May 21 2014

Fae Release Date and Giveaway

I’ve got some information to share on the upcoming Fae anthology from World Weaver Press (which includes one of my short stories). It will be released in paperback and e-book formats on July 22, and to promote the book there’s now a giveaway promotion running on Goodreads. Six readers chosen at random from all those who enter will receive free copies. (U.S. and Canada residents only, I’m afraid.) Here’s a bit of a teaser:

Meet Robin Goodfellow as you’ve never seen him before, watch damsels in distress rescue themselves, get swept away with the selkies and enjoy tales of hobs, green men, pixies and phookas. One thing is for certain, these are not your grandmother’s fairy tales.

Fairies have been both mischievous and malignant creatures throughout history. They’ve dwelt in forests, collected teeth or crafted shoes. Fae is full of stories that honor that rich history while exploring new and interesting takes on the fair folk from castles to computer technologies and modern midwifing, the Old World to Indianapolis.

Fae covers a vast swath of the fairy story spectrum, making the old new and exploring lush settings with beautiful prose and complex characters. Enjoy the familiar feeling of a good old-fashioned fairy tale alongside urban fantasy and horror with a fae twist.

With an introduction by Sara Cleto and Brittany Warman, and all new stories from Sidney Blaylock Jr., Amanda Block, Kari Castor, Beth Cato, Liz Colter, Rhonda Eikamp, Lor Graham, Alexis A. Hunter, L.S. Johnson, Jon Arthur Kitson, Adria Laycraft, Lauren Liebowitz, Christine Morgan, Shannon Phillips, Sara Puls, Laura VanArendonk Baugh, and Kristina Wojtaszek.

So if that sounds like your cuppa, click on over to the giveaway, and good luck!


May 9 2014

Bow to the Mouse

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We went to Disneyland! And everyone was super nice to us and we had a great time. We actually went in April, but it’s taken me ages to write about it, mostly because I have a weird fascination with Disneyland that’s hard to explain.

It’s only my second trip to Anaheim, and my third to a Disney theme park. I went to Walt Disney World as a kid, with my mom. When I told her about our vacation plans, Mom said: “What I remember from that trip is that at the end of the day my face hurt, from smiling so much.”

I don’t remember that trip much, but when I went to Disneyland as an adult it was with Sam and my friend Frank Jones, who’s something of a Disneymancer. He has such a deep understanding of the place, its tidal ebbs and flows, that he was able to lead us from ride to ride as the crowds parted around us. Afterwards I told Frank that I was mostly struck by the psychology of the place. It’s obvious that every turn of path, every flower and shrub, has been carefully selected to keep the visitors happy and calm: and I wanted to know how they did that.

Frank pointed me to a couple of books: Designing Disney (A Walt Disney Imagineering Book) and Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance. These are both great! The first is a collection of interviews and reminiscences with some of the “imagineers” who built the park, while the second is a more academic analysis of Disneyland’s place in the cultural zeitgeist.

Both confirmed what I’d intuitively felt: every aspect of Disneyland—from the placement of physical structures and paths to the selection of colors to the “random” appearance of street performances and signature characters—is engineered to produce a particular response. Disney wants its guests to feel “playful”—excited, yes, but a trusting excitement rather than a nerve-jangly one. Disneyland offers reassurance but it never cedes control.

The parks are designed so that a fresh adventure beckons any way you turn, and no choice is wrong. At the same time, there’s a moralizing element to the landscape: Walt was a railfan, and the Disney theme parks subtly push an anti-car and pro-mass-transit ethos along with a relentless optimism in technology and progress. This futuro-utopianism has, ironically enough, became almost quaint. In modern sci-fi the naïve dreams of the Rocket Age have curdled into punk-anarcho-cynicism: but at Tomorrowland everything is still brightly painted and headed for space.

From Designing Disney’s Theme Parks:

If Disneyland as a whole—its spatial reassurances and human scale, its concern for providing visual pleasure, its walkability and fanatical cleanliness—was a critique of Los Angeles and the modern city, then Tomorrowland was supposed to be the spot where solutions to urban problems were dramatized. A place where Walt could try to articulate a future so compelling that his guests and their children would want to go home and make it all come true, down to the moving sidewalks and the dancing fountains…In the early 1960s, Walt’s inner circle of Imagineers (“imagineering” is surely the ultimate Tomorrowland word, redolent of rocket fuel and derring-do) remember the founder lugging books on city planning around with him and muttering to himself about traffic, noise, and neon signs.

