Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: Sasha by Joel Shepherd

The cover art for Sasha by Joel Shepherd (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) sets the stage well for the novel within. The image is of a young woman, dressed in practical clothing that clearly points towards battle in spite of a lack of armor. The woman has short hair, working-class hands lacking any signs of femininity and the image lacks the sexualization common with cover art featuring women. With armored soldiers in the background and the young women at center and elevated, the scene immediately brings Joan of Arc to mind.

Sasha is the first book in A Trial of Blood & Steel, a planned quartet set in Shepherd’s imagined world of Rhodia. Sasha takes place in the nation of Lenay – a mountainous nation loosely ruled by a King, with a dozen regional provinces separated by terrain, tradition and language. It’s a patriarchal warrior society featuring two dominate religions. The Goren-yai is more spiritual, almost animalistic with a distinctive Celtic feel about it and significant inspirations from places as wide a field as India and Papua-New Guinea. The Goren-yai are typically the common people with the ruling class following the Verenthane faith – a patriarchal pantheistic religion that has much in common with strict, hierarchical, Judeo-Christian faiths.

The lay of the land and its peoples plays an integral role in Sasha – Sasha, or Sashandra, is the daughter of the king – a man of the Verenthane faith. But Sasha has forsaken her birthright to become an apprentice to the king’s former military advisor, Kessligh, a follower of the Nasi-Keth – the Nasi-Keth is as much a philosophy as religion which concentrates on rational thought and logic as inspired by the non-human serrin peoples of Saalshen. Sasha follows the Nasi-Keth teachings while retaining the blood of a Verenthane as she is raised among the Goren-yai – while internally conflicted, she is a child of the nation of Lenay as few can claim. Troubles erupt as the Verenthane elite push to become true feudal lords against the wishes of the fiercely independent Goren-yai. Sasha emerges as a reluctant leader – a political pawn, a populist hero, a skilled swordswoman, and head-strong young adult with all the inherent pros and cons.

As the title suggests, this book centers on Sasha and its success stands on her shoulders. Sasha is by far the most realized character – she is one of the best fighters with a sword in all of Lenay due to her following a specific, disciplined fighting technique taught by her Nasi-Keth master. However, for all her prowess, the form does have its weaknesses. Sasha herself follows right along – she has the intelligence and strong personality necessary to stand out in the patriarchal society on her own terms. The flip-side is that Sasha is head-strong to a fault, emotional, stubborn and oozing with the typical short-sighted, ‘I know everything’ attitude of so many 20-year olds. It’s only Sasha’s many faults that save her attaining the dreaded Mary Sue label. The comparison to Joan of Arc seems only surficial at this point in the series – similar circumstances, but Sasha is not re-telling of Joan of Arc’s life – it’s a beast all its own. Unfortunately, other characters in Sasha are not so well developed. Most come across only half-formed – many are given great beginnings, but the follow-through is lacking.

With Sasha, Shepherd plays a bit with a few fantasy tropes – Sasha is born into nobility and has rejected it, strong female protagonists are still the exception, complex politics are embraced, medieval feudal society is not romanticized, and there is a total lack of magic. None of this feels genre-bending and certainly not forced – this is the story with such intentions often fading into the background. The result is an intelligent book – politics are serious, magic doesn’t solve problems, mistakes are made. This gives Shepherd’s world a realism often lacking in epic fantasy and earns the comparisons to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire that it’s often given.

Everything I discussed above helps make Sasha a good book – but what makes Sasha a great book is its readability. Sasha is addicting. The pace is perfect. Very little time is spent with a true introduction – we learn the world and its characters through story of the book rather than an extended prologue. As I was reading Sasha I would loose time, I would read another chapter because I just had to, and I lost the very precious commodity of sleep – I’m not sure there is a greater compliment I can give a book.

Sasha is the story of a tom-boy princess who gives up her royalty, it’s the story of a divided nation, it’s a story of religion and intolerance, it’s the story of a legend being born, and it’s addicting. If Sasha is any indication, A Trial of Blood & Steel will become a force to be reckoned within the fantasy world and I highly recommend it. 8/10

Interview with Steven Erikson

Holiday Week Links

Well, many of us unplug from the internet around the holidays – and then quite a few us retreat back to the ‘net after (too) much time with family :). As a result, it can be slow but there are also a number interesting happenings going on. So, here are some links that I’ve busied myself with lately.

  • SFFMeta is a new website that collects reviews of SFF books. It’s a great site, though I’m not a big fan of their scoring system.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

On Reviewing…Take 1,764 and Counting

So, after a Twitter exchange between me, Mark Charan Newton, Neil, Aidan, and Gav, Mark has written something up on what he as an author would like to see out of review blogs and ultimately names three that he thinks best meet what he’s looking for. As with all articles of that get introspective on review blogging, bloggers have come out in force to add their two cents (and their defense). Response posts are starting to pop up – it seems that all of us must have some clever response (if this were a movie, insert awkward pause where I turn and look at the camera).

