Saturday, July 30, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One :: Final Four

We're down to the Final Four in Bracket One of Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books:

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
The Just City by Jo Walton

We hope you've enjoyed this tournament so far. Now only four books remain of the starting sixteen. This bracket contained books from across the genre. There were secondary-world fantasy books, historical fantasies, urban or contemporary fantasies, science fiction books, and a horror novel. To get to the Final Four, these four books won their first two matches. The other books in the competition, and some of them were quite good but by chance faced a strong competitor, have been knocked out of the running, like in college basketball's March Madness.

Judging between books, which can be totally different, based on reading only 25 or 50 pages can be difficult. It's also inherently subjective. But our Battle of the Books format allows us to sample and spread the word about many more new books and authors than we otherwise could.

In this bracket, all four books which we named as the "seeded" books at the outset ended up advancing to the Final Four. This is atypical, but not unprecedented. Usually at least one and sometimes two unseeded books pull upsets to reach the Final Four.

Thanks again to all the authors and publicists sending us great books to consider. If you're an author or publicist, click here for the rules and an address to send your book if you'd like to be included in a future bracket.

We have had a great response to the Battle of the Books format. Several future brackets of Battle of the Books are now in the hands of our reviewers, so check back for many more battles to come.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Second Round :: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep vs. The Just City by Jo Walton

The fourth and final match-up in the second round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Letters to Zell by Camille Griep going up against The Just City by Jo Walton. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Letters to Zell: 47North, July 2015, 326 pages. Letters to Zell is an epistolary chick-lit fantasy novel, consisting of letters written to Rapunzel ("Zell") from her good friends CeCi (don't call her Cinderella!), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty). Letters to Zell outfought Originator by Joel Shepherd to get into the second round.

Through 50 pages, CeCi has gotten excited about studying cooking Outside (in our world), but she has to hide her activities from her husband, who doesn't think a princess should be doing the servants' work. Meanwhile, Rory finds she has about nothing in common with her rescuer prince. And Bianca is making her wedding plans and getting chummy with Maro, the princess from The Princess and the Pea in Zell's absence. ("Maro" is a type of pea. The title character is never named in The Princess and the Pea.) This friendship could get even more chummy, since Bianca confides she is attracted to both men and women, but there is a complicating factor: Rory detests Maro.

The Just City: Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings was published in June 2015. The third book, Necessity is just out. The Just City overpowered Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith to get into the second round.

In the opening 50 pages of The Just City, the goddess Pallas Athene determines to create a city modeled on Plato's Republic, apparently just to see if it can be done. A group of 300 scholars are designated to run the place, including Maia, a young woman who felt limited by her options in 19th Century England and prayed to Athene for a way out. Maia and the other leaders bring in some 10,000 young people to be educated in Plato's fashion, heavy on the philosophy and naked calisthenics. Among these students is Simmea, a young girl rescued from slavery in the distant past.

The Battle: This match-up, featuring a chick-lit reworking of fairy tale mythology and a philosophical fantasy leaning heavily on the classics, underscores what the Battle of the Books is all about. The winner in Battle of the Books is not always the book I'm enjoying the most. It's the book I most want to keep reading.

Through 50 pages, Letters to Zell is a fun, easy read. I'm enjoying all three princesses' voices, especially Snow White's:
Yes, I flirted with a Human. Big fucking deal. I mean, I know what I used to say. But I can change my mind, just like the rest of you, can't I? Humans can't all be assholes, right? Head of Soufflés herself can't be responsible for techno music, Chia Pets, and pies in a jar.

Besides, here I am, back where that nonsense exists safely between the covers of Cosmo. So yeah, maybe I'd like one of those cell phones. But who wouldn't? They're a lot more pleasant than pigeons (sorry, Cliff) but only because they don't shit all over the floor.
The theme about the characters wishing they could break out of the roles and storylines assigned to them is clearly meant also to apply to women who aren't in fairy tales.

In comparison, The Just City has a bit of a ponderous opening. Most of the opening 50 pages consist of Simmea, the naïve former slave girl, looking around in wonder at her beautiful city. If I had to pick which book I've enjoyed more through 50 pages, I think I would have to pick Letters to Zell.

But here's the thing: Letters to Zell is made up of repeated variations on the same joke: fairy tale princesses kvetching in the voices of modern women. It's a funny joke, yet I'm not especially excited about reading almost 300 more pages of the same gag. I can't help wondering if the story wouldn't have worked better as a novella or novelette.

Meanwhile, The Just City is building slowly, but it's developing some intriguing possibilities. How will all these beautiful people get along, now that they have the chance to put Plato's theories into practice? The leaders are fond of breaking into committees and seeking consensus. It seems unlikely the City will function well under this approach indefinitely. It also seems not to have occurred to the scholars in charge that all the former slaves in their City may eventually balk at being told what to do by those scholars, whom they may regard as merely a new set of masters. I want to see how these complications play out.

In particular, I want to see how things work out on a personal level for Maia and Simmea, who come into the Just City with so much hope. Here, for example, Simmea describes her excitement at all the new experiences:
How could I not have been happy? I was in the Just City, and I was there to become my best self. . . . Ikaros, one of the youngest men among the masters, set us to read provacotive books, and asked fascinating questions about them. Sometimes he and Ficino would debate a question in front of us. I could almost feel my mind growing and developing as I listened to them. I was twelve years old. I still missed my parents and my brothers, sometimes, when something recalled them to me. But little did. My life was so different now. Sometimes it truly felt as if I had slept beneath the soil until I awakened in the City.
Maia and Simmea may not come up with as many wisecracks as the princesses in Letters to Zell, but I think they have more potential to develop into complex characters about whom I want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City advances to the semifinals to take on Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz.

To see the whole bracket, click here.