A Fantasy Medley 3

April 28, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

medleyA Fantasy Medley 3, edited by Yanni Kuznia

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Last year, I splurged on a Subterranean Press mystery box, where I paid a flat price and received several books from their back catalog. It was a fun experiment, and I received a number of odd books, some from authors I knew and liked, others from authors I knew but hadn’t read, and then others like A Fantasy Medley 3, where I only had a passing interest in them. I’m knocking out the novellas in my collection, though, and this one, at just 151 pages, qualified, so I spent much of a Sunday afternoon reading it. And it was … okay.

The first story, “Goddess at the Crossroads”, is a story set in the world of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, which means nothing to me. I know Hearne’s name because he’s written a book in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but that’s about it. The story is serviceable enough; it’s engaging, and it’s well told. It didn’t wow me, and I felt a disconnect with the outside characters. It’s a story told around a campfire, and the characters around said campfire are probably familiar to readers of the rest of Hearne’s series, but for me, they’re just a wrapping device. They seem lively enough, but they aren’t particularly defined. Plus, the narrator seems to be long-lived, since the story he’s telling is about how he saved Shakespeare from bandits and witches. There are more questions than answers at the end of this story, though I expect readers of the series would know the answers to those questions.

Laura Bickle’s “Ashes” follows, and it, too, is part of a larger series (Anya Kalinczyk), though it does a better job of showing the characters. You still get the feeling that Bickle is relying on her existing series to carry the bulk of the characterization and exposition, but the story feels more engaging because she still gives us the bare bones of her character and what she means to the world she’s created. In the story, Anya is racing to catch the Red Dwarf, a fire elemental that’s wreaking havoc in modern-day Detroit. She’s joined by her familiar, a salamander named Sparky (oh, I forgot to mention there’s a strong vein of irreverence running throughout the story), and Charon, from Hell. Again, it feels like this is a small part of a larger story that readers of the series would already know, and it feels most apparent in the ending. I feel like it should have been more emotional, and it likely is, for those who know the rest of the story. As it is, I feel like the ending is rushed and unemotional, and raises more questions that readers familiar with her other books already understand.

The third story, “The Death of Aiguillon”, by Aliette de Bodard, is yet another story that’s part of a larger arc. In this case, the story is a prequel to The House of Shattered Wings. Again, this is a book (and author) with which I’m unfamiliar, so I’m going into an established story without any point of reference. Compared to the other two stories, this one feels the most self-contained. It’s about a young woman who has survived a magical battle, and how she continues to survive in the battle-ravaged city of Paris. de Bodard spends more time on character and setting here, though she seems to sacrifice plot in their favor. The language is lyrical and provoking, but it doesn’t feel as much like a story as the preceding two stories. Honestly, it feels like the prologue to a novel, which is exactly what it is. It’s also intriguing enough to make me look into de Bodard’s novel.

“One Hundred Ablutions” is Jacqueline Carey’s contribution to the collection, and is the one stand-alone story out of all four. I haven’t read anything by Carey yet, but I do have Kushiel’s Dart in my to-read stack, and this was the one story I was looking forward to reading. It’s a short, fantasy version of The Handmaid’s Tale, where lower-class citizens serve as religious handmaids for the higher-class families. It captures the helplessness and despair of Atwood’s tale, but redefines the roles of the handmaids in the tale. It’s a powerful, effective story, and touches on themes of independence, responsibility, and rebellion. It’s the best story of the collection.

As the title of the collection suggests, this is a medley of different kinds of fantasy, from urban fantasy to alternate worlds, and like most collections, it’s uneven. The volume is a mixed bag, with the first two stories being the least interesting of them all, but the last two stand out, with Carey’s story making it worthwhile. I won’t be seeking out the previous volumes in this series, but I don’t regret reading this one.

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This Census-Taker

April 27, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

censusThis Census-Taker by China Miéville

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My experience with Miéville has been a mixed bag. I tried reading Perdido Street Station several years back, and gave up on it about a hundred pages into it. (It’s since been put back on my to-read list.) I started and finished Un Lun Dun a few years ago, and liked it, but that could have been because it was like Clive Barker retelling The Phantom Tollbooth by way of Neil Gaiman, and besides, looking at other Miéville fans’ reviews of that book, it’s pretty much unlike everything else he’s written. Why I decided to tackle This Census-Taker is a good question, one I’m not sure I could answer well.

