Rumple's tailoring shop. We spent the entirety of the walk from my castle to Solace's Clock Shop arguing whether her arms were inserted through the correct openings. I maintain to this minute that she put the outfit on wrong, because it didn't cover very much of her. Bianca informed us she'd been reading something called Cosmo, and that we could kindly go fuck ourselves.
We're not far into the story after 25 pages, but I'm enjoying the set-up enough that I'd be happy to keep reading.

Meanwhile, 25 pages into Originator, things are happening at a break-neck pace. Already a planetoid has been destroyed, our protagonist has survived having her aircraft shot down, visited a murder scene, and burst into a firefight that erupted in the middle of a wedding on another world. This should be a page-turner, but I confess so far I feel quite distant from all the action.

Part of the problem is this is the sixth book in a dense series, and I have no concept yet of who most of the major players are or what they want. I don't even know what planet Sandy is on. Even if I had read the previous books, however, I'm not sure I would have followed why Sandy believes "Subject A" has anything to do with the destruction of Cresta. I think this is an example of a narrative that is too fast-paced, giving the reader no time to understand the significance of all the action.

Another issue for me is that Shepherd's writing style does not do much to convey the immediacy of the situation. Here, for example, Sandy leaps from one cruiser to another in mid-air:
She stopped tracking the situation long enough to pop the door as Vanessa steered her cruiser underneath and to one side Wind blew in, not much, she was nearly hovering . . . she leaned to recover her bigger weapon from under the rear seat, locked the cruiser's course on auto, then stepped out. She fell five meters onto Vanessa's rooftop, then swung over the edge through the window Vanessa had opened for her.
Oddly enough, this will be the first of two times this chapter Sandy leaps from a moving aircraft. The second time: "The door cracked, and again Sandy stepped out." This matter-of-fact statement does not really give me an adrenaline rush, nor am I impressed with such bland descriptions as "her bigger weapon." I think it's all meant to suggest that Kresnov is such a badass that dropping from a moving aircraft is a walk in the park for her. But perhaps she is too much of a badass? Too many descriptions like this make the whole story start to feel like a walk in the park, no matter how many deaths and explosions have occurred. Which doesn't much compel me to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep

Letters to Zell advances to the second round to face either Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith or The Just City by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson vs. Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson


Our sixth first round match-up of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson doing battle with Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Blood Will Follow: Jo Fletcher Books, January 2015, 266 pages, cover photo by Arcangel Images. Blood Will Follow is the second book in the Valhalla Saga. The first book, Swords of Good Men competed in the Battle of the 2014 Books, falling to Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson in the second round. Kristjansson is an Icelandic writer now living in London.

The Valhalla Saga pits Vikings with traditional beliefs in the Norse gods such as Odin and Thor against followers of the "White Christ," including King Olav. In Swords of Good Men, King Olav and his men won a battle for the town of Stenvik. As Blood Will Follow opens, a dangerous man named Valgard convinces Olav to march north to engage the other Norsemen immediately, rather than waiting for springtime. Meanwhile, the adventurer Ulfar and blacksmith Audun march away from Stenvik. They have been granted immortality by a witch, something they both regard as a curse. Ulfar decides to head home (Ulfar seemed like the primary protagonist in the 50 pages I read of Swords of Good Men, but he has appeared onstage only briefly so far in Blood Will Follow.) Audun trudges forward without him, eventually finding shelter with a strange old man.

Hexed: Pyr Books, May 2015, 278 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Hexed is the opening volume in the Sisters of Witchdown series, which is based on Michael Alan Nelson's Hexed comic books.

In the prologue of Hexed, a teenage girl named Gina is terrified from having seen an old woman in a mirror in a haunted house called the Worcester House, which she visited with friends. She runs home, and her policeman father tries to comfort her. But the old woman has followed and reaches through another mirror for Gina. Then in the initial chapters, we meet our young protagonist, Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves, Lucifer for short. The policeman gets a tip that Lucifer is knowledgeable about phenomena like this and begs her to help find his daughter. Lucifer starts by questioning Gina's boyfriend David, from whom she learns that Gina had recently been to Worcester House.

The Battle: I'll confess I was not especially looking forward to this battle. I had previously read 50 pages into the first book in Kristjansson's Valhalla Saga and it didn't much grab me. And Hexed looked a lot like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer rip-off, a number of years after that would have sounded like a fresh idea. But I was pleasantly surprised by the opening 25 pages of both books, both of which have strong openings. I'm taking that as a reminder of just how many talented authors we have in the SF/F field.

