Thursday, January 31, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Second Round :: Dark Magic by James Swain vs. The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The second round of the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books continues with Dark Magic by James Swain against The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will advance to the semifinals.

Dark Magic: Tor hardcover, May 2012, 352 pages, cover art by Kristin Duvall & Charles Roff. Dark Magic reached the second round by defeating Finding Poe by Leigh M. Lane in the first round.

In the opening 25 pages, we met Peter Warlock, a successful stage magician with genuine psychic abilities. Peter had a vision of mass deaths in Times Square, somehow caused by a strange dark man. That man proceeded to show up at Peter's next performance and try to stab him. In the next 25 pages, Peter consults a ghost to learn that the strange man is associated with the Order of Astrum, which uses dark magic for unknown ends. Peter realizes the Order of Astrum was responsible for his parents' deaths when he was a boy. Meanwhile, the dark man is busy murdering one of Peter's psychic friends (who really should have seen it coming, eh?).

The Drowned Cities: Little, Brown hardcover, May 2012, 434 pages, cover art by Neil Swaab. The Drowned Cities reached the second-round with a lop-sided win over Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth.

Most of the first 25 pages of The Drowned Cities followed Tool, a bioengineered man-beast who was a character in Bacigalupi's award-winning book Ship Breaker, in a riveting pursuit by soldiers through a ruined East Coast. The next 25 pages focus on Mahlia, a young doctor's assistant. The locals are prejudiced against Mahlia because she is a "castoff," the child of a Chinese officer abandoned to her fate when the Chinese peacekeepers pulled out of North America. She is missing a hand, courtesy of one of the many local militias. We also meet Mahlia's sardonic (and only) friend Mouse, who lost his family to another warlord's patrol.

The Battle: Through 50 pages, James Swain is doing a solid job up building up tension in Dark Magic. The business tying the current mystery into the death of Peter's parents feels a bit contrived, but the scene where the dark man murders another psychic is carried out well. I particularly liked that the man was genuinely surprised to hear of the prediction he would orchestrate a mass murder. This suggests that the antagonist will have his own story arc, apart from Peter's, which is nice.

That said, the opening sections of Dark Magic cannot match the narrative drive of the first chapters of The Drowned Cities. The scene with Tool was an outstanding action sequence, more than enough to pull the reader into the story, allowing Bacigalupi some time to develop his future history through the eyes of Mahlia. Mahlia's initial characterization is effectively done. I'm very interested to learn more about how the downfall of the United States occurred, and what lies ahead for Mahlia and Mouse. Most of all, I can't wait to get to the next Tool chapter.

THE WINNER: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Drowned Cities advances to the semifinals, to take on Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Second Round :: Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy vs. Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson

We start the second round of the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy vs. Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Hemlock Grove: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, April 2012, 318 pages, cover art by Matt Buck. Hemlock Grove advanced to the second round by defeating Dave Freer's Cuttlefish in the first round.

In the first 25 pages we met 17-year-old Peter Rumancek, who is suspected by the other local teens of being a werewolf and possibly responsible for the death of a young woman in the woods. The second 25 pages remove any doubt as to Peter being a werewolf, and another murder occurs. Meanwhile, we've spent more time with Peter's classmate Roman and his very rich and very weird family, including his mother and uncle who are having an affair with each other, and his deformed, seven-foot-tall sister named Shelley (get it?).

Further: Beyond the Threshold: 47North trade paperback, May 2012, 343 pages, cover art by Marcel Clemens & Algol. Further got past Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson to get here.

In the opening, we saw Ramachandra Jason (RJ) Stone, captain of the first interstellar voyage, wake from suspended animation to learn his ship was struck by a micrometeor. He is the only survivor, and 12,000 years have passed. In the next 25 pages, RJ and his guide, in the form of a metallic eagle, travel by wormhole gate to a dramatically transformed Earth, populated by a wide variety of humans, post-humans, and artificial intelligences. RJ is an instant celebrity. We know from the back of the book that another interstellar mission is in RJ's future.

The Battle: Werewolf stories have been done to death in recent years, and stories about a man waking up in the far future had been done to death before I was born. The lesson of today's Battle of the Books is that even a tired old story concept can be a lot of fun in the hands of a talented writer. Both Hemlock Grove and Further make for interesting and entertaining reading through 50 pages.

The quirky characters of Hemlock Grove make this feel like a werewolf story the way David Lynch might do one. Roman's family brings some soap opera elements to the story and McGreevy throws in genuine horror touches, notably a memorable description of Peter's transformation to a werewolf——he literally tears his human skin off to reveal the wolf underneath. McGreevy varies the tone of the story from scene to scene, and so far that's working well.

There is a wonderful exuberance to how Further: Beyond the Threshold attacks the far future. Roberson gives a dizzying array of details about his future Earth, including believable touches such as RJ unwittingly offending his guide by suggesting that AIs aren't "human" and quickly attracting fans nostalgic for Earth's past:
If I squinted, the two men might have passed for 20C Americans, but they wouldn't have stood up to any kind of scrutiny. They wore suits, ties, and hats such as were common in that era, but exaggerated to ridiculous extremes. The result was a sort of stylized zoot suit, such as those worn by lecherous wolves in old Tex Avery cartoons. As I drew near, the look on their faces was so hungry, so near lust, that I almost fancied I could see their hearts pounding out of their ribcages, their tongues rolling out like red carpets.
It's a nice touch that often RJ's best way of making sense of everything he sees is to relate it to virtual reality games he played as a kid.

While I'm definitely enjoying both of these books, I'm required to pick one to move into the semifinals. The Battle of the Books is inherently subjective, and I'm more in the target audience for one of these novels. The soap-opera aspects of Hemlock Grove don't have much appeal for me, while the whiz-bang style of Further is right up my alley, providing the kind of sense of wonder that I love.


Further: Beyond the Threshold advances to the semifinals, to face either Dark Magic by James Swain or The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: Auraria by Tim Westover vs. Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones

We complete the first round of the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Auraria by Tim Westover against Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will be the final entrant in the second round.

Auraria: QW Publishers trade paperback, July 2012, 390 pages. QW bills itself as a publisher of "quaint and weird fiction," but its only two books so far are Tim Westover's Auraria and an anthology edited by Tim Westover (albeit an anthology with some strong authors, such as Camille Alexa and David Boop). So until QW puts out some books with other names on them, we'll have to regard this as a self-publishing venture of Tim Westover. Westover's previous book was a collection of short stories originally published in Esperanto. (I kid you not. The back of Auraria boasts that the book was short-listed for Esperanto Book of the Year; I'm surprised enough Esperanto books are published in a given year to make a list.)

