Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor

Cover of Lagoon

Nnedi Okorafor
306 pages
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.

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Hurricane Fever – Tobias Buckell

Cover of Hurricane Fever

Hurricane Fever
Tobias Buckell
272 pages
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.

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Books read June

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 — Wesley Chu

Cover of The Lives of Tao

The Lives of Tao
Wesley Chu
393 pages
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.

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Fugue for a Darkening Island — Christopher Priest

Cover of Fugue for a Darkening Island

Fugue for a Darkening Island
Christopher Priest
125 pages
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.

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Zero Sum Game — SL Huang

Cover of Zero Sum Game

Zero Sum Game
SL Huang
305 pages
published in 2014

If it wasn’t for her blogging about the renewed SFWA controversies back in January, I would never have heard of SL Huang or Zero Sum Game, her first novel. She’s not the first author I bought books from on the strength of their online writing. I knew Jo Walton and Charlie Stross as Usenet posters before I’d read their fiction and Ian Sales as a blogger before I read his Apollo Quartet books. It’s of course not guaranteed that somebody who’s a good blogger or poster is also a good fiction writer, but so far I haven’t been disappointed.

Zero Sum Game opens with its heroine tied down to a chair watching the fist of Rio, the one man in the whole world she trust coming at her face hard and fast enough to break her jaw. As she watches, lines of force, numbers and probabilities dance before her eyes, giving her a way to take the blow without getting more damage than a split lip. Barely a minute later she sees a way in which she can free herself, kill the four Columbian mobsters in the room and knockout Rio, all while evading the thugs’ gunfire, and takes it, escaping just as more thugs come barreling in. Jumping through the only outside window calculated in such a way as to not get herself torn to pieces, shen then doubles back to get the woman she needed to rescue from the gang, knocks out the guards outside with perfectly aimed rocks thrown to their foreheads and escapes in a hotwired jeep. All in a day’s work for Cas Russell, math savant extraordinaire.

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The Dark Griffin — K. J. Taylor

Cover of The Dark Griffin

The Dark Griffin
K. J. Taylor
369 pages
published in 2009

One of the things I’ve been trying to do more of these past five years or so has been to try out more new to me authors. K. J. Taylor is one of these authors, an Australian fantasy writer whose Black Griffin looked interesting when I was browsing the Amsterdam library shelves. I had no choice but to like a writer who said of herself: “a lot of fantasy authors take their inspiration from Tolkien. I take mine from G. R. R. Martin and Finnish metal”. A bit of research online discovered that she isn’t even thirty years old, published her first book at twenty in 2006 and has had seven books published since. Which makes her on a par with Elizabeth Bear with regards to productivity (and here I have trouble writing a blogpost sometimes…)

The Dark Griffin is the first in a fantasy trilogy, which in turn was followed by another trilogy. You may suspect therefore that this is pretty much a setup book and you may be right. What this is, is an origin story, both of the titular dark griffin (literally, as the book starts with his birth) and his ride, Arren Cardockson. As the story starts Arren is the only Northerner griffin rider in the city of Eagleholm, of far humbler origins than his fellow griffineers. His parents are freedmen, ex-slaves, while all other griffin riders are aristocrats. Nevertheless and despite the occassional tension, he feels well supported by the city’s elite. Even more so when lord Rannagon, one of the leaders of the griffiners and master of law, suggest a way for Arren to get out of his money problems.

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Peacekeeper — Laura E. Reeves

Cover of Peacekeeper

Laura E. Reeves
324 pages
published in 2008

Peacekeeper is the sort of novel you pick up knowing full well it’s probably not going to be very good, but hopefully will be entertaining. It helps, if like me, you have a bit of a weakness for military science fiction and are willing to lower your standards. Once you’ve voluntarily read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series the chances are you’ll read most anything. And, to be honest, Peacekeeper wasn’t that bad. Very much the first novel in a trilogy, but decently paced and competently written. I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way to read the sequels, but wouldn’t pass them up either If I came across them.

Ariane Kedros is the pilot of the scout ship Aether’s Touch, which she runs together with her employer Matt Journey. She’s also a reserve major int he military of the Consortium of Autonomous Worlds, which has just fought a brutal war with the Terran Expansion League, until strong hints from the Minoans — the aliens who had uplifted humanity into space and faster than light travel — put both parties at the negotiating table. Though nobody but Ariane’s superior, colonel Owen Edonus of the Directorate of intelligence, knows, in the eyes of the Terrans she’s also a war criminal, having piloted the ship that destroyed an entire solar system using temporal distortian weapons. As part of the peace treaty both sides will have to stand down and destroy said weapons and colonel Edonus has tapped Ariane to be part of the team that will escort a Terran inspection team at one of the CAW’s facilities. He of course has a hidden motive for this: somebody is killing off the people involved in the mission that made Ariane a war criminal and she’s put out as bait…

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Books read May

A much better month: eleven books read in May.

De Jaren Pep — Ger Apeldoorn
A great looking coffee table book about one of the most important Dutch comics magazines ever published.

The Ship Who Sang — Anne McCaffrey
A reread of a childhood favourite. Not a success I’m afraid.

Fly by Wire — William Langewiesche
Recommended by Alex, this is the story of the airliner that landed on the Hudson back in 2009 and how it was able to do it.

Velveteen vs the Junior Super Patriots — Seanan McGuire
This is basically superhero fanfiction as done by a professional writer. Available for free online.

Undertow — Elizabeth Bear
Hard science fiction adventure in which luck plays a large, quantum mechanical role.

Velveteen vs the Multiverse — Seanan McGuire
The second book in this series takes a darker turn, as McGuire works out the consequences of the world she has build.

The Dark Griffin — K. J. Taylor
Interesting fantasy novel from a writer who takes her inspiration from “George R. R. Martin and Finnish metal”. May actually be slightly subversive.

An English Affair — Richard Davenport-Hines
A very readable account of the Profumo affair by somebody not hesitant to judge the various participants in it and who is somewhat sympathetic to the alleged villains of the affair.

The Blue Place — Nicola Griffith
Goddamn I hate the ending. A hardboiled detective, first in a series, starring an American-Norwegian-Brit “rangy six footer” lesbian ex-detective, this was a brilliant novel but that ending…

London Falling — Paul Cornell
Fast paced, very readable London urban fantasy.

Peace Keeper — Laura E. Reeve
More military science fiction.

Blood Price — Tanya Huff

Cover of Blood Price

Blood Price
Tanya Huff
272 pages
published in 1991

Tanya Huff has quickly has become one of my favourite authors, ever since I first read Valor’s Choice two years ago. Which is why when the local secondhand bookstore turned out to have her entire Blood… urban fantasy series, I bought them all. Urban fantasy is a subgenre I can take or leave, but Huff is one of those writers of who I’ll read anything she writes. So far her novels have always been at least entertaining; Blood Price is no exception.

Vicky “Victory” Nelson is, retired from the Toronto police for health reasons, now turned private eye, is taking the subway home one night when she hears a terrible scream coming from the other platform and sees a man slumbed to the floor, dead. Taking a gamble as a train arrives, she sprints over the track to the other side to see that he’s had his throat ripped out and a shadowy figure disappearing down the underground. What Vicky witnessed is the first in what would become known as the Toronto vampire murders, as in quick succession several more people are killed this way, throat slashed and drained of blood. Though interested in the murders out of old police instincts, Vicky knows it’s not her problem anymore, not until the lover of the first victim hires her to find the vampire, as the police “insist on looking for a man”.

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