David Anthony Durham's Acacia is the first in a series of fantasy novels - I could say tomes, this one weighs in at 687 pages all told - set in a world reminiscent of our own; parallels abound, especially to the British Empire amongst others.  All in all, it is purely a work of fantasy despite these reminiscent touches, with a take-home message of the futility of the ideal against the real world.

Durham's work is akin to Martin's in the focus on multiple characters, although he uses less of these, in the world-spanning nature of the conflict, although it has far greater import than the petty internecice squabbles of A Song of Fire and Ice, and the killing of characters is better done and with more meaning to the other characters.  So basically, like Martin with more magic and better.

The characters really are sympathetic, even the "evil" ones - they have their drives and motivations, they have their reasons, and from their point of view they aren't evil. They all have their own unique personality, and Durham, possibly because he comes from outside the "ghetto" of SFF having entered it from "real literature", seems not to have indulged in the stereotypes and tropes without wholly throwing them out either; he's used the best of literature and the best of SFF to good advantage. Handling his plot well, Durham's worked incredibly well to create a lovely story.

I'm certainly going to pick up the second book when I can, and would recommend this as either an entry to the series or, as a standalone novel, a great work in it's own right.

I'd like to note that this is going to be the last post tagged or named as part of the Quest; I've done with that now - rather than separating out works written by non-white, non-male, and/or non-straight authors of science fiction or fantasy from the rest of my reviews, although of course I won't stop reading works by those authors or seeking them out.
I shouldn't class Bear as Quest any more, since reading her work is hardly discovering the work of new female or non-white authors any more.  However, her Ink and Steel was as enjoyable as any of her other work and perhaps more so by its new approach to some of England's most beloved playwrights, Kit Marlowe and William Shakespeare.  Ink & Steel is a tale of Elizabethan England after the death of Marlowe - in this story, an attempted murder thwarted by a Faerie courtier - and the Faerie realms, full of political intrigue, love thwarted, devilry, and the power of poetry.

Bear paints wonderful portraits of familiar characters, original and new with her own inimitable stamp - and that includes a now-characteristic homosexuality - that are lovable, flawed, and powerful; she draws them through events both historical and less so, peopled by characters both historically well documented and otherwise, and in so doing she creates a wonderfully populated world.  Her plot is delicately drawn, and neatly created; the one thing I would say is that it perhaps relies overmuch on Faerie, and less on Elizabeth, than I would have liked, but that's pure preference.  She also runs a stream of wicked humour throughout, with wonderful lines and jokes; even the archaic mode of speech, affected throughout the novel, becomes less cloying and annoying rapidly enough, to become simply another way to draw one into the story and on through one's reading of it.

All in all a lovely novel that makes me want to buy the sequel immediately.

Short Story Reviews )
Anthology as a whole, edited/selected by John Joseph Adams
This is an interesting selection of stories, perhaps skimping some on hard scifi but otherwise taking in every subgenre of the general SF type; it’s an interesting mix of authors and styles, not all to my tastes but introducing me to some new authors, which is always good. Overall an excellent piece; well done to Mr. Adams.
So, this’ll be my last review for a while I reckon; the next book on my list is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, 1000+ pages long, and small close type, so that’ll keep me busy for a while I hope. See you all at the other end!
Elizabeth Bear is a genius.  A well-educated, Norse-obsessed genius.  All the Windwracked Stars (and thanks for the book, Dave :D ) is a work of futuristic Norse mythology; Ragnarok treated as a future thing.  Bear's got some very fun ideas in this novel and ties them in well with the Norse framework that she's working within; she draws strongly on old traditions and brings in more modern ideas and even neopaganistic matters, without losing the basis.

She also creates interesting characters; no flat two-dimensional vikings, big-breasted singing Valkyries, or weak and foolish humans these, but actual characters, weak and strong alike, with their own individual strengths.  The main characters are a mix of races and types and are painted well and vividly, in fact they are interesting beings whom we sympathise with despite of course being utterly unalike with; and Bear's ideas of service are also fascinating stuff, looked at in here.

All in all a well-painted world with an interesting take on Norse mythology as it rises into the future. Given that the sequel is recently out, I have high hopes for it.
Gail Z. Martin's The Summoner is the first book in a series, the Chronicles of the Necromancer, and as such must be judged in that context.  It's a decent fantasy novel - that is, it introduces its fantastical elements (such as the vayash moru - vampires, basically - and magic) effectively, and builds the world with fantastic sweeping travel scenes a la Lord of the Rings. It also manages the task of setting its plot-elements in motion, and setting the dominoes up to knock them down in sequence... and the characters are good.