In the last Battle of the Books match-up, I complained that the opening of one of the contestants didn't pull me in because it was busy recapping earlier volumes in the same series. Impressively, in Blood Will Follow, Kristjansson recaps the story so far in his series in a way that helps advance the new story elements:
The day fell into a steady rhythm: heave rough wood, hammer, nails, move on. Audun had to admit that the old man was an excellent worker. There was no fuss, minimal talking, and no stupidity. The old man did what needed to be done and never got in his way. Thank the gods for every man who isn't an idiot, Audun thought. Then he grinned. That would be the kind of thing he'd have muttered under his breath crossing the square in Stenvik, before . . .

"What happened?"

The question came out of nowhere and broke the quiet.

"I . . . what?"

"Tell me."

Audun looked at the old man, who just looked levelly back at him with his one good eye. "There . . . um . . . there was a siege. Around Stevnik. Someone called Skargrim surrounded the city." Fjölnir nodded at the mention of the name. "A lot of good men died."
The old man Fjölnir proceeds to force the tale out of Audun, letting new readers know more about the story to date, while also revealing the old man as someone more powerful and dangerous than we realized.

That scene in particular set a strong tone I thought would be difficult for Hexed to match. But the opening scene of Hexed, in which our missing girl Gina is abducted by a witch who reaches for her through a mirror, is effectively chilling. And I'm finding our young protagonist Lucifer spunky and tough but also sympathetic and funny. In this scene, for instance, she tries to interview Gina's boyfriend, who is playing basketball. One of the other players (Ethan) objects to Lucifer interrupting the game and calls her a "bitch." She bets him five dollars she can score on him in five seconds:
As soon as Greg started counting down, Lucifer raised the ball straight over her head. Ethan reached out to snatch the ball from Lucifer's hands, his arms uncoiling as quick as vipers. When he grabbed the ball, Lucifer let go and twisted her hips as hard as she could, bringing her shin up between his legs.

There was a dull, wet sound of bone on flesh. The impact lifted Ethan clear off the ground, and he cried out with a sharp, brittle yelp. He seemed to hang in the air for a moment, confused and disoriented before falling to the ground in a fetal heap. The basketball fell and hit him in the head before rolling off the court, its bouncing pitter-patter the only sound in the suddenly silent gym.

The other boys erupted in laughter. Lucifer grabbed the five-dollar bill and tossed it down at Ethan who lay on the ground clutching his privates and struggling to breathe. "You win."
After reading 25 pages, I'm enjoying both these books, but the wry sense of humor puts Hexed over the top.

THE WINNER: Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson

Hexed advances to the second round to face Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson vs. Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz


We continue the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books. The bottom half of the draw begins with Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson going up against Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Human Monsters: Medallion Press, March 2015, 400 pages. Human Monsters is the sixth and concluding volume of the Jake Helman Files, which began in Personal Demons. One of the Jake Helman books, Cosmic Forces, was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, one of three Stoker nominations Lamberson has received.

Jake Helman is a private eye specializing in supernatural forces, to which most of the world remains oblivious. As Human Monsters opens, New York City has been devastated by a storm summoned by the storm demon Lilith, just before Jake killed her in the last book. Jake's girlfriend Maria Vasquez is a detective with the NYPD. She has been assigned to investigate a series of deaths attributed to a serial killer taking advantage of the storm, but which she knows to be collateral damage from Jake's last misadventure. Meanwhile, Jake is anxious to locate his missing assistant Carrie, who seems to have run off with all his files.

Flex: Angry Robot, March 2015, 423 pages, cover art by Stephen Meyer-Rassow. Flex is the first book in the 'Mancer trilogy. The second volume, The Flux appeared last October. Steinmetz was a Nebula Award nominee for his novelette "Sauerkraut Station."

Flex is set in an alternate version of our world where 'mancers can perform various kinds of magic, although it's been illegal in the U.S. since magic devastated Europe. And 'mancers can distill their magic into a crystal drug called "Flex," which anyone can take and become temporarily magical. Flex essentially allows you to bend random events to your favor, so you can have nearly anything you want, by apparent good fortune. But there is a backlash, called "the Flux," in which you will suffer from bad luck in proportion to how much you relied on Flex.

In the prologue, a young man uses Flex to win over a beautiful woman, whose boyfriend just happens to call at that moment to confess he's been cheating, which makes her want some angry revenge sex. That's pushing Flex a bit too far, and so after some amazing lovemaking, the gas main underneath them explodes. Then in the first two chapters, we meet Paul Tsabo, a former policeman filled with guilt from shooting a young 'mancer. His marriage has ended and he has gone to work for an insurance company, where he has discovered he has a talent for "bureaucromancy," performing magic with paper. His six-year-old daughter is staying with him when the gas main bursts. He uses his magic to tunnel through the flames separating him from his daughter, only to have the Flux from his bureaucromancy set her on fire.

