Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald vs. Besieged by Rowena Cory Daniells

The final battle of the first round of Bracket Six of the Battle of the Books features Be My Enemy (Book Two of the Everness Series) by Ian McDonald versus Besieged (Book One of The Outcast Chronicles) by Rowena Cory Daniells. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Be My Enemy: Pyr hardcover, September 2012, 263 pages, cover art by John Picacio. Be My Enemy is the second volume in Ian McDonald's Everness young adult series, after Planesrunner, although so far it does not require familiarity with the previous book. Ian McDonald is one of the preeminent authors in the field of science fiction today. He has won or been nominated for nearly every award in the field, including winning a Hugo Award for his novelette "The Djinn's Wife," and being nominated for the Best Novel Hugo for River of Gods, Brasyl, and The Dervish House.

The two stars of Be My Enemy are teenager Everett Singh and teenager Everett Singh. The setting is multiple present-day Earths, after discovery of travel between alternate universes. One Everett Singh is aboard the airship Everness, which escaped a battle (presumably at the end of Planesrunner) into a barren, frozen Earth. Using his father's revolutionary discoveries about the multiverse, Everett is working on how to get the Everness out, while worrying about which universe his father has fallen into. Meanwhile, we meet a different Everett in a universe where humans have encountered a strange alien intelligence occupying the dark side of the moon. This Everett's father died in a traffic accident before reaching his breakthrough. Everett is given a mission to go into an alternate universe to find his alternate father's discoveries.

Besieged: Solaris paperback, July 2012, 670 pages, cover art by Clint Langley. Australian Rowena Cory Daniells has written three epic high fantasy trilogies, the T'En Trilogy (beginning with Broken Vows, under the name Cory Daniells), The Chronicles of King Rolen's Kin (beginning with The King's Bastard), and now The Outcast Chonicles, which begin with Besieged. She also writes paranormal mysteries under the name R.C. Daniells.

Besieged opens with the birth of the king's son, which the king is horrified to discover has six fingers on each hand, marking the child as a half-blood. It seems "True-men" humans fear and despise the magical, elf-like T'En, and so shun half-blood children with "wyrd" traits in common with the T'En. The king is inclined to kill the baby, but our protagonist High Priest Oskane persuades the king to allow him to take the child into exile. The first 25 pages end with a glimpse of a group of T'En warriors, one of whom is in childbirth herself.

The Battle: Through 25 pages, both of these books are written at a very high level, so I will have to try to nit-pick some possible justification to drop either one out of the Battle of the Books.

For Be My Enemy, I got nothin'——the opening pages of this novel are pretty near flawless. In the opening chapter, Everett Singh is hit by a car while running to catch a bus after playing in a soccer game. He wakes in a strange white room. After a few minutes, he realizes where he must be:
The cold rushed into him. The strength drained out of him. His knees buckled. He put out his hands to steady himself against the glass. And his arms and hands opened. Rectangular patches on the backs of his hands lifted up on plastic struts. Long hatches opened on his upper and lower forearms. The back of each first finger joint flipped up. There were things inside. There were things inside . . . moving. Things not his flesh. Things not quite living but not quite machine. Things unfolding and extending and changing shape. He saw dark empty spaces inside him full of aliens, pincers and grippers and manipulators and scanners reaching out of his body.

He screamed.
A little old woman appears and says, "Greetings, Everett M. Singh. It is the eighth day of Christmas and you are on the dark side of the Moon."

That is a bang-up opening chapter. Then we get a strong passage about the other Everett Singh, the one familiar from Planesrunner, who is working hard to get his shipmates out of a frozen alternate Earth. This passage reads smoothly by itself, but also has nice resonances with the first chapter, for example this Everett remembering the good old days when he used to have time to play soccer.

Chapter Three takes us back to the first Everett, who is instructed by government officials to work with "Madam Moon," the aliens' interface for interacting with humans, to find his alternate father's discovery about the multiverse. The officials are quite trusting of these aliens, but since the aliens have dedicated themselves to spreading through the galaxy, skeptical readers must be suspicious of their motives for wanting to better understand the multiverse.

There is a lot going on here, and a lot of reasons to want to keep reading.

