The science is absurd, the plot is completely over the top, and about 3/4 of the way through, I figured out why it was working for me.
Spoilers Beyond This Point
The science is absurd, the plot is completely over the top, and about 3/4 of the way through, I figured out why it was working for me.
Spoilers Beyond This Point
This is actually the third weird western fantasy I’ve read this year. (The others were Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory and Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures, which I provided a blurb for.) Gilman’s book made a three-book streak of good, fun, engaging storytelling.
Here’s an abridged version of the publisher’s summary:
Isobel is a child of the Territory. She grew up in a saloon, trained to serve drinks and fold laundry, to observe the players at the card tables and report back to her boss on what she saw. But when she comes of age, she is given a choice….
Isobel chooses power. Chooses risk. Chooses to throw her cards in with the Devil, Master of the Territory.
But the costs of that power are greater than she ever imagined; the things she must do, the person she must become… And she needs to learn her new role quickly: pressures from both outside the Territory and within are growing, and the Devil’s Hand has work to do…
Izzy’s job as the Devil’s Left Hand is to travel the Territory, and to discover and resolve problems. Problems like an entire town killed by what may or may not be plague; like families slaughtered; like demons and wandering magicians, both of which can be equally deadly.
The Devil hasn’t had a Left Hand in a long time, but he knows something’s stirring. He makes a separate Bargain with a rider named Gabriel, who agrees to mentor Izzy and teach her the ways of the Road. Gabriel is older and experienced, but Izzy’s the one with the responsibility and the power. If she can learn how to use it.
I loved the worldbuilding in this story. I love that the Devil both is and isn’t the figure you’re used to. In some respects, particularly the Bargains he makes, he’s very familiar … and then you realize “Devil” is just a name, and you never truly learn what he really is. There’s power and mystery there. Is he evil? He seems to be scrupulously fair in honoring the Laws and Bargains of the Territory. I’m hoping to see and learn more about him in future books.
Then there are things like the danger of the crossroads, the power of silver to cleanse evil magic, the snakes that show up in the night to whisper cryptic warnings, the alternate history of the American frontier, with various nations fighting to control the land beyond the Territory the Devil has claimed as his own.
I also appreciated the relationship between Izzy and Gabriel. Izzy is only sixteen, and Gabriel is older and rougher around the edges. It’s not set up as a romance. Instead, we start with Gabriel as teacher and evolve first into a partnership, and eventually into Izzy stepping into her role as Hand and taking the lead in making decisions and facing the darkness.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I really appreciated the way Gilman resolved things. It’s not necessarily what you’d expect, but it felt right for Izzy’s character, the story, and the world.
Also, the magician they meet is such a fun character.
I look forward to the next book in the series!
One of the nice things about vacation was getting the chance to catch up on a little reading.
I started with Beth Bernobich’s novel The Time Roads [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], a collection of four novellas (or novelettes?) telling the story of an alternate Ireland at the start of the twentieth century. Part one, “The Golden Octopus,” introduces us to Queen Áine, the young ruler of the empire of Éire, and the scientist Dr. Breandan Ó Cuilinn, a pioneer in the science of time fractures. As a result of said time fractures, each novella reflects a slightly changed reality, with characters struggling to reconcile conflicting memories and events.
One of the four stories, “A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange,” made the preliminary Nebula Award ballot after being published as a standalone in Asimov’s. I remember reading it then and very much enjoying it, and it was wonderful to get the broader context of the surrounding stories.
It was particularly nice to see things start to come together in the final part of the book, which returns to Áine’s perspective as she struggles to deal with enemies who’ve learned to weaponize the time fractures. It raised the stakes and the pacing, and worked well to bring everything home.
It’s not a traditionally structured novel, which may throw some folks off. But the steampunk/fantasy/time travel/alternate history mix made for an enjoyable read.
Next up was S.L. Huang’s Half Life, [Amazon | B&N], the sequel to Zero Sum Game, which I enjoyed and reviewed a while back. Mathematical genius and morally grey action hero Cas Russell is back, and this time she’s trying to track down a man’s missing daughter (who may or may not exist), fight off the mob, and track down some plutonium in her free time.
If you liked the first book, you’ll probably enjoy this one as well. It has a lot of the same fast-paced action and non-stop plot. We get more of Chester and Arthur, who balance Cas out in good ways. It’s just plain fun reading.
