Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Wisp of a Thing by Alex Bledsoe

*Mild Spoilers Below*

My previous exposure to Alex Bledsoe had been through several of his Eddie LaCrosse books, which I enjoyed as good pulpy fun. I had heard of his Tufa series, though, and it sounded intriguing, so when the second book in the series popped up at our annual library sale, I snapped it up. This week, when I had one of those evenings where I was working but most of my time could be spent sitting and reading, I took this and another book with me. The other book, Seanan McGuire's Chaos Choreography, I ended up loaning to another person working the event, and she loved it, but I did not get to read it.

That meant I finished what I had left of Wisp of A Thing fairly quickly, and not wanting to take back a book I had just loaned out, started again at the beginning, and almost read it all the way through again by the time the evening was over. So I'm reviewing this after one and four-fifths of a read.

Luckily, the book was good enough that I didn't mind reading it again, although the second time around revealed something that I found confusing. I might not have noticed it had I only read the book the once.

However, in general, the verdict is that I very much enjoyed this fairy-folklore-in-Appalachia modern fantasy, and am looking forward to further books in the series, as well as going back and reading the first book, which was not to be found at said library sale.

The Tufa are people who were there before any settlers came, in the mountains of Appalachia, and have remained there, in small communities, ever since. That's about all people seem to know about them, but the name immediately suggested the Tuatha de Danaan to me, so, knowing this was modern fantasy, I sort of assumed fairies right off the bat.

The main character, a young man named Rob, comes to Tufa territory looking for a song that can mend a broken heart. He lost his girlfriend while he was participating in an American Idol-style show. She was killed in an airplane crash while flying out to meet him. Backstage after he gave his final, contractually-obligated, performance, a man told him of this song, and where to find it, and so he has come.

There, he finds a couple of small settlements with two distinct factions, at least one of them pretty damn nasty - backwoods, insular, and possibly magic-powered. The other, led by the first-born daughters of the various Tufa families, seems more benign. They are led at the moment by a regent, Bliss, who is also a paramedic. The lives of the fairies are not particularly glamorous, although there might be glamours going on all the time.

Rob is attacked by the husky granddaughter of one of the nastier Tufa, giving him a knock on the head, and bringing him further into Bliss' circle. He's also targeted, sort of, by Curnen, Bliss' sister, who lives feral and unable to speak, under a curse that will wither her to nothing by the time the leaves on a particular tree fall. She is fighting to survive without being able to express it.

I'm not going to go into the story much more than that, but it's rich and enjoyable. I was a little confused by the handwavium about how the Tufa came to North America. It's said several times that they were there before any white settlers were, but then the painting that shows them (or at least one of them) in the act that led to their banishment from England was painted in the Victorian era, and there is corroborating evidence for this. So...when did they come over? We get some vague phrases about "time passing differently for the Fae," which I can accept in broad strokes, but are we talking time passes more slowly, or that they can be banished in the Victorian era and turn up centuries earlier? It feels like there's a line or two here that could explain it that I didn't see on either pass.

Likewise, while I get the broad strokes of what Rob ends up doing, and why one branch of the Tufa wants to stop it, I'm a little less clear on the opposition from the other side. I mostly get it, but then, when it does happen, I'm also a little unclear on what exactly was done. Again, I get the broad strokes, but I could use just a smidge more clarity on the specifics.

None of this is enough to spoil the book for me. Even if I felt like there were a few moments where threads were woven together in ways that were muddy to the reader, on the whole, I very much enjoyed this entry into modern fantasy. (Is that the right term? Urban fantasy it isn't , because this is very rural. It's just taking place now, more or less. Contemporary fantasy? Do we have a good term for this yet?)

Monday, 15 January 2018

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

I think this is the fifth of Daryl Gregory's books I've read. I absolutely adored Pandemonium and Raising Stony Mayhall. Both took interesting ideas and kept pushing them one step further, exploring ramifications far beyond where I would have expected the story to go. I quite enjoyed Unpossible, although I wanted a full-length book treatment of the short stories. Then came Afterparty, which sounded like it was going to do just that, taking the core idea of one of the short stories and pushing it to book length.

But I was a little disappointed. Afterparty ended up being more of a thriller than anything else, and it was a very good thriller, but it didn't keep pushing on the core idea to see where it would go, and that was really what I wanted. Still, Gregory's been one of my favourite authors over the last couple of years, so I was very excited to sit down and read Spoonbenders.

In this case, it is yet again a case where we're not continually pushing on a core idea to see where it goes, but the difference is that this time, I don't mind in the least. I may have gotten less philosophical speculation, but what I got instead was a really stellar, slightly sci-fi, family drama, with interesting characters and dilemmas. I'm fully on board for all of this one.

