Novels of the Quarter )

With 42 more books read, and 40 of them reviewed, I'm 4 over my hoped-for total of 36 reviews for the quarter for the challenge, and with an annual total of 161 (an average of over 13 per month), I'm well ahead - nearly a month and half - or my intended year-long total of 144 books. The most notable pattern is that there's a significant amount more reading in October than either of the other two months for whatever reason.
There are quite a lot of authors new to me, with a smaller number of names - such as Guy Kay and Terry Pratchett - recurring; there are also a reasonable number of female authors, albeit few female science fiction authors than I might want.  There's also a split between fantasy and science-fiction, although genre-busters such as Valentine's novel are a little on the rise; which means there does seem to be a wide variety of subgenres within the genre represented here, happily.  There is also a mix of quality in there, which is perhaps less happy; some fantastic novels, and some which, whilst I went in with high expectations, I came out very disappointed, and even a few which were just poor.  Finally, a few classics came out at the end of the quarter, aided by a Christmas Kobo, giving a wide chronological spread in the genre.

In alphabetical order by author's surname, then, my top five reads of the quarter!
1. Feed by Mira Grant.  Not only an intelligent zombie novel, which doesn't surprise me, and a post-apocalyptic one discussing the rebuilding of the world after the rise of the zombies, Grant's novel has a really strong heart with great characters.  It also has some fantastic political and technological ideas, which make this a zombie post-apocalyptic pseudo-horror thriller for the new generation.
2. The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  Kiernan's horror novel, a slow-building, character-driven, expectation-wrecking piece of work which combines ghost-story and natural horror in that very Blackwood-inspired way with a brilliant psychological study is an incredibly disturbing piece of work which has really stuck with me strongly, as a dark horror.
3. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.  McDonald's near-future thriller is more of a cultural exploration of Turkey than it is an exploration of technology, although it does posit certain technologies that aren't quite here yet; but it's the portrayal of Turkey which really makes this novel, and drives it, along with a gloriously active writing style that keeps things moving effectively and quickly.
4. The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski. More futuristic than anything else on this list, The Highest Frontier is also the most clearly YA novel, with its university student protagonist.  A well-written and thoughtful novel, Slonczewski shows a lot of confidence in her audience by dropping the reader in head-first, and whilst it's not the perfect narrative it still has a strong pacing and some fantastic concepts.
5. Mechanique, A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine.  This well-paced and well-written novel is one of the most chronologically confusing things I have ever read, with its jumpy and disconnected narrative; however, the evocative style and rapid pacing combine with the broad brush-strokes Valentine allows the reader to create a brilliant, well-written and very readable narrative.
And because I found it so hard to pick a top 5 - the five runners-up, each of which almost-nearly made it onto the list and only not making it because of the quality of what did!  Those runners up being, again in alphabetical order by author's surname, Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod, The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson, and Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan; each incredible novels, but just edged off the top - clearly a very good quarter, then!

Finally, this quarter brings us some new reading technology; The Red Tree, and every work following it, was read on a Kobo Touch.  I don't intend to write a sales pitch for the device, but I think it's pretty clear from my continued use of the gadget demonstrates that I am something of a fan.  The fact that it's not backlit is a great help, and the lack of buttons - as a reading device, it's very sleek, with nothing but the screen and home button there when a book's open - really does put it leagues ahead of the Kindle.  It's also light and portable, although reading it in the bath is perpetually risky.  I've always expected to dislike my first eReader, but the Kobo has far surpassed such expectations; indeed, it's a very intuitive, user-friendly device.
Novel List )

41 books, so we're back down to the approximate level of the first quarter of the year, although this quarter has possibly had the most disruption and disjointedness of any so far, with a 17-book month bracketed by two 12-book months.  With one of them a historical fiction, rather than genre, novel, that gives me a quarter-surplus of 4 on my intended total for the challenge, with a total surplus now of 13, so over a month's worth of reading, with a total of 121 genre novels.
There's a mix of reviews here, with some positive and some very negative, with one or two novels squandering great potential; and there's a nice spread across the genre, with a decent chunk of variably-hard science fiction (including the deeply dated Last and First Men, a genre classic) and some good fantasy.  There's also some nice up-to-the-moment reading in there, with the Corey, Stross, Cooper, Mann, Polansky and arguably Grossman recent releases and two eARCs.  Finally worth noting is the number of women in there - over half of these novels were written by women exclusively, with one co-authored by a male/female team, and 22 female authors (including two collaborations) read across 41 novels; putting in the effort to find female-author specfic really paid off, with some of the best novels of the quarter coming from women.

