Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Amy's Random Readings :: "Wake-Rider" by Vandana Singh

"Wake-Rider" by Vandana Singh is a science fiction story in the December 2014 issue of Lightspeed magazine. It's one of the fifty-seven short stories that made the recent 2014 Locus Recommended Reading List. I (Amy) wanted to read something from this list, but didn't know where to start. Using a random number generator, I randomly selected to read this story.

"Wake-Rider" is set elsewhere in space, sometime in the distant future when multiple planets have been settled by humans. The protagonist, Leli, is a young woman who has joined the revolution against the Euphoria Corpocracy. A nanoplague that transforms infected people into docile, servile manufacturers and consumers is spread by Euphoria.

Leli stalks an Euphoria salvage ship leaving a space station in her tiny scabship. She rides the ripples of spacetime in the wake of the salvage ship, and accompanies it across Metaspace. It takes her to a region near an abandoned planet that was cleansed by Euphoria after a failed revolution. Leli follows the salvage ship to a derelict generation ship. Onboard Leli finds no one left alive. But in the generation ship's cryochamber, she discovers evidence that the frozen dead humans, who were likely fleeing revolutionaries, may have found a cure for the nanoplague. Leli must not let the salvage crew find the cryochamber.

I thought "Wake-Rider" was a good, solo space adventure. I found Leli to be a sympathetic protagonist. There were action scenes, and interesting futuristic details. The Euphoria Corpocracy was painted as pure evil, and the generational ship as the scene of a tragedy. One thing that made this story different was that it showed how devastated Leli was by the accidental deaths of the salvage ship crew, because she felt they were once people like her.

The author, Vandana Singh, is a female Indian science fiction writer living in the USA. She has a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics. I enjoyed this story. I'll be on the lookout for other stories by Vandana Singh.

Picking a random short story from the Locus Recommended Reading List worked out pretty well. I'll be trying this again.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Second Semifinal :: Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg vs. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson


Our second semifinal match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books features Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg versus Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

Motherless Child: Tor hardcover, May 2014, 269 pages. Motherless Child made it to the semifinals with wins over The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas and Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson.

In the first 50 pages of Motherless Child, our single mom protagonist Natalie and her friend Sophie woke from a wild night with a mysterious musician called "The Whistler" to the realization that they have become vampires. Not trusting themselves, they left their sons with Natalie's mother, with instructions for her to go into hiding, and they hit the road. In the next 50 pages, we learn that the Whistler regards Natalie as his destiny, much to the annoyance of the vampire he has been traveling with. Meanwhile, Natalie and Sophie wander aimlessly——at one point Natalie gets shot, to no ill effects——trying to ignore the growing urge to feed.

Words of Radiance:: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 1080 pages, cover art by Michael Whelan. Words of Radiance is the second volume of Sanderson's epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. Words of Radiance made it to the semifinals with wins over Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager and Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson.

The opening of Words of Radiance introduced (or reintroduced, if you read The Way of Kings) us to Shallan, a young woman making a voyage by sea with her mentor Jasnah Kholin while learning about the magical spheres called spren, and Kaladin, the leader of a group of soldiers of Alethkar who earned their freedom defending a bridge, while apparently things were going badly for many of their countrymen. In the following 50 pages, we meet Kaladin's commander, Dalinar. Dalinar receives a vision telling him to refound the "Knights Radiant," then he meets with the king to make plans——really, to tell the ineffectual king the plans Dalinar has already made. Meanwhile, Shallan's and Jasnah's ship comes under attack.

The Battle: This is an interesting battle between two very well-written novels, one telling a story on a very personal level, the other an epic on a grand scale.

Motherless Child focuses on individual characters' personal struggles. The Whistler senses a new destiny for himself, one he does not yet understand. Natalie's mother struggles with suddenly becoming responsible for two infants, when she thought she had done her time. Most importantly, Natalie and Sophie try to come to grips with the urges that are part of their new natures. They try to distract themselves, without success. They go to the movies, for example, only to flee when the film reminds them of their sons:
They fled together out the exit doors into an alley, through the alley to the GTO, and back to the relative safety, or at least clarity, of the empty highway. After a while, Sophie ripped open another pack of Dentyne, made a giant new gum wad, then mushed that into place atop the muzzle of the gun.

"New lollipop flavor," she said, holding it up. "Shotgum." Then she petted the barrel.