The opening of Besieged is also strong, with a memorable initial scene, when King Charald realizes his son is tainted——he literally throws the child across the room. By his contrast with the king's other scheming advisors, High Priest Oskane instantly becomes a likeable character. The prejudices at work here make me interested in what will become of the child.

But forced to try to find something to complain about, I must say the writing in Besieged strikes me as a bit heavy-handed. Several small details did not ring true to me, for example this description: "He paced, his boots sinking into the sandy soil, crushing fallen pine needles; their tangy scent filled the clearing, mingling with the fresh smell of the sea." I have stepped on pine needles a great many times and never had the air suddenly fill with a new tangy scent.

More importantly, I had the same reaction as to important plot points. For instance, the king blames his young bride that their child is a half-blood. Oskane's rival Nitzel determines to take advantage of this by replacing the young queen with his own daughter. Since she is already married, he will have to kill his own son-in-law first. I can believe that he would do that, but it strikes me as entirely out of character for the brash, self-important king to accept his advisor's daughter as a bride, when she is already married and has born another man's children. But the author compels the king to do it, anxious to show how evil Nitzel is.

A few such moments of Daniells pulling her characters' strings a bit too obviously are a small quibble, but enough to decide this Battle of the Books, since I found the opening of Be My Enemy so impressive.

THE WINNER: Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald

Be My Enemy moves to the second round, where it will face No Peace for the Damned by Megan Powell. Incidentally, this completes a strong first-round showing by Pyr's YA hardcover series, which has gone 3-0 so far in Bracket #6.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: The 13th Zookeeper by Bernd Struben vs. No Peace for the Damned by Megan Powell

The penultimate match-up of the first round of Bracket Six of the Battle of the Books has The 13th Zookeeper by Bernd Struben taking on No Peace for the Damned by Megan Powell. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The 13th Zookeeper: Strider Nolan trade paperback, February 2012, 303 pages, cover art by Azim Akberali. Bernd Struben was born in Holland but raised in the United States. The 13th Zookeeper is Struben's second novel after 40 Years (2008). He has also co-edited the anthologies Visions Vol. 1 and Visions Vol. 2, to which he contributed stories.

In The 13th Zookeeper, the planet of Zooearth has been terraformed to resemble prehistoric Earth and populated with Earth fauna, including primitive humans. Twelve zookeepers and a host of automated systems keep watch over the planet. Auren Bilder is a rich slacker, appointed as a zookeeper at his family's behest to save them the embarrassment of his presence in galactic high society. In the opening chapters, Bilder tracks down a poacher on Zooearth, while elsewhere in the galaxy a group of scoundrels discusses the possibilty of stealing valuable resources from Zooearth.

No Peace for the Damned: 47North trade paperback, July 2012, 252 pages, uncredited cover art. No Peace for the Damned is the debut novel of Megan Powell, who previously placed several stories in semipro publications (mostly from 2000-2003) and edited the anthology The Witching Hour (which published one of Nnedi Okorafor's earliest stories). No Peace for the Damned is the first in the Magnolia Kelch urban fantasy series. The sequel, No Love for the Wicked, is due out in August 2013.

The heroine of No Peace for the Damned is Magnolia Kelch, a young woman with extraordinary talents, including the ability to read minds and to regenerate herself even after gruesome injuries. As the book opens, she escapes from her evil and cruel family and volunteers to help the Network, a secret organization combating evil powers in the world, chief among them her family. Not surprisingly, several members of the Network distrust her motives.

The Battle: The Battle of the Books format causes me to sample many books I otherwise would not have opened. Here are two books I would not have read on my own, but I'm glad I gave them a try, for both start stronger than I had any reason to expect.

The 13th Zookeeper is an independent book with a frankly uninspiring premise: the protagonist has to defend a planet-sized zoo against an invasion of thieves. But for all that, the writing is solid through the opening 25 pages. I particularly liked the description of the band of ruffians we suspect will soon set off to Zooearth to do some crimes.

Unfortunately, my appreciation for The 13th Zookeeper is diminished by what I consider serious missteps in how the opening chapters are presented. First, our protagonist Auren Bilder discovers a poacher on Zooearth. Instead of capturing him to serve what, we are told, would be a two-year prison sentence, Auren instead uses the fellow's own poaching weapons against him, murdering the guy brutally and in cold blood. Struben has given readers no reason to believe Auren——who describes himself as lazy and certainly does not come across as an antihero——would do such a vicious thing, and absolutely no reason for us to approve.

