Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Category: Book Reviews

Too Like the Lightning

too-like-the-lightningAt the final Farthing Party in the fall of 2013, Tor managing editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden read the opening from a book, the first of a four-part series, that he had just acquired. We the assembled multitudes were impressed, because it sounded fantastic, and also a bit annoyed, because we knew we’d have to wait some time before the book came out, and we wanted it now.

Our wait is now almost — finally — over, because that book, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, comes out in two weeks from Tor Books. I have read it, and I have thoughts.

We don’t talk enough about authorial voice in our field. New and emerging authors are under certain pressures to conform: to achieve publishability, to get it right. It’s a process that risks filing off all the interesting bumps and edges found in an author’s writing and results in a certain sameness of tone and theme. Clarion grads with English degrees workshop the distinctiveness out of one another. One libertarian space jockey sounds more or less like any other. Epic fantasies blur together. In other words: they play it safe.

The Winged Histories

winged-historiesSofia Samatar’s debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer, 2013), won the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards. Her second novel, The Winged Histories (Small Beer, March 2016) does not function as a sequel to that earlier book, though it too is set in the Olondrian Empire during the same time period, and there is some overlap in characters. The density and richness of Samatar’s world is profoundly intoxicating, to say nothing of her prose, and fans of the first book will welcome a return to it. A prior familiarity is not strictly required (a good thing for me: A Stranger in Olondria was 115 books ago and my memory of it was poor).

Instead of the first book’s Bildungsroman we have a book that very much lives up to the noun in its title (the adjective is more subtle): these are histories — chronicles told by four women who play key roles in a many-layered civil war that splits along familial, regional, ethnic, religious and even interspecific lines. These are tales about the margins of empire, and colonial relationships, and things that are hidden and not spoken of. Each of them ends much too soon, leaving the reader hungry.

The reader will stay hungry, too: news that this book marks the conclusion of Samatar’s Olondria project (which she “always envisioned as a two-book adventure”) will no doubt be disappointing, though mad props for the integrity of her decision (other authors would have written their secondary worlds into the ground, with all-too-familiar results).

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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Snakes of the Southeast

There are a lot of regional field guides to reptiles and amphibians out there: I own at least two dozen of them myself, and I’ve reviewed several of them for herpetological newsletters. They perform yeoman service helping people identify the wildlife around them, which in areas with venomous snakes can be absolutely critical. But not every field guide is the same. Some really are field guides, to be used in the field to identify specimens: slim volumes that provide little more than range maps and identification keys. Others throw portability out the window in favour of comprehensiveness, providing hundreds of pages of scholarly detail between hard covers, but at a cost: they’re nearly inaccessible to the general reader.

snakes-southeastOne of my favourite field guides, Snakes of the Southeast, stakes out a middle ground. Though it’s written by two college professors, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, who co-authored a scholarly monograph on North American water snakes, it’s definitely aimed at a general readership — one that isn’t necessarily mucking about in swamps, but is nonetheless interested in the wildlife living in their region.1 More comprehensive than a slim pocket guide, but much more accessible than a scholarly reference, Snakes of the Southeast has a clear idea of what questions need answering and who’s asking them.

The Semi-Secret Life of Andrew J. Offutt

Andrew J. Offutt was a well-known figure in the science fiction and fantasy field. Though he never quite levelled up to the top tier of writers, his stories and novels were well-regarded, he was a frequent presence at sf conventions, and he served two terms as SFWA president. Less widely known was the fact that most of his writing was pornographic novels for men—a genre that more or less disappeared with the advent of home video in the mid-1980s. Offutt published hundreds of them, under a variety of pen names, using a system that enabled him to write them in a few days.

my-father-pornographerWhen Offutt died in 2013, his son, the writer Chris Offutt, inherited his father’s papers, including the smut, both published and unpublished (the latter including four thousand pages of an erotic comic called Valkyria). Going through those papers has resulted in the younger Offutt’s memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, out this week from Atria Books.

The portrait of Andrew Offutt that emerges from My Father, the Pornographer is not a flattering one. A difficult crank by the most charitable definition, the elder Offutt built a world around himself where he could be in control, like a big fish building a small pond around itself: his work, his family, his convention appearances. Many families will find something familiar about the Offutt household, where other family members twisted themselves in knots to accommodate his demands. The catalyst was when Offutt quit to work full-time: he basically disappeared into his work, and his office, where he could channel his private demons into his writing.

