Friday, March 25, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One

Announcing Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books!

We started the Battle of the Books at the Fantastic Reviews Blog as a fun way to try to keep up with the great volume of review copies we were receiving. (For more about why we started the Battle of the Books, click here.)

The good news is we've done ten brackets of books so far, eight 2012 brackets, one 2013 bracket, and one 2014 bracket, discussing 160 books! We've had a lot of fun and gotten some great feedback from the authors both here and at Twitter and other social media.

The bad news is we have definitely not kept up with all the review copies flowing in. But we're slowly taking on the mountain of books we've accumulated.

In a valiant (please don't say hopeless) attempt to catch up, we're alternating between brackets of the new books we're receiving and brackets of books from recent years.

Aaron Hughes, our primary reviewer, will be judging this bracket of Battle of the Books.

Of the sixteen books, Aaron selected four "seeded" books that he was especially looking forward to reading (marked with asterisks), placed one in each quarter of the bracket, then we filled out the rest of the bracket randomly. Here are your initial matchups:

First Quarter of Bracket:

Jeff Wheeler
The Banished of Muirwood
(Amazon 47North)
Josh Vogt
Forge of Ashes
(Paizo Pathfinder)

Gary Kloster
(Paizo Pathfinder)
Kazuo Ishiguro
The Buried Giant***
(Alfred A. Knopf)

Second Quarter of Bracket

Evie Manieri
Fortune’s Blight
J. F. Lewis

Ken Liu
The Grace of Kings***
S. Harrison
Infinity Lost
(Amazon Skyscape)

Third Quarter of Bracket:

Gregory Lamberson
Human Monsters
Ferrett Steinmetz
(Angry Robot)

Snorri Kristjansson
Blood Will Follow
(Jo Fletcher)
Michael Alan Nelson

Fourth Quarter of Bracket:

Camille Griep
Letters to Zell
(Amazon 47North)
Joel Shepherd

Karina Sumner-Smith
Towers Fall
Jo Walton
The Just City***

To see the whole bracket, click here.

In Battle of the Books, we start with sixteen books as contenders. The books are randomly matched-up in a single elimination tournament bracket. For every battle, a sample of the two competing books will be read by our judge / reviewer, and the book he most wants to continue reading is chosen as the winner of the match.

For first round matches, our reviewer will read the opening 25 pages of both books. Winners advance to the next round. In second round matches, he will read both books through page 50. For the semifinals, the books are read through page 100. For the finals or championship round, our reviewer will read both books through page 200, and the book he most wants to read to the end will be proclaimed our Battle of the Books bracket champion.

For the complete rules, click here.

Some notes on the books in the field:

-- Classifying books before you read them is tricky, but this bracket appears fantasy-dominated, featuring what looks to be six secondary-world fantasy books, two historical fantasies, four urban or contemporary fantasies, three science fiction books, and one horror book.

-- I believe 12 books are by men and 4 by women.

-- It looks like six of the books continue an existing series, five are the first volume in a new series, two are media tie-ins, and three appear to be stand-alone books.

-- As far as publishers: 3 books came to us from Pyr; 2 books each from Tor, Paizo Pathfinder, and Amazon 47North; and 1 book each from Alfred A. Knopf, Saga, Amazon Skyscape, Jo Fletcher, Angry Robot, Talos and Medallion.

Good luck to all our contenders! Let the new bracket of book battles begin!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Empty Planets" by Rahul Kanakia :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "Empty Planets" by Rahul Kanakia, from the January-February 2016 issue of Interzone Magazine (cover art by Vincent Sammy).

One of my favorite little sub-genres of science fiction is far-future, post-scarcity stories where people sit around wondering what the hell to do with themselves.

An example I recently dusted off and enjoyed was Don't Bite the Sun by Tanith Lee from 1976, where young people work their way though a great but not inexhaustible supply of decadent and pointless ways to waste their time. Tanith Lee played the concept tongue-in-cheek, but in "Empty Planets," Rahul Kanakia applies a somber approach I like even better.