Then we have a chapter following Captain Zacharia Thames and his band of ruffians. For most of this chapter the group seemed to be presented as lovable rogues. But then they discuss the possibility of abducting human beings from Zooearth for slave trafficking. So that's contemptible, and at the end of 25 pages I have no characters I can root for, and so not much desire to keep reading.

In contrast, No Peace for the Damned also gives us some very evil antagonists, but it's clear from the outset that they are evil; meanwhile, Magnolia Kelch is a most likeable protagonist. There is a harrowing flashback to some of the horrible treatment she received from her own family, which simultaneously cements our dislike of them and our sympathies for her.

That's not to say all the characters break into simple good-guy/bad-guy categories. Rather, some of the members of the Network are so suspicious of Magnolia that, from her perspective, they can be seen as adversaries. Yet their suspicions are understandable, in light of their own experiences with Magnolia's family. Those suspicions are also a barrier between Magnolia and a potential love interest.

So we have likeable people facing deadly antagonists, even as the good guys are in conflict with each other, through no fault of their own——that's a story I'd like to read more of.

THE WINNER: No Peace for the Damned by Megan Powell

No Peace for the Damned advances to the second round, to take on either Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald or Besieged by Rowena Cory Daniells.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey vs. Blood of the City by Robin D. Laws

We continue the first round of Bracket Six of the Battle of the Books with Caliban's War by James S. A. Corey going up against Blood of the City (Pathfinder Tales series) by Robin D. Laws. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Caliban's War: Orbit trade paperback, July 2012, 595 pages, cover art by Daniel Dociu. Caliban's War is the second volume of James S.A. Corey's series The Expanse, following the Hugo-nominated Leviathan Wakes. James S.A. Corey is the collaborative pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. On his own, Daniel Abraham is best known for his fantasy works, including The Long Price Quartet (beginning with A Shadow in Summer) and The Dagger and the Coin series (beginning with The Dragon's Path). He also writes urban fantasy under the name M.L.N. Hanover. Abraham has won the International Horror Guild Award and has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. Ty Franck's only publication before the Expanse series was a short story in Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show.

Caliban's War begins on Ganymede, where strange forces are at work. Creepy people abduct a young girl whose mother disappeared on Ceres Station——which, readers of the first book in the series recall, was recently attacked by an alien weapon/intelligence/ whathefukwazzit. Then a bizarre creature assaults Earth and Mars troops stationed on Ganymede, potentially ending the tense cease-fire between the two superpowers. We check in with Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante, heroes of Levaiathan Wakes, who are told to return to base because "something's happening on Ganymede."

Blood of the City: Paizo paperback, September 2012, 346 pages, cover art by Adam Danger Cook. Blood of the City is a tie-in to the Pathfinder role-playing game. It's the fourth Pathfinder book we've received for the Battle of the Books, and the previous three have made a strong showing, going 2-1 in their opening round matches, with Nightglass by Liane Merciel advancing to the Final Four of Bracket #5. Robin Laws is a successful game designer, who has written multiple RPG tie-in books, including a previous Pathfinder volume, The Worldwound Gambit.

The heroine of Blood of the City is Luma, a young half-elf "cobblestone druid," who can sense things by listening to the "citysong" of her native town of Magnimar. She is part of a band of mercenaries fighting for her wealthy family. As the book opens, they rescue a young nobleman from kidnappers, then clash with a group of "Hellknights," the official peacekeepers in the city.

The Battle: While I have been very impressed with the quality of the Pathfinder books we have seen so far for the Battle of the Books, Blood of the City faces a daunting challenge in this Battle, for Daniel Abraham is one of my favorite authors working today, and I thought Leviathan Wakes was most deserving of its Hugo Award nomination.

Blood of the City takes its best shot by opening with a good action scene. But here is a thing I'm learning doing the Battle of the Books: while a slow opening without much happening can lose readers quickly, so can a fast opening with a lot happening, when the author hasn't given readers any reason to care about it all. As the book begins, Luma and her companions are fighting for their lives, but I don't really know who Luma and her companions are. They are trying to rescue someone, but I don't know who it is (still don't at the end of 25 pages). So the action doesn't have much impact for me.

