Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Voices Without Voices, Words With No Words" by Amanda C. Davis :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "Voices Without Voices, Words With No Words" by Amanda C. Davis, from Issue #73 of Cemetery Dance magazine.

Jeremy lives in a house inherited from his parents, a house with no power, no heat, no telephone. He has lost his job, his girlfriend, his life. Because he has time for nothing but his work. His work is: he picks up a dead phone and hears voices. He writes down names, numbers, and words that the voices give him. Then he goes to one of the few remaining pay phones in town with a stack of quarters. He dials the numbers, asks for the names, and tells them the words. Words like "Choose the green" or "Stop at two" or "Ask for Veronica."

So Jeremy is a loon, right? Except it's easy to believe he's not. For one thing, how come he can always reach someone with the right name at the numbers he dials? This is a guy who has devoted himself to work he didn't choose, at tremendous cost to himself, in the hope it's helping people he doesn't even know. He is a sad, pathetic, very noble character. Like someone who leaves a high-paying job to work with the homeless, or perhaps even a writer who devotes her life to telling stories she's not sure anyone else appreciates.

The story begins in earnest when Jeremy dials a number but it doesn't ring. He looks down and realizes it's his number, for his disconnected home phone. The message is for him: It ends. Be at the side of the lost queen at midnight. Twenty-five twenty-one. Will he puzzle out by midnight what that means?

This is a fairly simple story concept, executed cleanly and elegantly. I've been reading a lot of short fiction lately and I fear I've been getting a bit jaded – it's hard right now to get me to really care about what happens to a character in a short story. But Amanda Davis pulled it off. I was right there with Jeremy to the end of the story. I enjoyed "Voices Without Voices, Words With No Words" very much.

Amanda C. Davis writes horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, Shock Totem, and many other publications. Incidentally, I think of Cemetery Dance as a horror magazine, but to me "Voices Without Voices, Words With No Words" is not a horror story. Good for them stretching their boundaries to publish such a terrific piece!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Vaseline Footprints" by Jeff Bowles :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "Vaseline Footprints" by Jeff Bowles, from the November-December 2016 issue of Black Static magazine.

A sister magazine to Interzone, Black Static generally focuses on horror and dark fantasy, but I'd be more inclined to label "Vaseline Footprints" as bizarro fiction, with story elements at once absurd, surreal, satirical and grotesque. I like bizarro, and if you can appreciate offbeat fiction, I think you'll like this one a lot too.

From the opening line ("I keep dead women in my closet."), the narrator of "Vaseline Footprints" is oh so far beyond unreliable. He has a tough go of things, what with a boss he'd like to kill and the constant need to replace his bloody socks and his gallon container of Vaseline. But he tries to stay positive:
I love the dead women in my closet very much. I keep pictures of them on my phone. The dead women in my closet are my reason for living. I think I would probably go a bit weird if I didn't have them.
No doubt! This story may not be for everyone, particularly if you're sensitive about your religious imagery, but I thought it was a hoot and a half!

Jeff Bowles is a Colorado author, whose work has appeared in PodCastle, Stupefying Stories and other markets, and has been collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Mika Model" by Paolo Bacigalupi :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for Mika Model by Paolo Bacigalupi, which appeared at Slate.com in April of 2016 (cover art by Lisa Larson-Walker).

Regular science fiction and fantasy readers know that Paolo Bacigalupi is awesome, but may not know to look at Slate.com for good new SF. "Mika Model" is part of their "Future Tense" series of articles exploring how technology and science will change our lives.

The technology addressed in "Mika Model" is artificial intelligence. If we really are able to create a thinking machine, which learns from experience, what's the first thing we'll do with it? In "Mika Model," our protagonist Police Detective Rivera meets an artificially intelligent sex robot. It (she?) is constantly analyzing all available data to determine how best to turn on the men she encounters. She tells Rivera she needs a lawyer:
“What do you need a lawyer for?” I asked, smiling.

She leaned forward, conspiratorial. Her hair cascaded prettily and she tucked it behind a delicate ear.

“It’s a little private.”

As she moved, her blouse tightened against her curves. Buttons strained against fabric.

Fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of A.I. tease.

“Is this a prank?” I asked. “Did your owner send you in here?”

