Saturday, December 20, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich vs. What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton


After an atypically fair contest between two honest-to-God comparable books in our last battle, we now return to the Battle of the Books sweet spot: outrageous apples-to-oranges comparisons. This battle matches a Pathfinder RPG tie-in, The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich, against a non-fiction book, What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Dagger of Trust: Paizo paperback, February 2014, 426 pages, cover art by Lucas Graciano. The Dagger of Trust takes place in the universe of the Pathfinder fantasy role-playing game. We've had several Pathfinder novels in the Battle of the Books, and they have made a strong showing, always competing well and one time advancing all the way to the semifinals. The Dagger of Trust opens with our heroine Corvine Gale and a group of friends barely escaping a mob that went mad when touched by a strange glowing fog. Corvine sends for help from two wizards at the Rhapsodic College in Oppara, Sebastian Tambour and Gideon Gull. As her message arrives, Gideon Gull is taking a strange test that challenges him to win a debate while simultaneously preventing an assassination.

Chris Willrich is a new fantasist best known for his Gaunt & Bone series of swords & sorcery, including the novels The Scroll of Years and The Silk Map. We will be seeing Gaunt & Bone in an upcoming bracket of the Battle of the Books.

What Makes This Book So Great: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 446 pages, cover design by Jamie Stafford-Hill. What Makes This Books So Great is a collection of posts Jo Walton wrote for the Tor.com blog, giving her thoughts as she rereads some of her favorite books. And anyone who has read Walton's Hugo-winning novel Among Others knows that she loves to talk about favorite books she's rereading. The first 25 pages of What Makes This Books So Great consist of an introduction and seven columns.

Jo Walton is the author of ten fantasy novels to date plus a great deal of short fiction, poetry, and essays. In addition to her Hugo Award for Among Others, she won a World Fantasy Award for Tooth and Claw. Her latest novel My Real Children will be in a future BotB bracket.

The Battle: Let's see, a novelization of a role-playing game against a collection of non-fiction. Rational people quail at the notion of comparing such, but here at the Battle of the Books, it's what we live for!

25 pages in, both of these books are entertaining and easy to read. The Dagger of Trust combines the fantasy elements of the Pathfinder RPG with a fog that drives people into a homicidal frenzy——as in James Herbert's novel The Fog, not the John Carpenter movie The Fog, if I have my deadly mists straight. (Actually, I'm not certain this fog isn't a Pathfinder game element; I know nothing of the game other than it's in the style of D&D. Thankfully, the Pathfinder tie-in novels do not require prior familiarity with the game.) The writing is clean and the story moves along at a nice pace. The opening section ends on an ominous note, when Gideon Gull is warned, "The dagger of trust is the sharpest blade of all."

But 25 pages in, through the Prologue and Chapter One, I don't feel I have much insight into any of the The Dagger of Trust's characters. Neither do I have a good sense what the main storyline will involve, since most of the first 25 pages were occupied by Gideon Gull's debate/assassination test. That was a good set piece, but it feels tangential to the plot. So while I'm enjoying The Dagger of Trust through the first section, I could put it down right now without any great regret.

What Makes This Book So Great looks like a collection of book reviews, only of older books not new ones. But it quickly proves more interesting than just that. In each essay, Walton isn't simply talking about a particular book. She's thinking a particular thought and using one or more books to illustrate. So her piece on A Deepness in the Sky isn't about how much she likes that novel, or it isn't only about that anyway, it's about how an author can use a reader's knowledge to create a tragic irony that is never explicitly mentioned in the text. Vernor Vinge did that making use of what readers knew from reading A Fire Upon the Deep. The chapter on Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence is about what sometimes causes good books not to find the audience they deserve.

In a post on "mainstream" vs. genre fiction, Walton observes that in A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, "the djinn is a metaphor in exactly the way Kelly Link's zombies aren't a metaphor." Worldbuilding is an integral part of genre fiction but not mainstream, so readers of the two types of literature bring different expectations of what is important to the story. Walton summarizes:
In the old Zork text adventures, if you tried to pick up something that was described but not an object, you'd get the message "that's just scenery." The difference between a mainstream novel and an SF one is that different things are just scenery.
Last night I watched a 2006 movie called Cashback, about a young artist who becomes depressed after breaking up with his girlfriend. It's a nicely done film, but it probably would have driven me nuts if I had seen it in the past. For in the movie, the protagonist develops the ability to freeze time. Whenever he chooses, everyone else stops frozen as a statue while he can still move around. And with this magical ability, he proceeds to do . . . nothing. Nothing at all. He doesn't think of stealing anything or spying on anyone or performing amazing feats. He does disrobe some women, but only to draw them, not to try any of the naughty ideas that would occur to most of us. He learns that others have this ability but makes no attempt to investigate. These possibilities are the first things that went through my mind, but the script and the character never show any interest in them.

Still I was able to enjoy Cashback and not be driven nuts partly because Jo Walton's essay was fresh in my mind. Walton didn't discuss Cashback, but her analysis explains it perfectly. In this film, the ability to freeze time is scenery. It's strictly a metaphor, and not at all what the film is about.

Which is all a long-winded way of arguing that the Battle of the Books isn't so unfair after all. Write down whatever you like, science fiction or fantasy or YA or horror or even non-fiction, and I'll read 25 pages. And two days later, if I'm still thinking about what your wrote, if it's affecting my perceptions of things around me——say, a random movie I watch late at night——then you win.