Caliban's War also opens with action, but does a more effective job of giving me a sense of the people to whom the action is happening and what might be at stake. It helps that I've read the previous book in the series, but even if I hadn't, a passage like this shipboard dialogue would quickly have me caring about the characters involved:
He pulled out his hand terminal and called Naomi.

After several moments, she finally answered, "Uh, hello?"

"The galley doesn't work, where's Amos?"

A pause. "You called me from the galley? While we are on the same ship? The wall panel just one step too far away?"

"The wall panel in the galley doesn't work either. When I said, 'The galley doesn't work,' it wasn't clever hyperbole. It literally means that not one thing in the galley works. . . . Do you have power up there? Are we hurtling out of control and you guys were trying to figure out how to break the news to me?"

Holden could hear tapping from Naomi's end. She hummed to herself as she worked.

"Nope," she said. "Only area without power seems to be the galley. Also, Alex says we're less than an hour from fighting with space pirates. Want to come up to ops and fight pirates?"

"I can't fight pirates without coffee. I'm going to find Amos."
Abraham & Franck make this look easy, but they always leave you wanting to read more.

THE WINNER: Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

Caliban's War moves into the second round, where it will face London Eye by Tim Lebbon.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: London Eye by Tim Lebbon vs. WorldSoul by Liz Williams

Here at the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, we've had a tenday's delay, as I focused on completing a story of my own instead of reading work by accomplished writers. (I'll let you know when the story appears in Asimov's——of course, Sheila Williams will have to buy it first, but gosh, how could she not?)

With that disruption behind us, we enter the bottom half of Bracket Six of the Battle of the Books with London Eye (Toxic City Book One) by Tim Lebbon versus WorldSoul by Liz Williams. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

London Eye: Pyr hardcover, October 2012, 228 pages, cover art by Steve Stone. London Eye is the first volume of Lebbon's Toxic City young adult series. Tim Lebbon is a successful author of horror and fantasy, with some three dozen books to his name (about two dozen novels, a half-dozen collections, and a half-dozen tie-in books). Lebbon has won the Bram Stoker Award and is a four-time British Fantasy Award winner, including for his novel Dusk. He has also been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, among many other honors.

London Eye takes place in England, two years after the release of a devastating biological agent in London, beginning at the London Eye Ferris wheel. The government has declared it a terrorist attack and quarantined the city, but our young characters——particularly Jack and Lucy-Anne, who are boyfriend and girlfriend but starting to drift apart——believe there is more to it, that there are survivors in London who have developed remarkable, strange abilities. By the end of 25 pages, they meet one of those survivors, and Jack learns that his mother, believed lost in the attack, may still be alive in London.

WorldSoul: Prime trade paperback, June 2012, 311 pages, cover art by Oliver Wetter. WorldSoul is a fantasy novel in which the magic involves lots of books. (Another example of this will be in an upcoming bracket of the Battle of the Books, Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines. So we have a new subgenre, which I hereby christen "bookpunk.") By my count, Liz Williams has published fourteen novels and two collections of short fiction. Her work includes multiple varieties of science fiction and fantasy, including the five-volume Inspector Chen series of fantasy/mysteries, beginning with Snake Agent. She has been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the British SF Award, and others.

The protagonist of WorldSoul is Mercy Fane, a librarian in a strange vast library. The library apparently includes volumes from across space and time; for instance, the prologue shows us that most of the Alexandria Library was not really lost in the fire. In the opening chapters, Mercy selects a weapon and heads into Section C of the library, where something is amiss. Meanwhile, a pair of other magical characters plan incursions into the library.

The Battle: This is a first-round battle between two top-flight British authors.

London Eye is setting up a series about people with superpowers, a subgenre that doesn't much appeal to me. But Lebbon does such a solid job with the opening sequence that he has interested me in the book despite myself.

His teenaged characters are likeable and resourceful but believable. Lebbon establishes the uncertain relationship between Jack and Lucy-Anne nicely. And with an impeccable sense of timing, Lebbon ends his first 25 pages with Jack learning that his mother may yet be alive, setting the stage for our young characters to make an incursion into the derelict city of London, which I would like to see.

Conversely, as a book lover and collector, I was very interested by the book-centric premise of WorldSoul, but the first 25 pages didn't pull me in as much as I hoped.