So, what were the best five reads of the quarter?
1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  Russell's powerful characterisation and skilful prose combine into an incredibly moving story, and her sympathetic treatment of the characters works very effectively with the inevitability of the tragedy only lends it more force.  Given Russell's sympathetic treatment of religion, too, which is yet not uncritical, this is an intellectually engaging novel as well, since nothing is simple or as it first seems; and Russell has a real ability to give us a kick in the pathos.  All of which made the follow-up, Children of God, that much more disappointing.
2. Silver-Metal Lover by Tanith Lee.  This romantic story is simply and effectively told, with a writing style that matches Lee's characters very well; the ability to develop a narrative and age a character at the same time, and the refusal to rely on crisis-sequence as a method of writing (not that there aren't crises), give Lee's tale a certain power and pathos that much contemporary genre fiction seems to lack.  A sweet tale of love.
3. Pennterra by Judith Moffett.  A very different, but equally religiously-infused, take on the first contact narrative from The Sparrow, Moffett's novel is writ through with Quaker ideas; taking the idea of crisis-driven, violence-reliant SF and overturning it, we barely see any violence, and at most it is incredibly low-key, but there remains an existential threat, and Moffett handles what is essentially a story built around discovery of the way of life of an alien species - and of Quakerism - incredibly well, with good characterisation and interesting (if unbelievable) worldbuilding feeding in very well to this.
4. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.  The team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck is one that sounds formidable, but fantastical; Leviathan Wakes is, however, pure space opera, and a well-written one at that.  Without letting the big ideas out of sight, and without forgetting the necessity of strong characters, the writing team also create a plot that is enjoyable, a world that is believable, and apply a writing style that is one of the most readable I have seen all quarter; a really good piece of work, if perhaps lighter than much of my other reading (in an intellectual sense).
5. Black and White by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge. This is the only pure-froth novel of the five, a superheroic science fiction novel that plays with the conventions of the Big Boys and the team-up dynamic to create an enjoyable and at times quite silly novel that is deeply readable and fun.  A light, enjoyable volume that has good characterisation and some dark moments but leaves you with a good feeling at the end and few serious thoughts about the world, Black and White is a great beach read, in the best sense of the term.
Now, I'm no politically correct, left-wing, Marxism-espousing feminist... ok, I am. More to the point, however, I want my genres to be the best they can be; and whilst fantasy has an uneven male/female ratio, it's nothing compared to the male-dominated field of SF. Cheryl Morgan produced some figures recently for my own home country on this matter, and they're distressing indeed; and, you'll notice that my last three reviews have been of books by women - I can't claim gender parity in my reading matter, but I'd like to address the huge male-dominance (especially in the UK).

How? Why, with your help, of course! Whilst on my TBR pile are authors like Tricia Sullivan, Justina Robson and Karen Traviss, who would you (good and faithful reader, if indeed you exist) recommend I read? Bear in mind that this isn't a general recommendation request, but specifically British female SF novelists - preferably with a specific novel and a couple of reasons why. Backing up my political stance with concrete action, after all, cannot be a bad thing!
This month's books )

44 books, a slight rise on last quarter, impressively; but only 10 this last month, because I have been working full-time at a special needs school and thus have been quite exhausted and with reduced time to read (this will continue for the next three weeks).  A real mix, with a heavy reliance on rereads whilst in the state of work-induced exhaustion (lots of Pratchett!) and some specific authors heavily bitten in to - Elizabeth Bear and Guy Gavriel Kay mostly.  No genre gets much more time than any other, for once, and some highly critical reviews (this isn't just a love-in!).  We're also 8 books up on the 36-per-quarter target - a total of 86 books, 14 ahead of the target for this first half of the year; but what with five of those going unreviewed (contrasted with none last quarter) that takes us down to 81, still 9 ahead.

But what about my five favourite reads?
1. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay.  This is a complete no-brainer.  A brilliant, deep, interesting, well-written, moving, thoughtful, characterful, stylish novel which asks some interesting questions and raises some interesting issues. Kay's work here isn't flawless, but its flaws are like those of a diamond: they highlight its qualities and beauty.  A subtle work that gets under the reader's skin and deserves, sometime this summer (depending on the TBR pile) a reread.
2. The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham. The first in a new fantasy series, the various plotlines and characters, the use and abuse of cliché and the generic epic fantasy of this novel are rebuked by some elements; the less than antiheroic veteran, the role of economics so powerfully foregrounded and brilliantly understood, and the set of cards that Abraham lays down all add up to what looks to be an intriguing, brilliant series.
3. Embassytown by China Miéville. Anyone not predicting this featuring on my top-five list hasn't been paying attention; the creative imagination, the brilliant linguistics, the thought-provoking ideas, and the characterisation and narrative style are all so brilliant that this is another book on the to-be-reread pile without compunction. That it doesn't neatly tie up the story whilst also not leaving an obvious in for a sequel is another strength I rather enjoy.
4. Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown. Brown's scientific romance, and meditation on human nature amongst other things, is beautiful and pastoral, recalling the spirit of the early pioneers of the genre; the characters are sympathetic, well-written and interesting, with a very human nature, and a powerful sense of familiarity; and Brown's evocative language really does bring the world and concepts involved in the novel together very effectively.
5. Eclipse 4 ed. Jonathan Strahan. A consistently well-chosen set of stories from all sorts of corners of the genre, Strahan's fourth instalment in the Eclipse series has a wide view of what it means to be genre and has chosen some absolutely wonderful gems with not a single bad story (albeit one or two which didn't work for me) amongst them, marking it out as different from almost every other anthology I have ever read.
Embassytown, reviewed here, is a novel that just won't leave you alone; I've been thinking about it over the last few days since finishing it - for the first time, when the TBR pile is a little smaller it's guaranteed a reread or two - and come to an interesting thought or two.

