Sign up for my newsletter to be among the first to learn of upcoming titles!

[books] A Cats Steampunk Alphabet Book

As the introduction (written by me) to A Cats Steampunk Alphabet Book says:

About four years ago, I mentioned on my blog that a steampunk abecedary would be a very cool thing. It started out literally as a joke, a bloggy game of the kind I like to play with my readers from time to time. Except in the real world jokes have a way of taking on a life of their own, mutating and metastasizing into things the originally wiseacre might never recognize.

This thing is goofy, cute and in a weird way, pretty cool. The Buzzfeed post on it shows off the graphics and layout. Me, I’m just highly amused that a project like this could actually come to market, and pleased to see it succeeding.

Check it out.

[books] The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling

I just finished reading Lynn Flewelling‘s book The Bone Doll’s TwinPowells | BN ]. That was a fun and creepy book.

Now, usually in my lexicon “fun” and “creepy” don’t have a high overlap. I’ve never been a big fan of horror movies, for example. Yet I do like reading both New Weird and dark fantasy as subgenres, so clearly this isn’t a profound impediment to my ability to enjoy literature.

Flewlling’s book is fantasy of the “hidden prince” theme, except with some pretty strange twists. She’s not afraid to go to the most darkly logical corners of the arc her plot and characters follow. That’s part of the fun. The sheer, bizarre creepiness that infuses this book borders on the delightful, and raises The Bone Doll’s Twin above the usual mark of such fantasies. Not to mention the seeping dread that infused the story.

This was a fun read. I’m going to be seeking out the next two books in her Tamir trilogy to see how it all comes out.

[books] Recent reading: Red Seas Under Red Skies, and The Ethical Slut

Last week I finished reading Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red SkiesPowells | BN ], the second of his Locke Lamora books. I really admire Scott’s writing. He combines an absolutely byzantine flair for plotting with a profound ruthlessness toward his characters which hits all my reader cookies, hard. Especially when wrapped in such lovely language. There were points in this book where I had to look away or even put it down, because I was so dreading what was about to happen next. At this point in my life, with my critic/author brain more or less permanently stuck in the “on” position, it’s a fairly rare writer who can grab hold of me so thoroughly.

Action, adventure, conspiracy, magic, antiheroes on the hoof — what more could you want of Locke and Jean? I confess about 4/5ths of the way through the book I started to wonder how he was going to wrap it all up. Well, he did. The ending might have taken up a few more pages without annoying me, but in truth, this is a minor quibble.

Anent Scott’s work, one of my favorite reader emails I ever received was regarding my own book, Trial of FlowersPowells | BN ]. The reader took me to task for writing such grubby, degrading prose and doing such awful things in that book (guilty as charged, btw), and asked me why I couldn’t write something clean and fun like Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke LamoraPowells | BN ]. Considering that in Lies people are drowned in horse piss and stuffed into barrels of ground glass, I can’t think how anyone would think it was a cleaner book than Trial.

Prior to that, I finished reading the new edition of The Ethical SlutPowells | BN ]. If you’re not familiar with the title, that’s a lifestyle/self-help/inspirational book aimed toward people engaged in open or polyamorous relationships. I will comment that at least half that book applies to anyone with an active emotional or sex life, regardless of their particular lifestyle arrangements and sexual orientation. I recommend it highly on that basis if you’re interested in exploring your boundaries or otherwise doing some hard thinking in those areas.

[books] Recent reading, a few comments thereon

Scourge of the Betrayer, Jeff Salyards, Night Shade Books, May 2012 [ Powells | BN ]

Night Shade sent me this book to read for blurb. I’m still chewing on how to blurb it, so I figure writing a quick pocket review will help. This is Salyards’ debut novel, and its the first in a series (though I don’t know how many volumes the series is slated to be). It’s quest fantasy, of a sort, narrated by a confused scribe named Arkamondos. He is hired to follow and document the activities of a small band of soldiers on extended foreign assignment, led by one Captain Braylar Killcoin. The book started slowly, and I had some trouble getting into the story, but once it caught for me, it was a lot of fun.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the book didn’t take off well for me. I believe the problem is inherent in the set up. The initial confusion and naivet√© of the narrator makes it hard for the novel to come into focus early on. In a sense, Salyards has done his job a little too well — the “what’s going on here?” issues that Arkamondos struggles with become the reader’s struggles as well. The problem with a quest fantasy narrated by someone in ignorance of the point of the quest is that you wind up fairly literally driving to the story.

My other frustration was that I wasn’t expecting this to be a book one of a multivolume story, so I was quite surprised when the manuscript ended without resolution. The story just stopped. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I really want to read the next book.

