Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews

Gunmetal Magic is a sort of spinoff of the Kate Daniels novels.  It features Andrea, a friend of Kate's who was formerly a Knight of the Order, but was kicked out when they discovered she was a shapeshifter.  And she's not just a shapeshifter, but a beastkin, a type of shapeshifter generally reviled by other shapeshifters.  So, needless to say, she had a difficult childhood and is generally wary of shapeshifters.  Plus her mate, Raphael, has decided that she has betrayed her kind by not choosing the shapeshifters over everything else.  She's a very miserable woman.

I was hesitant about reading this one, because I never liked Andrea very much in the Kate Daniels novels.  So I wasn't willing to buy this, but I got it from the library.  And, much to my surprise, I generally liked it.  Andrea, like Kate at the beginning of her series, is a lonely, damaged killer with superhuman strength.  She and Kate have formed a business doing what they had previously done for the Order -- killing dangerous monsters.  But business has been slow, so they take any job they can get.  They also have an assistant, Ascanio, an adolescent hyena shapeshifter who is altogether too hot for sex and violence.  They are trying to keep him out of trouble and to get him to grow up a little in the process.

In order for this to be Andrea's story rather than Kate's, Andrews had to mostly remove Kate from the scene.  We hear that she's got her hands full with something else, and at the end of the novel there is a story about what Kate and Curran were busy with while Andrea was dealing with the big crisis.

Andrea is hired by the Pack Enforcer to investigate a killing of four shapeshifters.  Unfortunately they were working for her ex, Raphael, who she really doesn't want to have to work with.  The novel is thus not only about Andrea trying to figure out who killed the shapeshifters, and why, it also leads to Andrea and Raphael reconciling and deciding to be together again.  As these novels always do, it involves ridiculously overpowered bad guys with fairly complicated (dare I say nonsensical?) motivations.  Andrea is on the verge of death a couple of times, but still is too stupid to rest and recover, instead charging right back into danger in a way that could only be labelled, well, stupid.

As I said about one of the Kate Daniels books, it is a bit of a mystery to me why I enjoy them so much.  The plots don't necessarily make sense, the actions of the characters also frequently don't make sense to me, the final showdowns against the ridiculously overpowered bad guys are just over the top, and yet somehow they are incredibly enjoyable.  I have no idea why.  I should be growling and throwing these books across the room by any objective standard, but somehow the whole is better than the sum of its parts.  And so I found this book about a character I don't even like surprisingly readable and enjoyable.

On the other hand, I noticed that the novel and the story at the end seemed overly preoccupied with children, and that did get on my nerves.  Kate and Curran take incredible risks in their story to save a child, which is apparently so much more urgent and important than saving an adult.  Likewise solving a crime becomes much more important and emotional to Andrea when she discovers that one of the witnesses had a baby.  Apparently the woman's life itself was not valuable enough, it is only her connection to a child that makes her death particularly tragic.  Bah.  That was freaking annoying, and somewhat insulting.  And then again, the bad guy shows how bad he is by kidnapping a child to get the shapeshifters to do what he wants.  Because he's bad, you know, in case we hadn't noticed.

Otherwise, though, it was surprisingly entertaining, but probably one should read the Kate Daniels novels first, because there's a lot of backstory in them that makes this novel make sense.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Survival by Julie Czerneda

Last weekend I attended Minicon, and Julie Czerneda was the guest of honor.  She was a great guest, cheerful and enthusiastic and with interesting things to say, and helped salvage a weekend with otherwise fairly appalling programming.  As I commented on my review of The Best of All Possible Worlds, I have been searching for SF written by women for an adult (not YA) audience.  And last weekend reminded me that Czerneda is such a writer, so I decided to give her another try.  Years ago I read A Thousand Words for Stranger and, though I liked it okay, I didn't love it so much to lead me to seek out her other books.

I also tried this book when it came out (2004) but gave up on it.  As I recall I found the protagonist a bit annoying and the pace too slow.  Lots of pages passed with nothing much happening, and it seemed like Czerneda was stretching things out unnecessarily to me.  (And at the time lots of SF & fantasy writers were writing really long books and then the publishers were chopping them up into two or three installments, so I had reason to be suspicious of a book that seemed to be dragging and was labelled as the first of a series.  Thankfully the trend has shifted back toward shorter books, unless you're George R.R. Martin or Peter Hamilton.)  I still vastly prefer shorter books with a faster pace and stand-alones rather than series.  This is one reason why I almost never read secondary-world fantasy any more.

