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.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, Second Round :: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross vs. Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele


After some delay, due to issues such as stinking rabbits getting in my basement, here's our fourth and last, second round match in Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books featuring The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross going against Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

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 second round by defeating Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon.

Persephone Hazard and her assistant Johnny McTavish parachuted into Bavaria at night. They carefully broke into Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle which inspired Disneyland's Castle, and returned an occult amulet to its rightful place, and removed the forgery from the display.

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 with a cover story that made him hugely unpopular. At a bar, Bob meets an older man, Gerald Lockhart, who is a higher up in the Laundry. Bob will be assigned to Lockhart's department for a project.

Lockhart visits the London townhouse of Persephone Hazard, who is an intelligence officer and witch working for him. Lockhart wants Persephone to take Bob on her next suitable excursion. So they can privately discuss a situation that has come up, Persephone fires up a summoning grid, a "pentacle with attitude", opening a circle in another universe.

The Golden Promise Ministries are somehow involved in the situation. Persephone and Johnny go to an arena-sized evangelical revival service led by Pastor Raymond Schiller.

Apollo's Outcasts:  Pyr Books, November 2012, 307 pages, cover illustration by Paul Young. Allen Steele is an American science fiction writer. He's written around 20 novels, including the Coyote series. He has won three Hugo Awards for his short fiction. Apollo's Outcasts reached the second round by defeating Blood Zero Sky by J. Gabriel Gates.

Apollo's Outcasts is set in 2097. Jamey, who is sixteen and physically disabled due to weak bones from Lunar Birth Deficiency Syndrome, and his seventeen year old sister, Melissa, and are awakened after midnight and told to pack an overnight bag for an unexpected and unexplained trip.

Their father, Dr. Stanley Barlowe, stealthily drives Jamey, Melissa and their old sister, Jan, out of the Washington DC area to the space launch facility at Wallops Island. The President is dead in an apparent coup, and Dr. Barlowe fears being arrested for signing an ISC (International Space Consortium) petition. He and two other parents who work for ISC are sending their kids to the Moon to protect them. The other kids are Jamey's best friend, Logan, and Eduardo and Nina Hernandez. At the last minute, a government car arrives with a teenage girl named Hannah. The parents decide that Hannah must go on the shuttle, but there are no more seats. Jan, Jamey's oldest sister, volunteers to stay.

The kids are quickly examined and outfitted. Jamey is put in a padded cocoon to cushion his body during the high-g launch. The countdown is moved up when federal marshals show up. Hannah says they're after her. The shuttle is launched by magnetic catapult and it outruns several chasing jets. The LTV (Lunar Transfer Vehicle), which they're in, is jettisoned. The LTV pilot, Capt. Gordon Rogers (an homage to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers?), evades an anti-satellite missile, but when the weapon explodes a fragment penetrates the LTV’s hull. The kids race to find and seal the hole before they lose their air.

The Battle:  This match-up features an occult science fiction British spy thriller going up against a YA science fiction book with political intrigue.

After 50 pages of The Apocalypse Codex, we've been introduced to the characters, and they've gotten their assignments to work together. Admittedly, some recap is needed because this is book four in a series. But no immediate, likely supernatural, threat yet been revealed, so the plot hasn't really left the starting gate. Yet the writing is sharp and witty.

On the other hand, Apollo's Outcasts starts fast, with the characters on the run from a threat that becomes very real. There's tension building. But the exact reason why they are threatened, the details of the political conflict, are not yet specified. The former Vice President, and new President, apparently orchestrated a national emergency.

The kids in space in Apollo's Outcasts are a nicely diverse group. Jamey is physically disabled. Eduardo has some sort of mental impairment. The Hernandez kids are Hispanic. Melissa tends to be whiny. Hannah is undoubtedly important politically. Half of the kids are girls. This is looking like a YA space adventure.

