Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Lian Hearn returns to a world of medieval Japan with a new series, The Tale of Shikanoko, set in the world of her earlier Otori series. Emperor of the Eight Islands introduces this new series, as it explores the great warrior tales of ancient Japan.
I have not read any of Lian Hearn’s previous books, though the Otori series has been on my shelf for years waiting for me to come around. During my recent trip to Japan, I spent some time in Northern Honshu in the region of the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which is the same region in Japan where Hearn drew inspiration for this series in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. This in combination with my having wanted to read Hearn’s books for years, made it an easy choice for me to begin with this book.
The Tale of Shikanoko is told in what feels like a very Japanese writing style – elegant, poetic, and minimalist. Which is to say, a style that I am not very used to. At first it felt very wooden, more like a ledger account than a story, lacking emotion and intimacy. However, as I grew used to the style I realized that this wasn’t the case. The minimalism of the story doesn’t lack the intimacy that I was looking for – it was just more subtle and shown a bit differently. By the end of book I had not only learned to appreciate the style of the story, but I can see how the approach makes emotional punches that much more effective.
This is a story of an older time – a feudal Japanese world, a time of divine emperors, magic and mysticism where the spirits of the land and those of people are much closer. A time when the world was a smaller place, and humans were a smaller presence. It is a time before (perhaps just before?) the arrival of temples of Buddhism and where the politics and rivals of the elite dominate everything.
In this, The Tale of Shikanoko is not just a great example of Asian-inspired medieval fantasy, but it’s a bridge for those deeply attached to fantasy inspired by medieval Britain and surrounding environs. The parallels are rather striking – a deep mystical tradition of living close the spirits of the land that is threatened by the arrival of a religion from abroad, and a feudal society dominated by the elite where rivals backed by traditions from abroad are at war. At the heart of this tale is a young man connected to the spirit of a great stag. It’s still early in the series to know just where it will end, but I think it’s not a stretch to believe that this young man is bound for some form of greatness, and quite likely, a tragic end. Before reading this book, I had never realized how the Arthurian traditions of Britain so closely parallel the warrior tales of Japan. This of course will lead to the inevitable decrees that The Tale of Shikanoko is the Japanese King Arthur, which is a disservice to both in spite of the very real parallels.
But it really misses the point for me to frame this story in terms of similarities to ‘Western’ traditions and that is not my intent. Merely an observation that I came to time and again while reading.
These are human tales – universal tales of power and love, betrayal and victory, loss and change. It’s a coming of age story, I believe it will become a story of revenge. A story of love, hate, betrayal, and everything in between.
Emperor of the Eight Islands is the first book in this series of four, all of which will be published in 2016. It is the opening, the origin story, the telling of how the stones are placed before the real game begins. It is the first quarter of a whole rather than an independent work, and as appropriate for the minimalist prose, it weighs in at only 270 pages. In many ways I’ve reviewed this book as if I know what’s ahead, which is untrue. I have not read the others in this series, though I now look forward to doing so. It is a universal tale, one that we’ve heard before, though the details are different. Of course most universal tales are tales of change, so what changes are in store?
As I said above, I look forward to finding out.
Tales of Shikanoko
Emperor of the Eight Islands: Amazon
Autumn Princess Dragon Child: Amazon
Lord of the Darkwood: Amazon
The Tengu’s Game of Go: Amazon
Monday, April 25, 2016
It’s a word that I initially wanted to avoid at all costs for this review as I suspect that it’s probably used in just about every review of Swords and Scoundrels by Julia Knight. But, the more I thought about it, I came to conclude that it’s a word that should be fully embraced.
Swashbuckling – it just roles off the tongue. It’s fun to say. It’s one of those words.
So…let’s take a look at what it really means to swashbuckle and be a swashbuckler.
Swashbuckler: a swaggering swordsman (swordswoman), soldier, or adventurer; daredevil
Well, yes, this covers the 2 main characters (a sister and brother duo) in Swords and Scoundrels. It covers it really well, each having different aspects of a swashbuckler. But, it’s really this definition below that I think captures the book.
[to] Swashbuckle: engage in daring and romantic adventures with ostentatious bravado or flamboyance.
That definition above is Swords and Scoundrels in a nutshell, though with some very important caveats. As I said, the book is about a sister/brother duo, each embodying different swashbuckling aspects in different ways – one traditionally flamboyant and one a fair bit darker, though no less a swashbuckler for that darkness. It’s the duality in many ways that has brings more to Swords and Scoundrels than the traditional swashbuckling adventure, offering swashbuckling commentary and even subversion of swashbuckling. Throw in a fantasy setting, large-scale clockworks, a magician or two, and nice bit of populism to add depth, and Swords and Scoundrels is the perfect swashbuckling tale. And as the book is the first in the Duelist Trilogy, there are 2 more presumably equally swashbuckling adventures to follow – excellent!