And from the beginning, this can-do utopian spirit grated on the nerves of elite commentators. Then, as today, the worst possible crime among the upper classes is to be found tacky. Much better the evil than the ersatz.

Designing Disney’s Theme Parks quotes a review from the Nation in 1958:

“The overwhelming feeling that one carries away is sadness for the empty lives which accept such tawdry substitutes. On the riverboat, I heard a woman exclaim glowingly to her husband, ‘What imagination they have!’ He nodded, and the pathetic gladness that illuminated his face as a papier-maché [sic] crocodile sank beneath the muddy surface of the ditch was a grim indictment of the way of life for which this feeble sham represented escape and adventure.”

Do you know what I love best in that quote? It’s the [sic]. Because the snobbery and elitism of the passage really doesn’t need to be deconstructed: it’s self-caricature, it’s farce. (How dare Mr. and Mrs. Jones have the effrontery to publicly enjoy a day at a theme park, when they haven’t even the wherewithal to pack up Timmy and Polly for a real Amazon adventure?) But the [sic] is glorious. Because, of course, it really should be the English “paper mache,” as the essay’s in English. But failing that, the proper French is “papier-mâché”: the Nation reached for the more pretentious option and got it wrong. So that [sic] is just like a clean stiletto through the ribs. I love it.

And building on that deconstruction, the book crescendos:

The critic for whom all pop culture is inauthentic and crass, the by-product of grasping capitalism, is probably never going to like Disneyland. And the critic from whom the preoccupations of American mass culture over the past half-century—the TV Westerns of the 1950s, exploring the conflict between institutions and individuals; the Cold War tensions played out in the space race of the 1960s; the battle for the custody of earth’s green spaces; the preservation of the city—elicit only contempt won’t care much that the icons of the Disney parks were located on precisely those sore spots in the national psyche. Nor that these icons embodied, in an engrossing new medium, the themes of a half-century’s worth of thought, debate, and worry. That Disneyland needed to create an architecture of reassurance in the first place meant that the issues raised by the iconography of the park were, at some level, profoundly disquieting.

Fantasyland, in particular, was constructed as an environment that synthesized public, postwar ideas about myth, ritual, and psychic redemption. Its architecture fused postwar enthusiasms for imagination, horror, hallucination, and magic with deep-felt desires for safety, security, restraint, and direction.

Human beings have always been tempted to envisage a world better than the one they know. The literature on Eden, paradise, or utopia is vast. Besides fictional writers, humanist scholars, and social scientists (including Karl Marx) have tried to envisage life in the good place. Even the greatest minds have failed, however, in one test—important to William James among others—namely, that such a place should stimulate the imagination, that its effect must not dull too soon. Understandably, Walt Disney does not score total success where so many talented people before him have failed. Yet I would like to argue that he has succeeded to an extraordinary degree—that he has introduced elements into his conception of a good and happy place that others have missed.

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I don’t think for an instant that Disney should be above criticism. Any company that has such power as theirs, the ability to commodify the myths we tell our children, needs to be loudly and constantly and carefully critiqued. I do think, though, that there’s a kind of reflexive anti-Disney sentiment that’s founded purely on elitism. I would even argue that there’s something subversive about Disneyland and the wordless argument it makes in favor of density, transit, and an ethos of civic planning that puts human psychology at the center.

The thing my mom remembers most about Walt Disney World, after all these years, is that her face hurt from smiling so much. I wonder what my kids will remember?


Feb 3 2014

Book Review: Ancillary Justice

So I pretty much stopped reading books, when I abruptly fell down the rabbit-hole of depression. But I’m doing better now—not only reading again, but also writing—and I wanted to tell everyone about one of the most exciting sci-fi books I’ve had the pleasure to read recently.

