Friday, July 10, 2020

Review of Slipping by Lauren Beukes

Different strokes for different folks, and different values for different authors, some get by on quantity over quality, while others vice versa. I think it’s fair to say Lauren Beukes is in the latter camp. Progressing and improving noticeably over the course of a decade via a small handful of novels, she proved her work as a journalist translated to writing fiction, and has since produced one of the best horror/fantasy novels of the 21st century, Broken Monsters. But throughout writing novel-length fiction, Beukes likewise sharpened her skills with short fiction, sometimes extremely short fiction. Slipping: Stories, Essays, and Other Writing (2016) collects almost everything Beukes has published in short form, plus a few unpublished extras.

Setting the tone for the collection is its first entry, the poem “Muse”. It lets the reader know that what is about to come will cover the spectrum of velvety smooth to bloodily visceral, realistic to speculative. And the second story, the title story, “Slipping”, quickly makes good on the promise. A story about post-human Olympics that retains its human heart, it tells of a poor African who has been biologically altered to participate in the +Games. The story’s elements can be gaudy, but Beukes keeps the motivation real, all the way to its unexpected conclusion.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Review of The Spider's War by Daniel Abraham

If anything, Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger & Coin series has continually rewarded patience. The first novel, The Dragon’s Path was something of a barrier to entry (despite its dramatic sounding name). Abraham taking his time to establish character and setting, setting the juicier stuff of plot aside for later, it’s possible the novel put off a few readers from the series who would otherwise enjoy it very much. For those who stuck around, things just kept getting better and better. Revealing Basrahip’s true mission, uncovering Inye, seeing Geder’s character crumble before your eyes, Marcus and Kit making their grand discoveries—character and setting continually strengthen, while the stakes are raised each and every book as those juicy bits are fed into the story, ramping up the tension and enjoyment. This is all a long winded way of saying: The Spider’s War (2015), final book in the series, brings the fireworks readers have thus far been led to believe would be the reward at the end of, dare I say it, the dragon’s path, just perhaps in an accelerated fashion that may not belie the pace of the prior novels.

The Spider’s War is the big splash. It is the promise, delivered. It is the expected clash, resolved. And while most if not all the devices of the series are indeed generic fantasy, the resolution of some characters’ arcs hits the feels given their development. Like any good opera coming to an end, there are moments that have the potential to impact readers as such. I would guess most writers would say that’s a good pay off.

Review of The Widow's House by Daniel Abraham

Starting the third book in The Dagger & Coin series, The Tyrant’s Law, there is little hint or clue what the title of the fourth, penultimate could possibly mean. We’ve had spiders, dragons, wars, and treachery, but who is the ‘widow’ of The Widow’s House (2014)? But as events in The Tyrant’s Law take shape, the meaning starts to take shape. The details, however, are for the book to reveal.

The major reveal of The Tyrant’s Law was Inys, the dragon, and in The Widow’s House he plays an even bigger role. Having survived his encounter with Inys, Marcus Webster, along with the Kit and the rest of the traveling theater group, continue their search for ways to take down Geder. Completely, bloodily, single-mindedly focusing war on Cithrin, particularly Porta Oliva where she lives, Geder now lives to make her pay for the heartbreak she caused him. Having made her decision to spurn Geder, Cithrin now attempts to put in place economic plans that will offset his reprisal. And, finally Clara. At last back in the strata of aristocracy, she has an immense new challenge: find a way to balance her new position, her sons’ new positions, her love interests, and her continued desire take down Geder—not an easy task when some of those items seem at odds with one another. As war marches across the continent, and the cult of the spider goddess grows more powerful with each city taken, the stakes of Abraham’s universe have never been higher.

Review of The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

You’re here. You want to know: has Daniel Abraham carried forward the momentum of The King’s Blood into The Tyrant’s Law (2013)? Has he maintained—or enhanced —the quality of The Dagger & Coin series? Does the series continue getting more and more interesting? Answer to all: yes. Where The King’s Blood upped the ante on The Dragon’s Path, The Tyrant’s Law pushes more chips on the table. The stakes, and subsequently reader engagement, grow.

The prologue of The Tyrant’s Law opens on a scene readers have been wondering about throughout the first two books of the series. As is Abraham’s style, it features a non-main character who is witness to something hinted at, but never revealed, until now. From there, the novel switches back into the cycle of viewpoints readers are now very familiar with.

Manifesting himself in a variety of directions, for better and worse, Geder remains one of the most complex characters in the series, by turns sympathetic and despicable. His decisions and behavior in The Tyrant’s Law (as the title hints), only ramp up the understanding he has serious mommy issues. Still in disgrace, Clara starts work from the bottom up, building relationships and enacting plans to get revenge for her husband’s killing. Marcus continues his journeys with Kit, discovering the netherreaches of the known world, and all the fantastical thigns that await. And Cithrin. Cithrin, Cithrin, lady who gets in her own way as much as she helps herself. Her earlier decision to befriend Geder coming back to haunt her, she faces yet another decision that gives her a chance to prove whether she’s learned anything about herself.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review of The Agency by William Gibson

And here I thought William Gibson’s The Peripheral was a one-and-done. Wrong. I should have known better. Looking back on Gibson’s history, particularly the interviews, it seems clear. I think I’m done with this setting. No, wait: I’m not, and yet another trilogy comes about… What then does The Agency (2020) have to add to the setting?

