I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land

August 31, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

travellerI Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis

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I’ll read anything Connie Willis publishes. In addition, she’s a writer who goes right to the top of my reading list when I get a new book of hers. That’s a small list of authors for me, but Willis has proven time and again she’s at the top of her game, and it looks like she’s going to be there for a long time.

I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, unfortunately, is not her strongest work. For an author who excels at characterization and complex plots, this novella feels oddly straightfoward, and is even rather heavy-handed. Our narrator, Jim, a professional blogger whose expertise is supporting obsolescence (?), stumbles across what he thinks is a bookstore while trying to escape the rain in New York City. The rest of the story is Jim discovering the secret behind the bookstore (which holds hundreds of thousands of books, which his guide continues to tell him aren’t for sale).

The thing is, Willis makes it obvious what that secret is, so we’re along for the ride while his guide goes on a rant about how libraries get rid of books that don’t get used, or how people throw out old books because they don’t see any value in them, or how books just waste away over time. As a reader, I understand where Willis comes from in that argument; as a librarian, though, I don’t understand what she expects libraries to do. She delivers a passionate argument, but she doesn’t offer any alternatives to weeding a library collection, other than to create a fantasy library that solves the problem she sees. I was never hesitant to discard materials from the library when they no longer served a purpose (seriously, who needs a book on DOS 3.0 in the 21st century, or a book about professional frisbee players from the 1970s?), so the point of this novella didn’t hit the mark with me.

Despite that, this novella is exactly what Willis fans would expect from her. It contains books, has a lovestruck character, and a large part of the story centers on a comedy of errors. It’s just not her best work. Compared with the brilliance of Doomsday Book or Bellwether or Lincoln’s Dreams, Traveller falls flat because it doesn’t contain those elements that best define her books. Existing fans will devour the story, and enjoy it, but I can’t help but feel like they’ll finish the book wanting to re-read one of her earlier, better works. This novella is like hearing the cover of a favorite song on the radio and wishing you could hear the original instead.

Started: August 26, 2018
Finished: August 26, 2018

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The Black God’s Drums

August 30, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

drumsThe Black God’s Drums by Djèlí P. Clark

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Set in a steampunk, post-Civil War, post-slavery New Orleans, and featuring a touch of African magic, The Black God’s Drums is the latest in the Tor.com novella series. Famous for featuring authors and characters that have often been overlooked in genre fiction, the imprint is something I’ve championed since I first discovered it, recommending them not just for their social awareness, but also because there are some fantastic stories there. I went into this novella with high expectations.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hit all the marks I hoped for. It’s definitely a compelling story, but it rushes through a lot of the plot, and hurries through the conclusion, enough so that the novella feels more like a first draft of a novel rather that a completed novella. I’ve said before that books have to be long enough to cover the stories therein, and here, it feels like Clark was working to fulfill a maximum (or in this case, minimum) number of words to qualify as a novella. Plus, being set in a steampunk New Orleans, the story reminded me too much of Ganymede by Cherie Priest, which was the advantage of being a fantastic book, as well as an appropriate length.

There’s a lot of potential here, but by the end of the story, I couldn’t get excited about the characters or the story. Clark is a talented writer, and has a strong narrative style, but the story lacks the elusive OOMPH to make it a classic. It just wasn’t my thing.

Started: August 24, 2018
Finished: August 25, 2018

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The Prestige

August 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

prestigeThe Prestige by Christopher Priest

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I’m always a little nervous when I read a novel that was the basis for a movie, when I’ve already seen the movie. I’m afraid I’ll pull too much of the movie into the book, and I won’t be able to pick up on the subtlety of the original story. Luckily, the book starts completely differently than the movie does, so I was able to at least start the story fresh.

On the bright side, I think it helped a lot to have seen the movie before reading the book. The Prestige is one of those novels that, by itself, requires a couple of reads to understand the full story. Knowing the twist, and knowing how the ending will play out, helps in some of the more difficult sections of the narrative. Not to give anything away, but the structure of the first section of the book would have been a lot more difficult to understand without already knowing the ending.

One thing I noticed while reading the book is how unbelievable parts of it are. They don’t seem as crazy in the movie for some reason. While watching the movie, I could acknowledge that the science was questionable, but I was so caught up in the events and trying to figure out where the Nolans were leading us, it didn’t affect me as much. In the book, they were somehow much more unbelievable. Part of it is the major differences in the ending; in the end, how the Nolans concluded their story sat more easily with me than how Priest concluded his.

