Friday, April 29, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson vs. Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

We continue the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books. The bottom half of the draw begins with Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson going up against Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Human Monsters: Medallion Press, March 2015, 400 pages. Human Monsters is the sixth and concluding volume of the Jake Helman Files, which began in Personal Demons. One of the Jake Helman books, Cosmic Forces, was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, one of three Stoker nominations Lamberson has received.

Jake Helman is a private eye specializing in supernatural forces, to which most of the world remains oblivious. As Human Monsters opens, New York City has been devastated by a storm summoned by the storm demon Lilith, just before Jake killed her in the last book. Jake's girlfriend Maria Vasquez is a detective with the NYPD. She has been assigned to investigate a series of deaths attributed to a serial killer taking advantage of the storm, but which she knows to be collateral damage from Jake's last misadventure. Meanwhile, Jake is anxious to locate his missing assistant Carrie, who seems to have run off with all his files.

Flex: Angry Robot, March 2015, 423 pages, cover art by Stephen Meyer-Rassow. Flex is the first book in the 'Mancer trilogy. The second volume, The Flux appeared last October. Steinmetz was a Nebula Award nominee for his novelette "Sauerkraut Station."

Flex is set in an alternate version of our world where 'mancers can perform various kinds of magic, although it's been illegal in the U.S. since magic devastated Europe. And 'mancers can distill their magic into a crystal drug called "Flex," which anyone can take and become temporarily magical. Flex essentially allows you to bend random events to your favor, so you can have nearly anything you want, by apparent good fortune. But there is a backlash, called "the Flux," in which you will suffer from bad luck in proportion to how much you relied on Flex.

In the prologue, a young man uses Flex to win over a beautiful woman, whose boyfriend just happens to call at that moment to confess he's been cheating, which makes her want some angry revenge sex. That's pushing Flex a bit too far, and so after some amazing lovemaking, the gas main underneath them explodes. Then in the first two chapters, we meet Paul Tsabo, a former policeman filled with guilt from shooting a young 'mancer. His marriage has ended and he has gone to work for an insurance company, where he has discovered he has a talent for "bureaucromancy," performing magic with paper. His six-year-old daughter is staying with him when the gas main bursts. He uses his magic to tunnel through the flames separating him from his daughter, only to have the Flux from his bureaucromancy set her on fire.

The Battle: If you like labels, you can say we have two urban fantasies doing battle here, although I think both authors are trying to step outside the usual conventions of the sub-genre.

Human Monsters starts out at a slight disadvantage, because it's the sixth in a series. Lamberson spends most of the first 25 pages filling in background information that regular readers of the series surely already know. Meanwhile, Flex introduces us for the first time to the type of magic in Steinmetz's universe, effectively illustrating just how dangerous it can be.

So there's a lot more drama to the opening 25 pages of Flex. And, as always with Steinmetz, the prose is first rate. Even though Paul, the main character of Flex, doesn't appear until thirteen pages in, I feel like I've already gotten a pretty good sense of his personality. The guy was having a tough go of things even before his daughter caught fire, and my sympathy for him makes me want to keep reading.

I don't yet feel that kind of connection to the characters in Human Monsters. In the opening 25 pages, Maria Vasquez describes some of the bizarre experiences she's had hanging out with Jake, including battling "zonbies" (dunno yet how they differ from zombies) and demons in Central America and back home in New York, but in a dispassionate way that hasn't much drawn me into the story so far. Perhaps reading further would have pulled me in, but the Battle of the Books is cruel that way.

THE WINNER: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

Flex advances to the second round to face either Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson or Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu vs. Infinity Lost by S. Harrison

Our fourth match-up of the Battle of the 2015 Books has The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu doing battle with Infinity Lost by S. Harrison. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Grace of Kings: Saga, April 2015, 618 pages, cover art by Sam Weber. The Grace of Kings is Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty series. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for a third Hugo by translating last year's Best Novel winner The Three-Body Problem. The Grace of Kings is his first novel.

The Grace of Kings is set on an archipelago, the Islands of Dara, reminiscent of our ancient world. The largest island consists of six different kingdoms, all of which have been conquered by Xana, located on one of the smaller isles. The opening 25 pages introduce us to two students, Rin and Kuni, who cut class to see the emperor pass through on a grand tour of the empire. They witness an unsuccessful attempt on the emperor's life, and Kuni is delighted to realize that the emperor was afraid, that he is just a man. Next we meet Mata Zyndu, a giant of a man, most of whose noble family was wiped out by the emperor's forces. He and his Uncle Phin, who has trained Mata from infancy, also watch the emperor's procession, planning their revenge.

