Published: December 3rd, 2013 Publisher: Random House Audio Genre(s): Fantasy, Science Fiction, Crime, Historical Format: Audiobook Length: 32 hrs and 49 mins
Dangerous Women is one of George R.R. Martin’s many side projects. The pedigree of contributors is excellent, but the quality varies, sometimes wildly. Of course, that’s true about most short story collections, even those largely considered masterpieces of the form.
The nice thing about Dangerous Women is that a large percentage of the stories are worth reading and most tie in to the overall theme fairly well. On that level, the collection is a success. It’s also an excellent collection to pick up in audio because the talent on offer is both varied and impressive. Actors like Sophie Turner, Iain Glen, Claudia Black and Jonathan Frakes all narrate, as do audio mainstays like Scott Brick.
One thing to keep in mind is that a few of the stories tie in to existing series and may constitute spoilers if you aren’t caught up. The Jim Butcher story takes place late in the Dresden Files series, and Lev Grossman’s story is a direct prequel to the upcoming third novel in his Magicians trilogy. I wasn’t necessarily current on all the related works, but for the most part I was able to enjoy the tie-in stories on their own merits.
Dangerous Women also isn’t a strictly SF&F anthology, including several crime, historical and literary stories in the mix. Some of those stories are the best parts of the collection, but if you are particularly stringent about your genre tastes, you may come away disappointed at the balance between SF&F and other genres.
As for the individual stories, capsule reviews follow after the jump.
Nowhere Men, Volume 1 tells the story of a world that treats scientists like rock stars and celebrities. Not only do they get flashy photo opportunities and magazine cover stories, but their influence spreads so far throughout society that it causes huge leaps forward in scientific developments while also inspiring an anarchist “punk” subculture. In this world, cloning is commonplace and a robot went on a mission to space decades ago.
In the first volume, Stephenson weaves together two story lines. First, we meet the founders of World Corps, a foursome of scientists who enjoy rock star levels of fame and success until their partnership begins unraveling in the public eye. The timeline jumps back and forth from as early as the 1960s to the “present day”, which is where we meet a group of World Corps scientists dealing with a strange virus that is changing their bodies in unexpected ways (for better and worse). Interspersed with these scenes are news articles, magazine interviews, excerpts from books and advertisements that paint a fuller picture of the men behind World Corps, all done in pitch-perfect period style (with “yellowing” pages to boot).
So, on one hand this book turns scientists into the Beatles and watches how that changes the world, and on the other it deconstructs the Fantastic Four origin story and includes a much higher mortality rate. Tie this all together with an epistolary conceit, and you have an ambitious book that plays at the edges of comic book tropes without straying too far from the center. I really think it’s a fair comparison to say that Stephenson is playing with the form in much the same way that Alan Moore did with Watchmen. However, the scope of this story feels larger, if only because this first volume serves mostly as setup.
Stephenson definitely has a flair for characterization, at least when it comes to the founders of World Corps. I felt like I really had a clear sense of their personalities within the first few pages, and that sense only deepened with every interview and flashback. The group of scientists affected by the virus fared a little worse, if only because there are so many of them, and they spend most of the story in reactive mode, freaking out because they’re sick and don’t know why. I have a feeling Stephenson will correct this as the story goes on, however, simply because this first volume sets them up as potential heroes in opposition to the various misdeeds of World Corps (not that I think the story will be that clear-cut).
My only other criticism of this first volume is that it feels like Stephenson only provides the barest hint of an overall story arc; instead, the first volume mostly consists of back story and setup. However, there’s so much detail crammed in here that it seems clear that the first volume is only the first few chapters of a larger story, and not a discrete story arc in and of itself.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I’ll definitely be picking up future volumes. The only downside is that it looks like Image is releasing new issues at a glacial pace, and #7 is nowhere on their calendar. Even still, highly recommended.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Script: Kelly Sue Deconnick Art & Cover: Emma Rios Colors: Jordie Bellaire Edits: Sigrid Ellis Letters: Clayton Cowles
Published: May 13th, 2014 Publisher: Image Comics Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy Format: Paperback Length: 120 pages
Pretty Deadly was my first exposure to “weird western”, a genre I knew existed but had never read. Things first get weird when we meet the narrators - a butterfly and a dead rabbit – and that’s only a taste of what’s to come. This first volume focuses on the adventures of Sissy, a girl wearing a vulture cloak, and Fox, an old blind gunman who sees more than you might think.