Like all of Miéville's novels, or at least almost all, Embassytown is deeply informed by his politics; I mentioned a few elements of that in my original review, but there are some huge themes which really only creep up with a little thought and a little distance that came to mind, one of which was fermented by reading Alastair Reynolds' Terminal World immediately after Embassytown.  Both novels have a protagonist who is at the centre of the action, but not the centre of the action - Quillon is there to help the quest-narrative in Reynolds' novel, and Avice is even more an observer-cum-participant in Embassytown than that, since whilst there's a very limited degree of precipitation of action undertaken by her, so much more of the novel is her telling us what she's observing and how she's interacting with the realities, not acting upon them.  This is so deeply different from much science fiction and fantasy; normally, we follow the hero of a story, and they're the one it is all about, that everything revolves around. Both of these novels revolve around other people, and we follow someone close to the action, and see it through their eyes, but each character "wasn't the centre of [their] own universe" (Terminal World, p478); it's very well handled, and provides a very different perspective from the standard one.  Even more so in Embassytown: here, there is no single hero.  Everyone responds to things, some in deeply conservative ways, some in radical ways, some simply trying to adapt; but there are very few individuals who act in such a way as to be described as heroes - although there is a villain, there is no individual hero (and the closest we come are Hosts, so we can't see things from their points of view!)

The other element of the novel is violence.  Recently, Jo Walton wrote a post on about the amount of violence in science fiction; Embassytown doesn't break the paradigm of the inclusion of violence, but it certainly alters it.  The majority of science fictional violence is committed by the protagonists against the antagonists, or by the antagonists against... well, anyone; and violence by the protagonist is necessary to resolve the plot, because the antagonist cannot - will not - give up and stop going to war against the protagonist.  In Embassytown, violence is carried out around Avice, and indeed Avice commits acts of violence, but not against the antagonist - or against only one antagonist; and not in such a way that it eventually brings resolution.  In most Miéville novels, there is no neat resolution, but violence buys much of the resolution that there is (noted, in passing, by Le Guin in her review of Embassytown) - but this is a marked departure from such things; there is no resolution - or at least, no neat, tidy, simple resolution that puts things either better or back to how they were before - and it is bought explicitly against violence; non-violence and pacifism are what create resolution, non-violence and pacifism driven by aliens who we can't understand and aren't our hero.

If those two elements don't demonstrate that Miéville has written a deeply interesting, deeply unusual science fiction novel in Embassytown, as well as a truly brilliant and, well, novel one, I don't know what could.
Review List )

So, patterns... 22 books read in January, which is over half of all the books I read.  That made up for the low book-count of February and March (10 each), and leaves me with a surplus of 6 on my aimed-for total of 36 books over the three months.
Other patterns? Less steampunk - just 5 novels this time - and I'm starting in on some more of the classics, both authors and novels, of the genre, including Pohl and Priest, but also some of the new releases (Way of Kings, Wise Man's Fear, Steampunk'd, inter alia); it seems I've gotten better at buying and picking up the new releases at Waterstones and on Amazon, as well as using the eARCs provided by Angry Robot Books.

So, what're my top five choices?  Some are obvious and expected if you know me; others, less so, perhaps...
  1. Wise Man's Fear - Yeahh. Not much to say on this one, really; just that Name of the Wind  has actually, impossibly been surpassed and improved upon by a fantastic, lyrical, undeniably EXCELLENT novel that I just could not put down, and finished - despite work, lectures, &c - in less than half a week.
  2. Among Others - Despite my inability to type the name of the novel (Among, not Amongst, brain!) I think Walton's semi-autobiographical novel is absolutely stunning; the deep infusion of fantasy and science fiction infuses the novel so deeply and the understanding of the genre, the appreciation of it and of the power of reading, is absolutely wonderful, and I can't help adoring Mori either, as she's a fantastic character.
  3. Fallen Blade - Grimwood's historical urban fantasy (type thing) is fantastic, very different than Wise Man's Fear but also in some ways similar, in that both have great writing styles, with vivid, powerful, beautiful worlds; they also have strong, wonderful characters and lyrical styles, with amazing ideas.
  4. Kethani - The parable of this novel is great, and the amazing stylistic abilities, the wonderful characters, the deep connections and underlying realities, the intellectual challenges of Brown's novel, all add up to make fantastic, stunning SF exploring the infinite, amazing implications of one single change in the world... and a brilliantly creative change at that.
  5. Way of Kings - Sanderson's epic fantasy (about as big as Rothfuss'!) is a fantastic blockbuster (aka brick), but it doesn't quite have the same focus, power or lyrical style.  However, that's like saying "This cathedral is only beautiful, not as beautiful as York Minster!" - it doesn't have to be as good as the best (Wise Man's Fear has competition, in terms of year's best novel, from Embassytown alone, to my mind, or possibly The Dragon's Path, both April releases I'm pre-ordering...); Way of Kings is a complex, well-built, brilliant novel on its own term, setting in motion a huge series of events which open a ten-book series...
And in the end, by the way - I retained the paid account.  It has it's benefits, in the end...
Among Others is a brilliant coming of age story.  It combines YA with a sort of magical realism, but without alienating adult readers (amongst whom I count myself); it is pervaded by an absolute love of SFF and reading, which (as any follower of this blog can guess) I can hardly condemn, and it raises moral questions about all sorts of things from the aforementioned magic to more mundane matters (though to call sex mundane seems, to say the least, odd).