The Duelist Trilogy
Swords and Scoundrels: Amazon
Legends and Liars: Amazon
Warlords and Wastrels: Amazon
Note, this review joyfully uses a variation of swashbuckle 15 times!
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Updraft by Fran Wilde was released with a fair bit of critical fan-fair in 2015 and I read it a few months post-release based largely on that the good word of many of those I follow in the blogging world. My thoughts on the book are somewhat mixed, though I believe that to be largely a result of relatively high expectations I had from reading other reactions.
In short, I liked the book, I really enjoyed the turns the plot takes, a few of the surprises that are thrown about, and the more political machinations. Where I struggled a bit is with the whole flying thing and the general weirdness of the world.
It’s not that I don’t like a good, weird world of fantasy, it’s just that I was never completely sold on it. I’ve seen the comparisons to this book and worlds created by the likes of China Miéville and I just can’t take things that far. Yes, Miéville creates some very weird worlds, but those creations aren’t questioned in my reading of them, just marveled at. And the very weirdness of those creations usually serves an important point in the thematic goals of the writing. It’s not Wilde doesn’t do these things with her world, it’s just that it didn’t completely work for me. I understand that keeping the origins of these mysteries is key, and I also get that this is fantasy, so fantastic and unexplainable things are around. But it still didn’t gel the way I would have like to see.
However, I don’t want to dwell on these, as they didn’t really bother me all that much. I did like the book. I am looking forward to reading the sequel. And I’m happy to recommend the book to readers at the blog here. Updraft is a coming-of-age story, it is the story of a child seeking information about a parent, there are secrets, and what I enjoyed most is that it’s a story about a moment of upheaval in a society that can and will likely end in a very different place. Plus, living bone towers and people flying around way above a distant, fog-covered ground – it might not have completely worked for me, but is still sounds pretty awesome.
Updraft is the first novel in a planned trilogy in the Bone Universe. The second novel, Cloudbound is forthcoming in September, 2016.
Monday, March 21, 2016
The Red by Linda Nagata is a fun, action-packed take on near-future military science fiction. And it’s best that you go into it with as little advance knowledge as possible (as I did). So, while this isn’t going to be a long review by any means, if that’s the approach that you would want to take, know that it’s a book that I very much enjoyed and enthusiastically recommend that you read, but you shouldn’t read what I have to say below.
Still with me?
OK, what I really like about The Red is that it ambushes the unsuspecting reader. The book starts out as a fairly typical, near-future military science fiction book. It has a bit of mechanized armor, some cool cyber-integration, and it has a lot of fair bit of deeper messaging about the dangers of a military-industrial complex where the private billionaires have taken all decision making related to war from the people, important discussion on the toll all this takes on soldiers with some drug addiction thrown in, and some interesting ideas about criminal-justice, consequences and such. There’s also a nice bit of romance where an old love comes in conflict with all the complications of life and military. Plus it throws in a good bit of terrifying Texas independence crap (note, I was born and raised in Texas, but managed to escape nearly 20 years ago).
All of that makes for a great, fun book that has just enough message to make it extra interesting.
But The Red throws in a big twist. The protagonist apparently has some really accurate instincts that protect him and the soldiers around him. So much that there are ‘jokes’ about it being messages from God. We eventually learn that this instinct is a message from the outside, but it appears to be coming from some form of AI that lives in the internet and can access the soldier through his integrated skullcap, and the top minds in the military have no idea how this is happening. Now an AI itself isn’t such a different thing in military science fiction, even when combined with all the cool stuff above. But what I really enjoy about this particular AI is that it appears to be a marketing program that has ‘evolved’ and that the goal seems to be about improving things and people’s lives. Because, after all, happy, successful people spend more money. This makes for a really cool contrast to cynicism of everything else going on in the book and makes a great read into a truly memorable book.
The Red is the first book in a trilogy, so things don’t move all that far, and I fully expect that there are more twists to come in the future books and resolutions are not exactly what one would expect – that’s called good writing, and after reading The Red, it’s what I would expect to continue in to the other books of the trilogy.
Anyway, to bring this around full circle, The Red is a great book, the rest of the trilogy is out there and it’s criminal that I haven’t read them yet. So, both of us need to get reading.
The Red Trilogy
The Red: Amazon
The Trials: AmazonGoing Dark: Amazon
Wednesday, February 03, 2016
10 years ago I uploaded the first post to this blog (please don’t judge me by the quality of my first post J). Those that know me in real life would not consider me particularly introspective or such (my wife would laugh at the concept), but those who have read this blog over the years have seen a different side of me. And as one may expect from a blog post about a blog’s anniversary there’s a fair bit of introspection (or self wankery?) below. Read as you will, but at least let me say that it’s been a wild ride for 10 years and I have no plans to stop anytime soon.