Fox and Sissy make ends meet by traveling from town to town telling the story of the Mason and his wife, Beauty, who he locked up in a stone tower. When Beauty despaired of her prison, she asked Death to come for her and take her away, but when he arrived, Death fell in love, and their union produced a baby.
That baby grew into Deathface Ginny, a relentless killer who comes to the aid of those in trouble if they sing her song. Needless to say, it isn’t long before Fox and Sissy are on the run from another killer named Big Alice and one of their friends summons Deathface Ginny. This results in a sword fight in the desert between the two women, one of whom has a skull tattooed on her face. It turns out that Fox and Sissy are on the run because there is more to Sissy than meets the eye, and all the players soon converge in a series of bloody gun and sword battles that lead them right up to Death’s door.
In some ways, Pretty Deadly reminded me of The Sandman’s penchant for dark supernatural stories set in the intersection between myth and reality. However, the characters were a bit flat, and I had a hard time keeping all of their motivations straight. Part of the reason for this is that the book feels overstuffed; we’re introduced to a decently large cast of characters in a very short amount of time, and none of them are given much depth. The pacing felt rushed, and the story relied more on bloody mayhem than genuine character moments.
Also, this volume reads like a fairly complete story arc. I’m not sure where the next book might go from here, and I’m also not sure who the viewpoint character(s) will be. The last page implies that Deathface Ginny will be the focus of the next volume, but that feels like an odd choice, simply because we spend more time with Fox and Sissy. So far, Deathface Ginny is nothing but a one-note killer with supernatural origins, and I can’t see myself being invested in a story with her as the focus. However, I suppose it’s also possible that the author will use Ginny as a gateway character into stories about other characters, much like Dream wasn’t necessarily the main character of The Sandman for its entire run.
As for the art, it’s striking, but the action scenes are so stylized that they are oftentimes hard to follow, which is a fatal flaw in a book so full of action. Ultimately, I wasn’t drawn into the world of Pretty Deadly, and I probably won’t pick up future volumes.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: June 18, 2013 Publisher: Penguin Audio Genre(s): Speculative Fiction, Thriller Format: Audio Length: 12 hrs and 36 mins
Lexicon is the rare book that I found both completely unpredictable and intensely thrilling. I’d call it a page-turner, but I listened to the audiobook version, so instead I’ll tell you that I was so enthralled that I spent the several hours just sitting on my couch listening so that I could finish it. That’s also rare – normally I only listen to audiobooks while I’m doing something else (dishes, chores, exercise, driving, etc.) – so I’d definitely call it a mark in Lexicon’s favor.
Fans of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians will find much to enjoy here. Like that book, Lexicon tells the story of a school for talented youngsters that involves far more sinister and heartbreaking developments than ever graced the pages of Harry Potter. However, where The Magicians passes through pitch-black satire into chilling horror, Lexicon is equal parts paranoid “wrong man” thriller and cracked coming-of-age story, with constantly shifting motivations and alliances that hammer the fact that trust is a liability.
In Lexicon’s world, language is a technology indistinguishable from magic, and the right words make it possible to control anyone as long as you know their psychological profile. A society of “poets” founded on these principles collects words of power and trains recruits in the art of persuasion at an exclusive private school. In the outside world, this society’s activities extend from brute force mental takeovers of susceptible civilians to more subtle campaigns of influence embedded in advertising or political websites.
The book jumps between two primary story lines: the kidnapping, by poets, of Will Park, a middle-mannered man who is an “outlier” unaffected by their words of power, and the recruitment, schooling and eventual downfall of a seventeen-year-old con artist named Emily Ruff who joins the poets to escape her life on the street. At first, the connection between these story-lines isn’t entirely clear, and in fact they almost feel like entirely different books. Will is living in a paranoid thriller while Emily comes of age in a young adult novel with the occasional dark moment.
However, the genius of Lexicon is the way Barry doles out revelations and slowly but surely pulls the rug out from under you. It isn’t long before the connection between Will and Emily’s stories starts to become clear, and you begin to wonder if Barry is actually doing what it seems like he is doing. Barry seems to delight in undermining expectations, and it’s oftentimes hard to know who to root for when so many of the characters take part in despicable events. Even still, I found myself drawn into their stories, wondering if my worst fears or dearest hopes might come true. I wasn’t entirely sure how the book might resolve itself until the very last moments, but that resolution didn’t feel any less earned because of it.
