Friday, January 30, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey!" Sophie barked.

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

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

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

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

"Children, Sophie. We had some children."

"We still do."

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

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

THE WINNER: Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg

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

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WINNER: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Throw her," she said, gesturing.

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

"I can't," he shouted back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

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

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WINNER: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

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

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WINNER: Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson

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

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas vs. Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg


Today's first-round contest in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books features The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas going against Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Last Weekend: PS Publishing hardcover, February 2014, 214 pages, cover art by Pedro Marques. The Last Weekend takes place after the zombie apocalypse strikes America——and, inexplicably, only America. Our narrator, Billy or Vasilakis (depending on whether you're Greek) lives in San Francisco, which handled the rise of the dead fairly well, since hardly anybody is actually buried there. Billy thinks of himself as an aspiring writer, although he didn't really write anything even when a publishing industry still existed, but scrapes out a living as a "driller," someone you call to come drill a hole in a recently deceased person's head before they can get up and chase you around.

Nick Mamatas has been nominated for the Stoker Award for his writing, and has won the Stoker and received Hugo and World Fantasy Award nominations for his editing. He has written seven novels and two collections of short fiction to date, with emphasis on horror and dark fantasy, as well as a whole lot of acerbic commentary on the Web.

Motherless Child: Tor hardcover, May 2014, 269 pages. The progratonist of Motherless Child is Natalie, a single mother in her twenties in North Carolina. She allows herself a rare night out with her friend and fellow single mother Sophie. They go to a tavern where a musical icon known as "the Whistler" makes a surprise appearance. They wake in a car with hazy memories and tattered and bloodied clothes but no obvious injuries. Natalie at first feels exhilirated, but soon realizes something is wrong. Experienced readers (and anyone who read the back of the book) knows what: she has allowed a vampire into her life.

Glen Hirshberg is an author of literary horror, producing three novels and three collections of short fiction so far. He has won the International Horror Guild Award and Shirley Jackson Award. In the small world department, he was a friend of my ex-wife's in high school.

The Battle: Zombies and vampires have been done to, um, death in recent years, but Mamatas and Hirshberg are very talented writers. Let's see which of them can take an overused trope and find a way to get me interested in it.

The Last Weekend does not read like a typical zombie novel, for good and not-so-good. Through the first 25 pages, Mamatas only gives us one confrontation with a zombie, and he plays it not for scares but strictly as a gross-out. The only moment of brief tension comes when a zombie-hunting solider bursts down Billy's door. This is San Francisco, so the soldier has a social worker in tow. They ask if Billy wants to come with them, and when he wonders if he has a choice they say, "It's a free country." I like that exchange. It's funny with a touch of irony and lets the reader know that we won't be following a standard zombie apocalypse storyline here. Expect instead a lot more references to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.

Unfortunately, Mamatas isn't satisfied with simply writing a different sort of zombie novel. He wants to explain to us that he's doing so, while distancing himself explicitly from the rest of the subgenre:
I am, in general, not a fan of single-sentence paragraphs. Even worse are one-word paragraphs. And yet our national dilemma lends itself to the poetaster strum of that one tedious chord. . . .

You know exactly the sort of asinine bullshit I mean. The zines are full of it, as is the Internet and all the mimeographed and hot-glue gunned "novels" that anyone can publish these days if they want to put the work into it. All the greats are dead, and that was so even before the outbreak. "Zombies" are ubiquitous these days, as overwhelming to auctorial understanding of America as was the Vietnam War or the settling of the West. That the rise of the dead was so inexplicable and yet, down deep in our cultural DNA, was so profoundly anticipated has created immense problems for American letters.

But you want to hear a zombie story? Fine, I'll tell you a zombie story.
No, really, don't. Dude, if you hate zombie stories, if zombie stories are beneath you, then don't tell a fucking zombie story.

The Last Weekend starts out witty and clever, but the "auctorial" 'tude has me quite ready to put it down after 25 pages.

Meanwhile, Motherless Child has completely pulled me in after 25 pages. The first trick was getting me to sympathize with the main character right from the opening scene:
Natalie started, caught the eyes of one bespectacled, boots-sporting pretend-cowboy who'd gone straight past Sophie to her, and felt herself blush. Did she really look decent in this dress anymore? Twenty-four years old and she already felt like a mom who'd donned a cheerleader costume in the hopes of feeling sexy again. Except Sophie'd been the cheerleader. And Johnson & Johnson wasn't sexy, no matter what dress it was wearing. Only the mom part was right.