Auraria is a fantasy based on Appalachian folklore, set in the Nineteenth Century. Our protagonist James Holtzclaw arrives in Auraria, Georgia, a mining town that has seen better days, intent on buying out all the land in furtherance of his employer's secret plans. From the moment he arrives, Holtzclaw encounters strange sights, such as a young man fishing in fog where there is no water, for which Holtzclaw labors to find sensible explanations.

Zombie Bake-Off: Lazy Fascist Press trade paperback, February 2012, 256 pages, cover art by Matthew Revert. Lazy Fascist is an imprint of Eraserhead Press, arguably the leading publisher of bizarro fiction. Stephen Graham Jones has written a dozen books in a range of genres and styles, although he is probably best known for his horror fiction. Among other honors, he has been nominated for the Stoker Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the International Horror Guild Award. He is one of the most accomplished Native American authors working today.

Zombie Bake-Off is a tongue-in-cheek zombie story. It begins late at night when a group of stoned young men in a bakery truck run over an odd-smelling pedestrian. In a panic, they throw him in the back of the truck, but by the next morning the body is gone. Meanwhile, security guard Chapman and soccer mom Terry are engaged in a turf war——the Lubbock, Texas bake-off has been double-booked with a pro wrestling event. The back of the book suggests some of those wrestlers will soon be indulging in tainted donuts.

The Battle: Stephen Graham Jones is a top-flight author who brings a welcome perspective to the field, emphasizing blue-collar characters. It is nearly inconceivable he could be taken out of the Battle of the Books by a self-published author whose previous work appeared in Esperanto.

But sooner or later it was bound to happen that an independent book would win one of these battles, and Auraria has by far the best opening of any indie contestant since we started the Battle of the Books. The opening pages of Auraria feature a charming voice and wonderfully wry dialogue. The fantasy elements so far are understated, but it is most amusing watching Holtzclaw try to make sense of them, for instance in this scene where he meets a strange young woman in a quiet pond:
"May I trouble you for your name?" said Holtzclaw.

"Princess Trahlyta," she said.

"How lovely," said Holtzclaw. "Mine is James Holtzclaw, at your service. 'Princess' as a given name is popular right now. Your parents picked a fashionable one for you."

"Pleased to meet you, James. Princess isn't my name. It's my title."

"Princess, eh? Where is your kingdom?"

"This spring and the others like it," she said. "The valley. An hour upriver; the same downriver. And thousands of miles beneath my feet."

"You own all that?" said Holtzclaw.

"To be princess doesn't mean to own it," she said.

Holtzclaw's respect for her calmness and command of natural lore turned to contempt at her childish answers to his questions. She was playing a game with him, trying to draw him into her fun. It was a waste of time.
Meanwhile, as much as I admire Stephen Graham Jones' writing, I'm not much connecting with the first sections of Zombie Bake-Off. Humor is always subjective, and "bizarro" humor particularly so. While I generally like the bizarro sub-genre, it tends to be hit-or-miss for me, and so far Zombie Bake-Off is a bit more on the miss side. Even though the book is overtly tongue-in-cheek, I found less to laugh at in the opening pages than I did from the more subtle humor of Auraria.

THE WINNER: Auraria by Tim Westover

Auraria advances into the second round, to take on Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes).

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: Losers in Space by John Barnes vs. Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews

Next up in the first round of the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books is Losers in Space by John Barnes vs. Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews. As always, the book I most want to keep reading after 25 pages will continue into the second round.

Losers in Space: Viking hardcover, April 2012, 433 pages, cover design by Greg Stadnyk. Viking does not send us review copies, but I added this book to the Battle of the Books as a wild card, because I am a fan of John Barnes. Barnes has published over thirty books since 1987, including a Hugo nominee, three Nebula nominees, and a whole lot of great stuff. Losers in Space is his second book marketed as YA, after Tales of the Madman Underground, which was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book.

Losers in Space is set in the year 2129, when society has become extremely stratified. 96% of the population does no work, yet they live comfortably on the "social mimimum," all their needs supplied by robotic production. But the highest level of luxury is reserved for celebrities. Our characters are the teenaged children of celebrities, who must soon find fame——defined entirely by on-line hits and links——independent of their families, or they will forfeit their privileged status. One of the group hits on the idea of stowing away on a ship to Mars. The problem with this plan, according to the dust jacket, is the guy suggesting it is a sociopath.

Song of the Serpent: Paizo paperback, May 2012, 309 pages, cover art by Adrian Smith. Hugh Matthews is better known as Matthew Hughes. He has published over a dozen books under that name, most set in his Archonate universe, as well as crime fiction under the name Matt Hughes and media tie-ins under the Hugh Matthews name. He has been nominated for the Nebula, the Philip K. Dick Award, and multiple other honors.

Song of the Serpent is a tie-in to the Pathfinder role-playing game, one of a series of Pathfinder ties recently published by Paizo, featuring such top-notch writers as Matthew Hughes and Tim Pratt. Through 25 pages, Song of the Serpent doesn't require any prior knowledge of the Pathfinder game or of other books in the series. Our protagonist is Krunzle the Quick, a dimunitive but clever thief, who has arrived in the wealthy city of Kerse, only to be thwarted by the powerful wards protecting all the treasures on display. When he finally finds an unguarded tree laden with valuable gems, the reader knows to suspect a trap. The trap has been set by a wizard, who will send Krunzle on a quest with a magical snake for company.

The Battle: Losers in Space came into this one a heavy favorite, because I'm a John Barnes fan, and I love the title. In contrast, I wasn't very interested in Song of the Serpent, even though I know Matthew Hughes is also a good writer, because I have a generally snobbish attitude toward media tie-ins.

But sports fans, that's why they play the game. So far Losers in Space isn't grabbing me, for two reasons. First, the viewpoint character Susan Tervaille is a total mean girl, nor do any of the other characters seem especially likeable so far. Through 25 pages I don't see much reason to care whether they get to keep their privileged status. Second, Barnes is separating out his infodumps in sections called "Notes for the Interested." This is an interesting idea, designed to let readers who don't care about the background details skip over them, but it has the unfortunate side effect of disrupting the flow of the story for those of us who do care about those details.