The story is about (I think) a man who’s writing a book about an earlier time in his life. He’s recalling the time of his youth when his father killed his mother, going back to set the stage for their place in the village where they live, and then showing the events as he recalls them. That’s the sense I get out of the story, but I could be wrong, since it took until past the 100-page mark for me to start getting a feel for what this story was about.

Miéville writes in an obtuse style here, which just annoys me. He shifts from first person to third person within sections, and at one point even started writing in the second person. He’s intentionally vague, uses a lot of symbolic language, and never comes right out and says what it is he’s trying to say. Once the story got underway, he started writing in a more approachable style, and the story was intriguing enough that I couldn’t help but wonder why he chose to write the rest of the story the way he did.

At the risk of sounding anti-intellectual, I don’t understand why writers write in such a way as to create barriers for their readers. I took enough English classes to understand the use of symbolism, allegory, metaphor, and the rest (I majored in the dang subject, for crying out loud), but I’ve read stories that were much easier to understand that had all of those characteristics. What’s the point? Why make readers work for what could otherwise be an entertaining, thoughtful story?

I also play board games, and one of my favorites, Age of Steam, has a reputation for being an unforgiving, antagonizing game. It’s been revised a couple of different times, each time making it a bit more approachable, but neither of those revisions have satisfied players who enjoyed the original. It comes down to the fact that the people who enjoy Age of Steam don’t like it despite it being unforgiving and difficult; they enjoy it because it’s all of those things. Maybe the same could be said of Miéville’s fans. When it comes to fiction, though, for me, the function has to come before the form, and in the case of Miéville, he seems more interested in the form. Here’s hoping that Perdido Street Station will keep my interest when I get around to re-reading it.

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Home

April 26, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

homeHome by Nnedi Okorafor

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Binti was my favorite of the first Tor novellas I read a couple of years ago, so when I saw that Okorafor had written a sequel, I knew I was going to be first in line to read it. It took me a few days to get around to it, thanks to some other books I was trying to finish first (I’m one of those save-your-favorite-food-for-the-last-bite-of-dinner eaters), but I’m pleased to see that the author wrote a story as profound as Binti.

We return to the life of Binti, lone survivor of an attack in space that killed everyone else on the ship, and now friend to one of the race of aliens that killed the other travelers, named Okwu. After a year at Oomza University, she feels the need to return home to see her family, and takes Okwu with her. That one year has changed Binti in several ways, all of which become apparent once she faces her family.

Okorafor takes on some heady themes with this novella, all of them having to do with home. Binti returns to her home, but so much has changed that she’s uncertain where home really is. Is it her family? The University? With Okwu? Elsewhere? The story is imbued with uncertainty, as Binti is pulled apart by her conflicting desires and responsibilities.

The author continues to draw on African culture to tell her story, which is refreshing to see in science fiction. Okorafor’s world is engaging, full of new technology and ideas that belong in the future, but are also rooted in the past. Binti, aside from being a student, is also a master harmonizer, one who can establish peace between alien races, which is a tradition that goes back through generations in her culture. Her new technology, education, and transformation helps her in this role, even as her experiences make her prone to panic attacks and anger, causing her further conflict. It’s easy to get caught up in Okorafor’s world and character, even if the story ends rather suddenly.

That’s my main gripe with Home, that it’s clearly just the second act in a three-act story. It ends on a cliffhanger, with very little resolved, which I’m seeing more and more in multi-volume stories. I miss when series could be comprised of self-contained stories, instead of drawing out one story over multiple parts. I say, that, though, knowing full well that I loved every book of A Song of Ice and Fire, which last ended on a cliffhanger that still hasn’t been resolved.

Okorafor is a talented writer who brings a fresh perspective to science fiction. Home is as good as, if not better than, Binti, and even if I wasn’t wild with how it ended, I’m in for the rest of the story. Whenever Binti III is released, I’m sure I’ll once again be first in line to read it and see how Okorafor concludes this mini-saga.