In The Apocalypse Codex, Bob is a sarcastic, thirty-something IT guy whose job runs from the boringly mundane to the dangerously weird. In this series, advanced computer science can lead to dark magic. I got a kick out of Bob zoning out during training class and having a song running through his head (four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire; and though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all). Persephone Hazard is a kick-ass woman of many talents, inspired by the British comic strip character Modesty Blaise. I'm curious why they are investigating the American televangelist's church.

For Battle of the Books, I'm not necessarily saying one book is better that the other. I'm picking which book I'd rather continue reading. For this round, I'm judging these books after reading only 50 pages. Both books are good and readable, which made this decision difficult. The battle came down to that I tend to personally enjoy fantasy strangeness over speculative realities.

THE WINNER: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex advances to the semifinal round to face Quantum Coin by E.C. Myers.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, Second Round :: Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson vs. Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers


Our third match in the second round of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books pits Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson against Quantum Coin by E. C. Myers. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Clockwork Angels:  ECW Press, September 2012, 315 pages, cover art and interior illustrations by Hugh Syme. This is a novelization of the album of the same name by the rock band Rush, based on a story and lyrics by Rush's Neil Peart. Kevin J. Anderson is a bestselling science fiction author who has written many novels in well-known fictional universes. Clockwork Angels reached the second round by defeating Red Sand by Ronan Cray.

In Clockwork Angels, we met Owen Hardy who lives in Albion where life is extremely scheduled and everyone knows their place. Owen's seventeenth birthday and official adulthood is soon. It’s time, his father told him, to put away his foolish daydreams.

Owen boldly asked Lavinia, his girlfriend, to meet him at midnight for a kiss under the stars. Lavinia doesn't meet him. She didn't take him seriously or she was unwilling to bend the rules.

Owen hears the clanging of a steamliner. Owen liked to watch the steamliner go by his village each afternoon, but he had never been awake to see the one passing at night. Owen daringly runs down to the glowing rails. A man in a cargo car waves and offers his hand. Owen impulsively allows the man to pull him aboard.

The steamliner is bound for Crown City. Owen worries about what he's done, but looks forward to the adventure. The nameless man is strangely disrespectful of what Owen was brought up to believe. Hours later, on the outskirts of the city, the man gives Owen some coins and jumps off the train. Owen, realizing that he's now a rule-breaker, jumps off before the station.

Owen explores Crown City. He wanted to see the Clockwork Angels but is not allowed to get in. Owen spies workmen removing anarchist graffiti from buildings. At a carnival, Owen gets his fortune told by a mechanical fortune teller.

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.

In Quantum Coin, Ephraim was at Senior Prom. While waiting for the return of Jena, his date, Ephraim talked with his geeky friend Nathan, who was filming videos. When Ephraim spotted Jena, she was no longer wearing her Prom dress. Soon Ephraim realized that she was not Jena at all, but Zoe, an analog of Jena from a parallel universe. Ephraim met Zoe in his adventures last year.

Jena returns, with her twin girlfriends, in time to see Ephraim with Zoe. Before the two Jenas attract more attention, Ephraim suggests that all six of them go somewhere more private to talk.

Strange things are apparently happening in the multiverse. Zoe has a controller that looks like a flip phone, which works with Ephraim's coin in shifting universes. After Zoe's arrival, Nathan's video camera began capturing ghostly images of people from a parallel universes.

Zoe and Ephraim need to go see Nathaniel, an analog of Nathan in a futuristic timeline. Jena insists on coming with them. When they try to arrive in the other universe, they are somehow blocked. Upon returning, Jena's two twin girlfriends merge into a one girl.

To test that the controller and the coin still work, Ephraim, Zoe and Jena go to Zoe's universe. Zoe has modified her grandfather's old ham radio to pick up transmissions from parallel universes. They hope to contact Nathaniel over the radio.

The Battle:  This match-up features a steampunk fantasy book going up against a YA science fiction book.

Clockwork Angels, with the Watchmaker's extreme order, is different than many fantasy books, and that's a good point. I can believe that there would be people like Owen that don't quite fit in. But I'm somewhat uncomfortable that others seem to know of Owen's rebellion before Owen even knows himself, such as the mysterious peddler who gifted Owen with a book telling how things were horrible before the Watchmaker's stability, and the nameless, freedom-seeking stranger who pulled Owen to aboard the steamliner in the middle of the night.