“No. Not a prank.”

She set her Nordstrom bag down between us. Reached in and hauled out a man’s severed head. Dropped it, still dripping blood, on top of my paperwork.

“What the—?”

I recoiled from the dead man’s staring eyes. His face was a frozen in a rictus of pain and terror.

Mika set a bloody carving knife beside the head.

“I’ve been a very bad girl,” she whispered.

And then, unnervingly, she giggled.

“I think I need to be punished.”

She said it exactly the way she did in her advertisements.
Rivera's first order of business is to decide whether this is a murder case, or rather a product safety failure. Mika tries to convince Rivera she is real, and he would certainly prefer to think of her as a person.

A lawyer does show up in the story, Holly Simms, and she promptly mocks Rivera for being a predictable male, so easily manipulated by what is, after all, a rather simple machine. And she is absolutely right. Then again, Mika had Rivera feeling like she understood him, while Simms just makes him feel small.

If people are so easy to manipulate, why is it we so seldom manipulate each other into feeling good?

This is Paolo Bacigalupi's third Story Recommendation of the Week. He joins Aliette de Bodard, Samantha Henderson, Rachel Swirsky, and Catherynne M. Valente as the only authors to receive SROTWs three times.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"The Sound That Grief Makes" by Kristi DeMeester :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

"Caleb had been dead for two weeks when I started pretending to be his ghost."

I do love a great opening line!

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for Kristi DeMeester's The Sound That Grief Makes, from the October 2016 issue of The Dark magazine.

In "The Sound That Grief Makes," our narrator's husband has committed suicide. She and her son Hudson are devastated. In a dubious bid to help him deal with his loss, his mother begins lurking outside Hudson's room at night, knowing that he believes the noises she makes are his father's ghost:
Every night, I knocked on his door.

Every night, my son would talk to me from behind that thin wood.

And then I found a worm, Dad. Big as my arm. Swear. And Nathan dared Scott to take a bite of it, and Scott said he would do it if Nathan handed over his entire Punisher comic book collection. Nathan said okay because he thought there was no way Scott would do it. Nathan kept the worm to keep everything fair, and then Scott showed up the next day, and ate the entire thing.

Hudson poured out his life for his dead father, and I sat and listened and understood I would never be able to give him all that he needed. I couldn’t be his father.

Eventually, the knocking would stop. Eventually, I would have to stop haunting my son.
(Since we know who the "ghost" is, this story has no supernatural element. Some would conclude it's not a horror story, but in my view horror fiction does not always require a supernatural element, and this story is a great example.)

Surprisingly, his father's apparent ghostly appearances really seem to help Hudson deal with his grief. But who is going to help Hudson's mother?

"The Sound That Grief Makes" is a simple but sad, moving, and elegantly written piece.

Kristi DeMeester's short fiction has appeared in such markets as Black Static, Apex, Shimmer, and Shock Totem. Her first novel, Beneath, is due out in April 2017.

The Dark is a fairly new on-line horror magazine, which I am digging so far. Look for more SROTWs from this publication.

Monday, December 05, 2016

"An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition" by Ken Liu :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My Story Recommendation of the Week goes to "An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition" by Ken Liu, from Liu's Saga Press collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (cover art by Quentin Trollip).

Science fiction and fantasy readers out there don't much need me to tell them that Ken Liu can write a decent short story. But you may not be aware that his new collection The Paper Menagerie has one new story in it (among all the reprints of award nominees and winners), and it's one you want to check out.

"An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition" alternates between brief passages explaining the systems of memory and cognition observed in various alien species and a scientist's love letter about his estranged wife, written to their daughter.

Every one of the descriptions of alien species is interesting and original enough to support its own story, but apparently Ken Liu comes up with good story ideas so routinely he can afford to toss off a half-dozen of them all at once. Show off!

The most telling of the alien passages describes a dying alien race that saved a few of their children by putting them on a near-lightspeed starship with no means of decelerating, thus ensuring that the children would live until the end of the universe—which they would experience in just a few short years. The passage concludes, "All parents make choices for their children. Almost always they think it's for the best."

In the main narrative, a husband and wife, both nerdy scientists, would each make a different choice for the future of their daughter. The parent who prevails has at least as many regrets as the parent who does not.