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The God Engines

April 25, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

enginesThe God Engines by John Scalzi

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So, The God Engines is as far away from the humorous vignettes of Miniatures as you can get. “Well, duh” I hear some of you saying, but understand, I read this novella right after finishing Miniatures, and I was shocked at how different they are. I’m shocked at how different this is from pretty much anything Scalzi has written, which might be why I didn’t like it all that much.

In the distant future, spaceships are powered by gods, imprisoned in the bowels of the ships, chained and tortured to force them to do the bidding of the captains. The reason they’re forced to do this is because decades before, the gods battled, and the one who won imprisoned the rest. As a result, the captains and crew are people of faith, so when they’re confronted with a truth that goes counter to what they believe, that faith is shaken.

The premise is interesting enough, especially considering how Scalzi uses the story to talk about the power and limitations of faith, but it was so at odds with what I was expecting that I felt disappointed in it. I don’t see Scalzi’s fiction as light, but it’s never been as dark and nihilistic as this. It didn’t help that he created a class of women on the ship whose sole purpose was to pleasure the men, either. I know Scalzi is progressive, and he attempted to give the women more importance by making them revered among the crew and the faith, but it felt a little cliched and even derivative, especially Inara on Firefly.

The God Engines isn’t bad, but it’s not up to par with Scalzi’s other fiction. Folks familiar with Scalzi just through Old Man’s War might be surprised by it, but hardcore fans would likely get the most out of this story. I’d recommend it to fans of dark fiction in general, too, but the casual reader should probably skip it.

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Miniatures

April 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

miniaturesMiniatures by John Scalzi

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John Scalzi isn’t exactly known for his short fiction. In the foreword to Miniatures, he explains that he tends to write novels or short-short stories, and this book is the first collection of the latter. It’s a slim volume — just 142 pages — which makes sense, since the longest story in the collection is just under 2300 words, and there are only eighteen stories here. Though, to call them stories is a bit generous.

Mind you, I’m not saying that as a criticism. The pieces here would best be called vignettes, which is just fine since none of the stories in this collection are meant to be taken seriously. All but one of them are humorous pieces, like the collection of Tweets he compiles about the gremlin on the wing of his plane who is on strike, a collection of the different ways Hitler died among parallel universes, or a corporate memo giving humans a list of alien holidays and how to observe them, which totally aren’t a response to a prank played on the aliens. For humorous pieces like this, vignettes are the best way to tell them.

I hesitate to say “If you don’t laugh at these stories, then you’re dead inside”, but seriously, there’s some funny stuff here. I think it helps to be familiar with his writing outside of his novels, since the sense of humor he applies to these stories is the same as the one he uses on Twitter. Anyone familiar with Scalzi from his Tweets or his blog will enjoy this collection.

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The Emperor’s Soul

April 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

soulThe Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

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I don’t need anyone else to tell me Sanderson is a good writer. Mistborn didn’t impress me as much as I expected (though it improved once it moved past Vin’s story), but The Rithmatist by itself showed me how good he is. Now, The Emperor’s Soul has showed me more.

Shai is a Forger, someone with the magical skill of rewriting the history of an object. In some ways, it’s a practical skill, as she can recreate a table or a window into something more ornate, but it’s also allowed her to recreate priceless works of art, like a painting, or a royal scepter. Forging the latter is what wound her up in the Emperor’s prison, but one day before her execution, she’s given an impossible task: Forge the soul of the Emperor himself, who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, in one hundred days.

The Emperor’s Soul is as close to a perfect story as you can get, in part because Sanderson thinks about the story comprehensively. Every part of the story is important, every character plays a role, and every piece of scenery or history plays into its conclusion. It’s a story that’s tightly woven, in part because Sanderson creates such a vivid character in Shai. She’s smart, cunning, and determined. Her closest confidant in her endeavor is Gaotona, one of the royal councilors, and the relationship Sanderson develops between them is surprisingly strong, especially when it is developed in such a subtle, effective way. You can’t go back through the story and find the moment where they bonded; it just happens naturally through the course of events.

The story itself is impressive, but what it has to say makes it even more impressive. In the same way that fiction tells us the truth by lying to us, Sanderson talks about the truth of art through a character whose sole talent is in copying it. Nearly all the other characters in the story see her as nothing but a thief, someone wasting their talents in imitation, when Shai herself sees herself as the true artist.