THE WINNER: What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

What Makes This Book So Great advances to the second round, to face either Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer or The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Barrow by Mark Smylie vs. The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley


We continue the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books with The Barrow by Mark Smylie versus The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Barrow: Pyr trade paperback, March 2014, 587 pages, cover art by Gene Mollica. The Barrow is fantasy set in the universe of the author's Artesia graphic novels. As the book begins, Stjepan Black-Heart leads a small band of ruffians raiding an ancient and (they hope) abandoned temple buried in a remote hillside. Among his group is Erim, a highly libidinous young woman masquerading as a man. Most of the group is looking for gemstones and other treasure, but Stjepan seeks a map to the legendary Barrow of Azharad. At the close of 25 pages, it seems he will have to fight his way out of the temple to claim the map.

As mentioned, Mark Smylie is the creator of the military fantasy graphic novel series Artesia. He is also an illustrator and the founder of Archaia Studios Press, a graphic novels publisher. The Barrow is his first prose novel.

The Emperor's Blades: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 476 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Emperor's Blades is also medieval fantasy, Book One in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Through 25 pages, our viewpoint characters are Kaden and Valyn, the two sons of the emperor. Kaden is the emperor's heir, yet he is the one living a quiet life in a remote monastery. As the story opens, he finds a slaughtered goat missing its brain; when he returns to report, he is placed in the hands of a new and cruel master. Meanwhile, Valyn is in training with an elite fighting group who ride giant hawks into battle. They are investigating a ship whose entire crew was killed, when word comes that the emperor is dead.

Brian Staveley has taught and edited. As far as I can determine, The Emperor's Blades is his first published fiction.

The Battle: For once, we have an apples-to-apples comparison in the Battle of the Books. The Barrow and The Emperor's Blades are both epic medieval fantasies by first-time novelists. So what will set one of them apart to advance in the Battle of the Books?

Let's start with the prose. One expects a first-time novelist to have some ragged passages, and that's the case in The Barrow. Smylie's writing is often too wordy, beginning with a rambling first paragraph that could easily be condensed to half its length. In contrast, the writing in the opening pages of The Emperor's Blades is remarkably clean and confident, occasionally elegant. If I hadn't seen the author's name, I might have believed this the work of an accomplished fantasist like Daniel Abraham or Elizabeth Bear.

Next, the characters. In The Emperor's Blades, Kaden and Valyn both come across as very sympathetic in the opening pages, although I'll want to see some flaws emerge as we move forward. Meanwhile, in The Barrow, Mark Smylie seems to be building his main characters up as Joe Abercrombie-style lovable rogues. I like the concept, but I'm struggling a bit with the execution. In particular, the only distinguishing characteristic of Erim so far is that she is incredibly horny. The very first passage from her point of view has her getting wet thinking about three men she heard in a tavern boasting that they had all violated a prostitute at once. Certainly there's nothing wrong with a female character being interested in sex, but that doesn't strike me as something that would turn many women on. If it does turn Erim on, is that really the very first thing we need to know about her?

Through 25 pages, the worldbuilding in both books is just getting started, but already the universe of The Emperor's Blades is capturing my interest. Part of that is some nice scenery, like the great flying hawks. But it's also partly because Staveley does an excellent job of hinting about this universe between the lines. For example, the fact that the emperor's two sons live far away from the capital and are hard at work, not at all treated like royalty, says something interesting about this society, which makes me want to read more.

Finally, let's talk about the storylines. The first 25 pages of The Barrow are building up to an underground battle, while at the same time letting us know where the story will go next: a quest for the ominous-sounding Barrow of Azharad. That is a solid opening for Battle of the Books purposes. The opening passages of The Emperor's Blades show us the emperor's two sons in separate remote locations and introduce two bits of intrigue: who or what did in that goat and who killed the crew of that derelict ship? Then, unexpectedly, the very last line of the opening 25-page section is, "The Emperor is dead." The lives of our young main characters are about to be turned upside-down. This is such a pitch-perfect way to end the opening section, it's obvious Brian Staveley wrote his book with the Battle of the Books in mind.

THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades moves into the second round, where it will take on Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Raven's Shadow by Elspeth Cooper vs. Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald


We begin Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books with The Raven's Shadow by Elspeth Cooper taking on Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Raven's Shadow: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 567 pages, cover art by Dominic Harman. The Raven's Shadow is the third book in the high fantasy series The Wild Hunt, the first published work by British author Elspeth Cooper. The previous volumes were Songs of the Earth and Trinity Rising. Songs of the Earth competed in Amy's Battle of the Books Summer 2012 bracket. This version of The Raven's Shadow was preceded by the Gollancz UK edition, released August of last year.

The primary protagonist of the Wild Hunt series is Gair, a young man blessed or cursed with a connection to a type of magic called the "Song." He's been learning to use his power, but apparently with mixed results.

As The Raven's Shadow opens, Gair is licking his wounds from a battle he barely survived; he believes that a close friend was not so lucky. One suspects Gair will soon be off to seek vengeance, but in the first 25 pages he is too dazed yet to think about that. Meanwhile, other major characters——Masen, an apparently well-intended older magician; Savin, clearly an evil sorcerer; and Ytha, a power-hungry sorceress——are converging on the north, where further conflict looms.

