Monday, January 30, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, Second Round :: Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell vs. And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht

Thief's CovenantAnd Blue Skies from Pain
We continue the second round with Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell against And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will advance to the semifinals.

Thief's Covenant: Pyr hardcover, February 2012, 272 pages, cover art by Jason Chan. A young adult fantasy, Thief's Covenant reached the second round with a hard-fought first-round victory over Mark Hodder's Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.

The story follows Adrienne Satti, aka master thief Widdershins. The first 25 pages were mostly flashbacks to when Adrienne was orphaned as a young girl, and when she was the only survivor of a gruesome attack on the upper class of her city of Davillon. In the second 25 pages, we see her in the guise of Widdershins, a medieval cat-burglar, as she steals a tidy sum from a wealthy gentleman. She is assisted by Olgun, one of the 147 gods that intervene in this world, who for some reason is quite attached to her.

And Blue Skies from Pain: Night Shade trade paperback, March 2012, 359 pages, cover art by Min Yum. And Blue Skies from Pain got here with a win over Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Boneyards in the first round.

This is the sequel to Of Blood and Honey, in which a supernatural conflict involving the Catholic Church plays out against the background of the turmoil in Northern Ireland in the 1970's. Catholic priest-warriors have been battling dangerous fallen angels for generations. But one of the priests, Father Murray, believes they don't need to be enemies of one type of supernatural creature, the shapeshifting Fianna. At the beginning of the second book, Father Murray has persuaded the Church to agree to a truce. A key condition is that our protagonist Liam, half-mortal son of one of the Fianna, has agreed to be tested to help the Catholic warrior-priests determine if they really can co-exist peacefully with the Fianna. The truce is fragile.

The Battle: I'm enjoying both of these books very much.

In Thief's Covenant, Adrienne is a good, spunky protagonist, and there's a nice mystery to how the different phases of her life fit together. I am intrigued by what the 147 different gods in this world are up to. Marmell is also exploring the implications of social stratification in Davillon, which is an interesting theme for a YA book.

Because of all these strengths, I loved the first 25 pages of Thief's Covenant. However, the second 25 pages, which consisted mostly of Adrienne as Widdershins pulling off a heist, didn't work quite as well for me. The problem is with the god Olgun hanging over her shoulder. Olgun gives Widdershins someone to talk to, like the daemon Pantalaimon in Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. But I didn't find the humorous banter between Widdershins and Olgun terribly funny, although that may be because it's aimed at younger readers. More importantly, Olgun's constant presence detracts from the dramatic tension, because we know if Widdershins gets in trouble, Olgun can get her out. Marmell hasn't told us what limitations there are to Olgun's powers, but hopefully he will soon, or perhaps he will introduce an antagonist god to make matters more difficult.

The opening scenes of And Blue Skies from Pain deal with the nuts-and-bolts of implementing a cease-fire between the Church and the Fianna, which I presume became possible through the events of the first book in the series. I love that, having arrived at a truce, Leicht doesn't hand-wave away the details of making the truce last. Instead, she dives into the politics of the situation, and manages to make them intriguing and believable.

Many of the preist-warriors are against the truce, either because they sincerely believe the Fianna are evil, or because they can't bear to accept that they have been killing innocents all these years. (It's hinted that there are similar misgivings on the other side of the cease-fire, but we haven't yet seen much of the Fianna other than Liam in the first 50 pages.) The priest "Inquisitor" doing the testing on Liam -- with an armed guard always at hand -- repeatedly refers to Liam as "it," unwilling to regard him as a person with a soul.

Throughout the examination, Liam is nervous, almost panicky, imagining that he has been betrayed and is about to be tortured. We soon realize the problem is not that Liam is prickly, but that he has grown up in a place where suspicion and distrust are learned from an early age. The similarities and differences between this supernatural conflict and the more familiar disputes in Northern Ireland are fascinating:
Father Murray said, "You're safe here."

"Are you mental?" Can't defend myself, Liam thought. Can't shape-shift. Trapped. Was stupid to have come here. A powerful need to run tightened his muscles. The reasonable part of himself knew he was over-reacting. Why was he so terrified of an Inquisitor and not the spotty boy with the Kalishnikov? Then it came to him. Loyalist hatred was mundane. Terrible as it was, he understood it. Loyalists hated anyone who wasn't a Loyalist. Every Irish Catholic knew that. He'd grown up with such things. On the other hand, murderous Inquisitors, demons, and Fey were aspects of a strange world he knew little about -- a world with rules he didn't know, a world he'd been dragged into against his will.
There follows some delicious dialogue where Father Murray intimidates the Inquisitor into being less combative, through a combination of reasoning and rank. The first 50 pages then end with a tense conversation between Father Murray and his superior Bishop Avery, discussing how to make peace palatable to others in the Church. It seems likely that the right solution to this conflict may not be the feasible solution, which I expect will create a moral dilemma for both Father Murray and Liam.

Based on the first 50 pages, I would recommend both of these books. But if I could only continue reading one of them, I know which I would choose.


And Blue Skies from Pain moves into the semifinals, to battle either Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear or The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, Second Round :: Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card vs. Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

Shadows in FlightSisterhood of Dune
The second round of the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books continues with Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card against Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Which book will I most want to continue reading after finishing 50 pages?

Shadows in Flight: Tor hardcover, January 2012, 237 pages, cover art by John Harris / Macmillan audio, 7 hours, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki and cast. Shadows in Flight reached the second round by defeating Gamers by Thomas K. Carpenter in the first round. Shadows in Flight is the latest installment of the Ender universe, following Bean as an adult. Bean's runaway growth continues and he has not much longer to live. He and his similarly afflicted genius children have taken a long journey through space in hopes that, with the time dilation, a cure will be found on Earth. But no luck so far.

Sisterhood of Dune: Tor hardcover, January 2012, 496 pages, cover art by Steve Stone. Sisterhood of Dune got here by its first round win over Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long. Sisterhood of Dune is the latest volume in the Dune universe, by Frank Herbert's son Brian and the prolific Kevin J. Anderson. This one is set after the other Dune prequels but before Dune itself, in the period when groups like the Bene Gesserit, the Mentats, and the Spacing Guild were emerging as key forces in the galaxy.

The Battle: This is a contest between the umpteenth volumes in the long-running series that began with the classic novels Dune and Ender's Game. This battle will come down to which of their sequels best gets me interested in the story of this new book.

Shadows in Flight certainly has a new and interesting storyline. Bean and his three gifted children have not received a cure to their condition from Earth as they hoped. Bean will not survive much longer, and these stressful circumstances have generated a terrible sibling rivalry among Bean's two sons, Ender and Sergeant. The book opens with Sergeant planning to kill Bean, as a raw display of power. Ender prevents this by beating Sergeant to within an inch of his life.

