Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots/Multiverse
published in 2012, 2013
I had been following Seanan McGuire on her Livejournal for donkey ages, but I only got around to reading her Velveteen stories when they were linked from MetaFilter. Bad Martin. No biccie. Of course I then inhaled all the linked posts in less than an afternoon (not at work of course, nooo) and found I had to buy the actual ebooks, if only to be able to burble about them here.
I haven’t read anything else of Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant yet, so it may seem strange that this got such a hold on me, but it just perfectly fit the story crack receptors in my brain. Well told, short superhero stories done with flair and invention, lots of drama and emotional rollercoasters, no fear of consequences or of looking silly. Velveteen is a young superheroine just let go of the most famous superhero team in the world, the Junior Super Patriots, looking to start a new life without superheroing as long as the sinister marketing company behind 90 percent of superheroes lets her. Greatly lacking in self confidence and trust in her powers — which consists of being able to bring to life and manipulate toys — she thinks herself barely qualified to cope with real life, let alone the challenges walking away from the Junior Super Patriots have brought her.
Samuel R. Delany
published in 1975
Question: what are the two places man will never reach? Answer: the heart of the sun and page 100 of Dhalgren.
A corny old joke, with a kernel of truth because Dhalgren is not an easy book to read. Almost 900 pages long it’s a monster of a book, even more so when you remember it was published at a time when any science fiction novels over 200 pages was a bit on the long side. And unlike certain modern novels of that length, Dhalgren demands your attention on every page; you can’t get through it on the autopilot. It’s therefore no wonder that it took me most of February to read it, with no time for other books. But it was worth it as even almost forty years later this still is one of the most ambitious and challenging science fiction novels ever written.
Some people think it’s the symbol of everything that went wrong with science fiction. That “joke” I opened is less a joke than a sneer, repeated by people still mad at what the New Wave did to science fiction though they were born long after it. According to them Dhalgren is dense, impenetrable and unreadable, elitist fodder for literary snobs. What really sticks in their craw though is that Dhalgren was one of the biggest science fiction bestsellers of the seventies, going through fifteen printings between 1975 and 1980. Somebody must’ve liked it; in fact, like Dune or Stranger in A Strange Land, much more palatable bestsellers to these embittered fans, it must’ve appealed to people outside science fiction’s core readership.
Because I decided to go to Loncon as you may have noticed, this month my reading was dominated by Hugo related works, but I still managed to fit three more novels than last month in:
Hurricane Fever — Tobias Buckell
A fast moving near future thriller set in a Caribbean menaced by almost constant hurricanes. Read because Tobias Buckell was kind enough to provide a review copy.
The Lives of Tao — Wesley Chu
Wesley Chu is one of the candidates for the Campbell Best New Writer award this year and this provided as part of the voting package. A decent adventure read, but nothing special.
A Stranger in Olondria — Sofia Samatar
Another candidate for the Campbell, Sofia Samatar got my vote on the strength of this novel, a fantasy travelogue set in a world that’s not your average medievaloid setting.
Three Parts Dead — Max Gladstone
Another candidate, this was a great secondary world/urban fantasy story about a chartered accountant (more or less) investigating the death of a god.
Moon over Soho — Ben Aaronovitch
An urban fantasy murder mystery set in contemporary London; part of a series.
Six Gun Snow White — Catherynne M. Valente
My vote for the Best Novella Hugo, this retelling of the Snow White fairytale set in the Wild West, was published as a short novel. (And would’ve been a normal length novel forty years or so.)
Deep Wizardry — Diane Duane
Second in the Young Wizards series. This almost made me cry. Almost.
The Warrior’s Apprentice
Lois McMaster Bujold
published in 1986
As you probably know, Bob, The Warrior’s Apprentice is the second novel in the Vorkosigan Saga series of mil-sf adventures and came out in the same year as the first, Shards of Honor. Whereas that book starred Miles parents, this is the introduction of Miles Vorkosigan, the just under five foot crippled before birth by a neurotoxin attack on his mother, insanely charismatic, insanely hyperactive military genius who, at the start of the novel is trying to make it through the eliminations for officer candidacy in the Barrayaran Imperial Military Service. The written exam is no problem; it’s the physical tests that are a challenge for somebody who could break his bones just by sitting down hard.
