Apr 182017
 

City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Synopsis: In a world where humans killed their gods, the functioning of certain holy relics suggests one might have survived, and the consequences if this isn’t fixed could be world-ending.

Book Review: This is a sequel to City of Stairs, a book I really liked! Unfortunately, the sequel has lost much of the mojo.

To start, the protagonist of City of Blades isn’t nearly as charming or likable. The setting feels much less realized, and with the exception of a single cool fight scene, there just aren’t the Moments of Awesome that the first book had.

It also is basically a low-budget remake of the first book. The plot is nearly identical, with a few details changed here and there. But again, a government agent working in secret is investigating a murder, and discovers clues that a deity may not be as dead as was thought, and has to work against skeptical local government interference and the plotting of cultists in order to unravel the mystery and stop the god.

Now, I understand many people like this sort of thing. There’s quite a number of authors who make a fine living by having written one really good book, and then just re-writing it every year or two with the details changed but nothing of substance differing. I understand the human pull to relive and relish the familiar and the comfortable. It’s every sitcom episode, it’s every romance novel, it’s every Disney movie (and I mean every property Disney owns, not just the animated stuff, side-eye-at-several-franchises,you-know-who-you-are). But I find it boring. Please give me something new.

I dunno, am I a whore for novelty? Will I some day burn through all the creative new stuff, and live a life of artistic ennui, never satisfied with a world I’ve drained of color? Hm. A topic for another day. In any case, I consider this story to be somewhat creatively lazy.

And just as bad, I found it lazy in terms of craft as well. The first half plods along slowly. Then we get a GIANT MONOLOGUE that reveals everything to our protagonist, in the worst tradition of “Let me tell you the entire plot now.” It’s not a bad plot, but that is not how to skillfully guide your reader through a plot! You might as well just have handed us your outline. I expect to have a fair bit of plot revealed to me over time, within the story, preferably via actions/investigations of the protagonist. To have so much of it laid out as a lecture is unexciting.

Then in the second half it feels like the author lost a lot of interest in the story, and sorta goes through the motions hurriedly in order to get us to the end.

I can’t say this was a bad book, really. It was OK. But there was nothing here I found interesting, and quite a bit that I thought was subpar. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not bad. We did talk a bit about the nature of sequels, and the human desire for repetition vs novelty. Also the demands we place on creative people (“Make your next album like your previous album, I want more of what I loved! But not TOO much like it, I want it to be new!”), and how one evolves in their creative lifetime. But those things don’t really necessitate reading this particular book.

There was praise of the cool scene in the middle, and some griping about the various things that annoyed us (grenades are not demolition charges!), and most people in the book club enjoyed this to some extent. A few liked the book quite a lot. So I’m reluctant to say one should avoid this. But there are so many other, better books out there, that I can’t recommend it either. If you’d like a good book in this setting that is new and interesting, I’d steer you to the predecessor, City of Stairs. :) But as for City of Blades – Not Recommended.

Apr 042017
 

Synopsis: An orphan child prodigy is held by the military, who conduct bizarre experiments on her and her classmates. The outside world appears to be crumbling.

Book Review: The good parts of this book are REALLY GOOD. And basically all the good parts are the ones focusing on the eponymous protagonist Melanie. She is an absolute delight to read. She reminds me very much of Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres of HPMoR. Prodigious, with tons of book-smarts, but no idea about social conventions or how to relate to other people.

And very very isolated from the world, due to her captivity by the military. We realize quickly that Melanie has never seen the outside world. Here’s a fantastic depiction of a super-smart kid with huge gaps in her knowledge trying to describe a new object her teacher has brought in from the outside world:

> The big stick breaks into smaller sticks, and again and again, so there’s more and more of them, like breaking down a great big number in the long list of its prime factors.
“It’s a branch,” Joanne says.

The entire first part of the book is full of this sort of stuff, and it’s a delight to watch. Plus Melanie has the most adorable puppy-crush on her teacher. And we get more and more clues as to what’s going on with this research project and why the outside world seems to be falling to pieces, until at some point the reader realizes what The Thing is, and we go “Ooooooooh shiiiiiit!! That is a really good thing!”

I’m being as vague as I can, because the moment of realization is really cool, and it’s as easy to spoil as “Snape Kills Dumbledore.” You cannot even read most blurbs or reviews without risking spoilers. So try to avoid those. It’s worth it.

That being said, about a quarter of the way through the book the focus shifts away from Melanie. She and a handful of adults (both scientists and soldiers) escape from the military facility, and after that the book becomes pretty boring. It has a few bright spots here and there, but nothing worth the slog.

I mean, it’s not painful or anything. But it’s just the exact same thing we’ve seen a thousand times before. Some running, some hiding, some shooting, some yelling. There is nothing new here at all. It’s color-by-numbers. It could be cut-and-paste from any of a thousand shlock stories.

But then we get to the ending, and the ending is once again freakin’ amazing. It’s the bright nova at the end that inverts everything that we were presented with in the first quarter of the novel. A perfect mirroring, and it feels so right!