The problem for me is that Williams is too cryptic through her opening about what's going on here. I know there is a vast library. I know some of the characters can do some sort of magic. That's about all I know after 25 pages. I have no idea so far as to the significance of this library or what's at stake in the story. I've read enough by Liz Williams to be confident the tale will gain more interest as it goes along, but the Battle of the Books tends to punish books that start a bit slowly.

THE WINNER: London Eye by Tim Lebbon

London Eye advances to the second round, to take on either Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey or Blood of the City by Robin D. Laws.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: Technomancer by B.V. Larson vs. Pazuzu's Girl by Rachel Coles

The first round of Bracket Six of the Battle of the Books continues with Technomancer by B.V. Larson going against Pazuzu's Girl by Rachel Coles. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Technomancer: 47North trade paperback, July 2012, 366 pages, uncredited cover art. Technomancer is the first book in a new urban fantasy series starring Quentin Draith. B.V. Larson is a new writer who has managed to release a dozen books in the past three years, mostly self-published——I believe Technomancer and its sequel The Bone Triangle are Larson's only titles so far that are not self-published, part of Amazon's strategy of picking up some of the most successful independent authors for its 47North imprint.

Technomancer begins with Quentin Draith waking in a sanatorium with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He quickly decides that he is a prisoner, that the staff has kept him heavily sedated so as to hold him against his will. The evidence for this is rather flimsy, since he really has suffered severe injuries, but he's confident enough in his conclusion that he promptly beats the crap out of an orderly and holds a nurse at gunpoint to get out. He confronts the person in charge, Dr. Meng, who proves to have magical powers. She teleports him out of the sanatorium, telling him to continue his investigations.

Pazuzu's Girl: JournalStone trade paperback, February 2012, 266 pages, cover art by Philip Renne. Pazuzu's Girl is the self-published first novel of Rachel Coles, who previously published a short story in the anthology What Fears Become, as well as two indie collections of her other short fiction.

Pazuzu's Girl brings the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu into the present day. The heroine of the story is his daughter Morpho Wilson. Morpho is having a little trouble fitting into high school life. We get an example why when she meets a boy she likes, who is promptly scared witless by a visit from Pazuzu in the form of a plague of locusts. Other problems to emerge in the first 25 pages include a warning from the homeowners' association that said plague of locusts is a covenant violation, and hints that Pazuzu's former demon lover, who killed Morpho's mother when Morpho was an infant, may soon be coming after Morpho as well. Pazuzu fears that he may not be able to protect his daughter.

The Battle: We have two urban fantasies going head-to-head, rendering my mild prejudice against the sub-genre irrelevant.

Technomancer begins with the protagonist waking up with severe amnesia. This is a bit cliché, so Larson needs to give me a reason pretty quickly to stick with the story. Instead he has the protagonist immediately start bashing heads, when it has not been clearly established this was necessary. Indeed, it seems it was not necessary, since it soon turns out Dr. Meng was perfectly happy to release him. We get a glimpse of magic, as Dr. Meng gives Draith the vague instruction to continue his investigations. Unfortunately, this does not give me any reason to continue my reading, since I have no clue what these investigations entail or what may be at stake. No doubt Larson intends to reveal that eventually, but such gradual disclosure of what the book is about tends not to go over well in the Battle of the Books format.

Pazuzu's Girl also eases us into the story gradually, but with some important distinctions. First, Coles has let us know in broad terms what's at stake: Morpho's life is in danger from another demon, perhaps too powerful for Pazuzu to stop. Second, there is some effective humor, such as Pazuzu's warning from the HOA to get all those locusts off his property. Third, and most importantly, Coles does a nice job of interesting us in her characters. Here, for example, Morpho introduces herself to her potential love interest JD while serving detention:
"Morpho. That's a cool name. Like the butterfly. Did your parents name you that or did you change it?"

Morpho sat up straight. He knows what my name means, she thought. No one ever knows what my name means. "My parents. My mother. She was——" Suddenly wistful, she cleared her throat to get control again. But it drew Mr. Johnson's attention.

"JD, Morpho, stop talking and write, or you get another detention added onto the list."

They put their heads down for a few minutes. Then JD's hand slid over to the middle of the aisle with an inked word on his palm. Was?

