Monday, November 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

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

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

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

To see the whole completed bracket, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 07, 2016

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


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

The Grace of Kings:   Saga, April 2015, 618 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. The Grace of Kings is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty series. The second volume, The Wall of Storms, is just out. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for two more Hugos by translating Chinese SF. The Grace of Kings is his first novel.

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

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

The Just City:   Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is also the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings, was published in June 2015, and the third book, Necessity, is just out.

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

The eponymous setting of The Just City is a city created by the goddess Pallas Athene, modeled on Plato's Republic, to see if it could be done. She has recruited a group of 300 scholars to run the place, including one of our heroines, Maia, a young woman who felt limited by her options in 19th Century England and prayed to Athene for a way out. Maia and the other city "masters" snatch 10,000 children out of ancient history to be the founding citizens of the city. Among these is Simmea, a young woman rescued from slavery, and a dynamic young man named Pytheas. As the young citizens mature, Simmea becomes more and more fascinated with Pytheas, unaware that he is actually an incarnation of the god Apollo. A recent arrival to the city is Socrates, the Socrates, who is of course asking a lot of questions that may throw the city's future in doubt, such as whether the robots who do all the labor would rather be doing something else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City wins Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books. Congratulations to our newest Battle of the Books champion!

To see the completed bracket, click here.

We've crowned a winner for this bracket, but soon we'll announce a whole new bracket of sixteen books. Aaron will judging the next bracket which will be full of 2016 books. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

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



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

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

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

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

The Just City:   Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings was published in June 2015. The third book, Necessity, is just out.

The Just City overpowered Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith in the first round, then The Just City got by Letters to Zell by Camille Griep in the second round to reach here, the semifinals.

In the opening 50 pages of The Just City, the goddess Pallas Athene decided to create a city modeled on Plato's Republic, apparently just to see if it could be done. A group of 300 scholars were designated to run the place, including Maia, a young woman who felt limited by her options in 19th Century England and prayed to Athene for a way out. Maia's viewpoint chapters take place as the city is first founded. Unfortunately, in the second 50 pages, Maia discovers that applying platonic ideals is easier said than done, a point made very clear when one of the other scholars rapes her. The other chapters take place later on, from the viewpoints of Simmea, a young woman rescued from slavery, and a dynamic young man named Pytheas. Simmea and Pytheas are among the 10,000 young people brought in by Maia and the other leaders to be educated Plato-fashion. Simmea befriends Pytheas, unaware that he is actually an incarnation of the god Apollo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

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

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

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



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

The Buried Giant:  Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pages, March 2015, jacket design by Peter Mendelsund. Kazuo Ishiguro won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day.

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

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

The Grace of Kings:   Saga, April 2015, 618 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. The Grace of Kings is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty series. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for two more Hugos by translating Chinese SF. The Grace of Kings is his first novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WINNER: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

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

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One :: Final Four

We're down to the Final Four in Bracket One of Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books:


The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
vs.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
vs.
The Just City by Jo Walton


We hope you've enjoyed this tournament so far. Now only four books remain of the starting sixteen. This bracket contained books from across the genre. There were secondary-world fantasy books, historical fantasies, urban or contemporary fantasies, science fiction books, and a horror novel. To get to the Final Four, these four books won their first two matches. The other books in the competition, and some of them were quite good but by chance faced a strong competitor, have been knocked out of the running, like in college basketball's March Madness.

Judging between books, which can be totally different, based on reading only 25 or 50 pages can be difficult. It's also inherently subjective. 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, all four books which we named as the "seeded" books at the outset ended up advancing to the Final Four. This is atypical, but not unprecedented. Usually at least one and sometimes two unseeded books pull upsets to reach the Final Four.

Thanks again to all the authors and publicists sending us great books to consider. If you're an author or publicist, click here for the rules and an address to send your book if you'd like to be included in a future bracket.

We have had a great response to the Battle of the Books format. Several future brackets of Battle of the Books are now in the hands of our reviewers, so check back for many more battles to come.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep vs. The Just City by Jo Walton


The fourth and final match-up in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Letters to Zell by Camille Griep going up against The Just City by Jo Walton. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Letters to Zell: 47North, July 2015, 326 pages. Letters to Zell is an epistolary chick-lit fantasy novel, consisting of letters written to Rapunzel ("Zell") from her good friends CeCi (don't call her Cinderella!), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty). Letters to Zell outfought Originator by Joel Shepherd to get into the second round.