The story bounces around in time a bit, starting when conman Teddy Telemachus falls for beautiful psychic Maureen while both are in a CIA program for precognition, one which Teddy scams his way through, and Maureen does not. They marry, and many years later, have three children when an unfortunate television appearance scuppers the family career as psychic entertainers. Most of the action happens in much later the 1990s, when the children are grown and have kids of their own, their mother has passed on, and their father hovers in the background. 

Of the children, Irene can tell when someone is lying, which has made relationships extraordinarily difficult for her - until she discovers the internet and that she can't tell a lie from the truth when it's typed in a chatroom. Freddy can maybe move objects, maybe in games of chance, and his resentment that his life isn't bigger, flashier, and richer, has meant that he's gotten in debt to the mob for way more than anyone should be - but he can't ever stop trying to hustle, trying to be his father, without any of his father's smarts.

Youngest child, Buddy, seems to do strange thing for no reason, all the time. He lives with his father, barely speaks, and acts in ways that his family finds erratic - except that virtually all the time they're actions in response to what he can see of the future. He digs pits in the backyard and puts securable steel shades on the basement windows, and it's all ticking down to one day on which he knows everything hinges - and his power stops.

This is so good, folks. Like, so good. The family stuff is all amazingly well written, the characters feel like members of your own family, right down to the ones you kind of want to strangle because they never, ever, learn from their mistakes.

In the background lurks the CIA, who had promised Maureen to stay away from her children and grandchildren forever, but would be glad to break their promise to a dying woman if they found out that Irene's son, Matty, could astrally project. But only, you know, at...intense times. Like...teenage boy unexpected erection and aftermath times.

This book is funny, and it's warm, and it's heartfelt, and if the philosophical underpinnings don't get pushed, the characters do, as we see what unusual powers could do to people who are, at their core, just people.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

I am finding Lovecraft Country a hard book to review. It's because I'm very sure I don't have the expertise to know if Ruff, a white man, did a good job writing about a world where Lovecraftian monsters coexist with real-life racism as experienced by Black men and women in the 1950s. From my position, I think he does an okay job, but I"m not close enough to tell, and if someone who had experience with racism wanted to talk about what he got wrong, I'd be happy to further inform myself.

So, acknowledging that I'm starting from an outsider perspective reviewing a book written by someone with an outsider perspective of doesn't ring any immediate alarm bells? Ruff integrates Lovecraftian magicians and the attendant dangers with police stops, discriminatory house-selling agreements, threats of violence, barriers to opportunities, and the dangers from authorities who are actively hostile. (And, you know, Jordan Peele is part of adapting it for the screen, so it doesn't seem to have been particularly egregious in anything.)

For all that, this is a fairly light novel - dangers are threatened, but it remains more of an adventure yarn than the kind of deep horror that keeps threatening to burst out, but never quite completes the summoning rituals.

The stories centre around a man named Atticus and his family - his father, his uncle, aunt, cousin, and a couple of women in his community who are sisters. He is recently discharged from the army, travelling back to Chicago through the South, encountering Jim Crow laws and sundown counties. Once he gets home, though, he discovers that his father has gone missing - he left to go talk to someone in Ardham about a family connection that his wife had.

Atticus, a science fiction and fantasy fan, doesn't miss how close that spelling is to Arkham, but sets off anyway with his uncle George, a publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide, and Letitia, one of the two sisters who will also populate these stories. He finds his father being held by an old white guy who wants Atticus' blood for a classic Lovecraftian ritual, wanting to wrest power from the elder gods to cement his position here on earth.

I haven't read a lot of Lovecraft, but the theme developed here of rich white guys thinking their wealth and privilege gives them immunity from eldritch horrors is a good one.

In this case, the son, Caleb, wants some of that power for his own. He talks like he sees Atticus as an equal, but he still assumes Atticus and other members of his community will do whatever he says, and brings pressure to bear when they don't - more subtle pressure, but pressure nonetheless.

As we go from what is really short story to short story, with a common cast of characters, the twin dangers of racism and Mythos horror lurk in the background, but when they come into the foreground, it isn't as unrelentingly dark as you might imagine, and I think I like that as a choice. Not every story needs to be one where everyone is ground down to a pulp, and if anyone has experience on continuing in live, even live well, in difficult situations, it's these characters.

Caleb keeps reappearing in these characters' lives, always wanting just a little more, trying to buy trust when he can, and force assistance when he can't. He is in the middle of a power struggle with other cultists, and all of them seem to forget how very dangerous lurking terrors can be - the human forces are almost always scarier in this book than the inhuman.