This is reminiscent of how the original Ender killed two of his young rivals in Ender's Game, and I find it alarming that Card has returned to this pattern, this time with Bean expressing obvious approval of the new Ender's attack. Can these amazingly brilliant people really find no better way to resolve disputes than to beat each other senseless? (Incidentally, I am old-school enough that I have no problem with standing up to a bully with a punch in the nose; it's beating him to death or nearly to death that troubles me.) Orson Scott Card is an outspoken fan of Isaac Asimov, but Asimov would not have approved -- "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent," he believed.

Still, the family dynamics make for an interesting narrative, and there is an effective scene where we get some insight into the psychology behind Sergeant's aggressive behavior. Add to that a nice level of detail about how life is sustained on this spaceship for years at a time, and you have a book that seems well worth reading on its own merits, regardless of the prior volumes in the series.

The first 25 pages of Sisterhood of Dune also felt fresh to me. I particularly enjoyed the chapter from the point of view of Raquella Berto-Anirul, founder of the Bene Gesserit. Unfortunately, through the next 25 pages, she has only been onstage for one brief scene, while the other sections have bogged down a bit. There are several lengthy infodumps of Dune universe backstory, most of which reads like entries from The Dune Encyclopedia. The Dune universe is so rich and fascinating, there is nothing wrong with filling in details and gaps in the chronology, and I recommend Sisterhood of Dune to devoted Dune fans. But I find it easier to put down than Shadows in Flight.


Shadows in Flight advances to the semifinals, to face Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, Second Round :: Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint vs. The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko

Eyes Like LeavesScar
We begin the second round of the 2012 Battle of the Books, Winter Bracket with The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko against Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after finishing the first 50 pages.

The Scar: Tor hardcover, February 2012, 336 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Scar, by husband-and-wife authors Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, advanced to the second round by its first-round win over The Isis Collar by Cat Adams. The protagonist of The Scar is Egert, a brash womanizer and excellent swordsman in a proudly militaristic society.

In the opening 50 pages of the book, he arrogantly attempts to woo a beautiful university student away from her fiancé, who responds by challenging Egert to a duel. Egert is the much better fencer and plans to humiliate the man, but in the heat of the fight kills him instead. A mysterious stranger then challenges Egert, defeats him easily and slashes him across the face, leaving Egert with the eponymous scar. Egert soon feels his confidence slipping away, and by the end of 50 pages we suspect he has been cursed somehow.

Eyes Like Leaves: Tachyon trade paperback, February 2012, 313 pages, cover art by Lauren Kelly Small. Eyes Like Leaves got here by defeating J.M. McDermott's When We Were Executioners in the first round. World Fantasy Award-winner Charles de Lint wrote Eyes Like Leaves in approximately 1980, but it was not published at the time, in favor of de Lint's contemporary urban fantasies.

Eyes Like Leaves is high fantasy set in a place much like ancient Ireland. In the first 50 pages, we meet the wizard Tarn and his mentor Puretongue, who both have the power to change shape. The two wizards are perhaps the only hope of defeating Viking-like invaders led by the "Icelord," who is apparently bent on bringing a permanent ice age to the land. Tarn has been sent to find a young woman who is important to the struggle, although he does not know why -- and apparently neither does she.

The Battle: Both The Scar and Eyes Like Leaves have very interesting and engaging openings. I would be happy to keep reading either of them, but the rules of the contest force me to pick one.

It's difficult to find any fault at all in Eyes Like Leaves. Every sentence is beautifully composed, with a lovely symmetry to the ideas de Lint expresses. For instance, Tarn travels quickly by transforming into a swan, but this weakens him, so he regains his strength by spending some time as a tree.

Through 50 pages, Tarn is proving a compelling character. He is a very powerful wizard, yet still thinks of himself as a mere apprentice. When he tracks down the woman he is looking for, he finds her in the company of a charming family of tinkers, who distrust him. Annoyed, but unwilling to compel these good people against their will, Tarn turns into a unicorn and races off:
Tarn sped for miles, the wind sharp in his mane until he lost his anger in the four-footed drumming of his hooves. He galloped till the cool hand of reason wiped his anger away. Then he knew shame. . . . Fool, he named himself bitterly. Worse than a fool. He was a prideful boasting ass with scarcely an ounce left of the sense that Puretongue had instilled in him.
Tarn chastises himself, yet his display of power causes the tinkers to be on their guard, probably saving their lives when they are later attacked by a host of evil creatures. However, it will ultimately be up to Tarn, in a form even more impressive than his unicorn shape, to drive the creatures off. These initial skirmishes with the forces of evil make for good action sequences, but we know there is a much larger conflict to come.

If I had to try to find something to criticize in Eyes Like Leaves, it would be what I mentioned in the first round, that the story is built around a rather too tidy good-versus-evil conflict. But after 50 pages, I'm finding the opposite problem with The Scar. The Dyachenkos have perhaps done too good a job of making their protagonist a flawed character. In particular, they took me a bridge too far when they had Egert sniffing around after the fiancée of the man he killed, as if entitled to her as a prize:
Egert had been watching over the fiancée of the student he killed, though he himself did not know why. It is possible that he wanted to apologize and to express his sympathy, but it is more likely that he entertained certain vague hopes in regards to Toria. As a worshipper of risk and danger, he was accustomed to taking a relaxed approach to death, his own and others'. Should not the victor have a right to count on an allotment of the relinquished inheritance of his vanquished foe? What could be more natural?
OK, so this guy's a huge jerk. But this is by design; obviously, the Dyachenkos intend him to be a jerk. Egert is totally self-absorbed, but presumably he is going to go through experiences, starting with losing his next duel, that will force him to change and perhaps find redemption.

But Egert at least should have the decency to feel bad about killing the student in his duel. To then expect the guy's fiancée to fall into his arms makes him a little too contemptible to sympathize with at all. Even without that sympathy, I could be interested in Egert if I knew he had an important role to play in some larger conflict, but after 50 pages we don't know that -- we've had a glimpse of a devious organization created by a mad mage, but we don't have any idea what they're doing or how it might relate to Egert.

This is a minor complaint. Overall, I'm still enjoying The Scar and finding it well worth reading. But that slight wavering in my interest in the protagonist was enough to drop this battle to Eyes Like Leaves, which I'm finding extremely enjoyable and exquisitely written.


Eyes Like Leaves advances to the semifinals, to take on either Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card or Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson.

We'll be posting another second round result every other day until we're done.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Amy's silent movie reviews :: The Artist (2011)

The Artist - Jean Dujardin and Bérénice BejoThe Artist (2011) (runtime 100 min) is the new silent picture currently getting Oscar buzz. It won the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical, and Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. As I've enjoyed lots of old silent movies, and in the past reviewed several silent movies for this blog, I had to see this one. I'm glad I did.

The Artist is the story of George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star in the late 1920s. His latest silent film with his cute little dog is a hit with the crowd. But soon status quo in Hollywood will be rocked by the advent of sound.

This is also the story of Peppy Miller (played by Bérénice Bejo). Photographers take her picture with George at the film premiere (photo shown is from that scene), and she parlays the exposure into bit parts in the movies, first as a dancer then in small credited roles. She thanks George for her big break.

