Tag Archives: 2015 books

Book Review: The Builders by Daniel Polansky

The Builders is a wild ride from start to finish, and it’s my favorite so far of Tor.com’s new series of novellas. It’s a wonderful use of the form, and Daniel Polansky has managed to make a great many parts move like clockwork in a fast-paced, riveting revenge story with a deeply satisfying ending.

The best thing, on a technical level, about The Builders is Polansky’s clever use of its short length and the cinematic effect he produces by chopping the story up into short chapters, most only one or two pages long. There’s very little telling here, just showing, and each chapter is like a scene in a movie, painting a compelling picture that moves the story forward. It makes the book compulsively readable, and I could hardly bear to put it down.

There’s not much about The Builders that is particularly original or groundbreaking, but that is more than made up for by the sheer skill Polansky exhibits by arranging a collection of old tropes and a commonplace plot into a masterfully woven tapestry of a story. It goes to prove that, while there is very little new under the sun in the realm of storytelling, there’s definitely something to be said for doing something that’s been done before—but doing it very, very well.

Of course, this isn’t to say that everything about The Builders is expected. Indeed, I’ve never seen this kind of getting the old gang back together for one last revenge quest job story done in quite this way before. You know, with animals. It’s, perhaps surprisingly, pretty great.

Cute little forest animals have never been so grimdark, which also makes this the funniest thing I have read this year. ­­­I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace

Probably my favorite thing about this first round of Tor.com novellas has been the wide variety of different stories they have included, and this one is definitely the one that is most different from all the rest. I didn’t have any particular expectations for Envy of Angels, not having read anything else by Matt Wallace, and I increasingly find that I rather enjoy reading like this. It turns out that Envy of Angels is a smart and very funny urban fantasy.

I love any book that makes me laugh out loud, and Envy of Angels did so more than once. It is a seriously hilarious story involving a couple of down-on-their-luck chefs, a catering company whose only clients are demons, and an angel that tastes just like chicken nuggets. Basically, Darren and Lena are looking for work, they get hired on at Sin du Jour, and this story deals with basically their first day of work.

It’s been a good while since I’ve used the phrase “hijinks ensue” unironically, but it’s definitely appropriate here.

I can’t write too much about the plot without spoiling half the jokes, so I will just say that this is an excellent little story to read if you need a break from reading all of this year’s fantastic more-serious novels. I finished Envy of Angels in a single afternoon because I didn’t want to put it down, so I’d also suggest being sure to just go ahead and make sure you’ve got a couple of hours free when you sit down to it.

I won’t say that Envy of Angels is a masterpiece, because it’s not. Some of the characters are a little too one-dimensional, the tone of the story can be uneven at times, the prose is workmanlike at best, and I occasionally felt as if the author wasn’t quite as clever as he thinks he is. Still, this is a super fun read, and sometimes that’s enough.

I don’t see myself searching out Matt Wallace’s other work anytime soon, but I’m definitely looking forward to the next Sin du Jour novella. Goodness knows, by the end of January I’m sure I’ll be ready for another light, fast, humorous read to chase away the winter doldrums.

Book Review: Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter

Of Sorrow and Such is a thoughtful piece of work whose contemplative tone would be restful if its subject matter wasn’t so infuriating. I love a good witch story. The thing is, stories about women being mistreated make me actually angry. This one does so in a great way.

I adore witches of all sorts, and I have had a special place in my heart for these sort of vaguely historical witch stories since the first time I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond over twenty years ago. Edda’s Meadow is much less historical and much vaguer as a setting, but it definitely scratches that same itch. Also like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Of Sorrow and Such is a book that is fundamentally (even more so, really) concerned with the relationships between women and how we help each other survive (or not) in hostile, sometimes murderously, misogynistic societies.

I think what I love best about witch stories is the way that they work on multiple levels to examine ideas about how women exist in the world. To be a witch is both a metaphor and a depiction of a kind of reality, and not just a historical one. Angela Slatter’s practiced deployment of these ideas tells me that she knew exactly what kind of story she was writing, and she skillfully manipulates her characters and setting for maximum emotional effect.