To be sure, the daddy issues are strong in this one, but while unflinchingly honest, Chris Offutt is unfailingly empathetic: more than capable of expressing compassion for a man who was not himself always kind or generous or (for that matter) present, a frankly tormented individual who found in words a means of escape. (Chris is considerably less kind with sf fans, no doubt a result of having been dragged to conventions as a child and then left to fend for himself while his parents were off having fun.)

My Father, the Pornographer is mainly a family history; if you’re primarily interested in the writing side of things, much of what’s in the book can be found in Chris Offutt’s piece for The New York Times Magazine, which came out last year. But the book, in its portrayal of Andrew Offutt the person, is far more haunting.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Radiance

radianceWhen reading a novel by Catherynne M. Valente, it’s important to pay close attention to what she’s doing — and then to take an even closer look. Her novels are like vínarterta: dense, many-layered, and can take a while to digest. Last week as I read Radiance (Tor, October 2015), her first novel for adults since Deathless (2011), I realized that this was not just a book that would reward rereading; it practically demands it.

In Radiance Valente does several things at once, all of which I approve of. It’s set in an alternative-retro solar system that would have seemed like the future to someone at the end of the nineteenth century: the planets are all habitable and colonized by the various Great Powers; space travel is undertaken by means of cannons of the sort Jules Verne described in From the Earth to the Moon. Filmmaking is king, but takes place on the Moon rather than Hollywood; for patent reasons the silent era persists for decades (talking pictures exist, but are seen as vulgar or good only for documentaries).

On top of all that, Radiance is told in indirect and documentary fashion: an interview from the 1960s here, a fragment of screenplay there, a memoir here and a piece of footage there. Slowly the story emerges: the disappearance and presumed death of Severin Unck, under mysterious circumstances, while filming a documentary on Venus called The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, of which only a handful of scenes remain.

It’s a little bit Dos Passos, or at least a bit Waldrop, but the effect is the opposite: unrealism rather than realism. Radiance deliberately blurs the line between artifice and genuine, between fiction and documentary. At one point in the novel, the filmmaker Percival Unck—Severin’s father—is given cause to say, “The lens, my good man, does not discriminate between the real and the unreal.” It’s as close to a thesis statement as this astonishing novel is likely to arrive at.

Radiance is an expansion of her 2009 short story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” a story pregnant with unanswered mysteries that begged for a more in-depth retelling. With Radiance we have that retelling, but Valente has wisely left many of the mysteries unanswered. The result is a work of surprising depth that belies its fanciful setting and not-entirely-serious tone.

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The House of Shattered Wings

house-of-shattered-wings-usAliette de Bodard’s new novel The House of Shattered Wings combines several elements of her past work that made it so interesting and her career worth following.

De Bodard first came to my notice with her trilogy of Aztec murder mystery fantasy novels: Servant of the Underworld (Angry Robot, 2010), Harbinger of the Storm (Angry Robot, 2011) and Master of the House of Darts (Angry Robot, 2011), now collected in an omnibus volume, Obsidian and Blood (Angry Robot, 2012). Set in a 15th-century Tenochtitlan where the Aztec religion is real (gods interact freely with mortals, and blood sacrifices are literally required to keep the sun in the sky and ensure the survival of life on earth), the novels follow the story of Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, as he solves murders with spells and sacrifices and does his best to stave off a Mesoamerican Ragnarök that always seems just around the corner.

Child of a Hidden Sea

child-hidden-seaAlyx Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor Books, June 2014) is the kind of fantasy adventure novel you used to see a lot more of — not technically YA, but certainly something my 14- or 15-year-old self would have had no trouble reading. But do not make the mistake that this is some kind of throwback. It’s a delightful portal fantasy that brings the form up to date in several important ways.

Twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa, fresh off a difficult first contact with her birth mother, suddenly finds herself floating at sea, desperately trying to save the life of an aunt she’s just met. It turns out that she’s been swept away to Stormwrack, a richly developed fantasy world of island nations and dashing sailors. She is promptly sent back, but manages to return, bringing her brother Bram with her. Adventures naturally ensue.

