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.

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