Touch, by Clair North

Did you read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August? Did you love it? If you read it, you must have loved it. I refuse to believe that anyone who read that book wasn’t moved, horrified, awed, amused, saddened… pick a verb, any verb. There aren’t enough verbs.

Touch is exactly the same, but totally different. Ms North returns to themes of time and humanity in her second novel, but using an entirely different conceit. Instead of being reborn, over and over, to live the same life again, Kepler–the protagonist of Touch–lives a different life, indefinitely. Kepler jumps from body to body, lingering for seconds or decades, always a familiar stranger.

Like Harry August, Kepler is no hero. S/he survives, sometimes at great cost to others. There’s a certain ruthless compassion in Ms North’s characters, especially her central characters. They are intensively humane, but the wear of time engenders an overarching dispassion. Pathos is entirely absent, even when characters are in the midst of tragic circumstance. This quality makes for a quiet, absorbing novel that lingers in my memory. Touch is one of those books that you live, not just read, and is so far my favorite novel published this year.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, Feb 2015
Publisher: Redhook
Rating: 4.5/5
Genre: SF


Defenders by Will McIntosh

defendersIt’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted a book review. Not because I haven’t been reading (ha! Like that could ever happen!), but because I was torn by a conflict and didn’t know how to resolve it.

I read a book I didn’t like. Not like it’s the first time that’s happened, but I generally don’t finish books I don’t like, and therefore wouldn’t post a review. As it happens, though, I pushed on through to the end of Defenders, hoping for a dénouement that would justify my diligence. Didn’t happen. And yet, because I did finish reading it, I don’t feel completely unjustified in writing about it. And maybe I’ll save someone else a bit of time and money. Or not. Perhaps everything that bored me will excite someone else. YMMV, as teh kids say these days.

It’s not a terrible book. It’s adequately written. The language is simple but not stupid, the plot moves, if rather sluggishly, and the characters are somewhat dimensional. But overall, it was just a “Meh. Whatever,” story for me. Two weeks later, most of what I remember is glancing ahead to see how many chapters I had left to read, and hoping that something would excite me.

It felt old-fashioned, but not like an homage, just stale and tired. Defenders has telepathic aliens invading Earth, genetic engineering, global war, and plucky human defenders, but all of those have been done, and done in the same book(s) 50 years ago. Anne McCaffrey made a career on those tropes, alone and in combination, and with a much finer mastery of character. Say what you will about McCaffrey’s most recent books, she dominated shelves in the 1970-80’s.

Literature is not static. Art and craft are not static. Writers, artists, craftspeople build on the work that has gone before. As a member of the audience, I can appreciate Gulliver’s Travels, The Time Machine, Pern, 1984, et cetera, but I appreciate them for what they say about their era, their particular place and time, and the way those stories inform modern writers. But I expect modern stories from modern writers. Stories that comment on social, political, and economic realities of today.

I love the fun-house mirrors of LeGuin and Ray Bradbury, but I suspect that the most famous and popular books they wrote would be very different if written today, simply because they would have another 50-60 years of culture and art behind them.

The Martian Chronicles were published in 1950. What would those stories have been like if they had been written and published in the late 1960’s, after Vietnam, Andy Warhol, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr? There is no way to know, and that is the point.

Defenders reads sort of like War of the Worlds 100 years after itself. The issues that were current and terrifying in 1897 are banal in 2015. The unknowns are known. Genetic engineering is a fact of life that saves children with leukemia and engenders anger over seed patenting, but it’s not the looming, unknown terror of Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: No
Publisher: Orbit, USA
Rating: 1/5
Genre: SF

The Mechanical (The Alchemy Wars), by Ian Tregillis

I don’t read a lot of Steampunk. I don’t hate it or anything, I’m just not a gadget person, so the details of dirigibles and steam engines bore me. I feel much the same way about gun-porn SF: I love space opera, but I will skim the schematics of missiles, torpedoes, or super-sekrit death rays.

In The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis stirs a heaping helping of alchemy into his Steampunk, to present a meditation on the nature of free will and the soul coated in a thin candy shell of alt-history adventure. The plot is nominally political, a war of both ideas and technology, spanning the ocean, but it’s really about slavery, human dignity, and morality.

It took me a little time to get into the book. I found the first couple of chapters a bit slow, but it picked up quickly–a major plot point boosted the pace–and raised interesting questions. This is apparently the first of a trilogy, which seems to be a thing in SFF these days and is a major weakness of The Mechanical, I suspect. If the story does not pick up where it left off, then book one need a couple of more chapters. If it does, then I would rather have one solid, complete book then three parts that just end in mid-air.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, March 2015
Publisher: Orbit, USA
Rating: 3/5
Genre: Steampunk Fantasy Alt-History

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

It’s not often that a book completely surprises me. I’m notorious for spoiling the end of something–book, movie, whatever–long before I get there. I’m not aloud to speak during movies and TV shows, or talk to the Other about books we are both reading, until she’s finished it, because I inevitably give it away. I can’t help it! I’ve been trained over many decades of reading and a degree in what is essentially media to identify tropes, analyze plots, dissect character. Blame the Man.