"I'm going to check on our children," Natalie said.
Natalie is struggling to redefine herself as a single mom. Getting involved with a vampire is not going to help. It's easy to empathize with her conflicting emotions at feeling suddenly energized but also fearful, and that makes me want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg

Motherless Child moves on to the second round, to take on Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson vs. Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci


We continue the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books. The bottom half of the draw begins with Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson against Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Mentats of Dune: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 445 pages, cover art by Stephen Youll. Mentats of Dune is the I-lost-counth prequel to Frank Herbert's Dune, co-written by Herbert's son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson, one of the most successful authors in the field of SF/F. Mentats of Dune takes place after Sisterhood of Dune. As the story opens, Gilbertus Albans, founder of the Mentat School where people are trained for machinelike precision of thought, is receiving a visit from the Emperor's brother, perhaps the true power behind the throne. The galaxy is unstable because Manford Torondo, leader of the Butlerians, has stepped up his crusade to eradicate all high technology (except for, y'know, whatever he needs) at the same time that Josef Venport, head of the VenHold Spacing Fleet, has vowed to embargo any planet that follows Torondo. Political machinations abound.

Tin Star: Roaring Brook trade paperback, February 2014, 233 pages. Tin Star is young adult science fiction. Cecil Castellucci has written several other YA books, although this is her first straight science fiction book. She is also a rock musician and film director. The star of Tin Star is Tula Bane, who is traveling with her family to help establish a new planetary colony, when the leader of the expedition, Brother Blue, beats her and leaves her for dead on a remote space station staffed entirely by aliens. When Tula recovers from her beating, she tries to make contact with her family, only to be told that their ship was destroyed.

The Battle: With Mentats of Dune, Herbert and Anderson have to start by arranging a lot of pieces across a complicated board. Through 25 pages, they manage this deftly, highlighting through different characters' viewpoints the seemingly inevitable conflict between the Butlerians and VenHold. I think it will quickly start to seem dry if you aren't a Dune fan, but then this book is so not written for people who aren't Dune fans.

As to Tin Star, let me first say that one part of reviewing has become much less fun for me since I started selling my own stories: the harsh review. I know now how it feels when you have a great story concept, but it just doesn't come out the way you wanted it, or it does come out the way you wanted it and yet readers don't appreciate it. So let's try to get through this quickly . . .

The opening section of Tin Star does not work for me at all.

The language strikes me as klunky from the opening line ("There are few things colder than the blackness of space."), and does not capture the voice of a teenaged girl.

The story makes no sense. The bad guy tries to murder Tula because she starts to have vague suspicions that he's up to something. What he's up to is knowingly sending a shipful of colonists off to die, so if he wants to get rid of Tula, all he has to do is stick her back on the ship. Instead, he tries to kill her, then tells her mother that Tula's not coming, and the mother doesn't even ask to say goodbye before leaving her daughter, maybe forever. Howzat?

The description of outer space is hazy at best, with details not well thought out, e.g., the narrator discusses how many years old an alien is, as if their years would be the same as ours.

Most importantly, the opening of Tin Star puts its protagonist through hell. She loses everything. She is stranded in another solar system with not a single human being to ask for help, and promptly learns her entire family has died. If you are going to start your story like that, you need to be prepared to show a character in soul-wrenching agony. The beginning of Tin Star does not capture that at all. Instead, it feels like Castellucci has wiped away Tula's whole family as a formality to get the real story started. Tula really deserves better.

THE WINNER: Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

Mentats of Dune advances to the second round, to face either The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas or Glen Hirshberg's Motherless Child.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer vs. The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten


Merry Christmas! We come to the midway mark of the first round in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books with Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer versus The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Annihilation: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, February 2014, 195 pages, cover art by Eric Nyquist. Annihilation is Book 1 in VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, which continues with Authority and Acceptance. Our unnamed narrator is a biologist, part of a four-woman expedition into "Area X," a strange uninhabited place that has defeated eleven prior expeditions. The team immediately discovers a vast and mysterious subterranean structure, which our narrator insists on referring to as the "tower." Their initial trip down finds strange growths on the wall that spell out an odd message. Meanwhile, our protagonist realizes that the team leader, a psychologist, is using post-hypnotic suggestion to control the others.