Ancillary Justice has a ship’s AI as its narrator. Although actually it’s a bit more complicated than that, because the AI is housed in a human body—a tribute exacted by a conquering interstellar empire from one of its colonized peoples—and there’s strong hints that some of that person’s erased mind still influences the AI. It’s a fantastically nuanced portrayal, at once believably alien and heartbreakingly human. There’s also plenty of action and space-intrigue and murder and skulduggery, which makes the book fun, but it’s the quiet moments when the AI struggles to parse human gender cues, or carries on a subtly catty conversation with a space station, that make it special.

I liked Ancillary Justice so much that I started following the author’s blog, and it’s been really delightful. Here’s Ann Leckie on fanfiction:

It may seem premature. Presumptuous, perhaps. But I have reason to consider now an appropriate time to post my official feelings about fanfic of my writing.

I’ve given this a lot of consideration. I know it’s a topic that can sometimes be a bit contentious, and so I spent some time writing and editing my statement very carefully so that it fully conveyed my thoughts on the matter. Here it is. Please read it over carefully:

Ann’s Fanfic Policy:

You kids have fun!

I also felt strongly enough, when I read on her blog that some reviewers were criticizing Ancillary Justice for being “not all that significant,” to weigh in myself. Ancillary Justice is a book that exists in conversation with other books. It has a lineage. Specifically it belongs to a tradition of science-fiction books written by women that tackle the subject of gender by disembodying it. What does gender mean for a spaceship? What does mean for a culture where bodies themselves change regularly? Behind Ancillary Justice there’s The Left Hand of Darkness and The Ship Who Sang and other books too—and this doesn’t mean that Ancillary Justice is “insignificant,” just because it tackles a subject that has been addressed before. That’s like saying that every book where a young man grapples with a complicated relationship to his father is insignificant, it’s already been done.

Oh, but nobody would say that, would they? Because men and their daddy issues or their coming-of-ages or their midlife crises, those are timeless and ever-fresh. It’s only when women start to talk about gender that suddenly we’re “insignificant” when we write a book that’s knowledgeable about, that speaks to, the ones our literary foremothers wrote. So I wanted to say: Ancillary Justice is a very good book. And it’s a significant one as well.


Dec 10 2013

Formative Books

Whoops, I’ve really been neglecting my blog lately. We had a really nice Thanksgiving in the company of family and friends, and we are full steam ahead for Christmas: stockings have been hung, tree has been procured, and I’m getting my holiday baking on.

Meanwhile there’s a thing going around Internet asking people to list “ten books that have stayed with you.” The idea is not to rate books or put out a list of The Greats or anything, but just to name ten that have for whatever reason had a lasting impact on you. I’ve gotten some good reading ideas from other people’s lists, and I thought I would give mine.

1. Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin

This is my favorite book by my favorite author. I tend to like books that break the fourth wall, that engage the reader directly or that play with the relationship constructed between author and reader…kind of like in “The Neverending Story.” Always Coming Home does that. It’s a utopian novel where the reader is put in the position of an anthropologist, assembling various cultural artifacts to get a better understanding of the people whose stories are being told. I love this book immensely.

2. Ulysses, James Joyce

Ulysses does the Neverending Story thing too, which is why I like it so much. It’s a heroic journey set in the modern age, where the reader is forced to voyage along with the characters. When things are bleakest and hardest for the characters, the text itself becomes thorny and difficult: reading it is a painful experience. This is why a lot of people hate Ulysses. But there is still a narrative, still a story moving forward, glinting like a fish through the chaotic swirls of language, and if you can follow it through the rapids then you are rewarded with what might be the sweetest homecoming in all of literature. Or at least tied with Samwise marrying Rose and having thirteen children and being mayor of the Shire.

3. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

See above. Formative for me in the same way it was for so many others.

4. Tehanu, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Earthsea books are also among my favorites and shaped my love of reading as a kid/young adult. But Tehanu, the fourth book in the series, is something fairly special because it’s a product of the author returning to her world and taking a critical look at some of the generic tropes she’d used in earlier books. Where the first three books are cracking good fantasy, Tehanu is brutal and lived-in and real. And again, it’s a book that puts you through the wringer but pays off with a lovely, generous, transcendent ending.