The Battle: If you like labels, you can say we have two urban fantasies doing battle here, although I think both authors are trying to step outside the usual conventions of the sub-genre.

Human Monsters starts out at a slight disadvantage, because it's the sixth in a series. Lamberson spends most of the first 25 pages filling in background information that regular readers of the series surely already know. Meanwhile, Flex introduces us for the first time to the type of magic in Steinmetz's universe, effectively illustrating just how dangerous it can be.

So there's a lot more drama to the opening 25 pages of Flex. And, as always with Steinmetz, the prose is first rate. Even though Paul, the main character of Flex, doesn't appear until thirteen pages in, I feel like I've already gotten a pretty good sense of his personality. The guy was having a tough go of things even before his daughter caught fire, and my sympathy for him makes me want to keep reading.

I don't yet feel that kind of connection to the characters in Human Monsters. In the opening 25 pages, Maria Vasquez describes some of the bizarre experiences she's had hanging out with Jake, including battling "zonbies" (dunno yet how they differ from zombies) and demons in Central America and back home in New York, but in a dispassionate way that hasn't much drawn me into the story so far. Perhaps reading further would have pulled me in, but the Battle of the Books is cruel that way.

THE WINNER: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

Flex advances to the second round to face either Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson or Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu vs. Infinity Lost by S. Harrison


Our fourth match-up of the Battle of the 2015 Books has The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu doing battle with Infinity Lost by S. Harrison. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Grace of Kings: Saga, April 2015, 618 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. The Grace of Kings is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty series. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for a third Hugo by translating last year's Best Novel winner The Three-Body Problem. The Grace of Kings is his first novel.

The Grace of Kings is set on an archipelago, the Islands of Dara, reminiscent of our ancient world. The largest island consists of six different kingdoms, all of which have been conquered by Xana, located on one of the smaller isles. The opening 25 pages introduce us to two students, Rin and Kuni, who cut class to see the emperor pass through on a grand tour of the empire. They witness an unsuccessful attempt on the emperor's life, and Kuni is delighted to realize that the emperor was afraid, that he is just a man. Next we meet Mata Zyndu, a giant of a man, most of whose noble family was wiped out by the emperor's forces. He and his Uncle Phin, who has trained Mata from infancy, also watch the emperor's procession, planning their revenge.

Infinity Lost: Skyscape, November 2015, 250 pages, cover design by M.S. Corley. Infinity Lost is Book One of the Infinity Trilogy, the debut work by New Zealander S. Harrison.

The main character of Infinity Lost is Infinity "Finn" Blackstone, 17-year-old daughter of the richest man in the world, whom she has somehow never met. Finn's mother apparently died in childbirth. In our world's near future, her father's company, Blackstone Technologies, is Microsoft on steroids, dominating the world economy. Blackstone produces super-duper artificial hearts everyone uses; Blackstone even controls the weather. Finn, who has never had dreams before, starts to dream events from her past she doesn't remember, including learning to use firearms and meeting her father's executives. Then she learns that top students from her private school will soon get to visit Blackstone Technologies.

The Battle: I read the opening 25 pages of each of these two books over a week ago, but got busy and didn't have time to write up this battle post right away. It turns out that the passage of time makes it easier for me to articulate the basis for my decision.

After a week, I had to reread much of the opening of Infinity Lost to write the above synopsis. The first two chapters of the book are written well, and yet they did not stay in my mind. I think that's because so far it's a one-dimensional story: it's exclusively about Finn trying to figure out what the deal is with her rich, reclusive father. And I think after 25 pages, I can pretty much guess the answer. There have been many hints that Finn's father ignores her because she is to him only one of his company's many research projects.

In contrast, I remembered The Grace of Kings well enough that I could have picked it up and continued reading without missing a beat. The opening pages of The Grace of Kings begin to weave a rich tapestry, and the parts I've glimpsed so far have very much stuck with me.

We have already learned some of the interesting history of the Islands of Dara, but we can tell there's a lot more backstory that will yet be filled in. The characters have also caught my interest, Mata because of his burning need to address the wrongs done his family, Kuni simply for his wit and eagerness. I don't know what is going to happen to them, but I know one way or another Mata and Kuni will prove a challenge to the emperor's rule, and I want to see how that story unfolds.

