Monday, November 28, 2016

"The Counsellor Crow" by Karen Lord :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

We are between brackets of the Battle of the Books, so time to catch up on some story recommendations.

My Story Recommendation of the Week is for "The Counsellor Crow" by Karen Lord, from the anthology The Bestiary, edited by Ann VanderMeer and published by Centipede Press (cover art by Ivica Stevanovic).

The Bestiary is an anthology of short pieces, each describing a creature one suspects does not actually exist. The gimmick is that there is one strange animal with a name beginning with each letter of the alphabet, plus creatures called The Ampersand and The          .

The strength of this anthology is the array of writing talent Ann VanderMeer has assembled. How can you go wrong reading pieces by such authors as China Miéville, Catherynne M. Valente, Brian Evenson, Vandana Singh, Michael Cisco, Stephen Graham Jones, Karen Heuler, Karin Tidbeck, Felix Gilman, etc. etc.? The weakness is the pieces are similar enough that after a while the book can start to feel like a single gag repeated until it gets tiresome.

But the best pieces here are very good indeed. To me the funniest story in the book is "The Daydreamer by Proxy" by Dexter Palmer, about a genetically engineered parasite that your employer urges to try, because it will make you a wonderfully efficient worker! At least for a while. I think the most clever and elegantly done story is "Tongues of Moon / False Toads" by Cat Rambo, about an animal remarkably efficient at camouflage. ("One may go so far as to imitate an alchemist and thus fall prey to a recursive trap, lost in a mental mise-en-scène, seeking itself.")

And my overall personal favorite in the book is "The Counsellor Crow" by Karen Lord, perhaps because it has a rather more pointed message than most of the pieces. "The Counsellor Crow" describes a type of corvid whose appearances tend to coincide with human misery:
The turning point in the evolution of the Counsellor Crow took place not in Ildcrest, but in neighbouring Ilderland, where a new Prince and a resurgent nobility developed a strongly nationalistic and anti-modernist ideology that called for a return to old values and old ways. Modern technology was banned, foreigners were ousted, and the nobility tried a motley assortment of centuries-old garments, weaponry and rituals in an attempt to replace a Golden Age that never was with a New Age of their own devising. Naturally, with all the permutations and combinations of available customs, there were disputes, rebellions, and then civil war. The sacred battlefields of Ilderia returned, and the Counsellor Crows fed and grew fat.
The narrator of this scholarly article on the Counsellor Crow suspects the animal of using mimicry, speculating whether it is "the first recorded instance of a predator that mimics not the voice, nor the appearance, nor the scent of its prey, but their thoughts." The narrator ends with the alarming observation that the population of Counsellor Crows is now the highest on record.

Karen Lord, originally from Barbados, has only been publishing fiction since 2010 but already has amassed an impressive collection of awards. She does not often write short fiction, so "The Counsellor Crow" offers a rare opportunity to sample her writing in a single sitting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One :: Wrap-Up

We have completed Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books.  There were plenty of good book battles along the way.  Hope you enjoyed our reviews of samplings of these books!

Congratulations to The Just City by Jo Walton, winner of this Battle of the Books bracket!  Let's give a round of applause for all the participating books!

To see the whole completed bracket, click here.

Listed below are the sixteen books which were featured in this bracket, sorted alphabetically by author.  Click on the book title links to go that book's highest round book battle review.

Letters to Zell by Camille Griep
Infinity Lost by S. Harrison
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Firesoul by Gary Kloster
Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson
Human Monsters by Gregory Lamberson
Oathkeeper by J. F. Lewis
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri
Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson
Originator by Joel Shepherd
Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz
Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith
Forge of Ashes by Josh Vogt
The Just City by Jo Walton
The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler

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, who was Aaron for this bracket, would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books.  Another sixteen books are lined up for this competition.  Aaron will be the reviewer judging this bracket.  We'll be announcing the books which will be featured as our next group of contenders soon!

Monday, November 07, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, Championship Round :: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu vs. The Just City by Jo Walton

We have arrived at the championship round of our current bracket of the Battle of the Books. In one corner we have The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. In the other corner we have The Just City by Jo Walton. Two fine novels!  I (Aaron) have read through page 200 of both these books, and the one I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books.

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. The second volume, The Wall of Storms, is just out. Ken Liu is a two-time Hugo Award winner for his short fiction, as well as accounting for two more Hugos by translating Chinese SF. The Grace of Kings is his first novel.

The Grace of Kings overwhelmed Infinity Lost by S. Harrison in the first round. Next The Grace of Kings conquered Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri in the second round. Then The Grace of Kings won out over The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro in the semifinals to reach here, the championship match.

The Grace of Kings is set on the Islands of Dara, an archipelago with a culture similar to ancient China. Dara has recently been unified under the rule of a single emperor, originating from the island of Xana. That emperor has just died, however, and his contemptible administrators have passed the crown to his younger, weaker son. Rebellions are breaking out throughout the empire in the resulting power vacuum. Our main characters, the clever but mischievous Kuni Garu and the massive Mata Zyndu, whose family was all but wiped out by the emperor, have become leaders of two of the rebellions. The turmoil is worsened by the fact that the gods in this universe play an active, if indirect, role in what is transpiring.

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 also the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings, was published in June 2015, and the third book, Necessity, is just out.

The Just City overpowered Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith in the first round. Next The Just City got by Letters to Zell by Camille Griep in the second round. Then The Just City defeated Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz in the semifinals to reach here, the championship match.