This was the book that my sort-of local Barnes & Noble had on their shelf, though, so I decided to give it another try.  And I found I had the same problems with it that I had the first time, but I persevered.

The main character is a biologist named Mackenzie Connor.  She lives and works at a research facility along the Pacific coast staffed by scientists and grad students.  Her particular field of interest is salmon.  A friend, Emily Mamani, has some new equipment that should help her monitor the salmon run, and she is looking forward to working on it.  And so when a diplomat shows up with an alien in tow and disrupts her work, she is very, very angry.  She doesn't care about aliens.  She doesn't care much about other people.  She really doesn't care about anything other than salmon.  And so when the alien reveals that there is a threat to the existence of life across the galaxy and he needs her expertise to stop it, she is annoyed.  Because Mac's reaction to nearly every interaction with other people for the first half of the book is anger, argument, and confrontation.  Which I got tired of very quickly.

Her friend Emily is very puzzling, because she seems to be experiencing a range of emotions and reactions that Mac (and the reader) don't understand.  Mostly she was just incredibly pushy, nosy, and interfering.  And then she is apparently kidnapped by aliens, which serves to make Mac even more angry and emotional than before.  Sigh.  Emily appears again, briefly, a couple of times later in the book, but she is like a wizard in an old-fashioned quest novel: behaving cryptically, refusing the answer questions, and disappearing again.  Even at the end of the story (except it's not the end, is it, because this is the first in a series) I really didn't understand what she was up to.  It was also never clear to me just why the alien thought that Mac, of all the scientists in the universe, was the one who had the expertise he needed.

I suppose, emotionally, that this feels a bit like a quest novel, as well.  Mac is jolted from her comfortable setting by forces from outside, she's told that she is the special one who can make a difference, she goes on a journey with high stakes, has harrowing experiences, and returns home again vastly changed.  The larger questions are not solved at the end of the book, since this is the first of a series.

The book was emotionally engaging, but left me with a dissatisfied, knotted-up feeling at the end, wondering if I had missed something vital that would have given some necessary resolution.  In fact, I went back and re-read a couple of chapters to make sure I hadn't missed something.  I don't think I did, but Czerneda's writing style is not entirely compatible with my reading style, which may have led to some problems with my comprehension.  There is a lot of description, and as I rarely visualize when I'm reading, I always have trouble with long descriptive passages.  They just don't sink in.  I'm not seeing what is being described, and when there is a lot of description, my eyes just sort of skitter over paragraphs, searching for the important stuff (that is--what the characters, say, think, and do).  Sometimes I have to go back over a section like that a couple of times to make sure I didn't skip past something important in the midst of the chaff.  This is probably why the book seemed too slow-paced for me the first time I tried it.  And there is definitely unnecessary page-filler, such as the entire first chapter.  Also there are odd and largely irrelevant flashbacks from time to time.

I don't want to slam this book, though, as it is actually a pretty interesting story with interesting aliens and quite a lot of action.  If you can get through the first few chapters, it turns into a quite entertaining adventure with some really strong emotional moments.  Unfortunately I'm still not sure I completely understand the ending.  (Spoiler: it turns out the people we think are good guys may actually be the bad guys, and vice versa.  But things get a little confusing and apparently both races just disappear and Mac and the readers don't get all the details.)  That said, I was pretty entertained, and will probably look for the next one.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Frost Burned by Patricia Briggs

Hooray, a new Mercy Thompson novel!  I like them so much better than the Anna and Charles books.

There will be some spoilers in this review, probably.

Frost Burned begins with Mercy and her stepdaughter Jesse out shopping at midnight for the Black Friday sales.  They are involved in a minor auto accident, and when they try to call someone to pick them up, no one answers.  All the werewolves have gone incommunicado.  This is, obviously, a very disturbing thing.  So Mercy, as the defacto alpha until Adam can be found, has to protect those who matter to her and find out what happened to the pack.  She is quite capable, of course, and isn't averse to calling in favors from other powerful friends.  (You will note that I am being vague about the exact nature of the problem--I don't want to spoil it too much for anyone who hasn't read the book yet.)