I am glad this wasn't grimdark in the end, even though sometimes you feel like Cthulhu mythos could be a *bit* scarier - but then, I find the human opponents create more tension, and the ways in which these characters cope are really, in the long run, entertaining and enjoyable.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

This reads very much like Harry Potter fanfiction. I mean, I think that's what it's supposed to do. I haven't read Fangirl, but I know that this comes out of a fan and the fanfiction she writes about a series she is obsessed with. I'm a little unclear as to whether Carry On is supposed to be the last book in the series she's obsessed with, or her fanfiction version of that universe.

It's all very meta. From the afterword, it sounds like Rainbow Rowell felt like writing the book she was writing about in Fangirl, and she's got the publishing pull to do it, so...why not? Why not publish a fanfictiony sort-of commentary-but-not-really on Harry Potter? Why not put your own spin on most of the characters and conventions of those books without really adding a lot to them? (Other than a queer romance, which I did appreciate as a legitimate addition to the genre.)

But is it any good? Does it enrich my understanding of Harry Potter? Does it need to? Is it enough just to be a pulpy version with the numbers not filed off? It treads a weird line, I'll be honest, and maybe I'd be more into it if I'd read the two books in the order in which they were published, but as it is...I just kept thinking "well, this is fun, but frankly, Harry Potter did it better, so...."

I get writing fanfiction. I even know the times that, lamentably, the name has been changed and fanfiction been published. Rowell is displaying the baggage of it being, more or less, fanfiction, proudly. But I come back - is a book that is more or less "yes, I wrote fanfiction because I wanted to and it got published because I am a very popular young adult novel" enough?

I'm not sure it is. And I say that having mostly enjoyed this in an entirely superficial way. It was an easy read, it didn't distinctly piss me off, for the most part, although one of my friends who likes this book a lot had to endure me texting her at various points complaining that I was very far into the book, and there were no smoochies yet. If that's the new thing you've got to offer, and it is well written, get to it. It was well over the 2/3 mark before any such liplocking occurred, and that felt like a very long time to wait.

In this book, Simon Snow is a powerful if uncontrolled magician, living at the school for wizards in England, run by the Mage, who is opposed by many factions in the wizarding world. A foe has been sucking the magic out of many areas in England, and attacks Simon on a regular basis. Simon is aided by his best friend Penelope, who is a super-smart and talented wizard. His roommate/nemesis is Baz, a boy who was turned into a vampire during an attack on the school that killed his mother. There might, not so subtly, be sparks there because hate is just another word for desperate sexual attraction, right?

And, from there, the story more or less follows the lines you would expect it to follow given that it's fanfiction of a certain type (and/or series) of YA magical world novels. There are magical adventures, attacks, disapproving families, peril beyond that which those of tender years should face, and romance between teenage boys who find passion in their dislike of each other.

It's fine. I'm just not entirely sold on the concept. I'd probably gladly read it as fanfiction, but does it do enough to stand on its own two feet in the publishing world? I am undecided.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Uploaded by Ferrett Steinmetz

I've read Ferrett Steinmetz's blog for several years and follow him on twitter, and have always enjoyed his writing in those formats. Knowing that he'd published a few books, it was always in the back of my mind that I should read them, but they hadn't popped up on any of my lists, and I so rarely buy books that unless our library gets a lot better at getting science fiction beyond the big releases, it wasn't going to come up by accident.

Then I was on a trip to Toronto, and my sister and my husband made the tactical error of taking me to Bakka Phoenix, where I spent quite a long time looking at every book on every shelf. In an effort not to add a huge book debt to my looming student debt, I told myself I could buy just one book. Maybe preferably a mass market or trade paperback - I might covet the nice hardcovers, but space is a serious consideration in our house.

Right up at the front in a display of new books, was The Uploaded. Because I'd always meant to get to Steinmetz's books, this caught my attention, and jumped right to the top of my list for the one book I could buy. The decision paralysis created by an entire store of SF/F meant that the first impulse was the one I went with.

I am glad I did! This is a very solid science fiction book, engagingly written. I don't feel like it knocked my socks off and left me breathless, but I'm certainly looking forward to reading more of Steinmetz's work.

In The Uploaded, the vast majority of humanity now lives online only, after brain uploading technology became both common and easy. It's accessible to everyone still living...well, sort of. You see, the dead need the living to take care of the outside world to keep their servers running, but they've stopped caring about the day-to-day needs of the living - after all, they've got the promise of eternal life and happiness in a virtual world to hold out to those who grind through years of horrific treatment and trauma to get there.

