Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye vs. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The first match-up in the first round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye going against The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: Penguin Books, September 2012, 198 pages, cover photo by Simen Johan. In Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, alternating first-person narrators look back on tragic events that occurred some 40 years earlier in the sleepy German village of Hemmersmoor. Our first narrator Christian returns to Hemmersmoor after decades away and meets some very old friends, Alex and Martin and Linde. They attend the funeral of another old friend, Anke, where Linde proceeds to spit and piss on her grave. In disturbingly understated language, Martin then narrates the tale of when a new family to the village was wiped out on a flimsy suspicion they engaged in cannibalism. The opening 25 pages close with Christian describing how, at seven years old, he wanted to see an adults-only carnival attraction called "Rico's Journey Through Hell." The carnie Rico told him to capture his sister's soul in a glass vial, whereupon Christian returned home and strangled her.

Stefan Kiesbye is a German author now living in New Mexico. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone was his first novel, preceded by his award-winning novella Next Door Lived a Girl. As far as I can tell, his other fiction books have only been published in German, under the titles Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht and Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles.

The Age of Miracles: Random House hardcover, June 2012, 269 pages. The cover shown is for the later paperback edition. In the opening pages of The Age of Miracles, the news breaks that the earth's rotation is inexplicably slowing. Our first-person narrator Julia was a young girl when this happened. She recalls the bewilderment of her parents and friends, as well as their dread as they wonder whether civilization can survive.

The Age of Miracles is the first novel by Karen Thompson Walker, but I made it a seeded book in this bracket because it was a great commercial success and very well received. (A notable excpetion was the review by Christopher Priest, which concluded, "This is the kind of book, with its allegedly vast payments to the author, that will suck the oxygen out of bookselling for several months.")

The Battle: This battle features two first novels in which adults reminisce about awful things that happened to everyone they knew during their childhood. In The Age of Miracles, the awful things result from an external change: the slowing of the earth's rotation. In Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, the awful things are internal, done by the book's characters to each other.

Both books open well, beginning with strong opening lines. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone opens:
Time is of no importance. I have returned to Hemmersmoor to live in the same house in which I grew up, the same cramped house in which my father and my sister Ingrid died when I was a schoolboy.
This strikes me as a simple but effective opening, which then gains resonance as we discover that the narrator's sister died because he killed her, and as Kiesbye later repeats the "time is of no importance" sentiment in a beautiful passage:
Time is of no importance. I was young and didn't know a thing about our time. There had never been a different one in Hemmersmoor. In our village time didn't progress courageously. In our village she limped a bit, got lost more than once, and always ended up at Frick's bar and in one of Jens Jensen's tall tales.
I like that very much. I also like the opening lines of The Age of Miracles:
We didn't notice right away. We couldn't feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
Although overall I like the writing in both books, in my opinion some flaws creep into both as the story progresses.

The opening pages of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone consist of a prologue from Christian's first-person point of view, a chapter from Martin's first-person point of view, and a chapter again from Christian's first-person point of view. They all look backwards on the same time period, yet Christian's voice in the second chapter sounds very similar to Martin's voice in the first chapter, and markedly different from Christian's voice in the prologue. I find the inconsistency jarring.

My quibble with the writing in The Age of Miracles is a lack of restraint by the author. For example, after the news breaks of the days lengthening, the narrator says they all forgot about the soccer game scheduled that day, except for one girl:
I heard later that only Michaela showed up at the field, late as usual, her cleats in her hands, her long hair undone, her red curls flying in and out of her mouth as she ran sock-footed up the hill to the field——only to find not a single girl warming up, not one blue jersey rippling in the wind, not one French braid flapping, not a single parent or coach on the grass. No mothers in visors sipping iced tea, no fathers in flip-flops pacing the sideline. No ice chests or beach chairs or quarter-sliced oranges. The upper parking lot, she must have noticed then, was empty of cars. Only the nets remained, billowing silently in the goals, they the only proof that the sport of soccer had once been play on this site.
To my tastes, if it stopped at "on the grass," this would be a nice passage. Instead, the author strains too hard, beating a simple concept to death, and ending on an awkward note ("they the only proof").

Despite my nitpicks, overall the prose in both books is solid. The battle comes down to which author has convinced me after only 25 pages that his or her story is going someplace interesting.