Also, really awesome dragons.

5. Sandman, Neil Gaiman

Am I cheating by listing the whole comic series as one “book”? Starts off fairly weak, picks up steam as it rolls on, and ends like a thunderclap—or maybe the lash of a whip, since the ending is as precise and controlled as it is grand and powerful.

I like books that stick the landings.

6. Promethea, Alan Moore

Okay, here we’ve got another comic-book series that hits several of my literary kinks: fourth-wall-breaking, grueling story with a powerfully redemptive ending, plays with fantasy and mythic tropes. Promethea is also special to me because I was actually more than halfway convinced, as I read it, that Alan Moore was speaking to me directly. He is a wizard, you know.

7. Serpent’s Reach, C.J. Cherryh

C.J. Cherryh is an enormously prolific author. She has a tendency to write one story over and over again, with different setting and characters, but it’s okay because it’s a really good story. The Ur-Cherryh story goes like this: a human is for whatever reason sent alone into an alien society, where they must adapt to a foreign culture. The human ends up assimilating and serving as ambassador back to the humans, often in order to broker peace between the two species. Serpent’s Reach is my favorite iteration of this story because the majat (insectoid hive-mind aliens who communicate through pheromones) are so cool.

Cherryh is also really really good at writing relationships with power differentials and a lot of sublimated yearning, which I find hot.

8. The Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley

Okay, so there’s actually a lot of books out there that feature a heroine who’s overlooked by everyone but through her smarts, grit, and Unappreciated Intrinsic Worth ends up saving the day. This is the one that landed hardest for me. Aerin Firehair, you will always be the psychic redheaded dragonslaying polyamorous chemist-princess of my heart.

9. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia A. McKillup

Reading Patricia A. McKillup is like staring into a dragon’s eyes. Her writing is mesmerizing, sentences jewel-like in their crafted beauty, and it’s easy to lose track of exactly what’s going on. The story is good, old-school fantasy, but it’s McKillup’s dreamlike language that makes it so haunting.

10. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

While Holmes and Watson are obviously wonderful and enduring characters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing doesn’t particularly send me over the moon: the ending is kind of lame, actually, and there are no dragons. But The Annotated Sherlock Holmes introduced me not just to Holmes and Watson, but to fandom.

The Sherlockian Game (or just “the Game”) is a body of scholarship that takes as its founding principle the notion that Holmes and Watson were absolutely real people. The fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was quite cavalier in his approach to research and accuracy (even to the point of forgetting his own characters’ names!) only makes the Game more fun, because there are thousands of inconsistencies and apparent authorial errors that must be “explained” in order to keep the primary conceit going. The annotations in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes are a product of this Game.

I found The Annotated Sherlock Holmes in a library when I was a junior high school student, and while the stories were delightful, what truly nourished my spirit was the knowledge that there were other nerds out there. This was before the Internet; I was vaguely aware that “Trekkies” existed and I might be one, but I had never been to a convention, didn’t know what fanfic was, had never really met another of My Kind.

And yet in this book was evidence that someone—in fact a whole society of someones—could get really obsessive about fictional worlds just the same way I did, and that they could together build up a whole secondary world of supporting literature and metatextual analysis that was smart, insightful, poignant, and really, really funny. Throughout my teen years I was a paid-up subscriber to The Baker Street Journal, which is basically a ‘zine, although I didn’t know what those were either. I just knew that every time one arrived in the mailbox I felt less alone.

Anyway, what’s become really obvious to me as I wrote out this list is that I like myth and fantasy; I like writing that plays with language and with the structure of narrative; I like novels that take the reader on a difficult journey but end with uplift and redemption. And dragons. I really like dragons.


Aug 9 2013

Book Reviews: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. There are certain writers that I’ll read anything published by, and he’s on that short list. (In no particular order, it’s Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Alan Moore, Gail Simone, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robin McKinley, Patricia A. McKillup, Louise Erdrich, Zen Cho.) The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s first novel for adults in eight years, so it was an automatic buy for me.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I will say that I didn’t find the book transformative the way many reviewers apparently did. Gaiman is generally a spare and restrained stylist, and the book follows a narrative arc that’s fairly conventional for its genre (starting out very grounded in real-world experiences and gradually yielding to a fantastic element), so nothing about the novel was immensely striking as I read it. I wasn’t “blown away.”