What we don’t get is much more about Cas’ background and origin story, though I imagine more of that mystery will be revealed in future books.
I had some of the same nitpicks about using math to calculate things human bodies and reflexes simply aren’t fast enough for, but it was easier this time to let that go as part of our protagonist’s mysterious enhancements and backstory. I also thought the ending went a little over-the-top.
I particularly enjoyed how Huang wrote about lifelike robots, and the way different characters responded to them. It explored a number of angles and ideas, and brought up some great ethical conflicts, not to mention tripping Cas up with logic vs. emotional instinct.
It was a fun read, one I zipped through it in about two days, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for book three!
I received an advance copy of Wesley Chu‘s Time Salvager [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] a while back. The book comes out on July 7, and is a rather dark time-travel adventure based in a grim 26th century. From the publisher’s description:
In a future when Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humanity has spread into the outer solar system to survive, the tightly controlled use of time travel holds the key maintaining a fragile existence among the other planets and their moons. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman–a convicted criminal recruited for his unique psychological makeup to undertake the most dangerous job there is: missions into Earth’s past to recover resources and treasure without altering the timeline.
On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets an intriguing woman from a previous century, scientist Elise Kim, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, James brings her back to the future with him, turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, and discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.
James Griffin-Mars is bitter, burnt out, and in some respects broken. The laws of time travel limit him to locations where his thefts won’t be noticed: ships and facilities doomed to destruction. Those same laws mean he’s constantly abandoning the people he meets, leaving them to die. Between that and the crumbling world of his home time, it’s no wonder Griffin-Mars is rather messed up.
As a result, for much of the book, he’s rather unlikeable, too. He can’t afford to be likeable, not if he’s going to do his job and survive. He’s also got a kind of paternalistic attitude toward his love interest, Elise Kim. In some ways it makes sense — she’s a stranger to his time, and he doesn’t exactly fill her in on how much danger she’s in. Not right away, at least. The book is very aware of how Griffin-Mars is broken, and part of the story arc is his struggle to rediscover his own humanity.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was seeing different slices of future Earth history, and Chu’s take on how technology and society evolve over the coming centuries. I was particularly fond of the character of Grace Priestly, creator of the Time Laws. Like most everyone else in the book, she can be cold and ruthless, but I appreciated her overall “Screw you I do what I want” attitude.
There’s not a lot of humor or warm fuzzy moments. There is plenty of action, some nifty ideas, and strong bleak-but-not-quite-dystopic worldbuilding. It’s a book with a lot of desperation, and it sets up an underdog-style against-all-odds fight for survival, both for our protagonist and for our species.
Last night was the season finale of The Flash. I’ve enjoyed this show a lot, in part for its sense of fun, its wholehearted embrace of comic book tropes, the relationship between Barry and Joe, and of course, Tom Cavanagh.
At the same time, the writing has sometimes been a bit clunky, and the overall track record with female characters is rather poor. (With that said, things improved greatly for Iris’ character in the last few episodes.)
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
My wife and I caught Avengers: Age of Ultron over the weekend. It wasn’t as strong as its predecessor, but it was a generally fun film. I feel strange saying this about a 2.5 hour movie, but I think it needed to be significantly longer, given the amount of story they were trying to tell.
YOU’VE BEEN WARNED
Two more book reviews, starting with The Best of All Possible Worlds [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Karen Lord. I received a copy of this one, along with The Galaxy Game, at ConFusion earlier this year.
I loved Lord’s debut novel, so I was very much looking forward to what she did next.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.
Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team — one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive — just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.
This is not whiz-bang, robots-and-lasers-and-spaceships-and-explosions science fiction. It’s a very thoughtful and well-written story of cultural displacement, interplanetary refugees, and the struggle between compromise and preservation of culture.
The Sadiri are described as “the epitome of morality and tradition, savants too absorbed in their mental exercises to succumb to base urges.” They arrive on the colony of Cygnus Beta after their homeworld is attacked and destroyed. Here, they set out to find settlements of genetically and culturally compatible humans, hoping to preserve as much of their ways as possible.
The narrator is Grace Delarua, part of the diplomatic party helping the Sadiri on their search. This sets up a somewhat episodic framework where we see different settlements and cultures, while at the same time learning more about the larger world and events, as well as getting a gradual romantic storyline between Grace and one of the Sadiri.