Natalie said nothing. She'd decided to try not to think, but that proved easier than she was expecting; the slightest push and every thought she'd ever had scattered like dandelion seeds, leaving just her behind the wheel. A dead stem.

A hungry dead stem.
Motherless Child is very nicely crafted throughout, with strong characterization. But the story of somebody not thrilled about the prospect of becoming a vampire is not really breaking new ground. So while it would take some very solid writing to compete with Motherless Child, it could be beaten by something well-constructed with a broader scope.

I started this matchup figuring that Motherless Child had met its match in Words of Radiance, which also features excellent writing and characterization, but in service of a far more complex and intricate story.

But then, in the second 50-page section, Words of Radiance hit a lull. In particular, I found the long discussion with the nondescript king about political maneuverings awfully dull. That does not, I think, reflect any real failure by Brandon Sanderson, but rather illustrates how difficult it is to keep a sprawling epic story engaging to the reader. (In my opinion, even George R.R. Martin ran into this problem, for the entire fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire.) The Stormlight series necessarily requries a whole lot of pieces to be arranged across a complicated board, but the arrangement takes time to set up. Sanderson lost me for a while as he arranged pieces, and it seemed that Words of Radiance was about to drop out of the Battle of the Books in the semifinals.

But wait! In the final 20 pages of this battle, Words of Radiance took me back to Shallan, a character I find very sympathetic, as she carries on fascinating conversations with a spren that came to life out of one of her drawings. Then, just before his 100 pages could elapse, Sanderson hits us with this, from Shallan's point of view as she wakes to the sound of struggles and rushes to Jasnah's cabin:
Figures moved inside. In a frozen moment of horror, one threw something to the floor before the others, who stepped aside to make way.

A body in a thin nightgown, eyes staring sightlessly, blood blossoming from the breast. Jasnah.

"Be sure," one of the men said.

The other one knelt and rammed a long, thin knife right into Jasnah's chest. Shallan heard it hit the wood of the floor beneath the body.

Shallan screamed.

One of the men spun toward her. "Hey!" It was the blunt-faced, tall fellow that Yalb had called the "new kid." She didn't recognize the other men.

Somehow fighting through the terror and disbelief, Shallan slammed her door and threw the bolt with trembling fingers.
If she is to survive, Shallan will have to call on the powers of the spren she is just beginning to understand. And is Jasnah really dead? I very much want to keep reading to find out.

THE WINNER: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance advances to the championship round to face The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Semifinal :: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley vs. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer


Our first semifinal match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books features The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley going against Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

The Emperor's Blades: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 476 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Emperor's Blades is the first volume in Staveley's Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne high fantasy series. The Emperor's Blades made it to the semifinals with wins over The Barrow by Mark Smylie and Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald.

The first 50 pages of The Emperor's Blades introduced us to Kaden and Valyn, the two sons of the Emperor, who has just been killed. Kaden, the heir to the throne, does not know of his father's death, because he has been training as a monk in a remote monastery. Valyn, who has been learning to be a soldier, suspects a conspiracy that will target Kaden and Valyn next. In the second 50 pages, we meet the sister, Adare, just named Minister of Finance per her father's dying wish. This is as high as a woman can advance in this culture, but Adare is not sure the other ministers will accept her. Meanwhile, Kaden and Valyn face ever more challenging training, and Valyn discovers a key clue about his suspected conspiracy.

Annihilation:: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, February 2014, 195 pages, cover art by Eric Nyquist. Annihilation is Book 1 in VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, which continues with Authority and Acceptance. Annihilation made it to the semifinals with wins over The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten and What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton.

The opening 50 pages of Annihilation showed an expedition of four women, never referred to by name, entering the mysterious Area X, which has bested eleven previous expeditions. Our narrator, the biologist, descended into a way-creepy tunnel (strangely called "the Tower") she believes to be a living organism. She also learned the psychologist in the group is using post-hypnotic suggestion on the others, which no longer works on the biologist, perhaps due to contamination from the Tower. In the next 50 pages, our biologist-narrator and the surveyor discover the anthropologist dead in the Tower. Our narrator blames the psychologist, who promptly disappears. The narrator sets off for a derelict lighthouse to which she suspects the psychologist has fled, only to find evidence that Area X is even more bizarre than they realized.

The Battle: This is about as fair a fight as we ever get in the Battle of the Books, two books that are both opening volumes in very promising fantasy series. In terms of subgenres, The Emperor's Blades is more prototypical high fantasy, while Annihilation is on the stranger side of fantasy, consistent with Jeff VanderMeer's longstanding association with the New Weird.

