Friday, August 15, 2008

John Scalzi Answers Questions Five

John Scalzi has quickly risen to become one of the most popular science fiction writers out there right now. This has lead to nomination for several high-profile awards, including wins for the John C. Campbell Award and most recently, the Hugo for Best Fan Writer – he missed winning Best Novel for The Last Colony (US, UK, Canada) by less than 10 votes. He is best known for his series of books that starts with Old Man’s War (US, UK, Canada), with his latest, Zoë’s Tale (US, UK, Canada, my review), a stand-alone set within the Old Man’s War universe. However, Scalzi is possibly even better known for his blogging at Whatever, which he has been doing since 1998.

I thank John for taking the time to participate in Questions Five.

YA – Why or why not?

JS: Seriously? I think getting kids to enjoy reading is a pretty necessary step, and also essential for genre, which lives or dies on its ability to hook readers on its product before they're old enough to be convinced by a bunch of illiterate teenage popularity mongers that reading genre isn't cool. So we really need to lay the table for young readers. Not every SF/F writer can or should write YA, but we need to make sure that those who do write YA in SF/F are really good writers.

What advice do you have to give to men in their late 30s pretending to be teenage girls?

JS: Trying to hang around actual teenage girls (say, in the mall), will get arrested and/or having you collect those delightful documents known as restraining orders. Instead, rely on those women you know who are closer to your age, and have them use their own memories of being a teenager to check your character voice. No restraining orders or arrests (unless, you know, you're just that sort of loser), and your own level of self esteem will be considerably higher, because unlike teenage girls, these female friends of yours will not look at you with an expression of vague disgust.

Fill in the blank: Kids today just don’t appreciate the value of ___. How does Zoë’s Tale reflect this?

JS: Kids these days don't appreciate the value of my mortgage, and Zoë’s Tale gives them an opportunity to correct this by sending me money. Hopefully, many of them shall do just that.

More seriously, I'm pretty sure kids today have the same level of appreciation for the value of (x) as they did in my day, which is, not much unless it's directly some aspect of their lives that they need to focus on RIGHT NOW. Being a teenager is an inherently selfish process, because being a teenager is about defining one's self. You stop being a teenager (or more accurately an adolescent) when you start seeing others and their needs on the same level of consideration as you see yourself and your needs.

Why should Zoë’s Tale be the next book that everyone reads?

JS: It doesn't have to be; I'd be happy with it simply being the next book everyone buys (and then, you know, reads at their leisure). But I do hope they read it because I'm very happy with the character of Zoë; I think in fact that she's one of the best characters I've ever written. Also, the title really does reflect the book -- it really is her story, and how, to go back to a previous question, she moves out of adolescence and toward adulthood. Plus, there's snarky dialogue, and how can you not like that.

What peculiar qualities of Ragamuffin should readers be aware of?*

JS: They should be aware that this Nebula-nominated tale of action and adventure is fully and comprehensively made of win. Is this a peculiar quality? Well, as one of only five novels nominated for the Nebula last year, it is certainly rare, at the very least.

*Astute readers will quickly realize that Ragamuffin (US, UK, Canada) was written by Tobias Buckell and not John Scalzi. This is a rather embarrassing error on my part and clear example of the trouble cutting and pasting can get you into when you don’t take the time to review. Thankfully, John was a real sport about it and we agreed to leave it as is since pimping Toby is fine thing in and of itself. It is worth mentioning that the same day Zoë’s Tale is released (August 19, 2008), Sly Mongoose (US, UK, Canada) by Tobias Buckell is also being released. Since both authors live in Ohio, some people have begun referring to August 19, 2008 as “Ohio is Coming To Kick Your Ass With Science Fiction” Day – originally declared (of course) by John Scalzi.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi

I posted my review of Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi (US, UK, Canada) over at FantasyBookSpot. I have to say that this one is Scalzi's best book yet and I really enjoyed it. Hopefully I'll be getting a Questions Five interview within him soon.