There are many ways in which this take on portal fantasy is so refreshingly modern. As fantasies age, the real world acquires its own layer of strangeness: for modern readers, the Pevensies’ England is as uncanny as Narnia. Not so here. Sophie and Bram are normal adults who have natural and recognizable responses to their fantastic surroundings. Those responses are not sentimental or unquestioning: they actively interrogate Stormwrack, Bram trying to figure out its location, Sophie arriving with a truckload of modern technology and studying its biota.

Stormwrack too comes across as real: it has wildlife, and politics, and economics. People exist and have agency. (And sex.) Also, gay people exist (as does homophobia). It does not exist to be an adventurers’ playground, though adventures certainly occur.

Fantasy frequently separates children from their parents so that they may go on and have adventures without adult supervision. There are lots of orphans, children sent to the countryside, living with distracted uncles, unloving step-parents and so forth: reasons, in other words, for escape.

But such scenarios are also as uncanny as the Pevensies’ England; that’s not what we do with children nowadays. Sophie is adopted; her story is very much about encountering her birth parents—a very modern concern for adoptees. Jennifer, who devoured this book, is adopted as well; she cannot recall ever reading a book whose protagonist mirrors her own background. Of such small details are books made important.

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The Martian

the-martianJust finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. Good Lord it’s a lot of fun.

During this year’s Hugo Awards foofaraw, there was some disappointment expressed that this book was not on the final ballot. That was not because Hugo voters were out to snub a book full of the good old stuff and lacking in social justice virtue, or whatever—it was simply ineligible. The Martian was first self-published electronically in 2011. But don’t weep overmuch for Andy Weir: after brisk online sales, both traditional publishing and Hollywood started paying attention. He got a six-figure advance for the hardcover edition, which came out in February 2014, and the movie adaptation comes out this November.

And it’s not hard to see why. The book chronicles a lone astronaut’s struggle to survive on the Martian surface after an accident leaves him stranded there, and the attempts to rescue him. It’s chock-a-block with technical detail—Weir did a lot of research, and the Mars program in the book reflects a lot of the proposals I’ve seen—and MacGyveresque solutions to problems. It’s written in a light, breezy and entertaining (if not necessarily felicitous) manner. Characterization and prose quality are not among its virtues—it’s basically an Analog story without all the Analog baggage—but Weir manages to maintain real tension while interleaving it with some legitimately funny moments; in many ways it manages to out-Scalzi John Scalzi at his own game. It’s a fun book—just what I needed right now.

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Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph

beethoven-swaffordI’ve read Beethoven biographies before, but Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is in a different category altogether. For one thing, it’s a thousand pages long. But despite its length it maintains an analytical coherence that can mark the best biographies, regardless of their length, whereas the worst just muddle through anecdote after anecdote. Swafford, who’s also written about Brahms and Charles Ives, sketches two distinct threads—the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and his precarious health—and examines how those two things had an impact on Beethoven and his work.

That examination benefits from the book’s length and Swafford’s perspective on Beethoven’s entire life (rather than a specific work, say the Ninth). Beethoven’s encroaching deafness is often related to his work with no real insight; he was, in fact, plagued with a number of illnesses, mostly due to lead poisoning and alcoholism. And it’s impossible to understand the political and philosophical core of the Ninth Symphony without understanding how Beethoven grew up in and related to the Aufklärung, the Napoleonic Wars, and the increasing political repression of Metternich-era Austria that led to the Biedermeier period.

Swafford is a composer himself and spends considerable time—whole chapters, for some pieces — analysing Beethoven’s music in considerable detail. If you’re not a musical sort you can skip past these sections, the way that a lot of readers might gloss over the songs and poetry in The Lord of the Rings, but I found his analyses quite illuminating when they covered a piece I’d studied and new very well.

More importantly, he’s better able to describe what the hell Beethoven was doing, particularly in relation to the trends of the time and his peers. It is, in other words, valuable to have a composer’s perspective, rather than a classical music devotee’s—all the difference between the perspective of an oenophile and a winemaker.

It makes the book much more about the music and less about the personality. Yes, it’s a biography, and as such has to be about the personality, but we wouldn’t be reading about a violent and unhygenic misanthrope if he wasn’t producing some of the best music in human history.

I’m not at all surprised it took Swafford twelve years to write this thing; he’s produced something very close to the authoritative biography on the man.

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