But only if you die naturally - suicide is still a mortal sin, and individuals still need to "Shrive" to see if they're the sort of people the dead want to let into their afterlife. I mean, you wouldn't want people who do horrific things around, would you? (Even though you can block them if you wanted.) And really, not only those who do horrific things, but also those who merely do not great things, like despair. Or even...question things a little too much. Or aren't enough like the dead.  Of course, the dead are living really cushy lives, and don't understand the hellhole of the real world and the choices staying alive might foist on the living, but that's a minor fact. The important thing is that the neighborhood stays respectable. And these choices all come from the dead's subconsciousnesses, so it's not like they even know they're making morally questionable decisions. And they have more important things to do, like winning another level in a virtual reality world.

This is an interesting world, a great dilemma to throw characters in and see what it does to them. On that front, we have Amichai Damrosch, whose parents only rarely remember to call the living world and check in on their two children. They are frequently distracted by what appears to be a World of Warcraft derivative. Amichai wants to survive, to be uploaded, but in the meantime, he wants to make sure his sister Izzy doesn't despair. She was infected with some horrible bio-something, but not quite badly enough to make her a candidate for euthanasia. Instead, she's being kept alive with the promise of a gruelling job making circuit boards for the next 40 years.

To cheer her up, Amichai gets a genetically altered pony and rides it into the hospital. The videos of this make him a viral hit. And then things get bad. Amichai, his best friend Dare, and Dare's sister Peaches, get pulled into a growing resistance on the part of the living against the heavy hand of the dead, who hold many more votes in the political system. Amichai gets sent on a raid with his arch-nemesis from the orphanage, a young man he always refers to as Gumdrool, who truly believes in the Upterlife, and keeping it pure. On the raid and in the aftermath, they run into a young, beautiful neo-Christian girl, Evangeline, part of a sect that believes that the dead are just programs on a computer, soulless beings who have been handed the keys to the functioning of the world.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on the neo-Christians - bringing them into this picture made perfect sense to me, and provided a nice tension in the growing resistance between factions, which also feels all too familiar, but also perhaps inevitable. 

There are so many ideas in this book, many of them good! Reading a few other reviews, it sounds like people got stuck on why Amichai did what he did, and they're not wrong when they say a lot of them are bad decisions that look like pranks. But none of them felt unrealistic to me - when you're stuck in a system like the one he is, a little irrationality can be good for the soul. When your power to change things is limited, your actions aren't always entirely thought out.

So I was in for the whole book - it was a quick, easy read, and I enjoyed the way things went. If you want characters who always do exactly the logically correct thing, this might not be the book for you, but if you want to embrace the messiness of life, including pettiness, stubbornnness, ridiculous heroism, and a little bit of topsy-turvydom, you might enjoy this book. 

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Beast of Cretacea by Todd Strasser

I think I've mentioned one of my ongoing projects before - I take my Top Ten lists from the previous years, look at the "read-alikes" on NoveList, and read those. Mostly, I haven't loved the suggestions they've made - I can see why they were made, but prove, yet again, that a story is not what it is about, but how it is about it.

It's for that reason I keep doing it, even if this project has only resulted in one new book I loved (Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which created a nice chain by ended up appearing on this year's Top Ten.) It's interesting to see what other authors do with milieu or ideas somewhat similar to books I loved, even if they're not done as well. It's fascinating to try to parse out why what worked in one place didn't in another.

I bet you can see where this one's going, huh?

I read Beast of Cretacea because it popped up when I plugged China Mieville's Railsea into the database. And yes, absolutely, they are both science fiction retellings of Moby Dick. Interestingly, Strasser hews much, much closer to the set dressing of Melville's original, but stays much further away from the themes than does Mieville.

Both of those are reasons I loved Mieville's version much more. I absolutely adored Railsea. It was so totally its own thing, while paying interesting homage to themes of obsession and philosophy, as well as adaptation to the strange world in which the moling trains (or whaling ships) set sail (or track).

So, for a take-off of Moby Dick, what is Beast of Cretacea about? Earth is just about used up - oxygen is in short supply. The entire planet enveloped in The Shroud, meaning they haven't seen the sun in longer than anyone can remember, and everything is made in factories that continue to destroy even as they sustain. The main character, who is, no shit, named Ishmael, decides to go off planet to try to make enough money to help his foster parents and brother escape as well. He ends up on the Pequod, on a planet they call Cretacea, hunting mammoth sea creatures for their meat and...something else.