The Man in the Moone and Other Lunar Fantasies, ed. Faith Pizor and T. Allan Comp, Praeger Publishers, January 1971 [ AbeBooks | BN ]

This is a collection of fiction about voyages to the moon, ranging from 1638 to 1841, with an introduction by Isaac Asimov. I bought it because I was interested in reading some very early science fiction. This is very much in parallel with my project last year to read nineteenth century proto-steampunk, in the original Klingon, as it were.

The oldest of these pieces is written with the very curious diction and spelling of 17th century literature. If you can handle Shakespeare, you can handle this, but there is definitely no skimming here. Other stories range from a fantasy by Edgar Allan Poe to a weird little piece about a steam powered duck. The editors provide an introduction to each selection which gives literary, social and political context, and offer occasional footnotes elucidating obscure points within the text. That’s especially helpful in the case of the older works.

Of course this work was not self-consciously written as either science fiction or fantasy, as neither of those genres existed when the pieces were published. Most of them are social satire, in fact. Still, it’s fascinating to read these premodern visions of how human beings might reach the moon. This is special interest reading, in my opinion. The entertainment value is there, but the going is fairly challenging. On the other hand, I really enjoyed exploring one of the roots of our contemporary genre.

[books] Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

A couple of days ago, I finished reading Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent MoonPowells | BN ]. This is Arabian-inspired fantasy, a subgenre that Saladin appears to share almost exclusively with Howard Andrew Jones, and it’s a lot of fun.

The book’s been getting considerable critical buzz, and justly so. What I particularly love about Throne of the Crescent Moon is the degree to which the individual characters are beset by their own flaws and insecurities. Ahmed has not given us Heinleinian Competent Heroes; rather he has given us people who feel very familiar, perhaps even ordinary, even in the midst of having extraordinary skills and powers. Another striking thing about the book is that, rooted in a non-European tradition, both the fantastic tropes and the everyday life portrayed within the narrative have a fresh, lateral feel.

Ahmed’s writing is deft and graceful, and his characters move through a world of real stakes and significant consequences, much to their cost. Combine this with glorious setting and his careful mastery of craft, and you have a lovely fantasy read on your hands.

[books] The Laundry Files by Charles Stross

I just finished reading my way through The Laundry Files by Charles Stross. This started with me reading the third book in series, The Fuller MemorandumPowells | BN ], out of sequence. (See my comments here: [ | LiveJournal ].) I’ve since caught up with the series, reading book one, The Atrocity ArchivesPowells | BN ] and book two, The Jennifer MorguePowells | BN ], and thanks to Charlie’s generosity, the as-yet-unreleased fourth novel, The Apocalypse CodexPowells | BN ].

I have to confess to having been skeptical of the premise of these books when I first heard of them. Boy howdy was I wrong. Stross pulls it off beautifully, this cock-eyed intersection of spy thrillers, IT wankery, civil service drudgery, and eldritch horrors from beyond the boundaries of time and space. These are highly entertaining books, and by the third volume, he’s developed a definite series arc pointing ahead. The fourth volume sustains that arc, and with the its ending lands Bob Howard, your humble narrator, in some seriously uncharted waters that I can’t wait to explore in the next volume or two.

There’s a very strange charm to this series, which I suspect evolves from the unlikely premise as explicated by the goofy insouciance of narrator and protagonist Bob Howard. (Though in truth Angleton might just be my favorite character.) They’re certainly structured and written like spy thrillers or adventure novels, but the sensibility is so very much from the darker corners of fantasy, not to mention outright horror fiction. More to the point, entertaining as hell.

Highly recommended, even if dark stuff isn’t normally your bag.

[books] Recent reading

I’ve read three books recently that I wanted to take a moment to comment on. Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein, (Roc, October, 2012), and two Charles Stross books, Saturn’s ChildrenPowells | BN ] and The Fuller MemorandumPowells | BN ].

Daughter of the Sword was sent to me in bound manuscript form as a candidate for blurb. I really enjoyed it, and provided a pull quote which Roc may or may not be using. It’s a book with an interesting structure, two entwined narratives that contrast significantly. One is the story of a Tokyo cop, the only female detective-sergeant on the force, chasing a strange series of murders, coping with her sister’s disappearance, and battling the institutional sexism of a police force where most women either are meter maids or coffee girls. The other thread skips through Japanese history from the Mongol invasions through WWII, chronicling the story of a set of swords forged by one of the great masters of that art. There are curses and possessions, mixing a very light-handed fantasy element with police procedural and a journey through Japanese culture. Some wonderfully lateral views of a pair of common Western storytelling tropes not so often bound together. This story was a bit off my most usual pleasure reading path, and I’m glad I took it.