So far, Owen is a lone traveler seeing new people and new places. I'm curious where Owen's adventures will take him.

Quantum Coin involves a group of teenagers. There are unknown problems to fix. I think that Ephraim, Zoe and Jena revealed what was going on to Nathan and the Morales sisters a bit too quickly. But the explanation about parallel universes was useful to me as a reader.

I enjoyed that Ephraim phoned his mom to tell her he's going to another universe. His mom first asked, "Who's in jail?", and later questioned Ephraim if he had been drinking.

I liked how the characters interacted with each other:
"Hey, what happens if this machine moves you to a universe where there's something already occupying the space you're standing in?" Nathan asked. "Like a building or an obelisk?"

"An obelisk?" Ephraim asked. "Why would there be an obelisk here?"

"Because it's the future! The future has obelisks. And zeppelins. There are always zeppelins in alternate universes."
After reading 50 pages, both of these books are engaging and readable. Yet for Battle of the Books, I'm forced to choose between them. After some thought, I decided that I was more interested in continuing reading the sillier, but fun, book about parallel universes.

THE WINNER: Quantum Coin by E.C. Myers

Quantum Coin advances to the semifinals to face either The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross or Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, Second Round :: The Doctor and the Rough Rider by Mike Resnick vs. River Road by Suzanne Johnson


Our second match in the second round of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books, features the match-up of The Doctor and the Rough Rider by Mike Resnick versus River Road by Suzanne Johnson. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

The Doctor and the Rough Rider:  Pyr Books, December 2012, 304 pages, cover art and interior illustrations by J. Seamas Gallagher. Mike Resnick is the award winning author of over seventy novels and over two-hundred and fifty stories, and the editor of over forty anthologies. This is Resnick's third book in his ongoing A Weird West Tale series. The Doctor and the Rough Rider reached the second round by defeating werewolf horror book, Wolf Hunter by J.L. Benét.

In The Doctor and the Rough Rider, the United States, as a nation, has been prevented from expanding west to the Pacific by an Indian medicine men spell, although many miners, settlers, and farmers have been allowed past the Mississippi. Geronimo tells Doc Holliday that he wants to make peace and that he is willing to negotiate an end to the spell with one man: Theodore Roosevelt. But Geronimo knows that many Indians won't want the spell lifted and they will try to kill him and those who stand with him.

Bat Masterson goes to young Theodore Roosevelt's ranch in the Dakota Territory, on Holliday's request. Masterson asks Roosevelt to travel to Tombstone to deal with Geronimo. Roosevelt is excited to go and help fulfill America's destiny.

Doc Holliday arrives in Tombstone from Leadville. He chats with inventor Thomas Edison, who was sent to the West to try to break the Indian spell. Holliday asks Edison to produce something to help Geronimo and Roosevelt's cause.

Roosevelt and Holliday ride out into the desert to Geronimo's lodge for negotiations.

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 second round by defeating paranormal romance, Guardians of Stone by Anita Clenney.

In River Road, we learned that after Hurricane Katrina, unbeknownst to almost everyone, 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 by The Elders 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.

DJ, Alex and Jean Lafitte met up at DJ's small strip mall office. Lafitte tells them the restaurant in Plaquemines Parish where the merpeople clan representatives have agreed to meet. DJ drives the red Corvette which Lafitte arrived in, because Lafitte desperately needs driving lessons. Alex follows in DJ's SUV. When DJ realizes that Jean Lafitte, being a pirate, stole the Corvette, they abandon it. Alex drives all of them the remaining way to their rendezvous.

The mermen are Cajuns. First they met Lafitte's friend, the tattooed Rene Delachaise, and his twin brother Robert. The other merman, Denis Villere, who is older, arrives on motorcycle. After a couple hours of arguing while eating a seafood lunch, they come to a tentative agreement on clan territory borders, contingent on solving the untested water contamination problem.