Reasons why this book is awesome:

  1. It's a Mercy novel.  'Nuff said.
  2. It is free of some of the yucky pack politics in some of the earlier books.  This is one reason why I also enjoyed the last one, River Marked.
  3. Asil.  Awesome.
  4. Mercy deals with many problems without relying on werewolves for muscle.
Reasons why it is somewhat less than awesome:
  1. The ultimate reasons and motivations for some of the things that happened were even more convoluted than usual in these novels, and I'm still not sure I really understand why they were doing some of what they were doing.
  2. Two days after reading it, I am having trouble remembering all the details (though, to be fair, I re-read the whole series in the meantime, and they have kind of run together in a big Mercy mush in my head).  
  3. Though this series is my favorite urban fantasy, and I think they're great, these novels are still, ultimately, about how Mercy is special and can do things no one else can, including others of her kind.  And when you read a bunch of them in a row, as I just did, it becomes really too coincidental to be believed that in situation after situation, Mercy is the one who is uniquely qualified to deal with everything, whether it's fae magic or vampire hunting or ancient hungry spirits wakened from the depths.  Urban fantasy has far too many special snowflake heroines, even though I do enjoy some of them (mostly this series and the Kate Daniels novels). 

I think I wil re-read this one again, slower this time, so that I can absorb it more thoroughly.  I'm getting too tired to be very coherent, so I will just wrap up by saying that the book is a very enjoyable read, and this is a good entry in the series, and anyone who has enjoyed the others will probably enjoy this one, as well.  I had a lot of fun reading it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

This has the distinction of being the most expensive ebook I've ever bought.  I saw it at Barnes & Noble a couple of weeks ago, and decided on impulse to get it.  As it is out in hardcover ($25), that was more financial risk than I usually like to take on an author I haven't read before (the irony is that if I ordered it from Barnes & Noble's website I could have gotten it for $14, which is weird and may be partly why B&N is in trouble right now--they seem uncertain whether to be a brick & mortar business or an ecommerce business, and treat customers differently depending on how you buy from them, which naturally leaves customers with ambivalent feelings about them).  Given that it was $25 for an author I've never tried before, and I actually prefer reading in e-format, I decided to get the ebook for $13.  That is still more than I am willing to pay for an ebook, so usually I would have waited until it was cheaper, or found a library copy or a used copy to read. But this was an impulse buy, so I threw caution to the wind and hoped it was worth in investment.

Fortunately, it was.  I've been looking recently for science fiction by women, and not finding a lot.  There is lots of fantasy, dark fantasy, YA, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance by women.  But actual science fiction by women written for adults is in surprisingly short supply in the places where I've been looking.   (Speaking of which, I would welcome recommendations of science fiction work by newer women authors--I've been reading the genre for thirty years, and am pretty sure I already know about the ones who've been around for a long time)

Lord could just as easily have made this book a fantasy if she wanted to.  It's got psionics and different types of humans who could just as easily have been magic-wielding other races, plus this could easily have been written as a quest novel.  But I'm very glad that it was written as SF instead of fantasy.  And I've got to admit, I have a soft spot for psionics.

In this setting, there are four different varieties of humans, only one of which are Terrans.  In addition to Terrans, there are the Sadiri, who are telepathic and reserved and strongly value mental and emotional discipline; the Ntshune, who are empathic; and the Zhinuvians, who are more technologically inclined and sometimes have mental abilities that can be used to manipulate other people, if I understand correctly.

The story takes place after the destruction of Sadira by the Ainya, a cousin-race to the Sadiri.  The only survivors were those who were off-planet at the time, who were mostly pilots, scientists, judges and officials, and members of religious orders.  It was devastating to them, of course, and the remaining Sadiri are now trying to find a way for their race to survive.  And one of the problems they face is a gender imbalance among the survivors--there are more men than women.  And so a group of them are sent to settle on the planet Cygnus Beta, "a galactic hinterland for pioneers and refugees."  Cygnus Beta is a melting pot of the races, and there are cities and little settlements widely scattered across the planet.  The Sadiri are hoping to find taSadiri -- members of their race who left Sadira in the past and settled elsewhere, and do not practice their mental disciplines, but are genetically similar enough, they hope, to produce and raise a new generation of Sadiri youth, with their physical and mental characteristics.