This blog began rather simply – as a place to throw up a few attempts I had made at writing reviews. I had been active on a few forums (mostly Wheel of Time forums – remember wotmania?) and people actually seemed to care what I thought of books I was reading. The format of wotmania was rather terrible, so I threw my fledgling reviews up on a blog as a repository of sorts and because blogs seemed be gaining popularity in genre circles and even drawing attention away from forums and the like. I never actually expected people would read that blog, so I was quite surprised to find that people were – I was even more surprised when I learned that some of the people commenting on the blog worked for publishers. Eventually I worked up some courage to ask for a review copy of a book – and then I discovered the key to blog happiness – free books, or at least a way to finally address my book buying habit and cut that annual expense by several hundred dollars.
OK, it’s not really about the free books and it never was, though I’d be lying if I pretended it hasn’t been a factor. It’s pretty cool to get books early. It was really cool to be in on the early trend of blogs. Did you know I was the first blogger to interview Patrick Rothfuss – he was completely unheard of and the publisher was trying hard to get his name out there (this was for another forum I was a part of and it seems to be lost to the intranets junkyard). Anyway, I’m indulging the wankery, so let’s move on.
What I really want to say with all this has little to do with the opportunities that this blog has afforded me or even the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve received over the years. I want to talk about how writing this blog has been an agent of change for me. I’ve said many times over the years that the reviews I write are really for me, and for the most part that’s actually true. The majority of my reviews are a conversation that I’m having with myself. And many of them are full of obscure references and jokes that only my warped sense of humor would find funny or even recognize as a joke. And through all of those conversations with myself, with other reviewers, with authors, with industry people, and with the multitude of fans I’ve had the opportunity to interact with, I’ve grown as a person.
Let’s face it, my life is an excellent example of cis-gendered, white male, privilege. 10 years ago I would have joyfully informed you how I was not racist or sexist and that I’m completely ‘colorblind’ and ‘genderblind’ in my selection of books to read. And the fact that 90% of the books I was reading were written by white men would have been written off with one excuse or another. Over the years I have become aware of this. Informed. I now strive to recognize the unconscious sexism and racism buried within me that’s been fed to me by society my entire life. I actively seek out diversity. I will look at the books I’ve read and say ‘gee, that’s 3 book in a row written by men, I need to read a few written by women’ or ‘when’s the last time you read a book written by a non-western writer, you need to do something about that’. Am I perfect? No, absolutely not. I have not achieved parity in this or even what is probably a reasonable balance. But I do continue to strive. Last year I think about 50% of the books I read were written by women, though I’d guess that only about 20% were written by people of color, non-western writers, or other disproportionally ‘overlooked’ peoples. So, there’s a lot of room for future growth.
But, what’s really making the difference for me, is that this all goes beyond reading and beyond the blog. Because in the real world I have a job where I interact with people and even supervise a few. In the real world I am a family man with an 8-year old son and a 5-year old daughter. I am more aware of the nasty racist and sexist messages society is trying to engrain in my children. I am aware of some of the ‘extra’ challenges faced by the young women I supervise. I am more aware of the challenges my wife faces as a research scientist surrounded by men who have the ‘freedom’ to work 80 hour weeks.
And I use this awareness. I’m the father who seeks out children’s books about girls and minorities. I’m the father browsing feminist book recommendations for children. Yes, I do this to help my daughter. But I don’t let my son off the hook – I read those books with him too. Books about girls are just as cool as books about boys. I’m the father who starts the conversation with my son about how Rey is my favorite character in the new Star Wars and how I admire how Finn makes very difficult decisions and comes around to make the right decisions in the end. And these things work – before such conversations he would talk about Han and Kylo Ren and such. But now, he talks about how Rey is his favorite too. I seek out ‘dolls’ for my daughter to play with that are engineers and scientists. I actively try to break societal expectations and show my children that it’s no accident. These are only a few examples of many that I can point to, but the point of all of this is that it began in a very different place with very different ideas and expectations 10 years ago with the start of yet another blog in yet another corner of an exponentially growing internet.
So, it has been a journey, a really spectacular journey. Maybe even a hero’s journey (OK, that’s way too far, but maybe you see the kernel buried in that analogy). I am thankful for journey and grateful that it has helped me improve as a human being.
And the journey will continue. I have no intention of stopping blogging anytime soon.
And be excellent to each other!