The Battle:  This match-up features a Wild West steampunk book going up against an urban fantasy book set in New Orleans.

The Doctor and the Rough Rider uses famous historical figures as characters. They banter and point out each other's exceptional talents. Doc Holliday calls Edison "our greatest genius". Theodore Roosevelt acts like a fanboy about meeting Geronimo, Doc Holliday, and Thomas Edison.

There are signs of upcoming conflict between those who want to end the barrier spell and those who don't.

Although several women have been mentioned (plus "metal harlots"), no female character has yet made an appearance in The Doctor and the Rough Rider.

In River Road, on the other hand, there's tension between the characters. Alex and Jean Lafitte hate each other, and DJ is caught in the middle. Lafitte humorously calls Alex, the shapeshifter, Monsieur Chien or Mr. Dog. The feuding merman dislike wizards, and DJ threatens them with her elven staff to break up a fight.

But I don't see any imminent threat to New Orleans, not yet anyway.

The protagonist of River Road, Drusilla Jaco or DJ, is female, and she's the only female character encountered. I like that DJ, as a wizard, is afraid of water.

After 50 pages, I found these dissimilar books to be an even match. For me, there was no clear winner. This battle easily could have gone either way. Both books were entertaining. What eventually decided this battle for me, was that I could relate a bit better to DJ, a modern woman, than to characters based on famous men from over a century ago.

THE WINNER: River Road by Suzanne Johnson

River Road advances to the semifinals where it will take on The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, Second Round :: The Demoness of Waking Dreams by Stephanie Chong vs. The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman


We begin the second round of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books, after a short delay due to the Windows XP apocalypse. Our first match in the second round features The Demoness of Waking Dreams by Stephanie Chong vs. The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

The Demoness of Waking Dreams: Harlequin MIRA paperback, August 2012, 259 pages. The Demoness of Waking Dreams is book two in the paranormal romance series The Company of Angels.

In the first 25 pages of The Demoness of Waking Dreams we were introduced to the beautiful demoness Luciana Rossetti, who escaped home to Venice, Italy after her plans were foiled by the Company of Angels. Luciana hunts during the Festival of the Redeemer each year for a single victim to offer to the Prince of Darkness.

We were also introduced to ruggedly handsome, Brandon Clarkson of the Company of Angels in Chicago. Before his death, Brandon was a police officer. Brandon is assigned to capture the dangerous Luciana, who has concocted a poison that can kill even demons and angels. Brandon works alone.

Brandon peruses Luciana's file on his plane flight to Italy. When Brandon falls asleep, his recurring nightmare is invaded by Luciana and she tells him to turn back. Meanwhile, Luciana wakes from a brief reverie with a mysterious feather, after envisioning a man, undoubtedly Brandon.

Later, Brandon finds Luciana easily, she's at the Redentore Church, as every year. Brandon thinks Luciana is stunningly beautiful. Luciana recognizes Brandon as an angel and she talks to him defiantly. He tries to handcuff her. Luciana runs. Brandon chases her through the streets of Venice. Luciana leads him to a narrow street called Rio Tera dei Assassini, a place that feels to Brandon of death.

The Rise of Ransom City: Tor Books, November 2012, 366 pages. The Rise of Ransom City is Felix Gilman's fourth novel, and is a loose sequel to The Half-Made World.

The Rise of Ransom City is the fictional autobiography of self-educated inventor and businessman, Professor Harry Ransom. It's set during the Great War between Gun and Line. The first 25 pages told of Harry's childhood in a coal mining town, and how Harry was cured of a mysterious illness by an electrical apparatus made by the Line. That apparatus inspired the prototype for Ransom's Light-Bringing Process. Professor Ransom and his assistant are traveling through towns on the Western Rim in a wagon with their apparatus seeking investors.