Empress of the Sun: Pyr hardcover, February 2014, 280 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Empress of the Sun is the third volume in McDonald's Everness YA series, after Planesrunner and Be My Enemy. Be My Enemy competed in Battle of the Books Bracket Six, where it reached the semifinals before falling to Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey. But I liked it well enough that I ended up finishing it and also reading Planesrunner. Ian McDonald is a science fiction writer from Northern Island who has won the Hugo Award and many other awards and accolades. Because I am a fan of McDonald and enjoyed the first two Everness books, I named Empress of the Sun one of the "seeded" books in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books.

The Everness series involves travel between alternate universes, with steampunk elements thrown in for fun. Our teenaged protagonist Everett Singh is on the run from the authorities who control the ten known alternate Earths. They want Everett because he possesses the "Infundibulum," a computer program devised by his father, essentially a map of all the nearly infinite (I assume it's "nearly" infinte, because how you could have a map if it's infinite?) alternate Earths out there. Everett doesn't trust those powers, for good reason, so he's keeping the Infundibulum to himself while he searches for his lost father.

As Empress of the Sun opens, Everett has just used the Infundibulum to help his gypsy-like friends escape on their huge airship from an Earth dominated by out-of-control nanotechnology. Two problems. First, the escape didn't come off as well as he hoped, as the airship has promptly crashed on a lush, overgrown version of Earth. Everett feels blamed by his friends, who assume he made a miscalculation. Second, Everett M. Singh, an alternate version of Everett assigned to find the first Everett, followed him to the nanobot world and only managed to get away by promising the nano groupmind, the "Nahn," to help it escape its quarantined universe. He has carried a piece of the nanotechnology to the first Everett's home, where he thinks he has it trapped in a peanut butter jar. Uh huh.

The Battle: This battle features two books that are both third in a series, which would make for a fair contest, except that I've read the first two books in Ian McDonald's series (as well as plenty of his SF for adults), while I've never before read anything by Elspeth Cooper. But the Battle of the Books is nothing if not subjective and arbitrary, so let's proceed . . .

The first few pages of The Raven's Shadow read like fairly routine high fantasy. The characters recite the names of various locations in the north, giving me a sense of unease that the author will feel compelled to take us to each of them in turn. But the fact that the book defies high fantasy convention by not including a map of these places bodes well.

Where my reading glasses started to prick up was the introduction of the sorceress Ytha. Ytha does not come across as a nice person, but perhaps not an evil one either. Rather, she is an ambitious person, whose personality has been shaped by the rules in this realm, a place of ongoing power struggles in which women are not expected to participate. We see her manipulate the thick-skulled chief she ostensibly works for, and then lead a ceremony with seventeen women with magical potential:
Firethorn seared her skin and the force of the binding knocked all the breath from her lungs. She staggered, gasping as heat spread outwards from the hand-print, raced over her skin and lifted every hair on her scalp. It surged into her breasts, sank into her secret places. She was a woman seventeen times over and she knew it in every bone, every fibre, felt it the way the earth felt the quickening of spring. . . .

By the Eldest, this felt good. As good as the first time she'd ever wielded her power, against the fat herdmaster who'd wanted her to suck the juice from his root when she was ten, and laughed at her when she said she'd be a Speaker one day. As good as the day she'd taken the mantle from old Brynagh and, for the first time, saw a man kneel at her feet instead of the other way around. Better. With power like this, she would bow her head to no one.
That's a nicely written passage that makes me interested in this character's story. Through three chapters, however, I'm less interested in the main character Gair, who hasn't yet had the chance to do much of anything.

Turning to Empress of the Sun, it's a good idea at the start of the third book in a series to let readers know that this book won't be just a rehash of the prior books. Ian McDonald accomplishes that by immediately crashing the airship that has been Everett's safe haven into a jungle. Not only does this disrupt the story, putting Everett and his friends in danger and thwarting his plan to find his father, but it has a great impact on Everett emotionally:
Mchynlyth and Captain Anastasia were bent over the hatch. Everett ached with guilt.

"Is there something I can do . . ."

Mchynlyth and Captain Anastasia turned at the same time. The looks on their faces froze him solid. He died . . . there, then, in a clearing in an alien rainforest in a world that didn't make sense, in a parallel universe. Died in his heart. He stepped back.

He had never been hated before. It was an emotion as strong and pure as love, and as rare. It was the opposite of everything love felt, except the passion. He wanted to die.
This is the opening scene of the book, and it simultaneously draws me into the storyline and makes me feel sympathy for Everett. I don't feel any such sympathy for his double Everett M., however, since even for a teenager, helping the Nahn escape its universe is unforgivably irresponsible. It does make for a good story, though, putting not just the entire Earth but nine entire Earths in jeopardy.

The opening pages in the third book of a series are all about quickly offering new readers reasons to become interested while reminding returning readers what they liked about the previous books. In the opening pages of The Raven's Shadow and Empress of the Sun, Elspeth Cooper does that well, and Ian McDonald does it superbly.

THE WINNER: Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

Empress of the Sun advances to the second round, to face either The Barrow by Mark Smylie or The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One

Announcing Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2014 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 seven brackets so far, discussing over 100 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. Real life got in our way. I, Aaron, the primary reviewer at Fantastic Reviews, had some personal issues that kept me out of a reviewing frame of mind for quite some time. (They also kept me from writing much fiction, but check it out -- I have a story coming out soon in F&SF!) A huge thank you to Amy for filling in for me while I was on hiatus (even as she was dealing with her own, totally separate, personal issues). Now I'm back and energized, and we're ready to take on the mountain of books we've accumulated.