Meanwhile, through 25 pages, Song of the Serpent is a hoot. The protagonist Krunzle is a lovable rogue, easy to cheer for right from the opening scene, when he is stopped by local "Blackjacket" police. Krunzle defuses the situation by convincing them he wishes to enlist. ("You are a little short," says one of the Blackjackets, "in the crucial area of not being too short.") Hughes spices the narrative with a wry wit that makes for very pleasurable reading. What the tale lacks so far in originality Hughes makes up for with flair and exuberance. I'm looking forward to reading more.

THE WINNER: Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes)

Song of the Serpent moves into the second round, to face either Auraria by Tim Westover or Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: Lance of Earth and Sky by Erin Hoffman vs. Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont

We continue the first round of the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Lance of Earth and Sky by Erin Hoffman vs. Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will advance to the second round.

Lance of Earth and Sky: Pyr trade paperback, April 2012, 315 pages, cover art by Dehong He. This is the sequel to Erin Hoffman's first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, and the middle volume of the Chaos Knight trilogy, to be concluded with Shield of Sea and Space. Hoffman's short fiction has appeared in such publications as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clockwork Phoenix, and Electric Velocipede. She is also a successful video game designer. (She first came into the public eye when she and her husband spearheaded a $15 million class action against game manufacturer Electronic Arts, involving employees' unpaid overtime hours.)

Apparently Vidarian Rulorat, the protagonist of Lance of Earth and Sky, opened a portal between worlds in the previous volume, so now magic is popping up in all sorts of unexpected places. The book opens with Vidarian in magical combat with a rogue seridi elemental. Along with his companions Altair the gryphon and Isri, a friendly elemental, Vidarian encounters in short order the ghost of an old friend, a pack of deadly thornwolves, and an ancient tree-creature.

Orb Sceptre Throne: Tor trade paperback, May 2012, 605 pages, cover art by Steve Stone. Ian C. Esslemont is the co-creator with Steven Erikson of the Malazan universe. Erikson popularized this universe in fiction with his ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen. Orb Sceptre Throne is Esslemont's fourth book in the series. I confess I have not previously read any of the Malazan books, but I understand fans regard both Erikson's and Esslemont's novels as part of the Malazan canon.

The first 25 pages of Orb Sceptre Throne bounce us between no fewer than eight viewpoint characters. An archeologist discovers a secret passage beneath the burial grounds south of Darujhistan. A strange man helps a great demon emerge from the sea. An alchemist receives a warning from a fat man and a demon. A young courtesan meets an important councilman who owes all his success to her. A monk confronts a champion duellist. An old woman who is more than she appears awaits her destiny. A former soldier seeking a boat to where the titanic "Moon's Spawn" crashed into the sea is attacked by ruffians. The Malazan ambassador to Darujhistan receives a strange request to secure the burial grounds south of the city. An adventuress and her companion explore the otherworldly "Shores of Creation" where they have been stranded.

The Battle: Following George R.R. Martin's example, many epic fantasies these days de-emphasize the magical elements, in favor of gritty realism, complex character interactions, and a cynical outlook. If you're tired of that approach to fantasy, Lance of Earth and Sky may be up your alley. Hoffman makes no attempt to hold back the fantasy elements, and her narrative flows with a refreshingly breezy attitude. A key scene in the opening pages of Lance of Earth and Sky has the protagonist adopting an adorable litte thornwolf puppy.

But I have not tired of the George R.R. Martin approach to fantasy, and in the opening of Orb Sceptre Throne, Ian C. Esslemont does it just about as well as Martin himself. As in A Song of Ice and Fire, Esslemont's heroes carry themselves with a quiet resignation. Here, for example, a champion swordsman arrives at a monastery to challenge the legendary "Traveller" to a duel, but an old man sweeping the courtyard tells the swordsman he must first prove himself worthy:
"And pray tell how do I do that?"

"By defeating the least of us."

Esten bit down on his impatience and took a slow calming breath. "And . . . that would be?"

A sad slow shrug from the man. "Well . . . that would be me."


"Yes. I'm very new here."

"You . . ." He stepped away as if the fellow were a lunatic. "But you're just cleaning the court!"

A rueful nod. "Yes. And I've yet to get it right. It's the wind, you know. No matter how careful you are the wind just comes tumbling through and all your plans and care are for naught."

* * *

Esten opened his hands as if in a gesture of futility. "Well . . . if I must . . . you do have a weapon?"

The old man merely shrugged his regretful apology once more and raised his broom.
One kick-ass scene like that can take you a long way in the Battle of the Books.

THE WINNER: Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont

Orb Sceptre Throne advances to the second round, to take on Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: Bloodthirst in Babylon by David Searls vs. Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

We turn to the bottom half of the draw in the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books, beginning with Bloodthirst in Babylon by David Searls against Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal. As always, the winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Bloodthirst in Babylon: Samhain trade paperback, May 2012, 335 pages, cover art by Angela Waters. David Searls is the author of the horror novel Yellow Moon, published by Warner Books in 1994, and has resurfaced with two new books this year from Samhain Publishing, Bloodthirst in Babylon and Malevolent.

Bloodthirst in Babylon is set in Babylon, a small midwestern town that seems strangely determined to attract newcomers. In the prologue, one of these new residents meets an untimely demise. The first two chapters then show us two other new arrivals. Todd Dunbar was driving his family cross-country in a desperate search for work when the Babylon sheriff stopped them and suggested, then finally ordered, that they head into Babylon. And Paul Highsmith relocated there after a big score in the stock market, which may now be unraveling due to a securities fraud. From the title and cover, savvy readers expect that these folks are being lured to Babylon by hungry vampires.

Glamour in Glass: Tor hardcover, April 2012, 319 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Mary Robinette Kowal won the Campbell Award for best new author in 2008, then followed that up with a Hugo for her short story "For Want of a Nail" in 2011. Glamour in Glass is the sequel to her well-received first novel Shades of Milk and Honey.

Like Shades of Milk and Honey, Glamour in Glass is written in the style of Jane Austen. The series is set in an alternate version of Regency England, where artists use "glamour" to create impressive optical illusions, such as bringing indoors all the images and sounds of a beautiful garden complete with birds and waterfalls. Our heroine Jane Ellsworth is a talented glamourist who is convinced she is physically unattractive, even though she won over our leading man Vincent, also a skilled glamourist, by the end of the first book. In the opening pages of Glamour in Glass, Jane is bewildered to find herself accepted among the highest echelons of British society. The book jacket promises that an encounter with Napoleon lies ahead of Jane and Vincent.

