Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye vs. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


The first match-up in the first round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye going against The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: Penguin Books, September 2012, 198 pages, cover photo by Simen Johan. In Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, alternating first-person narrators look back on tragic events that occurred some 40 years earlier in the sleepy German village of Hemmersmoor. Our first narrator Christian returns to Hemmersmoor after decades away and meets some very old friends, Alex and Martin and Linde. They attend the funeral of another old friend, Anke, where Linde proceeds to spit and piss on her grave. In disturbingly understated language, Martin then narrates the tale of when a new family to the village was wiped out on a flimsy suspicion they engaged in cannibalism. The opening 25 pages close with Christian describing how, at seven years old, he wanted to see an adults-only carnival attraction called "Rico's Journey Through Hell." The carnie Rico told him to capture his sister's soul in a glass vial, whereupon Christian returned home and strangled her.

Stefan Kiesbye is a German author now living in New Mexico. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone was his first novel, preceded by his award-winning novella Next Door Lived a Girl. As far as I can tell, his other fiction books have only been published in German, under the titles Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht and Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles.

The Age of Miracles: Random House hardcover, June 2012, 269 pages. The cover shown is for the later paperback edition. In the opening pages of The Age of Miracles, the news breaks that the earth's rotation is inexplicably slowing. Our first-person narrator Julia was a young girl when this happened. She recalls the bewilderment of her parents and friends, as well as their dread as they wonder whether civilization can survive.

The Age of Miracles is the first novel by Karen Thompson Walker, but I made it a seeded book in this bracket because it was a great commercial success and very well received. (A notable excpetion was the review by Christopher Priest, which concluded, "This is the kind of book, with its allegedly vast payments to the author, that will suck the oxygen out of bookselling for several months.")

The Battle: This battle features two first novels in which adults reminisce about awful things that happened to everyone they knew during their childhood. In The Age of Miracles, the awful things result from an external change: the slowing of the earth's rotation. In Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, the awful things are internal, done by the book's characters to each other.

Both books open well, beginning with strong opening lines. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone opens:
Time is of no importance. I have returned to Hemmersmoor to live in the same house in which I grew up, the same cramped house in which my father and my sister Ingrid died when I was a schoolboy.
This strikes me as a simple but effective opening, which then gains resonance as we discover that the narrator's sister died because he killed her, and as Kiesbye later repeats the "time is of no importance" sentiment in a beautiful passage:
Time is of no importance. I was young and didn't know a thing about our time. There had never been a different one in Hemmersmoor. In our village time didn't progress courageously. In our village she limped a bit, got lost more than once, and always ended up at Frick's bar and in one of Jens Jensen's tall tales.
I like that very much. I also like the opening lines of The Age of Miracles:
We didn't notice right away. We couldn't feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
Although overall I like the writing in both books, in my opinion some flaws creep into both as the story progresses.

The opening pages of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone consist of a prologue from Christian's first-person point of view, a chapter from Martin's first-person point of view, and a chapter again from Christian's first-person point of view. They all look backwards on the same time period, yet Christian's voice in the second chapter sounds very similar to Martin's voice in the first chapter, and markedly different from Christian's voice in the prologue. I find the inconsistency jarring.

My quibble with the writing in The Age of Miracles is a lack of restraint by the author. For example, after the news breaks of the days lengthening, the narrator says they all forgot about the soccer game scheduled that day, except for one girl:
I heard later that only Michaela showed up at the field, late as usual, her cleats in her hands, her long hair undone, her red curls flying in and out of her mouth as she ran sock-footed up the hill to the field——only to find not a single girl warming up, not one blue jersey rippling in the wind, not one French braid flapping, not a single parent or coach on the grass. No mothers in visors sipping iced tea, no fathers in flip-flops pacing the sideline. No ice chests or beach chairs or quarter-sliced oranges. The upper parking lot, she must have noticed then, was empty of cars. Only the nets remained, billowing silently in the goals, they the only proof that the sport of soccer had once been play on this site.
To my tastes, if it stopped at "on the grass," this would be a nice passage. Instead, the author strains too hard, beating a simple concept to death, and ending on an awkward note ("they the only proof").

Despite my nitpicks, overall the prose in both books is solid. The battle comes down to which author has convinced me after only 25 pages that his or her story is going someplace interesting.