In a valiant (please don't say hopeless) attempt to catch up, we're going to alternate between brackets of the new books we're receiving and brackets of the 2012 and 2013 books that we didn't already cover. Starting with our first bracket of 2014 titles.

Our first Battle of the 2014 Books will feature 16 contenders from 2014. We've selected four "seeded" books that I'm especially looking forward to (marked with asterisks), 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:


Elspeth Cooper
Raven's Shadow
(Tor)
vs.
Ian McDonald
Empress of the Sun***
(Pyr)



Mark Smylie
The Barrow
(Tor)
vs.
Brian Staveley
The Emperor’s Blades
(Pyr)


Second Quarter of Bracket



Chris Willrich
The Dagger of Trust
(Paizo)
vs.
Jo Walton
What Makes This Book So Great
(Tor)



Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation***
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
vs.
L.F. Patten
The Talent Sinistral
(Stone Dagger)


Third Quarter of Bracket:



Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson
Mentats of Dune
(Tor)
vs.
Cecil Castellucci
Tin Star
(Roaring Brook)



Nick Mamatas
The Last Weekend
(PS Publishing)
vs.
Glen Hirshberg
Motherless Child***
(Tor)

Fourth Quarter of Bracket:


Snorri Kristjansson
Swords of Good Men
(Jo Fletcher)
vs.
Patrick MacAdoo
Damn Zombies
(Severed Press)



Brandon Sanderson
Words of Radiance***
(Tor)
vs.
Mandy Hager
Into the Wilderness
(Pyr)

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Some notes on the field:

-- Classifying books before you read them is tricky, but I'd guess this bracket features 7 fantasies, 5 science fiction novels (3 of them targeted at the YA market), 3 horror novels, and 1 non-fiction book.

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

-- It looks like 6 of the books continue an existing series, 5 are the first volume in a new series, and 5 are stand-alones.

-- 6 books come to us from Tor, 3 from Pyr, and 1 each from Farrar Straus Giroux, Jo Fletcher, Paizo, PS Publishing, Roaring Brook, Severed Press, and Stone Dagger.

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, Wrap-up

We have completed Bracket Seven of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books. There were good matches along the way, involving a number of books worth reading. Hope you had a good time and heard about about some new books and authors!

Congratulations to The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross, winner of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books!  Let's give a round of applause for all the participating books!

To see the whole bracket, click here.

All sixteen of these 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.

Beautiful Monster by Jared S. Anderson & Mimi A. Williams
Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson
Wolf Hunter by J.L. Benét
The Demoness of Waking Dreams by Stephanie Chong
Guardians of Stone by Anita Clenney
Red Sand by Ronan Cray
The Hour of Lead by Kathleen De Grave w/ Earl Lee
Blood Zero Sky by J. Gabriel Gates
The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman
River Road by Suzanne Johnson
Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers
The Path of the Fallen by Dan O’Brien
The Doctor and the Rough Rider by Mike Resnick
Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele
The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross
Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon

Some of these books and authors may be new to you, but after reading my (Amy's) book descriptions and battle reviews, I hope some of them sparked your interest. Perhaps we introduced you to a few new books. 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. Battles were decided based on which book the reviewer, which for this bracket was me, Amy, would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for Bracket One of Battle of the 2014 Books. We have another sixteen books lined up for the next competition.  Aaron will be judging and reviewing our first bracket of 2014 books. We'll be announcing the books which will be featured contenders soon.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, Championship Round :: The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman vs. The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross


We have finally arrived at the championship round of Battle of the Books. In one corner we have The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman. In the other corner we have The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross. I (Amy) have read 200 pages of both these books, and the book I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket Seven of Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books.

The Rise of Ransom City:  Tor Books, November 2012, 366 pages. The Rise of Ransom City is a loose sequel to The Half-Made World, and is Felix Gilman's fourth novel. The Rise of Ransom City reached the championship by winning its matches against Beautiful Monster by Jared S. Anderson & Mimi A. Williams, The Demoness of Waking Dreams by Stephanie Chong, and River Road by Suzanne Johnson.

The Rise of Ransom City is the fictional autobiography of self-educated inventor Professor Harry Ransom. It's set during the Great War between Gun and Line. Ransom and his assistant, Mr. Carver, are traveling through towns in the Western Rim in a wagon carrying their Apparatus, giving demonstrations of Ransom's Light-Bringing Process and seeking investors.

Professor Ransom's lighting process is not electricity, but something else with mystical components. The Apparatus makes Ransom's glass lamps glow without any connecting wires. Unfortunately, Ransom's Process is unreliable, and at worst, can be dangerous.

On the road, Ransom meets a young woman and an older man who he comes to know as Miss Elizabeth Harper and Old Man Harper. (Those who have read The Half-Made World, like me, will likely guess who these characters actually are). "The Harpers" are avoiding the patrols of the Line, and Ransom, who has his own grievances against the Line, allows them to travel with him.

By chance, Ransom finds out that Old Man Harper was a notorious Agent of the Gun. "The Harpers" are being pursued by both the Gun and the Line. Ransom fears for his life.

An Agent of the Gun attacks them in the town of White Rock. Old Man Harper tries to kill the Agent by blowing up buildings. The deadly Agent is destroyed when Ransom makes his Apparatus spectacularly explode. There are casualties. Afterwards, Ransom blabs about "The Harpers'" secret mission. "The Harpers" and Ransom go their separate ways.