The Battle: Bloodthirst in Babylon begins with a mass vampire attack, while Glamour in Glass begins with a formal dinner party. There is certainly more drama in the opening pages of Bloodthirst in Babylon, but one thing I've learned doing the Battle of the Books is that pulling me in as a reader has less to do with the action than with the writing. What most makes me want to keep reading is a nicely written passage, especially one that gets me to care about the characters.

There is nothing wrong with the writing in the opening chapters of Bloodthirst in Babylon, and Searls does get me to feel some sympathy for the Dunbar family by showing their anxieties at their desperate financial situation. But the book's opening passages can't quite match the charm of Mary Robinette Kowal's writing. Here, for example, is Jane noticing that her husband Vincent has dressed according to the latest fashion she just heard the Prince and a friend discussing:
Jane took a strange and momentary pleasure in that before she chided herself. They were not fashionable members of society who had to worry about these things, and being in such people's company would seduce her into wanting pretty clothes which she did not need. Still, she thought her husband cut a fine picture, and that there was no harm in thinking so.

"Will you not sit?" She turned to find him staring at her with an endearing smile.

"Because you ask, I shall. Muse." He leaned forward as if to kiss her, and then gave a side-glance at the company, who had all turned in their seats to watch them. Straightening, he offered her the most correct of courtesies from husband to wife, and returned to his seat.
The image of Jane and Vincent having to restrain themselves from showing the affection they would like is very endearing, and it makes me want to read more about them.

THE WINNER: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass moves into the second round, to face either Erin Hoffman's Land of Earth and Sky or Ian C. Esslemont's Orb Sceptre Throne.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi vs. Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth

Our fourth first-round match in the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books pits Paolo Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities against Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Drowned Cities: Little, Brown hardcover, May 2012, 434 pages, cover art by Neil Swaab. The Drowned Cities is YA science fiction, set in the same future as Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker, which was nominated for a National Book Award and won the Michael L. Printz Award. Bacigalupi's prior novel The Windup Girl won the Hugo, Nebula, and multiple other awards.

The first two chapters of The Drowned Cities are from the point of view of Tool, the bioengineered man-beast who was a supporting character in Ship Breaker. Tool has been imprisoned and forced to fight in gladiatoral contests. But as the book begins, he escapes the prison and leads pursuing soldiers on a harrowing flight through a swampland, which the book jacket suggests is a ruined East Coast. As the first 25 pages close, we are introduced to Mahlia, assistant to a Dr. Mahfouz. Mahlia faces superstitious prejudice as a "castoff," but we're not sure yet what that means.

Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes: Tate Publishing trade paperback, February 2012, 299 pages, cover design by Joel Uber. Isaac McBeth served in Iraq before going to law school at the University of Richmond. He is now a practicing lawyer, and I believe Alexander Wisbal is his first published fiction.

As it happens, the title character of Alexander Wisbal is also a law student. In the opening chapters, Alexander interrupts his law studies to attend the deathbed of his beloved grandfather, who used to tell him stories about a swashbuckling officer in the army of Alexander the Great. Soon after, Alexander is visited by a supernatural presence, who gives Alexander advice that sounds like it came from a fortune cookie.

The Battle: We elected to open the Battle of the Books to self-published and vanity published books, because in today's market not all the capable authors are working through major publishing houses. But it means some of the books we receive are not quite up to professional standards. As much I hate to be hard on Isaac McBeth, who is a fellow lawyer and deserves our thanks for serving our country overseas, Alexander Wisbal is in that category. If McBeth is going to keep writing fiction, he needs to start doing three things:

First, a lot more line editing. Most of the sentences in Alexander Wisbal are too wordy and could be stated better at half the length. "Whatever the case, he had arrived at the conclusion that the appearance of the oddly dressed old man with the glowing eyes was nothing more than an elaborate fiction of the mind that had no connection to the real world," needs to be edited down to something like, "He had decided the oddly dressed old man with the glowing eyes was only an elaborate fiction of the mind." (40 words to 20 words) The sentence, "He released a sigh of frustration as he pondered these matters in his own mind," should be just, "He sighed in frustration." (15 words to 4 words)

Second, a lot more editing paragraph by paragraph. If you want your fiction to be interesting, then skip to the interesting parts. That's why nobody goes to the bathroom in books, because it's no fun to read about. But when Alexander Wisbal goes to see his dying grandfather in the hospital, we get full paragraphs on how he chooses his parking space and then how he finds the room: "Hanging a left out of the elevator, Alexander saw a sign that indicated rooms 700-725 were to his right and 726-750 were to his left. He made the right and sped down the hallway." This stuff should be edited out.

Third, find the core of the story, the part that readers might care about, and zero in on that. Alexander Wisbal has too many pointless details, too many scenes that don't go anywhere, and too much Mary Sue wish fulfillment——e.g., a good-looking professor knocks on Alexander's door to tell him his exam paper was, wow, the best she's ever read and she's talked to his other professors and he's going to be #1 in his class! This is fun for the author to write, but of no interest to most readers.

There's a lot in the opening pages of Alexander Wisbal about how hard law school is, and I went to law school and can verify that it is hard. But it's a pleasant afternoon breeze compared to the soul-wrenching hurricane of writing fiction. If Isaac McBeth is going to keep at it, he needs to challenge himself much more.

Paolo Bacigalupi certainly challenges himself. I've talked to him about the process of writing, and I can tell you he agonizes over every sentence. The Drowned Cities is a case in point——he actually wrote an entire sequel to Ship Breaker only to decide he was unhappy with it, toss the whole thing, and start over. No fun for him, I'm sure, but the result is we get to read The Drowned Cities, which through 25 pages is KICKING ASS.

Tool's race through the swamp, culminating in a death-struggle with a mutant alligator, is edge-of-your-seat reading for adults and teen readers alike. It's as powerful an opening sequence as I've yet read for Battle of the Books. This book is impossible to put down after 25 pages.

THE WINNER: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Drowned Cities advances to the second round, to face James Swain's Dark Magic.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: Dark Magic by James Swain vs. Finding Poe by Leigh M. Lane

We continue the first round of the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Dark Magic by James Swain vs. Finding Poe by Leigh M. Lane. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will advance to the second round.

Dark Magic: Tor hardcover, May 2012, 352 pages, cover art by Kristin Duvall & Charles Roff. James Swain has written some fourteen mysteries and thrillers, including the Tony Valentine and Jack Carpenter series. He has also self-published non-fiction about his magic hobby, which features prominently in Dark Magic. As far as I can tell, Dark Magic is his first foray into fantastic literature.

