June 21, 2009

11– Lightbreaker, by Mark Teppo

tags: , — evan @ 8:37 pm

A good first novel here. Already Teppo has a good grasp of pacing and devel­op­ment and has cre­ated a dark, con­sis­tent sub-​​creation that man­ages to make its magic feel mag­i­cal with­out ever feel­ing like it’s being made for the con­ve­nience of the plot. There’s actu­ally some mostly-​​believable char­ac­ter devel­op­ment which comes from within the char­ac­ter and his moti­va­tions, rather than being exter­nally imposed, which is rare in noir/​cyberpunk inflected nar­ra­tives. That said, there are flaws, which fall into two broad groups. I wrote the list below in an email to a friend (edited to make me look better/​smarter):

  1. basi­cally no women in it at all. the semi-​​love/​hate inter­est gets all of five pages of screen time, which is mostly Markham emoting.
  2. although he’s not entirely cookie cutter, there’s still a lot of generic noir pro­tag­o­nist there.
  3. most of the other char­ac­ters lack a voice. every­one sounds like Markham in dialog.
  4. sentence-​​level craft is uneven, weaker in the begin­ning of the book. it’s first-​​novelitis to a cer­tain extent, but I almost threw the book across the room when I ran across the groaner ‘metal whale’ purple blob of a simile in the ferry chapter.
  5. we’re sub­jected to not one, but TWO Oblig­a­tory card by card Tarot inter­pre­ta­tions that are the bane of so many fan­tasies involv­ing her­metic magic and the occult. to make mat­ters worse, they seem to take up at least five-​​seven pages each (at least in my memory). by making your fore­shad­ow­ing into a cutesy game, you cheapen it. I’d have strongly sug­gested com­press­ing or cut­ting both.
  6. really, I am kind of done with cyberpunk’s noirish off­spring. that may be a per­sonal thing.
  7. seat­tle and port­land seem lonely. non-​​named char­ac­ters who aren’t going to be mag­icked hor­ri­bly or aren’t wait­resses don’t get a lot of men­tion past the begin­ning of the book.

So there are some per­sonal quib­bles in there. I’ve never been a big fan of noir stuff, and have always con­sid­ered it to be some­thing of a bale­ful influ­ence on post-​​cyberpunk SF, mostly for rea­sons involv­ing the character’s inter­mit­tent lack of agency and often dras­ti­cally unre­al­is­tic dystopias in which it is usu­ally set. Almost all of the other things that I had issues with were, now that I’ve had a couple of days to think about it, fail­ures with the book’s voice. Here too, as in KoNLG (see last post), we have a number of severe issues flow­ing from issues with the first person sin­gu­lar. It’s very hard to get right, as I’ve said. Here, the strain is less on the reader as the nar­ra­tor is end­lessly blind­sided, as much as it’s a ques­tion of tone in a number of places. Scene descrip­tion is all over the place in terms of level and intent, in ways that would often be fine with some exter­nal nar­ra­tor (omni­scient or per­sonal) or a first person nar­ra­tor more anchored fur­ther in his­tory, as opposed to this nar­ra­tor, where the only thing sep­a­rat­ing past and present first person sin­gu­lar is the verb end­ings. Also I would like to make a rule: In a book writ­ten in the first person, you get ONE (1) scene tran­si­tion ush­ered in by uncon­scious­ness. Per-​​instance penal­ties to follow when I think of some­thing dire enough. Points 1, 2, 3, & 7 I would ascribe to these sorts of issues, rather than any fail­ure on the part of the writ­ing (other than I sup­pose the struc­tural fail­ure of choos­ing FPS and not quite being able to make it work for the whole book).

I seem to spend a lot of time in these reviews talk­ing about how I still think the book is good and worth read­ing despite the fact that I’ve just dwelled at length on its flaws. Mostly, this is because I am a hor­ri­ble, neg­a­tive person, but par­tially it is because while I do often like the books, I spend a lot of time think­ing about what would make them better, in hopes of being able to do the same with my own writ­ing. I real­ize that this may not endear me to writ­ers who’re talked about here, but hope­fully one day they’ll have the oppor­tu­nity to return the favor. I promise to weep piteously and upload it to youtube.

10 — The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

tags: — evan @ 7:51 pm

This book starts on an inter­est­ing note and never lets the fact that it’s aimed at young adults drive it away from exper­i­men­ta­tion or inter­est­ing writ­ing. While the font stuff is occa­sion­ally irri­tat­ing, it never really gets in the way, and there are some moments of stun­ning book design that it affords. This car­ries you quickly through the first two thirds or three quar­ters of the book. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, the lim­i­ta­tions of the very narrow first person view­point of a fif­teen year-​​old boy start to become a drag on the book. Get­ting first person present sin­gu­lar right is a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act as regards reveal­ing and con­ceal­ing infor­ma­tion, and it seems to me that in the inter­est of get­ting to heart of his character’s con­fu­sion, the author allows the nar­ra­tive to blind­side the nar­ra­tor far too often, so that the ending is very much like get­ting beaten over the head in a lot of places. That isn’t to say that the ending is bad, just that it doesn’t match the early sec­tions of the book. It also spends a little too much time doing Dis­as­ter Porn.

