What I’ve Been Reading – 5/4/16

Happy Hump Day! Negativity’s got me kind of down. God knows I’ve been participating in plenty of it. With a certain orange-hued demon grabbing the GOP nomination for president, and the Rabid Puppies pooping all over the Hugo Awards floor, it’s hard not want to lash out.

So instead of that, I figured I’d highlight some of the great books I’ve read recently!

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s debut novel took the fantasy world by storm. It’s up for Best Novel in this year’s Nebula Awards and it’s got a boatload of critical praise to boot. Because of the language several reviewers used in regards to the book, I expected something paradigm-shattering. In that sense, Liu’s novel starts slowly. There’s an emperor, there’s a smattering of conflicting nations (though the world is Asian-inspired as opposed to European), there’s a roguish hero. I almost put it down a couple of times, actually, as the first quarter or so felt too bog-standard for me to enjoy.
I’m so glad I stuck with it! Once the book found its feet, I discovered a novel focused not on a single character arc, but a series of vignettes exploring several viewpoints in a continental war. Contrasted with something like Game of Thrones, these points of view are more limited in scope, but I didn’t mind that at all. Nearly all of them brought something interesting to the table, and whenever I found myself growing a bit weary of the central plot, Liu snuck in a new, exciting character or setting to perk me up.
Now, I have some mild criticisms. The novel felt very “male” to me–likely by design, as the primary conflict between the two main characters is arguably a conflict over the definition of masculinity. But even the female characters who were present felt flat. A princess who discovers her sexuality is a source of power! A wife who … is a wife! In the last quarter of the book, we’re introduced to a woman general, but even so I felt a little disappointed on the gender equality front. Still, not everyone will have issues with this.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders, the founder and former editor-in-chief of io9, just left the site to pursue noveling full-time. And while I’m morose as hell about her departure–she was absolutely the soul of that site–I can’t say it was a bad decision. If her debut is any indication, she’s got a long career ahead of her.
Birds is a wildly different fantasy novel than Grace of Kings. While the former is sprawling and epic, Birds is focused, insular and, dare I say, positively literary. Her prose shines, as do her characters who we see grow from confused, struggling adolescents looking for their place in the world, to confused, struggling adults looking for their place in the world (I joke because life doesn’t get particularly easier for the two of them, but there is character development, I promise). The novel hinges on the tension between magic and science, which feels like a particularly apt theme for a former io9 editor, as Science Fiction vs. Fantasy is an evergreen discussion topic around those parts.
The book won’t necessarily be for everyone. I wasn’t lying when I called it literary, so if you’re looking for something faster, bloodier and littered with twists and turns, this probably isn’t your cup of tea. And there’s a fair amount of absurdism–which is absolutely not a criticism, but it’s not quite my favorite style, and I could imagine others being turned off even more by it.


Hey! It’s May the Fourth, Star Wars Day, and I’d have to shut down my blog if I didn’t talk about some Star Wars books. First, one I’ve read: Battlefront: Twilight Company, by Alexander Freed, a loose, loose (I can’t overstate how loose) tie-in to the video game of the same name. This one starts out super slow, especially for fans of military sci-fi. I’d say the book doesn’t even get interesting until the halfway point (the choice to include a Stormtrooper POV and a series of main character flashbacks that never amount to anything pad the book’s length, but not its depth), so it’s hard for me to give an unqualified recommendation. 
However, those who stick with it will find some fascinating character development after the midpoint, especially in the character of Challis, an imperial defector who nevertheless isn’t really on board with the rebel cause. The existence of Twilight Company, a group of rebels with far more allegiance to their platoon then the Alliance, is similarly engaging. It’s readable for Star Wars fans, and likely enjoyable for Star Wars military sci-fi fans, but I wouldn’t hold it up as a master of the form.
Also new this week is Bloodline: New Republic by Claudia Grey, the author of Lost Stars, which is considered by many people, myself included, to be the best novel of the new Star Wars canon. I haven’t yet had time to start in on it, but a novel about Princess Leia? That ties in directly to The Force Awakens? That has her politicking and fighting the powers-that-be? Uh, yes please. I will have one of those, please.