Through 50 pages, CeCi has gotten excited about studying cooking Outside (in our world), but she has to hide her activities from her husband, who doesn't think a princess should be doing the servants' work. Meanwhile, Rory finds she has about nothing in common with her rescuer prince. And Bianca is making her wedding plans and getting chummy with Maro, the princess from The Princess and the Pea in Zell's absence. ("Maro" is a type of pea. The title character is never named in The Princess and the Pea.) This friendship could get even more chummy, since Bianca confides she is attracted to both men and women, but there is a complicating factor: Rory detests Maro.

The Just City: Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings was published in June 2015. The third book, Necessity is just out. The Just City overpowered Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith to get into the second round.

In the opening 50 pages of The Just City, the goddess Pallas Athene determines to create a city modeled on Plato's Republic, apparently just to see if it can be done. A group of 300 scholars are designated to run the place, including Maia, a young woman who felt limited by her options in 19th Century England and prayed to Athene for a way out. Maia and the other leaders bring in some 10,000 young people to be educated in Plato's fashion, heavy on the philosophy and naked calisthenics. Among these students is Simmea, a young girl rescued from slavery in the distant past.

The Battle: This match-up, featuring a chick-lit reworking of fairy tale mythology and a philosophical fantasy leaning heavily on the classics, underscores what the Battle of the Books is all about. The winner in Battle of the Books is not always the book I'm enjoying the most. It's the book I most want to keep reading.

Through 50 pages, Letters to Zell is a fun, easy read. I'm enjoying all three princesses' voices, especially Snow White's:
Yes, I flirted with a Human. Big fucking deal. I mean, I know what I used to say. But I can change my mind, just like the rest of you, can't I? Humans can't all be assholes, right? Head of Soufflés herself can't be responsible for techno music, Chia Pets, and pies in a jar.

Besides, here I am, back where that nonsense exists safely between the covers of Cosmo. So yeah, maybe I'd like one of those cell phones. But who wouldn't? They're a lot more pleasant than pigeons (sorry, Cliff) but only because they don't shit all over the floor.
The theme about the characters wishing they could break out of the roles and storylines assigned to them is clearly meant also to apply to women who aren't in fairy tales.

In comparison, The Just City has a bit of a ponderous opening. Most of the opening 50 pages consist of Simmea, the naïve former slave girl, looking around in wonder at her beautiful city. If I had to pick which book I've enjoyed more through 50 pages, I think I would have to pick Letters to Zell.

But here's the thing: Letters to Zell is made up of repeated variations on the same joke: fairy tale princesses kvetching in the voices of modern women. It's a funny joke, yet I'm not especially excited about reading almost 300 more pages of the same gag. I can't help wondering if the story wouldn't have worked better as a novella or novelette.

Meanwhile, The Just City is building slowly, but it's developing some intriguing possibilities. How will all these beautiful people get along, now that they have the chance to put Plato's theories into practice? The leaders are fond of breaking into committees and seeking consensus. It seems unlikely the City will function well under this approach indefinitely. It also seems not to have occurred to the scholars in charge that all the former slaves in their City may eventually balk at being told what to do by those scholars, whom they may regard as merely a new set of masters. I want to see how these complications play out.

In particular, I want to see how things work out on a personal level for Maia and Simmea, who come into the Just City with so much hope. Here, for example, Simmea describes her excitement at all the new experiences:
How could I not have been happy? I was in the Just City, and I was there to become my best self. . . . Ikaros, one of the youngest men among the masters, set us to read provacotive books, and asked fascinating questions about them. Sometimes he and Ficino would debate a question in front of us. I could almost feel my mind growing and developing as I listened to them. I was twelve years old. I still missed my parents and my brothers, sometimes, when something recalled them to me. But little did. My life was so different now. Sometimes it truly felt as if I had slept beneath the soil until I awakened in the City.
Maia and Simmea may not come up with as many wisecracks as the princesses in Letters to Zell, but I think they have more potential to develop into complex characters about whom I want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City advances to the semifinals to take on Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz vs. Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson


For our third match-up in the second round we have Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz doing battle with Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Flex: Angry Robot, March 2015, 423 pages, cover art by Stephen Meyer-Rassow. Flex is the first book in the 'Mancer trilogy. The second volume, The Flux, appeared last October. Steinmetz was a Nebula Award nominee for his novelette "Sauerkraut Station." Flex overpowered Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson to get into the second round.