Peter Warlock is a successful stage magician. One secret to his success is that he really does have psychic abilities. Peter is a member of a secret group of psychics who use their talents to foresee and prevent crimes. In the opening scene, Peter looks four days into the future and sees everyone in Times Square gasping and falling dead, while a strange dark figure watches with satisfaction. The evil man from his vision then appears at Peter's next performance, brandishing a knife, then vanishing. The police arrive, including an attractive woman officer who was on the scene when Peter's parents died, and Peter learns that they are already hunting for his mysterious man.

Finding Poe: Cerebral Books trade paperback, March 2012, 205 pages, uncredited cover art. Leigh M. Lane's self-published novels include The Hidden Valley, World-Mart, and Myths of Gods. She has also had a short story in the anthology Mirages, edited by Trent Zelazny.

Finding Poe is a gothic novel set on the East Coast in the 19th Century. According to the back of the book, it will involve the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, but through 25 pages he has yet to appear onstage. Our protagonist is Karina. In the first two pages, she is traveling to Baltimore, presumably to meet Poe. The rest of the opening 25 pages consists of a sustained flashback to when she first arrived in America. She and her husband Brantley came from England to become lighthouse-keepers, partly because Brantley had involved them in some scandal, partly because he had an odd fascination with this particular New England lighthouse.

At once, strange things began happening to Karina. She heard disturbing noises. She saw a head roll up in the surf, but Brantley didn't believe her. She rowed to shore and became lost; when she told a local couple that she lived in the lighthouse, the man responded by swinging an axe at her, with unpleasant results for his wife.

The Battle: The first round of the Battle of the Books is all about grabbing the reader's attention. Neither of these two books has grabbed me yet.

For Dark Magic, the trouble is that the writing isn't pulling me in, on a sentence-by-sentence level. Here, for example, is the protagonist coming home:
Peter climbed the steps to his brownstone. The downstairs lights were burning brightly. Liza had stayed up. A warm drink was waiting, and something good to eat. She was wonderful that way, and made him happy in ways that no one had ever managed to before.
Too many uses of "was/were" and not enough detail——"something good to eat"? Why not tell us what she made? More importantly, if Swain wants to give us a protagonist deeply in love, he needs to find a more interesting way to show that. To his credit, in the following scene, Swain doesn't just tell us Peter is a great magician; he describes Peter's act in sufficient detail to convince us. But so far his characters' internal lives are not receiving that same level of attention.

My problem with Finding Poe is Leigh M. Lane's persistent failure to convey key information driving the tale. For example, toward the end of the opening 25-page section, the first-person protagonist attributes her confusion in a conversation to "her incomplete grasp of English." But there has been no prior mention of this. (I actually thought she was from England, but looking back I see there was a brief mention of her German origin, which I had missed.) The woman has just moved to America, so her inability to communicate is going to be a major issue; moreover, she is our first-person narrator, so we must have some explanation of how, despite the language barrier, she managed to write this book.

On a broader level, while I generally like the gothic feel of the narrative, Lane has not done enough to give me a sense of where the story of Finding Poe is heading. Is this a haunted (light)house story? Or some other kind of ghost story? Or perhaps more of a fantasy, or a mystery, or what? The title suggests that Edgar Allan Poe is the main attraction, but I have no inkling after 25 pages of how he plays into the story. The only (apparent) mention of Poe was on the second page of the book, when the protagonist said she was delivering a sealed envelope to a strange man in Baltimore. A few more hints of what kind of a story we're reading, what's at stake, and how it involves Poe would have helped Lane pull me in more quickly.

In contrast, with Dark Magic, I have a good sense of where James Swain is taking me. We know from the opening scene that the main characters are part of a secret organization that uses magic and clairvoyance to do good works, and they have learned that some dark force is orchestrating an awful catastrophe in Manhattan. I know what's at stake. At the sentence level, Leigh M. Lane writes as well as James Swain, but after 25 pages, Swain is the one who has convinced me he has a story to tell.

THE WINNER: Dark Magic by James Swain

Dark Magic advances to the second round, to meet either The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi or Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson vs. Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson

The Fall 2012 Battle of the Books continues with Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson vs. Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson. As always, whichever book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will advance to the second round.

Further: Beyond the Threshold: 47North trade paperback, May 2012, 343 pages, cover art by Marcel Clemens & Algol. By my count, Chris Roberson has published a dozen original novels and eight tie-in books, as well as a number of short stories in top-notch markets like Asimov's and Subterranean. He is a two-time Sidewise Award winner, was twice nominated for the Campbell Award for best new writer, and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award as a writer, an editor, and founder of MonkeyBrain Books.

Roberson's original work so far has emphasized alternate histories and secret histories, but Further is all space opera. Captain Ramachandra Jason (RJ) Stone was the leader of the first expedition to another star system. But the automatic systems failed to wake him or his crew from suspended animation. 12,000 years later, post-humans find RJ. The first 25 pages end with an eagle-shaped A.I. taking him through a matter transmitter back to Earth. The back of the book tells us RJ will soon take part in a new interstellar mission.

Royal Street: Tor trade paperback, April 2012, 336 pages, cover art by Cliff Nielsen. Royal Street is Suzanne Johnson's first novel, with a sequel, River Road, that came out in November. It's urban fantasy set in New Orleans, at the time of Hurricane Katrina.

Our heroine is Drusilla Jaco (DJ), a young wizard still learning the ropes. The text describes her as blonde and teal-eyed, and cover artist Cliff Nielsen decided she's actually Nicole Kidman. In the opening chapter, DJ is sent on assignment to tangle with the ghost of notorious pirate Jean Lafitte, who greets her with a six-pack of fruit-flavored condoms. After that encounter, DJ tries to persuade her mentor Gerry that he can start giving her more such high-level assignments, once this little storm heading for New Orleans blows past.

The Battle: Further starts with perhaps the best opening line I've yet encountered in the Battle of the Books:
When I woke up, surrounded by talking dog-people, it was clear we'd strayed pretty far from the mission parameters.
Granted, it's not exactly a novel concept for an author to wake a modern man up far in the future so he can look around with us. But Chris Roberson tells the tale with a lot more flair than Philip Francis Nowlan ever did.

Turning to Royal Street, New Orleans during Katrina is a great setting for an urban fantasy, even if I'm not sure it fits Johnson's light-hearted tone. But too many of the lines that are meant to be clever strike me instead as tired: "A word rhyming with witch," "note to self," "gator bait," etc.

Chris Roberson and Suzanne Johnson are going for a similar fun tone, but through 25 pages RJ is getting better lines than DJ.