Mistress Gideon is a great character. In many ways she’s exactly the sort of woman that can be a role model for readers, but Slatter never places that burden upon her protagonist. She’s therefore allowed to be much more than that, and Slatter gives us a main character who is kind and wise and motherly and loving and fiercely protective of her daughter and friends, but who is also not all-knowing, who can be cruel when she thinks she needs to be, and who is quite capable of murder.

The other women that surround Mistress Gideon are just as well-drawn. Her daughter, Gilly, is both lovable and infuriating. The other women we meet also have their own assortments of good and bad qualities. From the passionate young shapeshifter who desperately wants to be herself to her repressed spinster sister-in-law to the pastor’s wife who won’t leave her husband but also won’t submit to his literally poisoning her, these might not be women I want to be, but they are certainly lifelike enough that I can imagine meeting them.

This, really, is Angela Slatter’s gift. She brings these characters to life and I love them and want to read more about them. Though this is the only thing I’ve read by this author, it’s most assuredly only the first thing. I am very much looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Magazine Review: Nightmare Magazine, October 2015, Queers Destroy Horror! Special Issue

While I’m not a regular reader of magazines, I have become absolutely hooked on the various Destroy SF projects of the last couple of years. October’s Nightmare Magazine special issue, Queers Destroy Horror was another great entry into the series.

The surprise for me in reading this issue, though, was that I found myself less enchanted with the fiction this time around and much more interested in non-fiction pieces, most of which were excellent.  Sigrid Ellis’s powerful piece about her complicated relationship with the works of Stephen King, “The Language of Hate” is worth the $2.99 I paid for the issue all by itself. The same could be said for Lucy A. Snyder’s “The H Word: A Good Story” and Michael Matheson’s “Effecting Change and Subversion Through Slush Pile Politics.”

The roundtable discussion and the author spotlights as well were particularly excellent in this issue, although I do find it a little disingenuous how often some version of the phrase ‘I don’t think of myself as a [identity] author” appeared. I know that identity issues are complicated (I’ve got my own, thanks), but still. I just find it a little cliché, this coyness about how one’s identity informs one’s work, and I sometimes think that it gets in the way of more useful insights. That said, there are still plenty of interesting things being said here.

While the non-fiction sections of this issue were superb, that’s not to say there was no good fiction, either. Matthew Bright’s Dorian Gray tale, “Golden Hair, Red Lips,” was a great way to kick off the issue, and I loved Alyssa Wong’s story, “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers.” My favorite of the short stories, though, was “Dispatches from a Hole in the World” by Sunny Moraine. It’s a wonderfully dark and atmospheric story, as well as a delightfully inventive and timely piece whose specific subject matter works perfectly to place it in a particular time and space and address a particular community. I loved it, although I expect that those less interested in or connected to the goings on of the internet may not quite “get it.”

While most other entries in the Destroy SF catalog include flash fiction, Queers Destroy Horror opted for poetry instead. Unfortunately, I’m not terribly into poetry as a general rule, but I did enjoy Lisa M. Bradley’s “The Skin Walker’s Wife” and Amal El-Mohtar’s Snow White-inspired poem, “No Poisoned Comb.” When I do like poetry, I usually prefer these sort of narrative pieces, and these two really hit the spot.

As always, I highly recommend checking out all of the Destroy SF material. I don’t know that I’d say there’s something for everyone, but it’s a great project that consistently turns out high quality collections of work that puts a spotlight on ordinarily marginalized voices in genre literature. It’s great stuff, and it’s not too late to buy this issue.

Book Review: The Last Witness by K.J. Parker

The Last Witness is decidedly not my kind of book. If I wasn’t making a point of reading all of the Tor.com novellas in publication order, I would never have picked this one out based just upon its back cover copy. Needless to say, I’m glad that I’m working on this reading project, because I would be sad to have missed this little gem of a story.