In general, I’m in agreement with what Mark says – he makes good points and gives advice that review bloggers should take to heart. However, his author perspective does come through, which does miss the point on review blogs are. I think very few review bloggers are blogging for authors – they are generally blogging for themselves and fans like them. Mark’s points are still valid and helpful, but should be taken into context.

So, I’ve taken his seven points and given my response to them.

1) There are bloggers who use the right tools, and those who are tools. If you’re expecting page-turning romances, don’t read Gene Wolfe and complain that his books are not page-turning romances. They’re not designed to be, they never intend to be. Likewise, don’t approach an entertaining romp expecting philosophical ramblings if it isn’t meant to be one. I wouldn’t say ‘I don’t like beer on account that it’s not whiskey,’ would I? This is not a valid complaint to make – it’s stating the bloody obvious, wrapping it up as your main concern. Judge a book on what it is, and don’t project your hefty genre preferences upon it.
Hmm…it is a good point, but I think that Mark is missing the reason that many (well at least me anyway) bloggers get into this in the first place – we are fans. I can’t speak for all bloggers, just me – as a fan this makes the reviews I write a bit different from someone who is a ‘professional’ reviewer. I’m not objective, nor do attempt to be. First, I think objectivity is a myth – an undesirable myth at that. I’m opinionated – that’s why I do this. I want to present these opinions and all my biases right out in front. I don’t have the pedigree to even attempt critical objectivity, so I don’t try. Heck, I don’t want objectivity, I want a well thought out and presented opinion, with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses.

To get back to Mark’s point – if I as a reviewer I read what is an excellent philosophical and stylistic force of fantasy literature and I am bored to death by it, then I’m going to write a negative review that complains about how bored I was. Likewise if I read a crazy romp that’s nonstop action and seems like little more than a bad video game turned into a novel, then I’ll complain about that too. I’m going to write about my reaction to the book, not reproduce how the writer wanted me to react to the book.

I’m not surprised that Mark’s take is what it is – after all, he’s a writer and has certain reactions that he wants impart on an ideal reader. He has layer upon layer of meaning wrapped up into his text and he hopes the reader sees this. I’m not an ideal reader, I simply am what I am. Maybe I’ll get it, maybe I won’t. Heck, maybe I’ll see something incredibly clever that he never actually intended but is there none the less. But the reaction is mine, and I will report it as it is.

Also, I do know what I like so I do read a certain kind of books. But I also like to take the occasional chance and challenge myself. Sometimes I’m rewarded by this with a book that I enjoy immensely. Sometimes I’m bored to tears. But I’m not going to stop taking those chances simply because I may get a Gene Wolfe when I’m looking for a Scott Lynch (or vice versa).

So, I guess I’m a beer-lover who respects his whiskey, but just may think that Macallan 12-year scotch just isn’t any good. At the same time, I may think that Hefeweizen beer sucks balls.

2) Slow and steady. An offshoot of the previous paragraph: slow books aren’t bad books. Get over it. And fast books can be intellectual too. Don’t make the pace mistake.
Please, please add the caveat. Sure, slow books aren’t necessarily bad books. But they can be. Also, some people simply don’t like slow books – and their opinion on the matter isn’t any less valid just because someone thinks the opposite. Opinions vary. Yes, I understand the point that Mark is making, but it is incomplete and awfully unfair to the plethora of valid opinions out there.

3) Prose & style. I’ve mentioned this before, but it needs flagging again. When people read a novel, and say that the ‘writing improved’ or the ’second half was better written’, there’s a good chance they mean that they themselves had become used to the different style in which the book was written. The prose doesn’t necessarily change – the reader’s interaction probably does. And words are just there, on the paper, so if you think they’re bad, explain why.
I’m not surprised that the author is quick to blame the reader on this point. Yes, readers often don’t realize that they can learn to appreciate something they are unfamiliar with, but sometimes books simply begin badly. As always, there’s a spectrum and the ‘truth’ rarely falls at one extreme or the other, but somewhere in the middle.

On the last bit, I agree – opinions should be backed up. This doesn’t necessarily mean a 2000-word review full of quotes and detailed analysis. But even a short explanation is much better than none.

4) The synopsis should remain on the back of the book. Please, don’t just describe the back of the book – that’s cleverly constructed marketing blurb, which has a secondary aim of making reviewers say what publishers want, and pushing all the right buttons. By all means give the blurb, but don’t make it the whole of your review. It’s lazy, and you’re then merely giving a reach-around to publishers. I certainly won’t link to it. Have your own opinion, write about what you got from the book.
I have no issues on this one – Mark is dead on.