This is a well-constructed, emotionally charged story, right up to the sad and lovely closing line: "There are many ways to say I love you in this cold, dark, silent universe, as many as the twinkling stars."

Monday, November 28, 2016

"The Counsellor Crow" by Karen Lord :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

We are between brackets of the Battle of the Books, so time to catch up on some story recommendations.

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "The Counsellor Crow" by Karen Lord, from the anthology The Bestiary, edited by Ann VanderMeer and published by Centipede Press (cover art by Ivica Stevanovic).

The Bestiary is an anthology of short pieces, each describing a creature one suspects does not actually exist. The gimmick is that there is one strange animal with a name beginning with each letter of the alphabet, plus creatures called The Ampersand and The          .

The strength of this anthology is the array of writing talent Ann VanderMeer has assembled. How can you go wrong reading pieces by such authors as China Miéville, Catherynne M. Valente, Brian Evenson, Vandana Singh, Michael Cisco, Stephen Graham Jones, Karen Heuler, Karin Tidbeck, Felix Gilman, etc. etc.? The weakness is the pieces are similar enough that after a while the book can start to feel like a single gag repeated until it gets tiresome.

But the best pieces here are very good indeed. To me the funniest story in the book is "The Daydreamer by Proxy" by Dexter Palmer, about a genetically engineered parasite that your employer urges to try, because it will make you a wonderfully efficient worker! At least for a while. I think the most clever and elegantly done story is "Tongues of Moon / False Toads" by Cat Rambo, about an animal remarkably efficient at camouflage. ("One may go so far as to imitate an alchemist and thus fall prey to a recursive trap, lost in a mental mise-en-scène, seeking itself.")

And my overall personal favorite in the book is "The Counsellor Crow" by Karen Lord, perhaps because it has a rather more pointed message than most of the pieces. "The Counsellor Crow" describes a type of corvid whose appearances tend to coincide with human misery:
The turning point in the evolution of the Counsellor Crow took place not in Ildcrest, but in neighbouring Ilderland, where a new Prince and a resurgent nobility developed a strongly nationalistic and anti-modernist ideology that called for a return to old values and old ways. Modern technology was banned, foreigners were ousted, and the nobility tried a motley assortment of centuries-old garments, weaponry and rituals in an attempt to replace a Golden Age that never was with a New Age of their own devising. Naturally, with all the permutations and combinations of available customs, there were disputes, rebellions, and then civil war. The sacred battlefields of Ilderia returned, and the Counsellor Crows fed and grew fat.
The narrator of this scholarly article on the Counsellor Crow suspects the animal of using mimicry, speculating whether it is "the first recorded instance of a predator that mimics not the voice, nor the appearance, nor the scent of its prey, but their thoughts." The narrator ends with the alarming observation that the population of Counsellor Crows is now the highest on record.

Karen Lord, originally from Barbados, has only been publishing fiction since 2010 but already has amassed an impressive collection of awards. She does not often write short fiction, so "The Counsellor Crow" offers a rare opportunity to sample her writing in a single sitting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One :: Wrap-Up

We have completed Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books.  There were plenty of good book battles along the way.  Hope you enjoyed our reviews of samplings of these books!

Congratulations to The Just City by Jo Walton, winner of this Battle of the Books bracket!  Let's give a round of applause for all the participating books!

To see the whole completed bracket, click here.

Listed below are the sixteen books which were featured in this bracket, sorted alphabetically by author.  Click on the book title links to go that book's highest round book battle review.

Letters to Zell by Camille Griep
Infinity Lost by S. Harrison
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Firesoul by Gary Kloster
Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson
Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson
Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri
Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson
Originator by Joel Shepherd
Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith
Forge of Ashes by Josh Vogt
The Just City by Jo Walton
The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

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, who was Aaron for this bracket, would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books.  Another sixteen books are lined up for this competition.  Aaron will be the reviewer judging this bracket.  We'll be announcing the books which will be featured as our next group of contenders soon!

Monday, November 07, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Championship Round :: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu vs. The Just City by Jo Walton


We have arrived at the championship round of our current bracket of the Battle of the Books. In one corner we have The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. In the other corner we have The Just City by Jo Walton. Two fine novels!  I (Aaron) have read through page 200 of both these books, and the one I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books.