The eponymous setting of The Just City is a city created by the goddess Pallas Athene, modeled on Plato's Republic, to see if it could be done. She has recruited a group of 300 scholars to run the place, including one of our heroines, 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 city "masters" snatch 10,000 children out of ancient history to be the founding citizens of the city. Among these is Simmea, a young woman rescued from slavery, and a dynamic young man named Pytheas. As the young citizens mature, Simmea becomes more and more fascinated with Pytheas, unaware that he is actually an incarnation of the god Apollo. A recent arrival to the city is Socrates, the Socrates, who is of course asking a lot of questions that may throw the city's future in doubt, such as whether the robots who do all the labor would rather be doing something else.

The Battle: I am not supposed to pre-judge these battles before I finish reading. But I'm only human, and I can't help anticipating where a battle is headed. For this championship round, I didn't think I even needed to do the reading. Based on the first 100 pages of both books I had already read for the semifinals, I was sure I knew the inevitable winner. And I thought so as I was reading through 200 pages of both. Then I finished, and realized I had been wrong the whole time.

These are two quite different but each well-written and original fantasy novels, certainly both worth your time. But through 100 pages and then some, it seemed to me that the focus of The Just City was philosophical musings about Plato, which I was finding interesting but hardly compelling, while the focus of The Grace of Kings was on the storytelling, which is usually the best way to pull me into a novel.

But a funny thing happened by the time I got to page 200 in both books. Even though there's a lot more plotting in The Grace of Kings, I came to realize that The Just City would be the harder book for me to put down, for two reasons.

First, I feel more connected to the characters in The Just City. While I continue to enjoy The Grace of Kings, the main characters have not developed much since the early pages. Instead, we've visited a host of minor characters with tangential roles in the rebellion against the empire. Some of these sub-plots are nicely spun out; for example, here a young man named Jizu, recruited by self-serving ministers to lead a small kingdom joining the rebellions, saves his people from slaughter by the imperial army by offering himself instead. When the empire's representative, General Namen, accepts his proposal, Jizu promptly sets himself on fire:
General Namen shook his head. The smell of burned flesh nauseated him, and he felt very old and tired at this moment. He had liked Jizu's pale face, his curled hair and thin nose. He had admired the way the boy held his back straight, and the way he looked at him, the conqueror, with no fear in his calm gray eyes. He would have liked to sit and have a long talk with the young man, a man he thought very brave.

He wished again that Kindo Marana had not sought him out. He wished he were sitting in front of the fire in his house, his hand stroking a contented Tozy. But he loved Xana, and love required sacrifices.
This is a nice scene, especially when Jizu's sleazy ministers get their comeuppance, but it has already played out and so doesn't much pull me into the larger story arc. Overall, the book has something of an episodic feel through 200 pages, and I haven't gotten to know the key characters Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu as well as I would have liked.

In contrast, while the first 200 pages of The Just City tell a quieter story, they gradually combine to develop the main characters into people I feel I know and care about. For instance, here is a passage from the point of view of Pytheas, aka Apollo:
Being a mortal was strange. It was sensually intense, and it had the intensity of everything evanescent—like spring blossoms or autumn leaves or early cherries. It was also hugely involving. Detachment was really difficult to achieve. Everything mattered immediately—every pain, every sensation, every emotion. There wasn't time to think about things properly—no possibility of withdrawal for proper contemplation, then returning to the same instant with a calm and reasonable plan. Everything had to be done in time, immediately. Paradoxically, there was also too much time. I constantly had to wait through moments and hours and nights. I had to wait for spring to see blossom, wait for Simmea to be free to walk with me, wait for morning. Then when it came, everything would be hurtling forward in immediate necessity again, pierced through with emotion and immediacy and a speeding pulse. Time was inexorable and unstoppable. I had always known that, but it had taken me fifteen years as a mortal to understand what it meant.
On initial reading, this is an interesting thought about an immortal's perspective. But it comes back later, as Simmea is developing a teenage crush for Pytheas, and the reader realizes how impossible it is that things will work out for them on a romantic level.

The entire system that Athena and the masters have created seems at once admirable yet hopelessly unstable. The masters pride themselves on having rescued the young citizens from slavery, but they dictate to these adolescents where to live, what to eat, what work to do, even (as they get older) their sexual partners, all to conform to Plato's directions. At the same time, they're training their young citizens to be independent thinkers. Sooner or later, these youngsters are bound to have the independent thought, "Why are we putting up with all this shit?"

There are many such aspects of this tale that didn't grab me immediately, but have developed into storylines that I care about. How will the idealistic Simmea handle learning that people in this city are not what she believes? Which masters will be corrupted by the power they've been handed? Who will join in the inevitable rebellion? How will Maia (who won't rebel) handle being torn between the other masters and the youngsters with whom she identifies? How will the system adjust when the young citizens start having children of their own? What happens if Socrates prompts the robots to stop working for the masters? I want to keep reading to find all this out, even if some of the answers may not come until later volumes in the series.

The second reason I find it harder to put down The Just City is the story is so unique. Of all the countless people to read The Republic in the past 2,400 years, if it has ever occurred to anyone else to render Plato's thought experiment literal, I missed it. And I'm enjoying the return to a more philosophical style of science fiction, the kind the field used to get from authors like Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ. I am intrigued to see where Jo Walton plans to take this story and setting.

Meanwhile, the sprawling, secondary-world epic fantasy has been done a whole lot recently. The most distinctive aspect of Liu's approach to the subgenre is his Eastern setting and mood, but even this has already been done very effectively in the past few years, for example by Guy Gavriel Kay in Under Heaven and River of Stars and by Elizabeth Bear in her Eternal Sky series. (Hopefully this won't hurt Ken Liu's feelings overmuch. I know I'd be delighted to have someone criticize my writing for being similar to Guy Gavriel Kay and Elizabeth Bear!)

Much to my own surprise, after 200 pages, The Just City is the book I most want to keep reading to the end.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City wins Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2015 Books. Congratulations to 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. Aaron will judging the next bracket which will be full of 2016 books. Stay tuned for more book battles to come!