THE WINNER: Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson

Further advances to the second round, to meet Brian McGreevy's Hemlock Grove.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy vs. Cuttlefish by Dave Freer

We begin the first round of the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy vs. Cuttlefish by Dave Freer. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Hemlock Grove: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, April 2012, 318 pages, cover art by Matt Buck. Hemlock Grove is the first novel by new writer Brian McGreevy, but it has already been picked up for production as a television series, as part of Netflix's new line of original programming.

The book begins with discovery of the mutilated body of a young woman, possibly killed by an unidentified wild animal. In the eyes of local teenagers, this makes our 17-year-old protagonist Peter Rumancek a suspect, since he has admitted to being a werewolf. Through 25 pages, we're figuring he probably really is a werewolf, but perhaps he just said that because he likes to get a rise out of people. Peter is descended from gypsies; he has an offbeat way of looking at things and has trouble fitting in. But unlike many teenaged protagonists, this genuinely doesn't seem to bother him.

So far we've also met Peter's 13-year-old neighbor Christina, who is fascinated with Peter's rebellious attitudes (Christina is the one who outed Peter as a werewolf, when she noticed his index and middle fingers were the same length), and his classmate Roman, a BMOC thanks to his very wealthy family. Roman also has a hint of the supernatural, and at the end of the first 25 pages, he pulls a Jedi mind trick on some policemen who catch Peter and Roman poking around the scene of the girl's death.

Cuttlefish: Pyr hardcover, July 2012, 288 pages, cover art by Paul Young. South African Dave Freer (now relocated to Australia) broke into the field with the science fiction novel The Forlorn in 1999. He has since concentrated on fantasy, in multiple collaborations with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey, as well as his solo Dragon's Ring series. (Incidentally, we seriously need to get Baen Books to start submitting to the Battle of the Books. The cover of the 2012 entry in that series, Dog and Dragon, shows Lassie riding on the back of a dragon——how cool is that?)

Cuttlefish is a young adult steampunk novel, named for the illegal coal-powered submarine where much of the action occurs. In this alternate history, Britain has maintained its empire well into the Twentieth Century, and the polar ice caps melted ahead of schedule. Our two young protagonists are Tim Barnabas, a young black crew member who grew up in the tunnels under a partially submerged London, and Clara Calland, a spunky Irish girl who has taken refuge with her mother on the Cuttlefish.

Clara and her mother are being pursued by the British government and by Russian agents. Most of the initial 25-page section consists of flashbacks to when Clara and her mother first went into hiding. The scope of the efforts taken to find them suggest that the mother has made a very important discovery.

The Battle: When we started getting YA books for the Battle of the Books, we considered putting them in a separate YA bracket, but I couldn't justify doing that. As an adult, I've read YA books I've enjoyed as much as anything on the market (e.g., Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker); whereas when I actually was a young adult, I usually preferred adult books to what were then called "juveniles." So what would be the point in trying to apply different criteria to books marketed as YA?

This battle is a case in point. While I enjoyed some aspects of the first four chapters of Cuttlefish——I particularly liked the details about the coal-powered submarine——the book did not grab me as much as the opening of Hemlock Grove. I wondered briefly if I was being unfair, since Cuttlefish is aimed at young readers (the marketing materials say ages 12 and up) while I'm deep into fogeyhood. Then I realized that the 13-year-old version of myself also would have preferred Hemlock Grove, and by a wider margin.

Hemlock Grove is definitely not written for young readers——in an early chapter an unnamed person gets a hummer from a prostitute——but I think many young readers would appreciate it. The main characters are themselves teenagers, and the narrative has a wiseass teen's cynical point of view. Plus, I think young readers have sharp ears for dialogue, and the first chapters of Hemlock Grove feature much more engaging dialogue than Cuttlefish, for example this scene where Christina asks Peter about being a werewolf:
"Can I be a werewolf?" she said.

"In theory," said Peter, evasive.

He dangled his arm, snapping his fingers a few times, and Fetchit came and nuzzled the back of his hand.

"Little prick," said Peter.

"Will you bite me?" said Christina.

"Don't be retarded," said Peter.

"Come on." She lifted her leg so her calf was level with him. "Look how young and tender."

"Get that skinny, sorry drumstick out of my face."
Cuttlefish presents an interesting steampunk alternate history, but the strong dialogue and quirky characters of Hemlock Grove give it the edge in this battle.


Hemlock Grove advances to the second round, to meet either Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson or Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012 :: Wrap-up

clapping hands This concludes the Fantastic Reviews Summer 2012 Battle of the Books.  It took looker than expected to judge, but I hope you enjoyed it!

Congratulations to The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis, winner of our Summer Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books! Let's give a round of applause for all the participating books!

To see the whole bracket, click here.

All these books are now available. Listed below are all the books in the Summer 2012 bracket, sorted alphabetically by author. Click on the book title links to go that book's most recent book battle review.

Casting Shadows by J. Kelley Anderson (World Castle)
The Ultimate Game by Sean Austin (AAA Reality Games)
Pure by Julianna Baggott (Grand Central)
Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine (Pyr)
Destroyer of Worlds by Mark Chadbourn (Pyr)
Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper (Tor)
Silver by Rhiannon Held (Tor)
Taft 2012 by Jason Heller (Quirk)
The Games by Ted Kosmatka (Del Rey)
Faith by John Love (Night Shade)
Age of Aztec by James Lovegrove (Solaris)
The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen (Henry Holt)
Fair Coin by E.C. Myers (Pyr)
The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear &  five others (47North)
The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis (Tor)
My Vacation in Hell by Gene Twaronite (self-published)

Sixteen (16) new books were featured in this Battle of the Books bracket.  These books and authors may be new to you, but after reading my descriptions and battle reviews, I hope some of these books sparked your interest.

Book battles were decided on reading a sample of the book, many based on reading only 25 pages or 50 pages. So, given this format, if a book starts slow, it may have an uphill battle. And, of course, each judgment was entirely subjective, based on which book the reviewer (for this bracket me, Amy) would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for the delayed, but not forgotten, Fall 2012 Battle of the Books.  To see the already announced contenders in this new bracket, click here.  I, Amy, will continue formatting the book cover graphics and updating the bracket webpage.  Aaron will be taking back over as your reviewer for Battle of the Books.  Aaron says to look for the first result in the Fall Battle of the Books this Sunday, with new results going up every other day as long as he can keep it up.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012, Championship Round :: The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis vs. The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear & five others

We (finally!) present the championship of the Summer 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, which pits The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis against The Mongoliad: Book One by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, E.D. deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Bassey and Cooper Moo. For this final match-up, I've read through page 200 of both books, and our winner will be the book I, Amy, want to keep on reading most.