Paladins of the Storm Lord by Barbara Wright

Friend of the blog Barbara Wright has a new book out this week: Paladins of the Storm Lord. This faraway science fiction tale is bit of a departure from her previous fantasy/romance novels such as The Pyramid Waltz and Thrall, but is certainly no less engaging. In fact, I think it’s her best work to date! It’s got spaceships, magic powers, mouthy military captains, arrogant gods and plenty of crazy critters as well. It’s also got lots of people trying to get in each others’ pants–and hearts! What more could you ask for?
I devoured this one as a beta reader, and while I haven’t yet read through the published version (it just arrived on my door this morning!), I’m looking forward to experiencing the story again.
And, uh, rumor has it that a sequel might be in the works 🙂
That’s it! I’m currently reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it’s still too early to give an impressions there. Any of you reading anything good lately? Any different opinions on the books above? Feel free to let me know!

2014 Hugos

So the nominations for the 2014 Hugos have been announced. You can see a full list here. There is some good stuff. There is also some … bad stuff. If you want to vote, you can still sign up for a supporting membership through LonCon.

Of course this is the genre fiction community and we can’t have anything without lots of controversy. This one involves a racist shitbag and literary nobody Vox Day (What? You haven’t heard of him?) asking his racist shitbag fans to vote him in,a campaign along with conservative shitbag and much more popular and better writer Larry Correia. So yeah. Vox got his nomination and people are pissed. The general response has been a promise to vote his story below “Give No Award,” which basically means you’d rather they give no award this year than give it to Vox. Which, I can’t really blame those people.

There have been a couple interesting reaction posts in the blogosphere. The first comes from Scalzi, who essentially says that, no, asking for nominations is not “rigging the vote,” and at this point, Vox’s work should be judged on its merits. I agree with the first part. And I guess I mostly agree with the second, in that I will be reading Vox’s story and basing my vote on the work itself, rather than the fact that it’s by a horrific human being who literally called a black woman a “savage” and has absolutely no shame about it.

The part that irks me about Scalzi’s post, though, is that it get uncomfortably close to the whole merit defense people use to justify a lack of diversity. “Well, if African Americans/women/gays were better at X, there would be more of them in X! You can’t complain that we don’t have enough diversity, because all these straight white men just happened to be the best candidates!” And I know Scalzi’s one of the people that gets it, and that’s not what he’s saying. But it still seems uncomfortably close. Yes, we can judge Vox’s story on its merits. But the fact that the nominations aren’t based on merit is pretty bad.

Another reaction I really like is Kameron Hurley’s. I don’t have much to say about it — you should read it — but I will comment that I totally agree that the Wheel of Time being nominated for Best Novel (that’s the ENTIRE SERIES recognized as a single serialized work) is more absurd even than Vox or Correia’s nominations.

Finally, the most HILARIOUS reaction comes from Vox Day himself. Seriously. Just check this shit out. I don’t want to respond point by point, but I do want to point out some of the more gut-busting entries.

3- [Our] purpose …  to prove that the awards are a mere popularity contest, contra the insistence of those who have repeatedly asserted they are evidence of literary quality and the intrinsic superiority of the nominated works. We have shown that it is.

Vox is straight up admitting that his work has no evidence of literary quality. That does not make me excited to read it.

Referring to someone’s criticism of his story’s theology: And anyone who is sufficiently educated will recognize that the theology is not “adolescent”, it is paraphrased Thomas Aquinas from the Summa Theologica.

Bahahahahaha …. *breath* …. BAHAHAHA. Wow. Yes, Thomas Aquinas! Basic theology written almost 1000 years ago and that most people read in high school, or as a college freshman. Yup. That’s absolutely the height of fresh and complex theology. Fuck!

The Wheel of Time is dreadful. It has always been dreadful, in sum and in part. I find it mildly amazing that people are more offended about my novelette being nominated than that gigantic insult to literature.

I … agree with Vox Day. Hm.

Anyway, I’ve got a lot of reading to do, especially when the Hugo Packet gets sent out. I won’t be reading the entire Wheel of Time series (seriously, I just won’t — I’ve gotten far enough to know it’s not for me), but I do plan to read as much of the rest as I can.

Review: “Deepsix,” by Jack McDevitt.