Through 100 pages, I am enjoying both The Emperor's Blades and Annihilation very much. They are both well-written and engaging.

Brian Staveley's writing style is right in my sweet spot. He does not deliberately strain for flowery language, yet his word choices are usually perfect to convey the mood he wants. Here, for example, Adare listens to the eulogy for her father, the Emperor::
The words spoken before the tomb were as long-winded as they were meaningless, and Adare let them wash over her like a frigid rain: duty, honor, power, vision. They were applied to all Emperors in all imperial funerals. They failed utterly to capture the father she had known.
I wish I had written that.

Meanwhile, in Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer does a terrific job of building a strange and mysterious mood. We have little idea where or when this is happening, and none at all why. For the most part, I've found the strangeness and mystery intriguing, but an author treads a fine line withholding this much information from the readers. For me, all the secrets got to be too much when the narrator mentioned, over fifty pages in, that her husband was in a previous expedition to Area X. That came across as a writer trick--no way would a real person have failed to mention that before.

I like Annihilation on an intellectual level. I like The Emperor's Blades and its characters on an emotional level.

THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades advances to the championship to face either Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg or Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One :: Final Four

We're down to the Final Four in Bracket One of Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2014 Books:


The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley
                 vs.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg
                 vs.
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson


We hope you've enjoyed this tournament so far. This sixteen-book bracket contained books from across the genre. There were science fiction, fantasy and horror books. To get to the Final Four, these books won their first two matches. The other books in the competition, and some of them were quite good, have been knocked out of the running, like in basketball's March Madness.

Judging between books, which can be totally different, based on reading only 25 or 50 pages can be difficult. But our Battle of the Books format allows us to sample and spread the word about many more new books and authors than we otherwise could.

In this bracket, three out of the four books which were "seeded" reached the Final Four. The unseeded book which made it to the Final Four is The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley.

Thanks again to all the authors and publicists sending us great books to consider. If you're an author or publicist, click here for the rules and an address to send your book if you'd like to be included in a future bracket.

We have had a great response to the Battle of the Books format. Several future brackets of Battle of the Books are now in the hands of our reviewers, so check back for many more battles to come.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson vs. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson


Our fourth and final match in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books has Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson going up against Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Swords of Good Men: Jo Fletcher Publishing hardcover, January 2014 (UK edition August 2013), 298 pages, cover art by Blacksheep UK. Swords of Good Men reached the second round with a win over Damn Zombies by Patrick MacAdoo.

Swords of Good Men is set in ancient Norway. In the first 25 pages, our young protagonist Ulfar Yhormodsson and his cousin Geiri arrive in the town of Stenvik, not far from their home, nearing the end of their temporary exile for some unnamed misconduct. They don't know that Stenvik is about to be embroiled in a large conflict with a group of "White Christians" seeking to overthrow traditional Norse beliefs, through force or coercion. By the second 25 pages, Ulfar has fallen madly in love with a young woman named Lilia, while two groups of soldiers, at least one if not both employing fearsome magical powers, approach Stenvik.

Words of Radiance: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 1080 pages, cover art by Michael Whelan. Words of Radiance is the second volume of Sanderson's epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. Words of Radiance advanced to the second round with a solid win over Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager.

In the first 25 pages of Words of Radiance, we met Shallan and her mentor Jasnah Kholin, two women studying the magical spheres called spren. The next 25 pages introduce us to a group of brothers in arms, led by a man named Kaladin, who bonded at "Bridge Four." These soldiers were enslaved because of their dark eyes, but fought their way to freedom, presumably in the previous volume. Kaladin has some magical abilities, although we don't yet know just what they are. As it happens, it also seems that Shallan has magical talents, but even she doesn't yet know what they are.

The Battle: Words of Radiance is the second book in a series and I haven't read the first, but the prologue and first chapter read so smoothly I didn't feel like I was missing anything. In the second 25-page section, I'm more conscious of all the backstory I've missed. Kaladin and his men have already been through a lot, including a betrayal that caused a major battle to go poorly for their side. But even though I'm joining their story in the middle, I feel I have a good sense of their motivations——their fierce loyalty to each other comes across convincingly——and of Kaladin's personality.