5) Reviewers who are also writers (of the unpublished variety). It’s hard to tell, with some bloggers, just who is a struggling writer and who isn’t. It isn’t bad at all if you are, so you might as well be open about it. One of the things I got used to very quickly as an editor was not to approach a book with my own writing style in mind. So don’t read a book and criticize it by thinking, ‘If I wrote this, I would have done x, y, z differently’; or ‘The style isn’t like my own, so I don’t like the book.’ You’re not doing anyone any favors, least of all the writer, and it’s a tough realization to make. You write, you think you could do better, of course. But be careful if this mindset takes over.
I can’t really comment on this one – I have no aspirations to be a writer.

6) You can’t love every novel. Loving everything diminishes the power of what you say. There is no way of possibly knowing what is good or bad if you recommend everything. Do not feel pressured to do so by publishers – remember, by reviewing, you’re doing them a favor. And if as a writer I come across your review of my book, I’m not likely to think a lot of it if you’ve loved every single book out there. We’re egoists! We want to feel special.
This is potentially in conflict with suggestion No. 1. But, I agree – negative opinions are important and valid and should be shared as loudly as positive (but don’t be an ass about it). Of course, as I mentioned in my response to No. 1, many bloggers are fans and they tend to read and review books that they are pretty certain they are going to like (not many people set out to read a book they think they won’t like). This will generally skew a blogger’s reviews toward the positive, and there is nothing wrong with that.

7) Edit thyself. One thing that reviews don’t always receive on blogs is a thorough unbiased edit. So, once you type, put it down, revisit, rework, and spell-check. You’ll get a lot more respect if your review isn’t riddled with obvious errors.
Absolutely! The few times I have had an independent edit of a review I’ve written (
such as this one) it is eye-opening and ultimately makes the review stronger. My general rule is to write out a complete draft and let it sit at least a day before coming back to it with a clean mind. Admittedly, I break this rule almost as often as I follow it – but better editing and such can only make reviews better.

Of course, blogger generally are amateurs who are doing this a hobby rather than a vocation. Time is limited – if you work, have a family and a social life, fitting in reading alone can be a challenge, not to mention the time to write the reviews. So, if an ‘and’ remains an ‘an’, I’m willing to cut some slack, however annoying it can be.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

As I sat down and began writing this review, my first reaction was something like ‘wow, academicals is a real word’ (even Microsoft says as much). It seems to be both a variant of academic and a reference to the clothing/uniform of a formal academic setting. The connotation points to a dusty old variation, reeking of formality and elitism. Coupled with the other word in the title, ‘unseen’, the stage is well set from one of the major thematic elements of Unseen Academicals (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound) – just how out of touch the old traditional universities are with the common folk that make up the majority. While the universities see themselves as pinnacle of society about which everything else revolves, most actually view them as out-of-touch elitists that are (thankfully) unseen.

So, what is the bridge between the academicals and the masses? Sports of course. The central plot to Unseen Academicals is the formation of a ‘foot-the-ball’ team – the Ankh-Morpork version of football (or soccer to those of us in the US). The Unseen University must form a team as the city’s Patrician (a rather benevolent dictator) embraces football as he attempts to add a bit of civilization to it.

As with all
Terry Pratchett books, the presentation is humor – a very British humor that ranges from laugh-out-loud to silent chuckle to ‘oooo, he didn’t do that’ to ‘that should have been funnier than it was’ to ‘I completely missed just how clever that was’ to not being all that funny at all. It’s all very light-hearted and far from serious – that is unless you read between the lines.

Not just about football and the University, Unseen Academicals also touches on topics as varied as fanatic fandom, recognizing who you are and becoming that person, puppy love, fashion, and racism. All of this is presented through the view of a few people – the head of the night kitchen at the Unseen University, her beautiful young assistant, Trevor the candle dribbler, and an odd creature of unknown origins named Mr. Nutt. Notable appearances are made by the Archchancellor of Unseen University, Ponder Stibbons, the Patrician, the Librarian and other favorites of Ankh-Morpork.

Now I’m from the USA and as expected, not a big follower of soccer/football. A large part of Unseen Academicals is British-style football fandom and all that surrounds it. As a result, I’m sure a bit was lost in translation, but as a sports fan I found much to be universal in nature and enjoyed it all the same.

Puns abound, wonderful wordplay toying with the medieval, absurd traditions become more so, and dialog verges on the ridiculous – exactly what one expects with a Pratchett novel. Unseen Academicals leans toward the late-Pratchett writing style where the slapstick satire is replaced by the clever that touches our world full of pop-culture and political references. I’m not a Pratchett aficionado, nor have I (yet) read all of the Discworld novels, but I’ll go ahead and say that I wouldn’t place Unseen Academicals among the best of the Discworld books, but it’s certainly nearer the top than the bottom. For me the humor was hit or miss with miss winning out more often, but on reflection I can’t help but think that much of the miss did indeed hit, I just didn’t notice it at the time*.