This book was adapted from a well-regarded short story, and one can tell exactly where the short story ideas are. They are the first quarter of the book. Up to page 150 or so. The ending is a fantastic follow-up to the story itself. But everything else, the 3/4ths that’s in the middle, is basically just filler. It feels like Carey was just running up the word count so he could get a novel out of this, and it’s NOT a novel-length idea!

Unfortunately, with the publishing world being what it is, only novels make money. So if you have a brilliant story idea, the only way to be financially rewarded for it is to write the cool story, and then bloat it with lots of meaningless extra stuff until you’ve got enough mass to sell it as a novel. Bleh.

As published – Not Recommended. But if you read up to the point where they leave the military base, and then skip to the second-to-last chapter (and maybe ask me or someone who’s read it for a quick summary of what happens in between) – Totes Recommended.

Book Club Review: I’m torn on this. It has the benefits of being accessible and fairly easy to read. It’s mostly enjoyable, and there’s several cool things to talk about, as there would be with any good short story. However there isn’t a ton there, because like I said, there’s a lot of filler. On the other hand, that makes a topic in itself, sort of. And also may bring on conversation about the state of the genre in general (the book is a very specific genre that everyone will be extremely familiar with). And the good parts really ARE good. Several people in our book club didn’t mind reading through the formulaic parts.

I guess, since it’s unreasonable to ask a book club to skip the majority of a book, I have to go with Not Recommended. That being said, your mileage may vary, I’m pretty unsure about this one.

Mar 172017
 

100 Ghost Soup, by Robert Chansky

Synopsis: An orphan adopted by a fox-spirit becomes a pawn in a centuries-old plot to save a village of ghosts from damnation.

Personal Note: I am familiar with Rob Chansky, I see him a few times each year and we often critique each other’s work. I do my best to be impartial in this review, but my personal liking of him invariably must color some things.

Book Review: It’s been said that you can’t read a piece of good fiction without getting a feel for its author’s personality. This is never more true than when you actually know the author in person. You can read read Fifth Season and get a sense of simmering anger and the Will To Justice. You can read The Martian or HPMoR and get a feeling of optimism and joie de vivre. But those are impressions. When you read a piece by someone you know personally, it’s surprisingly like having them in the room with you, engaging in conversation.

100 Ghost Soup is like this, and if there’s one word I would use to describe Rob, it’s Contemplative. Reading this novel is much like slowly building a giant pot of rich soup, adding in bits and simmering and stirring. It is comfortable and warm, and spends a fair bit of time ruminating.

This has both good and bad effects. On the good side, there is a lot of wonderfully evocative prose. Turns of phrase that linger in your mind. A gorgeously realized ghost town that makes you feel like your inside it, and memorable characters. The plot resolution is delightfully trick-sy and wordplay/loophole-ish in EXACTLY the way you feel a trickster archetype would hoodwink the gods and laugh at them afterwards. It feels foxy.

In addition, it really captures the alien afterlife of a Very Different culture, the same way Ghost Bride did. It’s bizarre and fascinating for someone as steeped in the Western tradition as myself to read of a heaven that is very much a spiritual bureaucracy, often set in opposition to the material world. This heaven has their own affairs to concern themselves with, and doesn’t have time for your petty mortal whinings. It feels terrifyingly indifferent to me, TBH.

On the minus side, the plot does move rather slowly, in part because it is so contemplative. The denouement in particular went on for too long. More unfortunate is that the protagonist (Jimo) doesn’t really do much of anything. He is a pawn, along for the ride and witnessing what’s happening without any hand in the events. The lack of agency makes him forgettable and makes me wonder why this story wasn’t told from someone else’s perspective.

As if to emphasize how little agency Jimo has, he’s written as extremely naive, to the point that one wonders if he suffers from a disorder of some sort (No, you do NOT engage in blood rituals with a stranger you just met in an abandoned train station in a ghost town, no matter HOW rude it would be to not give him tea, are you freakin’ kidding me??). I suspect this is to hand-wave some of the more implausible tricks Jimo falls for, such as his extremely unlikely return to Beijing after the ping-pong match. I kinda consider that cheating, and I don’t particularly enjoy super-naive characters.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read and I don’t regret it. The conceit of my reviews is “would I recommend the book to myself-from-one-month-ago,” and that throws me for a tiny loop on this one. I still would recommend it to me personally, because I know Rob and reading this added an extra bit of enjoyment due to that fact. (In related news, I highly encourage people to go see local bands if there’s a friend-of-a-friend in the band, and to otherwise participate in art and activities on the local level with people they can interact with in meatspace. Highly fulfilling!) However if I were to consider a person just like me but who didn’t actually know Rob, that doesn’t apply. And for someone with my tastes, this book is a bit too slow, and the protag a bit too non-agenty, to really be considered great. It’s still a perfectly fine book, but given how little time for reading there is, I have to go with Not Recommended.

As an additional note, the climax contains the best sensory description of eating delicious food that I’ve ever seen in print. It made me really want some of that soup.

Book Club Review: Basically everything I said in the Book Review goes for the Book Club Review as well, writ slightly larger. It makes for some fine chat, especially about trickster spirits and cultural differences. And a bit of talk will go into trying to decipher the twisty illusions near the middle. It feels like something that could be discussed over a friendly dinner. :) But again, there’s nothing truly compelling that makes me want to grab the person sitting next to me and say “Oh man, I really gotta bring up Thing X!” So again, with feelings of warmth and not to say it’s bad or anything – Not Recommended.