Through 50 pages, I don't feel the same sort of connection with any of the characters of Swords of Good Men. In particular, our main character Ulfar, who I think is supposed to come across as likably rakish, so far mostly seems like a twit. He is supposed to be a womanizer, yet he has fallen madly in love with a girl who has said exactly one word to him: her name. The author's assurance that she has striking eyes doesn't do enough to hold my interest through 50 pages.

Meanwhile, 50 pages into Words of Radiance, Shallan's study of the otherworldly spren is becoming intriguing. She repeatedly glances a pattern in her peripheral vision and determines to draw it:
She did not think as she drew. The art consumed her, and creationspren popped into existence all around. Dozens of tiny shapes soon crowded the small table beside her cot and the floor of the cabin near where she knelt. The spren shifted and spun, each no larger than the bowl of a spoon, becoming shapes they'd recently encountered. She mostly ignored them, though she'd never seen so many at once.

Faster and faster they shifted as she drew, intent. The pattern seemed impossible to capture. Its complex repetitions twisted down into infinity. No, a pen could never capture this thing perfectly, but she was close. She drew it spiraling out of a center point, then re-created each branch off the center, which had its own swirl of tiny lines. It was like a maze created to drive its captive insane. . . .

As the last line dried, the pattern rose before her. She heard a distinct sigh from the paper, as if in relief.

She jumped, dropping the paper and scrambling onto her bed. Unlike the other times, the embossing didn't vanish, though it left the paper——budding from her matching drawing——and moved onto the floor.
Whoa! I jerked my feet off the floor as I read that. I am old enough and I've read enough that's it's awfully hard for an author to catch me by surprise with a scene like that. Brandon Sanderson did it. So he wins.

THE WINNER: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance advances to the semifinal round to face Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson vs. Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg


Our third match in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books pits Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson against Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Mentats of Dune: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 445 pages, cover art by Stephen Youll. Set shortly after Sisterhood of Dune, Mentats of Dune is part of a series of prequels to Frank Herbert's classic novel Dune. Mentats of Dune reached the second round by defeating Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci. The first 25 pages introduced us to Gilbertus Albans, founder of the Mentat School where people are trained for machinelike precision of thought. We also met Manford Torondo, leader of the Butlerians, who are bent on eradicating all high technology, and Josef Venport, head of the VenHold Spacing Fleet, which has placed an embargo on planets that follow Torondo. One suspects the conflict between Torondo and Venport will become bloody.

The next 25 pages set up more conflicts, perhaps more subtle ones. Valya Harkonnen, transformed into a Reverend Mother, allies herself with the Reverend Mother Raquella, who has started a new Bene Gesserit Sisterhood in bitter conditions on Wallach IX. Valya seems poised to take control of this group. Valya despises both Vorian Atreides, whom she blames for her brother Griffin's death, as well as the alternate Sisterhood, led by Reverend Mother Dorotea, serving the Emperor Corrino. Dorotea is on the scene as the Emperor takes harsh measures against members of his wife's family for underreporting taxable income.

Motherless Child: Tor hardcover, May 2014, 269 pages. Motherless Child reached the second round by defeating The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas. In the opening 25 pages of Motherless Child, our protagonist Natalie and her friend Sophie, both single mothers, met a musical icon known as "the Whistler" and woke up in a car with hazy memories and tattered and bloodied clothes.

In the next 25 pages, Natalie realizes what has happened: they have been transformed by a vampire. She persuades Sophie to give their children to Natalie's mother with instructions to get away before Natalie and Sophie become dangerous. Natalie and Sophie then begin a road trip together, but the Whistler has not forgotten them.

The Battle: We have a battle between a galaxy-spanning space opera and a literary horror novel focused on two women placed in a heart-breaking situation.

I love space opera, and in particular I love Dune, which I've read several times. To me what makes Dune so memorable is how deftly Frank Herbert combined his vast space opera storyline centering on the planet Arrakis with the personal yet powerful tale of Paul Atreides and his family. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have done a commendable job of fleshing out the broad story elements of the Dune universe, the Mentats and the Butlerians and the Bene Gesserit and the spice and the competing families and all their assorted political machinations. If you're fascinated with the Dune universe, you should be reading their new Dune books.

But what I haven't gotten a hint of through 50 pages of Mentats of Dune is a personal story comparable to that of Paul Atreides. A host of characters have been introduced, but none strikes me as particularly sympathetic so far. There is no scene like the Gom Jabbar test early in Dune to get me to identify with and care about one of the major characters. (Admittedly, I might already have a favorite character if I had read all the preceding books. The Battle of the Books can be tough on books in multi-volume series that way.)