Karen Thompson Walker does not have me convinced, for two reasons. First, she hasn't gotten me interested in any of the characters yet, all of whom so far strike me as nondescript suburbanites, lacking in personality. Second, she has constructed a science fictional scenario——What if the rotation of the earth suddenly slowed down?——but she has not given me the confidence in her analysis and research that I need to suspend disbelief. In the opening pages, she says nobody notices the day is lengthening for several days. Whaaaat? When I check my email box, it tells me the exact time of sunrise and sunset; the first time the sun missed its cue, everybody would know about it. Later, Walker says the slowing "altered gravity." If she means the earth's mass is actually changing, she should say so, because wow! I suspect she means instead that there is less outward centrifugal force to offset gravity, but the way she says it is so imprecise I've lost confidence in her to tell me accurately what would happen if the earth really were to start spinning more slowly.

Meanwhile, after 25 pages, Kiesbye has also not given me characters I like, but they certainly do have personality. When Linde pisses on the grave of her former best friend, it tells me something about her, and it makes me curious what happened in their past to cause that level of contempt. More importantly, when Martin describes murders he witnessed as a child and Christian describes a murder he committed as a child, in utterly matter-of-fact terms, the effect is simultaneously chilling and engrossing.

THE WINNER: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone advances to the second round to take on either The Diviners by Libba Bray or Sharkways by A. J. Kirby.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight

Announcing Bracket Eight of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2012 Books!

We started the Battle of the Books at the Fantastic Reviews Blog as a fun way to try to keep up with the great volume of review copies we were receiving. (For more about why we started the Battle of the Books, click here. For all the rules, click here.)

The good news is we've done eight brackets of books so far, seven 2012 brackets and one 2014 bracket, discussing over 125 books. We've had a lot of fun and gotten some great feedback from the authors both here and at Twitter and other social media.

The bad news is we have definitely not kept up with all the review copies flowing in. But we're taking on the mountain of books we've accumulated.

In a valiant (please don't say hopeless) attempt to catch up, we're alternating between brackets of the new books we're receiving and brackets of the 2012 and 2013 books that we didn't already cover.

Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books will feature 16 contenders first published in 2012. Aaron selected four "seeded" books he is especially looking forward to (marked with asterisks), and we've placed one in each quarter of the bracket, then filled out the rest of the bracket randomly. Here are your matchups:

First Quarter of Bracket:


Stefan Kiesbye
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone
(Penguin)
vs.
Karen Thompson Walker
The Age of Miracles***
(Random House)



Libba Bray
The Diviners
(Little, Brown)
vs.
A. J. Kirby
Sharkways
(Damnation)


Second Quarter of Bracket



Lavie Tidhar
Osama***
(Solaris)
vs.
Dave Freer
The Steam Mole
(Pyr)



Gary McMahon
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
(Solaris)
vs.
Mark Hodder
A Red Sun Also Rises
(Pyr)


Third Quarter of Bracket:



Andy Gavin
Untimed
(Mascherato)
vs.
Kristi Petersen Schoonover
Bad Apple
(Vagabondage)



David Beers
Dead Religion
(CreateSpace)
vs.
Jim C. Hines
Libriomancer***
(DAW)


Fourth Quarter of Bracket:


Linda Harley
Destiny's Flower
(Infinity)
vs.
Molly Tanzer
A Pretty Mouth***
(Lazy Fascist)



Joseph Spencer
Grim
(Damnation)
vs.
Lou Morgan
Blood and Feathers
(Solaris)

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Some notes on the field:

-- Classifying books before you read them is tricky, but this bracket seems to have turned out heavy on horror. We'd guess it features 7 horror novels or dark fantasies, 4 adult fantasies, 3 YA fantasies, and 2 science fiction novels.

-- 11 books are by men and 5 by women.

-- It looks like 11 of the books are stand-alones, 3 begin a new series, and 2 continue an existing series.

-- As far as publishers, 3 books came to us from Solaris, 2 from Pyr, 2 from Damnation and 1 each from Penguin; Random House; Little, Brown; DAW; Mascherato; Vagabondage; CreateSpace; Infinity; and Lazy Fascist.

Good luck to all our contenders! Let the new bracket of book battles begin!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Amy's Random Readings :: "Pernicious Romance" by Robert Reed

"Pernicious Romance" by Robert Reed is a story in the November 2014 issue of Clarkesworld magazine.  Using a random number generator, this is the short story, out of fifty-seven from the 2014 Locus Recommended Reading List, that a digital roll of the dice selected for me (Amy) to read and review.