The bulk of the story and its intricacies, though, are all Priest’s. He deserves the credit for how engaging, twisty, and unexpected the plot is, in the same way that Robert Bloch deserves that same credit for Psycho. He also structures the story differently, telling it in an epistolary style through journals of the two magicians. Interestingly, Priest chooses not to intertwine the stories; instead, he tells all of Borden’s story, and then shifts to Angier’s. By itself, it works very well; having watched the movie first, it’s a little jarring in how we get almost to the end of the movie before we shift gears and go back to the beginning.

Like the tricks themselves, the story is one of prestidigitation, making it one that rewards careful, attentive readers. Much of what we need to know about the plot and its twists are made clear in the beginning, if only we know what to identify as the keys. I’m not saying I’m one of those attentive readers (there’s a good chance I would have missed a lot of them had I not seen the movie), but those who like a good mystery would enjoy this book. I highly recommend it.

Started: August 12, 2018
Finished: August 22, 2018

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Slave Ship

August 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

slaveSlave Ship by K.W. Jeter

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After being so disappointed with the first book in this series, I went into the second book with lowered expectations. It helped at the start — it felt like it was a little bit better — but by the first third of the book, it felt like I was reading the first book all over again. It wasn’t engaging, and I felt myself lucky if I were reading twenty pages a day.

Like the first book, Slave Ship flips between two timelines, one during the events of The Empire Strikes Back, the rest about halfway into the events of Return of the Jedi. This time, I at least recognized that Jeter was using a framing device by having Dengar telling Neelah what happened in the past. I don’t remember that being the structure in the first novel, but as long as it took to get through it, and as hard as it was for me to pay attention to it, I could have just missed it.

Also, by this book, the Bounty Hunters Guild has been disbanded, which was news to me. Did it happen in the first book and I just missed it? (I’m willing to admit this is likely the case.) Or is it like the Clone Wars and it happened between entries in the series? Now, don’t think that you won’t know this is the case, though; Jeter tells us over and over again that it’s been disbanded, thanks to Boba Fett. It’s sort of like “With great power comes great responsibility” in Spider-Man: You’re going to hear it again and again and again.

Jeter still has some cool, cyberpunky ideas, which are rarely seen in the Expanded Universe, so I think it’s refreshing to see them here, but he doesn’t do much with those ideas. His characters are flat, the plot seems forced, and he uses a lot of info-dumps. His action scenes are also flat, and since there are a few battles that take place, that’s unfortunate.

Speaking of characters, that of Boba Fett feels off. I know he’s supposed to be a ruthless character, but Jeter makes him this emotionless, manipulative character who doesn’t quite gel with how I perceive him from the movies. Ruthless is one thing, but sociopathic is a little different. Plus, we never get any of Fett’s point of view, so we never know what his motivations are. I’m sure that’s intentional — Fett has always been a mysterious character — but as much as he’s featured on the covers and summaries of the books, I expected a bit more attention paid to his character.

So, I’m going to finish the series (I’ve come this far, and I’ve already committed to reading all the EU books, for good or ill), but the second book hasn’t given me any reason to change my mind on its quality. I’m tempted to just read the Wookieepedia entry for the third book so I can jump ahead, but I’m a slave to my projects. I won’t expect it will change my mind about the series, though.

Started: August 9, 2018
Finished: August 21, 2018

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Bad Brains

August 23, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

brainsBad Brains by Kathe Koja

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I really like Koja’s writing style. When I was younger, I didn’t think much of it, but on re-reading it, I find I can appreciate it a lot more. When so much of the older fiction I read is more tell than show, it’s nice to read a style where the narrative is almost entirely show. In the Abyss line, Koja and Kelley Wilde both refused to follow any standards, and their books are much more enjoyable for it.

That being said, Bad Brains is a pretty dull book. It starts off well, but it slowly becomes a story of the main character moving from place to place. The main character isn’t that likable, which I expected, but he’s somehow both less or a loser and more of a loser than the main character in The Cipher. The story is about Austen, an artist who falls and suffers a brain injury that causes him to see a shimmery silver color encroach on his vision. This has happened to him after his wife has left him, and after he has fallen into a depression that halts his artwork. Since this is a Koja novel, Austen is a bit of an outcast, but he starts off as someone more respectable than Nicholas, from The Cipher. Slowly, though, he falls further and further out of step, so while he starts off having accomplished more in his life, he winds up being more insufferable than Nicholas. Maybe it’s because he did make something of himself before his wife left him and he fell into the downward spiral of his infection.

Bad Brains reads well, and makes as strong of an impact as The Cipher did, but the story just isn’t that interesting. Her style was enough to keep me reading, but I wanted the story to be as good as her narrative. I’m hoping her later works will capture that same blending of prose and story like I found in The Cipher. This could be a case of the Sophomore Novel Syndrome.