Ransom takes a job on a riverboat. He uses the assumed name of Hal Rawlins because his own name has become too conspicuous. He maintains and mimes playing a player piano. Onboard he meets the Great Rotollo, a stage magician, and his wife the Amazing Amaryllis. The riverboat is sunk by a stray rocket from an Engine of the Line. Ransom becomes separated from the other shipwreck survivors.

A penniless Ransom walks to the metropolis of Jasper City. He searches in vain for his sister, whom he wrongly assumed was successful on Swing Street. He gets hired by the Amazing Amaryllis who is doing a magic show herself. Ransom lurks outside the mansion of tycoon Mr. Baxter. A curious newspaper editor interviews "Hal Rawlins" and in the story Ransom implies that he built the player piano. The woman who actually built the player piano, but had to pawn it, Adela Kotan Iermo, challenges Ransom to a duel. Their duel at dawn is fortunately interrupted by an invasion of Jasper City by men of the Line.

The Apocalypse Codex:  Ace Books hardcover, July 2012, 255 pages, cover art by Mark Fredrickson. The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth book in Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series. The Apocalypse Codex reached the championship by winning its matches against Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon, Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele, and Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers.

Bob Howard is a computational demonologist working for an ultra-secret agency of the British government called the Laundry, which defends the realm from occult threats. For a project, Bob is assigned to Gerald Lockhart, who heads a small, special department.

The Laundry was investigating the Golden Promise Ministries of American televangelist Raymond Schiller. The Ministries held arena-sized evangelical gatherings in London. Schiller was invited to a breakfast meeting hosted by the Prime Minister. The Laundry, as part of British Secret Service, is forbidden to snoop on cases with ties to Prime Minister's office, but outside contractors Persephone Hazard and her assistant Johnny McTavish have no such restriction. It'll be Bob's job to monitor Ms. Hazard's and Mr. McTavish's investigational activities, but not to direct them.

Bob needs to be prepared for any eventuality. Lockhart helps Bob get a new passport with a diplomatic visa from MI5, and temporary tattoos that with blood magic can be used as telepathic communication devices

Televangelist Schiller returns to the United States. Persephone is provided a ticket to a weekend spiritual course at Schiller's compound near Colorado Springs. Persephone and Johnny travel to Colorado, and Bob rushes to follow.

Bob settles in at a hotel in downtown Denver. He uses the communication tattoos to find out what's going on, and manages to annoy both Persephone and Johnny.

Then everything goes to hell. Two possessed religious zealots with guns knock on Bob's hotel room door. Bob unintentionally kills them with an impromptu incantation. The men were zombies controlled by bug-like parasites. Meanwhile, Persephone runs away after seeing a classmate being "Saved" by ingesting one of these parasites in a communion service. Johnny is ambushed.

Bob reports to Lockhart and is told to return to the UK immediately. But Bob can't just leave Persephone and Johnny in this mess. And a huge winter storm is set to hit Colorado.

The Battle:   This final match-up features The Rise of Ransom City, a steampunk fantasy set in an alternate world inspired by the Old West, going up against The Apocalypse Codex, an occult science fiction British spy thriller. These books are vastly different in setting, tone, and writing style. After reading the first 200 pages of each of them, I really want to finish them both.

The Apocalypse Codex has been building up to its weird conflict, ratcheting up the tension. There are horrific elements, such the alien parasites and the women held against their will by the Ministries. But also there are laughable situations throughout, such as Bob being questioned by USA customs at JFK, and Bob's sarcastic humor as narrator. I found it interesting that events were set in Colorado, where I live. At the point I had to stop reading, Bob and his charges, Persephone and Johnny, are each facing dangers, and the Golden Promise Ministries looks like a potential global threat.

The Rise of Ransom City has been rambling along, with Ransom having various encounters. I liked the old-fashioned story telling style, and the quirky details, such as Ransom's meetings with the otherly Folk. Harry Ransom is an interesting, eccentric character. It's funny that he can't use his own name because his big mouth started tales making it infamous. I enjoyed how Ransom and Adela went gradually from being opponents in a would-be duel to falling romantically into each other's arms.

But, in my opinion, the plot format of The Rise of Ransom City, as a fictional autobiography, didn't particularly help it in Battle of the Books. It was like I read several separate episodes in Harry Ransom's life. There was tension building up to the "Miracle" at White Rock, but afterwards Ransom and the plot took off in a new direction. Hopefully all will be tied up satisfactorily in the end, but I have to make my decision based on reading only a little more than half the book.

These two books reached the championship round because I enjoyed reading them. I'd recommend both of them. It was a good battle, but as far as which book I want to continue reading more, I'll go with the book that I think has greater plot momentum.

THE WINNER: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex wins Bracket Seven of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books. Congratulations to Charles Stross as our newest Battle of the Books champion!

To see the completed bracket, click here.

I'll hand the Battle of the Books back to Aaron, who has a whole new bracket full of 2014 books. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, Second Semifinal :: Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers vs. The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross


Our second semifinal match in Bracket Seven of Battle of the Books features Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers going up against The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross. The book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 100 pages will reach the championship round.

Quantum Coin:  Pyr books, October 2012, 331 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. Quantum Coin is the sequel to Fair Coin, which was E. C. Myers' first novel. Quantum Coin reached the second round by defeating The Path of the Fallen by Dan O'Brien and narrowly getting by Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson.