"Pernicious Romance" is set in the present day somewhere in America. It tells of a strange occurrence at a college football game.  At halftime, there was a brilliant explosion of light from the 50-yard line.  No videos survived because it was accompanied by a damaging EMP event.  The blast directly killed about sixty people. Everyone else in the stadium, tens of thousands of people, were knocked unconscious.  Those in the high seats, farthest from the blast, woke up later that evening.   But others, people closer to the blast, woke up weeks, months, or even a year later.   All of those affected experienced an intensely real, loving relationship subjectively lasting a week up to fifty years when they were unconscious.  Maybe due to the bad effect this had on marriages, the condition became termed pernicious romance.

At first, the explosion was thought to be a terrorist attack, but no one claimed responsibility.  There were no suspects.   It was postulated that this may have been the test of a new weapon or technology.  But no explanation was offered.

This story features the case studies of five victims.  It tells how these people's lives were transformed by this unprecedented event and their unexpected experiences.

I found "Pernicious Romance" to be an interesting, well-written short story.   It feels profound despite its improbability.   Each case study made me realize that the event was weirder than I initially thought.  The story left me contemplating it afterward.

Robert Reed is a Hugo Award-winning American science fiction author.  I've read and enjoyed a number of his short fiction stories in magazines over the years.  According to Wikipedia, Reed has also written a dozen novels.

The first two short stories I've randomly read have been vastly different, but both good.  I wonder what I'll get to read next time I try this.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One :: Wrap-up

We have completed Fantastic Reviews Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books.  There were plenty of good book battles along the way.  Hope you enjoyed our reviews of samplings of these books!

Congratulations to The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley, book one of Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, as winner of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books!  Let's give a round of applause for all the participating books!

To see the whole completed bracket, click here.

All sixteen of these 2014 books are now available.  Listed below are the featured books, sorted alphabetically by author.  Click on the book title links to go that book's most recent book battle review.

Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci
Raven’s Shadow by Elspeth Cooper
Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager
Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson
Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg
Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
Damn Zombies by Patrick MacAdoo
The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas
Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald
The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
The Barrow by Mark Smylie
The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton
The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich

Some of these books and authors may be new to you, but after reading Aaron's book descriptions and battle reviews, I hope some of them sparked your interest.  Perhaps we introduced you to a few new books and authors.  Only one book can win each battle, and only one book can win the bracket, but there were many good books in the competition.

Battle of the Books match-ups are decided based on reading a sample of the book.  Most upon reading a mere 25 pages or 50 pages.  So if a good book starts slow, in this review format, it may face an uphill battle.  These matches are inherently subjective.  These battles were decided based on which book the reviewer, Aaron, would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books.  Another sixteen books are lined up for this competition.  These are books we received earlier, but hadn't had the time to review yet because of real life getting in our way.  We're valiantly working to whittle down our backlog of books.  Aaron will be judging and reviewing this new bracket.  We'll be announcing the books which will be featured as our next group of contenders soon.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Championship Round :: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley vs. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson


We have arrived at the championship round of our current bracket of the Battle of the Books. In one corner we have The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley. In the other corner we have Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. Two fine competitors. I (Aaron) have read through Page 200 of both these books, and the novel I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2014 Books.

The Emperor's Blades: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 476 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Emperor's Blades is the first book in Staveley's Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne high fantasy series. The second book in this series, The Providence of Fire, was published in January 2015. The Emperor's Blades made it to the championship by conquering The Barrow by Mark Smylie in the first round, defeating Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald in the second round, and an upset win over Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer in the semifinals.

The first 200 pages of The Emperor's Blades are told from the points of view of Adare, Kaden, and Valyn, the daughter and two sons of the Emperor, who has recently been assassinated, apparently at the hands of an ambitious religious leader. Kaden is the heir to the throne but still does not know of his father's death, because he has been training in a remote monastery, with monks who hold the sacred duty of guarding the world against strange creatures who fought mankind in an earlier age now shrouded in myth. Valyn, who has been training with an elite corps of soldiers, believes there is a conspiracy against his entire family; he has already faced two attempts on his life. The daughter Adare is embroiled in politics in the capital city, where her father's presumed killer plays a gambit to avoid punishment.

Words of Radiance:: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 1080 pages, cover art by Michael Whelan. Words of Radiance is the second book of Sanderson's epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. (The Way of Kings is the first book in this series.) Words of Radiance made it to the championship with a solid win over Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager in the first round, a victory over Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson in the second round, and a hard-fought win over Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg in the semifinals.