When sound comes to the movies, instead of embracing it, George Valentin laughs it off as a fad. He won't speak. Peppy on the other hand, gets into the talkies and becomes one of the studio's fresh new faces. George's star fades while Peppy's star ascends. By the early 1930s, Peppy Miller is a glamorous star and George is a washed-up has-been. But fortunately for George, there are those who still care for him, such as Peppy and that cute little dog, and he gets a second chance.

Actor Jean Dujardin wonderfully captures the looks of a dashing, silent film star. His emotions play skillfully across his face. Actress Bérénice Bejo is perky and energetic.

The French director, Michel Hazanavicius, daringly chose to make this new film as a silent movie, except for several artful uses of sound. The Artist is shown in black-and-white, although interestingly, it was shot in color. The Artist uses old techniques and shows they can work beautifully, that silent movies can be, and many of the old ones were, much more than the cliché of scratchy-looking comedies projected at the wrong speed.

The Artist is set in Hollywood during the transition from silents to talkies, when a number of silent movie stars found themselves no longer employable, not only because of bad speaking voices or thick accents, but also because of studio politics. With sound, in addition, came the popularity of musicals. The film career and decline of major silent movie star, John Gilbert, was part of the inspiration for The Artist.

By the way, The Artist is rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: The Darkening Dream by Andy Gavin vs. The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine

The Pillars of HerculesThe Darkening Dream
We are down to the last first round match of the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books. Our final two entrants are The Darkening Dream by Andy Gavin against The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will complete the second round of the Battle of the Books.

The Darkening Dream: Mascherato trade paperback, January 2012, 404 pages, cover art by Cliff Nielsen. This is an independent book, but Andy Gavin has rather more credibility than the typical self-published author. He is already an accomplished storyteller in the medium of video games, having co-created such best-selling games as Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter, and he has taken a professional approach to his novel, including commissioning cover art from top-flight artist Cliff Nielsen.

The Darkening Dream is a vampire novel set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1913. The heroine is Sarah, a scholarly young Jewish woman, who in the opening pages of the book meets a charming Greek immigrant. Sarah and her friends are about to stumble into an ancient conflict involving vampires, warlocks and other magical creatures, which somehow centers on the trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel.

The Pillars of Hercules: Night Shade trade paperback, March 2012, 387 pages, cover art by Daren Bader (not to be confused with Paul Theroux's travel book of the same title). Night Shade isn't saying so, but I believe David Constantine is a pseudonym of David J. Williams, author of the well-received Autumn Rain Trilogy, beginning with The Mirrored Heavens. Those books were science fiction, but The Pillars of Hercules is fantasy/alternate history set circa 330 B.C.

Alexander the Great has embarked on a series of conquests, which is indeed what he was doing at that time, but he receives orders from his father, who in our world was dead by then, and he is opposed by a thriving Athenian Empire, which is not how our history books remember matters. Oh, and there is magic and surprisingly advanced technology. I want to call this "bronzepunk," because that term has a nice ring to it, but really we're in the Iron Age here, not the Bronze Age. As the book begins, Alexander is invading Egypt, currently controlled by Athens.

The Battle: The openings of these two books present an interesting contrast in styles. The Pillars of Hercules is bold and brash from the outset, while the beginning of The Darkening Dream is relatively understated. There is one four-page scene of a man being killed by a vampire, but aside from that we watch Sarah chatting with her parents and friends and going for a nice picnic.

I enjoyed these scenes with Sarah, and I find her an interesting character, a brilliant young woman in 1913 who fears she will soon have to give up her studies to settle down and start making babies. But this quiet opening is rather overwhelmed by the all the excitement at the start of The Pillars of Hercules. In 25 pages, David Williams/Constantine gives us drunken mercenaries, a mysterious witch serving an elegant lady, a vast fleet of Greek warships aflame, an Egyptian city being sacked, an escape through an ancient aqueduct, an unexpected crocodile attack, a race on an anachronistic powerboat, Alexander the Great cheered by a throng of Egyptians, all followed by a dose of political intrigue in an ancient world whose history has varied significantly from our timeline.

To compete with all this, Andy Gavin needed to pack a wallop in his four-page vampire scene, but that was the one scene in the opening chapters of his book that didn't work for me. The victim is a total redshirt, a throwaway character dropped into the story just to have someone to kill, and the attack is short on suspense, partly because we never see the killer. All the scene accomplishes is to signal that we're in a vampire story, but that just means the main character's worries about whether she is to be married off will soon become trivial, as she instead focuses on staying alive.

There is a lot more action in the opening of The Pillars of Hercules and Williams/Constantine pulls it off better. And then when the action slowed, I found the political machinations among Alexander's advisors interesting -- as soon as I put down the book I was on the Internet comparing Alexander's actual history to what has occurred in the novel. I want to read more.


The Pillars of Hercules advances to meet Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts in the second round.

The second round begins next week, with Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint taking on The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear vs. Jack of Ravens by Mark Chadbourn

Range of GhostsJack of Ravens
Our penultimate first round match in the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books is between Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear and Jack of Ravens by Mark Chadbourn. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will advance to the second round.

Range of Ghosts: Tor hardcover, March 2012, 334 pages. Elizabeth Bear is still a fairly new author; her first novel Hammered appeared in 2005. But she is so prolific it feels like she is a veteran of the field -- she has published upwards of 20 books already. She was the Campbell Award winner for best new author in 2005, and she has twice won the Hugo Award for her short fiction. On the strength of that record, we named Range of Ghosts one of our four seeded books for the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books.

Range of Ghosts is the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy, drawing heavily on the history of the Mongol Empire. As the story begins, the Great Khagan has died, and his descendants have fought a bloody battle over succession (the kind of civil war that actually fractured the Mongol Empire). Our hero Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan and younger brother of one of the main contenders to the throne, has survived the battle only because he was so grievously wounded he was left for dead. He struggles to survive and to find his way into exile, even as his uncle seeks to hunt him down.

Jack of Ravens: Pyr trade paperback, March 2012, 414 pages, cover art by John Picacio. British fantasy author Mark Chadbourn is also prolific, having published some 15 novels since 1992, and he is a two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award. He has been successful in Britain for many years, but only recently came to the attention of American readers with Pyr Books' U.S. reprints of his backlist.

First published in England in 2006, Jack of Ravens is the first in the Kingdom of the Serpent trilogy, which is related to Chadbourn's prior trilogies, The Age of Misrule and The Dark Age. The protagonist is Jack Churchill, who on the very first page finds himself somehow transported to the remote past, and immediately doing battle with supernatural creatures.

The Battle: Sorry if I'm spoiling the suspense here, but Range of Ghosts just has a kick-ass opening. It is beautifully written, and the opening image of Temur waking up badly injured, among countless dead warriors scattered about the steppe, pulls us into the story from the outset. We sympathize with Temur as he struggles to survive the next days, then gradually begins to ponder what future he can still lead. Meanwhile, a quick glimpse of the mysterious sorcerer aiding his uncle -- he has just sacrificed two young girls for his blood magic, so we know this guy means business -- keeps the dramatic tension up.

