Thursday, June 30, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz vs. Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson

For our third match-up in the second round we have Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz doing battle with Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

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 overpowered Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson to get into the second round.

In the universe of Flex, 'mancers can perform impressive magic (and anyone can do it with the help of a drug called "Flex"), but there is always a backlash (called "the Flux"), so dangerous that use of this magic is illegal in the United States. In the first 25 pages, our protagonist Paul Tsabo, a former cop turned insurance company bureaucrat, was surprised to find he could do "bureaucromancy," magic performed with paper. But the first time he did it a fire ensued, severely injuring his six-year-old daughter. In the second 25 pages, Paul learns that the insurance company he works for has declined to pay for his daughter's reconstructive surgery, because it has determined the fire was deliberately caused by another 'mancer. (The fire was a backlash not only from Paul's use of magic but also from magic done by a young man in the same apartment building who was intentionally given an overdose of Flex, bad luck for Paul and his daughter, but just the kind of bad luck that tends to happen with the Flux.) Paul is afraid of his magic, but it appears he will have to use it in order to track down the offending magician (the one who gave that kid his overdose) and get his daughter the surgery she needs.

Hexed: Pyr Books, May 2015, 278 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Hexed is the opening volume in the Sisters of Witchdown series, which is based on Michael Alan Nelson's Hexed comic books. Hexed beat Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson to get into the second round.

In the opening 25 pages of Hexed, a teenage girl named Gina went with friends to a haunted house called the Worcester House. A creepy old woman she saw in the mirror there followed her home and later pulled her into a mirror right in front of Gina's bewildered father. The father then begged our young protagonist, Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves (Lucifer, for short), to use her knowledge of the occult to help. In the next 25 pages, Lucifer visits the Worcester House with Gina's boyfriend, David. He tells her one of Gina's girlfriends got hold of an old book they used for a summoning in the Worcester House. Gina visits the friend, who needs immediate help with the demon who has possessed her.

The Battle: Doing battle in this match-up are two urban fantasies with an "X" in the title. I admit urban fantasy is generally not my preferred subgenre of SF/F, but so far these are both well written and fun to read.

Hexed moves along a nice pace, making it easy to keep turning pages. Lucifer is an interesting character, a teenager leading a lonely life as an outsider, who feels resentful at times but doesn't let that prevent her from helping other people. The strength of the book is the wry humor, which comes through both in the narrative voice and in Lucifer's snarky dialogue. Lucifer tells David she is a thief and when he asks her why she decided to become a thief, she says, "The brochure said I'd get to do a lot of traveling." I'm not in the target audience for a book about a teenaged girl battling demons and witches, but I'd be happy to keep reading this one.

The opening chapters of Flex are also nicely written, engaging the reader in the story very effectively. The opening passages have quickly gotten me into Paul's skin, as he is nearly overwhelmed by everything happening to him: pain and dread from his daughter's injuries, confusion when confronted by his ex-wife, fear but also excitement over his new-found magical abilities. By the end of 50 pages, he decides his only way to help his daughter is to find the magician out there using Flex to destructive ends and compel that person to help Paul learn how to use his powers safely. It's a dubious plan, but I want to see how it plays out for him.

So how to choose between two books that I'm enjoying through the opening 50 pages? Since I'm not usually an urban fantasy reader, the key is for a book to convince me that it's got more going on than the run-of-the-mill urban fantasy. While I'm enjoying Hexed, so far it feels like it could have been a script for an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's not a bad thing, but it doesn't make me feel especially compelled to keep reading.

Meanwhile, Flex feels more original and unusual to me. It introduces a non-standard magical system — I especially like Paul's emerging ability to do magic by paperwork. Also, I very much appreciate how Steinmetz has quickly painted his protagonist into a corner. The first time Paul uses magic, his daughter ends up severely injured. That's an awful thing for a parent, and would naturally make him want to disavow ever using 'mancy again. Except it seems Paul won't be able to help his daughter recover without using it. That's the kind of dilemma that does indeed make me feel compelled to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz

Flex advances to the semifinals to take on either Letters to Zell by Camille Griep or The Just City by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri vs. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Our second match in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri taking on The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 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 I is Blood's Pride and Book III, Strife's Bane, is due out in December. Fortune’s Blight defeated Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis to get into the second round.

