Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Let's Look at Some More Books

I read a whole lot, y'all.

Sabriel & Lirael, Garth Nix

I love these books. There's a special place in my heart for young adult fantasy from before YA was a marketing behemoth, as well as for the lesser-known titles of the pre-LotR movies era, even though I'm reading it for the first time just now.

It breezes along at a wonderfully swift pace without skimping on memorable imagery. The main character is well-realized as a young woman taking on a great responsibility, and a proper breath of fresh air in her not being defined by violence either done to her or done to others.

I kept comparing it to FMA (down to imagining individual scenes as animated by Bones, no less) and I will stick with that. Sums up my feelings on the matter quite nicely.

Lirael is interesting. In terms of quality it is a fine follow-up to the first, but it's very clear that a sequel (and then the third installment) were not intended from the beginning. It's much more of a "first book is solid standalone, then the latter two books form a duology that attempts to make a trilogy." But, given that the quality remains high (aided no doubt by a decent timeskip and new main characters) it is not an issue.

The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

1) Resource conflicts among space-faring civilizations are, by and large, incredibly stupid.
2) Acknowledging that a scenario is incredibly stupid does not make the scenario less incredibly stupid.
3) There is a point where the scenario and the people responsible are so incredibly stupid that the reader can only declare that they deserve all the consequences and thus the tension evaporates, tedium filling in the space left behind.

That sums up this book to a T.

Some damning praise must also be heaped upon the character of Kiva Lagos, who manages to be one of the most singularly unpleasant individuals I have read in quite some time (and I am grading on a curve that's got Severian on it), swaggering about with the puerile braggadocio of a drunken collegiate slacker - the teenage boy's idea of a "strong female character", all swearing and aggressive sexual appetite. She's neither funny nor clever, and yet always seems to end up in the right when everyone else should be shutting her shit down.


The Vela Episode 1, SL Huang 

DNF at very quickly

I get what you were going for, Huang, no shame in a good "hey climate change will fuck you up" story.

But in order to siphon off enough hydrogen to actively affect a star's mass and temperature within human-comprehensible timelines you need some crazy Kardashev 3 spacegod techmagic bullshit and if you have access to that, a wee bit of cold isn't going to bother you.

The Black Tides of Heaven, Jy Yang

DNF at 16%

I will never ceased to be amazed at how dry the prose can be in some fantasy works - you're describing a thought-to-be-extinct magical beast and the words embody no majesty, no wonder, not even the mundane thoroughness of a veterinarian's anatomy manual. Calling the ineffable magical force "The Slack", especially in a faux-Chinese setting, took me out of the story every time it was mentioned, which bordered on every page.

There was one mildly-interesting tidbit of how children in this setting are considered gender-neutral until they reach adulthood, but a good book one mildly-interesting setting detail does not make.

Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

A gibbering, incoherent whirlwind of sound without fury, signifying nothing. Powerful descriptive ability abounds and it all flows nicely while reading, but the complete and total lack of connection with any of the characters, or the setting, or the scenario, means that the unknowable mysterious force is just as unknowable and mysterious as the narrator and everything else which means that it is literary teflon. Nothing matters, nothing means anything, nothing sticks.

The movie, though, is excellent. Having sound and sight (plus an adaptation that shares almost nothing with the book) helps immensely.

The Silent Tower, Barbara Hambly

Another throwback book, with all the pleasant charm of solid mid-to-late-80s fantasy. Read this one quite some time ago so my opinions have moved on, but I enjoyed it quite a bit, particularly in its very 80s computer programmer protagonist. Big old "mid-to-late-80s homosexual villain" warning should probably be slapped on there, though.

City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer

A complete turnaround from the other VanderMeer book on the list, this story collection is some quality weird - a simmering pot of bizarre imagery repeated and contradicted as needed, a place of fluid canon dynamics yet fleshed out to the point that you can name it Ambergris whatever form it is taking.

I am a sucker for grotty, overpopulated fantasy metropoli (and in-universe historical documents with fake footnotes), and Ambergris delivers in spades.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson

Rare is the book, but convenient, when you can provide a specific page number for when it goes bad. It's page 542. Stop there, tear out what comes after it, though you could actually probably stop reading a few chapters earlier. You'll be left with a gut-gripping seat of your pants hard science tech-thriller and some of the best suspense I've read in a good long while.

This is spoiled utterly by Act 3 of the book, which seems to be the opening arc of an entirely different novel, which is a lackluster attempt at social science fiction involving descendant human clades that you could write a solid sized essay on how his treatment of genetics and race is...a bit wonky. Stevenson's love of disconnected asides describing technology in excruciating detail, no longer a matter of survival, are interminably long and unbearably dull in this section.

Burn, James Patrick Kelly

Never thought I would see a story about Transcendentalist firefighters in the far future, but here we are. Enjoyable light read. Does a good job hinting at the bizarre high-tech universe out beyond the planet Walden, though the colonization plot fell a bit short for me because we never actually meet or properly interact with the locals (descendants of a centuries-old mining colony) who are fighting the terraformers.

The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander

This story has more weight and value in 60-some pages than books ten times its length. You should definitely track down a copy and give it a read - what can be safely said is that this is a story that had me hooked from the first sentence, and executed on its concept with impeccable skill. Novel alternate history that is also thoughtful and humane science fiction is a precious thing.

Plus, it has elephants in it. I like elephants.

The Emperor's Blades, Brian Staveley

DNF at 1%

Had to mention this one, because it might be the fastest DNF I have ever had: one page. In the space of that one page there were four nonsense proper nouns, two of them with unecessary apostrophes and such a complete lack of Show that I wouldn't even say that it is all Tel, because that sells the art of having a strong narrative voice terribly short.

From the cover and title I thought "This is a Malazan ripoff, isn't it?", and even after one page I feel terribly confident that it is.

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle 

Audiobook in progress, part 7/14

On the short list for preservation, Leibowitz-style, through whatever coming catastrophes that may arrive. A thing of beauty that makes it very difficult to read anything else in close proximity to it.


  1. Folks seemed to like the last one, so here's part 2.

  2. The second book to 'Silent Tower' opens with what I think is one of the best opening lines.
    "The worst thing about knowing that the man had been dead for a month was seeing him every day at work."
    Hambly wrote some very good books, IMHO. I recall her Winterlands first and second books and recall them being very good fantasy (and took some ideas from there); and at least first two James Asher novels were enjoyable - although now it is so many of them, I cannot say if they still are good.

  3. Please keep at these, our tastes converge quite a lot but i may have even less patience for rote spec-fic than you do and really dont want to waste cash on dreck haha. Good work as always, im becoming a patron to keep the engine running.

    1. Thanks, mate! Future installments will pop in from time to time.

  4. Also, Im sure the vast majority of your readership would be open to some affiliate links for the books you put up here ,at least as tokens of appreciation for chaffing some literary wheat for us

  5. I highly suggest the subsequent Old Kingdom stories - the Creature in the Case is a fun little adventure, and Clariel is a bit of a different direction for it

    1. They shall remain on the list, as I've enjoyed the hell out of the series so far.

    2. I think one of the strengths of "Sabriel" that "Lirael" lacks is the WWI-era-ish England setting south of the Wall, and the comparison of areas of tech/magic nonfunctionality. The third book, while I found it less compelling, has an Ancient Evil that makes one very glad indeed it's north of the Wall.

  6. It's a shame about The Collapsing Empire, I like some of Scalzi's books but have found them to be hit-and-miss. Sounds like this is a miss.