Quantum Coin begins with Ephraim Scott at Senior Prom. Ephraim was waiting for his date, Jena, but when he spotted her, strangely she was no longer wearing her prom dress. Soon he realized that she wasn't Jena at all, but Zoe, an analog of Jena from a parallel universe. Ephraim met Zoe in his earlier adventures. Then Jena returned. Seeing Jena's apparent twin, Zoe, puzzled their friends Nathan and the actual twins Mary and Shelly. They all went somewhere more private so Ephraim and Zoe could explain.

Zoe came seeking Ephraim because Nathaniel, a forty-something analog of Nathan who works at the Everett Institute, called for help. After Zoe's arrival, Nathan's video camera began capturing ghostly images of people from parallel universes.

Ephraim, Zoe and Jena attempt shifting to Nathaniel's universe, using Zoe's controller and Ephraim's coin, but they are blocked from arriving. Upon returning, Mary and Shelly merged into one girl. Next they successfully shifted to Zoe's universe, where Zoe can communicate with parallel universes via her Korean grandpa's old ham radio. Eventually they make radio contact with Dr. Jena Kim, an older analog of Jena and Zoe, who works with Nathaniel. They are given a narrow time window when they're allowed to shift to the Institute's universe.

The Everett Institute is operating on a skeletal staff due to funding problems. Nathaniel shows Ephraim, Zoe and Jena around. He introduces them to Dr. Kim, who is demanding and doesn't inspire their trust. Apparently universes are collapsing together. Dr. Kim believes that the only person who could possibly understand what's wrong is the founder of the Institute, Hugh Everett III (who, in our world, was the physicist who proposed the many-worlds quantum theory), but unfortunately he's dead. After some arguing, it's decided that Ephraim, Nathaniel and Jena will search parallel universes for a suitable analog of Dr. Everett. Zoe will stay and keep an eye on Dr. Kim.

The Apocalypse Codex:  Ace Books hardcover, July 2012, 255 pages, cover art by Mark Fredrickson. Charles Stross is a well-known Scottish science fiction author, who has written around twenty books. The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth book in his Laundry Files series. The Apocalypse Codex reached the semifinals by defeating Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon and getting by Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele.

Bob Howard is a computational demonologist working for an ultra-secret agency of the British government called the Laundry, which defends the realm from occult threats. HR sent Bob to a management training class for the regular civil service. At a bar, Bob met Gerald Lockhart, a higher up in the Laundry, who Bob will be assigned to for a project.

Gerald Lockhart heads a small department called Externalities. Lockhart contacted private intelligence agent and witch Persephone Hazard. Persephone Hazard and her assistant Johnny McTavish were introduced in the first chapter, which told of a caper in which they carefully broke into Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle which inspired Disneyland's Castle, and replaced a displayed forgery with the real occult amulet. Also Bob reads Ms. Hazard's dossier.

The Laundry has concerns about the Golden Promise Ministries of American televangelist Raymond Schiller. Their investigation of the televangelist unfortunately encountered ties with the Prime Minister's office, where the British Secret Service is forbidden to snoop. Persephone Hazard (aka BASHFUL INCENDIARY) is an external contractor with no such restriction. It'll be Bob Howard's job to monitor Ms. Hazard and Mr. McTavish's investigational activities, but not to direct them.

Bob needs to be prepared for any eventuality. Lockhart takes Bob to MI5 to get a new passport with a diplomatic visa, and to another office to be issued temporary tattoos that can be used as communication devices. Bob also gets a gadget that looks like a compact camera, but with a special SD card it becomes a SCORRPION STARE gun which can turn things to stone.

Meanwhile, the televangelist Raymond Schiller has breakfast with the Prime Minister and some senior ministers and industry leaders. Schiller is using a glamour to gain influence over others. After the meeting, we learn that Schiller's Golden Promise Ministries are unexpectedly researching brain neurochemistry.

The Battle:  This match-up has a YA science fiction book featuring parallel universes going up against an occult science fiction British spy thriller.

In Quantum Coin, I appreciated the distinctly different personalities of Jena and Zoe, the analogs who looked like twins. I liked that Jena was reading books that don't exist in our universe, such as Jane Austen's unfinished Sandition. The uncomfortable situation of Ephraim traveling with his girlfriend and an analog of his girlfriend who's his friend, was humorous. Ephraim was understandably unsettled that his analog in the Institute's universe is presumably dead.

I think Quantum Coin started fairly fast, with Zoe's unexpected arrival from her parallel universe, even with the information imparted about their gizmos. But the next fifty pages, shifting to the Everett Institute, in my opinion couldn't quite maintain that fast pace. There didn't seem to be the sense of urgency I expected about parallel universes collapsing at the Institute.

On the other hand, The Apocalypse Codex is chugging along. The first 100 pages seems to be all set-up and outfitting for action. We learn about Bob's secret agency office job, his bosses, and about some rules of operation at the Laundry. Bob is introduced to the external contractors on the project. There are enough otherworldly details, such as Bob signing official documents in blood, to make this a fantasy, and not a spy thriller. The author's wit and sarcasm keep this readable.

No clear evil plot or threat is evident yet, but trouble is foreshadowed. At nearly page 100, some creepy stuff about televangelist Schiller was revealed.