There is the occasional minor plot hole, and one character’s stated motivations don’t completely make sense in the end, but none of that detracted from my enjoyment. Lexicon was an absolutely thrilling read, and I can’t recommend it enough.
The funniest thing about Barry is that when I read Jennifer Government many years ago, I didn’t particularly like it. However, I’ve read two more of his books this year (Company was the other), and thoroughly enjoyed both. I suppose it just goes to show that you can’t always judge an author by a single book. I’ll definitely be checking out his other books soon.
Published: March 25th, 2014 Publisher: Tor Books Genre(s): Science Fiction, Young Adult Format: eBook Length: 352 pages
Lockstep is a fantastic, entertaining novel that I find a bit difficult to summarize. The short version is that it will probably appeal to readers of young adult and hard scifi, but existing experience with scifi will definitely help ease the process. Schroeder is most interested in the way developments like cryogenic sleep and interstellar travel might change human society, and he dives deep into almost every aspect of the “lockstep society” he’s created for this novel.
The story kicks off when seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal goes on a fairly mundane mission to claim an asteroid for his family, who’ve settled on a far-off planet to escape Earth’s corruption. Something goes wrong with Toby’s ship while he is en route, and instead of staying in cryosleep for a short time, he wakes up to discover that a huge amount of time has passed and everything he knows has irrevocably changed. These changes are social, political and extremely personal, and the more we learn about the lockstep society, the more heart-breaking Toby’s story becomes.
The first important thing that Toby learns is that humans colonized hundreds of far-flung worlds thanks to one of his family’s inventions. However, because faster-than-light travel doesn’t exist and most of the colonized worlds are short on natural resources, the only way for the colonies to survive and trade with each other is for every world to go into cryosleep for set periods of time at the same time. While everyone is in cryosleep, ships travel vast distances and limited resources build up enough to keep them alive. In the lockstep society founded by Toby’s family, this means thirty years of cryosleep for every month of time spent awake in real-time or “fast time”.
This leads to Toby’s second discovery, which is that despite the fact that huge amounts of time have passed since he left on his ill-fated trip, some of his immediate family members are still alive. The problem is that they are now infinitely powerful, decades older than when he last saw them, and, much to his surprise, bent on killing him just for existing.
It turns out that while Toby was gone, his family members not only cemented their control over a huge society of hundreds of worlds, but also built up an intricate mythology behind his disappearance. His reappearance in their world threatens their control, and he soon finds himself running from the man and woman he used to call his little brother and sister.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Lockstep is the idea of human civilizations getting out of sync; inside the lockstep society, everything stays the same despite decades spent in cryosleep, while outside societies rise and fall in real-time. Humans slowly become post-human, intergalactic wars destroy entire worlds, and cities build up outside the gates of sleeping locksteps. A constant influx of settlers from outside worlds means that there are people born millennia after Toby now living inside the lockstep society, people who grew up their entire lives hearing about the legendary McGonigal family and their lockstep worlds.
Lockstep definitely has the young protagonist common to the YA genre, and the lockstep world is ultimately a failed utopia, but the hard scifi elements might make it hard to sell as a YA novel, which is probably why it’s not marketed as such. However, I definitely think this book would appeal to YA readers if they’re willing to wrap their head around some fairly complex world-building.
I might recommend it to someone who enjoys books like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, but wants to read something that plays on a bit bigger canvas. Personally, I really enjoyed reading a book that explored theoretical worlds in such depth, and I highly recommend it. Also, the book definitely wraps up all of its threads at the end and feels like a very solid standalone, but I wouldn’t mind reading another story set in the same universe.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon
Hild, Nicola Griffith
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata
A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
I’ve read two of those (Ancillary Justice, The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and own another three (Hild, The Golem and the Jinni, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves).
Note, also, that Fire with Fire is a Baen book and The Red: First Light is military fiction. I just like that this list feels like it does a better job of including some of the best books of last year while appealing to a wide audience.
The 2014 Hugo nominees were announced today, and, like always, some of the categories have a few head-scratchers. However, I’m going to focus my discussion on the Best Novel category, which is usually the one where I’ve read the most nominees:
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK)
Parasite by Mira Grant (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia (Baen Books)
The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books)
The list starts off very strong with Ancillary Justice, which is the only book nominated that I’ve actually read as of this post, but HOLY SHIT was it good. Hands down one of my favorite reads of last year and definitely one of my all-time favorite books. I think I said everything I need to say about it in my review. I’d probably vote for this to win with a clear conscience, although if I was a voting member I would do my best to actually read the books before voting.