9 — The City & The City, by China Miéville

tags: — evan @ 7:38 pm

It seems like I’ve read a couple of books between Lamen­ta­tion in late March and this one in late June, but I hon­estly couldn’t tell you what they are. I’ll update later out of order if I remember.

I don’t want to tell anyone not to read this book, because I think that it’s worthy, that it is a novel writ­ten with seri­ous intent by an able writer, that it tries to do some­thing that stretches both the genre and the skills of the author. Unfor­tu­nately I don’t think that it worked. It’s Miéville’s best-​​written book, but in a way that evens out the excesses of prior works. As such, you avoid the awk­ward­nesses of prior works, but also you lose out on the sheer impact of inven­tion and strange­ness that awk­ward­ness occa­sion­ally lent to his ear­lier works. The biggest prob­lem, I sup­pose, is that the cen­tral con­ceit ulti­mately falls down in the end. No reason is given and no mech­a­nism for the power of Breach is ever explained. While I am usu­ally all for this sort of thing and think that one of the main fail­ings of fan­tasy as a genre is that it over-​​explains and over-​​systematizes, we have a strange prob­lem here. Breach is too much shown to be real to be a metaphor for the mech­a­nisms of urban sep­a­ra­tion given shad­owy flesh, and too pow­er­ful to simply be taken at fan­tas­ti­cal face value. There are a few hints here and there that there is some­thing else going on there, but then almost end up look­ing like con­ti­nu­ity mis­takes, arti­facts of a draft where Breach was a fan­tas­ti­cal mech­a­nism acci­den­tally left in during the trans­for­ma­tion to a draft where Breach is a eidolon of sep­a­ra­tion. This ambi­gu­ity of strat­egy makes it feel like Breach, which ulti­mately is the spine of the sep­a­ra­tion of the City and the City, which is in turn the heart of the book, feel unfinished.

Again, I urge you to read it. It has many lovely moments and is a good, solid read. Even with the prob­lem­atic ending, it’s an attempt to stretch the genre fur­ther, and we should laud its ambi­tion rather than scorn its failures.

8 — The New Space Opera 2, Dozois & Strahan, eds.

tags: — evan @ 5:03 pm

Read this a while ago. Good, solid exam­ples of the puta­tive genre, and mostly good sto­ries. Glanc­ing over the table of con­tents, noth­ing stands right out, but there are many worse uses of your time than to dig through this one.

March 20, 2009

7 — Lamentation, by Ken Scholes

tags: , — evan @ 7:28 pm

I enjoyed this, for the most part. I don’t have a ton to say about it, unfor­tu­nately. I think that, for the right reader, there’s a lot here to like, but I do not think that I am that reader. I wrote a couple of para­graphs, but I don’t think that they’re inter­est­ing as crit­i­cism or even as snark, so I’ve deleted them.

I will say that I wish there were fewer super­heroes in the book. Also that, since his­tory is the largest and most inter­est­ing char­ac­ter here, you got all of the pro­posed five books at once. I feel like I have been some­what short­changed just read­ing the first one, where the bones of the story just begin to peek out at you from their ensconc­ing paragraphs.

6 — The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling

tags: — evan @ 7:16 pm

For all the declaim­ing of this book as bril­liant and won­der­ful and game-​​changing, I sus­pect that it isn’t really going to win Bruce a lot of new fans. It’s as strange and as spiky a book as he’s writ­ten, as packed full of weird info as Holy Fire or Schiz­ma­trix. And although I like the book, and think it com­pares to those two, which are my favorite of Sterling’s works by far, I think it suf­fers a little in com­par­i­son. All three of the books are unevenly paced and lumpy with ideas, but the Cary­atids suf­fers from the fact that there are essen­tially only two char­ac­ters that have much speak­ing time. The clones of the title are indis­tin­guish­able by voice, and the man who loves them (all of them, some­what indis­crim­i­nately) is not too far off, voice-​​wise. Their moti­va­tions also seem to be some­what gnomic, but that may be because every­one in the novel seems to be utterly psy­chotic, riven by stresses inter­nal and exter­nal. This is sen­si­ble, seeing as the world has gone very badly (although we’re pri­mar­ily treated to scenes of adap­ta­tion, rather than lin­ger­ing looks at the dev­as­ta­tion, the piles of the drowned or those killed by plagues). It’s also done very well, but the down­side is that it’s done so force­fully that the char­ac­ters seem very one note, and this is not helped by the fact that their voices are very, very sim­i­lar to the voice of, say, Bruce Sterling.

So we have a tour of the widget fac­tory of a world drowned and baked and the clever remnant’s adap­ta­tions and techno-​​fixes, lay­ered over with an inter­per­sonal nar­ra­tive that is half-​​tour guide spiel and half the speeches that you expect a life-​​extended, beex­oskele­toned Ster­ling to be giving fifty or a hun­dred years from now. It’s all very inter­est­ing, and I was already a fan, so it wasn’t a hard sell, even though the story is over-​​reliant on DEM for punc­tu­a­tion and lacks any real emo­tional impact, in the end. Here, Bruce man­ages to give us the weird and the post– of his weird post-​​humans, but he under­de­liv­ers, I think, on the human aspect. I don’t think that’s always a prob­lem, but I think that, here, unless you go in know­ing what to expect, you’re going to be more than a little lost unless you’re already largely on the right wavelength.

