Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hammered by Kevin Hearne

I’ve been progressively reading through Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series (Hounded and Hexed), and now I’m up to the series third book. Some of the developments in Hexed and the title of this alone indicates that this entry would see some action in Asgard with the Norse pantheon of gods and find out exactly why Atticus has such a low opinion of the thunder god Thor.

The book actually opens in Asgard, which is a change. So far Atticus has spent most of his time in and around his home of Tempe, Arizona. Atticus made a promise in Hexed to get one of Idunn’s apples for the Indian witch Laksha in return for her assistance, and now he has to make good on the deal. I really enjoyed Atticus’ interactions with Ratatosk, the giant squirrel in the world tree; Yggdrasil. In some ways Ratatosk was not unlike the druid’s beloved wolfhound Oberon.

Apple safely retrieved and delivered, Atticus finds himself drawn into another deal, also involving Asgard, or more specifically, one of it’s favourite sons; Thor. Atticus friends and lawyers Leif (a vampire) and Gunnar (a werewolf) have an axe to grind with Thor and want him dead. Atticus is their means to an end. They’ll do the deed, but they can’t do it without their client’s assistance.

Along the way they pick up a Russian thunder god; Perun, and a Chinese alchemist, who has moves that make Bruce Lee look like a rank amateur. The Russian deity and the alchemist have their own problems with the hammer wielding Norse god and are happy to join Atticus, Leif and Gunnar on their mission of death.

As with the first two Iron Druid chronicles, Hammered has plenty of humour (mostly from Perun, he’s highly entertaining), loads of pop culture references (the dig at Twilight was something that made me laugh) and a big action finale. Hammered is darker than it’s predecessors, it also ends on a cliffhanger involving Oberon and the cheeky, whiskey swilling Irish widow Mrs McDonagh. This will ensure that I’ll get to the series’ 4th book; Tricked, sooner rather than later.

Like all the books this far, Hammered was a quick and easy read, fun and not hard to digest. Atticus as always is a breezy, over confident, but highly likeable protagonist. His powers and general character are a little uneven. Mostly he’s pretty smart, except when he’s not. He’s quite powerful, except when he’s not. He’s physically durable and can take all sorts of punishment, except when he can’t. It seems to alter depending on what the plot requires. I have to confess that while I enjoyed Hammered, I’ve found Hexed my favourite. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I didn’t like Hammered as much as Hounded and Hexed. One could be the choice of pantheon. I’ve always liked Norse mythology, and seeing them cast as the bad guys forced me to reassess my opinion of them. The other is the lack of Oberon. One of Iron Druid’s strengths is the relationship and the interaction between Atticus and Oberon. Oberon was absent for a good chunk of Hammered, and I really did miss him. Hearne could make Oberon the protagonist for one of the books and he wouldn’t get any complaints from me. If you’ve liked the first two then you’ll enjoy Hammered, it is more of the same, and I have to keep reading now to find out what happens after the ending.      

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fables 17 - Inherit the Wind

After the events of Fables 16 - Super Team things should have been rainbows and puppies for our favourite story book characters. The evil Mr Dark had been defeated, and they were free to live their own lives back on the farm.

However things never work out like that in the Fablesverse, and ending one threat only seems to uncover another. Mr Dark was beaten, but his apprentice, the new slimline version of the former Mrs Spratt, was still in Fabletown, and plotting her revenge.

One of the casualties of the fight against Dark was Bigby Wolf's father; the North Wind. With one of the Winds gone there's an imbalance and someone has to take his place. The North Wind's servants contend that it's too much power for any of the other Winds to have, Bigby doesn't want it, and his brothers aren't suitable. It falls to one of Snow White and Bigby's cubs. My thought was that the seventh child; Ghost, being a wind of sorts, was the perfect fit, but he's not even supposed to be alive, so couldn't very well take up his grandfather's mantle.

The kids are put through a series of tests and one of them proves their worth to take their grandfather's place. The other Winds all have problems with this, and are still jockeying to see who of them can bring the chosen one around to their way of thinking when the book ends.

The story of Rose Red and her compatriots returning from where ever they had been back to the Farm was largely incomplete and fairly pointless. I can only assume it will also be concluded in the next book.

The story I liked most was that of Bufkin the flying monkey as he and his friends, especially Lily Martagon, the game Barleycorn Bride, journey through an Oz under the iron fist of the Gnome King, who has taken the opportunity to fill the void left in Oz with the defeat of the Adversary. That story too ended on a major cliffhanger.

