Books read June

Twelve books read this month as I took some effort to get my totals up. It brings my total number of books read in the first half of 2015 up to fortynine, putting me more or less on course for my goal of a hundred. As you can see below, now I just need to catch up with my reviewing too…

A Very British Genre — Paul Kincaid
A dated (1995) but still usable short introduction to the history of science fiction & fantasy as a British genre. As with a history, it gets slightly less usable the closer it comes to its present. Also interesting to see as a time capsule of what British SFF was like twenty years ago, before so many of the current giants had even started getting published, or had just begun to do so.

The Three-Body Problem — Cixin Liu
One of the three non-Puppy candidates for the Best Novel Hugo, a very Asimovian hard science fiction story. Asimovian because it’s all about ideas and characterisation falls somewhat by the wayside.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August — Claire North
Winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Harry August relives his own life over and over and he’s not the only one. The end of the world was always coming, but each new life it comes faster…

The Tropic of Serpents — Marie Brennan
The second book in the series of Faux-Georgian natural history fantasy memoirs of a lady dragonist. Great fun, intelligently written and well done dragons are always interesting.

The Renaissance at War — Thomas F. Arnold
One in a series of military history chapbooks I picked up, this is a very readable introduction to the topic of European warfare in the late fifteenth and sixteenth century.

Hero Complex — Sean O’Hara
Anime influenced superhero crack fic.

Warfare in the Seventeenth Century — John Childs
Followup to the Renaissance book. Interesting but of course Eurocentric.

Wave without a Shore — C. J. Cherryh
A short, early philosophical science fiction novel from Cherryh.

The Amoeba in the Room — Nicholas P. Money
A nicely readable introduction to the wonderful world of microbiotic life, sometimes marred with unfortunate attempts at humour.

A Man of Three Worlds — Mercedes García-Arenal & Gerard Wiegers
A very interesting biography/history of Samuel Pallache, a Moroccan Jew who worked as an agent, merchant, spy, arms dealer and more around the turn of the seventeenth century, working for the sultan of Morocco, the Dutch Republic and others.

At the Seventh Level — Suzette Haden Elgin
One of those somewhat forgotten and overlooked female authors, who sadly died earlier this year. This was the first novel of hers I’d read and it was an interesting one.

Throne of the Crescent Moon — Saladin Ahmed
Well done oriental fantasy that reminded me slightly of N. K. Jemisin’s Killing Moon duology.

Books read May

Late again as I keep forgetting to write these posts. Another disappointing month reading wise, only six books. I got nobody to blame but myself, having focused too much on other things than reading. This way I’ll not reach my goal of a hundred books read this year.

Bone Gap — Laura Ruby
I only read this to review it for my local science fiction bookstore, but I was glad I did so. A young adult fantasy novel that takes some very old fairy tales and shows what it looks like if the princess isn’t quite willingly taken away by the beautiful prince on the white horse…

The Riddle of the Labyrinth — Margalit Fox
The story of the decyphering of Linear B, the language found on clay tablets in the famous Mycean palace of Knossos and the three people who played key roles in it.

Great Powers and the Quest for Hegemony — Jeremy Black
Written twenty years after the first publication of Paul Kennedy’s 1988 The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers this is an appraisal of and correction to it, treating the same period

Sterrensplinters — Eddy C. Bertin
A career long retrospective collection of one of the best science fiction short fiction writers in the Dutch language.

Solar Flares — Andrew M. Butler
A reappreciation of the seventies in the context of science fiction, long shunted awkwardly inbetween the twin peaks of the New Wave and Cyberpunk. Slightly disappointing as it degraded into long recitations of book titles, movie plots undsoweiter. This needed a better structure.

Night’s Master — Tanith Lee
A reread sadly inspired by Tanith Lee’s death. Lush, decadent, erotically charged fantasy.

The Riddle of the Labyrinth — Margalit Fox

Cover of The Riddle of the Labyrinth


The Riddle of the Labyrinth
Margalit Fox
363 pages, including notes & index
published in 2013

Linear B is one of those ‘mysteries from history” I’d read about in the local library in the early eighties as a child, browsing through the stacks of occult, ancient astronaut and weird history books, listed along with better known examples like Schliemann’s quest for Troy. It’s one of those pieces of history I sort of, kind of knew about, of how tablets in an unknown language were found on Crete, providing evidence for the existence of a literate, “advanced” Bronze Age civilisation hundreds of years before the rise of the Classical Greek civilisations. But I never read much more about it because other subjects like Schliemann’s discovery of Troy looked much more interesting.

in The Riddle of the Labyrinth Margalit Fox sets out to prove me wrong by telling the real story of the decyphering of Linear B and Alice Kober, the largely forgotten woman at the heart of it, as well as of the archaeologist who found the tablets, Arthur J. Evans and the amateur linguist who finally decrypted them, Michael Ventris. In many ways this is a sad story: both Alice Kober and Michael Ventris died young, one dead of cancer, the other in a car accident, with Kober’s role in the decypherment for a long time remaining obscure because of her untimely death, while Ventris’ accident came at a time he was feeling depressed about what to do with the rest of his life… It’s also a detective story, as Fox tells the story of how the three of them each in turn helped the process of decyphering along.

