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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