In the universe of Flex, 'mancers can perform impressive magic (and anyone can do it with the help of a drug called "Flex"), but there is always a backlash (called "the Flux"), so dangerous that use of this magic is illegal in the United States. In the first 25 pages, our protagonist Paul Tsabo, a former cop turned insurance company bureaucrat, was surprised to find he could do "bureaucromancy," magic performed with paper. But the first time he did it a fire ensued, severely injuring his six-year-old daughter. In the second 25 pages, Paul learns that the insurance company he works for has declined to pay for his daughter's reconstructive surgery, because it has determined the fire was deliberately caused by another 'mancer. (The fire was a backlash not only from Paul's use of magic but also from magic done by a young man in the same apartment building who was intentionally given an overdose of Flex, bad luck for Paul and his daughter, but just the kind of bad luck that tends to happen with the Flux.) Paul is afraid of his magic, but it appears he will have to use it in order to track down the offending magician (the one who gave that kid his overdose) and get his daughter the surgery she needs.

Hexed: Pyr Books, May 2015, 278 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Hexed is the opening volume in the Sisters of Witchdown series, which is based on Michael Alan Nelson's Hexed comic books. Hexed beat Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson to get into the second round.

In the opening 25 pages of Hexed, a teenage girl named Gina went with friends to a haunted house called the Worcester House. A creepy old woman she saw in the mirror there followed her home and later pulled her into a mirror right in front of Gina's bewildered father. The father then begged our young protagonist, Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves (Lucifer, for short), to use her knowledge of the occult to help. In the next 25 pages, Lucifer visits the Worcester House with Gina's boyfriend, David. He tells her one of Gina's girlfriends got hold of an old book they used for a summoning in the Worcester House. Gina visits the friend, who needs immediate help with the demon who has possessed her.

The Battle: Doing battle in this match-up are two urban fantasies with an "X" in the title. I admit urban fantasy is generally not my preferred subgenre of SF/F, but so far these are both well written and fun to read.

Hexed moves along a nice pace, making it easy to keep turning pages. Lucifer is an interesting character, a teenager leading a lonely life as an outsider, who feels resentful at times but doesn't let that prevent her from helping other people. The strength of the book is the wry humor, which comes through both in the narrative voice and in Lucifer's snarky dialogue. Lucifer tells David she is a thief and when he asks her why she decided to become a thief, she says, "The brochure said I'd get to do a lot of traveling." I'm not in the target audience for a book about a teenaged girl battling demons and witches, but I'd be happy to keep reading this one.

The opening chapters of Flex are also nicely written, engaging the reader in the story very effectively. The opening passages have quickly gotten me into Paul's skin, as he is nearly overwhelmed by everything happening to him: pain and dread from his daughter's injuries, confusion when confronted by his ex-wife, fear but also excitement over his new-found magical abilities. By the end of 50 pages, he decides his only way to help his daughter is to find the magician out there using Flex to destructive ends and compel that person to help Paul learn how to use his powers safely. It's a dubious plan, but I want to see how it plays out for him.

So how to choose between two books that I'm enjoying through the opening 50 pages? Since I'm not usually an urban fantasy reader, the key is for a book to convince me that it's got more going on than the run-of-the-mill urban fantasy. While I'm enjoying Hexed, so far it feels like it could have been a script for an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's not a bad thing, but it doesn't make me feel especially compelled to keep reading.

Meanwhile, Flex feels more original and unusual to me. It introduces a non-standard magical system — I especially like Paul's emerging ability to do magic by paperwork. Also, I very much appreciate how Steinmetz has quickly painted his protagonist into a corner. The first time Paul uses magic, his daughter ends up severely injured. That's an awful thing for a parent, and would naturally make him want to disavow ever using 'mancy again. Except it seems Paul won't be able to help his daughter recover without using it. That's the kind of dilemma that does indeed make me feel compelled to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

Flex advances to the semifinals to take on either Letters to Zell by Camille Griep or The Just City by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri vs. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu



Our second match in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri taking on The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Fortune's Blight: Tor, February 2015, 363 pages, cover art by Kekai Kotaki. Fortune's Blight is Book II of the Shattered Kingdoms series. Book I is Blood's Pride and Book III, Strife's Bane, is due out in December. Fortune’s Blight defeated Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis to get into the second round.