It’s a powerful book, exploring so many “what if” ideas — mental powers, time travel, planetary settlement — while at the same time being intensely relevant to our own world. It’s not a quick read, but it’s well worth reading.
I also recently read the second and third of Marie Brennan‘s Lady Trent books: The Tropic of Serpents [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound] and Voyage of the Basilisk [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound]. In some respects, these are similar to Lord’s book. They aren’t action-heavy sword-fighting quests, but thoughtful explorations of culture and science, presented as memoirs by Isabella (Lady Trent), who became the world’s foremost expert on dragons.
From the publisher:
The Tropic of Serpents: Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.
Voyage of the Basilisk: Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.
One of the things I love about this series is the protagonist’s passion for science and knowledge. We talk about sense of wonder, and Isabella conveys that wonder, not about big flashy magic or fancy special effects (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but about discovery. She repeatedly risks her life, her reputation, and more for the chance to learn. She’s wonderfully and at times foolishly driven.
Like Lord, Brennan has developed a rich world. Brennan’s is based more closely on our own, drawing on cultures and countries from Europe, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and more. (Brennan’s background in anthropology helps a great deal, as does her intense research habits.) Over the course of the three books, we’ve seen much of that world and its people, but we also see a larger story about the progression of science and knowledge, and ongoing political conflicts.
One such story arc involves the preservation of dragon bones. Like birds, dragons have very light bones, but those bones are incredibly strong — so long as the dragon survives. Upon the animal’s death, the bones become fragile and crumble away into dust. Back in book one, Isabella and her companions discovered a way to preserve those bones, a process with many potential implications and uses … and one that has serious impacts on the hunting of dragons, not to mention the political fallout. Watching that knowledge spread, seeing the technological changes and Isabella’s struggle, is one of several wonderful storylines.
And of course, the books have great covers as well as internal illustrations, ostensibly by Lady Trent herself (with help from artist Todd Lockwood).
I look forward to the next!
I am so far behind on posting reviews. Let’s start with Sword [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Amy Bai. I believe this is Bai’s first novel, and it’s an impressive debut. Sword is a YA fantasy with swords (duh) and magic and kingdoms and betrayal and all that good stuff. From the publisher’s description:
For over a thousand years, the kingdom of Lardan has been at peace: isolated from the world, slowly forgetting the wild and deadly magic of its origins. Now the deepest truths of the past and the darkest predictions for the future survive only in the verses of nursery rhymes. And prophecies are just nursery rhymes for gullible fools. Right?
So thinks Kyali Corwynall, daughter of the Lord General and the court’s only sword-wielding girl. She’s never bothered believing in faery stories. But one day, an old nursery rhyme she’s heard since childhood begins to come true, naming her as Sword and her brother and best friend as Song and Crown, saviors of the kingdom. When that ancient magic wakes, the future changes for everyone. In the space of a single night, her life unravels into violence and chaos.
The opening few chapters felt a little slow to me, mostly because what I was reading seemed familiar. We’re introduced to Kyali and her skill with fighting and swordplay, her brother Devin and his bardic magic, and their close friend the Princess Taireasa. But once the plot picked up, I was hooked hard. Much of the book made me feel like a kid again, getting caught up in the excitement and the battles and the prophecies and the characters and their relationships. It hits many of the notes of a good page-turning fantasy.
That brings up my other stumbling point, because while I love the tropes of fantasy and I’m generally thrilled to revisit them, there are a few I could do without. Early on, Kyali finds herself holding a room against multiple enemies while the princess escapes. They ask where the princess has gone, and naturally she refuses, which leads to this exchange.
“I think you will tell us eventually, general’s daughter.”
His meaning was plain.
Oh, gods, she thought — death, she had braced herself for. This possibility had never occurred to her.
She would just have to find a way to die, then. After she killed as many of these as came near her.
I almost stopped reading here. Not because the scene was bad or badly written, nor did it feel gratuitous. It’s simply not something I wanted to read.
But I kept reading, and I’m glad I did. The consequences to Kyali are intense, and shape her character for the rest of the book. But her internal struggle isn’t solely from the implied sexual assault (it’s never explicitly spelled out). There’s another kind of trauma related to her magic, and that turns her into…not a stone cold warrior, but a woman trying desperately to project that coldness in order to protect the people closest to her.