The icing on the cake is a gorgeous piece of supernatural imagery, as Temur watches the moons rise:
He tried not to count the moons as they rose but could not help himself. No bigger than Temur's smallest fingernail, each floated up the night like a reflection on dark water. One, two. A dozen. Fifteen. Thirty. Thirty-one. A scatter of hammered sequins in the veil the Eternal Sky drew across himself to become Mother Night.

Among them, no matter how he strained his eyes, he did not find the moon he most wished to see--the Roan Moon of his elder brother Qulan, with its dappled pattern of steel and silver.
* * *
Before the death of Mongke Khagan, there had been over a hundred moons. One for Mongke Khagan himself and one for each son and each grandson of his loins, and every living son and grandson and great-grandson of the Great Khagan Temusan as well--at least those born while the Great Khagan lived and reigned.

Every night since the war began, Temur had meant to keep himself from counting. And every night since, he had failed, and there had been fewer moons than the night before.
The bar was thus set very high for Jack of Ravens, and Chadbourn didn't clear it for me. There's nothing wrong with the opening of this book, just not quite enough right to compete with Range of Ghosts. The opening scene has our hero Jack battling a giant (pun intended by Chadbourn), and it would be a pretty good fight scene, except it's happening before we know the first thing about who (or where or when) this protagonist is, so we don't much understand why we should care.

Soon after, we realize that Jack has been thrown 2,000 years into the past, but there is a maddening vagueness to the narrative. We learn he doesn't remember very much, but Chadbourn doesn't stop to tell us clearly just what he does remember. Is he even from our time? As far as I know, he could be from the year 1900 or 2100. Really all we know of him is that he (conveniently) is a scholar of British history. I have no sense so far of his personality. He wants to get back to the present(?) because he's in love with some woman he can barely remember, but so far it doesn't mean much to me whether he succeeds. Perhaps I would gradually come to care about this fellow's plight, but the Battle of the Books format is unforgiving of "gradually."


Range of Ghosts advances to the second round, to take on either The Darkening Dream by Andy Gavin or The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht vs. Boneyards by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

And Blue Skies from PainBoneyards
Our sixth of eight first round matches in the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books pits And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht against Boneyards by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Whichever book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will move on to the second round.

And Blue Skies from Pain: Night Shade trade paperback, March 2012, 359 pages, cover art by Min Yum. This is Stina Leicht's second book, a sequel to last year's Of Blood and Honey, which garnered very strong reviews for a first novel. Even though I didn't read the first book in the series, the reviews I saw and the fascinating premise of the series, that the strife in Northern Ireland in the 1970's was connected in part to a supernatural conflict involving the Catholic church, made this one look so interesting to me that I designated it one of our four seeded novels in the Battle of the Books.

The hero of And Blue Skies from Pain is Liam Kelly, a Catholic and former member of the Provisional IRA, who lost his wife to the fighting in Northern Ireland. He learned in the previous volume that his father was not a Protestant, as vicious rumor had it, but rather a shape-shifting creature, one of the Fianna. As the book begins, Liam is the key to efforts to broker a peace between these creatures and the Militis Dei, a group of Catholic priest-warriors dedicated to destroying fallen angels and their demon progeny.

Boneyards: Pyr trade paperback, January 2012, 299 pages, cover art by Dave Seeley. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a most prolific author, writing under her own name and various pseudonyms in a host of genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, and no doubt others. She was the Campbell Award winner for best new author in 1990 and has since won the Hugo Award as both a writer and an editor, among many other honors.

Boneyards is the third novel in Rusch's "Diving" universe, after Diving into the Wreck and City of Ruins. This is far-future space opera, with a strong female protagonist, known simply as "Boss." Boneyards begins with Boss accompanying "Coop," the captain of a spacecraft thrown 5,000 years into its future by a faster-than-light mishap (whom I presume Boss encountered in one of the two prior books), as they explore the ruins of an ancient spaceport that was just being built before Coop's ship was lost in time. Coop hopes it will help him to find his people, a group of space nomads referred to as "the Fleet." Meanwhile, we find Boss's friend "Squishy" on a research base just being evacuated. The book cover suggests Squishy will soon become a pawn in the "Enterran Empire's" quest for advanced technology that, as it happens, Coop's people already possess.

The Battle: After just 25 pages, I am not surprised that Stina Leicht's first book met with critical acclaim. And Blue Skies from Pain features sparkling prose that quickly draws the reader into the action. We begin with a prologue that flashes back to a gripping encounter in 1967 between young Joseph Murray and a very dangerous group of "the Fallen." Chapter 1 flashes ahead to 1977, where our protagonist Liam is upset about a disagreement he's had with Father Murray, presumably the same Murray from the prologue. Distracted, he stumbles into a group of armed Loyalist smugglers:
"Sorry to be disturbing you. I lost my way, is all," Liam said, again cursing Father Murray, not that the situation was actually the priest's fault. Liam was the one who'd decided to get some air. Naturally, he'd been in a rage at the time. He'd argued with Father Murray about the current plan to forge a peace between the Catholic Church and the Fey. At the last, Father Murray had been giving him shite about how he, Liam, needed to take control of his life and stop running from one bad situation and into another. Now that Liam had cooled off he was beginning to rethink matters.
I love it when a book begins with a small touch of irony like that, which promises many more twists to come. And this effectively gives us a sense of Liam's character and makes us feel connected to him, even if we haven't read the previous book in this series.

In contrast, the opening pages of Boneyards did not succeed in getting me interested in the main characters; so far, all the characters strike me as rather prickly and obnoxious. And the writing so far has not impressed me as much as I expected, coming from an author as experienced and talented as Kristine Kathryn Rusch. In this early scene, Boss waits anxiously after Coop disappears into the wreckage, looking for a clue to what happened to this base:
I glance at my watch. At least fifteen minutes have passed since I last saw him through the gaps in the rocks.

"You want to send someone in?" Mikk asks, which means he's saying, in Mikk-speak, that he's volunteering to go inside because he believes it crucial.

"Not yet," I say.

The rocks haven't fallen. We would have heard it. But I've talked to Stone enough about the risks to know that Coop could be in danger even if the rocks haven't fallen. He could be stuck in a tight area, one he wedged himself into and now can't get himself out of.

"The amount of time that has passed is relatively insignificant, given what he's trying to do," Stone says.
I kind of like the "Mikk-speak" bit, but repeating the phrase "the rocks haven't fallen" seems clumsy to me, and the "relatively insignificant" dialogue rather clunky. More importantly, this scene is supposed to be building tension as they wait to hear if Coop is all right, but it falls flat because Rusch has not explained why the guy doesn't have a radio or communicator to keep in contact with the group. Hell, he isn't going that far -- couldn't he just yell for help if he were trapped?

For me, the last scene in Chapter 1 of And Blue Skies from Pain, in which Catholic priests and the Fianna meet to establish a truce, when many of them are obviously conflicted, even exchanging thinly-veiled threats, carried a great deal more tension. This is the book I am anxious to keep reading.