After one of his demonstrations, Professor Ransom takes a late night stroll. He catches sight of two weary people walking along the road in the darkness, a younger woman and an older man. Professor Ransom introduces himself. The woman says that she's Miss Harper. Ransom asks the man if he's her father, and he nods. Ransom assumes they are avoiding the patrols of the Line for some secret reason, which he is curious to learn. Ransom offers to let them travel with him and his assistant.

Readers of the previous book, The Half-Made World, will know who these characters actually are.

Professor Ransom shows his Light-Bringing Process in another town, at a Smiler (a type of Church) meeting hall. His assistant initially works the pedals of the apparatus. There are magnetic cylinders and coils. Ransom's lamps start glowing. There are no connecting wires. This is not electricity. Ransom unwisely delivers, instead of his usual pitch of how the Process could make money for a canny investor, his opinions about the War. Then the Process becomes unbalanced, power surges into the Ether, and all the lamps burst. 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.

The Battle: This matchup is a battle between a paranormal romance featuring a demoness and an angel, and a steampunk fantasy set in an alternate world inspired by the Old West.

The Demoness of Waking Dreams is, so far, entertaining. The setting in Venice is interesting. I liked that one of Brandon's first lessons as an angel was that beauty can be deceptive, and to not equate beauty with goodness.

I found it difficult to believe that Luciana could find her way into Brandon's dream before they even met in person. How would she even know that he was coming after her?

This is undoubtedly a paranormal romance. Brandon "falls" into Luciana's green eyes. The energy of their bodies is like a magnetic force. Pheromones are making a presence. I think I can guess where The Demoness of Waking Dreams is leading, but I'm not sure that I want to go there. To be honest, I don't usually read romance.

The Rise of Ransom City is an old-fashioned tale told in first-person in rambling style which I happen to like, but some people might find somewhat long-winded. The writing contains quirky humor that seems patterned on that from over a century ago.

Not all that much has happened yet, plot wise, and I'm unsure where the story is going, but I'd like to follow this adventure and learn more. I enjoy the world building, and the unreal, not fully explained, weird aspects. Professor Ransom comes off as eccentric, but likable.

If you enjoy reading romance, maybe give The Demoness of Waking Dreams a try. But for me, after 50 pages, I'd prefer to continue reading the steampunk western.

THE WINNER: The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman

The Rise of Ransom City advances to the semifinals, where it will take on either The Doctor and the Rough Rider by Mike Resnick or River Road by Suzanne Johnson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, First Round :: Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele vs. Blood Zero Sky by J. Gabriel Gates


Our last first round match of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books features Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele versus Blood Zero Sky by J. Gabriel Gates. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Apollo's Outcasts: Pyr Books, November 2012, 307 pages, cover illustration by Paul Young. Allen Steele is an American science fiction writer. He's written around 20 novels, including the Coyote series. He has won three Hugo Awards for his short fiction.

Apollo's Outcasts begins near Washington D.C. in 2097. Jamey, who is sixteen and physically disabled, is woken up after midnight by his dad and told to get dressed. He'd rather sleep, but he gets moving with the aid of his "mobil" device. Jamey has weak bones due to Lunar Birth Deficiency Syndrome. His seventeen year old sister, Melissa is awakened by their older sister, Jan. They are told to pack an overnight bag. They are going on an unexpected trip, and are not given any explanation.

Their dad, Dr. Stanley Barlowe, sneaks their van out of their neighborhood. On I-95, he doesn't switch to auto as required. He has replaced the van's traffic control and GPS chips to hide their track. Hovertanks and troop carriers pass them on the highway. Jamey and Melissa are informed that the President is dead, and their dad is going to be arrested for signing an ISC (International Space Consortium) petition.

They drive to the space launch facility at Wallops Island in Virginia, where Jamey meets his best friend, Logan, whose dad is also an ISC senior administrator. Another man is there with his wife and two kids. The parents are sending their kids on a cargo shuttle to the moon, to protect them. When they are about to board, a black government car arrives. The parents talk with the driver. Inside the car is a girl around Jamey's age, who needs to go on the shuttle, even though that means leaving one of other kids behind.