Instead, I found myself left with a lot to chew on after the last page had turned. What I find most impressive about The Ocean at the End of the Lane is its vulnerability and honesty around the subject of childhood—the way children know so much more than adults would like to imagine they do, and yet can be so easily stripped of any power or agency by even the well-meaning adults in their world. And how a malevolent adult is a true horror. I would say that the book deals with a theme of abuse, though not didactically or allegorically or anything like that. But it is about the dawning realization that things are bad, very bad; the despair of reaching out for help and not being believed; and the terror and guilt and shame as the situation escalates and every attempt at self-defense proves futile. And, in the end, it is about the triumph and grace that comes when that little claustrophobic sphere of helplessness is shattered and the former child (because this process is one of coming-of-age) emerges into a world of connection and meaning and powerful interdependence vaster than his juvenile self would have ever been able to comprehend.

It’s a good read, but probably an even better re-read.

American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition)

Gaiman’s publishers have also recently put out an updated version of American Gods, restoring a number of cuts that were originally made due to the book’s length. The longer version, however, remains the “author’s preferred text.” And in this case the author was right.

American Gods is a huge, sprawling work, and most of the restored material is in some way ancillary to the main plot. But it’s important to the book nonetheless. Re-reading American Gods with the new material, I was mostly struck by Gaiman’s technical proficiency in maintaining a sense of urgency and forward narrative momentum even while weaving in and out of a huge cast of characters and a time span of centuries. Together the digressions work to create a sense of elegy and grandeur looming behind the protagonist and the foregrounded events of his story. It restores some of the sense of awe and wonder that really does belong in a book about gods—even diminished, near-forgotten gods.

American Gods is a markedly better book with the restoration of the original material. The new edition is very much worth getting.


Jul 3 2013

Book Reviews: Equations of Life, A Once Crowded Sky, The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox

Equations of Life

There was a time, while I was reading this, that I thought it was everything I’d ever wanted from a novel. It was about the point where (spoilers!) the hacker hero and his ladyfriend, a warrior nun, were dodging AI mechas on their way to rescue a yakuza princess.

I know, right? There are books I describe as “the kind of thing you will like, if you like that kind of thing”—it’s what I try to write myself—and Equations of Life is a perfect example of the form.

Strangely, though, as exhilarating as the novel was while I was reading it, it faded from mind almost immediately. I know there are sequels out there: I haven’t sought them out, and I probably won’t. That’s a weird place for a book to occupy. I enjoyed it very much and now I am done, thank you, I don’t want any more. Usually when I find an author I like I devour as much of their work as I can get, so I can’t explain my strange antipathy towards the subsequent books in this series…except to say that maybe I felt a little sugar-sick afterwards, as if I’d eaten a cupcake with too much frosting.

A Once Crowded Sky

Superhero novels have become their own subgenre. A few of these books—Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, Soon I Will be Invincible—are among my very favorite books ever. Others I simply remember fondly (Hero, Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain).

But A Once Crowded Sky didn’t hit for me. I was never persuaded by the storytelling, which is self-consciously “meta” and (for me) rendered much of the characterizations and setting false. I think a superhero story has to work on the first level, the tights-and-capes level, before it can go deeper: and this one didn’t.

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox

These books I almost didn’t want to review, because now I’m going to have to admit how much I enjoyed them.

I feel I would be on firmer philosophical grounds delivering a critique, as this is a case of a Western author writing “Chinese-flavored” material that combines well-researched and sourced material with a lot of stuff that was just, you know, made up. We’re talking here about everything from words, names, and phrases that were supposed to be Mandarin but patently weren’t, to spoof Confucian deities and texts. And I’m not comfortable with it—I think it’s stereotyping, I think it’s caricature—but the stories are really good, and really fun.

My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao and I have a slight flaw in my character. This is my esteemed client, Number Ten Ox, who is about to hit you over the head with a blunt object.