Through her diary, which forms the text of the novel, we learn an awful lot about our narrator, Morwenna Phelps/Mori Markova.  As our viewpoint-character, we learn about her innermost thoughts and feelings, and there's a sense in which Mori is both old beyond her years but also incredibly young and naive; these two combine in really well-dealt with ways.  Mori is also a character who is influenced by what she reads strongly - thus we follow her exploration further into the depths of SFF and through this explore her evolving character as she matures and grows through the course of the novel, though she is by no means a child as it starts. The other characters don't tend to have the same emotional depth as Mori - Dan being perhaps an exception, with moments of real humanity shining out, though Mori does have a very self-centred attitude to the world and to him, interpreting his actions through her own light (a very human response, of course), and Sam, who has a genuine warmth to him and through whom Walton briefly explores a response to the Holocaust.  However, characters like Deidre, Gill, Sharon and Greg are significantly more two-dimensional; they have an important role to play in the plot, but that's about it - they play a role in advancing things, rather than being significant characters themselves.

The plot's a complex one - but then, that's because it draws together the different strands that make up Mori's experiences.  It combines parental conflict, school experience, the experience of being fostered, magic, relationships and that glorious exploration that is reading into one coherent whole; a large part of Walton's genius is taking so many strands and weaving them together, rather than tying them into knots or intertwining them, so that they remain connected or touching and yet at the same time separate.  Given that each deserves that attention and focus, and yet since they're focused on one person they can't be totally separated, this is a really tricky bit of writing, and Walton carries it off really well.

There are three elements of the novel that I want to talk about briefly before closing the review, not ones that I normally do.  First is the magic - which is all-pervading or nonexistent, practically, depending how you look at it.  This is a really brilliant trick, and one Walton is very explicit about: she avoids the flashy style of magic of much urban fantasy in favour of a more realistic, series-of-coincidences style, which really does make one question so much (after all... what could it have caused in your life?).  The second is the sex - or rather, general lack of it.  There are passing mentions, and this is a great medium, in a novel for young adults about a maturing woman; there is one point where I find some issues and which is potentially very triggering (Daniel's advances towards Mori - whilst Mori's response fits, it's a problematic message given certain problems in the world beyond the novel) but otherwise it's a sensible, moderated-Heinleinian approach to sex and sexuality.  Finally, the love of books and reading which drives so much of the plot; it's beautiful and well-integrated, so that we learn about books and authors from the characters, but Walton's love of these stories shines through so strongly as well (of course this is an semi-autobiographical novel, so that's unsurprising).

Overall, this is a fantastic novel; Among Others really deserves wider readership (and a UK publication date - I ordered my copy from the US via Waterstones), and Jo Walton deserves all the plaudits she's been receiving.
Because of a severe curtailment of internet for much of September and early October, there was no 3rd quarter round-up; this post will have to suffice in that capacity, and as such, it'll be somewhat... long.  As normal, however... cut for not-killing-your-reading-screen!
Ooo, numbers. Crunchy! )

There's also some trends of reading material to be picked out.  The Mistborn Trilogy and Long Price Quartet, among others, demonstrate that epic fantasy's having a resurgence in my reading material (that I've ordered Warbreaker and will be buying The Way of Kings soon mean this trend - and the Sanderson deluge - will be continuing); the various steampunk novels and anthologies show that that interest isn't going to be going away any time soon; and there's also a bit of a rise in the urban fantasy, albeit little of the stereotypical urban fantasy (that is, the Laurell K. Hamilton model) aside from the Butcher and Hanover novels.

Now, what were my favourite reads?  In no particular order, and with brief reasons given...6 choices, albeit 11 books )I also just want to thank everyone who read this blog, even those who only read it for one entry because Cherie Priest tweeted it (seriously, the jump in page-views after that was intense. Like, seriously); I probably won't renew the paid account, because it's just induced so much "why isn't anyone reading any more???", whilst I can already see LJ users who read the journal (and then look at who they are. Nice way to find authors and new friends, I reckon).

So folks, goodbye to 2010, welcome to 2011: a whole new reading year, and let it roll on!

This is, perhaps, more like clockpunk than steampunk, except for the focus of the story is on social status - it really does try and keep the punk in steampunk (something I've said before is often neglected).  Indeed, Pagliasotti's combination of themes - the plot, the social structure of Ondinium, the technology, and Taya's romance(s?) - match incredibly well with those covered a decade and a half before in The Difference Engine... although this novel makes it work rather better (eventually, that seminal novel will get a review!).

Clockwork Heart is very much a character driven novel; Taya, Alister, Cristof, et al. are all wonderful characters - Taya's very human feelings of love are put across really strongly, as are all her other feelings - this is almost a first-person novel, just with different syntax!  Indeed, Taya's character development is incredibly good - she does grow, and her entanglements at the end are really well done; her friendships and attachments are felt by the reader terribly strongly.  The other characters don't suffer for this - even when Taya obviously doesn't notice how someone is feeling, Pagliasotti makes sure the reader knows, and understands it - and this lets the other characters have some excellent personal growth.