Started: August 9, 2018
Finished: August 18, 2018

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The Descent of Monsters

August 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

decentThe Descent of Monsters by JY Yang

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My first thought on starting this book (you know, after “Yay! Another book by Yang!”) was “UGH, another epistolary story!” It’s not that I feel the structure is overdone, and it’s not even like I’ve read so many of them lately that I’m sick of them; no, I just have issues with the technique overall. I think it’s because my own memory is terrible, and I have to believe that someone can remember conversations so well that they can jot them down, verbatim, long after they’ve taken place. Unless the author is trying to present an unreliable narrator, I have a hard time accepting it.

Yang takes it a step further by having one of their characters jot things down in a journal as things are happening. At one point, the narrator is writing things down in the back of a cart on the way to a confrontation, and even comments on how bumpy the ride is and how horrible the writing must be. They even have the character stop in the middle of a sentence. It felt unnatural and forced, which took me right out of the story.

The thing is, the rest of the story flowed so well that I didn’t even pay much attention to the epistolary structure. Yang alternates between sources, so we get two different perspectives on one event, and it helps keep the tension high and the story moving. It reminded me of the best pieces of the first two novellas in the series. Unlike the first two books, which supposedly can be read in either order, Descent should be read after those two, since it builds off of events presented in the earlier books.

Folks who read the first two books should definitely read this one, but if they did, then they probably already have. For anyone else, if you’re interested in Eastern fantasy stories with genderfluid characters, you should make your way back to the first book and get reading.

Started: August 11, 2018
Finished: August 11, 2018

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Good Deeds Gone Unpunished

August 21, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

deedsGood Deeds Gone Unpunished by Rich Burlew

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As I was reading this book, I realized that the reasons I like Usagi Yojimbo so much are the reasons I like The Order of the Stick so much. Aside from the honorable characters and the deep-seeded evil of both stories, there’s a general positivity to their works that you don’t see much in modern fantasy. Sure, people die, and sometimes they’re our favorite characters, but Burlew appears to write toward a general feel-good, heroes-win kind of fantasy. It still has an epic feel, and I know it hasn’t been concluded yet, but it feels like that’s where Burlew is going with his story.

Good Deeds Gone Unpunished is a collection of five short-stories, told in reverse chronological order, about the citizens of Azure City, featured in the collection War and XPs. We get glimpses into the lives of some of the major characters there, some seemingly innocuous, others profound and life-changing. There’s a good balance of exposition and revelation here, which is about all most of the stories have. The first four are very short, and hardly have time to get anything going, but the final story takes up about half of the book and feels like a novel of its own.

Burlew is a talented writer. This isn’t news to anyone who follows the online comic, but he’s a writer who deserves more attention. His stories are geared more toward readers who have a familiarity with Dungeons and Dragons (the early strips more so), but anyone who enjoys epic stories with complex plots and a strong sense of humor would find a lot to like in this series. One of these days I’ll get around to re-reading the story in the collected trade paperback.

Started: August 6, 2018
Finished: August 10, 2018

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The Mandalorian Armor

August 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

armor The Mandalorian Armor by K.W. Jeter

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K.W. Jeter is supposed to be this wunderkind author, hailed by Philip K. Dick and other authors, so I had high expectations for this book. I mean, this was the guy who had been tagged to write the authorized sequels to Blade Runner! Of course this book had to be good, right?

Well, with that kind of set up, you probably know where this is going. I disliked this book. I didn’t hate it, but neither did I care about anything that happened in the book. This is the first book in The Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy, so I expected Boba Fett to feature here, because what book about bounty hunters wouldn’t feature Boba Fett? Instead, he’s a secondary character at best, since Dengar feels like the main character.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t the first book in the Boba Fett trilogy; this is about all the bounty hunters and the Bounty Hunters Guild. It’s also the start of a trilogy, so there’s a good chance Boba Fett is going to find his way back to being a main character. It’s just odd how Jeter approaches the telling of the story, since the opening scene of the book appears to be after the titular war.

The book opens with Dengar finding Boba Fett, battered and weak, outside of his armor, next to the remains of the sarlacc. He rescues Fett, and we settle in for a story set after the events of Return of the Jedi, but then the book flashes back to events that take place between Empire and Jedi. Jeter flips back and forth between the two timelines, but the bulk of the story takes place earlier, which just didn’t work for me. At the very least, it reduces the tension of the story, since we know some of the characters featured in the earlier timeline are going to make it to the later one.

Most of the book just felt so boring. It was hard to care about the characters, and the plot meandered enough that I had to force myself to come back to the book. At one point, Palpatine and Vader are having a conversation with Prince Xizor of Black Sun, and that conversation goes on for about forty pages. The conversation was important — it layed out much of the plot and hinted at the machinations that would take place ahead — but it went on way too long. The dialogue felt forced and insincere, in that it became more an infodump than a convincing conversation between a few characters. It was way too much speech and not enough action.