"Empty Planets" takes place in a distant future run by a (mostly) benevolent artificial intelligence called the "Machine." The humans' needs are all provided for, and so they pass their time to no apparent purpose. The students at Non-Mandatory Study are a possible exception. But when our protagonist David attends the school on a whim — he believe he has a deep thought inside that he hasn't learned to articulate — we soon find that the students have little love of learning; they simply want to answer one of the questions posed by the Machine, in order to win "shares" as a bounty. An additional share allows one's family to expand, and it's about the only commodity in this universe that people still covet. David does not much approve:
It seemed so sillly, all this looking for bounties and trying to acquire shares, when reallly there were far more important things to think about. I still hadn't quite gotten ahold of the deep thought that'd brought me to NMS, but I could see its outline. The thought had something to do with shares, I knew. And something to do with the Machine. And something to do with wealth and with the age of the universe and the destiny of mankind. And music was tied up in there too.
David falls for Margery, an intense student from a colony slowly dying for lack of shares. They travel to Altair III to study its mysterious, possibly sentient clouds hoping for a bounty, and perhaps they will find themselves there.

"Empty Planets" does a wonderful job of depicting a strange, far-future universe whose residents have problems that seem not very different from our own. And, spoiler alert, Kanakia is wise enough not to try to offer the answers to those problems.

Rahul Kanakia's short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and other places. His first book, a contemporary YA novel confusingly titled Enter Title Here, is due in August.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One :: Wrap-Up

We have completed Fantastic Reviews Bracket One of the Battle of the 2013 Books.  There were plenty of good book battles along the way.  Hope you enjoyed our reviews of samplings of these books!

Congratulations to The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, 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.

The Scholar, the Sphinx and the Shades of Nyx by A. R. Cook
Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper
Mage's Blood by David Hair
Electricity & Other Dreams by Micah Dean Hicks
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder
The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke
Mist by Susan Krinard
The God Tattoo by Tom Lloyd
Never by K. D. McEntire
The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
The Returned by Jason Mott
The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick
23 Years on Fire by Joel Shepherd
Fiend by Peter Stenson
Shadow People by James Swain
Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

Some of these books and authors may be new to you, but after reading Jackie'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, that was Jackie for this bracket, would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 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!

Friday, March 04, 2016

Battle of the 2013 Books, Bracket One, Championship Round :: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord vs. The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke

We have arrived at the championship round of our current bracket of the Battle of the Books. In one corner we have The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord. In the other corner we have The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke. Two fine books. I (Jackie) have read through Page 200 of both these books, and the novel I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2013 Books.

The Best of All Possible Worlds:  Del Rey; February 2013; 306 pages; book design by Victoria Wong. Keren Lord's debut novel, Redemption in Indigo, was published in 2010 and won the Frank Collymore Literary Prize in Barbados.

The Best of All Possible Worlds defeated 23 Years on Fire by Joel Shepherd in the first round, overpowered The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder in the second round, and got past Electricity & Other Dreams by Micah Dean Hicks in the semifinal round to reach the championship.

In the first 200 pages of The Best of All Possible Worlds, we learn that the Sadiri are people with advanced mental capacities; they share a low-level telepathic bond. Many men travel off-world but the females mostly stay on the planet. When their planet is poisoned, killing everyone, the off-world men must come up with a plan for their race to survive. "Councillor" Dllenahkh was off-world on a meditation retreat when the planet-wide genocide occurred. He is sent on a mission to the planet Cygnus Beta to decide what might be done.

Dllenahkh meets biotechnician Delarua of Cygnus Beta who has studied the Sadiri language and society. She's the perfect Cygnian government worker to accompany Dllenahkh and to introduce him to the different settlements. Delarua discovers that Dllenahkh is looking for women with Sadiri genetic heritage, and hopes that many of the women will volunteer to become wives and bear offspring so that the Sadiri mental abilities and customs can survive.

A group is gathered to travel the world for a year to make genetic tests at the various settlements on Cygnus Beta. The settlements have varied cultures, which feel like different worlds. One settlement, on the Kir'tahsg Islands, has a caste system. Delarua is notified that the settlement's elite deal in slave trading and treat the poor people abhorrently, which is against rules and regulation of Cygnus Beta. Delarua, without the settlement's approval, illegally tests the servants' and workers' blood and discovers a cruel fact. In order to fix the problem, Delarua must let her government know what she's done, which causes her to lose her government job. Dllenahkh then hires Delarua to continue working for the Sadiri because of her "insightfulness concerning Sadiri society."

Delarua is happy to stay with the group and works hard at the new job. She needs to use drug patches to keep herself awake. She finds it difficult because Sadiri need less sleep than Terrans. At another settlement, Delarua and group member Nasiha are attacked. The chemical used to try to subdue them interacts with Delarua's drug patches. Her short term memory is affected. Dllenahkh and Delarua are becoming closer.