It’s delightful stuff, it really is. I can only shrug helplessly and say the material is clearly dated (it was first published in the Eighties) but retains a great deal of its charm.


Jun 30 2013

Book Reviews: Did Not Finish

I’ve fallen behind on my book reviews, so I think it’s time to clear out some of the ones I abandoned and probably will never get back to. These are the books I’ve given up on:

Eyes Like Leaves

I feel like I’ve been picking on Charles De Lint recently, so let me say up front that I’ve very much enjoyed some of his other books. (The Blue Girl, for instance, is one I’d recommend.) But I could tell by the second chapter this one wasn’t going to work for me. It’s actually a very early novel that wasn’t originally published, and in it de Lint’s style feels clunky and not yet quite professional.

An off-the-cuff heuristic I use for appraising fantasy novels is to skim a random page and see how many words are capitalized. There’s often an inverse correlation between quality and capital letters. In Eyes Like Leaves you get paragraphs like the following:

In his heart he knew the true struggle lay not with the Saramand, but with the Icelord of Damadar whose schemings had made raids such as this possible. Reflexively, his fingers shaped the Sign of Horns. He sighed. Not man nor wizard could stay the Mocker’s cold plans. For that the balancing strength of the Summerlord was needed. But Hafarl was gone and the Green Isles were at the mercy of the Lord of Winter.

See what I mean? Every fifth or sixth word is capitalized. It’s kind of a lazy shortcut towards worldbuilding—those capital letters say This Is Epic, but the work isn’t done to make it feel epic. The Icelord, aka the Lord of Winter, aka the Mocker (how many different titles does the dude need?) is bad, okay, and presumably our protagonist is going to have to fight him. Probably the protagonist will end up becoming the new Summerlord or whatever. The fate of the Green Isles is at stake. People will be throwing around the Sign of Horns like Texans at a football game. It all feels very rote and by-the-numbers. There’s nothing here that gripped me enough to keep reading.

The Affinity Bridge

Okay. Here’s the back-of-the-book synopsis, so you can see why I picked this one up:

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by unfamiliar inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, while ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen, and journalists.

But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side.

Queen Victoria is kept alive by a primitive life-support system, while her agents, Sir Maurice Newbury and his delectable assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes, do battle with enemies of the crown, physical and supernatural. This time Newbury and Hobbes are called to investigate the wreckage of a crashed airship and its missing automaton pilot, while attempting to solve a string of strangulations attributed to a mysterious glowing policeman, and dealing with a zombie plague that is ravaging the slums of the capital.

Awesome, right? Zombies. Airships. Steampunk London. Delectable Miss Veronica Hobbes. This all sounds like the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing—and I do.

Unfortunately, I found this one unworkable on a purely technical level. The writing itself was so clumsy and off-putting that I was unable to engage with the characters or the plot. There’s POV confusion, mixed metaphors all over the place, huge clonking wads of exposition thrust at the reader in the most intrusive way (one conversation between two characters is abruptly halted so that the narration can deliver a half-page summary of the economics of the airship industry in London and its colonies), and pretty much all characterization is accomplished through the tell-don’t-show method.

For example, page 25 gives us this sketch of the protagonist:

Newbury had been an agent of the Queen for nearly four years, and whilst he was typically engaged in some case or other—whether helping Scotland Yard or left to his own devices—he continued to maintain a position at the museum all the same. He was an experienced anthropologist, with a particular speciality in the religion and supernatural practices of prehistoric human cultures, and he often found his academic work had resonance with is work in the field. At present, he was engaged in writing a paper on the ritualistic practices of the druidic tribes of Bronze Age Europe. He’d hardly found time to touch it for a week, however, what with the string of bizarre strangulations occurring around Whitechapel and his desire to aid his old friend, Bainbridge, in the hunt for the killer. Discovering that the culprit may have supernatural origins had only solidified his resolve to see the case through to the end, and what’s more, the revelation put the case firmly and directly into his specific area of expertise.