Morpho nodded. JD nodded back. I'm sorry, he wrote. She smiled and scribbled aimlessly on her page. "Me too," she whispered.
I accused B.V. Larson of cliché, and this dialogue——"My mother's dead." "Oh, sorry."——could also come across as cliché, except Coles turns it into a charming moment by having JD write the words "I'm sorry" on his hand. Little touches like that can be the key to making me want to read further.

THE WINNER: Pazuzu's Girl by Rachel Coles

Pazuzu's Girl advances to the second round, to face After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: The Skybound Sea by Sam Sykes vs After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress

In the third battle of the first round of Bracket Six of the Battle of the Books we have The Skybound Sea (The Aeons' Gate, Book 3) by Sam Sykes versus After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Skybound Sea: Pyr trade paperback, September 2012, 494 pages, cover art by Paul Young. The Skybound Sea is the final volume of the Aeons' Gate trilogy of high fantasy, following Tome of the Undergates (I always read that title as Tomb of the Undergraduates, which sounds like a slasher film set in a sorority house, but alas, it ain't) and Black Halo. I've never met Sam Sykes and I can find no evidence that he existed before 2009, when he published his first piece of short fiction, cowritten with Diana Gabaldon; still, I've decided I like him, because he took the time to explain to the world once and for all that cats cannot solve mysteries. Incidentally, The Skybound Sea wins the damning-with-faint-praise award for the most understated cover blurb ever published, courtesy of John Scalzi: "I do not wish Sam Sykes dead."

As the third in a trilogy, The Skybound Sea starts with the action already in full swing. The book begins with a short summary of the story so far, followed by a scene in which a troubled fellow named Hanth scrambles to prevent a dangerous god called Daga-Mer from being released into the world. Then we check in with Lenk, a warrior I suspect is the main protagonist, who dreams of betraying and being betrayed. Next a man named Dreadaeleon, who is suffering from an unnatural degenerative condition called "the Decay," participates in an autopsy of a "netherling," carried out by companions who dislike and distrust one another.

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall: Tachyon trade paperback, April 2012, 183 pages, cover design by Elizabeth Story. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is a current nominee for the Hugo Award foe Best Novella (although if it's under 40,000 words, it can't be by much). Kress has already won two Hugo Awards, four Nebulas, and a host of other honors.

As the title suggests, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall follows three parallel timelines. In 2013, mathematician Julie Kahn is helping Agent Gordon of the FBI——with whom she has obvious sexual tension——to analyze the pattern behind a string of bizarre child abductions. In 2014, new strains of bacteria are forming. In 2035, the last few surviving humans cling to life with a time machine, which they use to obtain supplies and reinforcements from the past. They believe the world was destroyed by aliens they call the Tesslies, and that these aliens later provided the time machine for their own ineffable reasons. But none of the survivors has seen one of these creatures, so we don't know if that's right.

The Battle: The Skybound Sea has a brash, bold style——if it's ever filmed, the FX and make-up people will have a ball with the monsters while the score will be very heavy on bass drums. It takes a certain flair to pull this off, and Sykes demonstrates that, right from the book's opening lines:
No matter what god he believes in, a man is not entitled to much in life.

The Gods gave him breath. Then they gave him needs. Then they stopped giving.
I like that line, and the whole prologue, in which Lenk bitterly contemplates vengeance against everyone who has betrayed him. But after a few pages, Sykes' melodramatic style, filling the narrative with "viscous gossamer ooze" and "flaming urine," gets to be a bit much to my tastes. The idea of 470 more pages feels as much daunting as appealing.

Meanwhile, Kress masterfully eases us into the narrative of After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall. We start with an action sequence, one of the child abductions, from the point of view of the desperate abductor. There is an implicit moral issue about what the future remnants of humanity are doing, but Kress doesn't press the issue yet, giving the reader time to digest what's happening. Kress effectively interweaves the different timelines, building interest simultaneously in all three threads, while at the same time suggesting a lesson in how our future is at the mercy of the past and present. The characterization in the opening passage is also strong; I particularly like Pete, the doomed young man of the future, and I very much would like to read more about him. And that desire to keep reading is what the Battle of the Books is all about.