THE WINNER: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings advances to the second round to face Fortune's Blight by Evie Manieri.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Fortune's Blight by Evie Manieri vs. Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis


For the third battle of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books we have Fortune's Blight by Evie Manieri going against Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Fortune's Blight: Tor, February 2015, 363 pages, cover art by Kekai Kotaki. Fortune's Blight is Book II of the Shattered Kingdoms series. Book III, Strife's Bane is due out in December. In the first book, Blood's Pride, King Daryan led a revolution against the foreigner Norlanders, who had invaded and enslaved his people, the Shadari. The revolution was (spoiler alert!) successful, but problems still abound.

In the opening 25 pages of Fortune's Blight, we see the mercenary Lahlil (formerly known as the Mongrel), who was instrumental in helping Daryan to overthrow the Norlanders, but is now running from her past among a tribe of Nomas desert nomads. She has daily seizures she attributes to different gods competing for her soul, and in this universe she may be right. We also meet Daryan, new king of the Shadar, patrolling his kingdom with his Norlander love Isa, on a winged beast called a "triffon." Amid post-war hardships, both Daryan's people and Isa's band of turncoats are nearing open rebellion against Daryan's and Isa's leadership.

Oathkeeper: Pyr, June 2015, 377 page, cover art by Todd Lockwood. Oathkeeper is Book Two of the Grudgebearer Trilogy. The third book in this series, Worldshaker is due in August. In this series, a magical race called the Eldrennai long ago created a nearly immortal race of non-magical warriors, the Aern, as warrior-slaves to defend the Eldrennai against the reptilian, magic-resistant Zaur. The Aern were recently freed, and may yet come seeking vengeance from the Eldrennai, who are trying to make an alliance with the plant-like Vael against that scenario.

In the first 25 pages, we see Prince Rivvek of the Eldrennai, whose magical powers have been crippled by physical injuries, consolidating power in preparation for an anticipated attack by the Aern. It seems you need to have read the first book to know why he is in charge and not his father the king or his older brother. Meanwhile, a group of fierce and pernicious Zaur warriors launch an assault against a massive Vael "root tree." Prince Kholburran of the Vael sees his love Malli injured in the attack, but he refuses to abandon her and vows to heal her, which apparently means they must marry.

The Battle: For once in the Battle of the Books, we have a fair fight. Two second volumes in two epic fantasy series go head to head. After reading the opening sections of both, my guess is if you like one of these books, you'd like the other, so I'll have to do some hair-splitting here . . .

Oathkeeper seizes an initial lead because it puts us into the action quickly, showing an early skirmish between the vicious Zaur and the strange tree-like creatures the Vael, and introducing multiple kinds of magic (albeit magic with a retro feel, based on the "elements" of earth, air, water, and fire) and magical beasts. In contrast, Fortune's Blight has a bit of a ponderous opening, with understated fantasy elements (other than the winged triffons) and the only real action happening in a brief flashback.

But Fortune's Blight presses a couple important advantages to eat into that margin. First, I prefer the prose in Fortune's Blight. Evie Manieri's writing has a good flow to it, while Oathkeeper too often feels overdramatic, as if J.F. Lewis is trying to write passages to accompany trumpets and cymbals, with an unfortunate tendency to run-on sentences:
Sealing vents in active sections of the maze of underground passages that comprised Xasti'Kaur, the Shadow Road, made timing tricky at certain strategic phases of the plan, but it could also catch the Eldrennai by surprise and leave them gasping in the blackdamp if they figured out what the Sri'Zaur were actually planning before the shard-wielding assassins of Asvrin's Shades sowed confusion and death among those who had lulled themselves into a false sense of immortality.
This would be too much for me, I think, even if I had read the previous book and knew what the "blackdamp" and Sri'Zaur and Asvrin's Shades were.

Fortune's Blight's other major advantage is I'm finding it easier to relate to the characters. Evie Manieri does a very good job of taking large-scale conflicts and making them personal for her characters. For example, King Daryan faces resistance from his own people because he has enlisted help from some of the hated Norlanders. The prejudice against Norlanders is personal for him, because he has fallen in love with one, and the two of them can never forget their differences, which include a painful variation in the temperatures of their skin:
They both knew the risks of these trysts, however infrequent, but the urgency of satisfying their passion made everything else, even the constant pain of their touch, irrelevant. She pitied ordinary couples whose embraces cost them nothing, whose love-making came so cheaply that they could undertake it on a whim and forget it just as easily. They couldn't know what it was like to have a lover's arms circle around the small of their back like a pair of blacksmith's tongs straight from the fire, or have kisses rain down like a shower of embers.
That is a lovely passage, one which will stay in my mind.

THE WINNER: Fortune's Blight by Evie Manieri

Fortune's Blight advances to the second round to face either The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu or Infinity Lost by S. Harrison.

To see the whole bracket, click here.