The Emperor’s Soul is brilliant. It’s a compelling story with fulfilling characters, with a strong message and even stronger characters. If you haven’t yet discovered how good a writer Sanderson is, this novella would be a great place to start.

(Before I go, I need to draw your attention to that cover. It’s perfect. It captures the character of Shai so well, and I’m not even talking about how she’s described in the book. It’s the expression that says she’ll play along, but she still has her own agenda.)

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Miracles Ain’t What They Used to Be

April 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

miraclesMiracles Ain’t What They Used to Be by Joe R. Lansdale

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Recently, a friend reviewed a Lansdale book and mentioned how Lansdale hates Christianity. It took me by surprise, because while I’ve never seen anything in Lansdale’s work that suggests he feels otherwise, I’ve never seen him say something that overt before. That was before I read the essay that gives this short collection its title, though, and now I have to say, yep, totally true. Lansdale hates Christianity.

To be fair, he hates all religions. Doesn’t have any use for it. He writes about this for about 25 pages, showing how much he despises the idea of it, how he doesn’t believe in God, and has little patience for people who claim to be Christian yet don’t act like proper Christians (though he also gives a nod to those who are Christian but don’t use it as a crutch to disregard everything else in their lives). Fair enough. I don’t even disagree with what he has to say. I do, however, feel like he goes out of his way to be confrontational about it, which I think accomplishes little.

I felt the same way about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, because it’s one thing to go into a story (or essay) with an agenda; it’s another to come out the other side of it frothing at the mouth over your position. It doesn’t win anyone over, it doesn’t change any minds, and, honestly, it’s hard to determine the point of such a thing. In Lansdale’s case, at the very beginning of the piece he notes that he’s about to go an an unbalanced rant, so at least there’s the self-awareness of how unhinged his argument sounds. I’d say it’s an effort to populate his own echo chamber, but even to me, an atheist, I couldn’t help but think, “Jeeze, Joe, take a breath. Calm down.”

This collection has a few other pieces, most of them non-fiction, all of them philosophical. Hap and Leonard make an appearance in the first story, but don’t expect the usual hee-haw experience with these guys; it’s just an eight-page story waxing poetic on aggressors and victims. There are two other stories that appear to be written straight out of Joe’s own childhood, and if they’re true, then they shine a light on how Lansdale developed his style.

Also in this collection is one interview with Lansdale, along with five nonfiction pieces he wrote for The Texas Observer. One is an appreciation for Poe, and the others are reflections on his own life. Again, you see how much Lansdale uses his own life for inspiration, since you learn that much of The Boar came straight from his own experiences.

This collection is intended for Lansdale’s already-fans, since it’s more fact than fiction. I think readers will enjoy the glimpse into his life, but I can’t help but wonder how much the title essay will polarize his readers. To be honest, I wouldn’t think of Christians having much appreciation for Lansdale, but my friend proves me wrong, and I can’t help but wonder how he would react to it (especially when I even thought he was going too far). So it’s hard to recommend it without that caveat. Just be aware, and forewarned.

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Hoodoo Harry

April 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

harryHoodoo Harry by Joe R. Lansdale

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I stumbled across this book on Twitter, of all places, and had one of those Omigod how did I not know about this already? moments, especially when I spent part of last year making sure I was caught up with all of Lansdale’s odds-and-ends publications. This one, it turns out, was published by The Mysterious Bookshop, a well-known bookstore specializing in mysteries and crime thrillers, which could explain why I missed hearing about it (well, that, and the fact that it was only just published when I first heard about it).

Lansdale returns to his perennial characters Hap Collins and Leonard Pine in this novella, where their adventure begins when their car is run off the road by a runaway bookmobile. For Hap and Leonard, that’s not something to just brush off, especially when said bus was being driven by a twelve-year-old, who winds up dead after being thrown through the windshield of the old bus. No, this near-death encounter for Hap begets investigations and threats, which is part and parcel of what a Hap & Leonard story is all about.

The story is engaging, but it’s not the best Hap and Leonard adventure Lansdale has written. The two characters go about the small town of Nesbit, doing their investigating and getting up to their usual antics, but the mystery feels hackneyed and pedestrian, compared with some of the usual plots they’ve been involved in. Plus, while I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think about how much trouble Hap and Leonard get involved with. As many people as have wound up dead around them, it’s a wonder the last three books haven’t been set in their prison cell.