However, almost all of it feels like something I've read before; the book assembles the cliches and uses them well, but they remain cliches of the genre, and at least in the first novel of her sequence Martin hasn't done anything different with the cliches.  She goes as far as the female healer and the warrior-woman being incorporated into the group - and thinking about it, that might be what this reminds me of: a D&D campaign. All the archetypal roles in a party are filled, they have a series of adventures, the party dynamics are complex and perhaps touchy, but all in all it's a D&D campaign in prose form and without the metagaming; though Martin appears to occasionally be nudge-nudge, wink-winking at the reader.

A decent read, but not, I think, enough to make me buy the next book.
I had, of course, read some Le Guin before - the Earthsea Quartet (Quintet, I suppose) has been on my shelves for many, many years and may even have been the second fantasy epic I read after the Lord of the Rings (Hobbit included in that for the sake of simplicity).  However, this is the first piece of her science fiction that I've ever read, and I must say that The Left Hand of Darkness is hardly overhyped.  It's not the easiest book to get into - it starts slowly, has a lot of politics and some very odd shifts of perspective (mostly written first-person, there comes a point where it switches for the first time and you don't instantly realise that fact) but the 240-page novel is very rewarding.

Taken as hard science fiction, it doesn't have much - but as a piece of anthropological science fiction, as a study of humanity and of how people interact, it's stunning; by shining the light on a fictional group of humans who are essentially ungendered, it looks at human perceptions of gender in the modern world; it also shines light on all sorts of other areas, including a pastiche of Soviet-style bureaucracy and something that might be a fictionalised Anglo-Saxon capitalism, although that might be throwing interpretation too far.  Its characters - I should say her characters, this being Le Guin's novel - are engaging and interesting, although all too often only appear in brief; and we know little, if anything, about most of them and this keeps the reader going.  Mysteries are never fully resolved, and the truth isn't ever really out there, but that doesn't matter; at the end we, as the reader, have as much resolution as the characters - and it's explicit that this isn't total.

We get some really good descriptive work as well - Le Guin is a master of the adjective, and her prose is clear and lucid without being overburdened by adjectives whilst also painting a vivid world and, within that world, events with clear but not too fine brush-strokes; the reader has enough space to interpret and read, creating for themselves the world.  All in all, a seminal piece of science fiction - I recommend it highly.

Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake novels are a known name in the world of urban fantasy, and for good reason.  The first, Guilty Pleasures, is an archetypal example of the genre in many ways, although it does have some tricks up it's sleeves.

However, for all that it is archetypal and famous, that doesn't actually make it good.  It's definitely readable, but the title refers as much to the novel's content as to the plot; it seamlessly melds fantastical elements to a pulp-urban setting in a manner that, whilst eminently enjoyable, isn't intellectual or new.  In fact it strikes me that there's a lot of work in the book in actively avoiding worldbuilding; we learn early on that vampires are a recognised part of the world, but the implications of that are never really analysed in the book; the implications of reanimation, similarly, are avoided almost totally.  In fact, in terms of world building, Hamilton does as little as possible in terms of implications and this, to me, makes the book a lot weaker.

As for the characters, they're simply typical urban fantasy characters.  Strong-and-vulnerable female lead who has survived a lot including a mysterious past, wounded by the creatures she now hunts... psychotic male who will do anything for the fun of killing, and will kill anything which is a challenge... really, it's the cast of various books by people from Butcher to Powers and all sorts of others besides.

Even the plot doesn't stand out much; predictable twists and turns, the only thing that just about saves the book is a strong descriptive style.  However, that isn't enough to recommend it; a vivid novel has to have more than just lavish descriptions, and that's what this book has - even when it makes little sense in terms of the plot.

A weak read although, if we are honest, perhaps representative of the genre as a whole in that regard (though I hasten to add I've not read a perfectly representative sample).  Not something I, personally, would recommend.
Innocent Mage is the first book in a pair, the Kingmaker-Kingbreaker sequence, by Karen Miller.  Following the story of Asher, Gar, and Danthe, mainly, the book's a very involved read.  However, it plays it's cards a tad too close to its chest; there's more revelations about the world and the background in the last hundred pages than the precceeding five hundred, which really just serve as setup and character-painting.

The problem with that is there have to be infodumps, there's strange incongruities, and things just don't seem to work.  It's well written and well done, the politics of the story are interesting, but that last hundred-page change just seems to switch things around massively, which means the rug is pulled out from under us; and the cliffhanger that finishes the book is, to my mind, poorly executed.

I'm interested to see where it goes because the characters are interesting, if a bit stereotyped, so I'll read the second book, but I don't think I'd actually recommend this one to anyone...