Fortune's Blight deals with the aftermath of a revolution led by King Daryan of the Shadari, which has overthrown the rule of their telepathic Norlander conquerors. In the opening 25 pages, we've seen Daryan confronted with a populace struggling with post-war hardships and now nearing rebellion against him. The second 25-page section consists of chapters from the point of view of two members of a Norlander noble family, the Arregadors. Rho Arregador (owner of the sword "Fortune's Blight") left his home in the north, by his own account because he slept with his brother's wife. Now he travels by ship with the deposed governor of Shadar. They still have an ace in the hole, however: a young Shadari under their control with powerful telekinetic abilities. Meanwhile, Kira Arregador, the brother's wife in question, remains at home in frozen Norland. Her husband has died in battle, and she must negotiate a minefield of court politics, centered on a new Norlander king she holds in contempt.

The Grace of Kings: Saga, April 2015, 618 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. The Grace of Kings is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty series. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for a third Hugo by translating last year's Best Novel winner The Three-Body Problem. The Grace of Kings is his first novel. The Grace of Kings overwhelmed Infinity Lost by S. Harrison to get into the second round.

The Grace of Kings is set on the Islands of Dara, an archipelago with a culture similar to ancient China. In the opening 25 pages we met Kuni Garu, a clever but mischievous student, and Mata Zyndu, a huge young fellow bent on revenge against the emperor. The second 25-page section jumps us ahead seven years, focusing on Kuni. He has been expelled from school and now lives a life of leisure, relying on the hospitality of friends and tavern-keepers who appreciate that a crowd tends to follow him about. But his lifestyle may be about to change as he meets the mayor's spunky daughter Jia Matiza, who sees his true potential.

The Battle: Here we have two complex secondary world fantasies going head to head.

Through 50 pages, to me the greatest strength of Fortune's Blight is Manieri's vivid descriptions of the different landscapes in her strange world. Here, for instance, Kira pauses to consider the courtyard in front of Norland's royal palace:
She preferred the narrow streets and little courts; here, she felt like she was being watched from every angle: from the towers and apparently empty slit-windows of Eotan Castle; from the huge green-glass terrace on the western side, supported by two twenty-feet-tall statues of wolf-headed Eotan the Progenitor; from the worn faces on the carvings of the ancient monarchs lining the rise; from the top of the hewn steps between them to the headland's highest point where the beacon burned day and night to guide ships into the harbor; and where the skull of Gargrothal, last of the great sea monsters, gaped down at them.
Although I appreciate the writing of Fortune's Blight, I find the story rather slow to get moving. In the second 25-page section, nothing especially significant happens. Rho Arregador looks over the water and thinks about stuff; Kira Arregador goes to a dinner party and thinks about stuff. Part of the problem is this is the second book in a series, and there's a lot of background information to catch us up on, but we've seen other sequels in Battle of the Books that have managed to keep the action moving more effectively early on.

I also like the writing in The Grace of Kings, and I feel connected to the characters, particularly Kuni, a rogue with a heart of gold. In the same chapter, he gleefully talks his way out of paying his enormous tab at a tavern, then intervenes to help a stranger desperate to keep her son from being conscripted into civil service. The mayor's daughter Jia, herself a willful young woman, first becomes interested in Kuni when she witnesses this moment.

In contrast with Fortune's Blight, 50 pages into The Grace of Kings, the plot is already well under way. This doesn't necessarily require a lot of action-packed scenes (although there has been one of those), only that the scenes feel important to the lives of the characters. In Fortune's Blight, Kira goes to a dinner party where nothing much happens. In The Grace of Kings, Kuni goes to a dinner party where he meets the woman one suspects he will marry. The dinner party in The Grace of Kings makes me feel involved in the story. I want to keep reading, to see more of the interactions between Kuni and Jia, and to see how their romance will ultimately impact the future of the islands of Dara.