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. The second volume, The Wall of Storms, is just out. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for two more Hugos by translating Chinese SF. The Grace of Kings is his first novel.

The Grace of Kings overwhelmed Infinity Lost by S. Harrison in the first round. Next The Grace of Kings conquered Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri in the second round. Then The Grace of Kings won out over The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro in the semifinals to reach here, the championship match.

The Grace of Kings is set on the Islands of Dara, an archipelago with a culture similar to ancient China. Dara has recently been unified under the rule of a single emperor, originating from the island of Xana. That emperor has just died, however, and his contemptible administrators have passed the crown to his younger, weaker son. Rebellions are breaking out throughout the empire in the resulting power vacuum. Our main characters, the clever but mischievous Kuni Garu and the massive Mata Zyndu, whose family was all but wiped out by the emperor, have become leaders of two of the rebellions. The turmoil is worsened by the fact that the gods in this universe play an active, if indirect, role in what is transpiring.

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 also the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings, was published in June 2015, and the third book, Necessity, is just out.

The Just City overpowered Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith in the first round. Next The Just City got by Letters to Zell by Camille Griep in the second round. Then The Just City defeated Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz in the semifinals to reach here, the championship match.

The eponymous setting of The Just City is a city created by the goddess Pallas Athene, modeled on Plato's Republic, to see if it could be done. She has recruited a group of 300 scholars to run the place, including one of our heroines, 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 city "masters" snatch 10,000 children out of ancient history to be the founding citizens of the city. Among these is Simmea, a young woman rescued from slavery, and a dynamic young man named Pytheas. As the young citizens mature, Simmea becomes more and more fascinated with Pytheas, unaware that he is actually an incarnation of the god Apollo. A recent arrival to the city is Socrates, the Socrates, who is of course asking a lot of questions that may throw the city's future in doubt, such as whether the robots who do all the labor would rather be doing something else.

The Battle: I am not supposed to pre-judge these battles before I finish reading. But I'm only human, and I can't help anticipating where a battle is headed. For this championship round, I didn't think I even needed to do the reading. Based on the first 100 pages of both books I had already read for the semifinals, I was sure I knew the inevitable winner. And I thought so as I was reading through 200 pages of both. Then I finished, and realized I had been wrong the whole time.

These are two quite different but each well-written and original fantasy novels, certainly both worth your time. But through 100 pages and then some, it seemed to me that the focus of The Just City was philosophical musings about Plato, which I was finding interesting but hardly compelling, while the focus of The Grace of Kings was on the storytelling, which is usually the best way to pull me into a novel.

But a funny thing happened by the time I got to page 200 in both books. Even though there's a lot more plotting in The Grace of Kings, I came to realize that The Just City would be the harder book for me to put down, for two reasons.

First, I feel more connected to the characters in The Just City. While I continue to enjoy The Grace of Kings, the main characters have not developed much since the early pages. Instead, we've visited a host of minor characters with tangential roles in the rebellion against the empire. Some of these sub-plots are nicely spun out; for example, here a young man named Jizu, recruited by self-serving ministers to lead a small kingdom joining the rebellions, saves his people from slaughter by the imperial army by offering himself instead. When the empire's representative, General Namen, accepts his proposal, Jizu promptly sets himself on fire:
General Namen shook his head. The smell of burned flesh nauseated him, and he felt very old and tired at this moment. He had liked Jizu's pale face, his curled hair and thin nose. He had admired the way the boy held his back straight, and the way he looked at him, the conqueror, with no fear in his calm gray eyes. He would have liked to sit and have a long talk with the young man, a man he thought very brave.

He wished again that Kindo Marana had not sought him out. He wished he were sitting in front of the fire in his house, his hand stroking a contented Tozy. But he loved Xana, and love required sacrifices.
This is a nice scene, especially when Jizu's sleazy ministers get their comeuppance, but it has already played out and so doesn't much pull me into the larger story arc. Overall, the book has something of an episodic feel through 200 pages, and I haven't gotten to know the key characters Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu as well as I would have liked.