Our protagonist is Delarua, a government official who is assigned to be a liaison with the Sadiri homesteaders from the health and agriculture department.  When a party is formed for a one-year mission to visit various communities across Cygnus Beta to look for possible mates for the Sadiri, Delarua is assigned to it.  Their mission comprises the majority of the book.

They travel far and wide, and visit many communities of strange people and have many experiences, both good and bad.  As the mission wears on Delarua grows closer to the four Sadiri in the party, and particularly a man named Dllenahkh.  This is a story about the Sadiris' attempts to salvage their culture and the survival of their race, but it is also a book about grief, and the sort of doubts you have when you are no longer young and wondering if you've made the right decisions in your life and what to do next, and the gradually-developing regard between two people who are unable to openly express it.  It's a subtle book, building slowly and mostly satisfyingly.

This was, unfortunately, one of those instances where I liked the first half of the book better than the second half.  There is a point where Delarua does something I didn't much like, believing it to be necessary.  And perhaps it was--she was trying to do the right thing.  But I didn't particularly like that or the fallout from it, and my enjoyment from that point on was less than the earlier parts of the book.  I also note that, though I really did like this book a lot, off the top of my head I can think of at least four occasions when Delarua needed to be saved by Dllenahkh.  He came through for her on each occasion, but I would have probably liked the book even better had there been less power imbalance between them. This is a minor quibble, though, as I thought that generally the relationships between all the characters were well done and believable and nuanced.

I do have a problem with the cover, however, which of course is not Lord's fault.  The blame for that one falls on an art director at Del Rey, I expect.  The cover is white and gray.  It has half a woman's face on it, who is presumably supposed to be Delarua.  Her skin is white, or at least pale, with a little smoky shading around the eye, and her eye is either gray or blue.  Delarua is very definitely brown-skinned and brown-eyed.  Do we really have to whitewash characters on book covers?  Is this a situation where someone decided that it would sell better without a brown woman on the cover?  Because this shit has got to stop.

Other than  that, however, The Best of All Possible Worlds is a lovely book, quiet and subtle and very satisfying.  I appreciated the not-young characters and the slow build of understanding between them.  It is also very funny in places.  Highly recommended.  This one will probably go on my Hugo nominating ballot next year.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

Last year I found myself reading some horror again after a twenty year hiatus.  It wasn't deliberate, I didn't seek it out, it just seemed to come my way.  Perhaps the boundaries between horror, fantasy, and SF are thinning or shifting, because more horror is catching my attention or ending up in places where I will see it.  American Elsewhere, for instance, is published by Orbit, one of my favorite publishers.  They describe themselves as publishing science fiction, fantasy, and urban fantasy, and yet to me American Elsewhere is clearly horror.

Because I'm just coming back to this genre again, I am still learning its shape and flavor and boundaries.  I sometimes run into problems with these books, because my mystery-, sf-, and fantasy-reading expectations do not match up with how horror stories are constructed.  In the fiction I usually read, the goal (usually attained) is to figure out what's going on and set everything right and save as many people as possible.  In horror, it seems to me, it's not uncommon for the end to have a main character dying to stop the scary evil things, or the story to end with one or two survivors leaving the scene of destruction, after everyone else has been killed.  This tends not to be a very satisfying ending to me, frankly.  Which is not really a problem with the genre, it's a problem of my expectations.  Or perhaps that type of story just isn't my thing.  I'm not really sure, only time will tell.  And so I will keep sampling and thinking about it some more.

Anyway, on to American Elsewhere.  The main character is Mona Bright, a thirty-something drifter who discovers, after her father's death, that her late mother had owned a house in the town of Wink, New Mexico.  Mona decides to investigate, both out of curiosity about her mother's life before marrying her father, and out of a vague itch for happiness, which she hopes she might find in a new home in a new place.  The first problem she faces is finding the place, as Wink isn't on any maps she consults, nor can any of the government offices she calls tell her where it may be -- they apparently have no record of it.