Building from the Jackpot concept of The Peripheral, The Agency introduces new tangents (including, what if Hilary won the 2016 election) and plays the old Gibsonian trick of featuring new characters while slyly working in familiar ones. In the Hilary storyline, a new character named Verity is introduced. Hired by a start-up in San Francisco to test new technology, she spends the better part of the novel’s beginning trying to understand the strange avatar software being developed for the military. In the second, the Jackpot storyline, exists the new technology Verity is working with named Eunice. At the umbrella level, the relationship and tension between these two “women” drives international and interdimensional plots and cabals.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Review of The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

The Dragon’s Path, first book in Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger & the Coin series, was a slow burn. Perhaps too slow, the novel took its time, building a foundation of characters and setting for the four books to come, that may have put off would-be readers. It wasn’t until roughly the two-thirds’ point that the plot’s gears started to bite into one another, and the wider picture started to come into focus. Building off this, the second book in the series, The King’s Blood (2012), carries the momentum forward into a novel that is likely more to the liking of readers with a preference for pace and conflict.

The King’s Blood returns to the viewpoints of the same handful of characters. Geder, now regent to the king, continues his arcane studies under the watchful eye of the spider cult, all the while watching over Astor, heir to the kingdom. Ever faithful and honorable, Dawson attempts to clean up the mess of the failed assassination attempt, even as he sees King Simeon’s health failing. And Cithrin, despite her rise in power in the Medean bank, is now subject to a new line of notary authority, a line that is entirely to her disliking, forcing her to find creative ways of getting done the things done that she knows are good for her and the bank.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Review of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2015 Station Eleven was a hit. Science fiction by definition but more humanist in aim than the majority of work that fits under that umbrella, Mandel earned herself a number of fans on the “other side”, despite that her first three novels didn’t ping the “squids in space” radar. Wisely taking a five-year break to let the hype cool down, Mandel returns in 2020 with the novel The Glass Hotel. While likewise technically genre (the reader can discover how), again, Mandel has focused her energy on the people who populate her story, and the layers that make them human.

Character study in the era of corporate fraud, The Glass Hotel is set primarily in the early Oughts, and looks at a few branches of relationships—family, friends, spouses, etc. living through a major, Enron-esque corporate scandal. Foremost on the screen, but only by a few frames, is a young woman named Vincent. Raised in atypical circumstances on a remote British Columbia island accessible to mainland only by boat, she reels, seemingly throughout her life, from the unexpected death of her mother when she was a young teen. Children to a broken marriage, her brother Paul relieves his existential angst through narcotics.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Review of Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion was for me one of those perfectly plotted novels. Characters, scenes, and situations are introduced at proper moments, the pieces shift and evolve in natural ways, characters retained enough realism to suspend disbelief, and the whole story reaches a climax that is satisfying, organic, and yet surprising in a way that puts a bow on the whole package. Not precisely a once in a lifetime novel, I nevertheless went into the follow up novel, Paladin of Souls (2003) with tempered expectations. It’s good I did.

Paladin of Souls is an off-shoot from Curse of Chalion, not a sequel. Taking Ista, Iselle’s mother from Chalion), it follows her on what begins as a religious pilgrimage, but becomes a journey like she never expected. Longing to escape the stifling of court formality, Ista organizes an incognito trip to the temple of her god, the Bastard. She invites a free-spirited courier named Liss and a priest to be her companions, and sets out on the road. The group do not get far, however, before disaster strikes. Plans cut off at the knees, Ista finds herself at Castle Porifors and the heart of a uncanny mystery. Dark magic straining at the edges of their world, Ista must trust her own dark powers and instincts to help those who helped her.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Review of Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey

Through four books in Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham’s Expanse series, if anything is clear it’s that the duo are able to produce consistently quality storylines and characters that evolve in interesting, entertaining ways inherent to the pseudo-realism of the setting. I keep waiting for them to slip up, but pleasantly have had to keep waiting. Unfortunately, the wait is over.

Nemesis Games (2015) is not a cliff. Franck and Abraham have not figuratively or literally lost the plot in the fifth installment of their series. Holden still does what Holden does. The protomolecule still hovers at the edge of complete understanding. And the Earth, Mars, and the Belt still feint, bluff, and stab at one another, occasionally drawing blood. And, if pushed, I would say the book tills new ground in the fact it splits the crew of the Roccinante up, forcing them to cope with various situations as individuals, thus avoiding the chance that the series slips fully into episodic mode: what role do Holden and crew play in this week’s saving of the galaxy??? Tune in to find out…

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Review of Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

One of the things Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham’s Expanse series of novels to date have done very well is to highlight the internal human conflicts which may or may not lead to physical violence. I wanted to write the words “racial tension” instead of “internal human conflicts”, but it’s a difficult thing to say given the fact the setting is in fact one big milieu of race. Belter, Martian, Terran—geographical lines not skin color are the social lines which have foremost segregated humanity on its march toward the stars, and attempts at coming to terms with a universe in which humanity is not the only sentient life. Emphasizing these social lines in a tightly confined, inhospitable setting is the Expanse’s fourth novel, Cibola Burn (2014).

According to wikipedia, Cibola is the Spanish name of the first region conquered by Vasquez on his bloody march across the Americas in search of gold. A portentous name for a novel, indeed the plot that plays out features a small but technologically advanced group arriving on the scene of a larger group of primitives. In Expanse terms, this equates to a UN scientific expedition, complete with a small security force, arriving on one of the new planets the protomolecule ring has given humanity access to and finding a small group of Belter squatters there mining lithium. Conflict erupting quickly on Inis/New Terra, James Holden (and crew, natch) are called in to mediate the situation as diplomats. Terrorist elements among the Belters and an antagonistic security leader ensuring tensions stay at peak, Holden has his work cut out for him. But pushing matters over the edge is that alien structures on the desert planet, thought long abandoned, appear to be showing signs of life.