And Blue Skies from Pain will meet Ari Marmell's Thief's Covenant in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell vs. Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder

Expedition to the Mountains of the MoonThief's Covenant
Eight of our sixteen entrants have competed in the first round. We begin the second half of the draw with Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell against Burton & Swinburne in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will advance to the second round in the Battle of the Books.

Thief's Covenant: Pyr hardcover, February 2012, 272 pages, cover art by Jason Chan. Not counting some media-related work, Thief's Covenant is Ari Marmell's fourth novel and his first foray into young adult fiction, part of Pyr's new line of YA science fiction and fantasy.

The heroine of Thief's Covenant is Adrienne Satti, alias master thief Widdershins -- at least so says the book jacket; I haven't yet seen Adrienne as Widdershins in the first 25 pages. Instead, the book begins "two years ago," when Adrienne was the only survivor of a bloody attack on a group of the most rich and powerful citizens of the medieval city of Davillon, a rather gruesome opening for a young adult book. From there, the book goes backwards to "eight years ago," when Adrienne was a spunky young orphan. Finally, we come back to the present day to see Adrienne again socializing with the upper crust, under an assumed name.

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon: Pyr trade paperback, January 2012, 386 pages, cover art by Jon Sullivan. This is the third of Mark Hodder's Burton & Swinburne adventures, steampunk set in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, involving real-life figures Sir Richard Francis Burton and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. (It strikes me as a dicey proposition to use Richard Burton as a protagonist, since it invites comparison to Philip José Farmer's wonderful To Your Scattered Bodies Go.) I haven't read the first two Burton & Swinburne books, but they were generally well-received, including a Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback original for The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon also opens by showing the protagonist at various points in time. But in this case, the different time periods do not correspond to the character's age; rather, we first encounter Richard Burton in the early 20th Century, which should be well after his death. First, we see him hiding in the grass some time after 1919, waiting for the chance to kill a man named Spring Heeled Jack. Next, Burton is in the middle of a bizarre battle in World War I, which bears little resemblance to our universe's version of that war. Finally, Burton is at a party in 1863, where an attempt will be made against his life. This is shortly before his departure on a second trip to find the headwaters of the Nile, i.e., the Mountains of the Moon, in search of a McGuffin. At the party, Burton explains to another character how history has been altered by the time traveler Spring Heeled Jack, which serves to catch readers up on where our story stands after two volumes.

Although it's not going to play a role in my decision here, it bears mentioning that the Burton & Swinburne series are marvelous-looking books, both in terms of Jon Sullivan's excellent cover art and Nicole Sommer-Lecht's striking design.

The Battle: This is a tough one -- there is plenty to like about both these books.

Starting with Thief's Covenant, Ari Marmell skillfully uses scenes out of chronological sequence to get us interested in multiple different aspects of Adrienne's life. How did she climb from an orphan to high society? Who was behind the slaughter of two years ago, and what happened next? What's Adrienne doing now?

Marmell also quickly gets us interested in the religion of this world, in which people worship the 147 different gods who have joined in a pact to watch over humanity. It seems these gods can become directly involved, as one of them interacts with Adrienne in the book's prologue. There is a terrific scene where child Adrienne asks a nun at her orphanage basic questions about these gods, things she should already know. At first, it seems a clumsy way for Marmell to infodump for the reader, but then we realize Adrienne is just setting up the nun:
The girl nodded slowly as though she understood, though Sister Cateline doubted that was the case. The nun had just begun to turn away, when --

"Can I ask one more question?"

Cateline repressed a sigh. "One more. Then you need to eat your supper."

"If Davillon has so many gods, how come not one of them got off his butt and saved my mommy and daddy?!"
Through 25 pages, the strength of Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is the way-cool steampunk imagery:
To his left, the crest of a bloated sun was melting into a horizon that quivered in the heat, and ahead, in the gathering gloom, seven towering, long-legged arachnids were picking their way through the red weed that clogged no-man's-land. Steam was billowing from their exhaust funnels, pluming stark white against the darkening purple sky.

Harvestmen, he thought. Those things are harvestmen spiders bred to a phenomenal size by the Technologists' Eugenicist faction. No, wait, not Eugenicists--they're the enemy--our lot are called Geneticists. The arachnids are grown and killed and gutted and engineers fit out their carapaces with steam-driven machinery.
* * *
One of the gigantic vehicles had become entangled. Scarlet tendrils were coiling around its stilt-like legs, snaking up toward the driver perched high above the ground. The man was desperately yanking at the control levers in an attempt to shake the writhing plant from his machine. He failed. The harvestman leaned farther and farther to its left, then toppled over, dragged down by the carnivorous weed.
A major point of emphasis in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is playing around with historical figures; for instance, Burton meets a journalist who turns out to be H.G. Wells, then Oscar Wilde randomly appears as a cabin boy, etc. etc. Unfortunately for Hodder, I've always found it distracting when real people appear in cameo roles like that. I prefer alternate histories where the main characters are nobody I've heard of (e.g., Dick's The Man in the High Castle), so the focus is on how the world is different in this timeline, rather than how certain individuals end up doing different things. That is admittedly a subjective reaction. There are plenty of readers who get a big kick out of this sort of thing, and if you're one of them, you should definitely give Mark Hodder a try.

This is a very close call, but in the end, Thief's Covenant is the book that introduced me to the character I'm most interested in following further.


Thief's Covenant moves on to battle either Stina Leicht's And Blue Skies from Pain or Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Boneyards in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long vs. Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

Jane Carver of WaarSisterhood of Dune
Our fourth Battle of the Books contest pits Jane Carver of Waar by Nathan Long against Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Which book will I most want to continue reading after the first 25 pages?

Jane Carver of Waar: Night Shade trade paperback, March 2012, 299 pages, cover art by Dave Dorman. Nathan Long has written for Hollywood and done ten novels in the Warhammer universe. Jane Carver of Waar is his first original, non-media novel. As the cover and the name "Jane Carver" suggest, this is a book in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars novels.

Long's hero Jane Carver is a biker chick and former Airborne Ranger (picture a modern-day Xena with red hair). In the opening pages she kills a guy without really meaning to -- he gropes her and she expresses her displeasure more forcefully than she intended -- and is quickly on the run from the law. She finds a cave to hide in, and next thing you know she's on an alien world inhabited by strange purple creatures.

Sisterhood of Dune: Tor hardcover, January 2012, 496 pages, cover art by Steve Stone. Brian Herbert, the son of Frank Herbert, has written several original novels but is best known for his new work in his father's Dune universe, in collaboration with Kevin J. Anderson. Kevin J. Anderson is the hardest working man in science fiction. He writes prolifically, dividing his time between Star Wars and other media tie-in work, Dune books with Brian Herbert, and original work, both solo and in collaboration. I confess to a bias in Anderson's favor, since he and his wife Rebecca Moesta have been extremely generous with their time to all us humble Writers of the Future winners.