Published: February 19, 2014 Publisher:Dynamite Entertainment Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Swords-and-Sorcery Format: Digital Length: 184 pages
I don’t have much experience with Conan the Barbarian or Red Sonja; my dad had a pretty sizable comic book collection when I was a kid, and I spent many an hour digging through it, but he didn’t have many comics from either series in his collection. I think there was maybe one over-sized Conan annual in the entire bunch, and that lone issue might have been my entire exposure to both properties. I never watched the movie adaptations made in the 80s because they looked TERRIBLE. However, when I saw that Gail Simone is the writer for the new Red Sonja series, I became intrigued even though I’ve never read any of her other work.
All this is to say up front that it’s possible I am not the right audience for this book. Simone writes in her introduction that she’s loved the character ever since she was a young comics reader, and as soon as she got the chance to work for Dynamite, writing a rebooted Red Sonja was her dream project. She’s enthusiastic about the title, found great female artists to illustrate the covers, and wrote the book so that it stands proudly on its own, separate from the Conan mythos. Simone’s Red Sonja sounds like the sort of thing that should leap off the page, but for some reason the book just felt inert and clichéd.
The Queen of Plagues bounces back and forth between Sonja’s origins and her attempt to protect the only king she’s ever respected – Dimath, who rescued her from gladiatorial slavery and to whom she pledged allegiance. Sonja is smarter, faster and more skilled at swordplay than her foes, but she is also an unrepentant drunk when wine is at hand. When two young warriors, Nias and Ayla, find Sonja in the forest and ask her to come to Dimath’s aid, she reluctantly follows. However, when she arrives at Dimath’s court and agrees to lead his army, she soon discovers that her old friend, Annisia, is general of the opposing army. Annisia, who survived the gladiator pits at Sonja’s side only to go mad from guilt.
The story in this first volume of Red Sonja isn’t particularly deep or twisty. Sonja fights her foes and usually comes out ahead; if she occasionally fails, it is only a matter of time before she finds new resolve and returns twice as fierce. Simone relies on tropes that feel well-worn but for the fact that most of the characters are female, with male characters relegated to supporting roles. However, instead of breathing new life into hoary old clichés, Simone’s version of Sonja feels like it only satisfies the bare minimum of swords-and-sorcery storytelling.
I think my biggest problem with this book was that the dialogue is never more than serviceable, and as a result the characters fail to rise above their archetypes. I never got much of a sense of Sonja as anything other than a relentless warrior; her solitary quirk is her love of drink, played for (weak) laughs in what is an otherwise deadpan book. If any part of this book was extraordinary – plot, dialogue or characterization – it would be enough to raise it in my estimation, but unfortunately Simone just doesn’t deliver the goods.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.
Published: July 29, 2003 Publisher: Del Rey Genre(s): Fantasy, Steampunk, Weird Format: Paperback Length: 640 pages
After reading Perdido Street Station, I can’t decide what China Miéville loves more: feverish world-building or the sheer impenetrability of his prose, and I say that as someone who (occasionally) enjoyed the book. It took me a good six months to make it through that dense little tome, mostly because I only managed to read it in 30-50 page chunks about once or twice a month, and I have to admit that in the end I only finished out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
This was actually my second attempt at Perdido Street Station. I first bought it in 2003 and only made it about 50 pages in before putting it down for more than a decade. This time around, I gave it a bit more persistence, but it was never an easy book to pick up. Each of those 30-page sessions was hard-fought over the course of several hours, and I oftentimes found myself reading and re-reading passages just to make sure I’d fully comprehended their contents and meaning. I enjoyed many parts of the book, but I can’t help feeling a certain amount of exhaustion and relief after struggling to finish it for so long.
In broad strokes, Perdido Street Station tells the story of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, inventor and disgraced academic, and what happens when a disfigured garuda – a sort of half-man, half-bird creature – named Yagharek comes to his laboratory in New Crobuzon and asks Isaac to help him fly again. Yagharek is flightless, his wings removed as part of a brutal judicial punishment, and he’s travelled hundreds if not thousands of miles just to ask Isaac for his help. Yagharek’s gold is plentiful and Isaac is in need of a patron, so he soon sets off on a quest to restore the garuda’s flight. What Isaac does not know – cannot know – is that he will inadvertently set into motion a series of events that bring only nightmare, catastrophe and death to his city and everyone he knows and loves.