Unseen Academicals is the latest Discworld book from Sir Terry Pratchett. In spite of the inevitable deterioration that Pratchett suffers at the hands of Alzheimer’s disease, he was able to dictate this book using a combination of assistants and voice recognition software – and he’s still in top form. As with most Discworld novels, to fully appreciate Unseen Academicals, prior knowledge of Discworld helps – but a novice reader could easily enjoy the book without this inside information.

Unseen Academicals takes a bunch of fat wizards set in their scholastic ways and throws them onto a pitch full of rough common folk – hilarity ensues and so much more. Fans of Pratchett will love this one, though the appeal is not just limited to those fans. 7.5/10

Related Posts:
Review of Sourcery

* This is far from the best example of my command (or lack thereof) of prose but seems oddly appropriate for a review of Terry Pratchett’s writing.†
† It also felt comfortably appropriate to utilize footnotes in a review of a Discworld novel.

Monday, December 21, 2009

For the Search Engines – The Black Prism by Brent Weeks Release Date

I’m not (quite) the stats junkie that so many bloggers can be, but I do follow general numbers and what topics and such are bringing readers to the blog. I can’t ignore that one of the most frequent search terms/phrases is a query about the release date for forthcoming The Black Prism by Brent Weeks (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound).

So, to actually give provide an answer for those who want to know – the
Orbit Spring/Summer catalog lists the release date for The Black Prism as August 10th, 2010 (EDIT: Brent weeks informed me on April 13th, that the end of August is more likely). There is a summary out there on the web, but I’ve seen via Brent’s Twitter account that he’s not happy with it and it’s very preliminary, so I haven’t posted it here (note: I think that the cover art isn't final yet either).

Friday, December 18, 2009

The SFF Literary Pub Crawl

It was about 2.5 years ago that I started my Questions Five interview series, which has had 27 participants (and more to come). I’ve always used a blend of repeat questions with questions specific to the author I’m interviewing – and all have been an attempt at humor that gives authors a chance to have fun with questions they’ve likely never seen before and blatantly plug a project.

It didn’t take long for me to begin asking questions about food and alcohol, with a favorite question that essentially asks to recommend me a pub. Probably owing to my fascination and love of the pub culture of Britain and Ireland, these questions are generally asked to authors from that part of the world – which amounts to 7 of those 27 interviews.

So, I’ve decided that it’s time to embark on a related theme – the SFF Literary Pub Crawl (this is an updated version from the original post). I’ll share the recommendations from those interviews above – I’ll divide first by location and then by the author making the recommendation. As with any decent pub crawl, an end simply isn’t in sight, so I’ll continue to ask the question when I feel like it and I encourage all authors, editors, publicists, bloggers, and generally anyone who bothers to read this to share their recommended put to include in the SFF Literary Pub Crawl. Try to limit recommendations to just one or two and be sure to tell us why it’s a favored pub/ drinking establishment and a link if possible.

On to the pubs:

London, England

Joe Abercrombie: You could try the Phoenix Artist’s Bar off Shaftsbury Avenue, where a glittering array of genre writers are often to be found arguing with their editors over that most eternal of literary questions – whose round it is. It has the added advantage of being right next to several of the UKs biggest bookstores. Once you are drunk enough, I therefore recommend you stumble outside and buy any and all copies of my books that you can find. The dizzy rush of excitement you’ll experience will be far superior to anything you can get in a pub. Honest.

Kate Griffin: Well, I kinda don't drink, owing to expense and taste and the fact that I never really had much fun doing it. But I do have fond memories of the Sherlock Holmes, which is to the north of Hungerford Bridge, and the Castle on Pentonville Road has a very nice roof terrace in the summer, which almost redeems the fact that it's on the Pentonville Road. If you're after drink + fun, may I heartily recommend Cafe Kick on Exmouth Market, which is a sports cafe. This essentially means a lot of football, many photos of men in bad shirts looking mud-splattered, much booze and, best of all, bar footie. Many, many hours have been happily whiled away playing bar footie in Cafe Kick.

Brighton, England

Jasper Kent: The Shakespeare’s Head. It has good beer (of the warm, brown variety), serves about a dozen different kinds of sausages (except Sundays – boo!) and it’s within spitting distance of me. It’s not to be confused with the other Shakespeare’s Head, on Spring Street, which is good but not as good.

