Friday, May 18, 2018

Company Town by Madeline Ashby vs. Xenowealth by Tobias S. Buckell :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 3 of 8

For the third battle of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books we have Company Town by Madeline Ashby doing battle with Xenowealth: A Collection by Tobias S. Buckell. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Company Town: Tor hardcover, 285 pages, May 2016, cover art by Erik Mohr. The eponymous Company Town is a huge floating city called New Arcadia, which the dust jacket tells us is actually a ginormous oil rig. Our heroine Hwa is a young woman with no bio-enhancements, who nevertheless earns a living as hired muscle, serving as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada and teaching a self-defense class. While keeping an eye on some of her charges at a protest against Lynch, the megacorporation that has just purchased New Arcadia, she dukes it out with a man apparently brandishing a rifle. In fact, it was a long-range microphone. The fellow carrying it works for Lynch, and is so impressed with Hwa's fighting skills, he offers her a job also working for Lynch, which she is reluctant to accept.

Madeline Ashby is a Toronto writer whose previous books were the well-received Machine Dynasties series, vN and iD.

Xenowealth: A Collection: Self-published trade paperback, 192 pages, January 2016, cover art by Jenn Reese. Xenowealth is a collection of short stories set in Buckell's successful Benevolent Satrapy future history, often referred to as the "Xenowealth series," which includes the novels Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose, and The Apocalypse Ocean. The opening 25 pages covers "The Fish Merchant," Buckell's first published story, in which a fish seller in Macau decides to risk helping the enigmatic Caribbean man called Pepper, and the first half of "Manumission," in which a memory-deprived Pepper tracks down a dangerous woman seeking to get off planet. Buckell's strange aliens have yet to make an appearance onstage.

Tobias S. Buckell, originally from Granada, now lives in Ohio. Xenowealth is a crowd-funded (through Kickstarter) self-published book, as Buckell experiments with how best to earn a good living writing in today's shifting publishing market.

The Battle: This battle is between two near-future science fiction adventures, both with a post-cyberpunk feel.

When judging two so similar books, the first question is whether either author has committed any failure in their execution of the central concept that would knock them out of contention. But Madeline Ashby and Tobias S. Buckell are not about to make matters so easy for me.

Through 25 pages, both Company Town and Xenowealth are very well written, with intricate worldbuilding, strong characterization, and both engaging action sequences and effective quiet moments. This is the type of excellent writing we expect to see in the Final Four of the Battle of the Books. It is the authors' misfortune that they face each other so early in the bracket, and my misfortune that I must already choose between two books I am so far thoroughly enjoying.

Xenowealth starts with the potential disadvantage of being a collection of short stories. Collections can face an uphill fight in the Battle of the Books because even if the first couple stories are very strong, they may not necessarily leave the reader anxious to read other unrelated stories. But Xenowealth is a collection of linked stories set in the same future and featuring the same key character. After 25 pages, I am already absorbed in Buckell's cutthroat future and his sullen protagonist Pepper.

But I am also already absorbed in Ashby's Company Town, and just a little bit more so. A few small points combine to make the difference. First, I am very interested in Ashby's oil-rig city, which feels very lived-in and believable. Second, while both books' main characters are strong and tough, Buckell's Pepper so far seems invincible, while Ashby's Hwa has a hint of vulnerability that makes her to me a more compelling and sympathetic character. Third, there's a dash of humor in Company Town, as when Hwa teases a tough guy she has encountered before, expressing how glad she is that they did a good job reattaching his retina. She is a spunky protagonist in a distinctive future setting, and I want to read more about her.

THE WINNER: Company Town by Madeline Ashby

Company Town advances to the second round, to take on either The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel or Borderline by Mishell Baker.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The Life Engineered by J-F. Dubeau vs. Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 2 of 8

By random chance the second match-up in the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books features two books from Inkshares' new Sword & Laser imprint, The Life Engineered by J-F. Dubeau and Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Life Engineered: Sword & Laser, 240 pages, March 2016, cover art by Eric Belisle. The Life Engineered is far-future science fiction, but if the opening section is any guide, it features flashbacks to more familiar settings.