Here’s something Bob Howard's temporary boss, Gerald Lockhart, tells Bob:
"Ninety-eight percent of management work in this organization is routine. The other two percent is a tightrope walk over an erupting volcano without a safety net. Congratulations: here’s your balance pole."
Both these books are entertaining. I'd like to, and plan to, continue reading both of them. But for Battle of the Books I need to pick which book I'd rather continue reading after only 100 pages. Parallel universes are cool, and I liked the characters in Quantum Coin. But I'm more curious about what the heck will happen next in The Apocalypse Codex.

THE WINNER: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex advances to the championship round to face The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Aaron's Take on the 2014 Hugo Nominees for Fiction

Today is the day to cast your ballots for the Hugo Award. Since this seems to be the year for block voting, if you don't know how to vote, I will gladly tell you . . .

Aaron's Ballot for Best Short Story
1. Sofia Samatar - Selkie Stories Are for Losers
2. John Chu - The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere
3. Rachel Swirsky - If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love
4. Thomas Olde Heuvelt - The Ink Readers of Doi Saket

To me, this is a group of three well-crafted stories and one brilliant one. Selkie Stories Are for Losers is elegantly written and in only a few pages creates a memorable main character, a young woman who is hurt and fearful after being abandoned by her mother but who is brave enough not to give up on love. At the same time, the story is an insightful commentary on an entire sub-genre of fantasy stories. This is the kind of piece the Hugo Awards were created to recognize.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novelette
1. Aliette de Bodard - The Waiting Stars
2. Ted Chiang - The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
3. Mary Robinette Kowal - The Lady Astronaut of Mars
4. Brad R. Torgersen - The Exchange Officers
5. NO AWARD
6. Vox Day - Opera Vita Aeterna

In the novelette category, my vote goes to Aliette de Bodard, one of the finest young writers in the field. The Waiting Stars exemplifies her work's excellent craft and striking empathy. The other nominees are all good, until you get to the last one.

It would perhaps be more fun if Opera Vita Aeterna were more amusingly bad than it is. Instead, it reads like a lot of stories sent round for critiques in writers' groups: an amateurish effort by an author with some ability who doesn't seem to know yet how to construct an actual story. Opera Vita Aeterna could not have sold to any professional market in the field, and it's doubtful it could have sold even to a semipro, because it's dry and dull and simply does not tell a story. Only one real event takes place in the entire piece and, incredibly, it takes place offstage, even though the primary viewpoint character is there when it happens. Shame on the block of voters who stuffed this turkey onto the ballot. I suspect few of them even read it, yet they nominated it for reasons that have nothing to do with what the Hugo Awards should be about. (And because I do respect what the awards are supposed to be about, my reasons for rating it below "No Award" are unrelated to the author's political views or the offensive way he expresses them.)

The good news is Opera Vite Aeterna is the only one of the Correia slate of nominees that is not written at a professional level, so the embarrassment is not so deep as it might have been. The Brad Torgersen story in this category, for example, is a solid example of the Analog style of writing, even if that style isn't much to my tastes. (Brad, by the way, can transcend that style when he chooses, for instance in his brilliant novelette "Ray of Light.")

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novella
1. Catherynne M. Valente - Six-Gun Snow White
2. Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages - Wakulla Springs
3. Brad R. Torgersen - The Chaplain's Legacy
4. Dan Wells - The Butcher of Khardov
5. Charles Stross - Equoid

Snow White as a Western is a great concept, and no doubt many authors could have done it credit. But could anyone else have turned it into something as striking and captivating as Six-Gun Snow White? Catherynne Valente is a marvel.

Aaron's Ballot for Best Novel
1. Ann Leckie - Ancillary Justice
2. Charles Stross - Neptune's Brood
3. Larry Correia - Warbound
4. Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) - Parasite
5. NO AWARD
6. Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson - The Wheel of Time

I hate to say it, but this strikes me as a lackluster group of best novel nominees. Ancillary Justice is by far my favorite, the most original, the best written, and the most thought-provoking of the group. But then, if we're using thought-provoking as a criterion, Neptune's Brood is the only other nominee to try. The Correia and Grant novels are entertaining but have little to say. I choose Correia over Grant because of the writing quirks in Parasite that annoy me: multiple passages that don't advance the story (minor character drove me home and told me about her dog for five pages), and the fact that the main character's dialogue and the same person's first-person narration are in markedly different voices.

I rate The Wheel of Time below No Award, because it was a terrible precedent to allow that entire series on the ballot at once. I already feel badly for whichever friend of mine writes a brilliant novel in the near future and gets stuck on the Hugo ballot opposite the entire Discworld series. Here's hoping the rule gets clarified to keep multi-volume series off the ballot in future.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, First Semifinal :: The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman vs. River Road by Suzanne Johnson


The Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books returns with the long-awaited first semifinal in Bracket Seven, featuring The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman going against River Road by Suzanne Johnson. The book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 100 pages will reach the championship round.

The Rise of Ransom City:  Tor Books, November 2012, 366 pages. The Rise of Ransom City is a loose sequel to The Half-Made World, which I have read. The Rise of Ransom City reached the semifinals by defeating Beautiful Monster by Jared S. Anderson & Mimi A. Williams and The Demoness of Waking Dreams by Stephanie Chong.

The Rise of Ransom City is the fictional autobiography of self-educated inventor Professor Harry Ransom. It's set during the Great War between Gun and Line. Professor Ransom and his assistant, Mr. Carver, are traveling through towns in the Western Rim in a wagon carrying their Apparatus, giving demonstrations of Ransom's Light-Bringing Process and seeking investors.