Nottingham, England

Mark Chadbourn: I would certainly recommend going to The Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham - you not only get good beer and food and good company, you also get great atmosphere and an unforgettable history lesson. The Trip is the oldest pub in Britain. You can tell that the moment you stoop through the tiny medieval doors into a maze of small rooms where you could lose yourself for quite a while. The rear part of the pub is actually carved out of the rock and there is a tunnel leading to an underground labyrinth that links vast sandstone caves running beneath Nottingham. Right overhead, Nottingham Castle towers. The Trip was founded in 1189, when King Richard the Lionheart announced the crusade against the Saracens in the Holy Land - hence the pub name. If you're looking for ghosts, there are supposed to be several here. But watch out for the locals - they may try to entice you into one of the medieval pub games, particularly swinging a small hoop on a rope on to a horn fixed to the wall. It looks simple, but is fiendishly hard - and the locals ensure a constant supply of free beer betting against unwitting visitors. It's also one of the favourite watering holes of Britain's fantasy authors, and when the annual Fantasycon is in town (usually September) you can find many of them propping up the bar. You can find out more here: http://www.triptojerusalem.com/

Mark Charan Newton: An easy one! The Alley Cafe - www.alleycafe.co.uk - in Nottingham. I'm a vegetarian; this place serves vegetarian food, locally sourced, freshly prepared, and stunning. Not only that, but the bar is funky, and has a good mix of people and ages. It's tiny though, and you end up sitting close to other people, which really shakes us Brits out of our preference for personal space. So, good food, good people, decent DJ at the weekend - what more can you want? (Don't say meat.)

Edinburgh, Scotland

Brian Ruckley: This is my kind of interview. It’s obviously absurd to try to narrow Edinburgh’s titanic array of drinking establishments down to a single recommendation, but given how long I spent on the haggis question I should probably try.I think the best I can come up with for you is the Bow Bar. There are two reasons: one, it’s a small, friendly pub with a mix of locals and visitors (but mostly locals), good beer and a startling array of whiskies if you’re into that kind of thing; two, it’s just round the corner from Edinburgh’s sf/f bookshop, Transreal Fiction, so on a rainy afternoon (it rains a lot in Edinburgh, but don’t let that put you off visiting) you can potter around the bookshop, have a chat with the owner, buy a few books and then retire to the pub to settle into a corner with a drink and read. Lovely. Also, if you lose track of time and end up drunk, there’s a chip shop within staggering distance to supply you with haggis and chips: a perfect end to a perfect day.

Glasgow, Scotland

Hal Duncan: Easy one. It has to be Stravaigin, on Gibson Street, in the West End. Funny enough, they have the_second_best_ way to serve haggis, because they're basically a gastro pub with a restaurant in the basement, and haggis is one of the staples of their menu. They tend to do a sort of Scottish fusion cuisine -- lots of game and seafood but influenced by recipes from around the world. As pub food goes, you can't beat it -- top-quality grub but in a really informal atmosphere. Also their cocktails are to die for. And I mean proper cocktails -- Bloody Mary, White Russian, Dry Gin Martini, Mojito and suchlike. None of those crappy 80s cocktails with nudge-nudge wink-wink sexy names, mixed by the pitcher from a couple of random spirits, a splash of Cointreau and a half bottle of Bailley's. No, we're talking cocktails for the committed lush. Martinis so dry you know the vermouth pretty much just got _shown_ to the gin: look, gin! Meet Mr Vermouth. Oh, dear, looks like Mr Vermouth can't stay. Bye, Mr Vermouth.Also Stravaigin is within staggering distance of my house. And I'm a very good native guide, you know. I'll show you round _all_ the best seats in the pub, for payment in the form of booze.

Dublin, Ireland

Peadar Ó Guilín: Most of them are ridiculously bad: giant sports games on every wall and pop music loud enough to murder the conversation we used to be famous for. Our ancestors even had a god of eloquence, once upon a time, did you know that? I miss him.So, for the real experience, you need to find what we call an “old man's” pub. If you walk through the door and half the stools aren't occupied by lads with pitted red noses and beer mustaches, then you should take your custom elsewhere.

New York, USA

Jeff VanderMeer: The Brandy Library in NYC that Gabriel Mesa introduced my wife and me to; because it is set up like a real library and the lighting is magnificent and the liquids contained therein are insanely amazing.

Lisbon, Portugal

Jeff VanderMeer: The Chinese Room (sic) in Lisbon, Portugal, which our friend Luis Rodrigues introduced us to, because it has more amazing airplanes and bric-a-brac while remaining sophisticated of any place on Earth. [Possibly the Chinese Pavillion – Pavilhão Chinês]

Brussels, Belgium

Jeff VanderMeer: An unnamed 16th century pub in Brussels where Ann tells me I wound up singing with a Frenchman at the top of my lungs. I don’t remember any of it, except that it was glorious.

Pilsn, Czech Republic

Jeff VanderMeer: The Pub in Pilsen, Czech Republic, where you get a tap at your table and can pour your own fresh beer—no preservatives or additives—and they have electronic scoreboards for every table at every The Pub in the country…and after four or five pints you definitely want to be at the top of the scoreboard. We spent an amazing night there with our Finnish friends Jukka, Tero, and Juha, Hal “The Wonder” Duncan, Alistair Rennie, Ian MacLeod, and several others…at the end of which I pretended to be Czech to the family from Montana at the next table.