Mar 042017
 

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Synopsis: In a post-scarcity utopia, a woman struggles with decades of guilt by running away from everything.

Book Review: The majority of this book is kinda mediocre.

It can be hard to create meaningful conflict in a utopia, because what is there to fight about? This leaves most things feeling very low-stakes. The author also has an immensely irritating way of constantly bringing up this Dark Act in the protagonist’s past, and then pointedly not telling us anything about it. Every few dozen pages it’s “but I couldn’t do anything about it, because of the Dark Act in my past,” which is exactly how to NOT do this sort of thing. You’re supposed to hint about it, and drop clues in the protagonists actions and speech patterns. Chasm City did this thing wonderfully. Planetfall hacks at it clumsily. Plus from page 1 we all want to scream at the book “YES, WE KNOW SHE KILLED A BUNCH OF PEOPLE AND THEN COVERED IT UP FOR THE GOOD OF THE COLONY, GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!”

The book does do some cool things with mental illness, I think. The revelation of the protagonists compulsive hoarding, and how much it rules her life, is interesting. Our book clubs pysch major didn’t like it, said it was a superficial handling, but I found it one of the neat things here. Unfortunately that’s not really enough to hang a whole book on.

The colonists are remarkably incurious for a religious cult living in the literal shadow of their giant god, but I dunno, I’ve seen enough crazy shit in real-life religions to let that go. Their attitude of “eh, whatever” is a good summary of how I felt reading this book. It was easy enough to read and it didn’t hurt or anything, but I wouldn’t write home about it.

Until the end. Oh dear lord.

There are three different climaxes. The only one that is related to the rest of the novel, thematically, is the rest of the colony discovering our protagonist is a hoarder and tearing apart her house in schadenfreude. It fits the story, but it’s not particularly well done. A good handling could make this sort of thing feel like the end of the world. Instead it was just sad. But that climax is quickly abandoned for RANDOM ATTACK BY SAVAGES!

Which is completely unforeshadowned and basically bullshit because it comes out of nowhere. Also, we’re supposed to believe seven savages with knives are able to overwhelm a modern colony of 1,000 space-faring peoples? And where they hell did the savages get explosives? After a quick raid they kill a dozen people and kidnap ten more and flee back into the wilderness, which makes me wonder – what the hell was their end-game? They aren’t worried about the fact that they pissed off 975 people with the ability to print guns and vehicles on demand, with orbital cameras? (Yes, the savages know this, one lived with the colonists for some time!)

But without a doubt the worst, most infuriating thing is the third climax. Protagonist enters god/god’s building and walks through what is basically the worlds easiest puzzle game. It’s laid out exactly like a video game, except the puzzles are aimed at the 5-8 year old demographic. Not ONE other colonist in the past 20 years bothered to sneak into this building to try this?

Our protagonist makes it to the end of the video game, discovers that progenitor aliens seeded the galaxy with humanoid life, and basically kills herself. I mean, technically she transcends physical existence and is now at peace and one with everything, but that’s functionally indistinguishable from suicide. And this is while A. The rest of her colony is being ravaged by savages with knives, and B. there is still a religious taboo against entering god’s building, so this secret will die with her.

In theory I guess anyone else could walk through the puzzle rooms as easily as she did, but that is some serious bullshit. Your people need you, you have the secret of god or whatever, and you’re just gonna say “eh, fuck those losers” and kill yourself? SCREW YOU.

Not Recommended.

Personal Musing: It’s books like this that make me wonder why I bother with reading unknown authors. I feel like I wasted many hours of my life on this, and I look back on Obelisk Gate and think “I should just stick with known quantities. If I already know someone is good, or a book is getting a lot of buzz, I read that, and don’t waste my time on the rest.” It’s seriously disheartening to run into a climax that makes me want to hurl a book across the room.

But then I think… if it wasn’t for picking up random books, I would’ve never read Perdido Street Station. OK, that’s not entirely true, I would’ve heard about how great it is eventually. But it took a bunch of people willing to pick up a random first book by an unknown author to get to that point. And more to the point – I actually never would have read Vellum, as most people don’t like it and I’ve never heard about from anyone but myself. And it’s the best thing I’ve ever read.

So I guess I’m willing to take shots in the dark from time to time, for the possibility of landing a hit like that. At least I get a blog post out of it! :)

Book Club Review: There are a few interesting things to talk about. It seems the author is asserting that creating a post-scarcity utopia on Earth is impossible, due to the legacy issues we have, and our population load. But setting up a new colony on an untouched planet with a thousand people and tech only a few decades further along than our own could be viable utopia. That is both hopeful (we’re so close!) and really depressing (we can only do it if almost everyone else is gone!).

The juxtaposition of the post-scarcity society and the literally hunter-gathering savage society is fascinating and heartbreaking. It really hit home for me when the savage boy asks “Do you live here because that’s where the food is?” Ouch.

That being said, all this was overshadowed by the truly awful ending, and the way nothing really held together. Not Recommended.