The Last Witness deals with some rather heavy ideas about memory and storytelling—specifically the stories that we tell others and ourselves. It’s a fascinatingly speculative story with an intriguing perspective and a main character with a powerful magic that is the very definition of a double-edged sword. He can steal memories, but he remembers them all perfectly, himself. The story answers some of the questions that must be asked as a matter of course once you think up that kind of magic power.

As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about Parker’s wonderfully unreliable narrator, where he came from, and what having this power has made of him. There’s not a lot in this premise that is terribly surprising, but the story is well-constructed, and when the twist comes near the end it’s, well, not unexpected exactly, but so perfectly placed and executed that it provokes a deep emotional response as one is forced to change the way one thinks of the narrator and the story he’s told up to that point.

My biggest criticism of the book is that there are parts that are just plain confusing. Because of the mechanics of the narrator’s magical ability, he sometimes has a difficult time differentiating between his own natural memories and those that he’s gleaned through his work. While everything becomes clear by the end of the story, there were several times in the first third or so where I found myself struggling to make sense of it. This isn’t aided, either, by the fact that there are no chapters or other markers to clarify shifts between the narrator’s memories and other people’s memories that are being remembered by the narrator or between flashbacks and the present day events of the story. It’s not bad enough to make the story unreadable, but I could definitely see this being off-putting for people who (unlike myself) have no problem abandoning a book partway through.

I don’t expect that The Last Witness will be among my favorites of the Tor.com novellas, but I’m happy to have read it. It’s a solidly written story with an interesting protagonist, a clever twist, and a satisfying conclusion.

Book Review: Updraft by Fran Wilde

Updraft is an exciting, inventive debut novel with a delightful protagonist and a unique and totally unexpected setting. I often think that authors have to pick and choose where they want to do things that are new and fresh and different, and Fran Wilde has chosen really well here by writing a relatively pedestrian story in a fascinating new fantasy world.

Kirit has never wanted to do anything other than become her mother’s apprentice and learn to be a trader between the tower communities that make up the world of Updraft, but her plans are derailed just days before she’s supposed to take her flight test so she can travel freely around the cities. The plot of Updraft is a simple one, really, a fairly classic coming-of-age-with-complications story as Kirit finds herself forced into a role she never wanted and starts uncovering secrets that make her question everything she thinks she knows.

­You can tell when reading Updraft that Wilde has really thought about every aspect of this world, and probably her greatest achievement is in the society she’s invented for the people who inhabit her bone tower cities. The largely oral traditions are well-thought-out in a world where lack of trees and paper would make for minimal written communication, and this is also, to a large degree, where the major ideas and themes of the novel come from. In a world without written records, who controls information, who has the power, and how does that affect a civilization?

Also, there are huge monsters called skymouths that sound something like enormous aerial squids and something like flying gulper eels. And it’s never exactly spelled out, but the bones these people are living on might be growing out of the back of something even bigger.

While I’ve read reviews that class Kirit as an “unlikable” heroine, I adored her. It’s refreshing to read about a girl character who isn’t anxious from the beginning to sacrifice herself for some greater cause, and I love that Kirit has a bit of a stubborn, selfish streak. Kirit doesn’t want any part of being some kind of chosen one, and she only participates in “destiny” under duress and with no romantic notions about it. Kirit is a tough girl from the start, and Updraft is the story of how she grows into a strong woman with a well-developed sense of civic responsibility.

Also a nice change from many other books about young heroines, Kirit isn’t neatly paired off with a man at the end of the novel. Instead, she’s made over her society and stands ready to be a significant part of a future that is very different from their history up to this point.

So far, it looks as if Updraft is planned as a standalone novel, but I rather hope that Fran Wilde returns to this world and these characters. For all that this is a book that deals mostly with the uncovering of secrets, I still feel as if there’s a lot more to be explored. I, for one, would still like to know what exactly the bone towers are the bones of.

 

Book Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a technically superb and compulsively readable novel that might also be the most frustrating thing I’ve read this year. It’s a book that comes very close to greatness only to fail so slightly, yet so completely, that it’s actually pretty impressive.