Karen Thompson Walker does not have me convinced, for two reasons. First, she hasn't gotten me interested in any of the characters yet, all of whom so far strike me as nondescript suburbanites, lacking in personality. Second, she has constructed a science fictional scenario——What if the rotation of the earth suddenly slowed down?——but she has not given me the confidence in her analysis and research that I need to suspend disbelief. In the opening pages, she says nobody notices the day is lengthening for several days. Whaaaat? When I check my email box, it tells me the exact time of sunrise and sunset; the first time the sun missed its cue, everybody would know about it. Later, Walker says the slowing "altered gravity." If she means the earth's mass is actually changing, she should say so, because wow! I suspect she means instead that there is less outward centrifugal force to offset gravity, but the way she says it is so imprecise I've lost confidence in her to tell me accurately what would happen if the earth really were to start spinning more slowly.

Meanwhile, after 25 pages, Kiesbye has also not given me characters I like, but they certainly do have personality. When Linde pisses on the grave of her former best friend, it tells me something about her, and it makes me curious what happened in their past to cause that level of contempt. More importantly, when Martin describes murders he witnessed as a child and Christian describes a murder he committed as a child, in utterly matter-of-fact terms, the effect is simultaneously chilling and engrossing.

THE WINNER: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone advances to the second round to take on either The Diviners by Libba Bray or Sharkways by A. J. Kirby.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight

Announcing Bracket Eight of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2012 Books!

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

The good news is we've done eight brackets of books so far, seven 2012 brackets and one 2014 bracket, discussing over 125 books. We've had a lot of fun and gotten some great feedback from the authors both here and at Twitter and other social media.

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

In a valiant (please don't say hopeless) attempt to catch up, we're alternating between brackets of the new books we're receiving and brackets of the 2012 and 2013 books that we didn't already cover.

Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books will feature 16 contenders first published in 2012. Aaron selected four "seeded" books he is especially looking forward to (marked with asterisks), and we've placed one in each quarter of the bracket, then filled out the rest of the bracket randomly. Here are your matchups:

First Quarter of Bracket:

Stefan Kiesbye
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone
Karen Thompson Walker
The Age of Miracles***
(Random House)

Libba Bray
The Diviners
(Little, Brown)
A. J. Kirby

Second Quarter of Bracket

Lavie Tidhar
Dave Freer
The Steam Mole

Gary McMahon
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
Mark Hodder
A Red Sun Also Rises

Third Quarter of Bracket:

Andy Gavin
Kristi Petersen Schoonover
Bad Apple

David Beers
Dead Religion
Jim C. Hines

Fourth Quarter of Bracket:

Linda Harley
Destiny's Flower
Molly Tanzer
A Pretty Mouth***
(Lazy Fascist)

Joseph Spencer
Lou Morgan
Blood and Feathers

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Some notes on the field:

-- Classifying books before you read them is tricky, but this bracket seems to have turned out heavy on horror. We'd guess it features 7 horror novels or dark fantasies, 4 adult fantasies, 3 YA fantasies, and 2 science fiction novels.

-- 11 books are by men and 5 by women.

-- It looks like 11 of the books are stand-alones, 3 begin a new series, and 2 continue an existing series.

-- As far as publishers, 3 books came to us from Solaris, 2 from Pyr, 2 from Damnation and 1 each from Penguin; Random House; Little, Brown; DAW; Mascherato; Vagabondage; CreateSpace; Infinity; and Lazy Fascist.

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Amy's Random Readings :: "Pernicious Romance" by Robert Reed

"Pernicious Romance" by Robert Reed is a story in the November 2014 issue of Clarkesworld magazine.  Using a random number generator, this is the short story, out of fifty-seven from the 2014 Locus Recommended Reading List, that a digital roll of the dice selected for me (Amy) to read and review.

"Pernicious Romance" is set in the present day somewhere in America. It tells of a strange occurrence at a college football game.  At halftime, there was a brilliant explosion of light from the 50-yard line.  No videos survived because it was accompanied by a damaging EMP event.  The blast directly killed about sixty people. Everyone else in the stadium, tens of thousands of people, were knocked unconscious.  Those in the high seats, farthest from the blast, woke up later that evening.   But others, people closer to the blast, woke up weeks, months, or even a year later.   All of those affected experienced an intensely real, loving relationship subjectively lasting a week up to fifty years when they were unconscious.  Maybe due to the bad effect this had on marriages, the condition became termed pernicious romance.