We see him try to find his spot on the Pequod, while continually getting into trouble because he just can't stop standing up for those in trouble. And this is fine, as far as it goes, but because Strasser feels the need to constantly remind us of the original by naming characters the same (except for the added women characters), it rings a little false. Maybe I've just read Moby Dick too recently.

Queequeg is there, as are Starbuck, Daggoo, and the others, but, well, they all seem pretty white. Or at least, if they're not, it's not done in such a way that I noticed it on a quick read. (Since I don't think visually, it is fairly common for me to miss visual cues. However, this is a book that seems remarkably free of race or ethnicity, and given the original, well, that grates a bit.)

I would also strongly argue that if you are naming your characters after Melville's originals willy-nilly, you cannot get away with also having character exclaim "Melville's Ghost!" repeatedly. It's too cute. Stop it.

So, while the set dressing is Moby Dick, the story takes little from the original except that Ahab really wants the white whale-like thing.  But the book is not about obsession in the same way. Ishmael is not obsessed with whaling, and Strasser makes the terrible choice that Ahab can't just be obsessed with the whale because of his leg and because he's obsessed - no, this whale-analogue also killed Ahab's wife and child. I am not kidding.

It's too much, and adding backstory like that is so unnecessary and dumb. Not everything needs to be explained down to its component parts, and part of Moby Dick is that it is irrational.

We also get thrown into some politicking around the evil corporations that have been killing the Earth and all its inhabitants, and their desire to enslave the few viable colonies that have sprung up on Cretacea, but this is right at the end.

So, this book is okay, I guess, but there are major faults, and what Railsea does right, this does wrong. 

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor

I finally made it to the last book in this trilogy! Although the end of it all makes it seem like there might be more. I'd have to decide, were that the case, whether I'd continue on. I wouldn't object to it per se, but have I spent enough time with these character? I know Taylor has decided that they don't get to rest at the completion of their story, but am I ready to let them go?

I kind of feel like the answer might be yes, even though I do like these characters. Taylor was really good at layering together decades, centuries, longer, of trauma and repercussions, and while I get that a lot of the time, life doesn't just stop and give you a break when you reach the end of the war, oh, I think I'm ready for one. I'm ready to just let them live in my imagination and be done.

In other words, I might read a further book, were it written, if it came up on one of my lists. But I'm not sure I'd seek it out.

For those of you joining us here, this is the story of Akiva and Karou, an angel and a chimera, on opposite sides of a very old war, and very much in love.  I really enjoyed the first two books in this series. Much more than I had expected to enjoy them. Now we're at the third, and there are a few things that started to get in the way of my enjoyment, bits where it felt like Taylor didn't quite stick the landing. She came pretty damn close, and this is still good, but there were a few issues....

A) Oh for fuck's sake, this book took a bucket to the well of "will Akiva and Karou finally get a stolen moment to get together and finally have sexytimes/NOPE" one too many times. Really, seriously, the other times were mildly aggravating, but that last time, it was extremely annoying. Because we've played these chords before. We've seen frustrated love and lust a whole fucking ton of times, and it's time to give them that moment, so to interject ONE MORE RESURRECTION was too much. (I don't deny that that resurrection had to happen. But it could have happened without it being ONE MORE ROADBLOCK in Akiva and Karou getting time alone. Very easily. We could just not have had that chapter of lustful buildup, had her resurrect that person, and then make goo goo eyes and...other body parts.)

Because if that wasn't enough, AFTER THAT, of course, THERE'S ANOTHER FUCKING THING in the way. Again, some delay is fine, but when it's done too many times, it becomes meaningless.  This is approaching George R. R. Martin "end a chapter making it look like a character has died" level of trying the same trick too many times. Do it once, maybe twice, and then leave that pony in the barn.

B) The pacing felt a little odd as well, but that wasn't a dealbreaker. We had some new characters introduced, and while I liked Eliza, bringing her in in this book threw off the flow. I suspect Taylor didn't realize until this book she was going to be a necessary character, and you can't exactly go backwards and add her into previously published books, but some things in the book were overly drawn out, and others felt like they were oddly stitched together.

C) It's a matter of terminology, but I really hated that the new enemy that appears in the last third were called The Beasts, because that's also what the chimera were called by the angels for most of the series, and so it caused confusion in my brain about who the Beasts were. Really, none of the angels or chimera thought "hey, that's an epithet for an enemy that's already in use Maybe we should...find something else?"

I don't mind the launching pad to new adventures, and I'm glad that there were a few moments of grace in and among the characters realizing that the old war was giving way to a new one. It was a little bumpy along the way, and I don't think I need more of this story, but I am glad I hung in all the way through.