After one of his shows, Professor Ransom meets two people walking down the road at night. The woman says that she's Miss Harper. The old man says he's her father. They are avoiding the patrols of the Line for some reason that Ransom is curious to learn. Ransom lets them travel with him and his assistant. (Those who have read The Half-Made World, will likely guess who these characters actually are.)

Professor Ransom demonstrates his lighting Process in the town of Kenauk. When started up, the Apparatus makes his glass lamps glow without any connecting wires. But unfortunately, the unreliable Process then somehow becomes unbalanced, the power surges, all the lamps shatter. Ransom and his assistant barely manage to pull the emergency lever on the Apparatus. Ransom says that he didn't know then how dangerous the Process could be. During the commotion, the Harpers leave town.

Sometime later, at a checkpoint, Ransom spots the Harpers surrounded by soldiers of the Line. Ransom claims the Harpers were his escaped servants and gets them released to him. A few towns further down the road, Ransom is terrified to see a photograph of Old Man Harper in a book about various notorious Agents of the Gun. Old Man Harper tells him that he quit the Gun.

Ransom fears for his life. Both the Line and the Gun are searching for "the Harpers" because they know the location of a supposed secret weapon. They reluctantly continue traveling together. Wolves attack them on the road. A dangerous Agent of the Gun, who is a barbarian giant, catches up with them in the town of White Rock. While Ransom is giving his illumination show, Old Man Harper tries to kill the Agent of the Gun by exploding buildings in town.

River Road:  Tor books, November 2012, 332 pages, cover art by Cliff Nielsen. River Road is the second book in the Sentinels of New Orleans series. River Road reached the semifinals by defeating Guardians of Stone by Anita Clenney and narrowly getting by The Doctor and the Rough Rider by Mike Resnick.

In River Road, after Hurricane Katrina historic undead and other preternaturals flooded into New Orleans. Drusilla Jaco, aka DJ, a Green Congress wizard, and her co-sentinel, the shapeshifter Alex Warin, are employed to handle paranormal problems. Historical undead pirate Jean Lafitte, who finds DJ attractive, has asked DJ to negotiate a truce between two clans of feuding merpeople living near the Mississippi delta.

The merman clan representatives, who are Cajuns and don't particularly like wizards, accuse each other of contaminating the contested waters. Over lunch a tentative territory agreement is hammered out. Afterwards, the Merman Rene Delachaise takes DJ, Alex, and Lafitte to the location of the bad water in his fishing boat. There they encounter the other merman, Denis Villere, by the body of a man who has been bloodily, ritually killed. Denis says he didn't do it.

DJ senses something about the murdered man using her magic, but to pinpoint it she unfortunately has to touch the gruesome body. The dead man was a wizard. The merman Rene gets water samples. Alex and DJ search the surrounding alligator-infested wetlands for evidence, and find clothes and the not only one, but two wallets of men wizards. DJ informs her employers, the Elders, then magically transports them the dead body.

DJ calls Letitia aka Tish, a fellow wizard and water engineer, to help test the water. Back in New Orleans, DJ discovers, using her elven staff, that the sampled water has some kind of nasty magical contamination.

The Battle:   This semifinal match-up features a steampunk fantasy set in an alternate world inspired by the Old West, and an urban fantasy book set in the New Orleans area. In the second fifty pages of each of these books, the plots thickened. In The Rise of Ransom City, the characters are now in imminent danger. In River Road, there's now a murder and a water contamination problem to solve.

In The Rise of Ransom City, I liked how the protagonist Professor Ransom filled in more details about each of the characters. Ransom himself comes off as a man who is both bombastic and naïve. His System of Exercises is eccentric. Mr. Carver, his untalkative assistant, has turned out to be more than he initially seemed. The Harpers have their various idiosyncrasies. Humorously, even their two horses are introduced.

The world-building and the meandering storytelling style makes this book interesting for me. I like that in this imaginary world the towns are not all the same, and there's still room for unknowns and unpredictable things.

In River Road, DJ is a modern woman with a sense of humor who wants to prove she can handle things, even when she falls knee-deep into the swamp mud. I found her to be a likable and believable, if somewhat harried, protagonist.

I liked that Jean Lafitte, the historical undead pirate, started showing more humanity. He got melancholy in his old stomping grounds and worried about DJ when he heard an alligator nearby. It was nicely odd that Lafitte was reading Eudora Welty. Earlier, Lafitte seemed mainly comic relief.

DJ's love life, and who she'll be dating, is an immerging subplot. There seems to be plenty of antagonism between the male characters surrounding DJ. Maybe if I read Royal Street, the first book in this series, I’d would have had more background.

Both these books held my interest, although they are quite different in subject and in tone. It was hard to stop reading them after 100 pages. They each featured supernatural content and conflict. But for Battle of the Books, I'm forced to choose between them. Only one book can go forward. In this match-up, I found that I'd rather continue reading the book which I felt took me further from today's reality, and which I considered to be more quirky.

THE WINNER: The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

The Rise of Ransom City advances to the championship round, where it will face either Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers or The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven :: Final Four

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


The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman
                 vs.
River Road by Suzanne Johnson

Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers
                 vs.
The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross


We hope you've enjoyed this tournament so far. This sixteen-book bracket, our seventh, 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, got knocked out of the running by a tough opponent, as 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 to the Final Four is River Road by Suzanne Johnson.

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 Books are now in the hands of our reviewers, so check back for many more battles to come.