The Library at Mount Char genuinely surprised me at almost every turn, right up until the end. Mr Hawkins has a gift of telling a compelling story completely without foreshadowing. I was carried along, sometimes wide-eyed, sometimes complacent and comfortable, like I was white-water rafting. Here, the current is calm, I’ll just enjoy the day, then BAM! Rocks ahead, outta nowhere, hang on to your hats, partners, here we go!

This was a weird, exciting, funny, horrifying novel. There is nothing meaty I can say that won’t spoil it, so I won’t say more than that, and even that is probably too much. Except it was wonderful.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, yes, yes! June 2015
Publisher: Crown, USA
Editorial: ???
Rating: 4.5/5
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy, w/ Horror elements

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Ms Bear is fairly well known among genre fans, so I should be embarrassed that this is the first book of hers that I’ve read, but I’m not. My reasoning was, believe it or not, that I’ve already got too many “Elizabeth”‘s among the authors I keep up on, and I just could bear (heh) to add another.

Then Karen Memory came out, and folks were actually talking about the book, not the prolific author who is amazeballs, which was a bit vague for me. Also, my TBR pile eclipses the sun and I’m easily distracted, so… Reasons, alright? Anyway, the stars aligned, the book crested the wave of my mammoth library queue at about the same time that I was in the mood for a Steampunk-Western-Victorian-Mystery and lo, turns out that Ms Bear really is amazeballs, as is Karen Memory.

The heroine has a unique, compelling voice, and her history is totally believable. The world-building is deep and rooted in my home region/city, which gave Ms Bear a sturdy base to build on, that I found easy to accept and mentally navigate. I had a few bumpy moments with Karen’s stubborn temper–I thought she was a bit too inflexible at times for someone of her background and career, and that those moments weren’t sufficiently supported by the text, but I got over it. And the climax was rollicking good fun, which I want to read again, now that I’m writing about it, and also I should put Ms Bear’s Hammered on my library queue, so Ta!

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, yes, yes! Feb 2015
Publisher: Tor, USA
Editorial: Beth Meacham
Rating: 4.5/5
Genre: Western Steampunk Mystery (whee!)

[See the Big Idea piece for Karen Memory on John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, by clicking here!]

Rivers of London/PC Peter Grant series, by Ben Aaronovitch

Over the past few months, I’ve been hanging out over at File 770. Mostly lurking, to keep up to date on the Hugo awards: Puppies, EPH, 4/6, and other inside baseball fun surrounding the awards. Inevitably, threads over there turn into book recommendations, because people interested in the politics of literary awards tend to be voracious readers. One of the recurring names was Ben Aaronovitch, author of the series known as Rivers of London (also the UK title of the first book in the series, which was slightly confusing–it’s Midnight Riot on the US edition) or as the PC Peter Grant series.

The best way to describe the series, for a US audience, is as Dresden Files in the UK, only better. Much, much better. I like Jim Butcher’s books–I’ve read all of his published novels, for realz!–but the PC Peter Grant novels are miles (kilometers) better. None of the continuity and copy-editing problems with the Dresden Files, and much tighter writing. Even the reflexive chauvinism of PC Grant is more self-aware and wry than Harry Dresden.

For those unfamiliar with either, both series are Urban Fantasy/Supernatural Mystery, with elements of romance and a slight noir influence. Both main characters begin as bumbling, reluctant detective types, but Dresden gains power and authority rapidly in Butcher’s books, while Aaronovitch puts more emphasis on the process of learning. PC Grant is very much a student, painstakingly earning every spell, while Harry Dresden is already an experienced wizard in the first Dresden Files novel, and rockets into improbability rapidly, coming back from the dead in the latter half of the series as a near-immortal.

Okay, perhaps I’ve soured a bit on the Dresden Files after the resurrection bit. Anyway, I really enjoyed the PC Grant novels, and since there are only five of them to date, I was able to cruise through the whole series, courtesy of my local library, in about a week.

PC Grant has a fun “voice” and the individual stories are pleasantly weird twists on the police procedural type of mystery. There’s also a larger arc that is building throughout the series, serving as a secondary plot-line to the monster-of-the-week of each installment. Big fun, highly recommended.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: #5, Foxglove Summer, Jan 2015 USA
Publisher: DAW
Rating: 3.5/5
Genre: Urban Fantasy/Supernatural Mystery, good to read on the bus if you’re not likely to miss your stop.

The Fire Sermon, by Francesca Haig

fire sermonI don’t know what I think about this book, so I’m going to write until I form an opinion.