I’ve said before that Lansdale is a dependable writer, one you can trust to tell a good story, even if said story isn’t the best dang thing you’ve ever read. Hoodoo Harry is one of those stories, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Sure, you might pine for something like Sunset and Sawdust while reading this, but it’s certainly no waste of time, either.

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Blue and Gold

April 18, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

blueBlue and Gold by K.J. Parker

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Had this been the first thing I’d read by K.J. Parker, I might not have glommed on to him as an Author to Read like I have. Then again, the first thing I read by him — The Last Witness — may not have done it all by itself, either. It took me reading The Devil You Know to see how brilliant of a writer he is. It also helped that I had already read The Devil You Know, since Saloninus features in both stories, and since I already knew what happened when he murdered his wife, which is what happens in this novella.

Oh, no, don’t worry; that’s not a spoiler. He tells us that in the opening paragraph.

Saloninus also tells us that he’s a liar. Sometimes. When it best suits him. He then proceeds to tell us a tale of alchemy, old friendships, royalty, and immortality. Is he telling us what actually happened? Maybe. He changes the story as he tells it, telling us when he lies, and giving us additional information as it suits him. Either way, it’s entertaining.

Parker’s style is all his own. It’s this lackadaisical narrative that sounds spun out while he’s telling the story, enough to make you wonder if he’s making it all up as he goes along. By the time he gets to the end, you see how well he knew what was coming, leading you in one direction while actually taking you down a different path. Or else he really is making this stuff up as he goes along, and manages to spin his ramblings into something coherent at the very end. Either way, it’s impressive.

I don’t find Blue and Gold to be as impressive as Purple and Black or The Devil You Know, only because it lacks the kind of emotional punch those stories had. The ending will take you by surprise, but only in the same way that a well-told joke or a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie might. Still, a K.J. Parker story will take you on a ride, and even his less effective stories will make an impact. I can’t wait to tackle one of his longer works.

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Muse of Fire

April 17, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

museMuse of Fire by Dan Simmons

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I often don’t get Dan Simmons. He’s a smart guy, with varied interests, and while he writes stories that can affect me like few other stories can (Hyperion), he also writes stories that go so far over my head that not even radar can find them. Muse of Fire is one of those latter stories.

I didn’t get much out of this novella, but I don’t know much about Shakespeare, either, and the major theme of this story is Shakespeare. Simmons presents a far-flung future where humankind has been more or less annihilated by aliens, which are now considered to be their gods. In this future is a troupe of actors, going from backwater planet to backwater planet, preserving and presenting the plays of Shakespeare to the handfuls of humans, most of them indentured servants to the aliens, left in the galaxy. At one performance, some of the aliens come to watch the troupe perform, and afterward, they are asked to perform a play for the aliens themselves. That’s the point where the story truly begins.

This is ostensibly a science fiction story — there are spaceships and aliens and planets, though presented without the usual science fiction cliches — but it’s mostly a philosophical treatise and an examination of Shakespeare’s plays. Simmons has studied Shakespeare long and hard, and it shows in this novella. He goes beyond the surface of the plays, talking about their messages and their meanings, and how they still speak truth, even 400 years after being written. He gives the plays meaning above and beyond humanity, wrapping all of human existence into the stories and words and the performances of this single troupe that tours the universe strictly to spread the word of Shakespeare, as if they’re passing along a religion. It’s informative and impressive, and like most of Simmons’ works, it will stay with you long after finishing the book.

What this book isn’t, though, is a good story. It’s hard to engage in it, it’s difficult to understand, and if you don’t know enough about Shakespeare going in, you’re likely to be lost amid what Simmons has to say about the plays. It’s also populated with uninteresting characters, none of whom, save the narrator, are developed. The only other character that gets more than just a passing mention is the female love-interest, and even then, she’s not described beyond being attractive and a good actor.

Muse of Fire is full of interesting ideas, but the ideas don’t make for an interesting story. I’m perfectly willing to accept that I didn’t get much out of the story because I didn’t have the proper context to put into it, but regardless, it didn’t resonate with me like Hyperion or even Phases of Gravity. In some parts, it was just plain dull. It’s definitely original, and it definitely has something to say, but it just wasn’t something that had much to say to me.

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