Jeff VanderMeer Answers Questions Five

Jeff VanderMeer is one of the biggest names in speculative fiction, though for someone who doesn’t look into it’s innards from time to time, he may be one of the biggest names in speculative fiction that you haven’t heard of. He’s a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award and has been a finalist for the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His fiction writing wonders widely from short fiction to his novels set in Ambergris to a tie-in novel in the Predator franchise. He’s also a prolific nonfiction writer including novels and he’s been a regular contributor to places like the Amazon book blog and The Washington Post. His own blog, Ecstatic Days, is must read in the spec fic world.

VanderMeer’s latest novel is Finch (
US, Canada, Indiebound, my review), the third and concluding novel in the Ambergris Cycle that includes City of Saints and Madmen (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound, my review) and Shriek: An Afterword (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound). While Finch is the concluding novel of the Ambergris Cycle, it also stands on it’s own as a unique blend of secondary world fantasy, urban fantasy, and hard-boiled noir. And it’s just plain weird. As a result Finch may be the most accessible entry point into VanderMeer’s city of Ambergris – and it was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

I’m very pleased that Jeff was took the time to answer these
Questions Five (particularly since he just finished a marathon 5-week book tour). Enjoy!

What is your most memorable encounter with fungi?

When I first met you and you extended a febrile fungal hand, whilst pretending desperately to be human. Then, when we sat down and you left a green mark on the chair that seeped into the floor. It took awhile to get used to, but around the time I first became more comfortable, you smiled a long, impossible smile and burst into spores.

If Finch were a fortune cookie, what would its fortune be?

“At the end of long struggle: renewal.”

How would you interpret this fortune if it were your own?

It would encapsulate my long and various and ever-rejuvenating career.

Existing along side of Finch the novel is a playlist, a soundtrack, and an insurgency campaign – what other surprises does Finch have?

It is the answer to the puzzle of how to attain ever-lasting life, if only you can decode it properly. The key to the encryption exists in Shriek: An Afterword, and involves both your bliss and your tonsure.

Why should Finch be the next thing that everyone reads?

No one has to read anything. No one should be told to read anything. I’m blessed in that people have decided to read Finch and largely enjoyed it, gotten something out of it. I’d never tell someone to read it. But if you do, remember the fortune above.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Best of 2009 at Neth Space

It's that time of year again – when a blog like this one is all but required to produce a year's end post prior to the actual end of the year. So, here we are.
Well it’s been another busy year here at Neth Space. The real world has kept me from reading as much as I’d like – but that’s nothing new. I did manage to read 33 books this year (though by true year’s end I’ll probably be at 34 or 35). I suppose a few milestones were reached – sometime over this year I officially went over 100,000 site visits, though with RSS followers who knows when this actually occurred – I’m up to several hundred followers through various RSS feeds. I took the plunge and joined the Twitter phenomenon and I’m up to nearly 250 followers there. A few interesting stats are summed up below.

So, Happy Fesitivus, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, Happy End of a Decade (though I believe it technically ends next year) or whatever season’s greetings you would like.

  • 33 books read
  • 27 Published in 2009
  • 4 Published in 2008
  • 2 Published earlier (2006 and 2001)
  • 5 are YA
  • 24 are part of a series
  • 30 were provided by the publisher
  • I read more books published by Tor (9) than any other. The next closest were Pyr with 4 and Del Rey and Bantam/Transworld with 3 each.
  • 5 books were published by ‘small press’
  • 2 are short story collections
  • Only 3 are written by female authors and only 3 were written by a person of color (possibly more since this is a difficult thing to keep track of)
  • Only 4 are what I consider science fiction
  • 18 are what I consider epic fantasy
  • 3 are what I consider steampunk
  • 5 are what I consider urban fantasy
  • 2 are what I consider alternative history/historical fantasy
  • There have been approximately 50,000 site visits this year (not counting RSS) from 124 countries. Roughly 50% from the USA, 10% from the UK, and 9% from Canada.
  • The Westeros Forums and Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist are the top referring sites (other than google).
  • My review of The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson was the most popular post by far. The next most popular post with under half of the views was a post discussing the release of the prologue for Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson.
  • The top referring search phrase (other than ‘Neth Space’ and ‘nethspace) was ‘eon dragoneye reborn sequel’ – but adding up the various combinations of ‘Brent Weeks’ and ‘Black Prism’ would push it to the top.
  • People visited the blog via such varied search phrases as ‘cow skin soup’, ‘deep fried haggis’, ‘how did bloody mary got kill’, ‘giant escape r sub zero aus england’, ‘chicken springs road arizona’, and ‘secret agent game where the guy gets to the door and opens the door and gets to win’
So, the best books I read this year are listed below (the exception is Escape From Hell! which was actually read at the end of 2008 but after the best of list had already been posted). It’s not a top 10 list (you’ll find 11 or 12 entries depending on how you count) and it’s not presented in any particular order – though my ratings of the books generally get higher as you move down the list.