 

Feb 282017
 

Hugo AwardHerein I continue my tradition of pointing at stories that I think are really good, and will be getting my Hugo Nominations this year. Remember, you only have until March 17th to nominate, so don’t tarry too long!

Sadly, I only have so much time to read, and I know there are tons of things I haven’t read yet, many of which I would very likely enjoy quite a bit. This has been proven to me every year so far, and I don’t doubt this year will be the same. So these are the things I liked most out of what I read this year, which is a limited pool.

 

Novelettes:

This year I didn’t read enough novelettes to feel like I can make any sort of recommendations. :/

 

Short Stories:

Mika Model, by Paolo Bacigalupi – I’ve loved Paolo’s work for a long time, and he delivers again with this fantastic story about Super Stimulus, and rights for Turing-Passing Beings who aren’t provably sapient. It does a fantastic job of really making both sides in the conflict emotionally and intellectually compelling, so at the end you don’t know which side you want to win. This is a thing I really love in the fiction I consume, and one of the things that I like most about RatFic. Plus, you know, sexbots, who doesn’t like those?

What You Need, by Van Aaron Hughes – A fairy-tale/fable about scrupulosity, which I don’t see written about very often. More importantly, it’s written well, and tells a fantastic little story. Very tidy, and short enough that I believe it qualifies as flash fiction. It’s one of those fast,  high-impact tales that just comes out of nowhere and lands a great blow.

Fall To Her, by Alexis A. Hunter – Another Super Stimulus story, because I apparently really like those. And I suppose this reveals what stimulus I find most interesting IRL as well? In 2015 I couldn’t stop telling everyone I knew about how great Kenneth: A User’s Manual was, so I suppose this has been a thing for a while. Anyway, gorgeous story, with good Other-Minds for aliens, and just soooo pretty to read. Also pretty darn short!

Daughter of the Drifting, by Jason Heller (not available online) – This story appeared in Swords v. Cthulhu with me, and I think it was my favorite from that collection (although I admit I haven’t finished reading it all yet, cuz I suck). You know how Lovecraftian Gods are supposed to be incomprehensible, in a universe that if one were to try to actually understand it would drive one insane? Yeah, Heller actually did that, and it’s fantastic. His universe is incomprehensible, and you shouldn’t try to make sense of it, because you will only fail. Our heroine serves as a living sheath for a sword, and is yanked back and forth through time-space whenever the Elder God who owns the sword needs to draw it and use it, which must be sorta a metaphor because what the fuck, but only partly, because you get the sense there’s actual cutting involved on some multi-dimensional quasi-physical time-rending level. Anyway, as the poor damned human stuck as a tool of a god beyond reckoning, our heroine’s understanding is neither needed nor bothered with. It is one of the first times I’ve truly felt a sense of Lovecraftian Otherness and Alien Incomprehensibility that I think Lovecraft himself was often shooting for but never really (for me) achieved. I believe this story will be my standard for Unknowable Nihilistic Universe for a long time.

Everyone Is Todd, by Marmoulman – Because I can’t go a year without a shout out to RatFic of some kind. :) A great little piece about slightly-imperfect alignment leading to a missed utopia. Probably should come with a content warning about legit existential horror. However not so bad that I couldn’t read it.

 

Novels:

I won’t go into these in depth here, because I’ve already talked about them at some length in my reviews. But I’ll be nom’ing:

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins (my review)

Too Like The Lightning, by Ada Palmer (my review)

All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders (my review)

Crystal Society, by Max Harms (my review)

And despite how much I love the Broken Earth trilogy, I’m really on the fence about nominated Obelisk Gate. Not because it isn’t great (it is!), but because I’m not sure I should be going around nominating every book in a trilogy, and honestly, it’d probably be best to stick with nom’ing the ground-breaking first book, and (if it deserves it) the holy-shit-that-was-awesome last book, and leaving any Middle Books out of the process entirely.

 


 

My Eligibility

As one does, I’ll also mention my eligibility this year.

Of All Possible Worlds is eligible for Best Short Story

I (Eneasz Brodski) am eligible for the Joseph Campbell Award for Best New Writer (in my second and final year of eligibility)

The Methods of Rationality Podcast is eligible for Best Podcast.

Feb 212017
 

This post is FULL of spoilers. Go read The Obelisk Gate first if you were planning on it, and come back later.

.

..

I. Fantasy v SciFi

For the second half of Fifth Season and first half of Obelisk Gate I really enjoyed the tension that this might technically be Science Fiction rather than Fantasy. That’s always a very contentious issue when Fantasy is set in a future far enough out of that we may have crossed Clarke’s Line of “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I tend to agree with those who say the best way to distinguish Fantasy from SF is via the furniture, and in that case this is certainly Fantasy. But still, the edge-case-exploration part of my mind was very titillated and happy.

So I was a little sad when this finally tipped into full Fantasy for me. That happened when it was revealed that the Earth itself really is a Sentient Being that we’ve enslaved (via coretap) and whose child we’ve taken from it. A member of my book club tried to say “Hey, maybe it still is SF. It could be that a sufficiently advanced AI has taken responsibility for the planet, such as the EarthMinds of various SF series.” I don’t buy it though. It seems implied that the Earth has been sentient since long before humans came around, and that it feels pain and emotions.