Infinity Lost: Skyscape, November 2015, 250 pages, cover design by M.S. Corley. Infinity Lost is Book One of the Infinity Trilogy, the debut work by New Zealander S. Harrison.

The main character of Infinity Lost is Infinity "Finn" Blackstone, 17-year-old daughter of the richest man in the world, whom she has somehow never met. Finn's mother apparently died in childbirth. In our world's near future, her father's company, Blackstone Technologies, is Microsoft on steroids, dominating the world economy. Blackstone produces super-duper artificial hearts everyone uses; Blackstone even controls the weather. Finn, who has never had dreams before, starts to dream events from her past she doesn't remember, including learning to use firearms and meeting her father's executives. Then she learns that top students from her private school will soon get to visit Blackstone Technologies.

The Battle: I read the opening 25 pages of each of these two books over a week ago, but got busy and didn't have time to write up this battle post right away. It turns out that the passage of time makes it easier for me to articulate the basis for my decision.

After a week, I had to reread much of the opening of Infinity Lost to write the above synopsis. The first two chapters of the book are written well, and yet they did not stay in my mind. I think that's because so far it's a one-dimensional story: it's exclusively about Finn trying to figure out what the deal is with her rich, reclusive father. And I think after 25 pages, I can pretty much guess the answer. There have been many hints that Finn's father ignores her because she is to him only one of his company's many research projects.

In contrast, I remembered The Grace of Kings well enough that I could have picked it up and continued reading without missing a beat. The opening pages of The Grace of Kings begin to weave a rich tapestry, and the parts I've glimpsed so far have very much stuck with me.

We have already learned some of the interesting history of the Islands of Dara, but we can tell there's a lot more backstory that will yet be filled in. The characters have also caught my interest, Mata because of his burning need to address the wrongs done his family, Kuni simply for his wit and eagerness. I don't know what is going to happen to them, but I know one way or another Mata and Kuni will prove a challenge to the emperor's rule, and I want to see how that story unfolds.

THE WINNER: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings advances to the second round to face Fortune's Blight by Evie Manieri.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Fortune's Blight by Evie Manieri vs. Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis

For the third battle of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books we have Fortune's Blight by Evie Manieri going against Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Fortune's Blight: Tor, February 2015, 363 pages, cover art by Kekai Kotaki. Fortune's Blight is Book II of the Shattered Kingdoms series. Book III, Strife's Bane is due out in December. In the first book, Blood's Pride, King Daryan led a revolution against the foreigner Norlanders, who had invaded and enslaved his people, the Shadari. The revolution was (spoiler alert!) successful, but problems still abound.

In the opening 25 pages of Fortune's Blight, we see the mercenary Lahlil (formerly known as the Mongrel), who was instrumental in helping Daryan to overthrow the Norlanders, but is now running from her past among a tribe of Nomas desert nomads. She has daily seizures she attributes to different gods competing for her soul, and in this universe she may be right. We also meet Daryan, new king of the Shadar, patrolling his kingdom with his Norlander love Isa, on a winged beast called a "triffon." Amid post-war hardships, both Daryan's people and Isa's band of turncoats are nearing open rebellion against Daryan's and Isa's leadership.

Oathkeeper: Pyr, June 2015, 377 page, cover art by Todd Lockwood. Oathkeeper is Book Two of the Grudgebearer Trilogy. The third book in this series, Worldshaker is due in August. In this series, a magical race called the Eldrennai long ago created a nearly immortal race of non-magical warriors, the Aern, as warrior-slaves to defend the Eldrennai against the reptilian, magic-resistant Zaur. The Aern were recently freed, and may yet come seeking vengeance from the Eldrennai, who are trying to make an alliance with the plant-like Vael against that scenario.

In the first 25 pages, we see Prince Rivvek of the Eldrennai, whose magical powers have been crippled by physical injuries, consolidating power in preparation for an anticipated attack by the Aern. It seems you need to have read the first book to know why he is in charge and not his father the king or his older brother. Meanwhile, a group of fierce and pernicious Zaur warriors launch an assault against a massive Vael "root tree." Prince Kholburran of the Vael sees his love Malli injured in the attack, but he refuses to abandon her and vows to heal her, which apparently means they must marry.

The Battle: For once in the Battle of the Books, we have a fair fight. Two second volumes in two epic fantasy series go head to head. After reading the opening sections of both, my guess is if you like one of these books, you'd like the other, so I'll have to do some hair-splitting here . . .