Holly Phillips' The Engine's Child is, to say the least, a strange book, on so many levels.  It's not quite steampunk, but definitely incorporates elements of that; it's not Victorianan scifi, because it's got far too much of the fantastic for that; it's something which I would, could, and will compare only with China Mieville because it's got more than a touch of the same kind of technomagical relationship.

The world is pretty vivid, with a culture that's definitely more non-Westernesque than Western in some ways but in others is oh-so-Western; it's based on various principles and ideas that just don't fit with modern Western society, though I suspect Judaism has had something of an effect on the culture - the ideas of an exile from heaven to no one can ever return, the cult which believes in the return to it, has a taste of 19th Century Jewry with the Zionist group within the overall religion.  The nature of the city and it's life is also well-painted, with stark divisions and the effects of those divisions deeply looked into for how they can be portrayed and incorporated into the story.

The characters are well-drawn and, after a little while to warm up, can be connected to well; the sole problem is that Phillips holds her twists and turns in reserve, so we know very little about any of our characters at the start of the book and that makes them hard to truly connect with.  However, as the book goes on twists and turns - mostly very sudden and completely unexpected - come up that tell us more about the characters over time, and in such new ways, that overall this book keeps you reading it just to find out who these people really are after all the mystery and deception is stripped away.

I tend to re-read books.  A lot.  However, I've not been reviewing books that I'm rereading so far - for instance, I read Making Money by Terry Pratchett for the nth time recently, and I've not mentioned that here.  So do y'all want me to start reviewing rereads (and if I do, do you want me to still be very leery of spoilering)? comment and say.

Also, y'all who actually read my reviews, what're you thinking of them? How could I be more helpful to y'all?  Do you actually enjoy them?

Answers on a postcard... or more usefully, in a comment.
Amanda Downum's debut novel is the first in a trilogy promisingly titled The Necromancer Chronicles.  There's a lot of cliches floating around about how best to "do" necromancy, but I think that The Drowning City gets it right; it doesn't swing too far to the zombies-and-skeletons style whilst also making necromancy actually have a decent amount of power and not, for instance, turning it into another form of divination with added spookiness.

Actually, the whole world Downum creates is beautiful; it's richly populated, the politics are complex and the characters are very real, and very complex (dare I say it, they're a tad ****ed up).  Downum draws on various traditions in building her world, from across our own, as well as more than a couple of wholly unique elements; and the city of the title is somewhere between Venice and New Orleans, with a culture nearer the latter but a nature nearer the former.

A tad more, perhaps, on the characters.  We see this story from, at varying times, three or four different and unique viewpoints, all with their own prejudices and ideas, and all with different goals; and yet we're connected to all the characters, even when they're in conflict.  It's the sort of well-done book that draws you in and holds you there solidly, only releasing you after a few hours of reading when you look up at the end of the book and wonder where the time went.  When I bought this, I wasn't sure if I'd like it, but with a fast-paced, complex and twisty plot (one or two moments are possibly too cliche or foreshadowed, although others turn cliches on their heads) and characters stunningly easy to connect to this has to be one of the best books I've read this year.
So, my prior review of Companion to Wolves was a bit... um... not abortive.  Not quite.

Just... incoherent.

So, this was clearly an excellent book and one that's getting a re-read as soon as my backlog of books it slightly more cleared and I have time (what's that you say? Given university that'll be years? No!).  To give a quick synopsis, CtW combines aspects of Pern (such as bonding - in this case to animals called trellwolves, basically huge wild wolves long ago bonded to men) with aspects of Norse mythology (trolls, wyverns, icy wastes, and svartalfs) and it takes on some interesting concepts such as sexuality and gender.

The story is a good one; Njoll goes to the wolfheall despite his father's wishes and, bonding with Viradechtis the bitch-wolf, becomes Isolfr.  Fighting of trolls ensues and full-blown war breaks out... with all that entails.  It's told from Isolfr's point of view in third person, but of course the bond with Vriadechtis and the wolfheall pack gives us a whole extra set of perspectives... and an interesting set of senses; or perhaps an extension of senses that we don't exercise and use that much.  The bond with Viradechtis is well-used and well-developed, with an interesting note in there.  Viradechtis is not intelligent, per se; oh, she's not your average wolf, and is smart, but she's actually not intelligent.  Very personlike, and actually very personable - try reading the book and not, so some extent, falling in love with Isolfr and Viradechtis both - but the latter remains a trellwolf throughout.