I enjoyed the use of prophecy. It’s another trope, but something about the way Bai wrote the story brought new energy to the idea. Prophecy isn’t a mysterious riddle. It’s not a set of plot coupons to be collected. Its a burden. It’s as much a mystery to be unraveled and understood as the political machinations and the clashes between armies. And it puts Kyali in the role of warrior, with her brother as the bard, which was a nice reversal.
The secondary characters were interesting and engaging. (For those who’ve read it, am I the only one who was shipping Devin and Prince Kinsey?) There’s a lot going on in this book, and all of the players fit the story, and were people I wanted to read about.
There’s an energy to the story that’s hard to describe. It might be a first novel thing. You should take this bit with a grain of salt, because I’m pretending to read the author’s mind, and that often ends badly…but reading the book, I could almost feel how excited the author was to share the story and these characters. That excitement and love and affects my own reading, which is a good thing.
Sword is book one in what I’m guessing will be a trilogy, so the end of the book isn’t the end of the story. No cliffhanger ending though, which I appreciate.
Overall, I think it’s a good book. I also recognize that some elements may not be to everyone’s taste.
The first twenty-four pages are available online, if you’d like to check it out.
I need to geek out about The Flash. We started watching the show with episode one, and after so much bleak and dark DC comic adaptations, The Flash is an absolute delight. It’s fun. It dives unapologetically into the comics universe, and doesn’t shy away from the more “out there” aspects. For example, one recent instance gives us a cameo of Grodd. That’s right, they added a superintelligent CGI gorilla to the show. And damn if it didn’t work.
I should say up front that the show isn’t perfect. I could do without Flash’s speed being a bit variable depending on the needs of the script. (He’s fast enough to pluck a bullet out of the air, but can’t circle around and take a gun from Captain Cold?) And they haven’t done a great job with their female characters. Barry’s mother is fridged in the first episode, and the other two women are significantly defined by their romantic relationships, unlike the rest of the cast.
But there’s so much The Flash does right:
Short version: This show makes me happy. It’s right up there with The Librarians in terms of fun and entertainment.
What do the rest of you think?
One of the coolest things about being an author is getting advance copies of books that aren’t out yet. Such was the case with Elizabeth Bear‘s western steampunk Karen Memory [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], which comes out on February 3, 2015. I got to read it back in November. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!
Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway, here’s the publisher’s description:
“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”
Hugo-Award winning author Elizabeth Bear offers something new in Karen Memory, an absolutely entrancing steampunk novel set in Seattle in the late 19th century—an era when the town was called Rapid City, when the parts we now call Seattle Underground were the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront. Karen is a “soiled dove,” a young woman on her own who is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
What the publisher really should have opened with is the fact that this book features a steam-powered Singer sewing machine mecha-suit that’s been heavily modified and upgraded. Readers might ask if it really makes logical sense to transform a sewing machine into something so complicated and mechanically convoluted. To which one could reply, “Who cares? It’s a freaking sewing machine mech!”
While there are other elements that are just plain fun, there’s a lot more going on in this book. You’ve got a group of women teaming up against several different layers of villainy, from a serial killer to large-scale political mind-control schemery. There’s high-stakes action with a nice bit of romance thrown in. Some of the plot revelations and twists at the end came a little too fast for me, but that might be a matter of personal taste.
Karen and company aren’t exactly the privileged class of 19th century society, and Bear doesn’t ignore the prejudices of the time. She’s worked to create a diverse cast of characters, but those characters face additional challenges. Marshal Bass Reeves is a black man, and at one point is threatened with lynching. His partner, a Comanche named Tomoatooah, is forced to flee the town. And while Karen is relatively open-minded and accepting, you also see her using the language of the times, and occasionally stumbling over her own prejudices.
While Karen and her allies live and work in a bordello, nothing sexual happens on the page. Karen’s life isn’t romanticized, either. Bear acknowledges that this can be ugly work. But it’s not something that needs to be on the page for the story Bear’s telling.
Bear brings together a strong plot, an engaging voice, and good characters. (I’m particularly fond of the foul-mouthed Madame Damnable.)
Check the Tor website for an excerpt.