In contrast, while the first 200 pages of The Just City tell a quieter story, they gradually combine to develop the main characters into people I feel I know and care about. For instance, here is a passage from the point of view of Pytheas, aka Apollo:
Being a mortal was strange. It was sensually intense, and it had the intensity of everything evanescent—like spring blossoms or autumn leaves or early cherries. It was also hugely involving. Detachment was really difficult to achieve. Everything mattered immediately—every pain, every sensation, every emotion. There wasn't time to think about things properly—no possibility of withdrawal for proper contemplation, then returning to the same instant with a calm and reasonable plan. Everything had to be done in time, immediately. Paradoxically, there was also too much time. I constantly had to wait through moments and hours and nights. I had to wait for spring to see blossom, wait for Simmea to be free to walk with me, wait for morning. Then when it came, everything would be hurtling forward in immediate necessity again, pierced through with emotion and immediacy and a speeding pulse. Time was inexorable and unstoppable. I had always known that, but it had taken me fifteen years as a mortal to understand what it meant.
On initial reading, this is an interesting thought about an immortal's perspective. But it comes back later, as Simmea is developing a teenage crush for Pytheas, and the reader realizes how impossible it is that things will work out for them on a romantic level.

The entire system that Athena and the masters have created seems at once admirable yet hopelessly unstable. The masters pride themselves on having rescued the young citizens from slavery, but they dictate to these adolescents where to live, what to eat, what work to do, even (as they get older) their sexual partners, all to conform to Plato's directions. At the same time, they're training their young citizens to be independent thinkers. Sooner or later, these youngsters are bound to have the independent thought, "Why are we putting up with all this shit?"

There are many such aspects of this tale that didn't grab me immediately, but have developed into storylines that I care about. How will the idealistic Simmea handle learning that people in this city are not what she believes? Which masters will be corrupted by the power they've been handed? Who will join in the inevitable rebellion? How will Maia (who won't rebel) handle being torn between the other masters and the youngsters with whom she identifies? How will the system adjust when the young citizens start having children of their own? What happens if Socrates prompts the robots to stop working for the masters? I want to keep reading to find all this out, even if some of the answers may not come until later volumes in the series.

The second reason I find it harder to put down The Just City is the story is so unique. Of all the countless people to read The Republic in the past 2,400 years, if it has ever occurred to anyone else to render Plato's thought experiment literal, I missed it. And I'm enjoying the return to a more philosophical style of science fiction, the kind the field used to get from authors like Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ. I am intrigued to see where Jo Walton plans to take this story and setting.

Meanwhile, the sprawling, secondary-world epic fantasy has been done a whole lot recently. The most distinctive aspect of Liu's approach to the subgenre is his Eastern setting and mood, but even this has already been done very effectively in the past few years, for example by Guy Gavriel Kay in Under Heaven and River of Stars and by Elizabeth Bear in her Eternal Sky series. (Hopefully this won't hurt Ken Liu's feelings overmuch. I know I'd be delighted to have someone criticize my writing for being similar to Guy Gavriel Kay and Elizabeth Bear!)

Much to my own surprise, after 200 pages, The Just City is the book I most want to keep reading to the end.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City wins Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books. Congratulations to 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. Aaron will judging the next bracket which will be full of 2016 books. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Semifinal :: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz vs. The Just City by Jo Walton



Our second semifinal match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz going against The Just City by Jo Walton. In the semifinal round, the books are judged after reading 100 pages. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

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

Flex overpowered Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson in the first round, then Flex edged by Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson in the second round to reach here, the semifinals.

In Flex, it seems the key to doing magic is to be sufficiently obsessive about something. Our protagonist Paul Tsabo is that weird guy in the office who actually enjoys doing paperwork. In the first 50 pages of Flex, Paul discovered that he could do bureaucromancy, magic performed with paper. Unfortunately, when a 'mancer does magic, there is always a dangerous backlash called "the Flux." So Paul's first experiments with bureaucromancy led to a fire that severely injured his six-year-old daughter. The insurance company Paul works for has declined coverage for her reconstructive surgery, because they can tell the injuries resulted from magic, which is excluded. Paul realizes he will need to use magic to help his daughter obtain the treatment she needs. So in the second 50 pages, he tracks down another 'mancer operating illegally, in hopes that she can help him learn how to do magic while deflecting the Flux. The other 'mancer is Valentine, who performs magic by compulsively playing video games. She has been using her magic to destructive ends, but now seems suspiciously willing to help Paul.