In contrast, I feel a very strong connection with Natalie and Sophie through 50 pages of Motherless Child. The second 25-page section begins with Natalie leaving her own son and her friend Sophie's son with Natalie's mother, perhaps never to see them again. The scene is related in clipped, matter-of-fact language, because it's told from Natalie's point of view, and the only way Natalie can get through this is to do it quickly, while shutting her emotions off. The scene works beautifully.

A few pages later, Sophie is popping a tape into the car stereo:
For a second, as that first inane guitar arpeggio finished, then repeated, Natalie just stared at the radio display. Mouth open. The dreadful, dripping organ started to pump.

But not until Sophie nodded her head, said, "Oh, yeah," opened her mouth wider, Jesus Christ, to fucking sing, did Natalie punch the eject, rip the tape free, roll down her window, and hurl the cassette sideways into the long, black grass as they hurtled past.

"Hey!" Sophie barked.

"'Seasons in the Sun'? Are you kidding?"

"Natalie, you turn this car around this instant. You go out in that grass and get my tape."

"That song? You're thinking that song is right for the mood?"

"What? We had some joy. And fun. And——"

"Children, Sophie. We had some children."

"We still do."

Turning harder than she had to, Natalie swerved the car off the asphalt, where it fishtailed momentarily in the gravel as they slid, down the sloping shoulder into the grass. There they sat, Natalie gripping the wheel, Sophie against her door where the skid had shoved her. The second Natalie shut off the engine, silence rushed down the hillsides and over them. And for a while——Natalie had no idea how long——they just drifted in that. Suspended, like some broken-off section of a sunken ship. Sinking toward bottom.

"So, maybe some Foreigner, then?" Sophie finally said.
I find this sad and hilarious all at once. Another reader might think Natalie and Sophie cold to be trading jokes so soon after abandoning their children. To me, they are ordinary women placed in an impossible situation trying to figure out how to survive. These are characters I believe in and care about, which makes me want to read more.

THE WINNER: Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg

Motherless Child advances to the semifinal round to face either either Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson or Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton vs. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer


Our second match in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books pits What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton against Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

What Makes This Book So Great: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 446 pages, cover design by Jamie Stafford-Hill. This is a collection of columns by Jo Walton, originally for the Tor.com blog, giving her thoughts on rereading some of her favorite books. (By the way, What Makes This Books So Great wins major cool points, because Lena Dunham totally packed a copy to take with her to the Iowa Writers Workshop in the first episode of the new season of Girls. Not, y'know, that I watch or anything.) What Makes This Books So Great reached the second round by defeating The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich.

The first 25 pages of What Makes This Books So Great consisted of an introduction and the first seven columns. The next 25 pages give us nine more columns, with topics ranging from established classics like Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night and Janissaries by Jerry Pournelle to more recent work such as Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder and Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey.

Annihilation: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, February 2014, 195 pages, cover art by Eric Nyquist. Annihilation is the opening volume in VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, which continues with Authority and Acceptance. Annihilation advanced to the second round with a win over The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten.

In the opening pages of Annihilation, an expedition of four women (always referred to by occupation rather than by name) entered "Area X," a strange place that has defeated eleven prior expeditions. They quickly discovered a vast subterranean structure, which our narrator (the biologist) strangely labeled the "tower." Meanwhile, we learned that the team leader, a psychologist, has been using post-hypnotic suggestion to control the team, but our narrator has become immune. As the next 25 pages open, the anthropologist has disappeared, with the psychologist giving the unconvincing explanation that she quit in the middle of the night and went home. Then the biologist/narrator and the surveyor make a deeper descent into the bizarre "tower."

The Battle: I loved the opening pages of What Makes This Book So Great, because not only was Jo Walton writing about good science fiction books——which I think is a swell thing to do, as anyone reading this blog should know——but she was also making interesting broader points about literature and genre, for example her observations as to how mainstream authors approach fiction differently than genre authors. The next 25 pages, however, have settled more into what I expected going in: short reviews of several of Walton's favorite books. Those reviews are nicely written, and in some cases caused me to add books to my to-purchase list, starting with Don't Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tanith Lee. But it's a lot to expect a collection of essays to keep pace with a good novel as it builds dramatic tension.