Posted by Neth at 2/03/2016 08:00:00 AM
Monday, January 18, 2016
Last November I visited Asia for the first time, specifically Japan. From the moment that I learned I would be going to Japan, I began to look more and more forward to it. One of the things I wanted to do in preparation was read a couple of SFF books from Japan. Not just the big stuff by the likes of Murakami but something that was maybe a bit more authentic, and even pulp-ish. So I turned to the specialty publishing house of Haikasoru and browsed their catalog for interesting sounding books. Of course I found many, but had to limit to a couple of choices.
One of those choices was MM9 (Monster Magnitude 9) by Hiroshi Yamamoto. I chose it because it’s more or less contemporary, plus obviously from the same lineage as Godzilla and just sounded fun. MM9 tells a series of related stories (think pulp fiction here) of a special unit called the Meteorological Agency Monsterological Measures Department (MMD) as they protect Japan from the growing threat of natural disasters in the form of giant monsters, or kaiju. Of course there’s a grand conspiracy at foot.
As I said above, this is pulp fiction – it feels as if it were a series of episodic short stories that were brought together. It also feels snarky – this may be a translation issue, but I really think that these stories don’t take themselves entirely seriously. It’s especially interesting (or funny) how so much emphasis is given to ‘rating’ the size of the monsters and then gifting them with a name (nice and corny – names like ‘Princess’, ‘Megadrake’, and ‘Seacloud’). And it really does fascinate me to wonder if it’s something lost in translation, that the book is truly snarky, or if like the first, this is an aspect of Japanese pop culture that just feels snarky to us in the USA.
MM9 has all of the campy fun of good pulp fiction and it provided exactly what I was looking for. Something a bit different than I usually read as well as a different sort of perspective of Japan in advance of my trip. And yes, it did give me some interesting perspective that I wasn’t going to find in the Lonely Planet guides. Specifically some ideas on the general economic malaise of a country that has been in one recession or another for almost 20 years, and a bit of hint on just how much the pop culture in Japan leans in its unique direction (in addition to the snarky fascination I mention above). I will not even try to describe that uniqueness of the pop culture in Japan beyond an image I saw on my first evening – a man of around 40 dressed in his every day suit (much nicer than the one I own), reading a graphic novel on a bullet train while eating a quick meal and drinking a beer, with a very loud, cartoonish advertisement on the wall above him.
Anyway, MM9 was a fun book to read and just what I wanted. I certainly recommend the books of Haikasoruas a source of some great Japanese SFF.
MM9 by Hiroshi Yamamoto: Amazon
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
In a time where if you look at the posts on this blog you are just as likely to find a post explaining why I’m not posting very much because of all the @$%# life throws at me as to find an actual review or other genre-related post, it’s not all that surprising that I am reading a lot books that are simple fun. Call it escapism or whatever. But one of the most important criteria for me to choose a book is just how fun it will be. I’m certainly not looking for something that will reflect life too much (like when I bounced off Last First Snow).
Anyway, one series that I love to come back to for some nice, simple fun is The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne. Staked is the eighth book in this series and by far the best yet. The star of the show, Atticus, has always been the driver of the series, but Hearne has been building the scope and leaning more heavily on other characters. Most notable is Atticus’ partner, Granuaile, who has been a growing presence in the books. In Staked, it feels like Hearne finally gets her voice ‘right’ and believable (rather than cringe-worthy as the early points of view were). Granuaile has been largely on her own and independent from Atticus for 2 books now, and I think that was what was really needed to bring her into her own.
Atticus’ arch-druid, Owen is also a growing and welcome presence. While not (yet?) nearly as strong as a character as Granuaile, he is an interesting foil and fun addition to the books. Plus, it looks like he’s putting roots down in my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, so we’ll hopefully get to see more of the area as time goes on*.
So, the fun continues. Consequences from earlier actions come due. Gods die. Vampires are staked. Action-packed, nerdy wish-fulfillment complete!
I know that Hearne is growing his career and expanding into other areas of writing (Star Wars, epic fantasy, etc.), but I’m so glad that he’s primed this series to continue and I’m hoping that we get at least 8 more!
The Iron Druid Chronicles
*Kevin, if you’re reading this, there’s a nice new independent bookstore in Flagstaff –Barefoot Cowgirl Books. I’m sure they’d love to have you for a signing!