At first, the explosion was thought to be a terrorist attack, but no one claimed responsibility.  There were no suspects.   It was postulated that this may have been the test of a new weapon or technology.  But no explanation was offered.

This story features the case studies of five victims.  It tells how these people's lives were transformed by this unprecedented event and their unexpected experiences.

I found "Pernicious Romance" to be an interesting, well-written short story.   It feels profound despite its improbability.   Each case study made me realize that the event was weirder than I initially thought.  The story left me contemplating it afterward.

Robert Reed is a Hugo Award-winning American science fiction author.  I've read and enjoyed a number of his short fiction stories in magazines over the years.  According to Wikipedia, Reed has also written a dozen novels.

The first two short stories I've randomly read have been vastly different, but both good.  I wonder what I'll get to read next time I try this.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One :: Wrap-up

We have completed Fantastic Reviews Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books.  There were plenty of good book battles along the way.  Hope you enjoyed our reviews of samplings of these books!

Congratulations to The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley, book one of Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, as winner of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books!  Let's give a round of applause for all the participating books!

To see the whole completed bracket, click here.

All sixteen of these 2014 books are now available.  Listed below are the featured books, sorted alphabetically by author.  Click on the book title links to go that book's most recent book battle review.

Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci
Raven’s Shadow by Elspeth Cooper
Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager
Mentats of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson
Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg
Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
Damn Zombies by Patrick MacAdoo
The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas
Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald
The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
The Barrow by Mark Smylie
The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton
The Dagger of Trust by Chris Willrich

Some of these books and authors may be new to you, but after reading Aaron's book descriptions and battle reviews, I hope some of them sparked your interest.  Perhaps we introduced you to a few new books and authors.  Only one book can win each battle, and only one book can win the bracket, but there were many good books in the competition.

Battle of the Books match-ups are decided based on reading a sample of the book.  Most upon reading a mere 25 pages or 50 pages.  So if a good book starts slow, in this review format, it may face an uphill battle.  These matches are inherently subjective.  These battles were decided based on which book the reviewer, Aaron, would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books.  Another sixteen books are lined up for this competition.  These are books we received earlier, but hadn't had the time to review yet because of real life getting in our way.  We're valiantly working to whittle down our backlog of books.  Aaron will be judging and reviewing this new bracket.  We'll be announcing the books which will be featured as our next group of contenders soon.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, Championship Round :: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley vs. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

We have arrived at the championship round of our current bracket of the Battle of the Books. In one corner we have The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley. In the other corner we have Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. Two fine competitors. I (Aaron) have read through Page 200 of both these books, and the novel I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2014 Books.

The Emperor's Blades: Tor hardcover, January 2014, 476 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Emperor's Blades is the first book in Staveley's Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne high fantasy series. The second book in this series, The Providence of Fire, was published in January 2015. The Emperor's Blades made it to the championship by conquering The Barrow by Mark Smylie in the first round, defeating Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald in the second round, and an upset win over Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer in the semifinals.

The first 200 pages of The Emperor's Blades are told from the points of view of Adare, Kaden, and Valyn, the daughter and two sons of the Emperor, who has recently been assassinated, apparently at the hands of an ambitious religious leader. Kaden is the heir to the throne but still does not know of his father's death, because he has been training in a remote monastery, with monks who hold the sacred duty of guarding the world against strange creatures who fought mankind in an earlier age now shrouded in myth. Valyn, who has been training with an elite corps of soldiers, believes there is a conspiracy against his entire family; he has already faced two attempts on his life. The daughter Adare is embroiled in politics in the capital city, where her father's presumed killer plays a gambit to avoid punishment.

Words of Radiance:: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 1080 pages, cover art by Michael Whelan. Words of Radiance is the second book of Sanderson's epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. (The Way of Kings is the first book in this series.) Words of Radiance made it to the championship with a solid win over Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager in the first round, a victory over Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson in the second round, and a hard-fought win over Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg in the semifinals.