And the second section of Annihilation does a superb job of building dramatic tension. VanderMeer spends enough time on our narrator's backstory, for example how she turned to biology as an escape from her dysfunctional family growing up, to keep us connected. But the narrative's primary areas of focus are the mysterious nature of this expedition and its secretive leader, and the bizarre upside-down tower, where the bodies of tiny creatures on the walls spell out ominous messages. And that's not all:
The first thing I noticed on the staging level before we reached the wider staircase that spiraled down, before we encountered again the words written on the wall . . . the tower was breathing. The tower breathed, and the walls when I went to touch them carried the echo of a heartbeat . . . and they were not made of stone but of living tissue. Those walls were still blank, but a kind of silvery-white phosphorescence rose off of them. The world seemed to lurch, and I sat down heavily next to the wall, and the surveyor was by my side, trying to help me up. I think I was shaking as I finally stood. I don't know if I can convey the enormity of that moment in words. The tower was a living creature of some sort. We were descending into an organism.
Our narrator's growing unease and paranoia are so adeptly conveyed, it almost doesn't matter what the answers to these mysteries prove to be. I don't care if there's a horrible, Lovecraftian monster in this pit, or if it's all just some odd psychological test. Either way, I want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation moves into the semifinals, where it will take on The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald vs. The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley


We begin the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books with Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald against The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Empress of the Sun: Pyr hardcover, February 2014, 280 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. I named Empress of the Sun, the third volume in McDonald's Everness YA series, as one of the four seeded books in this bracket, because I like Ian McDonald's work in general and I enjoyed the first two books in this alternate universe series. Empress of the Sun defeated Elspeth Cooper's The Raven's Shadow to advance to the second round.

In the first 25 pages of Empress of the Sun, Everett Singh and his steampunk gypsy companions arrived in a new alternate universe, where they promptly crashed their airship. In the second 25 pages, Everett guesses the bizarre nature of this universe, which caused the crash. They will need to find a way out of this universe before our villain Charlotte Villiers can locate them. Meanwhile, an alternate version of Everett called Everett M. realizes that the incredibly deadly nanotechnology he brought to the other Everett's universe has (predictably) escaped. He desperately tries to track it down before this entire world is destroyed.

The Emperor's Blades: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 476 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Emperor's Blades is the first volume in Staveley's Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne high fantasy series. It reached the second round with a lopsided win over The Barrow by Mark Smylie.

The first 25 pages of The Emperor's Blades introduced us to our main characters Kaden and Valyn, the two sons of the emperor. Neither young man is enjoying a life of luxury. Rather Kaden, heir to the throne, is receiving harsh mental training in a spartan, remote monastery, while Valyn is learning the ways of an elite fighting group who ride giant hawks into battle. Valyn was investigating the murder of an entire ship's crew, when he received word of the death of his father the emperor. The last dying member of the slaughtered ship's crew warned Valyn that he is in danger from a plot. In the next 25 pages, Valyn desperately asks his superiors for permission to go to Kaden, but they refuse. Unsure of whom to trust, he decides to confide in his fellow cadet and good friend (and potential love interest?) Ha Lin. Before they get far into the conversation, they find themselves (surely not coincidentally) in a tavern on crumbling stilts, as it collapses into the sea.

The Battle: : Both these books start out very strong, with well-drawn characters, creative world-building, and interesting storylines. I don't much want to put either book down, but I'm forced to choose one to keep reading. . .

Through 50 pages, I am hugely impressed with Brian Staveley, who I believe has all the tools to become a major voice in fantasy. I am most interested to see where he takes The Emperor's Blades after a very solid opening.

Of course, Ian McDonald is already a major voice in science fiction and I've liked his Everness series so far; however, by the third book it's starting to seem that Ian McDonald feels compelled to toss in every bizarre type of alternate universe he can conceive of. The new world Everett has crashed on is so absurd (think Edwin Abbott's Flatland) as to severely strain my suspension of disbelief.

There is a good action scene in the second 25 pages of Empress of the Sun, but it's triggered by Everett M.'s unforgivably selfish decision to bring to (our) Earth nanotechnology that he has seen first-hand is incredibly deadly. His belief that he could keep it locked up in a peanut butter jar was so foolish that it's hard to cheer for him when he later does battle with the escaped nanotech, even if the future of the world is at stake. Everett M. is a conflicted character, but his willingness to endanger an entire world to save himself makes it hard to sympathize with him on any level.