Monday, January 11, 2016
Some background information that you probably won’t care about:
A small sample of those hundreds
(thousands?) of books waiting to be
I’ve seen a fair bit of buzz around the books of Jason M. Hough, particularly his first trilogy (The Dire Earth Cycle) which is a form of military science fiction that I’ve just never found myself in the mood for, even though I have full trilogy collecting dust on a bookcase. Anyway, I had that privilege to meet Jason when he visited Arizona last year and converse over a beer or two (I’m still rather unhappy that I had forgotten his books to get them signed). So, I will be completely honest, I read his book because we had beers together – yes, I had copies of his books and yes, they seemed like fun books to read. But the distinguishing feature that made me read his book over the hundreds of others I have lying around my office was that I met him in person and enjoyed our conversations. And it didn’t hurt that in an earlier conversation that I had with Brian Staveley, Brian had very positive things to say about Zero World. Yes, book tours matter. Yes, there are sometimes ‘perks’ to being a blogger. And yes, I hope to meet Jason again, converse over more drinks, and hopefully I’ll remember to bring books for him to sign.
Zero World intrigued me initially because it sounded like a fun and interesting take on a spy thriller in a near-future science fiction world. Basically, and Asian James Bond in the future. And initially, that is exactly what Zero World is – a fun and interesting take on the spy thriller where our spy/assassin has his memory wiped after every mission. There are some interesting bits about the whole memory reset process, the moral ambiguity that comes from being a successful assassin with no memory of his actions, and of course just who is the ‘god’ voice in this assassin’s head and what are their motivations. This, and our assassin gets a physical boost in speed, strength, and healing through some nice chemical enhancements.
But, even though all of that is more than enough for its own story, it gets bigger. Before long, this near-future SF book becomes ‘portal’ SF to a parallel world, with things ending up in a near Space Opera scope, though we still see it all through our Bond-like assassin. Then we begin to see things through the eyes of another spy from the parallel world. With the broadening of the scope comes a broadening of exploration – our assassin questions his morals, his goals, his purpose. In parallel we learn to question the motivations of others, particularly those in power. The further up the proverbial tower of power, the worse things seem to be. In this respect, Zero World is a fresh take on old ideas.
But, don’t let me get too deep here, because I run the risk of skipping over the true strengths of this book. It’s the pacing – a lot of things happen fast. This is about 3 books in 1, and it works. Zero World keeps the adrenaline flowing, the mind begging to know what comes next, and it won’t let you go to sleep. This is entertainment. This is fun. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.
So, as usual, no plot summary here. And as is (sadly) becoming more and more common with my reviews, it’s rather short and doesn’t dig in as I like to do. But, in the end it doesn’t matter. In the end, a review is an opinion, and in my opinion, Zero World is great book written by a great guy.
Zero World (Amazon)
The Dire Earth Cycle
The Darwin Elevator (Amazon)
The Exodus Towers (Amazon)
The Plague Force (Amazon)
Monday, January 04, 2016
So, this is the periodic post to say that I'm not dead yet. This blog is still active and I do have a lot reviews that are forthcoming. Anyway, it's just been a bit of extra busy at home and work with many fall birthdays, holidays and stuff like having a son on a club soccer team (multiple practices every week, weekend trips for games, etc.). Plus, because we weren't busy enough, this little guy joined the family about 2 weeks ago.
So, still crazy busy. Will be for a while to come. But look for new content in January. And hopefully something to celebrate 10 years of blogging in February.
Posted by Neth at 1/04/2016 12:01:00 PM
Friday, October 09, 2015
First, let me be clear, I did not finish the book Last First Snow by Max Gladstone, so this isn’t a true review. Some people strongly believe that if you don’t finish a book, you should not comment on it at a blog like mine. Well, I disagree, because I think that sharing reasons why I don’t finish a book are just as valid as sharing the reasons why I finish reading and enjoy (or not) books. And let me be further clear that I believe a lot of why I didn’t finish this book comes down to the old standard excuse – ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. So, you have been warned.
I have heard many good things about the books that Max Gladstone writes in the Craft Sequence, so many that I’ve been waiting for a good place to jump in. It is my understanding that they are all written to be stand-alone books in a related sequence and that Last First Snow is ‘first’ in the sense of timeline. So, I thought it would be good entry point.
This is a book that I should like and I genuinely feel that the concept at its core is brilliant. The book and the world combine social activism of the real world with a fantasy world full of Aztec-inspired deities and monsters. This is the story of a fantasy protest movement. It’s the story of magical lawyers and big city mayors who are undead skeletons. In short it’s full of a lot cool, unusual stuff with real depth and relevance to our own world.
But, I didn’t finish this book, and that is something that is pretty rare for me. Was it too dense? No. Did I not connect with the characters? No. So, then what is the problem? And further, I made it pretty far before I actually stopped – page 228 of 380.
I think that it’s because it’s all too real. Last First Snow expertly describes and identifies with so many social problems of our own world – in short, it works too well.