The primary viewpoint characters through 200 pages of Words of Radiance are Shallan, a young woman traveling by sea with her mentor Jasnah Kholin, while learning about the magical spheres called spren; Kaladin, the leader of a group of soldiers of the human kingdom of Alethkar, who is just learning about his own magical powers; and Kaladin's commander, Dalinar, the real power behind the throne of Alethkar. There has also been a short interlude with glimpses of other characters, including one of the Parshendi, a strange race of metamorphic creatures. Alethkar has fought the Parshendi since they assassinated its previous king, and Kaladin and Dalinar are preparing for further warfare. Meanwhile, Shallan's ship is attacked and she believes Jasnah to have been killed, although the careful reader has cause for skepticism.

The Battle: Going head-to-head in this championship match we have two high fantasy novels. Multi-volume series of epic fat fantasy books are not my personal favorite sub-genre, but I can appreciate any kind of SF/F when it is done well, and through 200 pages both The Emperor's Blades and Words of Radiance are written exceptionally well.

Staveley and Sanderson both eschew standard elves-and-wizards fantasy plots in favor of original and intricate storylines, and each author does a wonderful job of conveying those complicated storylines in a way that is easy to follow. They also both write action scenes very effectively.

An interesting point in common is that near the end of their 200 pages, both books reveal an almost science fictional subplot involving quasi-alien beings. In The Emperor's Blades, Kaden has just been told that the gentle monks he lives with have been waiting for thousands of years for the return of vicious, amoral creatures who were once the enemies of mankind with control over interdimensional portals. As he learns this, the reader realizes that these creatures appeared in the book's previously opaque prologue. Meanwhile, Words of Radiance has just given us a glimpse inside the minds of the Parshendi, explaining why they murdered the previous king and showing their struggle to regain the forms they used to be able to metamorphose into, before the forms were lost when the Parshendi escaped their former masters. I am intrigued by both storylines and wish to read more.

But the Battle of the Books requires me to make some distinction to justify choosing one book to continue reading to the end. Let's do some nitpicking . . .

Both novels seem to have interesting magical systems, but while The Emperor's Blades has avoided giving much detail about how magic works in this universe, The Words of Radiance has shown us a lot about the nature of magic involving the spren. It's an intricate system, so much so that I found it quite believable that Shallan could employ the magical spren to destroy an entire ship, but then utterly fail in her attempt to use magic to build a fire. The magical system scores a point for Words of Radiance.

Let's look at the authors' respective writing styles. The prose in both books is overall nicely done, but one might expect an occasional misstep from Brian Staveley, as the debut author here. Instead, Staveley's storytelling has struck me as pitch-perfect, while Brandon Sanderson on occasion strains a bit too hard (to my tastes) for his imagery, e.g., "She needed to speak with him. She felt an urgency to do so blowing upon the winds themselves." Score a surprising point for Staveley, and we're all tied up.

As it often does, the Battle comes down to characters. Which author has created characters that have come to life for me, so that I need to know how their stories play out?

Shallan in Words of Radiance is that kind of character for me. I find her believable, sympathetic, strong yet vulnerable, and just a touch flawed. At the end of 200 pages, she has been shipwrecked and will have to struggle just to survive, let alone to work her way back into the novel's larger story arc. I want to know how she will manage. I do not, however, feel the same kind of connection for the other viewpoint characters in Words of Radiance. In particular, I don't care an awful lot about the preparations Kaladin and Dalinar are currently making, and it won't bother me terribly much not to know what happens next in their joint storyline.

In contrast, I feel connected to all of the viewpoint characters in The Emperor's Blades. I love how both Kaden and Valyn have been trained in disciplines where their imperial bloodlines are ignored. This has made both of them humble and sympathetic (but they are certainly distinct from one another), yet ironically has now left them both in great danger. At the same time, their sister Adare has stayed in the capital city and has definitely not learned her brothers' humility. And yet her goals are just, and we can sympathize with her frustration when it appears her father's killer may get away with his crime. Staveley has drawn me in, on an emotional level, to all three viewpoint characters' stories. I very much want to keep reading every page of The Emperor's Blades. And that's what the Battle of the Books is all about.

Huge congratulations to Brian Staveley on a most impressive debut novel!

THE WINNER: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

The Emperor's Blades wins Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2014 Books. Congratulations to Brian Staveley as our newest Battle of the Books champion!

To see the completed bracket, click here.

We've crowned a winner for this bracket, but soon we'll announce a whole new bracket of sixteen books. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!