However, before the novel gets to the point where the plot kicks in, Miéville spends several hundred pages on setup, character development and a huge amount of world-building. If one of the characters visits a new neighborhood, Miéville includes a minimum of a few paragraphs describing how it looks, smells, sounds, pulses with life and interacts with the city around it. These passages are oftentimes beautiful, carefully drawn and incredibly dense, but over the course of the 600+ page novel, it becomes hard not to react with impatience when Miéville’s attention strays yet again to the architecture of his imagined city.
The idea is, of course, that New Crobuzon is another character in the story, but the problem is that Miéville seems intent on including too much of everything; the kitchen sink, a few bathtubs and maybe a swimming pool for good measure. Every new neighborhood has enough detail to support an entire storyline, but Miéville barely takes a breath before introducing even more obscure and bizarre details. What seems magical and fascinating for maybe a hundred pages or so becomes overkill when it just keeps happening past the halfway point of the novel.
Also, it doesn’t help that Miéville seems to delight in writing incredibly dense prose. I’m sure a large part of why I took so long to finish the book is that it felt like I was barely making any progress even though I would sit down and read for hours at a time. I was finally able to increase my pace a bit once the actual plot became clear, but at the same time I was a little disappointed to discover that all of Miéville’s baroque wordplay leads up to a relatively straightforward man versus monster story.
Ultimately, Perdido Street Station was a difficult book that I respected and sometimes liked but can’t help finding fault with as I think more about it. I’m glad I finally finished it so that I can mark it off my near-infinite list of unread books, but it will be a good long while before I pick up another one of Miéville’s books. Of course, there are at least three others on my shelves, waiting for me to read them.
Published: September 24, 2013 Publisher: Tor Books Genre(s): Fantasy, Superheroes Format: Audiobook Length: 9 hrs and 55 mins
V.E. Schwab’s Vicious had a lot to recommend it: an eye-catching cover, rave reviews from authors I trust, and a premise that promises to toy with superhero and villain tropes in interesting ways. The problem is that I never really bought the way the main characters get their powers, and that ended up souring me on the book. It also didn’t help that Vicious seemed to have ambitions of subverting the genre but fell prey to some of its hoariest clichés.
Victor Vale and Eli Cardale are college roommates and unlikely best friends. Victor is an anti-social misfit and Eli has every appearance of all-American normality, but as they get to know each other, it quickly becomes clear that they share not only an ambitious drive to succeed but also a darkness boiling just under the surface. Their relationship comes to a crucial turning point when Eli starts working on a term paper examining the source of “extra ordinaries” or “EOs” – near-mythical human beings with super-powers – and Victor suggests they try to put Eli’s findings into practice.
When Eli brings up the topic of EOs, that is the first real hint we’re given that we are dealing with a world that isn’t quite our own. Eli mentions EOs and everyone in his class knows what he means, but the world of Vicious doesn’t seem to have the concept of traditional comic book superheroes and villains. EOs may exist, but they certainly don’t run around wearing capes or acting under flamboyant pseudonyms.
Honestly, I think this reveal is where I started having problems with Vicious. The world-building felt a little shaky at this point and things only got worse from there. After Eli announces his intention to write about EOs, it isn’t long before he theorizes that near-death experiences are connected to EO powers and Victor convinces him to test that out. Before you know it, they’ve performed a few incredibly irresponsible experiments and become super-powered under conditions that just feel trivial.
Eli and Victor’s experiments aren’t at all scientific or rigorous, and Schwab never provides an explanation for their powers that I found satisfactory. The only thing that made sense to me was that they must live in an alternate universe where anyone who almost dies comes back super-powered. That would create a lot of EOs, but doesn’t jibe with the way everyone in Vicious treats EOs as nothing more than a fanciful rumor until Victor and Eli start digging into the subject. Schwab tells us how EOs happen but never explains why, and that bothered me the whole time I was reading.
It’s a shame, really, that I got so hung up on the basic building blocks of this story, because Vicious was reasonably entertaining at points. The characterization was decent, the moral grey areas were impressively large, and the details of the world were tantalizing enough that I wanted to know more than Schwab delivered.
Vicious is a book with a few cool ideas that ultimately don’t pay off, but I do think it speaks to the potential of its author. I’ll be curious to see what else Schwab writes, and it’s possible I’ll give another one of her books a shot some day. Unfortunately, this one just wasn’t my cup of tea.