The Cusanus Game:  Tor, English translation September 2013; originally published in 2005 in Germany; 538 pages; translator: Ross Benjamin. Wolfgang Jeschle was a German science fiction writer who also wrote Last Day of Creation.

The Cusanus Game overpowered The God Tattoo by Tom Lloyd in the first round, won a decision over The Doctor and the Dinosaurs by Mike Resnick in the second round, and got past Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson in the semifinal round to reach the championship.

The prologue in The Cusanus Game takes place in 1425. Caravan Leader Emilio meets with a starship from the future, the 21st century, to trade goods. Bahktir, part of the caravan, learns his son Hakim was killed while trying to enter the area where past and future meets.

In the mid-21st century, botany student Domenica is in her last year of college in Rome. The nuclear war of 2052 in Germany has affected all of Europe. Factions are still fighting in Italy. Genetic mutations occur among people and plants. People are trying to survive in a violent and scary world.

Domenica and some friends apply for a job with the Rinascita Project. Domenica is not sure what the job is about but they need a botanist and jobs are hard to find. She ends up getting the job with four other friends, including a theoretical physicist and a medieval historian. Domenica's ex-boyfriend Bernd and his sister turn down the job offer because they think bad things will come from this project. Domenica and the others taking the job travel to Venice for more testing and orientation.

In this future, nanotechnology is used in various ways, and not all are favorable. Nanos that are meant to bolster the wooden pilings that hold up Venice will occasionally get ingested by fish and, to the fishermen's disgust, the fish morph into wood. The scientists created an ice border around Venice to keep the nanos confined, but now the nanos have penetrated the border and are damaging the environment.

In the mid-1400s, Caravan leader Emilio and Bahktir are ready to meet the starship from the future to trade goods. Bahktir's son Hakim is still alive in this timeline. Emilio and Bahktir go to the ship and see Hakim with broken bones prone on a wheeled stretcher. The starship liaison says they will take Hakim to a clinic in Mantua to get him healed. Bahktir can get him the next time they trade goods.

Domenica learns that she will travel to the 1400s to gather seeds and plants and bring them back to her time. In this timeline, 1400s Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus learns that a witch who collects seeds and plants and labels them with strange Latin names is going to be burned at the stake.

The Battle:  We have the galaxy-spanning science fiction epic The Best of All Possible Worlds vying to become champion against The Cusanus Game, a futuristic science fiction novel that involves nuclear disaster and time travel.

In The Best of All Possible Worlds, I find the idea of searching for mates with the right genetic heritage weird, but the storyline makes it seem plausible: 1) the genocide on the planet Sadira and 2) the desire of the government of Cygnus Beta to have more information about the settlements on the planet. As the group travels around Cygnus Beta, which was described as "a galactic hinterland of pioneers and refugees," their interactions with the varied subcultures are believable. Some settlements are downright strange.

One settlement is hidden, a monastery with Sidiri monks, both men and women, whose mental abilities surpass the Sidiri. Telepathy and telekinesis are the norm for them. At one point, Dllenahkh and Delarua, with the help of a Sidiri monk, walk across a fast moving creek and fly down into a valley.

Humor is sprinkled throughout the book. Delarua must translate between Dllenahkh and the Faerie Queen, a forest settlement leader. Delarua unknowingly tones it down a bit, sounding more like an emotionless Sadiri than herself, jealous with their interaction. Delarua discovers that Sadiri send their bad people off-planet. She realizes that the Sidiri on her world and elsewhere are "diplomats and judges, pilots and scientists, nuns and monks...and jailbirds." Delarua is a hoot!

The characters are fleshed out and believable, and I like them. The Sadiri have mental abilities and they push emotions away, like Spock on Star Trek. Some of their interactions can be amusing.

I need to mention the proliferation of names and diseases beginning with the letter "D." It simply annoys me.

The Cusanus Game seemed better to me in the second hundred pages, probably because there weren't as many time switches. In the first hundred pages, we switched back and forth from Domenica's present to her past one year earlier more often than I would have liked.

The Cusanus Game is well written and offers scientific explanations behind the ability to time jump backwards and to the present, never into the future. Simply put, "we produce the match, which aligns the here and now with the there and then." But don't let that tiny bit of simplicity fool you. Discussions about solitons, quantum physics, particle waves, space-time, "nanos," and other scientific verbiage fill pages and pages, most of which makes sense. It's interesting stuff, and I love reading about quantum physics.