Part of why I read is for escape, especially at this point in my life when I have so much going on and I simply don’t have the emotional depth and strength to pile on any more. This book, as fantastic as it is, did not prove to be that escape. It pretty well just reinforced a lot of the issues I need to deal with. It realistically shows the conflict of one’s ideas with the family they love and care for and have committed to. There are no good choices. And it touches way too close to home for me. Also, all of my ‘senses’ kept telling me that something really awful was about to happen, again, something reflecting a real world all too close to my own.
All of this proved too much for me. I wasn’t enjoying reading, I was dreading it. It was time to put the book aside. Will I come back to it? Maybe…I hope so, but it’s hard for me to predict when. Most likely I’ll try another book in the Craft Sequence first, but again, it will probably be a while.
The Craft Sequence
Monday, August 24, 2015
If you regularly follow this blog, then you know that I can be a bit … delayed in my reviewing (and if you’re new, howdy and now you know). I’ve made no secret that I’m just busy and it can be hard for me to keep up. But I do keep up, just slowly. So, my reviewing these days runs roughly 3 months behind when I finish a book – unless it doesn’t, because some reviews beg to be written more immediately, but the muse is a finicky seductress, and I digress.
Anyway, my rambling does have a point and that is that I was very happy to see Wesley Chu win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the 2015 Hugo Awards. And that has inspired me to finally get around to my ‘review’ of his debut novel, The Lives of Tao.
Honestly, I don’t have a lot to add to the narrative that you’ll find out there, so details here are intentionally sparse. I will simply say that this book is tons of fun. It’s a (sort-of) weird book about alien possession and international espionage, about secret organizations that actually control the world, and even the evolution of humanity and its civilization. Or maybe it’s about a loser in a go-nowhere tech job. That description alone is enough to probably bounce a number of readers and probably the reason that The Lives of Tao found its home with Angry Robot publishing which is known for taking chances on books that the big publishers can’t envision a market for. But, don’t fall for the trap – this book is too much fun to pass up.
If you love the idea of near-immortal, body snatching aliens controlling everything, where one takes over the life a forgettable geek and turns him into an uber spy and international man of mystery – this book is for you. And if you like the sound of some of that, but the rest seems a bit too far out there…read it anyway. This book is fun. It’s well written, it is damn near impossible to put down, and it always leaves you wanting to read more and more. It’s awesome y’all – it’s the stuff that wins awards. It’s a summer read, a beach read, or hell, it’s a great read for tonight.
Get the point? Read it. And, there are sequels. Plus another trilogy is forthcoming. All is good.
The Rise of Io: Forthcoming
Thursday, August 13, 2015
One way I survive all that shit life throws at me is through compartmentalizing. I create (artificial) boundaries, I develop boxes for thinking within and without, I live in context, I have many limits. In many ways it’s a fundamental part of human nature, though some people do it more than others. However, we all have our own system.
Likewise, books beg to be shelved, and the system for shelving can be deeply personal. Sure there’s that Dewey Decimal system that anyone under the age of 35 can’t possibly fathom, and every time I visit a library I realize just how much I’ve forgotten about it, but I digress. How do books get shelved, categorized, or boxed? Do you first sort by read versus not read (I often do)? Then do you alphabetize? By author’s name, by book title? Do divide into genre? What about subgenre?
I’ve rambled through the beginning of this review because context is so important. The context I come from, the way I categorize books, and how I approach it. And more directly, all of these variables can allow one to see a book at many more levels than may be first evident.
The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato is one such book. It’s set in a secondary world – so it must be fantasy? It has clockwork in its title and largely occurs on a dirigible, so it must be steampunk? But there’s magic, so back to fantasy? But there all these machines and clockwork technology – plus Victorian-like monarchy, so it has to be steampunk? But, there’s clearly a romantic story-arc, so it can only be paranormal romance? Oh please, can’t you tell it’s really a post-modern, weird western?
All of the above characteristics of The Clockwork Dagger are very real and inform what it is, but let’s approach it as a steampunk book, since that’s the way it’s dressed and it would seem that’s what it wants the world to think it is. In this respect, it has everything that a good steampunk book should offer – Victorian-esque world, mystery, secret agents, clockwork/steam technology, guns, and dirigibles.
But, look at what I’ve written above…does it matter? I’ve written about what box the book goes in, what shelf it belongs to. I’ve written about the setting, the world built to frame the book. I haven’t really touched on what this book is and what it has to say.
To get to what the book is and what it says, one must start with the heart of the book – Octavia Leander. Octavia is a young woman starting out on her first independent, professional venture in the world. She is a healer, a magical healer, one of great talent and who must be careful in what she shows the world around her. Her world is war-torn and she bears scars of that war herself. She is the maiden with a heart-of-gold who is out of her depth in the great big world. Predictably she meets a man who becomes a love interest, there is threat to her wellbeing, she is betrayed by someone close to her, and it all has big implications. But, just because those things are predictable, doesn’t mean they are bad. Because it comes back to Octavia who is a wonderfully compelling character with a perspective on things that is downright amusing even when deadly serious.