Saturn’s Children is billed on the cover as a space opera, but I’m not sure I’d call it that. The conceit at the heart of the book is profound and fascinating — that the human race died out but its intelligent servants have carried on without their masters, for the most part barely noticing the change. Frea, nearly the last of a series of courtesan-androids who are all bereft of purpose in the absence of human lovers, is at first pulled, then pushes herself, through a string of events and conspiracies that provides a set-piece tour of the solar system, from Mercury to Eris. And this book is funny. There are some real howlers of bad puns and jokes, as well as a great deal of more subtle humor. Stross’ tongue is firmly in his cheek even as he covers deadly serious issues of identity, independence and the notion of what it means to be free.

The Fuller Memorandum is not the first Laundry novel, but it’s the first one I read. (Selection was limited the day I walked into the bookstore — normally I begin a series at the beginning.) That being said, it worked just fine as a freestanding book. I’d been a little skeptical of the premise of the Laundry novels, about a secretive arm of the British intelligence community charged with battling the occult and very specifically working to prevent a return of the Elder Gods. Stross pulls it off, beautifully, with his trademark fractally encysting conspiracies and mordant wit. Highly recommended, and now I need to go round up the rest of the Laundry novels.

[books] A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I just finished reading Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of WitchesPowells | BN ], a December, 2011 release from Penguin. It was interesting and a fair amount of fun, but definitely had that ‘mainstream author writes fantasy without being aware of the history or tropes of the genre’ feel. All the same, and perhaps because of that, Harkness’ take on witches and vampires was sufficiently divergent from the classic patterns to be interesting.

Also interesting to me in terms of my own reader reactions to this book was my realization about halfway through that the genre tropes Harkness is working within are more tied to romance than fantasy. Which explained the female witch protagonist’s constant fainting and passing out and needing to be carried about hither and yon by the male vampire love interest. That wouldn’t fly in a strong female fantasy character, but it is a trope (or subtrope or something) of romance.

What I really did like about the book was that much of it was set at Oxford University, and the sense of scholarship and history in the book is very strong. Our heroine is a historian specializing in the traditions of alchemy, and Harkness really made me believe that in a big way. She acted like a historian, thought like one, talked like one. Harkness’ own scholarship in writing the book was certainly deep enough to be utterly convincing to me. Her interweaving of history with the plot was fascinating.

This book was a lot of fun. It’s the first third of a trilogy, so very little of the plot is resolved at the ending, but that’s life. Worth the read.

[personal] Miscellaneous updates, dead hard drive edition

Apologies for the limited link salad today. The MacBook Pro’s hard drive had to be replaced yesterday. It failed gracefully with full backups, so this was mostly annoying instead of devastating. Much time and precious energy was consumed, and hooray for AppleCare. Still getting the laptop back to the way I like things. (And have I mentioned how much I hate the nicknames “lappy” and “compy” for “laptop” and “computer”? It’s totally irrational, for some reason these are cringe words for me, but it’s true.)

In other news of defective media, I started reading Terry Pratchett’s SnuffPowells | Barnes & Noble ] last night. Wow has the quality of the book-as-object come down. The paper is noticeably thinner and flimsier than other recent hardbacks of his, and the first signature was trimmed about 3 or 4 degrees out of true with respect to the horizontal baseline of the type, which made reading the very first part of the book a bit like reading on a boat. Everything was sort of a vee. The text itself also suffers from some fairly blatant copy-editing errors. Or possibly a lack of thorough copy-editing in the first place. For a writer of Pratchett’s stature to be published with such inattention to quality control and presentation says volumes about the state of hard copy publishing, at least at Doubleday.

In other news of defective me, yesterday I definitely continued my “hit the wall” phase. I’m feeling a bit better today, and might even manage some WRPA — at a minimum I have editorial correspondence to return on several fronts — but my backbrain continues to quietly inform me that my writing days are probably over until the nasty chemo goes away. So likely no more Sunspin, or anything else, until mid-January at the earliest. This continues to make me sad.

Day jobbery today and tomorrow, and tomorrow the funeral for [info]kenscholes‘ father-in-law, speaking of sadness.

Don’t forget to back up your hard drive. And your mindstate, if you have the tech.

[books|writing] Onward through the fog

Chemo fog is beginning to slow down my brain, but I aten’t dead yet. Still reading, still writing.

On the reading front, I am currently consuming The Sky Road, the fourth book of Ken MacLeod’s The Fall Revolution cycle. Because I’m an idiot, I’ll be reading The Star Fraction (the first book) last. All the same, this is a cycle, not a tightly-coupled series, so that’s okay. I am loving these books. As I said on Twitter and Facebook yesterday, I find them to be “grim Scottish socialist SF, Riddley Walker meets The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with bells on.” That is high praise. It’s also interesting stuff to read just after gulping down Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels all in a row. Plus the new Pratchett will be in my hands shortly.

