Thursday, March 23, 2017
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez is an outrageous series adventures and take on the life of a superhero. These adventures, with seemingly no real rhyme or reason or even a sense of logical design through in everything and the kitchen sink – if kitchen sink is an evil cyborg alien musical pirate magician and maybe Yakuza enforcer as well, or just Verity’s grade school teacher. Every ridiculous form of an ‘evil antagonist’ is possible, likely, and quite possibly combined in some improbable match with another to make things more interesting and humorous.
Constance Verity is said superhero – magically endowed at birth to have adventures, she’s good at them and repeatedly saves the world. But…she’s tired, and it becomes almost a buddy adventure when Connie teams up with her (mundane) best-friend for her ‘last adventure’.
But, through all of the wild, over-the-top fun of this book, I couldn’t help but begin viewing it a metaphor for women in modern American society. Perhaps I’m reading into this book too much, but stay with me for bit. The entire universe is literally throwing ‘adventure’ after ‘adventure’ at Constance Verity. She can’t get a cup of coffee without some Yakuza ninja enforcer getting in the way. Or maybe a lizard alien magician. Etc. She never gets a break. The universe is literally a machine designed to make sure she has no close attachments, distractions or anything else in her life that could keep her from doing what it want her to do. She’s exhausted, she’s tired. She just wants a ‘normal’ life and some rest. She was literally cursed to this life this by a sadistic fairy godmother working on behalf of the machine of the universe. Hell, the book opens with us learning that the earth is nothing more than a giant monster that a cult wants to feed Constance Verity to as a sacrifice of appeasement. Yes, the whole world is literally out to eat her.
Then I take a look at my wife, all the shit life has thrown at her lately. All the responsibilities that the machine of society throws on her. All of the asshole men of the world who make it that much harder. The impossible expectations that society forces up on her. To not be too assertive, but not be timid. Too appear how society views is appropriate, but not to be too much. Etc. Etc. How completely beat down she can get by it all. How she so often just wants to give up on all of it. And how she gets out of bed the next morning (after not getting enough sleep since sometime in the ‘90s), and saves the world…again.
Once I captured this vision of The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, I couldn’t see it any other way. It transformed the outrageous, fun adventure into something more – bitter, angry, and intensely sarcastic satire. Which is right where my warped sense of humor lives.
Further, take a moment to think about what the name Constance Verity means.
Constance: Firm of purpose, constant
Ouch! And fuck you!
And then my sense of humor kicks in and I laugh for 5 minutes.
Look, I don’t know Martinez and from what I gleaned from a quick bit of reading blog posts and the like, Constance Verity gets its origins more from superhero lore with a good bit of discussion of free will, determinism, and agency in life. Plus you know, fun, humorous, and completely over-the-top adventure. It doesn’t look like Martinez set out to write a dark, satirical feminist manifesto about women ‘having it all’. And I’m sure with a close look the metaphor would probably break down in some troubling ways. It for sure breaks down toward the end of the book – a happy ending plus some nice balance in life achieved? That only exists in Hollywood, self-help books, and mommy blogs. But I simply cannot un-see my view of the book, and I think it’s better for it.
So…most readers will joyously take The Last Adventure of Constance Verity at face value – and more power to them, because it is completely ridiculous in all the best ways. You can feel the fun that Martinez had in writing it, and that fun is contagious. Or maybe you’ll see it through a similar lens as I do and your own sense of humor will allow for a different level of amusement. Or maybe something entirely different. But do read this book, because however you choose to filter it, it’s outrageously fantastic. Oh...and my understanding is that this was not actually Verity's last adventure and more are to come with Constance Verity Saves the World expected in 2018.
Constance Verity Series
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity: Amazon
Constance Verity Saves the World: Amazon
Friday, March 17, 2017
John Scalzi begins a new space opera with The Collapsing Empire which is sure to please fans of science fiction. In short it is fun, fast-paced and very accessible. Or…just the book I was needing to read when I read it.
The set-up is a 1000+ year old empire spanning multiple space systems that utilize a sort of parallel energy called the flow to travel between systems where standard travel would never be possible because of the true distance between stars. The empire has been intentionally designed to be interdependent, where no single system will have the ability to survive independently of the others. A few individuals learn that the flow that ‘connects’ systems is about to shift over a period of only a few years, fragmenting humanity into isolated worlds that are doomed to tragic ends.