Speaking of action, what action there was always felt flat and unemotional. Maybe it was due to my lack of caring about the characters, but once things did get going, I always felt like a distant observer instead of being right there in the action with them.

This was a book with so much potential. I mean, I know someone who, after learning that Disney wasn’t going to do a Boba Fett movie, turned to this trilogy to get his Boba Fett kick. I’m going to have to tell him to skip it. On the one hand, I hate to do it, because he really wants a good Boba Fett story; on the other hand, I have to do it, because I don’t want him to subject himself to this book. Me? I at least have a reason to keep trudging on, but now my expectations won’t be so high.

Started: July 25, 2018
Finished: August 9, 2018

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Pandemonium

August 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

demonPandemonium by Daryl Gregory

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My first Daryl Gregory book was We Are All Completely Fine. By the time I got to the end of it, that’s pretty much what I thought of the book: just completely fine. It didn’t stand out to me or otherwise make that big of an impression on me. I went on to read Harrison Squared, though, since it was somewhat related to that novella, and man, did I enjoy the hell out of that book. It made me rethink Gregory all together.

In the world of Pandemonium, demon possession has been a thing since the 1950s. The demons jump from person to person, enough so that they become recognizable. There’s the Painter, the Captain, the Kamikaze, and more, including the Hellion, which possessed Del Pierce, our main character, twice in his youth. Del, however, is convinced his demon never left him, that it’s been penned up in his head since he was five years old. Now in his twenties, he’s ready for it to come out.

Pandemonium is a book that flows easily, keeping you reading long past the time you should have stopped. It’s a great example of how to tell a good story: it’s rich with detail without it overwhelming the story; it’s full of characters, complete with foibles, who are easy to like; and it has a plot that twists and turns and surprises without cheating the reader. It’s a book so well written that it’s impossible to see how he does it. With a bad book, you can see why it’s bad; with a good book, you’re so wrapped up in the story that you can’t bother to look for what makes it work so well.

This is an impressive book, more so when you realize this is Gregory’s first novel. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the premise, or anyone who like fiction a little offbeat, a little outside the norm. I see comparisons between Gregory and Philip K. Dick, and while I don’t exactly see it, I can see how Gregory’s characters pay homage to him (in more ways than the one obvious one in the story).

Started: July 31, 2018
Finished: August 9, 2018

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Whipping Boy

August 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boyWhipping Boy by John Byrne

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In my experience, comic book writers don’t make the best novelists. M.R. Carey aside, their novels tend to be overly descriptive, making them overlong, and while they have a strong visual characteristic, the characterization tends to be lacking. Whipping Boy is no exception.

This is a long novel — nearly 500 pages of small type — and I feel like it could have been trimmed by at least 20% if Byrne had kept his descriptions under control. He also has a flair for the overdramatic: e.g., “From that awful, gaping, distended maw issued forth a cry that Clay Garber did not believe could have been equaled by the voices of a hundred souls pitched headlong into boiling tar.” It’s the kind of prose that makes you feel embarrassed for the writer.

The thing is, the story is fairly interesting, at least by way of its theme. The story is about Paul Trayne, a young boy who has the power to absorb the guilt, shame, and other negative feelings of people around him. The problem is that once he absorbs those feelings, the people are left with no moral compass, no way of knowing right from wrong. After unleashing his powers on a small town and leaving them in the chaos of not caring, he moves on to Chicago, where he plans to use his powers on a larger scale. It’s an intriguing premise, with an interesting theme, especially when, near the end of the story, Byrne has a character soliloquize internally about how it’s not the boy who did the terrible things, but the people. Sure, it’s a tired horror trope, but it’s effective.

The problem is Byrne doesn’t do anything with it but tell a story. He doesn’t capture the characters well enough for us to empathize with their dilemmas, instead presenting us with more and more graphic depictions of the horrible things people do to each other. We don’t get that unsettling feeling that, yes, we the readers could just as easily become the monsters if we were in the same situation. It feels emotionless and pointless.

The other issue is that Byrne doesn’t give us a compelling reason as to why Paul and his father are doing what they do. I think they’re just supposed to be evil (there’s a priest character who reinforces that idea), but it’s not enough to define their motivation, and it’s hard to feel engaged with their characters without it. Plus, in the final act of the novel, Paul’s character changes on us, and while Byrne explains why it changes, and it fits with the story, he doesn’t get us to feel it. As such, it feels flat and forced.

So, there’s potential here, but Byrne doesn’t bring it to fruition. For an Abyss book, it’s still a level above the other dreck they published (barring Tem and Koja), but it’s not so much that it stands among the best works from the line. It has too many cliches, it tells too much, and it doesn’t stick the landing well enough.

Started: July 17, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

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