The novel opens in the year 3594, where our descendants share multiple worlds with robots called Capeks, with a (probably unnecessary) explicit tip of the hat to Czech author Karel Capek, who coined the term "robot." An onslaught of gamma radiation is driving humans into hibernation, to be awakened by the Capeks when the problem is past. But fearing that a subset of the Capeks has created the problem, the humans conceal their whereabouts from most of the Capeks. Flash forward to 5638, when a new Capek is being created, one supposes into a universe where humans are only remembered as legend.

In between these two far-future scenes, however, we meet Mel Paulson, a police officer and modern-day single mother. Mel worries about the effect on her young son of her brutal early morning hours, but then matters quickly get worse as she finds herself in a hostage situation, a crisis that ends with Mel being shot in the head. It turns out that Mel's life was one of hundreds of simulated lives our protagonist Capek, Dagir, has lived through to allow his individual personality to coalesce.

Asteroid Made of Dragons: Sword & Laser, 275 pages, April 2016, cover design by David Drummond. Asteroid Made of Dragons is humorous fantasy, modeled I suspect after Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

The novel's prologue shows us a theater troupe preparing for a new play, but we have no idea yet how that relates to the main storylines. Then in Chapter One, a goblin researcher named Xenon uncovers an ominous message warning of the coming of Zero. Finally Chapter Two introduces us to (I suspect) our main characters, Jonas & Rime. Rime is a lady mage, Jonas her assistant and bodyguard. We meet them as Rime attempts to escape from stealing her own money back from her bank, pursued by its determined golem guard. This scenario ends with Jonas carrying her back to their rented room. When she wakes, Rime declares her intention to travel to Gilead. Jonas insists on accompanying her, even though we know he was exiled from Gilead for killing his last master.

The Battle: This is a close one.

There were two things I especially liked about the opening pages of The Life Engineered. First, Dubeau built some real tension with Mel's hostage crisis. But it seems that was a one-off bit; I don't expect Mel to return to the story, except insofar as she is incorporated into Dagir's personality. Second, I like the concept of having Dagir live through a series of simulated lives in order to develop a unique personality. In our last battle, I said the key to winning in the first round is to pull me into the story, and after 25 pages, I'm more interested in Dagir's storyline than in the plot of Asteroid Made of Dragons.

Having said that, Dagir's primary storyline is set in the distant future, yet so far the scenes of the future in The Life Engineered have rather a dated feel, as if Dubeau is emulating early Asimov or perhaps even Eando Binder. As far as we know from the narration, the scenes are set in empty white rooms, with none of the strangeness or lushness modern readers expect in far-future settings.

I can still enjoy early Asimov (Binder not so much), but I think G. Derek Adams has the better notion here, going for the style of Terry Pratchett. Of course, Adams is not there yet; one wouldn't compare Asteroid Made of Dragons favorably with an actual Discworld novel, but there are enough funny moments and good lines to say that he is on the right track. For instance, Jonas's surprise at the ease of his getaway while hauling Rime's unconscious form feels very much like a bit Pratchett might have done:
This is one of those times that Master would talk about. Where you were supposed to run into trouble, but Trouble spilled morning coffee on his tunic and got a late start. Jonas could see his master's lean face spreading into a low chuckle. But don't worry, young man. Trouble always keeps his appointments, late or no. Enjoy the days you missed him because he'll be double furious next time around.
Adams pulls even in this Battle of the Books with his amusing writing style, and then the clincher comes in the last few pages of Chapter Two. Rime stutters through asking Jonas if he will come along to Gilead, obviously hoping he will, even as she is uncomfortable at realizing how attached to him she has become. And Jonas declares that he will come, even though he knows that because of his history, she would likely be better off without him. It is the kind of simple but charming scene that makes one want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams

Asteroid Made of Dragons advances to the second round to face Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Welcome to Deadland by Zachary Tyler Linville vs. Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 1 of 8