Fortune's Blight deals with the aftermath of a revolution led by King Daryan of the Shadari, which has overthrown the rule of their telepathic Norlander conquerors. In the opening 25 pages, we've seen Daryan confronted with a populace struggling with post-war hardships and now nearing rebellion against him. The second 25-page section consists of chapters from the point of view of two members of a Norlander noble family, the Arregadors. Rho Arregador (owner of the sword "Fortune's Blight") left his home in the north, by his own account because he slept with his brother's wife. Now he travels by ship with the deposed governor of Shadar. They still have an ace in the hole, however: a young Shadari under their control with powerful telekinetic abilities. Meanwhile, Kira Arregador, the brother's wife in question, remains at home in frozen Norland. Her husband has died in battle, and she must negotiate a minefield of court politics, centered on a new Norlander king she holds in contempt.

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 overwhelmed Infinity Lost by S. Harrison to get into the second round.

The Grace of Kings is set on the Islands of Dara, an archipelago with a culture similar to ancient China. In the opening 25 pages we met Kuni Garu, a clever but mischievous student, and Mata Zyndu, a huge young fellow bent on revenge against the emperor. The second 25-page section jumps us ahead seven years, focusing on Kuni. He has been expelled from school and now lives a life of leisure, relying on the hospitality of friends and tavern-keepers who appreciate that a crowd tends to follow him about. But his lifestyle may be about to change as he meets the mayor's spunky daughter Jia Matiza, who sees his true potential.

The Battle: Here we have two complex secondary world fantasies going head to head.

Through 50 pages, to me the greatest strength of Fortune's Blight is Manieri's vivid descriptions of the different landscapes in her strange world. Here, for instance, Kira pauses to consider the courtyard in front of Norland's royal palace:
She preferred the narrow streets and little courts; here, she felt like she was being watched from every angle: from the towers and apparently empty slit-windows of Eotan Castle; from the huge green-glass terrace on the western side, supported by two twenty-feet-tall statues of wolf-headed Eotan the Progenitor; from the worn faces on the carvings of the ancient monarchs lining the rise; from the top of the hewn steps between them to the headland's highest point where the beacon burned day and night to guide ships into the harbor; and where the skull of Gargrothal, last of the great sea monsters, gaped down at them.
Although I appreciate the writing of Fortune's Blight, I find the story rather slow to get moving. In the second 25-page section, nothing especially significant happens. Rho Arregador looks over the water and thinks about stuff; Kira Arregador goes to a dinner party and thinks about stuff. Part of the problem is this is the second book in a series, and there's a lot of background information to catch us up on, but we've seen other sequels in Battle of the Books that have managed to keep the action moving more effectively early on.

I also like the writing in The Grace of Kings, and I feel connected to the characters, particularly Kuni, a rogue with a heart of gold. In the same chapter, he gleefully talks his way out of paying his enormous tab at a tavern, then intervenes to help a stranger desperate to keep her son from being conscripted into civil service. The mayor's daughter Jia, herself a willful young woman, first becomes interested in Kuni when she witnesses this moment.

In contrast with Fortune's Blight, 50 pages into The Grace of Kings, the plot is already well under way. This doesn't necessarily require a lot of action-packed scenes (although there has been one of those), only that the scenes feel important to the lives of the characters. In Fortune's Blight, Kira goes to a dinner party where nothing much happens. In The Grace of Kings, Kuni goes to a dinner party where he meets the woman one suspects he will marry. The dinner party in The Grace of Kings makes me feel involved in the story. I want to keep reading, to see more of the interactions between Kuni and Jia, and to see how their romance will ultimately impact the future of the islands of Dara.

THE WINNER: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings advances to the semifinals to take on The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler vs. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

We begin the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books with The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler going against The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 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 Banished of Muirwood defeated Forge of Ashes by Josh Vogt to get into the second round.