Literally any other way of delivering this information would be more interesting and exciting. Our hero is a really smart guy and a specialist in old tribal religions? Perhaps we can learn that by watching him in action, or by having another character ask for his opinion. There’s a string of bizarre strangulations? Maybe we could learn about this when our protagonist is called to the scene of the grisly crime. What about his steely resolve and his expertise with the supernatural—can we learn about that through action and observation? No, no, we’ll just get a straightforward infodump while Newbury sits around his office thinking about the paper he’s not writing. Okay, that works too, I guess. I mean, maybe it might work for somebody. I was bored stiff.

If you’re in the mood for airships and zombies, I’d recommend Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker instead.

The Thief

I think I read this when I was younger, but re-reading as an adult I found the prose clunky (a common theme with books I abandon) and the characterization too thin to hold my interest. I noticed when I put in my Goodreads rating (one star, “did not like it”) that the consensus of reviews is that this book is only worth slogging through to get to the next in the series, which is supposed to be much better. So maybe I’m missing out.


Jun 9 2013

Book Reviews: Midnight Riot, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Frost Burned

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

I’ve had really good luck with books lately! I found two new series that I enjoy very much, both in genres that are clogged with mediocrity. One’s urban fantasy (set in the modern world) and the other traditional fantasy featuring a medieval-type setting. I really like both of these when done well, but the vast majority of new releases in both genres consist of derivative, formulaic drek, so finding a fun new fantasy series kind of feels like winning the lottery.

Midnight Riot

The Peter Grant books are directly comparable to the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher (another urban fantasy series that I quite like). Except that where Harry Dresden is a wizard P.I. in Chicago, Peter Grant is a wizard cop in London. I really enjoyed the British flavor in these books, and I found the main characters (Peter, his partner Lesley, and his wizardly mentor Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale) all compelling and well-rounded. The writing is workmanlike, nothing fancy, but perfectly serviceable. I plowed through Midnight Riot (which was originally published in the U.K. under the title Rivers of London) and its two sequels, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Under Ground, and I’m impatiently awaiting the next installment.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first in what looks to be a trilogy, though only the first two books are out so far. It follows the adventures of a master thief (the titular Locke Lamora) through a gritty medieval world. Author Scott Lynch made a little bit of a splash when he responded to a reader who accused him of “political correctness” for writing a female, non-white pirate captain into the series as a supporting character:

You know what? Yeah, Zamira Drakasha, middle-aged pirate mother of two, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. I realized this as she was evolving on the page, and you know what? I fucking embrace it.

Why shouldn’t middle-aged mothers get a wish-fulfillment character, you sad little bigot? Everyone else does. H.L. Mencken once wrote that “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” I can’t think of anyone to whom that applies more than my own mom, and the mothers on my friends list, with the incredible demands on time and spirit they face in their efforts to raise their kids, preserve their families, and save their own identity/sanity into the bargain.

Shit yes, Zamira Drakasha, leaping across the gap between burning ships with twin sabers in hand to kick in some fucking heads and sail off into the sunset with her toddlers in her arms and a hold full of plundered goods, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy from hell. I offer her up on a silver platter with a fucking bow on top; I hope she amuses and delights.

I read that, and in the minute that followed I went to Amazon and I bought The Lies of Locke Lamora. And if I have a criticism, it’s that Zamira doesn’t show up until halfway through the second book in the series (Red Seas Under Red Skies). But, you know, she’s worth the wait. I am grateful for Zamira Drakasha. I was, in fact, amused and delighted.

Frost Burned

On the other hand, I was disappointed by the latest entry in a different series I’ve been following. The Mercy Thompson books follow the adventures of a woman who can take the shape of a coyote, and the pack of werewolves that she runs with. It’s a wildly successful series and one that has (unfortunately) spawned a vast number of imitators. This is because the books are great fun.

Frost Burned, though, is the seventh entry in the series, and this one feels like treading water. It could’ve used better editing, too. Dialogue is clunky and characters do really stupid things just to push the plot along. I still like Mercy, but it felt like she wasn’t really there in this one. I half suspect Briggs of relying on an uncredited co-writer. Or maybe it’s just that she’s lost her passion for this series, but keeps writing Mercy Thompson books because they sell so well.

I think Briggs should branch out a bit, and come back to Mercy when she’s feeling inspired. Surely at this point they’ve both earned a break.