Our first match in the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books features Welcome to Deadland by Zachary Tyler Linville versus Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Welcome to Deadland: Nerdist (Inkshares), August 2016, 398 pages, cover design by David Drummond. Welcome to Deadland is a zombie novel set in the South, the author's home. (New writer Zachary Tyler Linville went to school in Florida and now lives in Atlanta.) After a very brief prologue showing us that someone deliberately spread the plague that turns nice people into disagreeable zombies--no clues offered as to why--the opening 25 pages consist of chapters before and after the apocalypse, from the points of view of young men Asher and Rico. After, Asher wields a baseball bat to defend a girl named Wendy from a zombie. Before, Asher was working at a college café where he met a pretty redhead named Stacey. Stacey invited him to a party, where she had too much to drink. Before, Rico got arrested during a drug-aided hookup in a parked car, to be bailed out by his divorced father, whom Rico deeply resents. After, Rico and a boy named Jayden find shelter in a boat floating just off the coast.

Phantom Effect: Night Shade, February 2016, 285 pages, cover design by Diana Kolsky. Michael Aronovitz has penned two previous novels and two short fiction collections from small publishers. Phantom Effect is a ghost story in which a serial killer is haunted by one of his victims. In the opening 25 pages, our antihero Jonathan Deseranto has just killed and dismembered a young woman, Marissa Madison, but his car has a blowout before he can dispose of the body. When a policeman stops to investigate, Deseranto kills him too, then promptly crashes his car fleeing the scene. As he gets out, the trunk pops open and, impossibly, one of the victims emerges. Deseranto sprints to an abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished Motel 6.

The Battle: We begin the Battle of the 2016 Books with a contest that illustrates what the first round of BotB is all about. To make it through the first round, you need to grab my attention right out of the blocks. Seize my interest with sparkling writing or strong characterization or an intriguing storyline.

Welcome to Deadland may ultimately turn into a satisfying adventure, but the opening 25 pages didn't much grab me. Linville attempts to do that in two ways. First, he shows us the perils of life after the apocalypse, as Asher and Wendy are attacked by a zombie in the opening chapter. It's a decent scene, but doesn't carry much impact, since zombie attacks have become so commonplace in books and media the past several years. I believe that by now it now takes some humor or irony to deliver a line like, "Thank you for bashing his skull in."

Second, Linville tries to draw in his readers by contrasting his dangerous future with the everyday lives our main characters used to live before the apocalypse. But to my tastes, those lives were a little too everyday and a little too similar to each other: Asher and Rico are two young men hanging around parties hoping to get laid. Flipping through the book, I see that Wendy becomes a viewpoint character around page 80. It might have been a good idea to give us her point of view sooner.

Meanwhile, Phantom Effect started to pull me in from the opening line: "I ain't scared, asshole."

The line is spoken by 6' 5" Jonathan Martin Delaware Deseronto, a man who finds satisfaction in killing young women who remind him of his mother. I like Deseronto's tough-guy voice, because it starts to break down almost immediately.

As the book opens, Deseronto ain't scared that a flat tire has interrupted his rainy midnight drive to dispose of the dismembered remains of his latest victim, Marissa Madison. But he starts to feel scared when a police cruiser stops to help. Then he's a little more scared as he crashes his car, now with two victims in the trunk, into a pit at a construction site. Then he's seriously unnerved when he starts hearing noises from the trunk. Could the policeman have survived? And as he scrambles away from the totaled car toward a deserted Motel 6, slipping in the mud, although he doesn't say so, this is the point when the reader knows damn well Deseronto is terrified:
There was a noise, and Deseronto looked back over his shoulder.
Marissa Madison was crawling out of the trunk.
She had already evicted the dead cop, a rumple and twist in the mud, and she was pulling up now, fingers curled around the edge of the lid, the other on the bottom lip, head bent with exertion, long hair hanging in front of her face like a sodden veil. There were hash marks where the body parts had been put back together, and some of them were affixed backward, insectile, sewn with what looked like the fishing line he'd kept in there on a wooden spool, the rough stitching cut off in stingers and barbs. The shoulders flexed and the joints angled in, the spider poised to emerge from the sack.
Deseronto pushed to his feet and turned toward the motel. 
This, dear reader, is a hook.

THE WINNER: Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz

Phantom Effect advances to the second round to face either The Life Engineered by J-F. Dubeau or Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams.

To see the whole bracket, click here.