The setting is an incredibly one; a combination of the London of The Difference Engine, a magical world with a lighter-than-air metal, and a caste-bound system that could be based on the British class system solidified or on the Indian caste system - or more likely a combination of the two.  It's a beautifully and lavishly realised world, and the exploration of it that the choice of an icarus (a flying messenger outside the caste system, using wings made of ondium, the lighter-than-air metal) allows Pagliassotti to go on with the reader is incredible, as we see almost every aspect of the society.  It's a wonderfully original and inventive idea, brilliantly realised and reified to be believeable even in its flights of fantasy.

Finally, the plot.  This is the one element of the novel I'm not going to rave about; it's a relatively (though not totally) straightforward plot, with one or two blinding twists and a few blind avenues for the reader, but mostly it's predictable - the characters you expect to be evil are, the characters you expect to be good are, and the whole thing sort of hangs together in a rather standard way.  There are some nice elements - and a couple of fun romances that just keep it moving - but whilst it's well-paced, it's nothing new or unexpected.

So, my conclusion? The plot may not be inspired (though it's not actually uninspired), but there's so much to recommend this book that that fact falls rather by the wayside; I loved reading this novel, and was incredibly impressed - an amazing piece of work, truly wonderful. its cover and, indeed, otherwise.  I was asked to say the five things that make me pick up a book and read it, so here they are; this'll probably give you some idea of why I read the books that I do, I guess.

Because I shop online as much as via offline bookshops ( and Waterstones store do incredibly well out of me...), the factors that motivate me can be somewhat different to those that motivate most; equally, because of my online reading habits, my choices are affected by the blogs I read.

So, first and foremost, I look for books by authors I enjoy - thus, I read novels by Terry Pratchett, Jay Lake, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Daniel Abraham &c.; Seasons of War and Trial of Flowers are in my (large) pile of to-be-read novels, for instance.  That's because authors I like are, indeed, authors I like; if they've written a book I enjoyed, it's worth finding other novels they've written to see if it's an exception or the rule. Quite useful, really.

Similarly, novels of a specific genre - steampunk and new weird - are sought out; various online articles assemble books from the movements, and running down those lists gives a set of novels that I should look out for (thus the current glut of steampunk, in part motivated by the foundation of BRASS).  So if Amazon, Waterstones, or a blog calls it steampunk; if the title sounds steampunk; if the cover looks steampunk... then I might well buy it.

I also look at reviews; especially those on Graeme's Fantasy Book Review; thus, if he recommends a novel I (with reservations) will probably pick it up at some point in the future - Graeme's tastes and mine, whilst overlapping, aren't the same, and thus I take his reviews with a pinch of salt.  So I tend to think about those reviews, amongst other review blogs, before buying; but they form a large part of it.

Next, things that catch my eye online; John Scalzi's Big Idea feature on Whatever is probably the biggest influence on this, but other authors recommend books, and has its own set of recommendations for me based on buying history as well as its own set of books-bought-by-viewers-of-this-item; those give me ideas of books to read, let me find them, and give me a decent amount of information about them and their kind - which means I might well buy them.

Finally, I have to say, I do judge books by their covers. When I'm in Waterstones - more often than I should be, I accept! - I'll look through the Science Fiction & Fantasy section (ever shrinking, and ever being replaced by "Dark Fantasy" and "Dark Romance". Depressing, but true) and browse the covers to see what catches my eye.  If a title or author interests me, I'll pull it off the shelves, read the blurb, look at the cover, and see who's blurbed it; if it's authors I enjoy and respect, then it tends to move me towards buying, as does the publisher (Angry Robot Books have a habit of publishing interesting novels worth reading, for instance).  So the cover's a large factor if I'm browsing around in Waterstones.

So, there's the five main factors in the books I pick up and read.  Any questions?
Having put my oar into the discussion about the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel in this post (all the books were reviewed under the hugo2010 tag), I feel I should probably report that the winners were announced this morning (or, in the timezone of AussieCon4, where they were announced, last night).

China Miéville's The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl jointly won the Hugo Award; whilst I'm very happy at the Miéville victory, I'm rather more disappointed (though unsurprised) by the worthy, but poor, Windup Girl being awarded.  I must say that I'm rather annoyed that Julian Comstock didn't win; as I've said, I thought it was by far the best novel on the ballot, and it really deserved to win - I'll be interested to see how the voteshares fell out amongst the six nominees.

Either way, congratulations to all the nominees, and moreso to China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi.

The full list of nominees can be found here, and results will I believe be posted there at some nebulous future point.
This is advertised in many places as a steampunk novel; I would quite categorically state that it's no such thing.  It fits well into the category of new weird, and perhaps of urban fantasy - the city's a better character than any of those we're meant to think of as characters, honestly - but it's not steampunk, single airship notwithstanding.

The city is indeed a fantastic creation; Ararat is a city that stretches from horizon to horizon, in little districts, each with personalities, lots of petty rulers with pretensions to greater things; the inhabitants as a whole and the gods of the city - created by the beliefs and expectations of said inhabitants, sort of - are a fantastic creation, original and well-explored in the novel (to the expense of characters and plot, perhaps?).  They're fascinating things that drive the plot very strongly; the book is more an exploration of a setting and the implications and concepts within it than anything else, but that does take us on some wonderful and incredible journeys.