His strategy is to take it slow and careful, but being seventeen he lets himself get goaded by one of his fellow candidates, takes an unnecessary risk and breaks his legs, with it shattering his chances to get into the military. Worse than his own disappointment is his grandfather’s, the liberator of Barrayar of the Cetegendans, who dies the next night — Miles convinced he killed him by breaking his heart. In his despair and sorry he’s glad to get away from Barrayar and, because of the political situation his father too would like to see him visit his mother’s family on Beta Colony, a nicely civilised part of the galaxy where aristocratic notions of honour are held for the anachronisms they are. He doesn’t travel alone; his bodyguard, sergeant Bothari, of course has to travel with him and he manages to persuade his mother to ask Bothari’s daughter, Elena, to come with him as well. He’s of course half in love with her and thinks a trip to another planet and perhaps the chance to learn more of Elena’s long dead mother, would get him into her good graces. Yes, Miles is somewhat of a nice guy but trust me, he grows out of it.
published in 1992
What do you call urban fantasy when it moves to the countryside? Because that’s what happens in Blood Trail as Vicky Nelson, ex police officer turned private dick and her vampire partner Henry Fitzroy trade the familiarity of Toronto for the charming wonders of the Canadian countryside. Vicky had met Fitzroy in the first novel of the Blood series, Blood Price, now in the second — as seems to be de rigeour in urban fantasy — she gets involved with werewolves. But these aren’t your average, shirt ripping, feauding with vampires werewolves: these are sheepfarmer werewolves, leading a quiet existence near London, Ontario, just another Dutch-Canadian family. Until somebody starts killing them, somebody who seems to know that they’re werewolves.
Which is when they call Henry Fitzroy, who first met the Heerkens wolf clan during WWII, when he was a member of the British secret service and they were in the Dutch resistance. Because the wer could obviously not involve the police without their secret getting known and since they’re mistrustful of outsiders anyway, Henry was their only option. And Henry of course in turn wanted Vicky to come along and use her investigative talents. Meanwhile, back in Toronto detective Mike Celluci, Vicky’s ex-colleague and still occasional love interest is convinced Henry is hiding something. Of course not knowning he’s a vampire, it may just be jealousy that’s driving his investigation…
published in 2014
There has been a bit of a spat about the use of dialect and “non-standard” English in science fiction lately, as various people were critical about using dialect all together, finding it gimmicky or too difficult. As Juan Diaz put it “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over” which is more true than it should be. A novel like Lagoon therefore, which is not only set in a city and country –Lagos, Nigeria — unfamiliar to the average science fiction reader, but which is (partially) written in Nigerian English, using Nigerian vocabulary and grammar, may be somewhat of a challenge. Because while we as science fiction readers supposedly crave the shock of the new, often it’s only if it’s cloaked in familiar language and cultural expectations.
And I have to admit, I did have to struggle a little bit with Lagoon, getting used to the language and the setting, though to nowhere near the extent I had to get used to Feersum Endjinn. For me this was a turn-on rather than a turn-off; I don’t mind working harder for my entertainment if a book is worth it and Lagoon certainly is. This is a novel of first contact where the people encountering the alien are not square jawed space marines but a marine biologist (Adaora), a troubled soldier (Agu) and a world famous rap star (Anthony), taken as representatives of humanity into the sea as the aliens landed there, to be returned to Lagos with Ayodele, an envoy from the aliens who needs to meet up with the president of Nigeria to discuss the future of the country now they’ve made their home there.
published in 2014
On Twitter,Tobias Buckell asked for reviewers for his latest novel, Hurricane Fever, so I took him up on it. Buckell is a writer I’ve heard a lot of good things about and who in the usual sf fandom squabbles has consisently been on the right side, so I was keen to try his work out. Hurricane Fever is being promoted and indeed reads like a technothriller, though the setting, — a near future Caribbean menaced by almost constant hurricanes — is science fictional, if barely considering the actual state of the world. The focus of the story itself though remains solidly in technothriller territory and it wouldn’t take much to make it over into a contemporary thriller.