Some digging turns up the information that Wink is near the Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory.  Mona concludes that it's possibly a company town built next to a secret government facility, explaining why it might be hidden.  She eventually manages to get a general idea of where it might be, and once she gets to the right area, she finds the town by asking people for directions.

Wink is off the beaten path, deep in a valley in the mountains, and it is strange.  A seemingly idyllic little town, with thriving downtown businesses and tidy homes and immaculate lawns.  When Mona arrives the town seems deserted, but she discovers that nearly everyone is attending the funeral of an important figure in the community.  She has some weird experiences with some weird people, and the next day manages to get through the paperwork and go to her new house, which had been her mother's.  It, too, seems idyllic, except for the upstairs bathroom where, she is told, a child died many years earlier during a lightning storm.  Indeed, the town lost a lot of people the night of that storm.  She learns that the laboratory has been closed for decades, and no one she talks to remembers her mother, who had left the town almost forty years previously.

I had problems with the town of Wink.  It is portrayed as a weird place, frozen in time, where they still show '50s and '60s shows on television, no one ever gets divorced, and the women seem like Stepford wives.  It feels frozen in the 1950s or perhaps the first half of the 1960s, and I had trouble imagining how it happened that way, or how old the town was.  At first I got the impression that the town had been built at the same time as the laboratory, to house and provide services for its employees.  And yet the lab was built at the end of the 1960s, so how could the town be frozen in an earlier time than that?  And if the town was there before the laboratory, what was it doing there?  That is to say, towns aren't formed without a way for people to support themselves.  There needs to be a reason for people to settle in a place, like farmland or industry or shipping or something that would draw people there and allow them to earn a livelihood.  And yet there appeared to be no job-creating industry there other than the lab, so why would there have been a town there before that?  It didn't make any sense to me.  Of course there were reasons why the town came to be the way it is when Mona arrives, but before that, in the sixties and seventies, Wink's existence, as it was, just doesn't really make sense.

Mona is tough and dogged and works okay as a horror novel protagonist, but she is a bit dense, so the reader figures out a lot of things before she does.  (And I often got frustrated with her because of it.  People are trying to fill her in on things, or hinting at things, and she just argues and complains and doesn't really get it.  She is not particularly a likable hero.)  And Bennett does a good job of dragging out the mystery and not revealing anything too quickly.  This is a nice change from a lot of the books I've been reading recently, where the authors hurry things along and churn out short, quick stories without much depth.  We don't really find out all of it until around page 400, and yet the book doesn't really drag, Bennett is just revealing the full story in layers, and they are mostly quite interesting.  I occasionally had trouble keeping track of the human allies to the scary bad thing that's causing problems, particularly two stupid heavies called Dee and Dord -- their names and roles were too similar for me to really be able to distinguish between them.

I am not really saying much about the plot, am I?  Hmm.  Okay.  Wink is a strange town.  Something happened years ago, something related to the laboratory, and the town changed that night.  The people who live there have idealized, tidy lives, but it comes at the price of not looking.  Not looking out the windows at night.  Not looking around when you sense you're not alone.  Not going outdoors at night except right downtown.  Never, ever going into the woods.  There are things out there, things whose attention you don't want to draw.  So you make a point of not noticing them, and hope that they won't notice you.  It's strange, but the people of Wink are used to living this way.  But now things have been stirred up.  Prominent people are being murdered in the night.  The strange ones out in the woods are restless.  And things are about to get very interesting, and in her search for her mother's past, Mona will walk right into the middle of it.

I mostly enjoyed American Elsewhere.  It builds up gradually, filling in the layers of the story bit by bit.  Things seem to fall too easily or conveniently into Mona's lap, like finding the exact bits of information she needs in a library full of paperwork without spending days poring through it all to find the important stuff, but I suppose I can forgive that.  I had more problems with the nature of the setting itself, as I detailed above.  And I have to say, I didn't like the last part nearly as much as all the stuff that led up to it, but that is not an uncommon experience for me when reading horror.  I'm more intrigued by the weird situations than I am by the violence.  That said, it was well worth reading.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I am preparing to send in my Hugo Award nominating ballot, and am at the moment acutely aware that last year I didn't read all that much current SF.  So I am currently trying to make up for lost time by reading books that seem like possible contenders (such as Great North Road and Blue Remembered Earth).  That is why I am reading this book at this time.