The fact that the rest of the book is a bit of a letdown is, then, a terrible... well... letdown.  The characters are very flat - whilst the obsessions driving Jack and Arjun give them some life, and at times can inject some real power into their character, the way they rise and fall and surface and vanish so oddly really removes a lot of their power; similarly the single-aspect nature of every character is just a drag, predictable as it rapidly becomes ("I know this aspect therefore I know this character! yay!").

The plot's a little more complex, but it relies a lot on deus ex machina to make it work, and on simply handwaving things away - a lot happens in the background, a lot is just said "yeah this happens" through rumour and newspaper headlines.  If we were given more information and background, or if we were given more hard facts, or even if the characters were simply more inquisitive, then the plot would work a lot better; as it is, it relies far too much on hand-waving and events just happening.

So whilst conceptually it's an interesting, indeed, fascinating book, the execution is very lacking.
This darkly comic fantasy by Howard is at once very blackly funny and very moving; despite the thick-and-fast one liners, and the punchy, well-paced humour this book has some serious heart - a lot of it residing in the breast of one Johannes Cabal, necromancer.  It's this aspect of his character that is most curious and most revealing, and it's also the aspect that makes the book more than simply thick-and-fast jokes but something actually affecting, even if it isn't obvious at times.

Howard's characters are, at first glance, a little stereotypical; indeed, Johannes Cabal's first appearance is intentionally stereotypical, as he wears a black frock coat, black cravat, and so on.  It's a little pastiche, but the characters do end up developing very much independently of each other, to become characters in their own right - even the brainless zombies have their own little foibles and modes of speech and habit that make them stand out from the background crowd, most of whom aren't that backgroundy.  Indeed, this is where Howard's real skill lies; he can humanise Satan and Cabal, he can humanise anyone.

The plot's relatively uncomplicated; a Faustian bargain, with an out negotiated by Cabal himself. It's that out that's the interesting element; Cabal must gather a hundred souls for Satan in exchange for the return of his own. Indeed, the plot revolves around the gathering of those souls, and Cabal's encounters with humans and demons alike who want to cause him trouble - it's an interesting, and oftentimes hilarious, setup that leads to much by way of low-grade evil and little by way of seriousness; there's some laugh-aloud moments too, in how Cabal gets contracts signed.

All in all, then, the humour, characters, and plot - especially the final twist at the end, a huge one that I refuse to spoiler because it's so awesome (if, by then, a little obvious) - combine to create a really original, and hilarious, modern fantasy.
Gav Thorpe's non-Black Library debut, released by Angry Robot Books, doesn't deviate much from his work inside the Games Workshop stable; that is, it is military, it is political, it is gritty, it is fantasy, it has strong characters, it has magic, and it is clearly Thorpe.  Arguably strongly influenced by writers like Joe Abercrombie, it is of a piece with the fantasy movement that he has come to represent; not one I am a strong fan of, but one that I can enjoy.

The Crown of the Blood is a very well-plotted and well-constructed book; the politics and military elements meld well together and the character-driven plot is exceedingly well-paced, pushing ahead without overlooking the more dull elements of military campaign (there's a nice bit about waiting being the worst part, done in a fresh enough way to not be clichéd!) and moving slowly enough to let us get to know the characters and get attached to them.  The fact that it's, in some ways, such a simple plot is therefore very disappointing; and one or two inconsistencies or plotholes are a little too glaring to overlook.

Thorpe's characters really are a selling-point though.  He uses them to drive the novel, with the general Ullsaard, his noble friend Noran, the merchant Anglhan and the slave-then-soldier Gelthius being our main foci; the ambition of Ullsaard (driven by a not-really-concealed revelatory plottwist about half-way through the novel) is what drives the strife and conflict that fuel the fires of war in the story, and all the characters mentioned above with their own motivations see the novel through to its end, giving the various points of view on the conflict and their own feelings and opinions, making the novel rather more flavoursome than otherwise.

Where the novel does fall down is worldbuilding; changing the directions and names, but otherwise using the (late) Roman empire and world, is not really the best way to get a reader into your world - it's not new, it's not terribly interesting, and when your desert savages are called the Mekha it really can throw the reader out of the book a little.

Worldbuilding aside, then, this is an absolutely fantastic novel; I recommend it.

The Crown of the Blood is released in the UK on September 2nd.  This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Angry Robot Books
This is an incredible little novella from Subterranean Press, quite stunningly up to - if not exceeding - the standards set by Ted Chiang in Stories of Your Lives. Thoughts on artificial intelligence, the development of emotion and indeed maturity, the raising and education of children - human or otherwise, and on love are wonderfully put across; and yet, the intellectual content never overwhelms but instead compliments the joy of the essentially human characters (the "digients" as much as the homo sapiens).

Chiang's novella, rather like his short stories, is really about the characters.  All of them - especially Ana, Jax, Derek, Marco and Polo - are wonderfully portrayed; we see them through the eyes, mostly, of Ana and Derek, and through them a whole host of other characters are introduced to the reader and we learn about their inter-relations through the interactions of Ana, Derek, and the digients mostly.  Chiang's story is incredibly well written; despite never seeing other characters, we really get a strong sense of them, and their effects on others - it's beautifully human.