Canticle by
Ken Scholes (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

Scholes’ second book, Canticle, shows significant improvement over his already impressive debut, Lamentation. This is an epic fantasy series that all fans should be reading – this is a series that should be talked about – this is something special. The song that is Canticle demands a response, a response that will come in the forthcoming Antiphon, a response that I cannot wait to see. (
full review)

Last Argument of Kings by
Joe Abercrombie (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

Series come to an end – and I’ve said before how it’s often a bitter-sweet kind of moment. With the Last Argument of Kings, Abercrombie seems to have poured on the bitter – which makes it all the more sweet. Abercrombie hasn’t been writing the standard epic fantasy trilogy – and the proof is in the ending. This series has overwhelmed many and under-whelmed more than few – but it something that fans of epic fantasy simply must read for themselves. (
full review)

Buyout by
Alexander C. Irvine (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound)

Buyout by Alex Irvine caught me by surprise. I was looking for a change of pace and the obvious message behind this book looked to be the thought exercise my brain needed. It proved to be much more. So, science fiction isn’t dead, though it does beg the question of what kind of buyout it could get. (
full review)

World’s End and Darkest Hour by
Mark Chadbourn (US, UK, Canada, IndieBound)

Originally published in 1999 in the UK, World’s End by Mark Chadbourn begins the Age of Misrule trilogy and a series of books that follow. Simply put: it completely blew me away. I was sucked into the fascinating tale of Celtic magic in conflict the modern world, where evil seeks the end of the world, where ‘good’ may be little better, and those charged with saving us all have their own problems to deal with. Highly recommended. (
full review)

Escape from Hell! by
Hal Duncan (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

Escape From Hell! is a wild ride through the literal Hell – a pulp adventure and angry condemnation. I suppose that some may consider it blasphemy – I consider it brilliant fiction. It’s rare for me to think such, but Escape From Hell! would make a great movie, if anyone had the guts to make it. (
full review)

The Hero of Ages by
Brandon Sanderson (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

While part of me triumphs over completing another series, I also lament the passing of a great story. The Hero of Ages shows how well a series can end and has left me greatly satisfied. (
full review)

Twelve by
Jasper Kent (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

Whether your are looking for a beautifully told historical novel, a cunning vampire tale, or a stark war novel, Twelve will satisfy. Kent embraces both genre and history, resulting in a book that defies classification and spans multiple boundaries. Early success has already lead to the expectation of more to come – the Danilov Quintet will span important events throughout 19th and early 20th Century Russia, with Thirteen Years Later coming soon. After Twelve, I can’t wait to see what Kent throws at us next. (
full review)

The Last Hot Time by
John M. Ford (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

So, what is The Last Hot Time? Well it’s an Americana, elf-punk, urban fantasy, gangster tale, love story hiding the classic American coming-of-age story that can serve as a metaphor for so much more. Or more simply it’s a new classic of SFF literature from a sadly deceased giant of genre and a must-read book. (
full review)

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and
Brandon Sanderson (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

In all this, The Gathering Storm comes across as I expected – this is a book that those who are still excited about The Wheel of Time will love and it’s a book that will have plenty to complain about for those seeking it. Sanderson does an admirable job of picking up a series at its climax and staying true to it and its fans. Exciting events occur, longstanding mysteries revealed, plots and arcs come to fruition – some scenes in this book will become iconic to the series as a whole. But, the Last Battle hasn’t yet begun, the characters still haven’t been brought together, and major anticipated events remain. All in all, I couldn’t be happier – reading The Gathering Storm brought back my love for these characters and this world. They’ve been a part of my life for nearly 15 years and getting more was a joy. The series is on the right track and Sanderson has proven to me that he deserves to be in the driver’s seat – I simply can’t wait to read what comes next. (
full review)

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (US, Canada, Indiebound)

Finch answers many of the mysteries posed in the first two books of the Ambergris Cycle while standing well enough on its own to introduce new readers to Ambergris. It must be described as noir though the setting of Ambergris sets it apart – is it fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, a political thriller, noir, fungalpunk? Is it all of the above, none of the above? Finch is what you make of it – for me, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. (
full review)

Medicine Road by
Charles de Lint (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

In short, I cannot recommend Medicine Road highly enough – though please take note that due to the place I am in the world, it reached me at an exceptionally personal level. I’ve been awed by the writing of de Lint in the past and haven’t read him in some time, and now I feel that it would be a terrible shame to go as long before I read him again. (
full review)

Honorable Mentions

Of course there are quite a few very good books that didn’t quite crack the uppermost tier, but are certainly books that I recommend.
And for kicks – the worst book I read in 2009:

The Sheriff of Yrnameer by
Michael Rubens (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound)

Frankly put, if I hadn’t been in a small Arizona town on a work assignment that gave me the choice of watching other people work or reading while watching people work with a choice only 3 books (all of which I read), The Sheriff of Yrnameer is not a novel I would have finished reading. Of course, this is a humor novel, which means that if the novel doesn’t appeal to your sense of humor, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy it. The Sheriff of Yrnameer clearly didn’t appeal to mine – maybe it will appeal to yours, but I won’t bet on it. (
full review)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Something Completely Different

All snowed in here. The photo on the left is a snowman me and my son made after the first real snow of the year (about 4" - it was melting pretty good by the time we made the snow man). This guy survived remarkably but unhappily on the porch as he slowly sublimated away. The picture on the left is after the blizzard that came by and dumped about 2.5 feet of snow on us in 24 hours. The bump is our now drowned snow creature with about 12 inches of snow that accumulated on his head poking through.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Links Return

I haven’t done a link post in a while, but I think there’s some interesting stuff out there these days, so here we are.