Along the way we learn that the entire socioeconomic structure of the empire with its monopolistic guilds, strict societal class delineations, and dynastic rule is all just a con job to further enrich the powerful and keep the masses just content enough to not cause too much trouble. In an entrenched, bureaucratic society the will to actually meet an existential threat simply doesn’t exist, and often the will to even acknowledge the possibility that such a threat could be real is lacking.
The Collapsing Empire largely serves as an introduction to the empire, to the physics of Scalzi’s created universe, and to the characters who personalize the story. In this, there is a lot of exposition, but not so much that I was ever bothered by it. Scalzi writes with a brisk pace and a slight irreverence that sets a nicely balanced tone for the book (and presumably the rest of the series). Humor is a big part of it, but it’s more a sense of levity in the face of what’s to come that drives the story. The end result is that things feel more hopeful than anything, making the story fun to read, even in the face disastrous consequence for humanity. And through all the levity, Scalzi still manages to set the stage well for an empire that has stagnated or even regressed, where innovation and flexibility is stifled by tradition and economic interest in the status quo.
It is often said that Scazli writes some of the most accessible science fiction, and I certainly agree. Concepts are not that difficult for someone on the outside of the science fiction world to enjoy, yet they are thought through enough to satisfy (most of) those who are long-time fans. It’s full of high adventure and fun with consequences that matter to story.
For all of this to be successful, it comes down to the people of the story, and Scalzi excels in this. Three main characters are built up as the protagonists of The Collapsing Empire – the newly ascended Emperor, the scientist son of the researcher who discovered the impending collapse of the flow, and familial representative of one of the largest trade guilds. Or the inexperienced political outsider who unexpected ascends to the most powerful role in the galaxy, the naïve young scientist from a remote backwater, and hard-edged and exquisitely foul-mouthed business person who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Even the antagonists of the story are somewhat likable as they are really more self-interested in the extreme than actually evil – cutthroat is perhaps the better term.
The two most powerful characters in the story are women – and I could probably write an entire review just on Kiva, the foul-mouthed trade representative mentioned above. She steals every single scene she is in, and is only briefly upstaged when we meet her mother. It’s choices like this that help make Scalzi’s writing so accessible, or to put another way, consistent with modern sensibilities as it projects some progressive advances for a far-future civilization (contrasted with the stagnation discussed above). For example, sexual identity and gender are subtly shown to be accepted for what they are and normative for the society. And it really is important when a popular science fiction novel that will likely land itself on multiple best-seller list makes these choices.
Given what I’ve said above, as I close out this review, I really feel the need to emphasize something about this novel: FUN. It is fun to read. Scalzi’s humorous, fast-paced, and slightly irreverent writing takes over this book. I raced through this book, finishing in a just a few days, at a time when I typically take a few weeks to read a book. Call it escapism or just simply fun readying, The Collapsing Empire delivers. But damn it, a cliff-hanger* ending? That’s not cool, because I want the sequel now!
*Cleverly, the cliff-hanger moment is more intellectual and not action-based. Which is a nice bit, though not really solace when I want to read the sequel now.
The Collapsing Empire: Amazon
Friday, March 03, 2017
I love books, which really isn’t much of a surprise coming from someone who has a blog about books. So, it’s not much of a stretch for me to love libraries too – after all, they are huge collections of books, and I do have my daydreams of one day having a perfectly snobbish private library for all of my books, but I digress.
So…fantasy stories about libraries…I’m rather predisposed to liking them. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman is just that, a fantasy adventure centered on a great library where librarians have magical powers that they use to cross between worlds to collect books. Yes, there’s a greater struggle across all the worlds between order and chaos, full of fantastical beings that fall on various ends of that spectrum – chaotic fae, orderly dragons, etc. But it all comes back to magical librarian doesn’t it?
The story is pretty basic…a mid-level librarian is assigned a new apprentice and a new task that should be pretty straight-forward. Collect a book in a mildly chaotic world and bring it back. Of course it turns out to be more complicated, of greater importance and way more dangerous than anticipated. There are mixed loyalties, betrayals, mysterious origins and all that jazz. Even a nice hum of romantic tension is thrown about as it mingles with Victorian-style propriety and modern ideas of sexual freedom.