Jeff VanderMeer is the acclaimed author of the Ambergris series, widely considered a landmark in the "New Weird" subgenre, among many other works. He has won the World Fantasy Award for his writing and his editing and has been nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel, among many other honors.

The Talent Sinistral: Stone Dagger trade paperback, January 2014, 435 pages, cover art by M.S. Harris. The Talent Sinistral is a fantasy epic in which certain outcasts bearing a brand on their left hands possess psychic talents. In the opening pages one of these sinistral, a somber fellow named Kier, is ambushed, only to be rescued by a brash young man named JonMarc. Kier is surprised to discover JonMarc is a slave. Before long, JonMarc's master is murdered, and Kier moves quickly to help prove JonMarc's innocence. As far as I can determine, The Talent Sinistral is the first published work by L.F. Patten.

The Battle: To be honest, often a first-round match between an acclaimed author and a new self-published writer turns out to be no contest, for many new indie writers can't actually write. But this time I have to put some thought into deciding this battle because, I am pleased to report, L.F. Patten can really write. So let's get to it . . .

Right out of the blocks, there is something very peculiar about the expedition in Annihilation. We do not know just when or where this is happening, and we're not sure the members of the expedition know either. The members are not permitted such basic equipment as a cell phone, but they do carry things they don't understand:
Our most outlandish equipment consisted of a measuring device that had been issued to each of us, which hung from a strap on our belts: a small rectangle of black metal with a glass-covered hole in the middle. If the hole glowed red, we had thirty minutes to remove ourselves to "a safe place." We were not told what the device measured or why we should be afraid should it glow red.
I'm going on a limb and saying these ain't pagers. Serious shit is going on here, and somebody has deliberately chosen to keep the members of this expedition in the dark. Through 25 pages, we haven't gotten very deep into the characters, but they have enough personality and there is enough hint of our narrator running from an unhappy past to keep us interested.

The strength of the opening pages of The Talent Sinistral is the development of the relationship between our two main characters, Kier and JonMarc. Kier quickly comes to find JonMarc equal parts fascinating and infuriating, as in this scene, where they argue about the morality of just how the streetwise JonMarc saved Kier:
"I'm grateful for the rescue. Truly. But to murder a man by stealth, without even bothering to confront him——it just isn't . . ."

"Honorable." JonMarc spat the word. "Then tell me, how would you have done it, Captain?"

"I'd have tapped his shoulder and taken him as he turned."

A caustic laugh. . . . "Take my advice, brassy. If you mean to explore Castémaron's back alleys after dark, learn to respect those who make their living out there, preying off such as you. Leave your highborn niceties behind. . . ."

JonMarc's patronizing tone infuriated Kier. . . . "That's a load of tripe. Without those so-called 'niceties,' we'd all live like wild beasts, preying off one another. What kind of survival's worth that?"

"Mine is."
I like that Patten allows both men a valid point, without loading the deck in favor of either. And if you're expecting that JonMarc protests overmuch and will turn out to have a heart of gold, the fact that he is later found to have stolen from Kier might give you pause.

I'm enjoying both these books through 25 pages and would be pleased to keep reading either. But the intractable Battle of the Books rules require me to choose one. My decision comes down to two factors.

First, Annihilation scores a lot of points for originality. The surreal writing style is distinctive, and the opening section promises an unusual story, different from anything I've read in recent memory. Meanwhile, The Talent Sinistral, although nicely written, is setting up a pretty standard swords-and-sorcery tale. There's nothing wrong with swords and sorcery, but Annihilation is harder to put down because it is so different.

Second, Annihilation has moved deeper into the plot through 25 pages. I don't know what's going on yet, but I've seen enough weirdness and picked up enough hints about the strings tugging at our characters that I am intrigued and want to read more. Through 25 pages, The Talent Sinistral has introduced two of the main characters, but we have no idea what they're going to do for the rest of the book; the good-against-evil struggle mentioned on the back cover has yet to materialize in any way. And the Battle of the Books format can be unforgiving of slow developing storylines.

THE WINNER: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation continues into the second round, where it will take on What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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.