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Sterrensplinters — Eddy C. Bertin

Cover of Sterrensplinters


Sterrensplinters
Eddy C. Bertin
222 pages
published in 2013

Eddy C. Bertin was an important author in my personal Golden Age of science fiction. A Flemish author, he was one of the few science fiction writers writing in Dutch back in the late seventies & eighties. Dutch language science fiction has never been particularly abundant and most that was published was not very good. Bertin was one of the few exceptions, an author who could’ve found an audience in English as well (and indeed, has had a couple of stories published in English). Still active, Bertin has written everything from hard science fiction to dark fantasy and horror, often mixing genres and with a tendency towards the Lovecraftian end of horror.

Sterrensplinters (Star Splinters) is a 2013 anthology collecting some of his best stories taken from his 1970s and 1980s collections. These are all long out of print, so a new collection of them is very welcome. The short introduction doesn’t tell much about why exactly these stories were chosen, or why the collection had to be divided into two parts: Membranen and Splinters, other than that the first set of stories takes place in a shared universe, while the remainder are standalone. That second set of stories feels as an afterthought, even if it includeds one of Bertin’s most famous stories.

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The Fall of Chronopolis — Barrington J. Bayley

Cover of The Fall of Chronopolis


The Fall of Chronopolis
Barrington J. Bayley
175 pages
published in 1974

I’ve always been a sucker for time war novels, starting with Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Keith Laumer’s Imperium series. I like the grand scale on which these stories play out, the whole idea of the impermanence of time itself, something that undercuts our most basic of securities, the idea that the past we remember is the way that past has always been, making literal the idea Orwell put forth in 1984: he who controls the past, controls the future. Which explains why The Fall of Chronopolis was one of the first bought at Eastercon novels I finished, even before the convention itself was over, finishing it at the Dead Dog party on Monday.

In the The Fall of Chronopolis the time war rages between the Chronotic Empire, which has steadily increased its dominion over the centuries until it rule a thousand years of human history and its far future enemy, the Hegemony, existing futurewards beyond the Age of Desolation after the fall of the Chronotic Empire. For the most part this time war has been limited, consisting of limited raids on each other’s history, but the Chronotic Empire is raising a grand fleet of timeships to invade the Hegemony directly, while the latter had developed a time distorter which can warp history directly. But this is only the surface story; there’s a lot more going on

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Books read April

Eight books read is only two per week, which isn’t quite the tempo I’m hoping for, but I have too much fun doing other things. Quite a few books read on the way to and from Eastercon; sadly however I bought roughly ten times as much.

Behold the Man — Michael Moorcock
I read this on the way to Eastercon, the day before Good Friday. It seemed fitting to read this story of a time traveller whose entire life has prepared him to journey back into time to the Crucifixion. One of Moorcock’s early classics, starring one of his characteristic passive protagonists.

Elysium — Jennifer Marie Brissett
This was a novel I might’ve nominated for the Hugos had I read it before. A love story that takes place against a backdrop of constantly shifting alternate histories, with the protagonist and their lover switching gender, sexuality and relationship with each shift, as the world increasingly takes a turn for the strange. Found via James Nicoll, as so much else.

Lost Things — Melissa Scott & Jo Graham
Another James recommendation, who called it “Jazz Age Occult Adventure” which suits this very well. A group of flyers get involved in an occult conspiracy, not entirely by accident.

The Fall of Chronopolis — Barrington J. Bayley
I’m a sucker for this sort of time war, dueling timelines story and Bayley has written a jewel here. Written with a pulpy jauntiness, but much denser than it first looks.

Strata — Terry Pratchett
Sometimes described as a Discworld prototype, this is both a serious sensawunda sort of space opera, Big Dumb Object story and a parody of same, especially Larry Niven’s Ringworld.

The Goblin Emperor — Katherine Addison
Political wishfullfilment fantasy of the benign kind, nominated for a Hugo and so far my pick for the winner. This may change once I’ve read The Three Body Problem.