This is Cogman’s debut book, and it sometimes reads as such with a bit too much exposition and pacing difficulties. But then I can forgive pacing issues when librarians are the stars – how many librarians have you known have a tendency to go off on a tangent right in the middle of the search for that precious book?
I quite enjoyed The Invisible Library and heartily recommend it for a bit of bookishly fun diversion. I haven’t yet made it to the sequels, though the beckon from the shelves of my want-to-be library.
The Invisible Library: Amazon
The Masked City: Amazon
The Burning Page: Amazon
Monday, January 23, 2017
Tad Williams returns to the world of Osten Ard after 20+ years in The Heart of What Was Lost. In part, this short novel serves as a reintroduction of Osten Ard in advance of the forthcoming trilogy: The Last King of Osten Ard. But more than a simple reintroduction, I found The Heart of What Was Lost to be a very meta coda to the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series – a response coming 20 years later, in part admitting the shortcomings of the previous series and state of epic fantasy fiction of the times, a message of leadership and the future for today, and what I suspect is a tease of changes to come in The Last King of Osten Ard.
The Heart of What Was Lost is set in the aftermath of the events that end the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, and feature dueling perspectives of a human army pursuing the remnant forces of the Norns with intent to eradicate them and that of the Norns themselves. One of the strongest aspects of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series was its portrayal of the horrors of war, rather than the traditional glorification often seen in fantasy (or at least fantasy of the 1980s and 1990s). This is the core of The Heart of What Was Lost as the army of the Northmen seeks genocide in vengeance to the horrors the Norns brought upon people and the world. This is balanced by the perspective of the Norns fleeing, only thinking of the survival of their race and doing everything they can to achieve that survival.
The Heart of What Was Lost is the story of two leaders of their people, how they fight to survive, and ultimately, the sacrifices they will make. One leader serves as the heart of their people, the other people have lost their heart and are seemingly directionless in their efforts to survive. Both are forced to look at the traditions of the past and confront what the future can be. Are the traditions and actions of the past going to bring about a future they can be proud of?
While it’s not the focus, the weight and responsibility of leadership is on full display. True leadership is not an act of the selfishness, but one of sacrifice. Leadership is about the people and the future, it doesn’t relish in the past, and it makes the hard choice. In The Heart of What Was Lost, the balance of life, death and survival brings focus and immediacy to it all. Can the leaders do what is needed?
A third perspective is brought in, not only as a balance, but to give those of us who aren’t leaders something we can directly relate to. An everyman, a plain soldier far from home. This third point of view isn’t a portrayal of grand sacrifice or such, but this is basic survival. In the survival rivalries of the past and home are discarded as unimportant, basic friendship is the mean to survival, and continuing when death arrives. Of course there’s plenty of ‘war sucks’ to all this, but the way things end is tear-jerking tragedy. The journeys of The Heart of What Was Lost feel like interwoven Greek Tragedies, but none more than that of our every soldier. And the tragic end, is also the challenge that Williams sets for us all. For the sacrifice of leadership is not enough. The every person must step as well, and it isn’t easy. For the sake of the future, you may be asked to cut off the head of the reanimated corpse of your only friend. Over dramatic? When I look at the world around me today, I think not (but I sure wish it was).
For all of the powerful ideas on display in The Heart of What Was, I must admit that it took me time to really get into the book, even though it’s a relatively short novel. I think that this is in part due to it being over 10 years since I read the books in the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, so while I don’t think it’s needed to be familiar with those books, a lack of familiarity may make it a bit more difficult to connect with the story initially. Though I also believe that bleak, dark, horrors of war basis was also a barrier for me as it’s just not the sort of story I gravitate toward right now. However, as indicated by my thoughts above, perseverance is rewarded.
At the top I mentioned some of the meta feeling I got from The Heart of What Was Lost. Yes, much of this is routed in a message of fighting for the future that resonates with me right now. But it’s more – let’s be honest, some of the world and society in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn feels dated in the context of the epic fantasy being written today. So, how does one deal with that dated feeling that is so obvious in a sequel? Most obvious is that The Heart of What Was Lost is man’s story – men are everywhere, with only a couple of token women. It’s striking and it was one of the barriers to me getting into the story. But in the end, Williams acknowledges this shortcoming, and further mocks the concept of ‘women and children’ not standing up for themselves. My hope is that this is his way of clearing the page for changes to come in the forthcoming trilogy.