THE WINNER: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall moves into the second round, to take on either Technomancer by B.V. Larson or Pazuzu's Girl by Rachel Coles.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

"The Coldest Room in the House" by Lon Prater :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My story recommendation of the week is for "The Coldest Room in the House" by Lon Prater, from the Second Quarter 2013 issue of Abyss & Apex. (Abyss & Apex published my story "Random Fire" so, y'know, they're awesome.)

"The Coldest Room in the House" begins in familiar but very well-executed territory:
She'd tried to leave him in a blizzard once, hoping the wind and snow would fill in her footsteps the same way her own creeping indifference had filled in the holes that years of frustration had gnawed into her heart. It was so much like a hollow winter day, this business of being married to a driven man.
Our protagonist Bernice——Bernie to her friends, except her husband calls her Bernsy, even though he knows she hates it because it sounds like a cow——has suffered through an unhappy marriage and feelings of inadequacy because she couldn't have children. Now her husband is dead (heart attack while masturbating to internet porn), but still she hears his voice calling to her from the bedroom, the coldest room in the house.

This first part of the tale is a standard ghost story, but worth reading for the superb writing. But then the story takes an unexpected turn, as Prater uses his haunting to show that resentment of one's partner can turn into a kind of addiction. The story plays out effectively, and serves as a wonderful metaphor for how a couple can both become trapped in an unhealthy, codependent relationship.

Lon Prater is a fellow winner of the Writers of the Future Contest (for "Deadglass" in Volume 21), and his short fiction has appeared in such publications as Borderlands 5, Apex, Daily SF, IGMS, and many others. He has self-published some of his longer work, most recently That Time We Saved the Planet.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: The Snow by Ross S. Simon vs. Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card & Aaron Johnston

The second match-up in the first round of Bracket Six of Battle of the Books features The Snow by Ross S. Simon against Earth Unaware (The First Formic War) by Orson Scott Card & Aaron Johnston. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Snow: Damnation Books trade paperback, March 2012, 145 pages, cover art by Dawné Dominique. The Snow is the debut novel of Ross S. Simon, who sometimes masquerades under the name Sam Ridings. The Snow opens on Leif Erickson's Viking longship, in the middle of a fatal meeting with the Norse trickster god Loki. We skip ahead to 1942 aboard a German U-boat, where a Nazi warrant officer has a strange encounter, presumably with the same deity. Next in Loki's path is a modern-day New York stockbroker. Across town, our protagonist Donald Holly is attacked by a possessed bum, prompting him to decide to move back to Minnesota. But it does not appear Loki is through with him.

Earth Unaware: Tor hardcover, July 2012, 364 pages, cover art by John Harris. Earth Unaware is the opening volume in the First Formic War series, a prequel to Card's classic novel Ender's Game. Orson Scott Card is a four-time Hugo Award winner along with a great many other honors, and clearly one of the preeminent science fiction writers living today (although many who dislike his politics pretend otherwise). Aaron Johnston is a former improv comedian who coauthored the novel Invasive Procedures with Card and has adopted many of Card's books to screenplays and graphic novels.

The opening of Earth Unaware takes us to the Kuiper Belt, beyond the orbit of Pluto, where clans of humans mine comets for valuable metals. Our teenaged protagonist Victor Delgado learns that his best friend Alejandra is being sent off to live with another clan, because the elders feared the two of them were falling in love, and love affairs within the clan are taboo. Victor deals with his pain by working hard on an invention that will ease his clan's mining operations. The first 25 pages end with Alejandra's sister confiding in Victor that she has detected an object approaching the solar system. The object is decelerating, suggesting it just might be an alien spacecraft.

The Battle: The opening pages of The Snow feature some gruesome imagery and high-voltage action, albeit a little over the top for my tastes. (The scene of a bloodbath is described as "the dead flesh, the severed heads, mangled arms, legs and penises"; a Nazi soldier fires his gun while screaming, "Eat motherfucking blazing lead!") But the first 25 pages do not give us much reason to feel connected to the protagonist Donald Holly.

And that is where Orson Scott Card always excels. He immediately gets you interested in and sympathetic toward his main characters. Here, right from the opening page, Card and Johnston convey Victor's heartbreak at losing his best friend, all because the clan elders believed he was falling in love with her, which he promptly realizes he was. The authors succeed at making Victor an engaging character right from the outset, even if I find Victor's reactions rather too coldly rational for a teenager. (Throughout the Ender series, Card's young characters do not behave like ordinary children, but that is because they are all super-geniuses; the same has not been established as to Victor.)