The setting is also wonderful; it's very believable - a sort of Second Life taken further, not the cyberpunk of (for instance) William Gibson but a more idealised setting, though nothing like Star Trek either. The technology is believable and well-dealt with, and the corporations are still very corporate (with some exceptions, which seem to have more cares for people than others).  It's never described in immense detail, but as an extension of modern virtual worlds - World of Warcraft especially - it's a nicely done one.

Finally, the plot; there's two plots, really - the struggle of the humans in preserving their digients (artificial intelligences with cute, childlike avatars) and the raising of those digients themselves.  The two come together to form a sort of third plot of the relationship between Ana and Derek, which is interesting and very heartfelt; Chiang makes the three plots work incredibly well, and makes the reader believe that the author could have been through it all - as either Derek or Ana.  The last moments of the story are incredibly heartbreaking, and it builds up to a powerful, awful end.

All in all, Chiang has kept to his incredible standards with an amazing, wonderful novella.  Absolutely unbelievably brilliant. I recommend it widely.
This steampunk comedy of manners romance novel is a sort of mishmash of the shelves of a particularly odd Waterstones; Carriger has combined The Difference Engine, Jeeves and Mills and Boon into one strange hybrid of a novel with elements of each - not always the best elements, I have to admit.  As an exercise in demonstrating the concept, it's good; as a novel, I have more mixed feelings, however.

Carriger is undeniably a good writer of characters; Miss Tarabotti, Lord Maccon, Professor Lyall et al. are interesting and well written figures with strong characters and interesting character traits - for instance Lord Akeldama's terribly campy speech patterns and style are carried off well without being cloying, and the fact that they are so clearly put on (he switches out of them for authoritarian effect incredibly well, and Carriger makes the switches relatively seamless) and Prof. Lyall's world-weary, wise Beta.  Some characters are rather less well written - the villains, in essence - but that doesn't detract from the strength of, especially, her heroine.

The plot's a little less enjoyable; it relies far too much on the romantic element for my tastes, and the intrigue and disappearances that form the centre of it are left to a little footnote, in many ways - what I would regard as the central plot is more like a device for Carriger's romance between Maccon and Tarabotti.  The plot itself is interesting, mostly advanced at third-hand, and works rather well as the underlying theme of the novel, but that's in itself the problem - it's the underlying theme, not the central element; I think the emphasis here is a serious problem for readers like me.

Finally, Carriger's worldbuilding.  This is one element of the book that I undeniably enjoyed; the Hamilton-style integration of natural and supernatural beings under the law of the land is well-done and the set-up of the steampunk elements is inserted seamlessly into the novel here.  Indeed, Carriger's worldbuilding expertise is part Hamilton-style urban fantasy and part Gibson/Sterling-style steampunk, and the two combine into an effective and well-written whole.

All in all, the worldbuilding is let down depressingly by the plot and romance... a miss, in my opinion.

This is a good novel; a crime-thriller, with more than a hint of Blade Runner and very influenced by MacLeod's religious politics and the modern religio-political atmosphere, Night Sessions is a well-rounded novel in the style of writers like Ian Rankin.  The difference is, of course, that MacLeod dares to imagine the future, and the crimes - and world - that we'll inhabit.

The characters are somewhat typical for a detective novel - the Kinky Kazakh (a wonderful character) excluded - in that they fulfil the necessary archetypes to keep it moving, keep it on the right wavelength, and keep it troped up.  MacLeod's not exactly reinventing the wheel with Ferguson, Campbell, Skulk et al. but he is using them more effectively than many, equally trope-ridden writers would; that alone is somewhat praise-worthy.

His plot's rather better, and more convoluted, bringing high-concept technology, religious fundamentalism, and terrorism together in a wonderful way; his various groups, plots, individuals and plans run together and apart and clash wonderfully interestingly, and the complexity just keeps on growing as the novel proceeds at roughly the pace of a freight train. He ties all the elements - the secularism, the post-religious world, the post-global energy crisis world, and the post-American hegemony - together to create a plot that draws on the whole planet to come to its explosive conclusion.

A good, fast-paced thrilling read.

This is the first novel in the Long Price Quartet, Dan Abraham's great epic fantasy series.  Obviously, then, this has to tick all the boxes of starting an epic fantasy series: worldbuilding, lavish descriptions, somewhat two-dimensional characters, songs, destiny-based plots, Tolkeinian magic systems, and wise mages.  However, if you've read Leviathan Wept And Other Stories then you'll know one thing about Dan Abraham: A Shadow in Summer is not going to be remotely that predictable... and it doesn't disappoint.

Abraham's characters are incredible; Itani, Maati, Heshai, Amat, Seedless et al.  They're individuals, within a culture with an Eastern tint; actually, it's a very Eastern tint, with an addition of Abraham's own. That's worldbuilding, though - skip to the next paragraph to learn about that!  The characters are all wonderfully human; they're different, individual, flawed, emotional, confused and confusing.  They make decisions that aren't always sensible, they fight for what they believe - or what they believe they are forced to, they don't necessarily act logically but often act well, and the andat Seedless is inhuman in a very wonderfully human way.  I'm drawn to these characters - "heroes" and "villains" (there's neither, really - it's just different points of view, as Seedless makes clear on a few occasions whilst talking to Maati) alike; they're incredibly real.