I probably would have gotten to this novel eventually, I usually try to pick up everything Banks writes.  On the other hand, I haven't really got on all that well with his more recent books.  In fact, the last one I wholeheartedly enjoyed was Look to Windward, which came out in 2000.  It is possible that Banks, like Steve Brust and China Mieville, has disappointed me too many times and will fall off the list of authors I bother to read any more (I'll get to the most recent Brust book some day.  Probably.  On the other hand, I will not be reading anything else by Mieville).  I more or less liked The Algebraist, but it was a bit of a slog.  I did not really like Transition or The Steep Approach to Garbadale.  I tried and gave up on Matter and Stonemouth.  I couldn't be bothered to get past the first few pages of Surface Detail, it just didn't grab me.

And so we come to The Hydrogen Sonata.  I had heard that it was more of a classic, fun Culture novel, and it is.  It's got alien races and spaceships run by AIs with names like Contents May Differ and Anything Legal Considered.  It's got backstabbing politics and explosions and a droid who is convinced that reality is just a simulation.  It's got a guy with over forty penises.  It's also got a giant MacGuffin plot.

The Gzilt, a race who could have been one of the founding races of The Culture but decided at the last minute not to join, have decided to abandon their physical existence and Sublime.  The novel takes place in the last 22 days before the big event is scheduled.  In the run up, they are being visited by other races who hope to inherit (or just take) their planets once they're gone, by well-wishers sending messages, and several Culture ships who are there to observe and try to keep the peace.

One of the well-wishers is a ship sent by another race that Sublimed long ago, with a message that sets off the events in the book.  It leads to the deaths of thousands, and a quest by they Culture and a Gzilt woman named Cossont, to try to find a man who could confirm or deny the truth of the message.  Lots of people die.  Stuff explodes.  Weird planets and weird people are visited.  But in the long run, frankly, none of it really matters, because it's just a MacGuffin.

I started out really enjoying The Hydrogen Sonata.  It seemed like a return to form for Banks, and I get the feeling that he was deliberately trying to go for that style, and give his fans the type of book that they have enjoyed in the past.  But after a while I started getting kind of restless.  The book is too long, and the machinations of the politician behind most of this (I eventually started skimming over those sections) too irritating and unjustified.  There is too much senseless violence, for no real stakes.  It also doesn't help that Cossont does't actually have a personality.  In short, I got bored by the halfway point, disgusted around page 400, and read the last 100 pages at a skim just to see if there was a point to all this.  There wasn't.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

White Tiger by Kylie Chan

This was a real stinker.  It's urban fantasy or paranormal romance, in which an Australian woman working in Hong Kong gets hired on as the full time nanny to the precocious four-year-old child of a handsome and wealthy man who turns out to be the incarnated form of a Chinese god.

We tromp through Chinese mythology as Emma yells at people a lot and talks her boss into training her in martial arts.  She turns out to be the best human student he's ever had, picking it up easily and wonderfully, and she's fast and talented and smart and powerful and incredibly, obnoxiously pushy.  And everyone in the household loves her, and she holds her own against various immortal creatures, and everyone wants her, including her hunky boss, but no, they cannot be together, so they're just going to pine away like 16 year olds.  Aargh.

Meanwhile Emma has two female friends, both stupid in different ways, and I couldn't believe in either friendship, as there appeared to be no real chemistry or warmth between them, and nearly all they talked about was men.  It was especially bad with her Chinese friend, as the two Australian girls both kind of looked down on the poor, stupid, deluded thing.  After all, we wouldn't want to have any admirable Chinese humans in a novel set mostly in China, now, would we?  Anyway, there aren't any to be found.  The good characters are all Anglophones or immortals.

So her immortal employer decides to make her the guardian of his child for when he is unable to remain on the mortal plane, and basically makes her a princess, and holds a big reception for all the immortals to bow down and proclaim their loyalty to his chosen woman, and some day they hope they can be together, but not now, sob.  Because she's just so damn special.

Yuck.  Yuck.  Yuck.  Yuck.  This was so troubling in so many ways.  Yuck.