Sisterhood of Dune is a Dune prequel. If you've been following the Brian Herbert / Kevin J. Anderson additions to the Dune universe, Sisterhood is presumably the first in a new trilogy, set after the Legends of Dune Trilogy (The Butlerian Jihad, The Machine Crusade, and The Battle of Corrin) and before the Prelude to Dune Trilogy (House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Corrino). It focuses on the formation of the key groups that played such an important role in Frank Herbert's books, such as the Bene Gesserit (the "Sisterhood" of the title), the Mentats, and the Spacing Guild.

The Battle: If I've counted right, Sisterhood of Dune is the 17th novel in the Dune universe, including Frank Herbert's original six books and the Brian Herbert / Kevin Anderson novels. So Sisterhood is geared to a specific readership, people who never tire of Dune books. I don't mean that to sound negative. Frank Herbert created a universe so rich and fascinating that it's not surprising some folks just can't get enough of it. I am at a loss to understand the view I've occasionally heard expressed that there is something unseemly about doing so many Dune prequels and sequels. Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson are writing books that a lot of readers out there want to read, which is what professional authors do.

It is very much to Herbert and Anderson's credit that the opening of Sisterhood of Dune does not read like an appendix to Frank Herbert's books. It just reads like a novel, about interesting characters with difficult problems. So we meet Raquella Berto-Anirul, founder of the Bene Gesserit and its first Reverend Mother. She desperately wants a successor, but every woman who attempts to duplicate her feat of taking control of her own biochemistry to overcome poisoning dies in the attempt. Should Raquella continue to sacrifice bright young women, or abandon the hope of creating fellow Reverend Mothers? (This is a dilemma clearly implied but not directly addressed in Dune, an example of how clever Herbert and Anderson have been in choosing the issues to flesh out in their books.) At the same time, Raquella has determined the Bene Gesserit's goals will require computer technology, which will inevitably place them in conflict with the anti-machine Butlerians, whose leader we just met in the previous chapter. This all makes for interesting reading, despite the necessarily extensive backstory.

Turning to Jane Carver of Waar, this is billed as a parody of the Edgar Rice Burroughs style of planetary adventure, but it doesn't strike me as parody so much as pastiche. Long is imitating Burroughs, not making fun of him. Except for the tough female protagonist and the modern language, this stuff easily could have been written by Burroughs himself. Here, for instance, is a scene where our heroine has been captured by tiger-striped centaur creatures:
I was barely conscious. The endless pounding gallop had jumbled my brains to cream of wheat, so I only got impressions: trees like droopy palms hanging over the creek, a sea of leather tents spreading to the canyon walls, the smell of meat and shit, pony-sized cen-tiger kids and cen-tiger chicks with four boobs to go with their four arms trotting alongside the column staring at us, the feel of cool air as we left the dry dust of the plains.
This seems to be the point of the book: imagining how Edgar Rice Burroughs would sound if he had used terms like "shit," "boobs," and "cream of wheat." Humor is a subjective thing, so your mileage may vary, but it doesn't do much for me. Instead of reading further in Jane Carver of Waar, I'd be more inclined to dig up Michael Moorcock's Kane books or Leigh Brackett's Skaith series; better yet, I could just read some Edgar Rice Burroughs.

THE WINNER: SISTERHOOD OF DUNE by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Sisterhood of Dune will move on to meet Orson Scott Card's Shadows in Flight in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: Gamers by Thomas K. Carpenter vs. Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card

Shadows in FlightGamers
Our third match of the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books pits Gamers by Thomas K. Carpenter against Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card. These are both science fiction novels with a YA feel -- Gamers is expressly marketed to young adults, while Card's Ender books have been hugely popular with younger readers. The winner of the match will be the book I most want to continue reading after finishing 25 pages of both.

Gamers: Black Moon trade paperback, 2011, 313 pages, cover art by Atikarn Matakangana. This is a 2011 release but I exercised my discretion to bend the eligibility rules to get it into the Battle of the Books, because: (i) I never saw Gamers in 2011 -- as an independent book, it didn't get much circulation; (ii) Thomas K. Carpenter is one of the good people who hang around the Writers of the Future forum; and (iii) I dig the cover art -- although in our scan you may not be able to see the nice detail in the eyes. But it seems I didn't do Carpenter any favors by slipping him into the BOTB, since the luck of the draw placed his novel opposite a fellow named Orson Scott Card.

Gamers is set in a future where pretty much everything you do in life is part of a huge game, and your score is always rising or falling. You can see the score at all times, as part of the constant virtual reality overlay to your senses. Our heroine Gabby DeCorte is a talented teenager who can hack the game to alter what people around her are seeing. In the opening scene she uses that skill to help her friend Zaela, whose score may not be strong enough to put her on the right path after high school. Then Gabby learns that mysterious and powerful figures have taken an interest in her abilities.

Shadows in Flight: Tor hardcover, January 2012, 237 pages, cover art by John Harris / Macmillan audio, 7 hours, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki and cast. Orson Scott Card is one of the all-time greats of science fiction and fantasy, and it's a no-brainer to designate his latest novel as one of our four seeded books. Card is the only author ever to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in consecutive years, with Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. Ender's Game has probably been the most important gateway to science fiction for teenagers since Robert Heinlein's juvenile books. And I think Speaker for the Dead is even better -- it remains one of my all-time favorite novels.

While Card's books still sell well, a large segment of science fiction fandom has turned away from him due to his outspoken views on political and religious issues. I disagree with him about gay marriage too, but I can't bring myself to pretend he's not an outstanding writer.

Shadows in Flight is the latest volume in the hugely successful Ender universe. A series of these books (the Shadow books) have followed Ender's lieutenant Bean. A genetic condition called Anton's Key is the reason Bean is a genius, but it has also caused him to grow abnormally, from an unusually tiny child to a giant of a man. His body cannot sustain the growth, and he has not much longer to live. And three of his children share his gift/affliction. He has taken them on a long trip in a near-lightspeed spaceship, in hopes that through the resulting time dilation, future centuries of medical advances on Earth will lead to a cure of their condition. In the opening chapter, we see that the three children (Ender, Carlotta, and Sergeant) have grown into incredibly precocious six-year-olds, with an extreme sibling rivalry emerging between the boys. Unfortunately, because no one left on Earth shares their condition, serious research on Anton's Key has ceased.

The Battle: I want to first emphasize that Gamers has a solid opening. The writing flows well (far better than your typical self-published book), the strange half-VR world is interesting, and the teenage characters should be easily accessible to younger readers.

But at the end of 25 pages (actually I cheated and read through page 36 because the print is large), I didn't feel the sort of compulsion to continue reading that I did after a chapter of Shadows in Flight. An author like Orson Scott Card hooks you quickly, and he makes it look easy, so it's hard to put a finger on what he's doing right that a less accomplished writer isn't. Let's try comparing the settings and characters of these two books.