The story opens with the invasion of the child Baru Cormorant’s small island nation by the militarily, culturally, and economically hegemonic Empire of Masks. Baru’s entire life is disrupted by this momentous event, and she sets out on a lifelong quest to infiltrate the Empire itself, understand its workings, and find a way to avenge the wrongs that were done to her family and her people.

It’s a fascinating story from the very beginning, and Baru is an incredible character. I have a penchant for unlikable women in fiction, and Baru is, frankly, pretty despicable by the end of this book. She’s inscrutable and calculating. She’s cold and selfish and manipulative and arrogant. She gives words like duplicitous and treacherous new meaning. Baru Cormorant will do anything, say anything, sacrifice anything–or anyone–in pursuit of her long term goals. I love her, of course.

The enormous cast of supporting characters is equally well-drawn and works to bring the world to life. Every character works, from Baru’s three parents to the mysterious “benefactor” who sponsors Baru’s education and career to the woman Baru loves. Like every other detail of The Traitor, each and every character seems meticulously planned, and they all move around and through Baru Cormorant’s life like clockwork.

The Empire of Masks (or Masquerade) looms large over all of the characters we meet, as they are all either colonizers or colonized (and sometimes both). The Traitor is a pretty amazing portrait of the dynamics and complexities of colonization, and the Masquerade touches every aspect of people’s lives. In addition to language and currency, the Empire of Masks imposes law and order, educational standards, religion, strict “hygienic” practices (namely, no homosexual or polyamorous relationships), and eugenic breeding schemes. Like all empires, the Masquerade is a mix of good and bad; it’s not devoid of benefits for some of the people it colonizes, but it definitely brings its changes whether the colonized like it or not. It’s interesting to see an author making such an honest attempt at really deeply examining how that colonization works and what it does to people.

Which brings me to one of the two subtle-but-significant failures of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. While the novel tries to handle its themes with delicacy and nuance, and is helped along in this by staying strictly in Baru’s point of view, I can’t help but feel that in the end it’s all treated a bit glibly. The evil empire itself is almost too evil to be really believable, and the book makes far too much of a point to highlight the benefits of colonization. Even the choice to center the narrative so firmly on Baru’s POV weakens the message, as Baru’s identity becomes increasingly confused over the course of the novel as she slips further and further inside the mask she’s chosen to inhabit. Her real opinions become more and more opaque as the story goes on, and her perspective becomes unreliable and even slightly unhinged.

Rather than an account of a morally grey character navigating a complex political situation, the book becomes a simple story of power and corruption. Because of the heavy focus on the worst atrocities of the Masquerade, it’s easy to root for Baru against it, but Baru’s own lack of deep feeling undermines the very idea that she is sincerely opposed to the Empire. This lack of sincerity becomes absolutely palpable in the last third of the book, and it leads to the second major issue I had with the novel:

While the specifics of the ending are well-thought-out and make complete sense, the broad strokes of the ending are so heavily telegraphed in the last 30-40% of the book that the “shocking twist” is more likely to elicit groans than gasps. It’s really obvious, honestly, that this was always the story that was being told and things were always going to play out this way. Unfortunately, it’s just not that satisfying.

Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned, but I’m just not sure I “get” this book. I kind of love that Seth Dickinson has done something ostensibly new and different, but how different can it really be if I saw the ending coming so many miles away? Baru Cormorant is an amazing character, but it’s hard to really make a story work when its subject doesn’t, ultimately, get to be even an antihero. By the end of the book, Baru has lost sight of any noble goals she may have had and abandoned every principle she may have started with, so the final impression I was left with was one of existential bleakness and hopelessness so complete that it was actually a little depressing.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the most fun I’ve ever had reading a book this hyper-tragic, which is something special in itself, but it’s definitely not the sort of thing I want to reread over and over again. It’s funny and smart and cleverly plotted and often insightful, but it also might crush you under an enormous weight of despair. It’s a book that I want to love wholeheartedly, but that ended up leaving me cold.