In short, after a slow start, I very much enjoyed The Heart of What Was Lost. In spite of a few shortcomings, it resonates deeply with what I see in the world around me. It encourages and shows of view of hope, hope that we’ll need to fight for.
Books/Series of Osten Ard:
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (my review of the trilogy*)
The Heart of What Was Lost (Amazon)
The Last King of Osten Ard (Forthcoming Trilogy)
The Witchwood Crown (Amazon, coming June 2017)
Empire of Grass (forthcoming)
The Navigator’s Children (forthcoming)
*These reviews were written near the beginning of this blogging adventure, and I like to believe that I’ve gotten a lot better through the years. So, enjoy these ‘early years’ reviews.
An Aside for Some Personal Indulgence
Feel free to ignore the following as it’s more about me than The Heart of What Was Lost….
The Heart of What Was Lost brought about another reaction in me that I feel like writing about, even though I suspect it matters to very few. It brought back a passion for reviewing. It’s no secret that I review far less these days than I once did, and the vast majority of the few reviews I do put up are ‘Mini-Reviews’ that say little more than ‘I liked this book, you should read it’. It’s rare for me to really dive in, fully review a book, and explore my response to it.
Reality is that this is likely more of a one-off than a trend. Life keeps landing punch after punch these days, meaning I don’t have the time or emotional capacity for much deep reviewing. And the backlog of reviews I still plan to write shows that even the short, basic reviews will come at a rather slow pace. But, it was nice to be reminded that I do have ideas that I want to share, that I feel I can add to the conversation about a book beyond ‘read it, it was good’. And that is another reason why I really enjoyed The Heart of What Was Lost.
I could go on about ‘The Heart of What Was Lost in Reviewing’, but that level of wankery really isn’t necessary J
Tuesday, January 03, 2017
Long Black Curl by Alex Bledsoe is the third Tufa book which is a ‘series’ of interconnected novels that all really stand on their own with independent stories. Of course the reader familiar with the other books in the series will experience things at a deeper level.
Anyway, as evident from my reviews of other Tufa books, I really, really enjoy them, and Long Black Curl is no exception to this trend. It always surprises me that I don’t read more Mythic Fiction – books that loosely fall into category of Mythic Fiction seem to connect with me at a deeper level, bringing me a much more holistic and satisfied reading experience. Not merely entertaining or escapist and not really the sort of book that makes me feel like I’m a better person for having read it, but books that truly connect, books that awaken deeper awareness of myself.
Bledsoe’s Tufa books are about an exiled faerie clan who settled in the Appalachian Mountains long before humans came along. These stories tell how the Tufa people interact with the modern world around them and show how they are connected to their land and their music at deeper levels than the people around them. While set within the modern world, they bring the reader back in time, reminding us of the deeper connections to nature and the land around us. For the Tufa, music is the vehicle that this connection is founded within.
Long Black Curl is specifically about two exiled Tufa who have lost their ability to sing. These exiled exiles are cursed in a fundamentally horrific form of suffering for their people, further complicated by their means of surviving in the modern world – both work in the music industry. This forms the back bone for a story of revenge, loss, and redemption. A large part of the success of this story works because of duality of the modern world and the ‘other’, timeless world of the Tufa, and it’s an approach that I am especially fond of.
I love the Tufa books because they really embody Mythic Fiction in a way few books achieve. The emotions invoked are full of mystery, darkness, fear, love, and a whole host of other primal emotions for us all. While I believe that it’s the connection to nature that leads me to back to Mythic Fiction, the vehicle of music to form this connection is fully realized in these books. This is a very tough balance to achieve as it’s quite easy to nerd out on the music without ever creating the deep emotional connection that is really necessary1. Charles de Lint is another author I who can achieve this balance and I rank him and Bledsoe at the top of a short list of authors who do.
Long Black Curl is another wonderful addition to the collection of Tufa novels by Bledsoe and another reminder of how much I enjoy these books.
The Tufa Novels
Long Black Curl: Amazon
Chapel of Ease: Amazon
Gather Her Round: Amazon (Forthcoming)
1For an example of a Mythic Fiction book where the bridge of music between the modern world and something other never quite works out an fails to achieve the emotional connection needed, see The Crow of Connemara by Stephen Leigh (I’ll eventually get to writing a full review for it).