The Clockwork Dagger is also a (almost) traditional murder-mystery set in an enclosed space. Most of the book takes place on a dirigible where strange attacks keep occurring. Why? Who? It all gets mixed up with agents from the eastern wastes, agents from the crown, a long-missing princess, and of course, Octavia herself, who is slowly realizing that she’s not just an average magical healer, but something more.
And wrapped up in all of this are some really excellent ‘goodies’ that round out a great story and loveable protagonist with some meaty depth. In a secondary, Victorian-world, it’s hard to leave out those troubling bits of colonial, post-colonial, racial and ethnic tensions, and Cato certainly does not. Additionally, there’s a juicy bit of science vs. magic vs. religion wrapped up in the story. Rounding this out is another little bit that I always love to see in SFF books – realization that the status quo is not a good thing. There are implications of social justice, poisonous leadership and a real need for progressive change.
Now, I’ve rambled on for quite a bit, wrapping this review up in the context of boxes and shelves, then knocking those aside, rambling more, and I still haven’t flat-out offered up my opinion on all this, which is what I strongly believe is the most important part of a review. Did I like this book?
This book is a fun mystery and adventure through a creative, well-rounded (western) steampunk world. But it’s Octavia and her merry band of friends and conspirators that make it the fun book that it is. Of course, I want more, and more there is. The Clockwork Crown rounds out the duology and is available now, along with a (prequel) novella, The Deepest Poison.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
At immense and incomprehensible sacrifice, I agreed last night to bail Rocket Talk host Justin Landon out his lack of preparation by being a last-minute, unplanned guest on the Rocket Talk Podcast (this of course is a huge exaggeration as Justin had a family emergency to deal with). Of course, I had zero time to think in advance about how I would answer the obvious questions, plus I have a nasty summer cold and was medicated up, and me being me, I also imbued a bit of whisky (purely to numb my rasping throat). Not to mention this was my first podcast. I'm fairly certain the title of this blogpost is more articulate than what I managed last night.
Oh, and then we answered questions from Twitter. Thanks guys /sacrasm
BUT, it was lots of fun. I can only hope that I didn't make too big of an idiot of myself. So, if you are inclined, have a listen. And thanks to Justin who picked me out of what must have been dozens of willing volunteers to be a last-minute sub.
Posted by Neth at 8/12/2015 01:45:00 PM
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
I must preface this review with some necessary context about myself, which of course will ramble a fair bit as I often do.
Over the past several years I’ve come to realize that what I write at this blog aren’t really reviews, as my ‘reviews’ often don’t really summarize the books I discuss. Likewise, I’ve never claimed to be a critic, as this certainly isn’t an academic exercise and I (mostly) don’t critically discuss and analyze the text. What I write is both for those who haven’t read the book and for those that have. What I write about is my reaction to books – there may be some summary and there may be discussion on how a book converses with genre and other aspects of the world – but what I do here is express my opinion about the book and how I reacted to it. In short, my writings here (usually) are not conversations with those who have or have not read the book I discuss, but conversations with myself.
So, to aid you in understanding this particular conversation with myself, I will provide some important context. Because this book, more so than most books I read, was very specifically set-up to be a book that I would fall completely in love with or became so annoyed with that I could not tolerate it even a little bit. This is a book that could almost certainly have no middle ground whatsoever. You may be asking yourself why. In a word: geology.
My day job and even where I put a huge amount of volunteer effort, is in geology, specifically engineering geology, but that is neither here nor there. My ‘expertise’ in this world is in applied geology. This is what I do, and since I live in a society that is defined by that career/jobs we are boxed into, in many ways, it is what I am.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is geology applied to epic fantasy in a way I have never seen it before. No, it’s not dinosaurs with people, or clever geologic names, or even a geologically influenced map. The Fifth Season is geology made into epic fantasy, primarily through magic. The magic of this book occurs through people (and other ‘beings’) directly manipulating geologic forces. The world is one in constant geologic upheaval and some people have the power to reduce or enhance these phenomena.
Hopefully, my long preamble is starting show some focus. The Fifth Season would live or die by me on all of the little, tiny details that won’t matter or mean much to 99% of its readers. I suppose, conversely, that means that this review (or reaction?), probably won’t mean much to 99% of those of you out there. But you’ve made it this far, so why not see it through to the end (no worries, I write about much more than just geology)?