Blood Zero Sky: HCI, October 2012, 371 pages, cover illustration by Joshua Mikel at Sharkguts Design. J. Gabriel Gates has also written a teen horror novel, and is the co-author of the Tracks Series, a YA supernatural trilogy.

Blood Zero Sky is a dystopian novel set in the not-too-distant future. It begins with two peeks of things to come. The first scene features a young woman (probably May) who just shot someone outside N-Corp headquarters. The second scene introduces a group called The Protectorate, ready to do battle for freedom in a second American Revolution.

May Fields is the 25-year-old daughter of the CEO of N-Corp, the company that runs half the world. She works marketing N-Corp products. There are no competing products, but they constantly advertise to make people desire those products, such as on The Jimmy Shaw Hour in Christ. Earlier, May promoted the mandatory IC/Cross interface which requires a black, cross-shaped, cheek implant. The Cross, which is wired into the brain, allows people to control electronic devices with their thoughts, and, apparently, also influences their thinking.

Cities have been renamed as numbered N-Hubs. Almost all people are in debt to the Company. Those whose debt load is too high can be "repossessed" and sent to a Company work camp.

Randal, an old friend of May's, is working with her on a report for the board. Randal is on a neuro-enhacement drug that makes him a genius, but he stutters, can't sleep, and works 21 hours a day. Randal's revenue projections, which they double check together, show something terrifyingly unthinkable, that Company will lose money this year.

The Battle: This match-up features a YA science fiction book with political intrigue versus a dystopian novel with an oppressive ruling corporation.

Apollo's Outcasts begins with a sense of urgency and building tension. It isn't stated why Dr. Barlowe and his fellows at ISC fear being arrested, or what was in the petition they signed. The president's death appears to be part of a plot by the vice president to declare a national emergency.

Jamey is a likable teenage boy character. But Melissa seems to me to be a bit of a teenage girl stereotype. She lives in her own world of clothes and boys. She whines about having to leave home suddenly. Melissa's "pad" is taken away so she can't inform her online friends. Their older sister, Jan, seems relatively bland.

Blood Zero Sky tells of controlling technology and a repressive society. The setting achieves being unsettling. News stories point to the horrors of N-Corp, but most people don't care. It's not hinted yet why, or how, America went this far down this path.

I found it hard to emotionally connect with the protagonist May. She belittles the server at a coffee shop, and seems bothered even by her friend Randal. I have no problem with May apparently being a lesbian. But I would have liked to see more from her point of view. Maybe a tidbit of her back story would have helped to make her a more relatable character.

After 25 pages, both of these books have something to offer. But I'd rather read the book which I think is better written, and seems to be going somewhere faster.

THE WINNER: Apollo's Outcasts by Allen Steele

Apollo's Outcasts advances to the second round to face The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Battle of the Books, Bracket Seven, First Round :: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross vs. Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon


Our seventh match-up, and second to last, in the first round of Bracket Seven of the Battle of the Books features The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross going head to head with Free Radicals by Zeke Teflon. The winner will be the book I (Amy) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

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.

In the prologue Bob Howard, the protagonist of the series, introduces himself. Bob is a computational demonologist working for an ultra-secret agency of the British government called the Laundry, which cleans up and defends the realm from occult, Lovecraftian threats. It's been nearly a year since Bob's last dangerous mission. He's only now recovered and returning to the job.

Chapter one begins with Persephone Hazard and Johnny McTavish secretly parachuting at night into Bavaria. They land on the roof of Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle which inspired Disneyland's Castle. They break in and drill through the parquet floor. Persephone creeps into the space between floors, and returns a jeweled, occult amulet to its rightful place and removes the forgery from the display. Meanwhile, Johnny deals with a deadly, dog-like entity which enters their warding circle.

In chapter two, Bob Howard is being sent by HR to attend a week-long management training class for the civil service. Never mind that Bob works for an ultra-secret agency, he's given the cover story that he's a network security manager working on unpopular vehicle number-plate (license plate) recognition.

Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia: See Sharp Press, June 2012, 303 pages. Zeke Teflon is a pseudonym of a nonfiction writer and performing musician. This is his first novel.