Oathkeeper seizes an initial lead because it puts us into the action quickly, showing an early skirmish between the vicious Zaur and the strange tree-like creatures the Vael, and introducing multiple kinds of magic (albeit magic with a retro feel, based on the "elements" of earth, air, water, and fire) and magical beasts. In contrast, Fortune's Blight has a bit of a ponderous opening, with understated fantasy elements (other than the winged triffons) and the only real action happening in a brief flashback.

But Fortune's Blight presses a couple important advantages to eat into that margin. First, I prefer the prose in Fortune's Blight. Evie Manieri's writing has a good flow to it, while Oathkeeper too often feels overdramatic, as if J.F. Lewis is trying to write passages to accompany trumpets and cymbals, with an unfortunate tendency to run-on sentences:
Sealing vents in active sections of the maze of underground passages that comprised Xasti'Kaur, the Shadow Road, made timing tricky at certain strategic phases of the plan, but it could also catch the Eldrennai by surprise and leave them gasping in the blackdamp if they figured out what the Sri'Zaur were actually planning before the shard-wielding assassins of Asvrin's Shades sowed confusion and death among those who had lulled themselves into a false sense of immortality.
This would be too much for me, I think, even if I had read the previous book and knew what the "blackdamp" and Sri'Zaur and Asvrin's Shades were.

Fortune's Blight's other major advantage is I'm finding it easier to relate to the characters. Evie Manieri does a very good job of taking large-scale conflicts and making them personal for her characters. For example, King Daryan faces resistance from his own people because he has enlisted help from some of the hated Norlanders. The prejudice against Norlanders is personal for him, because he has fallen in love with one, and the two of them can never forget their differences, which include a painful variation in the temperatures of their skin:
They both knew the risks of these trysts, however infrequent, but the urgency of satisfying their passion made everything else, even the constant pain of their touch, irrelevant. She pitied ordinary couples whose embraces cost them nothing, whose love-making came so cheaply that they could undertake it on a whim and forget it just as easily. They couldn't know what it was like to have a lover's arms circle around the small of their back like a pair of blacksmith's tongs straight from the fire, or have kisses rain down like a shower of embers.
That is a lovely passage, one which will stay in my mind.

THE WINNER: Fortune's Blight by Evie Manieri

Fortune's Blight advances to the second round to face either The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu or Infinity Lost by S. Harrison.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Firesoul by Gary Kloster vs. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Our second match in the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books pits Firesoul by Gary Kloster against The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Firesoul: Paizo Publishing, 410 pages, February 2015, cover art by Bryan Sola. This is our second straight battle featuring a Pathfinder role-playing game tie-in. I have been consistently impressed by the level or writing and writers contributing to the Pathfinder series of books. Firesoul is no exception, penned by a fellow Writers of the Future winner, Gary Kloster.

Firesoul has a more African feel than other Pathfinder books I've read. Jiri was found by the shaman Oza as an infant, and he has been training her in his magical arts. As the book opens, someone has broken into a forbidden place of dark magic called The Pyre. When Oza intervenes, worried that some other shaman is trying to misuse The Pyre's black magic, he is attacked by a fearsome demon. Before transforming into a fire serpent to battle the demon, Oza orders Jiri to run to a neighboring village for help from an old friend. She follows his instructions, fearing it will be too late for Oza by the time she returns.

The Buried Giant: Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pages, March 2015, jacket design by Peter Mendelsund. The Buried Giant is set in England during the Middle Ages, after the Romans have withdrawn. People live in warrens built into the hillside. The main characters are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who decide to take a cross-country journey to see their son. The odd thing about this is they don't remember their son very well; indeed, nobody seems to remember anything very well.

Perhaps best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro has written effective science fiction with Never Let Me Go. The Buried Giant appears to be his first foray into fantasy, judging from the title and several references to demons and ogres menacing the land, but through 25 pages the fantasy elements have yet to appear onstage.

The Battle: Through 25 pages, Firesoul has pulled us into the action quickly. This is a fantasy adventure where people throw fireballs and change their shapes, and we've already seen that happening and we're anticipating more. The characterization is also solid so far. We've had a scene in which Jiri was disappointed by a thoughtless lover, which didn't have much direct impact, but then I think the scene was less about that relationship than it was about establishing how close Jiri is to her mentor Oza. I'd be happy to keep reading Firesoul, and Kloster's biggest obstacle is he's up against Kazuo Ishiguro.

Kazuo Ishiguro is like a great athlete who makes the game looks easy. He writes in simple sentences, the overall effect of which is poetry. I want to keep reading The Buries Giant just to enjoy and study how he does it.