In contrast, the second 25 pages of The Emperor's Blades place Valyn and his friend Ha Lin in a moral dilemma with no easy answer, as Valyn tries to save an innocent young woman from a slowly collapsing building:
When Valyn pulled the unconscious girl through the doorway, he found, to his horror, that the gap had grown to almost a dozen feet. . . .

Lin read the situation instantly, shook her head, then stepped right to the edge of the yawning crevasse.

"Throw her," she said, gesturing.

Valyn stared at the gap, aghast. Salia couldn't have been three quarters of his weight, but there was no way he could toss her the full distance. He glanced down. The jagged pilings bristled like spikes.

"I can't," he shouted back.

"You have to! Now, fucking throw her! I'll catch her wrists.

It was impossible. Lin knew it as well as he did. Which is why she wants me to do it, Valyn realized in a rush. Salia was dead weight. He could make the jump alone, but just barely. As long as he held on to the unconscious girl, he was trapped on the wrong side of the gap, pinned to a burning, teetering shell that would drag him to his death. He saw it all clear as day, but what could he do? Drop the unconscious girl and leave her to die? It was the right choice, the mission-responsible choice, but this wasn't a 'Kent-kissing mission. He couldn't just . . .

"I'll jump with her," he shouted, preparing to sling Salia across his back. "I think I can make it."

Lin's eyes widened with horror. Then they hardened.

Before Valyn understood what was happening, she had her belt knife out, was cocking her arm, then throwing. Valyn watched, stunned, as the bright blade flashed end over end in the sun, then buried itself in Salia's neck with a sudden gush of hot, bright blood.
That is a terrific passage, playing out in only half a page. Even if you think Lin made the wrong choice, it's easy to sympathize with her reasons.

I'm only 50 pages in, but everything I've read so far in The Emperor's Blades tells me I'm looking at an outstanding new storyteller at work.

THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades advances to the semifinal round to face either What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton or Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson vs. Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager


Our final first round match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books features Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson against Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager. As always, the winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Words of Radiance: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 1080 pages, cover art by Michael Whelan. Words of Radiance is the second volume of Sanderson's Stormlight Archive epic fantasy series. Like The Wheel of Time, which Sanderson completed after Robert Jordan's death, The Stormlight Archive is a multi-volume series of door-stopper fantasies. Sanderson has written several other novels and won the Hugo Award for his novella "The Emperor's Soul."

Words of Radiance begins with a flashback to when Jasnah Kholin was introduced to Shadesmar, the mythological realm of the magical spheres called spren, and soon after was witness to the assassination of her father, the king. Six years later, Jasnah has taken on a young woman named Shallan as a sort of apprentice. As they sail together through the frigid seas bordering the south of the kingdom, Shallan is delighted to learn that Jasnah is attempting to arrange for Shallan to marry Jasnah's cousin. I don't know how any of this relates to what happened in the first volume of this series, which I have not read, but so far I'm not having any difficulty following the story.

Into the Wilderness: Pyr hardcover, January 2014 (published in New Zealand in 2010), 331 pages, cover images by Roy Hsu & Koolstock. Into the Wilderness is Book Two in Hager's Book of the Lamb young adult series. Hager has written multiple YA books that have been well received in her home of New Zealand. Book of the Lamb is her first work to receive wide distribution in the U.S.

Into the Wilderness begins on a small boat being tossed about a large ocean. Our dark-skinned protagonist Maryam has escaped the racial and religious oppression of her island home, along with her best friend Ruth and her white boyfriend Joseph. Also with them is Lazarus, another white boy of privilege who, unlike Joseph, is an unsufferable prick who didn't see anything wrong with the repressive system they just left. (Makes things easier on the author when the characters are thoughtful enough to bring a bad guy along with them as they travel, eh?) Our characters don't know what to expect on their journey, having been assured by their society's untrustworthy leaders that the rest of the world was destroyed in some calamity. On the first leg of the trip, Maryam consoles Ruth, who was raped by their society's leader (Lazarus's father), and makes out with Joseph.

The Battle: I have a confession to make: I harbor a mild prejudice against multi-volume series of fat fantasy novels. There's a sameness to many fat fantasies, and as a relatively slow reader I am easily intimidated by the sheer mass of such books. So while Into the Wilderness struck me as an appealing YA book, I was not especially looking forward to diving into Words of Radiance.