The primary viewpoint characters through 200 pages of Words of Radiance are Shallan, a young woman traveling by sea with her mentor Jasnah Kholin, while learning about the magical spheres called spren; Kaladin, the leader of a group of soldiers of the human kingdom of Alethkar, who is just learning about his own magical powers; and Kaladin's commander, Dalinar, the real power behind the throne of Alethkar. There has also been a short interlude with glimpses of other characters, including one of the Parshendi, a strange race of metamorphic creatures. Alethkar has fought the Parshendi since they assassinated its previous king, and Kaladin and Dalinar are preparing for further warfare. Meanwhile, Shallan's ship is attacked and she believes Jasnah to have been killed, although the careful reader has cause for skepticism.

The Battle: Going head-to-head in this championship match we have two high fantasy novels. Multi-volume series of epic fat fantasy books are not my personal favorite sub-genre, but I can appreciate any kind of SF/F when it is done well, and through 200 pages both The Emperor's Blades and Words of Radiance are written exceptionally well.

Staveley and Sanderson both eschew standard elves-and-wizards fantasy plots in favor of original and intricate storylines, and each author does a wonderful job of conveying those complicated storylines in a way that is easy to follow. They also both write action scenes very effectively.

An interesting point in common is that near the end of their 200 pages, both books reveal an almost science fictional subplot involving quasi-alien beings. In The Emperor's Blades, Kaden has just been told that the gentle monks he lives with have been waiting for thousands of years for the return of vicious, amoral creatures who were once the enemies of mankind with control over interdimensional portals. As he learns this, the reader realizes that these creatures appeared in the book's previously opaque prologue. Meanwhile, Words of Radiance has just given us a glimpse inside the minds of the Parshendi, explaining why they murdered the previous king and showing their struggle to regain the forms they used to be able to metamorphose into, before the forms were lost when the Parshendi escaped their former masters. I am intrigued by both storylines and wish to read more.

But the Battle of the Books requires me to make some distinction to justify choosing one book to continue reading to the end. Let's do some nitpicking . . .

Both novels seem to have interesting magical systems, but while The Emperor's Blades has avoided giving much detail about how magic works in this universe, The Words of Radiance has shown us a lot about the nature of magic involving the spren. It's an intricate system, so much so that I found it quite believable that Shallan could employ the magical spren to destroy an entire ship, but then utterly fail in her attempt to use magic to build a fire. The magical system scores a point for Words of Radiance.

Let's look at the authors' respective writing styles. The prose in both books is overall nicely done, but one might expect an occasional misstep from Brian Staveley, as the debut author here. Instead, Staveley's storytelling has struck me as pitch-perfect, while Brandon Sanderson on occasion strains a bit too hard (to my tastes) for his imagery, e.g., "She needed to speak with him. She felt an urgency to do so blowing upon the winds themselves." Score a surprising point for Staveley, and we're all tied up.

As it often does, the Battle comes down to characters. Which author has created characters that have come to life for me, so that I need to know how their stories play out?

Shallan in Words of Radiance is that kind of character for me. I find her believable, sympathetic, strong yet vulnerable, and just a touch flawed. At the end of 200 pages, she has been shipwrecked and will have to struggle just to survive, let alone to work her way back into the novel's larger story arc. I want to know how she will manage. I do not, however, feel the same kind of connection for the other viewpoint characters in Words of Radiance. In particular, I don't care an awful lot about the preparations Kaladin and Dalinar are currently making, and it won't bother me terribly much not to know what happens next in their joint storyline.

In contrast, I feel connected to all of the viewpoint characters in The Emperor's Blades. I love how both Kaden and Valyn have been trained in disciplines where their imperial bloodlines are ignored. This has made both of them humble and sympathetic (but they are certainly distinct from one another), yet ironically has now left them both in great danger. At the same time, their sister Adare has stayed in the capital city and has definitely not learned her brothers' humility. And yet her goals are just, and we can sympathize with her frustration when it appears her father's killer may get away with his crime. Staveley has drawn me in, on an emotional level, to all three viewpoint characters' stories. I very much want to keep reading every page of The Emperor's Blades. And that's what the Battle of the Books is all about.

Huge congratulations to Brian Staveley on a most impressive debut novel!

THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades wins Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2014 Books. Congratulations to Brian Staveley as our newest Battle of the Books champion!

To see the completed bracket, click here.

We've crowned a winner for this bracket, but soon we'll announce a whole new bracket of sixteen books. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!

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.