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 in the first round, then The Just City got by Letters to Zell by Camille Griep in the second round to reach here, the semifinals.

In the opening 50 pages of The Just City, the goddess Pallas Athene decided to create a city modeled on Plato's Republic, apparently just to see if it could be done. A group of 300 scholars were 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's viewpoint chapters take place as the city is first founded. Unfortunately, in the second 50 pages, Maia discovers that applying platonic ideals is easier said than done, a point made very clear when one of the other scholars rapes her. The other chapters take place later on, from the viewpoints of Simmea, a young woman rescued from slavery, and a dynamic young man named Pytheas. Simmea and Pytheas are among the 10,000 young people brought in by Maia and the other leaders to be educated Plato-fashion. Simmea befriends Pytheas, unaware that he is actually an incarnation of the god Apollo.

The Battle:  We have an urban fantasy and a mythical historical fantasy battling it out to make it into the finals. As in the previous semifinal, it's a difficult contest to call, because both books are nicely written and display obvious strengths.

Flex begins with a sympathetic protagonist, wracked with concerns about his daughter, concerns that understandably make him feel compelled to step outside the bounds of the law. (Although why he initially started using magic is less understandable, since he knew very well the nature of the Flux.) Steinmetz set himself a fun writing challenge in the 'Mancer series by creating a form of magic based on bureaucracy and a central conflict that turns on obtaining insurance coverage. These are not the usual tools of genre fantasy, but Steinmetz makes them work quite nicely.

The Just City offers two very sympathetic young female protagonists and a third protagonist, the god Apollo, who seems to mean well but is liable to mess things up for those around him, as gods do. The concept of setting up a city based on Plato's Republic is an interesting philosophical challenge, but was not necessarily making for a compelling storyline through the opening 50 pages. But the second 50 pages successfully tied the larger issues about how to create and run the city with the personal aspects of the story for Maia and Simmea.

So how to choose which of two well-written, original, interesting novels to keep reading? I suspect if these books had met in the second round after only 50 pages (which they didn't, because I was especially looking forward to both of them and so designated them as seeds in the bracket), Flex would have won, because The Just City was a bit slow to get going. But after 100 pages, I feel fully engaged in both stories.

The deciding factor in this battle: ambition. The characters in The Just City are engaged in a great, ambitious project, the outcome of which I am very interested to see. While the protagonist of Flex is just trying to dig his way out of a hole, which he himself foolishly dug. It's okay to tell a story of a guy trying to redeem a dumb mistake, but to me it's a bit less compelling than the characters' goals in The Just City. Similarly, I admire Jo Walton's ambition in trying to tell a utopian story in The Just City, at a time when the concept of utopia is generally regarded as passé. Another urban fantasy series isn't quite as distinctive in the present market, although I give Ferrett Steinmetz credit for putting some interesting twists on the subgenre in Flex.

I also respect Walton having the nerve to include a disturbing scene where one of her two primary protagonists is raped. The scene is key to her development while simultaneously demonstrating the potential flaws in creating a utopia—how do you deal with a member of the society who genuinely does not understand why what he's doing is wrong? Rape scenes are overused in media SF/F, but this book illustrates why it's wrong-headed to tell authors in the written genre never to write such a scene.

The Just City is broad concept fantasy, something Samuel Delany or Joanna Russ might have written during the New Wave, the kind of thing we don't see often enough any longer. I want to know where Jo Walton is going with the concept. While I'm enjoying Flex very much, The Just City is the novel I can't bring myself to put down.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City advances to the championship round to face The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Semifinal :: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro vs. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu



Our first semifinal match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro going against The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. In the semifinal round, the books are judged after reading 100 pages. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

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 in the first round, then The Buried Giant overwhelmed The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler in the second round to reach the semifinals.

Set in ancient England, the main characters of The Buried Giant are an old couple named Axl and Beatrice. Axl and Beatrice have left their farming community and set off across Saxon lands in search of their son, frustrated that they don't remember him very well. A mist has settled across this land that has apparently deprived everyone of many of their memories. Axl and Beatrice travel through a Saxon village, where a young boy was recently carried off by ogres but saved by a passing Briton warrior.