Set on a future Earth, after some sort of giant flash-bang, that I eventually decided was probably nuclear war, animal life has gone all wonky, including human animals. In the case of homo sapiens, people are born in pairs, called Alpha and Omega. Alpha’s are born “perfect,” with no visible abnormalities. Omega’s are usually born with a visible abnormality, but some appear “normal” while actually having mental abilities, and are known as Seers.

Being a Seer brings no special privileges in the divided Alpha/Omega society, and can lead to additional oppression or hardship, as both segments fear Seers’ power, even as they seek to exploit it.

Cass is the heroine of The Fire Sermon, a seer who manages to hide her abilities from everyone, including her twin, Zach, until they are tweens, although Zach suspects. Zach eventually “outs” Cass, and she is branded and cast out, to either survive alone or find other Omegas.

I think the world-building is the weakest part of the novel. Ms Haig paints both societies, Alpha and Omega, in broad strokes with little history or context. Elements of each society are  detailed when they directly pertain to Cass’s adventures, but the focus of the story is on people. Characters are richly detailed and distinct, even those encountered once and briefly, and so do most of the heavy plot lifting.

I enjoyed the unflinching examination of ability, disability, and ableism in the book. At times, I was made uncomfortable, my own assumptions and biases brought to light, which was awesome, but at other times, I found the rampant anti-Omega discrimination hard to believe. Fundamentally, I think I believe that compassion is the norm, so I couldn’t completely fall into the story: the basis of the social system was just too inhumane and abhorrent for me. It built up into a logical conclusion from the internal story logic, but the fundamental precis was too personally dissonant.

Also, I was a little disappointed that Cass’s character was singled out as some sort of super-Omega. Not only is Cass a Seer, and someone who can pass as either an Alpha or a regular Omega with minimal effort, but even as a Seer, Cass is special. A little predictable, that.

Hmm. It appears that I thought this book was fine: some interesting questions, well-written, but incomplete world-building, and trite hero and villain tropes made it ultimately disappointing.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes
Publisher: Gallery Books, USA
Rating: 2.5/5
Genre: Science Fantasy, with significant social commentary

The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley

the rookIf I could insert a Kermit cheer in this space, I totally would. I really enjoyed this book, and was heartbroken to discover that 1.) it was published in 2012, so I can’t nominate it for All The (2016) Awards Evah, and 2.) the sequel, Stiletto, doesn’t come out until January 2016. Misera sum!

The Rook is everything I was hoping for, and more. A fast-paced, supernatural thriller, twisty right up until the end, I couldn’t put it aside. I’m normally not a fan of epistolary novels, but the letters were a minor part of the text, although they played a major role in the plot. The main character has a wry and macabre sense of humor that had me chortling on the bus, not to mention that the author is clearly satirizing certain fiction tropes (e.g. the Illuminati) within the story.

I may also have mentioned before that I quite like stories with unlikely heroes–the paper-pushing bureaucrat, or accountant, or help-desk operator. Myfanwy Thomas is something like the office manager for “Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service” (a tagline for the novel). Money quote: “There’s a reason that there’s no TV show called CSI: Forensic Accounting.” Whee!

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Unfortunately, no.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, USA
Editorial: ???
Rating: 4.5/5, highly recommended
Genre: Supernatural thriller

Carrie Patel, Recoletta Books

cities&thronesI was fairly excited about the The Buried Life and Cities & Thrones, books 1 & 2 from debut author Carrie Patel. They promised adventure, mystery, politics, a little mayhem… basically, my definition of a good read. And for the most part they delivered; however, the delivery should have been in three or four distinct books, not two hot-pot novels.

Ms Patel obviously has a lot of stories to tell in this universe, and those stories are probably very interesting. Unfortunately, each installment was packed with the three (or perhaps more) tales, and the result was rushed, confusing, and discombobulated. It’s difficult for an experienced author who has been writing for decades to keep multiple character’s plotlines separate, yet intertwined, and Ms Patel isn’t quite there.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Yes, both published 2015
Publisher: Angry Robot, USA
Editorial: Lee Harris
Rating: 2/5
Genre: Fantasy, SF, Steampunk, Post-Apocalyptic Mystery Adventure Sci-Fantasy? I don’t even know.

40 Days

half a warLife got busy there for a while, so even though I’ve been doing a lot of reading, I haven’t been doing much blogging about what I’ve read. Obviously.

I finished Half A King and Half The World, by Joe Abercrombie. I have not yet read Half A War–I read the first few chapters, and discovered that I needed a break. These books are not direct sequels; instead they focus on interrelated characters, shifting focus between close generations and caste. Caste probably isn’t the correct word, actually, but it’s the closest I can get to my impression of the combination of class, profession, and role.

2016 Hugo Eligibility: Half The World & Half A War
Publisher: Del Rey (Random House), USA
Editorial: Natasha Bardon, Gillian Redfearn
Rating: 3/5
Genre: Fantasy, on the grim and bloody side