The Coldest War: Tor Books, July 2012, 251 pages, volume two of The Milkwood Triptych, cover art by Chris McGrath. The Coldest War is a fantasy alternate history book set in 1963 after a different WWII. The Coldest War got to the finals by edging out Fair Coin by E.C. Myers in the first round, prevailing over Faith by John Love in the second round, and winning the semi-final match-up with Taft 2012 by Jason Heller.

Gretel and Klaus, who have Nazi-developed special abilities powered by batteries, escaped a high security Russian research facility. Gretel is a seer and Klaus can "ghost" through walls. In London, Gretel offered their former associate, Reinhardt, pieces of a battery blueprint for his help in her future schemes.

William Beauclerk, younger brother of the Duke of Aelred, was broken by the terrible things he did for Britain during WWII. Gwedolyn, who became his wife, helped him heal. Now William heads a foundation to improve relations between the UK and the USSR. Gwendolyn disapproves of Will speaking with the Russian cultural attaché because she suspects he is KGB. When it’s later revealed what Will has done, Gwendolyn is devastated and Will gets unwanted attention from both British and Soviet intelligence.

Gretel and Klaus turn themselves in to the Secret Intelligence Service. Gretel won’t talk until they bring in Raybould Marsh, who hasn’t worked for MI6 on Milkweed for years. Marsh, who lately has gone through difficult times, is rehired. Gretel informs SIS that the Soviets are killing Britain’s warlocks. She provides evidence that secret information has been leaked. British Intelligence tries unsuccessfully to detect and disrupt Russian spy communications.

The Soviets have reverse engineered the Reichsbehörde technology, and have at least one battery powered, super assassin. Klaus, who is tired of his sister’s machinations, volunteers to help Marsh and SIS trap and combat the Russian agent. They unfortunately learn that the assassin has improved special powers. Several fashionable London houses, plus their street, will need major repairs.

The Mongoliad: Book One: 47 North trade paperback, 448 pages. The Mongoliad was originally released in a serialized format online. Of the gang of seven authors, Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear are well known science fiction writers, and Mark Teppo is the author of an urban fantasy series. The Mongoliad: Book One made it to the finals by overpowering Casting Shadows by J. Kelley Anderson in the first round, edging out The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen in the second round, and getting by Silver by Rhiannon Held in the semifinals.

The year is 1241, after the Mongol invaders have defeated combined European forces at the Battle of Legnica in Poland. Onghwe Khan issues a challenge for competitions between champions. Men of the Order of Shield-Brethren gather from many different lands near a ruined monastery. Cnán, a woman spy, brings a message from Illarion, an injured friend of theirs. Cnán guides the physician Raphael, Hunter Finn and young fighter Haakon on a rescue mission.

Illarion says that Onghwe Khan will not honor his word to spare Christendom if their champions can defeat the Mongols in the arena. Cnán mentions that all the Khans would depart for Mongolia upon the death of the Great Khan or Khagan. Feronantus decides to split the group. Some will remain to fight in the arena contests while Feronantus leads a group of twelve, including Cnán, east to Mongolia to assassinate the Khagan.

Later, Cnán discovers that one of their small group, Istvan, is taking vengeance on his private forays. Feronantus sends Percival, Eleázar and Raphael with Cnán to bring back Istvan. But Mongols are tracking Istvan as well. Near a river, and in the marshes, there are skirmishes. They find Istvan, but are outnumbered. The Mongols chase them.

Meanwhile in Mongolia, the Khagan, Ögedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan, is tired of dealing with bureaucrats. His brother sends a young warrior, Gansuhk, as an emissary to moderate Ögedei’s excessive drinking. The Chinese woman Lian is tasked with tutoring Gansuhk on how to behave at court. Gansuhk impresses Ögedei Khan with his bow hunting skills. Lian, who wants to learn how to fight, gets a archery lesson from Gansuhk. When an intruder is spotted at the palace, Gansuhk takes it upon himself to catch him.

Back in Poland, in the arena, the young fighter Haakon faces the Mongol champion Zug, whose gaudy armor makes him look like a demon. Haakon uses a greatsword, and Zug wields a polearm.

The Battle: We have two books containing historical aspects. The Mongoliad: Book One adds fiction to the known facts of the Mongol Invasion of Europe, while The Coldest War is a fantasy alternative history with Britain (not the USA) and the USSR fighting the Cold War.

The Coldest War started with three different story parts, those centered on Gretel and Klaus, William Beauclerk, and Marsh. Before I reached page 200, with the tension ratcheting up, they ended up together. Not that they like each other. In this quote, Pethick, as well as Marsh, are British intelligence.
     Pethick waited for the paneled door to latch shut with an audible click before addressing Marsh. "Just got an interesting message over the blower.  Our lamplighters down in Lyminster report that Ivan’s gone bughouse.  Started a few minutes ago.  The rats are abandoning ship."  He glanced at Klaus and Gretel, who still stood at the window.  "I think it worked."
     Will realized he hadn’t a clue what Pethick was talking about.  Nothing the man said made the least bit of sense.  And that only deepened the sense of terror, because Will was at the center of it all.  How had everything gone so utterly beyond his control?  He’d thought he finally put everything in his life right.  Yet now he didn’t know if he’d survive the week.  The carousel of life was spinning out of control, faster and faster, while Will’s sweaty fingers lost their grip an inch at a time.  Soon he’d be flung into the bushes, where lurked bears and demons.
The main characters in The Coldest War display intense yet believable emotions. They have depth, partly because this is book two of the series, and have scars from past events.

This book contains unsettling aspects. After page 100, I learned of the warlocks’ awful blood prices. And then there’s the creepy children in the basement.

The Mongoliad: Book One, upon reading 200 pages, left me with three separate unresolved situations. The party heading to Mongolia has a battle on their hands, Gansuhk is chasing a possible assassin, and Haakon is fighting a fearsome opponent in the arena. For fantasy epics, multiple points of view are the norm, but it made me realize which characters I cared about most.