In chemo terms, I’m not reading as sharply as normal, nor quite at my usual pace, but I’m still taking in the story. For now, I’m pleased.

Incidentally I have also conditionally promised to do a foreword for a nonfiction book and a blurb for a single-title novella, if brainspace holds up, but that’s practically a segue into writing.

I’ve got notes from various sources on the second draft Calamity of So Long a Life, the first volume of Sunspin. Amusingly, and pleasing to my heart, my Dad has been a very engaged first reader. I’m awaiting comments from my agent before I see how much a can worms I need to open here, and whether I can commit to whatever deadlines that implies. I do expect to hear from her this week on the book.

In the mean time, I’m slowly working through the outline of the proposed joint novel project with urban fantasy author J.A. Pitts, a/k/a [info]bravado111. This is the book I’ve occasionally mentioned in jest about a werewolf with achondroplastic dwarfism. We’ve decided to actually write the damned thing, and see how it does in the market.

The series title is Little Dog, because that’s the protag’s (very insulting) pack name, and we’re working with Son of a Bitch as the the title for this book. It’s probably going to border on dark comedy, but we’ve got some real neat concepts coming to boil underneath, drawing pretty heavily on my medical experiences for both inspiration and verisimilitude. John’s skills as a character-driven writer are far sharper than my own, so while I’m doing the tippy-type drafting of the outline, we’re having frequent story conferences by email, SMS and voice wherein he’s showing me some pretty deep things about the narrative and characters that I would have been a long time coming to on my own.

This is the whole point of collaboration. So I can learn and grow from John, and he can learn and grow from me. Plus it’s a fun idea, and we’re having fun working on it.

The reality is the most we’ll get done this year is the outline. Chemo will be checking me out from writing soon, and I won’t be in a position to draft it. Such writer cookies as I still have need to be prioritized for Sunspin. But at a projected length of 90-90,500 words, it’s a project I can easily wedge into my spare time next spring as I begin the process of busting out the second and third volumes of Sunspin. Or if we decide John is going to write the first draft, it becomes a revision process for me, which is even easier to fit into my schedule.

So I guess I’ve sprouted another novel. Because there’s never such a thing as too much to do, right?

In the mean time, I read, write and wait for the chemo fog to close in so tight I have to shut down the control tower and be reduced to watching Netflix Streaming.

[books] Among Others by Jo Walton

I am very late to this party, but yesterday I read Among Others by Jo Walton Powell’s | Barnes and Noble ], in one sitting. My god, the voice in this book. If I am ever called upon to teach voice in a writing workshop, I am simply going to point here and say, “Go forth and read.”

Far brighter minds than mine have commented on Among Others, and I’m not sure I have a lot to add. I know it struck me so powerfully in part because the narrator’s age, as both a reader of SF and in terms of the chronology of the book, is coincidentally within a year of my own. At the sensawunda level, I was reading my own story. That’s an artefact of me being born in 1964 and having come of age in the later 1970s and onward, and like the protagonist, having been sent off to boarding school. I suppose if I were ten years older or younger, or with a different background, the resonances would have been different.

But whatever age you are, or were when you discovered the miracles of fantasy and science fiction, Among Others is in part a love letter to that discovery, to those books and authors and their culture in which we now find ourselves immersed in years later. It’s also a coming of age story in the more usual critical sense of that term, and does a damned fine job of telling that story with the journey through genre serving as counterpoint. Wrenching, exhilarating, tragic — apparently I can only speak in cliched adjectives of this book.

If this book isn’t at the top of the Hugo ballot next year, I’ll be astonished.

Just go read it, ok?

[books] The Years of Rice and Salt

Last night I finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt Powell’s | Barnes and Noble ]. Interesting book for a number of reasons, but also one of the most misleading matches of jacket copy and internal narrative I’ve seen in a while.

The online squibs and jacket copy market Robinson’s book as alternate history, which it certainly is. But that misses the overarching theme and content of the book completely. This is, for want of a better phrasing, Buddhist science fiction. That it’s playing out over an alternate history story arc is close to incidental to what I perceive the book to be doing. There’s a lot of philosophy embedded here, a lot of lengthy infodumping, even some metafiction, all presented wrapped in very deliberative storytelling about transmigration of souls and spiritual ascendancy that falls well outside the usual action-militaria focus of alternate history.

That isn’t a criticism. I enjoyed the book a lot. But it made for strange reading, because my expectations as set by the marketing were so mismatched to the internal reality of the book. I realize that “Alternate History” is a much better marketing tag than “Buddhist SF”, and why Spectra ran with it, but still, it seemed odd.

How important is that external marketing to you? We do, after all, judge books by their covers.