February 28, 2009

5 — The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Belaño

tags: — evan @ 12:12 pm

Wow. I am off-​​pace this year. Just five books in two months. Admit­tedly, I was on vaca­tion for two weeks and didn’t get much read­ing in of the non-​​internet variety.

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It is fair, I think, to call it chal­leng­ing. I am still digest­ing it, I sup­pose. Rec­om­mended, although at this point I couldn’t tell you pre­cisely why. I’ll def­i­nitely pick up more of his work in the future, and maybe will do another post about it when I’ve had more time to think about what on earth was going on in the latter half of the book.

Things I’m in the middle of reading:

  • The Quiet War, by Paul McAuley
  • The Cary­atids, by Bruce Omniver­i­tas Sterling
  • Return of the Crim­son Guard, by Ian Esselmont
  • The Case for Big Gov­ern­ment, by Jeff Madrick

There are a couple of other things, but noth­ing that I’m far enough into to men­tion. I may aban­don the last two.

January 26, 2009

4 — Eclipse Two

tags: — evan @ 10:12 pm

Yet another Stra­han edited short story col­lec­tion. Since it’s a col­lec­tion, a list:

  • The Lana­gan story here is vis­ceral and voicy and won­der­ful, for all that it leans ever so hard on its source mate­r­ial. People unfa­mil­iar the leg­ends old tes­ta­ment might be a little confused.
  • I am glad to see new work from Tony Daniel. I wish there were more.
  • The Schroeder story points to excit­ing new places for his Virga stuff, even if it isn’t his best work (he always feels a little con­strained in shorts).
  • The Baxter reminds me a lot of a Ben­ford story about almost the same thing that I read just a few years ago, but I can’t remem­ber the name of it.
  • WTF is going on with the end of the Reynolds story? Also if I have to read another story about a galac­tic empire held together only by a human male of exceed­ing grace and wisdom (I’m look­ing at you too, Mr. Scholes) I am going to vomit.
  • Need to track down more stuff by Daryl Gregory.
  • I am not smart enough for per­haps 40% of Jeff Ford’s sto­ries. This is one of those.
  • Tighten, Moles, tighten! So very close, though.
  • Ted Chiang makes peace with entropy.

Lots of good stuff here. An improve­ment, I think, on the first one. I have noth­ing to add to the gender bal­ance thing at this late date.

January 17, 2009

3 — Winterstrike, by Liz Williams

tags: — evan @ 11:00 pm

I really wanted to like this more than I did. Williams’ far-​​future Mars/​Earth sto­ries and novel are the work of hers I like the most, in tone and theme, but this book seemed very much rushed, on a number of axes. The first part of the novel — which has been exten­sively sketched out in short sto­ries over the last couple of years — is pretty strong. But at some point the writ­ing gets ahead of the plan­ning, and it all falls apart. The qual­ity of the edit­ing and copy edit­ing also drop off in the latter half of the novel.

This is a shame, as this could have been a very fine book with a little bit more time to bake and some of the glitches ironed out. Hope­fully if it gets a US release it’ll get another working-​​over to put a final coat of polish on it.

January 8, 2009

2 — Liberation, by Brian Slattery

tags: — evan @ 10:06 am

A book with a very long sub­ti­tle, which kind of gives you a hint as to what’s coming. A lot of words are used to tell a story that really doesn’t need all, or even maybe most of them. Inter­est­ing work from a new writer, but ulti­mately cannot seal the deal because the built world here is too close to our own, and too seri­ous, to gen­er­ally end up taking a back seat to the emo­tional strug­gles of the car­toon­ish and deeply simple cen­tral char­ac­ter. You’re also spat­tered begin­ning to end with little tan­gent info­dumps that trade heav­ily in often second-​​hand relic Amer­i­cana. Over­all, it adds up to not very much that adds to the main nar­ra­tive. Amer­ica is sim­pli­fied and it’s the sim­pli­fied Amer­ica that’s val­orized and cas­ti­gated and rev­er­en­tially mocked, so too much of it seems to miss. It’s a book that seems to think too much of its movers and shak­ers and too little of the common people. It is also in love with its some­what abstracted voice despite the fact that the voice very often robs the events of book of any imme­di­acy they might oth­er­wise have. There is a lot of music in the book, but little of it works with the text, either being buried in the info­dumps where you’re already bored and want to go back to the story now or they’re just tacked on, like the author just real­ized that he hasn’t men­tioned any­thing musi­cal in two pages.

It’s almost a tic. Frustrating.

There are a lot of good parts here. I think that Slat­tery could pro­duce some really inter­est­ing mate­r­ial if he man­ages to get all of the ele­ments march­ing in line.

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