The heroine of The Banished of Muirwood is Maia, daughter of the king of Muirwood. Disappointed at not having any sons, the king has banished Maia from the capital and replaced Maia's mother with a scheming noblewoman. Sent on a very dangerous (perhaps pointless) mission, Maia soon finds herself and her "kishion" bodyguard pursued by "Dochte Mandar" wizards, who do not believe a woman should be allowed to practice magic, as Maia does. In a remote town, she meets a tough woodsman named Jon Tayt, who vows to help her escape. Despite his best efforts, the opening 50 pages end with Maia captured by the Dochte Mandar.

The Buried Giant: Alfred A. Knopf, 317 pages, March 2015, jacket design by Peter Mendelsund. Kazuo Ishiguro won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day. The Buried Giant overpowered Firesoul by Gary Kloster to get into the second round.

The Buried Giant takes place in ancient England after the Romans have withdrawn. Our main characters are an old couple named Axl and Beatrice. Frustrated that they don't remember him very well, they determine to leave their farming community and travel across country to see their son. It seems that nobody in this area can remember very much, something Axl and Beatrice attribute to a peculiar mist over the land. In the first 50 pages, they travel through a rainstorm to encounter a boatman dogged by an old woman furious that he took her husband across the water to a strange island but left her behind. Then they enter a Saxon village gripped by fear and paranoia, because a young boy has reportedly been carried away by an ogre.

The Battle: Here we have an epic fantasy going against historical fantasy.

The opening 50 pages of The Banished of Muirwood effectively pull the reader into the story. Wheeler alternates between present-day scenes, in which shit is going down around Maia in a big hurry, and flashbacks in which we learn how she ended up exiled into this mess. The pacing is just right to make it seem like a lot is a happening, while simultaneously taking time for us to get to know Maia and feel sympathy for how unfairly she has been treated by her father and by fate. It felt a bit contrived that this dynamic fellow Jon Tayt was waiting around in Maia's path with nothing better to do than risk his life on her behalf. Then again, that may yet turn out to be no coincidence.

The opening 50 pages of The Buried Giant have a slower pace, consisting simply of an elderly couple walking about talking to people, yet have pulled me into the story just as effectively. The affection Axl and Beatrice have for each other after a lifetime together is presented most endearingly, and the folks they encounter on the road are intriguing. I am very interested in the nature and effects of the mist that has fogged everyone's memories.

I am enjoying both these books and would be happy to keep reading either. But a decision must be made.

When a battle comes down to something I dislike about a particular book, that is usually easy to articulate. It's much harder to explain when a battle turns on my admiration for a writer who is far more skilled than I am.

Simply put, Kazuo Ishiguro rocks. I wish I understood everything he is doing for me to be so absorbed in The Buried Giant, so I could do the same when I write. The narrative flows over me in such a way that each time I start reading, I do not want to put the book down. The characters' quest to find their son and regain their memories is personal in a way I find very affecting. For instance, after they learn that the boatman they met is not permitted to transport a couple together without first asking questions to test the bond between them, Beatrice confesses fear to Axl:
"But what's to fear, princess? We've no plans to go to any such island or any desire to do so."

"Even so, Axl. What if our love withers before we've a chance to even think of going to such a place?"

"What are you saying, princess? How can our love wither? Isn't it stronger now than when we were foolish young lovers?"

"But Axl we can't even remember those days. Or any of the years between. We don't remember our fierce quarrels or the small moments we enjoyed and treasured. We don't remember our son or why he's away from us."

"We can make all those memories come back, princess. Besides, the feeling in my heart for you will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget. Don't you feel the same, princess?"

"I do, Axl. But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn't like the raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I'm wondering if without our memories, there's nothing for it but for our love to fade and die."

"God wouldn't allow such a thing, princess." Axl said this quietly, almost under his breath, for he had himself felt an unnamed fear welling up within him.
After 50 pages, I'm enjoying The Banished of Muirwood, but feel compelled to keep reading The Buried Giant.

THE WINNER: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant advances to the semifinals to take on either Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri or The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu.

To see the whole bracket, click here.