Free Radicals is set in the not-too-distant future. It's twenty years after the Troubles when EMP bursts destroyed electronics, including people's high-tech implants. Nano buildings have collapsed into ruins. Floating billboards show Uncle Sam urging the reporting of suspicious activities, and advertise emigration to the stars.

Kel (Kelvin) Turner wakes up surrounded by empty beer cans. He discovers that he has a wound on his head. Only after listening to his messages does he recall what happened. Yesterday Kel went to see Mig, his girlfriend, carrying a bottle of vodka. Mig was out. Kel got drunk with, then intimate with, Mig’s roommate. Mig is extremely pissed off.

There's a flashback about Kel's ex-wife. She got full custody of their young son and Kel didn't even get visitation rights. Twice after Kel merely tried to find out about his son, he was attacked by thugs.

Kel and several musician friends play a gig at Retro, an old-fashioned club. Kel is a guitarist. Mig comes in disguised as a "diesel dyke." The audience is unappreciative of their music. Drunks start calling for "Free Bird" and other oldies. A trio of Homeworld Protectors walk into the club and brutally haul off Kel. Apparently Mig reported Kel as a terrorist.

Kel is sentenced, without any defense or jury, to be deported to Extrasolar Penal Colony Number Three. Kel is put into cold sleep and shipped in a coffin-pod. He is one of thousands transported. Upon arrival, techs revive Kel and the other surviving prisoners.

The Battle: This match-up features an occult science fiction British spy thriller going up against a science fiction as social commentary misadventure.

The Apocalypse Codex is written in a sharp and witty manner. The characters seem to act and interact intelligently. What the occult amulet does isn't thoroughly explained. So far, Bob Howard is only dealing with the civil service bureaucracy. But Bob's office job can be curiously odd. In the preface, Bob says he's tasked to "keep an eye on some departmental assets that are going walkabout." No specific occult danger has been revealed, not yet anyway.

Free Radicals tells about Kel, a middle-aged man who has been screwed over in life, especially by women. This story line didn't play that well for me, but may work better for a male audience. The cynical, dark humor made this readable, for example, the song lyrics for "Abductee Blues" about extraterrestrials with a rectal probe.

There was more violence and sex than I needed, but it didn't seem gratuitous. Kel gets beaten up more times in the first 25 pages than I think any protagonist deserves.

The dialect of the judge who sentenced Kel to deportation, apparently a Black American, struck me as too politically incorrect, such as calling Kel Turner "Mistah Turna."

After 25 pages, I'm not sure where either of these books will go. But I know that I'd rather read about the clever characters fighting some occult threat to the world.

THE WINNER: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex advances to the second round to face either Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele or Blood Zero Sky Coin by J. Gabriel Gates.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

"Bedtime Story" by Rhonda Parrish :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "Bedtime Story" by Rhonda Parrish, from the anthology Tesseracts Seventeen.

"Bedtime Story" is a simple tale of a young girl huddling in a closet, as an old doll of her mother's named Laura tells a chilling story of evil vultures and goblins. As much fun as the story itself are the audience reactions:
A brown slipper, dog-chewed and ratty, hopped out of the shadows and pressed itself against my side. I felt it trembling, and stroked its nappy surface. "It's all right." My voice sounded loud compared to Laura's creepy whisper. "Sometimes the stories have a happy ending, don't they, Laura?"

She was silent for a long while, and turned to stare at a spider scuttling its way up the wall. In profile her shadow was strangely flat and misshapen. "Sometimes. Sometimes."
Tesseracts Seventeen was published in Canada last Fall, but is just hitting American bookshops this month. The Tesseracts anthology series from Edge Publishing highlights Canadian SF/F authors like Rhonda Parrish. Parrish has been publishing since 2006, with emphasis on poetry and flash fiction.

"Bedtime Story" is a wonderfully written story, which challenges adults to remember how magical and frightening the world can appear to a child. Is a child's view of the world around her truly any less real than an adult's? Does it matter?