Jun 1 2013

Book Reviews: Below Stairs, Murphy’s Law, American Savage

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

Below Stairs

I loved this book. I picked it up because I’m going through a bit of Downton Abbey withdrawal, and it supplied exactly what I feel like that show is sometimes missing: a realistic view of the inequalities of the old aristocratic class system. But I didn’t expect that the book would be so fun.

Margaret Powell was born in 1904, took her first job in a laundry at the age of thirteen, and went into service as a kitchen maid a year later. She stayed in service for many years, eventually working her way up to the position of cook. So she’s kind of the “Daisy” of the house, except incredibly bright and incredibly funny. Her memoir is written in a breezy, conversational style peppered with fascinating anecdotes and witty commentary. It’s snappy, smart, and utterly engaging from start to finish.

Murphy’s Law

Mystery’s not my genre, for the most part, but my mom recommended Rhys Bowen to me on the grounds that I adore Dorothy Sayers. (Actually, she recommended a different series, but I got confused and picked this one up by mistake.) The thing is, Sayers was writing her own time period: her books have a marvelous period texture that’s utterly authentic. Below Stairs is wonderful for the same reason. By contrast, Bowen has obviously done some research, but the sensibility of her characters is very modern, and ultimately the historical setting feels thin and unpersuasive, at least to me. Mystery fans might find more to enjoy.

American Savage

And pivoting quite abruptly to the modern day: Dan Savage’s new book is largely a rehash—or a summation—of the themes he deals with in his column and his in blogging for the The Stranger. There are chapters here that cover sexual politics (ethical non-monogamy, the science and activism of bisexuality, sex-ed in schools) and politics-politics (Obamacare, the It Gets Better project, the fight for marriage equality) as well as a few personal essays. The personal material is the freshest, and I found it enormously sympathetic, especially Dan’s account of being at his mother’s bedside during her final moments. Still, there’s not a lot here that will be new to his regular readers.


May 27 2013

Book Reviews: Unnatural Creatures, The Woman who Married a Cloud, Practical Magic

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

Unnatural Creatures

I really like short stories. Conventional wisdom in publishing has it that short story collections don’t sell, but personally I seek them out: there are some ideas that aren’t really meant to be novels, and a well-crafted short story can pack a huge depth of emotion and resonance into just a few pages. A short story is just the right length to meet a character, explore an idea, or pay off a simple plot twist. And a short story collection can either show off an author’s versatility, or it can showcase variations on a single theme.

Unnatural Creatures does the latter. It’s an anthology featuring stories by some of the biggest names in fantasy—along with some new-to-me authors—and each story features a different fantastic beast. There are unicorns, dragons, werewolves, and a bunch of less-standard creatures (the dimension-hopping carnivorous plant was rather memorable). The stories were selected by Neil Gaiman and are almost all excellent. In fact, Gaiman’s own contribution (which has been published before in his own short-story collections), while amusing enough, was one of the weakest of the bunch. Taken as a whole Unnatural Creatures is everything a satisfying anthology should be: both broad and deep, and full of characters that are interesting to meet and don’t outlast their welcomes.

The Woman Who Married a Cloud: The Collected Short Stories

This collection, on the other hand, failed from my perspective. I surprised myself by disliking it as much as I did, since I thought Carroll’s novel Bones of the Moon was haunting and masterful. But these stories were choppy—one ended so abruptly, and with such pointlessness, that I actually wonder if the Kindle edition might not have dropped some pages—and were mostly unpleasant even when they felt complete. I don’t need all my stories to have happy endings, but me to there’s a distinction between fiction that looks at the struggles and sorrows of human existence and finds some kind of meaning or redemption or catharsis there, and nihilistic fiction that simply wallows in unhappiness. These stories felt like wallowing, to me.

Practical Magic

As guilty-pleasure books go, this one is aces: it’s written in a breezy, catchy style that keeps the pages turning, and the plot is loaded with magic and romance. I say it’s a “guilty” pleasure because it’s really a chick lit book at heart—there’s nothing the least bit challenging here, and the male characters especially come across less like believable human beings and more like Love Interest-shaped tokens dropped into the narrative at the appropriate points. But it’s a great beach or airplane read.