The worldbuilding is incredibly complex, and portrayed brilliantly.  Abraham has invented a language of poses, and rather than describe the poses and expect us to remember them, or throw information at us about how it developed, he just uses it; characters take the appropriate stance and Abraham tells us what it conveys, rather than anything else.  The nature of the setting is gently oriental, and absolutely beautiful; it's wonderfully described, the city of Saraykeht lives and breathes as much as the characters.  The magic of the setting, in the form of the poets and their andat, is also beautifully portrayed; introduced in the introduction, new aspects of the system appears over the course of the novel wonderfully.  Amazingly, for such a beautiful and detailed setting, Abraham manages to avoid infodumps; he lets us discover, over the course of the novel, the nature of the setting naturally, and it works really well.

Finally, the plot.  This is incredibly complex, drawing in all sorts of characters and elements; it draws various boundaries and groups which are never fixed and always fluid, with different aims and different knowledge.  Abraham keeps all the strands in line wonderfully, making sure they're consistent and cross over sensibly; indeed, the complexity isn't really noticeable by the reader until the end, because until that point Abraham's pace and writing style carry the novel so fluidly and quickly that whilst the complexity is there, it's not overwhelming.  It's got unexpected plot twists and is advanced not by destiny or characters acting without free will, but by the choices of the individuals who make up the story in a wonderful - and rare - way.

All in all, this is an incredible and novel debut, and having also read A Betrayal in Winter I'm very glad to have Seasons of War waiting for me at home after I return from holiday - I want to know what happens to all the characters! An absolutely fantastic novel. Go and buy it (or buy Shadow and Betrayal, containing A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter) now!
Charles Stross’ 3rd novel in the brilliant Laundry series is on a par with The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue, the preceding novels in the sequence. Once more we’re following Bob Howard in his battles with ISO 9000 standards, managers, auditors, and Lovecraftian horrors from beyond this dimension trying to eat his soul and mind…
This outing with Howard is possibly his darkest and most damaging yet. It opens with a well-deserved warning; however horrific Jennifer Morgue got, and whatever Howard had to do, The Fuller Memorandum goes beyond and makes it worse; Stross has conjured up some seriously awful situations for Howard to end up in, including kidnapped by crazed cultists and (once more) up in front of the Auditors – for something worse than ever before.
The plot’s the usual conceit – double-dealing, backstabbing, betrayal from unexpected sources, mind-eating horrors, computer geekery, domestic drudgery, zombie assassins, and Russian FSB agents dabbling with the occult and playing both sides off against the middle. We learn much more about Angleton, Howard’s boss, and about the Laundry, as well as the various threats-from-beyond that Howard has to deal with in this novel; the world of the Laundry is, in fact, given more fleshing out (perhaps an ill choice of term…) and background than it has ever yet had before, and Stross does it beautifully. The plot advances with our knowledge, and whilst some developments are obvious to a reader Howard himself also learns them (even if he doesn’t tell us, he acts on what he knows). Despite this, Stross still throws some serious curveballs; he’s a bit of a genius in that regard, dropping sudden switches on us at a moments notice.
All in all then, this latest outing of our favourite computer geek cum warrior against the Beings Beyond is a brilliant piece of work; whilst one does have to have read the previous novels in a sequence to get all the references and jokes, that’s a pleasure to do anyway! Highly recommended.
This book was won in a contest run by Graeme of Graeme’s Fantasy Book Reviews.
Childhood's End is a complex novel of futurism and of alien contact; as with most Clarke novels, it tries to predict future technology and human and society, and also to look at the next stage of human evolution. Indeed, Clarke's novel would answer the Fermi Paradox quite neatly: When we're at the right stage, aliens will contact us - but not before. The reader will, then, be able to tell (if they didn't already know by Clarke's reputation) that this is a high-concept and intellectual novel not to be approached or entered into lightly.

Clarke's characters are well-portrayed and well rounded out; the set of characters are individuals, with different ambitions, emotions, thoughts and speech-patterns; they each act and react very differently to the appearance of the Overlords that is the central conceit of the novel.  The Overlords themselves are, indeed, very human aliens; intentionally so, although certain aspects of their alien nature are terribly alien.  Clarke creates a truly believable scenario with the interactions between human and alien, as well as between human and human.

The plot advances quite rapidly, slowly revealing more about the aliens and their motives for being on earth; there are some wonderful twists in there, with the motives being not remotely what one might expect - especially of so powerful an alien species.  The nature of their purpose is alluded to subtly throughout the book, and the title itself is demonstrated - in multiple ways - at the end.  Clarke also uses the plot to get some scientific, and pseudo-scientific, ideas across about things like racial memory; his world of 1975 is also rather different to the one that actually existed in '75, so it's an interesting set of predictions to see where he was right... and where not.

Overall, it's an intellectually stimulating and rather brilliant novel; I'd recommend it.


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February 2012

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