Setting. Carpenter has created an interesting world, where everything you experience is part of a meta-game. But it doesn't pop. This is a high-tech future that should come across as truly bizarre, like a Charles Stross story. Instead, it mostly feels pretty normal, just a couple teenage girls going to school and then hanging out. Carpenter needed to pick certain moments to bring home the strangeness of this future world -- moments when everything changes in disorienting fashion. Instead, an early scene in the book takes his characters to a dusty library, a comfortable and familiar setting to most readers, just the wrong effect.

Card's setting is also interesting, albeit much simpler. The important thing here isn't the spaceship our characters are on, but why they're on it. Even if you haven't read the other Shadow books, within a few pages you understand that Bean, aka the Giant, is doomed from his genetic condition. His children know he's doomed and that they have the same condition, and while they put on brave faces, they have no idea what to do about it. Even worse, their father's great size and expected death have distanced the children from him. Card's set-up places his characters in a terrible dilemma, one that is so simply and clearly explained that no reader could fail to appreciate it.

Characters. Much of the first chapter of Shadows in Flight is straight dialogue, yet it's dialogue that gives us a strong sense of who these characters are. Here are two of Bean's children, Ender and Carlotta (both named for characters in prior books), discussing Ender's analysis of Earth medical research:
"I connect things that the humans could never see."

"We're humans," said Carlotta wearily.

"Our children won't be, if I can help it," said Ender.

"'Our children' is a concept that will never have a real-world example," said Carlotta, "I'm not mating with either of my male sibs, which includes you. Period. Ever. It makes me want to puke."

"The idea of sex is what makes you puke," said Ender.
These are brilliant young people, with an understanding of concepts such as sex that goes far beyond their years, yet they're also children who get the heebie-jeebies at the notion of sex. Card has always had a knack for portraying such gifted children. We don't get as much sense of Sergeant in the opening pages -- so far, he just seems like the same character as Peter in Ender's Game -- but Carlotta and this new Ender demonstrate that Card remains a master at using a few words of dialogue to reveal his characters' personalities.

In contrast, the dialogue in the opening of Gamers is pretty much just talk. We hear some unfamiliar slang, but nothing particularly revealing about what makes these characters tick. Similarly, their behavior doesn't reveal their personalities. This is a missed opportunity, for we learn only three pages in that Gabby can hack the VR overlay on the world all around them, i.e., she can just make stuff appear whenever she wants. Excuse me, but how fucking cool is that? She should be the queen of the world, or at least of her school. Has that gone to her head and made her a spoiled bitch? Or is she the super-cool future version of Ferris Bueller? I feel I should know the answer by now, but I don't.

All of which is not at all meant as a slam against Thomas Carpenter, just my observations of some of what makes Orson Scott Card a great author, while new writers like Carpenter and me are still working to figure it out.


Shadows in Flight will advance to the second round, to meet either Nathan Long's Jane Carver of Waar or Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: The Isis Collar by Cat Adams vs. The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko

Isis CollarScar
The second contest of the 2012 Battle of the Books, Winter Bracket is The Isis Collar by Cat Adams against The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko. As always in the first round, the winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after finishing the first 25 pages.

The Isis Collar: Tor trade paperback, March 2012, 380 pages. Cat Adams is the joint pen-name of C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, who have cowritten 16 paranormal romance novels for Tor. The Isis Collar is the fourth book in their Blood Singer series, featuring Celia Graves, a vampire (although she can be out by day) with the powers of a Siren. In a world that looks like ours except with lots more magical beings, Graves seems to find herself in the path of a great deal of netherworld mischief. In the opening pages of The Isis Collar, Celia has been warned by a clairvoyant that a local elementary school is in grave (sorry) danger. She goes there to evacuate the kids, but the principal is skeptical, at least until the dark spells begin to hit.

The Scar: Tor hardcover, February 2012, 336 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. Sergey and Marina Dyachenko are a husband-and-wife writing team from Ukraine who have coauthored some two dozen science fiction and fantasy novels in Russian. They have won multiple awards in Europe, but The Scar, originally published in Russia in 1997, is their first book to be published in the United States. It follows Egert, a brash womanizer and excellent swordsman in a city that places a high value on these skills.

In contrast with, say, the character Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch's novels, Egert is no lovable rogue. He can be amusing, as when he dresses up in drag to get close to a married woman he's chasing, but he is also arrogant and self-absorbed. The opening 25 pages of the book end with him taking a most unsympathetic action. The book jacket suggests he will soon have a comeuppance that will dramatically affect his personality.

The Battle: The Isis Collar starts this matchup at a severe disadvantage, since I am not at all the book's ideal reader, having long since tired of formula paranormal romance. Still, the story moves along a good pace, with a few interesting details, such as how Celia overcomes an aversion charm designed to keep her from going in a particular door. The first chapter (28 pages) ends in a cliffhanger, and I was interested in what would happen next.

So the Dyachenkos would have to do something interesting with the opening of The Scar to win this contest. They did. There is a nice flow to their writing, with due credit to translator Elinor Huntington. Egert is a deeply flawed character, a product of a proud but distastefully militaristic society. The opening section of the book focuses on his encounter with a beautiful foreigner and her academic fiancé, who do not understand the rules of Egert's city, a train-wreck in the making that pulls the reader along.

One clear contrast between The Isis Collar and The Scar is in their use of magic. In The Isis Collar, magical spells are tossed around every other page, while in the first 25 pages of The Scar, nothing supernatural occurs at all. There are merely hints of backstory regarding a powerful mage who went mad, and fleeting glimpses of a mysterious figure. As George R.R. Martin has proven, sparing use of the supernatural can often be more effective. I am very interested to see what develops from the hints in The Scar, while I feel I already know just what to expect from The Isis Collar after just 25 pages.

THE WINNER: THE SCAR by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko

The Scar advances to take on Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint in the second round. That will be an interesting matchup, since I enjoyed the opening sections of both books very much.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: When We Were Executioners by J.M. McDermott vs. Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint

Eyes Like LeavesWhen We Were Executioners
Our first matchup of the Winter Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books pits J.M. McDermott's When We Were Executioners against Charles de Lint's Eyes Like Leaves. Per our contest rules, I have read the first 25 pages of both, and the winner will be the book I most want to continue reading.

When We Were Executioners: Night Shade trade paperback, February 2012, 232 pages, cover art by Julien Alday. This is the second book in the Dogsland Trilogy, after Never Knew Another, which received strong reviews last year. McDermott is also the author of Last Dragon (2008), Maze (forthcoming from Apex), and various short fiction and poetry.

Dogsland is a squalid, medieval society, which does not tolerate anyone with demon blood. The tale follows a priest and priestess, demon-hunting "Walkers" who wear wolfskins and can transform into wolves. They are pursuing Rachel Nolander, a half-demon nomad, tracking her using memories drawn from the dead skull of her former lover Jona. The book begins with a series of flashbacks to Jona's memories, which is a nice way to introduce the story and characters, although the effect is somewhat diminished by the fact that Never Knew Another began the very same way.