On the plus side, holy shit, we are in a war against a freakin’ Elder God that we LIVE ON! And based on the first two books, this really does look like a truly Alien mind. So much so that we and it weren’t even aware of each other’s existence for most of our history, because we’re so different and incomprehensible to each other. It’s still almost impossible to comprehend, and negotiation certainly seems unlikely. Have I mentioned how much I love books with legit Gods in them? I’m always happy to find good Lovecraft unexpectedly in what I’m reading. :)

Also, I love that the tables are somewhat flipped. The Roggas are the exploited minority throughout the first two books, and their enslavement is a major driving force for Essun’s character. Then near the end of Book 2 it turns out that her existence (and the existence of her minority) is dependent upon the enslavement and exploitation of a vast, non-human being. What Now, Punk? :) (and to top it all off, it had it’s child ripped away from it by its enslavers, the same way Essun has had her children ripped away from her. d’oh!)

 

 

II. Grimdark v Noblebright

The “grimdark” scene I mentioned in my review is the one where the community is voting on whether or not to expel their Rogga minority to prevent war with the intolerant much-greater force besieging them. Essun destroys the ballot box without counting it, and says that the Roggas stay because human rights are non-negotiable and she’ll kill anyone that opposes her on this, because she can kill every last motherfucker in this com and she will.

This is absolutely fucking awesome, because first of all, that is some BURNING PASSION IDEALISM that even Rorschach would be happy with. Superior force offers us a choice between betraying our ideals or complete annihilation? Take annihilation. Every single fucking time. And take down as many of those bastards with you as you can. It’s probably not the correct answer, but it’s the one that fills me with joy. Never compromise. Even in the face of Armageddon. Not about something this important.

In a noblebright fantasy, this would have been resolved differently. The hero would convince enough of their fellow villagers to stick with their ideals, and they’d unite voluntarily. Or a Rogga would sacrifice themselves in a noble display, reminding everyone how worthy of respect they are. Or a Rogga/Still Romeo & Juliette situation would unify the community. But it would be achieved via good means, that we approve of. Because in noblebright, there is never a conflict between Means and Ends. The Ends never justify the Means, because as long as you uphold pure Means, you will eventually achieve good Ends.

Grimdark doesn’t take that as a given. And so every now and then a character is presented with an End they feel is so important, they say “fuck it” and resort to violent, even “evil” Means. Like threatening to murder everyone in your community, and being ready to carry it out.

I think I like this in my fiction so much specifically because its such a terrible idea IRL. The whole point of fiction is to live out things that are terrible ideas in real life because they usually get you killed, or destroy civil society, or something. Any real-life Rorschach is a murderous psychopathic hobo. The Watchmen Rorschach is the last shining beacon of decency in a world compromised into complete corruption. Or, in Essun’s case, defending her minority, but then going on to wipe out an entire city-state and taking their stuff, not because it’s right but because it’s convenient.

I’m pretty sure Essun can’t live through this trilogy, her crimes are too great at this point. I predict Redemptive Death.

 

III. Rage v Nihilism

I’ve mentioned before I like Angry Fiction. I loved the absolute simmering rage that underlay every single sentence of The Fifth Season. I would have been OK with more of that, but Obelisk Gate changed up the emotional theme, going with Nihilism instead. Which, for a world in the midst of an apocalypse, works just fine. :) It was well-executed and it drew me in. I mainly note it because I enjoyed it, and  because it leads to my one major bone of contention…

 

IV. Essun v Nassun

IMHO, Jemisin mixed up Essun’s and Nassun’s roles.

I wrote in my spoilery post-Fifth Season post that The Fifth Season guides the reader on a journey to understanding why a person would want to destroy the world. Really desire it, as a moral good. It does that by following Essun. By the end of the novel we are all saying “Yes. Fuck them all. Burn it all down!” (if we’re me). But by the end of Obelisk Gate it’s obvious that Nassun will be the one trying to destroy the world, while Essun will be trying to save it.

To me this feels like it completely negates the point of the first book. Fifth Gate brought us to the realization why the world must be destroyed. Why would the person who took us on that journey now be thrust into the role of its savior? It feels very out of character.

Furthermore, Nassun is set up very nicely for a character arc where she struggles from nihilism into realizing there is something worth saving the world for, and fighting against her mother to preserve some scrap of humanity. That breakthrough of “There is some good in the world, and it is us” would be beautiful, fighting against her mother’s constant (and VERY in-character and relate-able) disgust and hatred of all the evil works wrought by man.

Using Essun as the savior means that a different destroyer has to be built up over the course of Book 2, which is dumb, since we already have Essun! We spent all of Book 1 getting Essun, and we only have maybe half of Book 2 to create a new Destroyer. This leads to Nassun being forced to do randomly evil things without believable motivations. She realizes that the Fulcrum is where her mother learned to break her hand and her response is… to murder everyone inside the Fulcrum? Mass murder feels like an over-reation to a broken hand. Especially since the only people there now are fellow victims.