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 two more Hugos by translating Chinese SF. The Grace of Kings is his first novel.

The Grace of Kings overwhelmed Infinity Lost by S. Harrison in the first round, then The Grace of Kings conquered Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri in the second round to reach the semifinals.

The Grace of Kings is set on the Islands of Dara, an archipelago with a culture similar to ancient China. The opening 50 pages introduced us to our main characters Kuni Garu, a clever but mischievous young man hoping to win the hand of his mayor's daughter, and Mata Zyndu, a huge brooding young fellow seeking revenge against the emperor for the deaths of most of his family. In the second 50 pages, the emperor meets his gods, figuratively and literally, and the resulting power vacuum opens the door to rebellion. Kuni Garu is quick to join the fray.

The Battle: By the semifinals, judging the Battle of the Books gets really tough, because the books that make it this far are typically very good. Case in point, here is a battle between two fantasy novels I am greatly enjoying, by two authors I hugely admire. One is a straight historical fantasy set in ancient Britain (it feels historical so far anyway—people speak of ogres and such, but so far none has appeared onstage), while the other is a secondary world fantasy drawing heavily on Chinese history. It will be difficult to choose a winner.

Through 100 pages, The Buried Giant is elegantly written and has introduced me to an appealing historical setting, some likeable characters, and an interesting mystery: why do the main characters and everyone around them seem to be suffering from gaps in their memories?

Through 100 pages, The Grace of Kings is also nicely written and has introduced me to a fascinating world, this one not strictly historical but leaning heavily on Chinese history. The characters are similarly engaging, with interesting conflicts looming in their futures.

So what's to separate these two strong entrants? The answer is, the Battle of the Books rewards novels that add new layers to the narrative for each round. (You may be skeptical that authors are writing their novels with the Battle of the Books in mind, but they are, my friends, they are.) A memorable opening will carry the first round. Then broadening the opening out into some intriguing storylines gets you through the second round. Kazuo Ishiguro and Ken Liu both did those things.

For the third round? Give me something extra. Keep adding to the story as it unfolds, so I appreciate more after 100 pages than I did after 50 pages. Again, Ishiguro and Liu both do that, but one a bit more successfully.

In The Buried Giant, the new story element is two new traveling companions for our main characters. One is a lad driven from his home by superstitious villagers who believe he was bitten by an ogre. The other is a brave and strong warrior named Wistan, whom Axl meets at a vantage point overlooking a dense woodland:
"Yesterday I rode down that hillside," Wistan said, "and my mare with hardly any prompting set into a gallop as though for sheer joy. A strange thing, as if I were returning to scenes from an early life, though to my knowledge I've never before visited this country. Can it be I passed this way as a small boy too young to know my whereabouts, yet old enough to retain these sights? The trees and moorland here, the sky itself seem to tug at some lost memory."
One suspects this warrior is the same lost son Axl and Beatrice seek. If it turns out so, that is an awfully convenient development.

Meanwhile, the second 50-page section of The Grace of Kings does a masterful job of broadening the scope of the story. While the opening chapters focused on the development of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu as youths, now we are starting to see the events shaping leadership of the Islands of Dara. That includes a betrayal of the Emperor Mapidéré's wishes upon his death, which leaves the empire without a strong ruler, as well as the surprising revelation that the gods have taken an active interest in Dara. Here, the bickering gods refuse the dying emperor's request to be cured of illness to continue his works to honor them:
"War has its own logic, Little Sister," said Fithowéo. "We can guide, but it cannot be controlled."

"A lesson that mortals have learned again and again—" said Rapa.

"—but it doesn't seem to take," finished Kana.

Tututika turned her gaze to the forgotten Mapidéré. "Then we should pity this man, whose work is about to be undone. Great men are always misunderstood by their own age. And great seldom means good."
By first introducing us to two different but equally sympathetic main characters and then broadening his scope, Ken Liu has pulled off the difficult trick in epic fantasy of weaving a story on a grand scale that is firmly anchored in characters the reader cares about.

As much as I love Kazuo Ishiguro's pastoral writing style in The Buried Giant, through 100 pages The Grace of Kings is giving me more to anticipate, more reasons to keep reading.

THE WINNER: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings advances to the championship round to face either Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz or The Just City by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.