Eyes Like Leaves: Tachyon trade paperback, February 2012, 313 pages, cover art by Lauren Kelly Small. Charles de Lint has been one of the leading authors in the fantasy field since his first full-length novel appeared in 1984. He has published some 70 books and won the World Fantasy Award among many other honors. Because of this distinguished record, we named Eyes Like Leaves one of our four top seeds in the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books.

Eyes Like Leaves is high fantasy, combining Celtic and Nordic mythology, as mages in the "Green Isles" attempt to defend their land against Viking invaders and the dark presence supporting them. The book has an odd publication history. Charles de Lint wrote it in approximately 1980, before his novels began to sell. Eyes Like Leaves eventually sold to Ace Books, but de Lint and Ace decided not to publish it, focusing instead on his urban fantasies in a contemporary setting. This proved a successful strategy for de Lint's career, but resulted in Eyes Like Leaves falling by the wayside. Subterranean finally published a limited edition hardcover of the novel in 2009, which I never saw, so I decided to allow Tachyon's 2012 trade paperback edition into the Battle of the Books.

The Battle: Both When We Were Executioners and Eyes Like Leaves are secondary world fantasies written in a literary style, and both open with a series of flashbacks. Both authors strive to write in an elegant fashion, but in When We Were Executioners, McDermott's efforts at stylish writing often fall flat. He has, for instance, an unfortunate habit of repetition -- the opening line of the book, "I dream of dead men," is repeated five times in the first four pages, and it's just not a good enough line to carry that off. McDermott's choice of language tends to come across as self-conscious. Here is the first-person priestess, waking from a night of dreaming memories from Jona's skull:

I stretched. I walked into the early dawn. "I'm getting breakfast."

My husband ran on ahead into the forested places down the side of the little mountain.

Easier like this.

I paused to watch the sunrise. Every hill is a mountain dying or being born; every mountain is a hill upon a hill upon a hill. From where I stood, I could see over the trees to a rising sun. It looked like the hills were on fire.

I started a fire of my own. Without the wolfskin on my back I was cold, but I had human hands, and I could build fires. My husband yawned awake, flashing his predator teeth.
I don't understand what "Easier like this" means -- it's easier to get breakfast as a wolf? The bit about how "every mountain is a hill upon a hill upon a hill" is working hard to sound profound and not getting there. And how could her husband yawn awake, when we just read that he "ran on ahead"? Perhaps that's meant to suggest the passing of many days blending together, but if so it was unclear to me and interrupted the flow of my reading.

In contrast, de Lint's writing is elegant, but in a way that flows smoothly, serving the story rather than distracting from it. His use of language is superb right from the opening page, when our protagonist Tarn flashes back to when an old wizard announced that he wanted Tarn, then a street urchin, as his apprentice:

"Me?" he asked.


"But, why?"

"The reasons are unimportant. Are you willing to learn what I can teach you? It won't be an easy task."

"I'll try, but . . ." Tarn met the greybeard's clear-eyed gaze. "Are you sure you haven't mistaken me for someone else?"

"I am sure."

"When will we begin?"

The tree-wizard smiled. "We have already begun."

They left Tallifold that day, journeying north to where autumn touched the summer woods of Avalarn. The wind teased their cloaks with curious fingers. The sky dreamed blue above them. The woods whispered wise about them.

Listening, watching, Tarn began his lessons.
The line, "We have already begun," is simple but wise, in just the way McDermott attempted and failed with "hill upon a hill upon a hill." The bit where "the sky dreamed blue" is a better turn of phrase than I found anywhere in 25 pages from McDermott.

One advantage When We Were Executioners has over Eyes Like Leaves is an interesting ambiguity. After 25 pages of When We Were Executioners, I have no idea whether my sympathies should be with the demon-hunters or the demon-tainted, and I'm not sure there would be a clear answer even if I had read the preceding volume. In contrast, Eyes Like Leaves presents a standard good-against-evil conflict. I suspect this difference has much to do with when the books were actually written. In 1980, when de Lint was writing his novel, good-against-evil was generally how high fantasy was done; today, readers expect more shades of gray.

But this is not enough to overcome my preference for de Lint's skillful writing. Most importantly, de Lint's clever language always drew me into the story, instead of snapping me out of it as McDermott's often did. Perhaps When We Were Executioners suffers from being the middle book of a trilogy, especially since I haven't read the first book, but I did not regret putting it down after 25 pages, while I very much wanted to continue further into the story of Eyes Like Leaves.


Eyes Like Leaves will advance to meet either The Isis Collar by Cat Adams or The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012 Bracket

battle booksWelcome to the first Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books!

We're getting more review copies of books than we can possibly read, so we decided to make them fight to the death!

For more about why we decided to do a Battle of the Books, click here. For all the rules, click here.

We've received our first 16 contenders, selected four "seeded" books -- the four we are most looking forward to out of this group (marked with asterisks) -- placed one seeded book in each quarter of the bracket, and then filled in the rest of the Winter 2012 bracket randomly, to arrive at the following matchups.

First Quarter of Bracket:

J.M. McDermott, When We Were Executioners (Night Shade, Feb)
Charles de Lint, Eyes Like Leaves*** (Tachyon, Feb)

Isis CollarScarCat Adams, The Isis Collar (Tor, Feb)
Sergey & Marina Dyachenko, The Scar (Tor, Feb)

Second Quarter of Bracket:

GamersShadows in FlightThomas K. Carpenter, Gamers (Black Moon, 2011)
Orson Scott Card, Shadows in Flight*** (Tor, Jan)

Jan Carver of WaarSisterhood of DuneNathan Long, Jane Carver of Waar (Night Shade, Mar)
Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson, Sisterhood of Dune (Tor, Jan)

Third Quarter of Bracket:

Thief's CovenantExpedition to the Mountains of the MoonAri Marmell, Thief's Covenant (Pyr, Feb)
Mark Hodder, Burton & Swinburne in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon (Pyr, Jan)

And Blues Skies from PainBoneyardsStina Leicht, And Blue Skies from Pain*** (Night Shade, Mar)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Boneyards (Pyr, Jan)

Fourth Quarter of Bracket:

Range of GhostsJack of RavensElizabeth Bear, Range of Ghosts*** (Tor, Mar)
Mark Chadbourn, Jack of Ravens (Pyr, Mar)

The Darkening DreamThe Pillars of HerculesAndy Gavin, The Darkening Dream (Macherato, Jan)
David Constantine, The Pillars of Hercules (Night Shade, Mar)

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Some notes on the field:
-- A couple of the books are tricky to classify, but by my best count, 4 of the books are science fiction, 11 fantasy, and 1 horror.
-- 11 books are by men, 4 by women, and 1 is a husband-and-wife collaboration.
-- 5 of the books are published by Tor, 4 by Night Shade, 4 by Pyr, 1 by Tachyon, and 2 are self-published.
-- 7 of the books are later volumes in an ongoing series, while 9 are either stand-alones or the first book in a new series.

We will announce the first round results, one per day, from this Tuesday to the following Tuesday. Good luck to all the entrants, and let's have fun!