Also, she just doesn’t have enough life experience to be realistically motivated to destroy the world. Essun had a LIFETIME of abuse, degradation, enslavement, and self-hatred. She’s experienced and/or witnessed horrific atrocities. She killed her own child. She had another child beaten to death by her husband. Nassun is 12 years old. Almost all of it has been with a doting father (who later tries to murder her) and a cold and fearsome mother. This is absolutely believable motivation for adopting Nihilism. It’s not enough for random acts of mass murder. And certainly not enough to become Destroy Of Mankind.

I suspect that Essun will likewise be forced into out-of-character actions in Book 3, to wedge her into the Savior role. Which is a damned shame. I think I’ll still love Book 3, but man, it coulda been so much better if the protagonist and antagonists hadn’t gotten mixed up in Book 2. :(

Feb 172017
 

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: In the second book in the Broken Earth trilogy, Essun and her daughter Nassun explore and grow into the fullness of their powers, while surviving in a currently-unfolding apocalypse.

Book Review: Last year when I read the start of this trilogy, The Fifth Season (review, discussion), I was blown away. Easily one of the best books of 2015, and plenty of readers agreed with me, as it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Jemisin returns in strong from in this continuation, which picks up literally minutes after the first novel ended. It is a good companion, for a number of reasons.

First, it has a rational flavor. I would not call it RatFic, per se. But one of the major components of Rational Fiction is characters who explore the underlying rules of the world they are in, in order to munchkin their way into power. A lot of the focus of Obelisk Gate is the exploring and uncovering of how this magic system works, and exploiting it, and that really reminded me of RatFic. :)

The opposing sides continue to be relate-able, Jemisin puts a fair bit of work into making you understand how the various factions came to the place they are in and sympathizing with them.

It also stays in “grim” territory, which I really enjoy. There’s one scene in particular, which should make everyone cheer when it happens, and which strikes a blow against our ideals, that will stay with me a long time. This scene helped to cement in my mind the difference between “grimdark” and “traditional” fantasy. I think that in most fantasy, the heroes win because of their virtue. They are better people, and because of that they succeed. In grimdark people succeed or fail purely on their ability to impose their will on others. We want the heroes to win because they are better people. But the REASON they win is because they are better at violence then their opposition. It can be tricky to demonstrate the difference between the two if you are an author, because in both cases the heroes are better people than the antagonists, and in both cases they win by prevailing in a violent conflict. Jemisin performs this feat spectacularly, and still wins our hearts even when it’s clear our hero is simply better at killing and willing to use that to further her own goals.

Obelisk Gate does have the problem of being a middle book. (I continue to hold that authors should simply stop writing the middle book in a trilogy!) Which means it seems to tread water a lot, and much of the action within doesn’t feel that important. Middle books always feel like a long diversion that give you more info and some development without impacting anything of major significance.

This is significantly offset by the Nassun storyline. Nassun was briefly mentioned in The Fifth Season, but in The Obelisk Gate she becomes a secondary protagonist and we’re in her POV for aprox half the pages as we’re taken through her story. This means the book is one-half a “middle book” focusing on Essun, and one-half a “first book” for Nassun. This REALLY does a lot to make it a better novel! Having a first book folded into the middle book is a great idea, and if you’re going to write a middle book, this is one way to do it much better.

Another way is to be N.K. Jemisin. She is easily one of the best fantasy authors of our time, and it shows. There is one thing that bugged me personally, but it’s very spoilerific so I’ll save that for a future post. Despite this mystery complaint, the craft is beautiful, the characters are compelling, and the world that is slowly revealed to us as the book progresses is enthralling.

Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This novel produced TONS of discussion. There’s simply so much in here! I don’t want to go over everything, as that would simply take too long. The themes of human rights vs existential risk from the first book are still very present. Since they’re in the middle of an apocalypse there’s a bit of lifeboat ethics that comes up, but more interesting is the idea of who gets to decide how they’re implemented. And the themes of abuse are much stronger than they were in the first book, which sparked a lot of discussion about conditional vs unconditional love, and the biological realities of how you feel about children/parents, regardless of how they have treated you. To say it was interesting would be a hell of an understatement.

All this is because Jemisin obviously has a lot to say. Her society is brimming with rich concepts that must be on her mind often. Someone who doesn’t submerge themselves in these sorts of musings (and I’m assuming conversations/arguments) frequently simply wouldn’t have a world with such deep roots. They are as irremovable from the author’s work as they are from the author’s mind. And this works exceptionally well because Jemisin hasn’t set out to preach a message. The world and the stories within it are full and complex because these things are vital to the author. Having Something To Say but using it as fuel for driving your writing, rather than as material to make a soapbox out of, makes for stories that give people a LOT to talk about, in a thoughtful way.

We were at it for a long time, and it was great. Highly Recommended.

Jan 312017
 

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Synopsis: The ladies of a wild west brothel have to save their town from an evil mayor.

Book Review: This is a solidly mediocre book that feels like the literary equivalent of going to eat at Olive Garden. The food will be acceptable and you won’t leave hungry, but this certainly isn’t where people go to follow their passion.