This book has a horde of characters. Some seem to go in and out of the spotlight. Perhaps because the story is told frequently from Cnán’s point of view, about the group of adventurers, those parts worked best for me.
     Percival sidled away from the brambles, then halted, only dimly visible.  Cnán saw resolution in his posture.  "We shall rejoin Feronantus," he announced, as if this had always been obvious.
     "If we can find him, which I doubt," Eleázar said.  "We shall be leading the Mongols directly to the others."
     "Yes," Percival said,"and by the same token, we shall then have sufficient numbers to destroy them utterly."
     "It would be…polite, at the very least, to give Feronantus a bit of warning before leading a company of furious Mongols into his camp," Raphael pointed out.
     "I will ride ahead," Istvan began, spinning about on his roan, crashing through the brush – but faltered, as even he saw the fallacy.
     "Not in these woods," Eleázar said dryly.
     "Cnán shall go before us, swift and quiet, as always," Percival said, "and we shall trail behind, slowly and noisily.  Go now!"
     This was the moment at which she would have gladly abandoned them all to the fates they deserved had it not been for the startling detail of Percival staring straight and steady into her eyes as he gave her the order.  And so, grumbling, she led her pony between the trees.
In the parts featuring Lian and Gansuhk, I liked most of their banter. But I think Lian fell for Gansuhk unexplainably fast. The Khagan’s flashbacks were well done. And although I’m rooting for Haakon in the arena, and I know more about medieval weaponry than most women, martial combat and weapon technique admittedly isn’t a big wow for me.

The Mongoliad: Book One has good action, bloody confrontations, and nice touches of camaraderie and humor.

Both of these books are entertaining, but I want to finish The Coldest War more. I found it faster paced. For me, technology to walk through walls trumps medieval weaponry. Besides, The Coldest War left me hanging on the ending of the scene with the Russian assassin, arrgh!


Congratulations to Ian Tregillis, who becomes our third Battle of the Books winner, after James Renner and Elizabeth Bear. We will feature The Coldest War in a full review at Fantastic Reviews, and we will also try to arrange an interview with Tregillis.

Stay tuned for the now somewhat misnamed Fall Bracket of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, which Aaron will be judging.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times by Eleanor Arnason

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times" by Eleanor Arnason, from the July/August 2012 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This is one of Arnason's Hwarhath stories, an oustanding science fiction series with an anthropological approach, very much in the style of Ursula K. LeGuin's Hainish series.

"The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times" translates into English the Hwarhath legend of Ala, a woman repeatedly visited by the incarnation of Death, who each time manages to fool him into leaving without her. Of course, in a human version of this story, we would cheer for the clever hero who finds a way to outwit Death. But in the Hwarhath tale, Death comes across as not such a bad guy, while the lengths Ala goes to in order to stay alive seem rather questionable.

As always, Arnason writes in simple, understated prose that somehow manages to come together as both beautiful and wise. What makes "The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times" especially memorable is the ending. Amazingly, Arnason manages to write an elegant, thought-provoking conclusion in the form of a "translator's note," by a translator who is a bit defensive that the tale has not played out the way a huuman story would have.

Elearnor Arnason doesn't write a lot——in a career spanning 40 years she has published six novels and just over two dozen pieces of short fiction——but she always writes well. "The Woman Who Fooled Death Five Times" is a wonderful piece, meriting serious award consideration.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012 Bracket

battle books Announcing the Fall 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books!

This is our fourth bracket of the Battle of the Books. For more about why we decided to do a Battle of the Books, click here. For all the rules, click here.

Aaron reviewed and judged the Winter and Spring brackets of the Battle of the Books, won by Elizabeth Bear and James Renner, and Amy is down to the finals of the (increasingly misnamed) Summer bracket. Now Amy hands the baton back to Aaron to review and judge the slightly belated Fall 2012 edition.

We've received 16 more 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 bracket randomly.  Here are your matchups.

First Quarter of Bracket:

Brian McGreevy
Hemlock Grove
(Farrar Straus Giroux, Apr)
Dave Freer
(Pyr, July)

Chris Roberson
Further: Beyond the Threshold**
(47North, May)
Suzanne Johnson
Royal Street
(Tor, Apr)

Second Quarter of Bracket:

James Swain
Dark Magic
(Tor, May)
Leigh M. Lane
Finding Poe
(Cerebral, Mar)

Paolo Bacigalupi
The Drowned Cities**
(Little Brown, May)
Isaac A. McBeth
Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes
(Tate, Feb)

Third Quarter of Bracket:

David Searls
Bloodthirst in Babylon
(Samhain, May)
Mary Robinette Kowal
Glamour in Glass**
(Tor, Apr)

Erin Hoffman
Lance of Earth and Sky
(Pyr, Apr)
Ian C. Esslemont
Orb Sceptre Throne
(Tor, May)

Fourth Quarter of Bracket:

John Barnes
Losers in Space**
(Viking, Apr)
Hugh Matthews
Song of the Serpent
(Paizo, May)

Tim Westover
(QW, July)
Stephen Graham Jones
Zombie Bake-Off
(Lazy Fascist, Feb)

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Some notes on the field:
-- Several of the books are difficult to classify, but by my best count 3 are science fiction, 3 contemporary fantasy, 3 high fantasy, 4 historical fantasy, and 3 horror.
-- The field is comprised of twelve men and four women; no collaborations this time.
-- The contestants include 4 books from Tor, 2 from Pyr, and 1 each from 4 major publishers (47North, Farrar Straus Giroux, Little Brown, and Viking), 3 small publishers (Lazy Fascist, Paizo, and Samhain), and 3 independent or vanity publishers (Cerebral, QW, Tate). No indie book has won a round in the first three Battles; we'll see if one can break through this time.
-- 2 of the books are direct sequels, 3 are new stories set in existing fictional universes, and 11 are original (although several are clearly intended to be the first in a new series).

Best of luck to all the competitors!

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Battle of the Books Status Report

battle books2012 was the inaugural year of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books.

The good news: Everyone seems to enjoy the new format. We're having fun with it, the authors seem to like it, and traffic at the blog is way up.

The bad news: We've gotten behind.

At the start of the year, we planned on doing the Battle on a quarterly basis. We didn't quite keep up with that pace; we're still one post away from finishing the third 2012 Battle of the Books bracket. And it turns out we seriously underestimated the response we'd get from authors, publishers, and publicists. So we now have a large backlog. To tackle that backlog, we need to pick up the pace dramatically.

To that end, we'll announce the Fall 2012 Bracket tomorrow. Amy will post the championship of the Summer 2012 next week. And from that point, we will do a Battle of the Books post every other day until we catch up or we drop, whichever comes first.

So if you enjoy the Battle of the Books, check back here often, because we are going to be moving through brackets at a furious pace in the next few months!