The book's very vivid; you feel as though you are Isolfr whilst reading, and that means you're sucked in.  This could be a problem for some readers in certain scenes - the nature of the wolfheall and bond means male-male sex is a non-minor feature of the book - but those scenes are described as much in terms of feelings as actual physical acts, and they make interesting and rapid reading whilst not taking over the book or turning it into porn.  Battles are bloody and you can, in fact, get that feeling, which is very powerful; but Bear & Monette control the action and don't let it go on too long, because this isn't a book about battle or war or sex or anything but Isolfr and his love for Viradechtis and the wolfheall.

I mentioned earlier that this book takes on gender-issues; the svartalfs are genderless.  The effects of this, and implications, aren't well covered - and similarly, the effects of meeting a genderless peoples on Isolfr are little-covered, but in a book that stands at little over 300 pages dealing with that would have taken time not really available.  However, since a sequel seems to be in the works, and possibly one focussing on the svartalfs, that might change; I can but hope, yes?

All in all thoroughly recommended; I had a wonderful time reading this book.

So, I read Companion to Wolves.

Oh, wow.

Oh, wow.

No, really, wow.

The book's vivid, graphic, powerful; you can feel and see and hear and even scent what's happening, you empathise with the characters, I fell in love with Njall/Isolfr and with Viradechtis and with so many of the wolfcarls that it's just a shame to have to finish the story.

Honestly, I don't have much to say except I was completely bowled over by this story, which is written pretty near perfectly... other than maybe, "Please, misses, may I have some more?"

So I finished Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice today.  Honestly, there wasn't that much unique about it - and all too often it isn't because it set the trope.  That's not to say it's a bad book, because it isn't; but I'm not sure I liked or empathised with Fitz, or really got into his head, and in a book written in first person that's a major failing.  The writing style didn't draw me in and it felt somehow stilted - I don't know why, but reading this book was almost more work than pleasure.  However, the intrigue and cross-play of the politics in the final chapters I did enjoy; I just wish she'd not spent a book of 500 pages building up to this really good bit that only lasted about 100, with the rest serving as mere introduction.

I've started Monette/Bear's Companion to Wolves.  So far, so awesome - stunning story stunning told, really well done and I'm loving the pack-psychology that's worked in there.   An amazing read so far, I just hope the other 80% of the book is up to the same standard...
So, a quick report on my search for female/PoC authored SFF.  PoC, so far, has been a bust, but female, not so much.

Purchases: Elizabeth Bear's Hammered, Marie Brennan's In Ashes Lie, Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice, Holly Phillips' Engine's Child, and Companion to Wolves coauthored by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear.
Pre-existing books on shelves to be reread: Mercedes Lackey's By The Sword, Jean M Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, and Gail Z. Martin's The Summoner.

So far, I've read 2 of these and am about to start on the Hobb; I'll give a brief opinion on each of them as I go, just a quick review, and next time I get a few books which fit into the Quest.

So, Bear's Hammered was a nice piece crossing genre lines; a touch of space opera, a touch of specfic, a touch of Hard SF, and a strong dosof noirish detective novel, the plot moves at a fair lick rolling along.  The writing keeps you engaged, and Bear creates some very sympathetic but fun characters with their mysteries.  Cards held close her chest, Bear's very good at pulling effective reveals and switching things around on reader and characters alike.  I'd recommend it to any science fiction reader.

Marie Brennan's In Ashes Lie is a very different piece of work; a sequel to a novel I've not read, I think I may have missed some subtext but very little.  It hews close to historical events, namely the run up to the Civil War through to the Great Fire of London, weaving fantastical and fey elements together in a way that leaves history coherent and pretty together.  It's a series of very brief, very small snapshots and covers a long period of time, with politicking as well as well-executed "pure" action scenes; some of the characters are very symapthetic, but perhaps too many are one-dimensional.  As a republican (please note that small-r, it's important) the book has a bit too much of a Royalist tilt to it, but that doesn't make it still very readable. An enjoyable historical fantasy.
Around a week ago, I put my foot into my mouth on Elizabeth Bear's LJ, in a post about female and non-white SFF authors.  Looking over my (SFF) bookshelves (it's less true of my classical bookshelves, oddly), it's noticeable that if I actually look into the writers there's a serious overrepresentation of white, Western European/American male authors; there are some (a small number of) female authors there (mostly the "obvious" names like Le Guin and McCaffrey), and a few non-Western writers like Asimov (Russian) and Lukyanenko (also Russian).

But overwhelmingly - probably entirely, but there's a few out there who I don't know the heritages of, and won't try and guess them - my bookshelf is "white".  It's also overwhelmingly male, but in part forgiveably (of 6 shelves, Asimov and Pratchett take up a third...).  FList! Help me!  What SFF books by non-white, or better yet non-Western-culture-raised authors, and by females, and by females who are non-white and/or were raised in non-Western cultures, would y'all recommend to me?


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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