The Race — Nina Allan
I had just bought this at Eastercon, after seeing the usual British suspect rave about it, when the author herself walked into the room, so now it’s a signed copy. A great novel, which shifts perspective in unexpected ways and does so with great skill. One plot point in the middle of the novel though had me stopped in my tracks, of which more once I review this properly.

Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen — Johan Huizinga
Classic history book by a Dutch historian, first published in 1919 and better known in English as The Waning of the Middle Ages. This is a history of 15th century Burgundy & France, in which the worldview of that period and region is put centre stage, a worlview that according to Huizinga was in the autumn of its existence, tired, wornout and in need of replacement.

The Goblin Emperor — Katherine Addison

Cover of The Goblin Emperor


The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison
502 pages
published in 2014

One of the dirty little secrets of book reviewing is that the circumstances under which you read any given book can massively influence how you feel about it. Since I read the first half of The Goblin Emperor on a sunny Thursday afternoon while drinking a nice IPA sitting at an Amsterdam terrace and the other half sitting in my garden on the Friday afternoon following, drinking an even nicer IPA, it’s no wonder I feel quite mellow about it. But in this case I would’ve enjoyed it even had I read it during one of the grey, dull, wet afternoons that you normally get in Amsterdam in early April. This is a great novel and well deserves its Hugo nomination. It’s also the sort of novel you can’t help but read fast, a true page turner.

The Goblin Emperor at heart is a very traditional power fantasy, about the boy of humble origins who becomes emperor by happenstance and now has to very quickly learn how to survive in a world of political intrigue he’s completely unprepared for, filled with people who either want to manipulate him or replace him with a better figurehead. It’s one of those fantasy scenarios other writers can write multiple trilogies about to get to that point, but Katherine Addison has her goblin hero confirmed as the emperor within five pages, the rest of the novel being about him getting to grips with his new job, woefully inadequate though he feels.

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Books read March

Really? I’ve only read four novels this month? Apparantly so. Granted, most of the month was spent reading through this list of short fiction, but even so, this is disappointing.

Juniper Time — Kate Wilhelm
Read for Joachim Boaz’s Kate Wilhelm review series. This is one of the novels the cyberpunks were rebelling against.

Reaper Man — Terry Pratchett
I read this in the wake of the news of Terry Pratchett’s death, his most fitting novel as it revolves around mortality and DEATH.

The Shining Girls — Lauren Beukes
Serial killer horror is not my thing as it so often puts its sympathies with the killer more than with their victims; cf. The Silence of the Lambs. Beukes however keeps her sympathies firmly where they belong, showing the waste and destruction the killer engages in without glamourising it.

King’s Dragon — Kate Elliott
It’s unfair. Here I was expecting at best a compentently written epic fantasy story, but instead Elliott made me think, by never choosing the lazy option, by actually creating a medievaloid fantasy world that is more than just modern people in medieval drag. It also has one of the most harrowing depictions of the psychology of domestic abuse I’ve read in any novel.

Wolfhound Century — Peter Higgins

Cover of Wolfhound Century


Wolfhound Century
Peter Higgins
303 pages
published in 2013

Despite buying more books than’s probably good for me, I still keep a library membership and thanks to that I still end up finding science fiction or fantasy writers and books I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. Case in point: Peter Higgins Wolfhound Century, which I saw lying on the pile of new fiction books near the entrance and whose cover drew my attention. Reading the back cover blurb and the first few pages was enough to take a punt on it. They confirmed what the cover artwork seemed to suggest, that this was a fantasy novel inspired by Soviet Russia, not a setting you see much in fantasy.

The protagonist, investigator Vissation Lom, is the classic honest cop in a totalitarian system and his honesty has of course made him enemies. Nevertheless he’s one of the best investigators in Vlast, which is why he has been summoned to the capital Mirgorod by the head of the secret police. He is to stop and catch Josef Kantor, a terrorist protected by powerful forces from within the Vlast security apparatus itself. Without ties to any of the political factions in the capital or the security services, Lom is hoped to have a better chance at getting Kantor.

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Reaper Man — Terry Pratchett

Cover of Reaper Man


Reaper Man
Terry Pratchett
287 pages
published in 1991

Even before rereading the day after pTerry’s death, Reaper Man was mired in grieving for me. Because I reread it in 2012, the year after Sandra’s death, when I had fallen back on Pratchett’s Discworld series as comfort reading, something to lose yourself in and forget for a while. And then I hit Reaper Man, in which DEATH has been retired by the Auditors for having become too human, has to find a new living as BILL DOOR and a fragile, predoomed romance starts between him and Miss Flitworth, the never married widow he ends up working as a farmhand for. It’s a novel about death and life and humanity and the essence of it is captured by what DEATH argues at the climax of it:

LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?

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