The story starts out strong. Bear obviously had a really cool idea and decided to try it out. The first several chapters are engaging and interesting. The women of the brothel form a tight-knit community that feels very much like a family, and the protagonist has a unique and enjoyable voice. I like the sort of high-agency protagonist that Karen Memory starts with.

But it feels like Bear wasn’t sure where to go with this idea, and decided to just keep typing until she reached her word count goal. Some of the worst writing advice I’ve ever seen widely repeated is “if you’re stuck, just write ‘A man enters with a gun’ and go from there.” This feels like that sort of book, and it results in a story with a very slapped-together feel. There are a ridiculous number of elements that are sort of dropped in and don’t really DO anything.

*There’s a mind-control machine that’s used to insert some random chaos when things get boring, it’s then destroyed, and it looks to have no impact on anything in specific.

*There’s a ridiculous cholera plot that doesn’t make the least bit of sense. It’s told to our heroines for no reason before they are to be killed in a “Before I Kill You Mr Bond” way, but of course they escape easily right after.

*Whenever Bear doesn’t want to bother with the specifics of how a certain bit of action resolves her heroine is conveniently knocked unconscious, or chloroformed, or faints, and we skip right to the next scene without explanation.

*A romance subplot is dropped in, has no real effect on anything, or any emotional impact, and is neatly resolved with “yup, I love you too! ^^”

On top of all this, there’s no reason for this to have been steampunk, nor does it add anything to the story. It feels tacked-on. Almost everything feels tacked on, to be honest.

Perhaps this is an artifact of the fact that after the initial brothel set up, the story really shifts to be the story of the Marshal who rides into town on the heels of a serial killer. But Bear doesn’t realize this and sticks doggedly with Karen, and it brings down the whole novel? I don’t know.

In the end, I like my fiction to be “thinky.” This doesn’t just mean that characters think a lot in it (although it does mean that), or that I like for it to make me think (altho it does mean that as well)… it also means I expect the author to spend a good deal of time really thinking through the world, and the plot, and all the characters. This feels like it was dashed off without pausing for breath or any real care as to how it holds together. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Eh. The book isn’t bad, but doesn’t have much to recommend it. There’s a bit of chatting that can be done, trying to suss out what went wrong, or talking about the enjoyable parts. More than that, the group can speculate as to why the novel got as much attention as it did when it came out, but that ends up feeling kinda icky pretty quickly. People can enjoy things for any reason they want, and I don’t like to judge. But in terms of leaving the group with lots of interesting things to talk about, or a memorable experience – Not Recommended.

Personal Note: I almost threw the book across the room when the first dead hooker showed up. I am absolutely sick to fucking death of that trope. It’s lazy and it degrades an entire category of human into a cheap plot device. I once knew a sex worker, and it would be painful to watch things with her and see how often this bullshit showed up. Try sitting next to a friend while watching a comedy that jokes about how funny violence against your friend’s group is, because they’re dirty subhumans. I thought I’d be safe from it in a story with an ensemble of brothel workers, but NOPE! Our protagonists are the good kind of prostitutes–the high-class ones with a nice building and a strict-but-fair madam–and the street-walkers are still disposable bodies used to show how evil the villain is.

I’m sorry. I know I sound like a crazy person. But I was really looking forward to seeing this group finally portrayed as real humans in a fun book, and I got hit with that again. Ugh.

Jan 132017
 

Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald

Synopsis:  The Godfather, on the moon

Book Review: I don’t have much to say about this, as I was neither wowed or disappointed. It is basically The Godfather, on the moon.

The physics is hard, as one would expect.

The society is extreme libertarian, to the point of there not being any police or law besides “contract law.” It’s an interesting portrait because normally these sorts of things are written as Libertarian Utopias by hardcore libertarians. This is written very much like a world of feuding crime families, with no law for the masses to appeal to, which feels far more realistic. But since the POV is from the crime family’s perspective, you only get the barest glimpse of how much this sucks for almost everyone else, and instead follow the rich and powerful as they brawl for resources.

This sounds like a good plot, and to be honest, the plotting is good. But you’ve already seen this plot as one of the most-revered movies in cinema history. The characters, meanwhile, are kinda flat and interchangeable. There’s just too damn many of them. And there is very little introspection or thinking, just action after action. This is great for some people, but I like my fiction to be more “thinky.”

In the end, not bad, but certainly not McDonald’s best, and not something I’ll remember in a few weeks. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Kinda the same as the book review. Reaction was mixed, but no one was disappointed. There were some fun things to talk about, and we had a nice evening. But I wouldn’t say this is one to seek out and really recommend to your group over other options so… Not Recommended.

Dec 312016
 

I recently posted a negative review of a book that is, IMHO, bad. The author is well-known, especially for an earlier work that is very well regarded, and a commenter was wondering if they should bump it further back on their “to read” list based on the weakness of this latest work.

My short answer is No.

The longer answer is that for artistic (I) and business (II) reasons, (as well as some fears of my own (III)) it’s very hard to estimate how good one piece of art will be simply based on the fact that it was made by the same creator as a different piece of art.

I.

The artistic reason is because no one really knows what makes something resonate with people at the object level. There are a lot of hints and guidelines (“bleed onto the page”), but there is no way to evaluate a work and say “This will be known as a work of genius” short of releasing it into the wild and watching the results.