  • It’s a couple weeks past it’s Twitter prime, but I really laughed at this:

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

Finch is in a pinch.
Sold himself to mold,
Will he fold
or be rebellious and bold?
Finch is no cinch.

My poor attempt at Seussian poetry illustrates multiple aspects of Finch by
Jeff VanderMeer (US, Canada, Indiebound). Dr. Seuss is brilliant, his creations beyond strange, and upon reflection, more than a bit creepy. VanderMeer’s Finch is brilliant, his creations beyond strange, and it takes absolutely no reflection to be creeped out. Likewise, the protagonist, Finch, is indeed in a pinch – between several rocks a few hard places – or more correctly, between several competing interests and a spongy, fungal world that rots you from within rather than smashing you outright.

Finch is the final volume in the Ambergris Cycle, a trilogy of books that span the history of Ambergris, a wonderful and horrific second-world city, beginning with City of Saints and Madmen (
US, UK, Canada, Indiebound, my review) and continuing with Shriek: An Afterward (US, UK, Canada, Indiebound). While Finch does complete the thematic cycle, it also stands on its own, apart in form and function from the rest – probably the most benign introduction to Ambergris of the three.

At its core, Finch is a standard noir detective story. John Finch is the disillusioned, cynical detective with a dark and mysterious past who is assigned an unsolvable murder case by his seemingly evil Gray Cap boss. The case with ramifications beyond Finch’s imagination draws the attention of spies, mobsters, rebel forces, indigenous insurgents, loyalists and the government.

The city of Ambergris has been in the grip of hostile third party known as the Gray Caps for seven years that took control in the chaos created by long-time civil war. Finch leaves his old identity behind and survives as a reluctant detective in the employ of the tyrannical government in the surveillance society of a ruined city. Questionable loyalties, double-crosses, triple-crosses, historical consequences, foreign lands, torture, death all await Finch as he struggles to solve his last case.

Only VanderMeer’s vision of noir takes an entirely different form with the setting of Ambergris. Gray Caps aren’t human – they are intelligent fungal-based life forms of undetermined origins. They are either evil – or at least so alien that they seem evil. They have control over other fungal-based life forms – they can ‘see’ what the population is doing through fungal ‘cameras’, they drug the population with fungal drugs, buildings can completely decay under fungal onslaught in only days, humans can be infected with fungus that turns them into tools of the Gray Caps that are something more and less than human, and any fungal infection can be horrifyingly fatal. Humans are slowly being exterminated – either through death or conversion to fungal-hybrids. Rebel forces fight for survival and foreign interests interfere – selfishly seeking advanced technology while sometimes aiding in the fight against the Gray Caps.

Always stylistic, VanderMeer’s writing takes some getting used to. In Finch, VanderMeer uses short, choppy sentences. Connectors are absent, sentences fragmented – but what’s left is focused and often powerful. The style was a bit hard to adjust to and very noticeable at the beginning, but it didn’t take too long for me to fully adjust and appreciate it (I couldn’t help but wonder at how difficult this would be to edit – in my uncorrected proof, was it an error or style?).

This is Finch’s book – we only see the world through is point of view. The reader is left with the need to trust his interpretations and conclusions – his blind spots are our blind spots. Finch has a troubled past that slowly reveals itself as the novel progresses and he is shaped by what he encounters in the investigation. His distrust and hatred of the Gray Caps increases, his self delusions fluctuate, and the ever-present fungal assault on Ambergris haunts him. Finch is introspective, tough, lonely, imperfect, and a reluctant (anti)hero. Finch is the classic noir detective.

As typical of VanderMeer’s writing, deep thematic elements abound. The commentary seems to be aimed at society, government, and the consequences of one’s actions, but it’s so well integrated into the story and Ambergris itself, it doesn’t stand out and is open to layers of interpretation.

Finch answers many of the mysteries posed in the first two books of the Ambergris Cycle while standing well enough on its own to introduce new readers to Ambergris. I must be described as noir though the setting of Ambergris sets it apart – is it fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, a political thriller, noir, fungalpunk? Is it all of the above, none of the above? Finch is what you make of it – for me, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. 9/10

Will Finch, the not cinch, be spore gore?

Related Posts:
Review of City of Saints of Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer Answers Questions Five


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