That turned around quickly. After just the prologue and the first chapter of Words of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson is already well on his way to winning me over with his sprawling series. The writing is nice but not distracting. The characterization is strong so far——I am especially interested in Shallan, a very uncertain but likable young character. The magical system involving the "spren" seems interesting. I liked Shallan's comparison of the spren, "fragments of human expectation, given life," to how authority often comes simply from acting with self-confidence. And the story already has some nice scenery, such as the huge santhid swimming alongside Shallan's ship. I'm looking forward to more of this book, and suddenly the idea of reading thousands of pages in this series doesn't seem so daunting.

Meanwhile, I've already lost interest in Into the Wilderness after the first two chapters. The fundamental problem for me is that the story lacks any subtlety, even for a YA book. The characters are either shining with purity or rotten to the core. The dialogue is clunky, because Hager is so intent on getting the characters to make her points as clearly as possible. And the narrative repeatedly drops into lecture mode. For example, when Joseph notes that a dolphin swimming past shows no fear, Maryam answers:
"Why would it, when it has free rein of this vast ocean?" Fear is something you have to learn first hand, she thought, remembering her own shocking swing from bliss to dread after she had Crossed from the atoll to the Holy City. Could anything be worse than knowing those you most trusted had betrayed you? She reckoned not.
This is a fine passage, until the last two sentences. The "Could anything be worse" line is an unnecessary intrusion by the author. For Hager to then actually answer her own rhetorical question demonstrates an appalling lack of trust in her readers. I sensed the same lack of trust in multiple other passages in the first 38 pages of Into the Wilderness, leaving me less than anxious to read more.

THE WINNER: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance advances to the second round to take on Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson vs. Damn Zombies by Patrick MacAdoo


The penultimate matchup in the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books pits Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson against Damn Zombies by Patrick MacAdoo. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Swords of Good Men: Jo Fletcher Publishing hardcover, January 2014 (UK edition August 2013), 298 pages, cover art by Blacksheep UK. Swords of Good Men is the first novel by Snorri Kristjansson, a teacher from Iceland now living in London, and the first book in the Valhalla Saga.

The story is set in Norway about a thousand years ago. Our brash young protagonist Ulfar Yhormodsson arrives in the town of Stenvik with his slow-witted cousin Geiri, nearing the end of a long trip to allow some past mischief to blow over at home. We meet others in the town, including a stern young blacksmith and a crafty old chemist (magician?). Meanwhile, a large conflict is brewing in the region over competing religious systems, apparently pitting traditional Norse beliefs against a violent form of Christianity.

Damn Zombies: Severed Press trade paperback, January 2014, 210 pages. Damn Zombies. Patrick MacAdoo is also the author of Weeyatches and Bigass Squirrels, both of which are in the pipeline for future BotB brackets.

Pete, the main character of Damn Zombies, lives in a nondescript Midwestern town. Pete is unfazed by media reports of the zombie apocalypse, inexplicably convinced that zombies can't cross cornfields. He worries more about getting back his estranged wife Caroline, who only married him because he got her pregnant and soon came to regret the decision. Pete spends his evenings drinking beer, pining for Caroline (for no reason we're told of other than she's real pretty), resents her thug of an ex-boyfriend, and wishes he could spend more quality time with his young daughter. By the end of the first 25 pages, it's dawning on him that his time with his daughter just might be disrupted by the zombie apocalypse.

The Battle: Here we have an epic fantasy drawing on Norse mythology versus a somewhat tongue-in-cheek zombie novel. I confess neither of these books has grabbed me through 25 pages. So the battle comes down to which book has given me more reason to think it may yet pull me in if I keep reading. Swords of Good Men wins by that standard, for at least a couple reasons.

First, while I don't yet feel connected to the characters in either book, I'm holding out hope that Ulfar Thormodsson will develop into a lovable rogue. In contrast, Pete, the protagonist of Damn Zombies has come across so far as such a doofus I can't see ever developing much sympathy for him.

Second, Kristjansson describes his North Sea settings with enough care to give me hope that his tale of Vikings and Norse mythology will turn into something interesting and unusual. Meanwhile, through 25 pages, I don't have much interest in MacAdoo's bland Midwestern setting, nor any reason to expect anything different from yet another zombie novel. I'm hoping for a more uncommon reading experience from MacAdoo's Bigass Squirrels.

THE WINNER: Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson

Swords of Good Men moves on to the second round, to face either Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson or Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager.

To see the whole bracket, click here.