“That anyone could believe the human animal was designed by a divine being defies all logic… The more pious among us should pray that next time he does the job right. But we might in justice concede that there is one virtue to be found in the beast: he is persistent.” -Gregory MacAllister, “Bridge with the Polynesians”

Anyone familiar with my media consuming preferences knows how much I loathe entering a series from any point other than the very beginning. Every episode of a television show must be watched in perfect order, regardless of the strength of its continuity. I don’t really care that 95% of Bones episodes are self-contained, thank you, please change the channel until I’m caught up on this season.
So it was an interesting experience for me to find out halfway through Deepsix, the second novel in Jack McDevitt’s (unofficially named) Academy series, that I was missing out on a previous novel. That neurotic part of my brain that forces me to research chronology before reading a comic book immediately demanded I slam shut the cover and rush out to grab the first book, The Engines of God. However, after calming myself with a small cup of organic chocolate pudding, I realized that McDevitt had, thus far, done such a good job with characterization and (brief and rarely necessary) summaries of previous events, that I didn’t feel lost or out of the loop. So I pressed on (and God help the author if I ran into a “See ACADEMY #1!” footnote).
Deepsix is a deceptively simple tale — so simple that it’s somewhat difficult to discuss without giving away the twists and turns of the plot. The story revolves around the titular planet, a world teeming with exotic-yet-familiar wildlife, and the efforts of a small group of characters investigating it. Not much needs to be said. The expected plot points are hit: getting on, exploring, and getting off. Like any good story, the characters make the experience. And the characters here are fantastic.
Our main protagonist is Priscilla Hutchins, intergalactic pilot and star of McDevitt’s previous novel. To be honest, while Hutchins’s determined but down-to-earth attitude is perfect for the main viewpoint character, she’s not the most interesting member of the group. That distinction belongs to Gregory MacAllister, the most widely-known and widely-hated writer in the universe. I fully expected the misogynistic, misanthropic blowhard to play the “annoying sidekick” throughout the journey, finally redeeming himself in an unexpected act of heroics at the end while muttering “I … I still don’t like women!” at the end while the female characters bombarded him with appreciative kisses. This doesn’t happen. Instead, it’s an absolute joy to see how MacAllister’s many complaints about humanity are more philosophical than pragmatic. He doesn’t change drastically over the course of the novel — only our perceptions of him change. The rest of the characters are equally fleshed out, but considering MacAllister’s interesting persona and strong voice, Deepsix is clearly his book.
As is customary in most science fiction stories, the plot drives the narrative more than the characters. It’s simple, but it works — the team explores the planet, and in the end, must devise a way to get offplanet. The exploration is never boring, and it often raises a number of questions and mysteries about the inhabitants of Deepsix. Enough of these questions are left unanswered to keep the reader’s imagination, but enough are answered to avoid frustration.
Of course, no story can come without criticisms, and I have a few: First of all, the book is dense. It is dense in words, which isn’t so much a problem. The 500-odd (paperback) pages fly by, especially near the climax, when McDevitt ratchets up the tension. However, it is also dense in the number of characters and settings thrown into the mix. This issue resolves itself after the first hundred pages or so, when the author decides which characters to really focus in on. It really grates for those first few chapters, though. Characters are introduced with full names, viewpoint sections, and personality quirks — and then never heard from again. It’s damn overwhelming to try to keep track of them before you realize which ones you can forget about.
We’re also treated to an entire subplot — not even a subplot, really, as it takes up at least half of the book — about the flight crew’s efforts to weld some metal to their ships. I realize these sections are meant to give us a breath from the fast pace of the ground team. And these sections might be highly interesting to a civil engineer or hard, hard-scifi fan, as I’m sure all the descriptions of stress and atmospheric pressures and such are authentic. Nevertheless: 250 pages. About welding. I could have done with only, say, 100 pages, and been just fine.
As slow as these sections can be, however, McDevitt’s fleshed-out characters and compelling situations rise above it. I can’t recommend this book enough — I don’t remember enjoying a science fiction novel this much since Speaker for the Dead (and I reaaaaaally enjoyed Speaker for the Dead). Buy it and read it — no matter what your personal neuroses tell you.