THE WINNER: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings advances to the semifinals to take on The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler vs. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro



We begin the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books with The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler going against The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

The Banished of Muirwood: 47North, August 2015, 438 pages, cover art by Magali Villeneuve. The Banished of Muirwood is the first volume in the Covenant of Muirwood trilogy. The Banished of Muirwood defeated Forge of Ashes by Josh Vogt to get into the second round.

The heroine of The Banished of Muirwood is Maia, daughter of the king of Muirwood. Disappointed at not having any sons, the king has banished Maia from the capital and replaced Maia's mother with a scheming noblewoman. Sent on a very dangerous (perhaps pointless) mission, Maia soon finds herself and her "kishion" bodyguard pursued by "Dochte Mandar" wizards, who do not believe a woman should be allowed to practice magic, as Maia does. In a remote town, she meets a tough woodsman named Jon Tayt, who vows to help her escape. Despite his best efforts, the opening 50 pages end with Maia captured by the Dochte Mandar.

The Buried Giant: Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pages, March 2015, jacket design by Peter Mendelsund. Kazuo Ishiguro won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day. The Buried Giant overpowered Firesoul by Gary Kloster to get into the second round.

The Buried Giant takes place in ancient England after the Romans have withdrawn. Our main characters are an old couple named Axl and Beatrice. Frustrated that they don't remember him very well, they determine to leave their farming community and travel across country to see their son. It seems that nobody in this area can remember very much, something Axl and Beatrice attribute to a peculiar mist over the land. In the first 50 pages, they travel through a rainstorm to encounter a boatman dogged by an old woman furious that he took her husband across the water to a strange island but left her behind. Then they enter a Saxon village gripped by fear and paranoia, because a young boy has reportedly been carried away by an ogre.

The Battle: Here we have an epic fantasy going against historical fantasy.

The opening 50 pages of The Banished of Muirwood effectively pull the reader into the story. Wheeler alternates between present-day scenes, in which shit is going down around Maia in a big hurry, and flashbacks in which we learn how she ended up exiled into this mess. The pacing is just right to make it seem like a lot is a happening, while simultaneously taking time for us to get to know Maia and feel sympathy for how unfairly she has been treated by her father and by fate. It felt a bit contrived that this dynamic fellow Jon Tayt was waiting around in Maia's path with nothing better to do than risk his life on her behalf. Then again, that may yet turn out to be no coincidence.

The opening 50 pages of The Buried Giant have a slower pace, consisting simply of an elderly couple walking about talking to people, yet have pulled me into the story just as effectively. The affection Axl and Beatrice have for each other after a lifetime together is presented most endearingly, and the folks they encounter on the road are intriguing. I am very interested in the nature and effects of the mist that has fogged everyone's memories.

I am enjoying both these books and would be happy to keep reading either. But a decision must be made.

When a battle comes down to something I dislike about a particular book, that is usually easy to articulate. It's much harder to explain when a battle turns on my admiration for a writer who is far more skilled than I am.

Simply put, Kazuo Ishiguro rocks. I wish I understood everything he is doing for me to be so absorbed in The Buried Giant, so I could do the same when I write. The narrative flows over me in such a way that each time I start reading, I do not want to put the book down. The characters' quest to find their son and regain their memories is personal in a way I find very affecting. For instance, after they learn that the boatman they met is not permitted to transport a couple together without first asking questions to test the bond between them, Beatrice confesses fear to Axl:
"But what's to fear, princess? We've no plans to go to any such island or any desire to do so."

"Even so, Axl. What if our love withers before we've a chance to even think of going to such a place?"

"What are you saying, princess? How can our love wither? Isn't it stronger now than when we were foolish young lovers?"

"But Axl we can't even remember those days. Or any of the years between. We don't remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured. We don't remember our son or why he's away from us."

"We can make all those memories come back, princess. Besides, the feeling in my heart for you will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget. Don't you feel the same, princess?"

"I do, Axl. But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn't like the raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I'm wondering if without our memories, there's nothing for it but for our love to fade and die."

"God wouldn't allow such a thing, princess." Axl said this quietly, almost under his breath, for he had himself felt an unnamed fear welling up within him.
After 50 pages, I'm enjoying The Banished of Muirwood, but feel compelled to keep reading The Buried Giant.

THE WINNER: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant advances to the semifinals to take on either Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri or The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu.

To see the whole bracket, click here.