Having opened with an emotional punch, Card and Johnston quickly turn to showing us some of the nuts and bolts of mining operations on the edge of the solar system. Then they finish the opening chapter (which is exactly 25 pages——obviously Card & Johnston have written this novel with the Battle of the Books in mind) with the suggestion that humanity may be on the brink of its first contact with an alien species, contact that Ender readers know will not go smoothly. It is an exhilarating opening sequence.

THE WINNER: Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston

Earth Unaware advances to the second round, to face False Covenant by Ari Marmell.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: False Covenant by Ari Marmell vs. Vampire Empire: The Kingmakers by Clay & Susan Griffith

We begin the first round of Bracket Six of the Battle of the Books with False Covenant (A Widdershins Adventure) by Ari Marmell vs. The Kingmakers (Vampire Empire: Book Three) by Clay & Susan Griffith. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

False Covenant: Pyr hardcover, July 2012, 280 pages, cover art by Jason Chan. False Covenant is the second book in the Widdershins YA series. The first book, Thief's Covenant, competed in the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books, defeating Mark Hodder before falling to Stina Leicht. Marmell has written three other original fantasy novels as well as various tie-in works.

Widdershins, the heroine of False Covenant, is a skillful young thief in the medieval city of Davillon, with the minor god Olgun her constant companion. The book opens with Widdershins, in her alter ego as the young lady Madeleine Valois, attending a high society party hosted by Clarence Rittier, the Marquis de Ducarte. Widdershins is casing the place for a late-night robbery. But when she returns that night, she finds another band of thieves with the same plan, and the City Guard lying in wait. The opening pages also give us a glimpse of a high-ranking clergyman, Bishop Sicard, engaged in some surreptitious dealings.

Vampire Empire: The Kingmakers: Pyr trade paperback, September 2012, 391 pages, cover art by Chris McGrath. The Kingmakers is the third volume in the Vampire Empire series, which places vampires in a steampunk/alternate history universe with elements of romance. The Griffiths are a husband-and-wife writing team, who started out doing tie-in work, before launching the Vampire Empire series.

The Kingmakers opens with trench warfare pitting the Equatorians, fiercely loyal to Empress Adele, against a vast horde of vicious vampires. In this universe vampires are powerful and have the ability to fly, but they can be killed by ordinary means, without need for a stake to the heart. Sirdar General Anhalt leads an Equatorian army, aided by the famous warrior Greyfriar (himself a vampire), bogged down outside Grenoble, France. The Empress herself comes to their aid, using her power of geomancy to fend off the attacking vampires. The Empress and Greyfriar are in love, but he cannot approach her while she uses geomancy. The Empress is determined to use her power to take the fight to her vampire adversaries.

The Battle: These are both sequels, so a key to this Battle will be which author(s) can settle me quickly into their novels' universe. False Covenant has an advantage going in, that I read 50 pages of the previous volume, which I found most interesting——it took a spirited effort by Stina Leicht to knock Thief's Covenant off.

False Covenant also has an effective opening, quickly reintroducing us to Marmell's charming young protagonist Widdershins, with some amusing banter between Widdershins and her companion deity Olgun. Marmell gives us a good action scene early on, while unobtrusively summarizing his setting of Davillon and its complex web of competing religions. Marmell tells the story with a fun narrative voice. I especially liked that in the opening scene, party guests are scandalized by the incompetent servants working for the Marquis, which later proves a clever hint that the servants were really disguised Guardsmen laying a trap for Widdershins and her fellow thieves.

The Kingmakers has a good premise: steampunk with lots of vampires. We only get a glimpse of the Empress in the opening passage, but it is already obvious she is an admirably strong-willed female character. But the initial 25 pages do not give me a very good sense of what vampires actually add to the authors' steampunk setting. There is a horrific battle scene in the early pages, but is it any more horrific than real trench warfare? Placing a vampire battle in World War I trenches doesn't make much sense to me——what is the trench for when the vampires can fly and they don't shoot at you?——and has the unfortunate effect of making the fight seem familiar instead of strange.

THE WINNER: False Covenant by Ari Marmell

False Covenant advances to the second round, to take on either The Snow by Ross S. Simon or Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston.

To see the whole bracket, click here.