Domenica doesn't seem to catch on to the hologram experience, which she would if she were more observant. She's taken into a simulation and she goes through the whole thing not realizing that it was fake, even though clues hit her in the face throughout. She seems oblivious even though her ex-boyfriend told her time travel was involved in the project. Domenica seemed intelligent and compassionate to me earlier in the book. Now she seems dense. Unfortunately, I don't feel connected to the characters in The Cusanus Game.

Descriptions in The Cusanus Game in some parts are masterpieces, yet in others seem overdone or confusing. I also find some descriptions both fascinating and frustrating, such as in a description Domenica gives of a mechanical wheel-chair:
It looked like an armchair spun out of strong silver wire, or rather a wicker beach chair...with the undulating movements of its wire bristles or tentacles or whatever the winding, surging, thin tendrils of flexible steel wire should be called...
I think the description should be exact to help the reader visualize because, to me, armchair and beach chair are very different, as are wire bristles and tendrils. I'd prefer a more exact simplified description. This book was originally written in German, which might account for this type of overlap.

This book is not a fast read; challenging time flips, beautiful prose with some confusing storylines, and interesting science cannot be skimmed.

There's a gift in writing time travel and this book does a great job. Many chapters begin with a different time period. After 200 pages, we're seeing that history is already changing. I'm curious to see what happens, and I look forward to figuring out why the past now has different outcomes. Will Domenica burn at the stake when she goes back in time? What havoc does Emilio plan to create when the spaceship brings back a healed Hakim?

The winner of this match of Battle of the Books will be the champion of the 16 books placed in this bracket. I (Jackie), after reading 200 pages of each book in this last battle, have a difficult decision to make because both books have their positives and negatives. However, I find myself drawn to the book where I like the characters enough to read about what happens to them and that also suggests that a possible romance is afoot. Despite that last revelation, which I do so grudgingly, I plan to finish reading both books. Well done I say to these two novels!

THE WINNER: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

The Best of All Possible Worlds wins Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2013 Books. Congratulations to Karen Lord as 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 be judging the next bracket of Battle of the Books. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

"The Demon in the Page" by Joshua Phillip Johnson :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

This week's Story Recommendation of the Week goes to "The Demon in the Page," a short story by new author Joshua Phillip Johnson, from the inaugural January 2016 issue of Metaphorosis Magazine.

Let me first say, you gotta be in the right frame of mind for this.

"The Demon in the Page" is about scholars laboriously translating ancient texts. There is no action at all; really nothing ever happens. But if you try to follow Johnson into his characters' minds, you realize these people have willingly devoted their lives to this work, and a new way of understanding the process of translation is the most exciting thing that could happen to one of them.

Mahj, a celebrated scholar, believes she has found a new way to conceptualize the inherent difficulty of translating ancient texts, and shows a draft article explaining her concept to her student Ochre:
“Translators,” he read from the article, “offer the metaphor of a mathematical equation, but I instead offer the metaphor of a woman on a horse. This woman is clothed in resplendent garb, and her horse clip clops proudly. The woman rides into the thick, dark wood of translation, a place never touched by the light of a sun, and when she emerges from the other side, she is very nearly the same. Her clothing is still impressive, though the colors have shifted somewhat. And she no longer rides a horse, or perhaps she does, but this horse has a long, leathery tail and wings made of ash. And the woman’s hair has grown and turned curly where it was once straight.”

“You can accuse me of purple prose if you like,” Mahj said, smiling, her enthusiasm preventing her from seeing the anxiety and worry in her student’s face and voice.

Ochre, instead, continued reading.

“Translators today spend their days examining this new woman and this new horse, categorizing and codifying the changes, questioning their meaning. But we have missed a very important question. Whom did the woman meet in the wood?”

“The demon,” Mahj whispered, sweeping a hand over the books on her table.
Mahj begins looking for the demon in the texts she translates. The trouble is, she doesn't seem to regard this as a metaphor. Ochre clearly believes Mahj is losing her marbles, but has far too much respect for his mentor to say so.

"The Demon in the Page" does a terrific job of portraying the mentor-mentee relationship, which we don't see often enough in SF/F. The characterization is excellent, and I was most satisfied with how the story played out, even if nothing much ever happens.

"The Demon in the Page" is the first published story by Minnesota teacher Joshua Phillip Johnson. One wonders if he will still write a piece like this a few years from now. By then, he'll have gotten a lot of great advice from fellow writers in workshops and writers' groups about how to punch up his fiction and get the readers absorbed in the action early on, and none of that advice will be wrong. But it isn't always right either.