Add to that an intriguing variation on human interactions: the people in this story have extremely poor memories and no form of writing. Much of the first 25 pages consist of Axl vaguely remembering incidents that others simply can't recall. When Axl and Beatrice decide to visit their son, it seems a hopeless quest, because they can't remember just where he lives or even what he looks like.

So far we don't know why people have such poor recall. Perhaps a curse has fallen over the land. Or perhaps Ishiguro thinks that would be a natural result of not writing anything down. If so, I disagree with the premise. I suspect having no written records would prompt people to be more careful about forming lasting mental impressions. But it doesn't much matter to me whether I'm right about that. This is a very science fictional set-up: Ishiguro has made one major change to basic human interactions, and now he's exploring the consequences. What would it be like always to live day-by-day, with hardly a thought of what has already happened or what lies ahead? I want to keep reading, to know why these people approach life that way and how it works out for them.

THE WINNER: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant advances to the second round to face The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler vs. Forge of Ashes by Josh Vogt

Our first match in the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler versus Forge of Ashes by Josh Vogt. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Banished of Muirwood: 47North, August 2015, 438 pages, cover art by Magali Villeneuve. The Banished of Muirwood is the first volume in the Covenant of Muirwood trilogy. The heroine of the trilogy, Maia, is the only daughter of the king of Muirwood. Chapter One of The Banished of Muirwood consists of a flashback to Maia's youth, when she learned magic from a "Dochte Mandar" wizard, while her mother bore one of several stillborn children. The stillbirths placed Maia in line to be queen, but also left her father bitter and irrational. In Chapter Two, we see Maia as a young adult, effectively exiled by her father from the capital. She is sent on a mission with an assassin for a bodyguard, a mission which will put her in the path of other dangerous wizards and lead her to Naess, a place where it is a capital crime for a woman to learn magic.

Forge of Ashes: Paizo, June 2015, 387 pages, cover art by Eric Belisle. This is a tie-in to the Pathfinder role-playing game. Pathfinder books have made a strong showing to date in the Battle of the Books, consistently featuring a high level of writing. In Forge of Ashes, a female dwarf named Akina returns to her home after many years fighting as a mercenary. She is accompanied by Ondorum, who has taken a vow of silence. Akina is startled to see her own likeness on sculptures decorating many parts of the city. She learns that her brother has become an insensible drunk, her mother has disappeared and is presumed dead in the mines, and her former lover became obsessed with her in her absence. He is the source of the Akina sculptures, a revelation to which she does not take kindly.

The Battle: We start this bracket of the Battle of the Books with a contest between two high fantasy adventures. It's an interesting case study in what it takes to pull through the first round of BotB.

The opening round is first and foremost about pulling me into the story. The Banished of Muirwood has some writing quirks I wasn't crazy about, starting with the fact that the entire first chapter turns out jarringly to be a dream. But by the end of 25 pages, I have a pretty good sense of what's at stake for Maia, both internally and externally. Internally, she feels abandoned by her parents, and she loves to study magic but tradition says she shouldn't be permitted to do so because of her gender. Meanwhile, externally, her father has banished her and all the other magicians, triggering a series of large-scale conflicts. On the horizon, there is a potential conflict over Muirwood, the area Maia's family left when it was overrun by plants and animals in a case of nature gone berserk. All of these storylines make me want to keep reading.

In contrast, on a sentence-by-sentence level, I couldn't find a flaw in Forge of Ashes if I tried. Josh Vogt has an excellent flow to his prose, and is certainly a young writer to watch. Yet through 25 pages, the narrative of Forge of Ashes has not pulled me into the story so well as The Banished of Muirwood. I think the biggest problem is Vogt hasn't stopped to set the stage for me. Unlike The Banished of Muirwood, the opening section of Forge of Ashes shows no thoughts or flashbacks to Akina's past. There's not even a moment when Akina pauses to say anything like, "I wonder what Mom's up to." Rather, she just wanders into town and things happen without any preamble. For example, she is told her brother has been kicked out of his monastery and become a drunk, which has no impact on the reader, who is simply thinking, "Oh, she has a brother?"

Through 25 pages, we don't know why Akina left home, we don't know why she has now come back. We have little sense of what's at stake for her in this story. One supposes the story will involve looking for Akina's mother, but then, does Akina even care about her mother? The fact that Akina stayed away for ten years without so much as sending a post card suggests a less than ideal relationship, but so far the narrative hasn't actually told us so. Despite the strong prose, it's easier for me to stop reading Forge of Ashes after 25 pages, because I don't yet have even a vague sense of where Akina's story is headed.

THE WINNER: The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

The Banished of Muirwood advances to the second round to face either Firesoul by Gary Kloster or The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

To see the whole bracket, click here.