Typically when I read fiction, and most of that falls squarely in the greater SFF world, I don’t have much problem with suspending belief. Particularly with geology. I can usually pretty well ignore any issue or inconsistency. It’s not hard – because hey, it’s fantasy. But with The Fifth Season it’s too much in my face – it is geomagic (my word, not Jemisin’s – hers is much cooler). This is the dying earth metaphor in the form of fantastic geology. The folly of humanity, geologic retribution.
So far I’ve laid hints, but not flat-out said which extreme my reaction fall into. So, I’ll say it now – I love this book! The geologic aspects are very well handled – and orogene is an excellent name for a ‘geologic sorcerer’ (for a quick lesson, while it’s not technically a word in English, orogene plays on orogeny, which can mean a lot of things, but at its most basic, it refers to a mountain building event in geologic time). If I tried really hard, I could come up with some nitpicking, but considering that I would have to try so hard in a book that puts geology front and center, well that is an accomplishment. Also joyfully worth noting, geologic names for characters – Syenite, Alabaster, Carnelian, etc. (all are rocks and/or minerals).
OK, I do need to talk about some other aspects of this book. First, I think a lot of people will be talking about this book because there really is a metric shit-ton of interesting stuff in this book (yes, ‘shit-ton’ is a geologic term…at least for me it is). I’ll start with what the book is – the synopsis I read speaks of apocalypse and post-apocalyptic happenings (usually this is an instant no-go for me in a book, but that is another essay altogether). It certainly fits the general idea of epic fantasy – there’s a quest, there’s magic, etc. But what it really fits is the dying earth motif*. Past sins of humanity destroyed the natural order of the world and humanity barely survived. And the cycle of disaster now repeats itself, with humanity ever approaching the point where they don’t survive. Is this the story of the end?
Additionally, the story is told through a beautiful mosaic of diversity. The cast is largely non-white, generally lacking specific analogs to the racial and ethnic breakdown of our world. In addition to a female lead, other descriptors of the major and minor characters include transgender, gay, and bisexual. What’s best is that none of those details matter all that much to the plot. They are simply there because that’s the way it is. Which is the way it should be.
Voice. Voice makes or breaks a work of fiction, and what may be the most significantly interesting characteristic of The Fifth Season is voice. First, there is second, as in second person. This rarely used narrative voice lends both distance and intimacy to the description of the end of the world. Particularly since it’s more than the end of the world, as the voice is that of someone whose world has already ended. There is a journey as a three points of view slowly converge on clarity in the face of chaos. The journey of woman – child to teen/young adult to mother. Conflicts and emotions are different, yet relatable. And the world ends.
The Fifth Season is the first book in The Broken Earth Trilogy. Emotionally and thematically The Fifth Season provides a full plot arc as the first book in a trilogy is supposed to do, if not exactly ending with the triumphant pause in the three-act play of a trilogy. Plot-wise, there’s something of a cliff-hanger that really has me wanting to read the next book now.
I’ve thrown around the term dying earth in this review a few times as it can be a very powerful metaphor for the folly of humanity. In The Fifth Season you can choose your own analog. And this blends well into the tragedy of single human lives that make for such compelling literature. Again, in The Fifth Season you can choose your own analog for that tragedy. The Fifth Season is the story of a dying earth, it is the story of an apocalypse in a world of repeating apocalyptic events, though this just might be the end of it all. It is also the story of very personal journey(s) through a time of upheaval, and one that creates opportunity to relate on many levels. As a mother, as an outcast, as a talented and ambitious professional, as a slave to society. As I say above – choose your own metaphor – Jemisin laid the ground work for at least half a dozen, which opens the door for even more.
The best fantasy does not strive to restore the status quo. It seeks progress, progress that can be ugly…very ugly. In many cultures and traditions death is not the end, but an end. In that end there is the implication for rebirth, the implication of progress along a greater journey. I have a sneaking sense that what Jemisin is doing in The Broken Earth Trilogy is not just the end, but also the beginning of progress toward something more.
So, my own journey with The Fifth Season began with the superficial connection to a single metaphor. Or you could say that it began with the earth (maybe even the Earth). And while I quite clearly reveled in that connection, drilling deeper, to the core of the story kills the connection to the earth. In that death there is the birth of the connection to humanity, which completes the circle for a personal connection.
The Fifth Season is SFF of potential, perhaps the most potential that can be had at this moment in time.
The Broken Earth Trilogy
*It’s worth noting that Jemisin has said that the Stillness of the The Broken Earth Trilogy is not Earth and was never intended to be Earth. It is a secondary world, though I stand by my assertion that at least in the case of The Fifth Season, there is far more kinship to Dying Earth motifs than the dime-a-dozen post-apocalyptic SFF series plaguing genre these days.