Prudence “Roo” Jones is a retired agent of the Caribbean Intelligence Group, now focusing on sailing his boat Spitfire and keeping his orphaned cousin Delroy in school and out of trouble. That all changes when Zee, an old friend of his spying days sends him a final message. His instincts tell him to ignore it, but he was a friend so he feels he has no choice but to go and pick up the package he died for. Not long after, decidedly Aryan looking, shaven headed thugs with a fondness for nazi tattoes attack him; there may be a connection.
Oops. Should’ve done this earlier, but since I only read four books this month it sort of slipped my mind.
Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor
A great novel, one of the candidates for next year’s Hugo if I have my way, but it took me a long time to get through it.
So You Want to Be a Wizard — Diane Duane
Diane Duane had a sale on her website of her ebooks, so I bought the complete Young Wizards series. I would’ve loved those had I come across them when I was twelve and still like them a lot as a nominal adult.
Martian Summer — Andrew Kessler
Andrew Kessler got to live a space geek’s dream and was embedded for ninety days with the Phoenix Mars Mission. Interesting look at how such a big space project works, if you can stand his sense of humour.
Throne of Jade — Naomi Novik
Second in the Temeraire series: the Napoleonic wars with dragons. Great entertainment as long as you can sort of overlook the setting making not much sense, which is harder to do in this book as Temeraire heads to China.
The Lives of Tao
published in 2013
I read this because Wesley Chu was nominated for the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for best new writer and it was available in the Hugos Voters Package. I’d also seen it recommended at the local science fiction bookstore and had picked it up once or twice to sample it, though was never convinced enough to buy it. Because I was visiting my hometown for a couple of birthdays this weekend I took the opportunity of two long train journeys to read this, which worked out well.
From Myke Cole’s cover blurb — pulse-pounding, laughout-loud funny and thoughtful — you might guess that this was meant to be an action comedy story, which it was, but without the humour. This just wasn’t funny, I’m not sure it was actually ever meant to be funny and if you read this, set your expectations accordingly. The Lives of Tao actually is a geek wish fulfilment sf thriller, where the fat, underachieving, nerdy slop is taken out of his comfort zone and thrust into a worldwide conspiracy and finally gets the girl he’s been silently lusting after but was afraid to ask out. There may be a bit of pandering in this, you may have guessed.
Fugue for a Darkening Island
published in 1972
There are certain protocols you have to take into account as a reviewer when discussing the books of a new, young writer. Protocols that are still in effect when the author has aged more than forty years since the first publication of his novel and has become a grand old man in the meantime, prone to gently correcting younger writers. Anything that can be said about Fugue for a Darkening Island has to be tempered by the realisation that it is a fortytwo year old novel, not necessarily indicative of the writer Priest now is.
But the truth remains that Fugue for a Darkening Island is a problematic work, a novel with its heart I think in the right place, but which features certain unfortunate themes in Priest’s work that will return in later novels, somewhat muted. I’m thinking of last year’s The Adjacent, featuring a near future Islamic Republic of Great Britain as well as the much earlier A Dream of Wessex which had parts of Britain as a caliphate, but also of The Separation and its naive story of a better world created by a separate peace between nazi Germany and Britain. In short, Priest sometimes goes for settings you’d sooner expect to see in the stories of the more reactionary Baen writers and A Fugue for a Darkening Island is one of those novels, a near future Britain ripped straight from the front pages of National Front propaganda, as the country is flooded by a never ending stream of African refugees destroying the British way of life, its hero a decent middleclass Englishman trying to find a new home for him and his family.