This is infuriating to artists (especially to those of us who equate love of our work with self-worth. It sucks to have your value as a human fluctuate based on criteria that are unknowable and spooky and seemingly random!) There is a famous story about Harlan Ellison that really demonstrates this. (I don’t have a cite, so consider it apocryphal until confirmed) He poured his soul into a story. It drew on everything that made him tick, so it’s hard to say how long he spent “writing” it, but in terms of working with ink and paper he spent weeks creating, revising, and polishing it, until it was perfect. It would be his masterwork, and he sent it to his publisher in the knowledge that soon his name would be cemented in SF history. That same night, he jotted off a quick story on a lark, to take a break from the serious writing, and sent that off the next day to a different market. The first story never gained any acclaim, no one remembers it, I don’t even know what it was called. The second story is “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the best-known and most-reprinted SF short stories in the genre’s history.

And this sort of thing happens all the time. Every single writer in my Top 5 post has put out work that I considered sub-par, and in some cases just plain shitty. Even Vellum, which I can say probably makes up a portion of my soul, was followed-up by a sequel that was…. well, I basically just ignore that it exists. The same director that gave us Blade Runner (one of the best films to grace the screen) also gave us Prometheus (which I can’t bring myself to link).

Artists have an extremely difficult time seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their own work. The fear is that this can result in great things being lost. My current go-to example is “The Fifth Season“, which is fucking amazing, and one of the best things I’ve read in at least two years. OMG it’s so good. The author, NK Jemisin, said in an interview (which I read myself, so True Fact) that she nearly threw out the entire manuscript because it was such a foaming pile of shit in her eyes that she couldn’t face putting her name on it. Her friends convinced her otherwise, and it made my year, and (perhaps more importantly) won the 2016 Best Novel Hugo. For this reason artists are told not to “self-reject.” The tragedy of a Fifth Season being lost is much worse than if a CrossTalk makes it into publication. Artists to encouraged to simply keep putting things out and let the public judge.

 

II.

The business reason is pretty straightforward. Once an artist does produce something truly amazing, they gain a fan base. Before this time, an artist is a financial risk. Editors and publishers look critically at all work from unknowns, and in theory only things of a certain minimum quality get through. There is a check on the worst stuff. Upcoming artists know this as well, and they often put a ton of effort and angst into making their work as good as it can possibly be. The Jinni And The Golem took the author seven years to write, which is a ridiculously long time. But it paid off.

Once a writer is an award-winning, best-selling author, these checks basically disappear. A publisher knows that the author’s next work will sell, period. An editor may still try their best to force improvements and changes, but the editor is employed by the publisher, and the publisher wants the next book without too much hassle, so they can make a profit. They certainly won’t accept a flat rejection from the editor. And the editor is under psychological pressure as well… they’re altering the work of an award-winning, best-selling artist. That likely causes them to overlook things simply because “maybe this is the new zeitgeist the author is tapping into,” or similar. Of course everyone involved wants the book to be GOOD! They have brands and reputations to maintain, and a good work sells better than a poor one. But the knowledge that this isn’t a major financial risk anymore, combined with the fact that no one really knows what’s good or not (as per Section I), means more mediocre stuff will get through.

 

III.

I also have a couple personal fears about causes behind this.

The first fear is that no one has more than one truly genius work inside of them. This is the terror that keeps me up at night. That everything that makes someone who they are can be best expressed in one ground-shaking work. Most people will never make their ground-shaking work. But some of them are lucky enough to make their Neuromancer or their Catcher In The Rye. And everything after that is simply chasing the dragon. It is riding on the glory of that first success. For some people this artistic climax doesn’t come until midway through their career, or maybe at the very end of it. For others it comes right at the start. I don’t know which is worse. If it comes near the start, then you can live off your art for the rest of your life, as your fans continue to buy the rest of your works. On the other hand, you will forever be striving to match that first incredible piece, and you will always fall short, for as long as you live. Oh god. :(

This is basically a “regression to the mean” effect, and one shouldn’t miss out on an artist’s fantastic outlier at their peak simply because later/earlier works have regressed to the mean.

The other fear is that art comes from pain. Once an artist puts out that big hit, they get acceptance, and love, and money, all of which make life suck less. Also they can often use that money to get therapy and become more complete and less-broken humans. Which also means they can’t put out work as good as they did when they were in pain. So, horrifyingly, the choice is between a good life or good art. :( Naturally, most people choose a good life.

 

IV.

So in summary, no, don’t bump something down a list just because other works by the same artist are kinda crappy. There isn’t much relation. You can certainly judge some things based on author… I’ve read a few things by Mira Grant, and despite her popularity, I really hate all of them. I will never read something she’s written again, unless I get a LOT of assurance from sources I really trust that this work is a break from the past, and actually is in-freaking-credible. And likewise, I’ll probably read everything Yudkowsky and Chiang ever put out.

But if you’ve heard a work is genuinely great, like The Doomsday Book is said to be, and it’s well-regarded by the community and/or people you trust, and it’s won awards… well, then it is very likely good, and don’t let future works affect your ordering.