Review excerpt:

Zoë’s Tale is far and away Scalzi’s best book yet. The voice of a teenage girl is always tricky, yet Scalzi, a male in his upper-30s, manages to get it rather right. Zoë is just as snarky, inconsistent, short on judgment, emotional, and remarkable as any teenager can be. She really comes alive through Scalzi’s witty dialogue and uncertain internal discourse – it’s very easy to imagine Scalzi channeling his pride of his own young daughter into Zoë, and I get the feeling that his daughter is his number one audience. (full review)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Links to Waste Time With

My (un)usual round-up of links that have kept me interested in the last week or so.
  • The Hugo Awards were announced on Saturday. The biggest surprise to me is that they weren’t so horrible in their choices – I am especially happy that John Scalzi unseated Dave Langford for best fan writer. There is always interesting discussion on the results – and I find the Westeros discussion of most interest, as usual. I found this post by Patrick Nielsen Hayden very interesting as it indicates the ‘age-ist’ voting tendencies of both the Hugos and Nebulas – younger authors need not get their hopes up. I've written of my opinion of SFF Awards before and I see no reason to change that opinion.

  • This was getting a lot of attention for a while, but I’m happy it’s fading away.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

Stories within stories, layers on top of layers, bridges spanning a world and a journey alike, and players dance to the whims of a shadowy puppeteer – this is the Shadowbridge (US, UK, Canada) Duology by Gregory Frost and Lord Tophet (US, UK, Canada) the conclusion.

Like Shadowbridge, Lord Tophet is but one half to a whole – in other words, read Shadowbridge first. Events pick up immediately after the cliffhanger ending of Shadowbridge and the various mysteries introduced in Shadowbridge are explained – Leodora’s dealings with the gods, Soder’s past and what he is hiding about her parents, the coral man, and others. In fact, by the end of the novel everything is wrapped up rather neatly with a pleasing ending for a book about stories.

The stories within stories structure beautifully blends with the overall narrative and becomes less about the tales told by Leodora and more about stories of Leodora – her family, her past, her journey, and the mysteries that follow her. The moralistic lessons of her fables both mirror and anticipate those of Leodora’s own life as she grows into herself, learning her own heart and desires while realizing her role in the coming conflict with Lord Tophet. These economic, poetic and ultimately pleasant stories make Lord Tophet a joy to read.

The characterization suffers a bit in comparison to the stories, but in a way that fits. The characters seem like caricatures at times, characters in a play (or a story) and not real people. This feels intentional to me and it fits so well with the stories within stories structure and overall sense that these characters are all shadow puppets in Frost’s capable hands.

Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet evoke conflicting reactions in within me. Surficially, I love to see fantasy novels that don’t function well as doorstops – Shadowbridge weighs in at a mere 272 pages and Lord Tophet even shorter at 222. Another part of me then wonders why they couldn’t be published as a single volume – is this just a grab for more money? This is particularly grating with the cliffhanger ending of Shadowbridge.

However, Frost contends that these two novels were conceived as separate works, and after reading Lord Tophet this becomes clear. The thematic heart of these two novels is strikingly different – Shadowbridge is the beginning, the journey, a bridge at so many levels. Lord Tophet concludes – a tale of consequences, love and betrayal with all dancing to the predestined strings of a shadow puppeteer.

In my review of Shadowbridge, I said that its ultimate success would depend on the conclusion in Lord Tophet. The conclusion offered leaves me drifting somewhat aimlessly, making this pair of reviews some of the most difficult reviews I’ve written. The conclusion works – it even works well, but does it live up to its potential? The potential of the Shadowbridge/Lord Tophet duology was huge, and these could have been memorable, timeless works – the stuff classics are made of. Simply said, this potential is unrealized – these books are great and should be talked about, but the climatic moments lacked that extra punch needed to attain true greatness. The conclusion was ultimately expected, and while it was heartfelt – it needed to be heart-wrenching. This is disappointing since unrealized potential often tastes bitter even when compared to lesser works lacking potential. However, the Epilogue is the sweet refrain for the bitter climax and ends the book with a fitting upswing.

The Shadowbridge/Lord Tophet duology is a beautiful read and stylistic wonder with the weaving of stories within stories and the resulting thematic tapestry – the work of a true craftsman. Even with unrealized potential, these books stand apart and above much of the ‘standard’ fantasy offered and easily earn a label of literary fantasy. The world of Shadowbridge is rich with stories waiting to be told and I look forward to Frost answering that call. 7.5-8/10


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