I always look forward to a Fables collection. I have to confess to being disappointed by this one. The last one came out in December, I picked this up in June and we don't seem to be getting as much content as before. Maybe they need to alter the schedule so that there's only one a year. I felt a little short changed this time. I probably shouldn't. Willingham's story and Buckingham's pencils are as good and solid as ever, but there seemed to be remarkably little substance here, and it was only 4 fairly short issues packaged together as well.

I wasn't particularly enamoured of the shorts either. The Christmas story; All In A Single Night was downright depressing, and things in the other short In Those Days were strangely off.

I hope for something more in Fables 18, which judging by the current release schedule will be out sometime before Christmas.

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

As I said in my review of The Eye of the World I've read a number of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books a few times. The Great Hunt; the second book of the Wheel of Time, has always been one of my favourites in the series. I think it's probably the one I like the most.

I did find it hard to get into The Eye of the World. There's the Tolkien similarities for a start, but I could get past those fairly easily (I'm one of the few people who doesn't really have issues with Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara on those grounds), there was a lot of world building in The Eye of the World, also plenty of scene setting, plus readers were getting to know the characters, and Jordan's love of intricate description. These all made The Eye of the World a challenging read. It wasn't the best thing I'd ever read, I didn't get that whole shot of nitro glycerine to the brain thing that I got with A Game of Thrones and The Lies of Locke Lamora, but I was intrigued and I picked up The Great Hunt as soon as I saw it.

To a certain extent it's a very different book. It has the same characters and it continues the story begun in The Eye of the World. The setting is slightly different. The Shienarans have a distinct Asian flavour to them, and are very different from Tolkien, and with some exceptions, from most epic fantasy of the time.

Robert Jordan decided to split his central group up as well in The Great Hunt, this had also happened in The Eye of the World, but I felt the split was more emphasised, and certainly more deliberate than the previous book. Rand, Mat, Perrin and Loial go off to look for the Horn of Valere and the dagger from Shadar Logoth, while Nynaeve and Egwene head off to Tar Valon to become Aes Sedai.

Rand, Loial and a 'sniffer' called Hurin break away from the rest of the group and get stuck in the wilds of Cairhien with a bewitching and beautiful young lady called Selene. Rand, Hurin and even Loial become besotted with her, despite her being central casting's perfect femme fatale. Admittedly she's not totally evil, but she will cause problems later on. One thing that was present in The Eye of the World, and was also here was Rand and Perrin's belief that the other knows how to talk to girls. It's funny once or twice, but two books in it's rather tiresome, besides the only one of the trio that is any good with girls is Mat.

Rand's story does eventually see him reunited with Mat and Perrin, as well as the gleeman Thom Merrilin, believed by Rand to have perished in an encounter with a Fade in The Eye of the World. Rand's story contained two sequences I thought were very strong. One was him being taken through all the possible lives he could have lived, and dying in each one with the Dark One whispering in his ear 'I win again Lews Therin' at the moment of death. This was done well and it was very powerful, it also confirms that Rand is the true Dragon reborn. The other was his sword fight with the Seanchan blademaster. The descriptions of the sword movements are a bit silly and over done, ie: The Basset's Ears Flap In The Breeze, etc..., but they're fairly effective in giving you the idea of the fight, without using intricate descriptions of each and every movement in the encounter, this is unusual for Jordan who has never been accused of being ecomomical with his use of words. On the other side of the ledger Rand's story does also contain some of that pointless wandering around that appears in so many fantasy epics, and really only serves to eat up pages and frustrate readers.

I've always said Mat was my favourite, and I hold to that, but it hasn't happened yet. He's not in this all that much, and he's fairly unpleasant when he is, however my other favourite Nynaeve shines. The Aes Sedai as an organisation really interest me, and the way they do what they do. So to see Egwene and Nynaeve in the centre of that, along with Elayne Trakand, the Daughter Heir of Andor was quite a treat for me. I hadn't really experienced anyone go into an organisation like the Aes Sedai and study them in the way Jordan did in The Great Hunt.

I know I've gotten the order in which things happen in the books all messed about in my head, because the Seanchan appear in this, and they're really a villain. I didn't think that happened until a few books on.

There's some fairly extraneous stuff through the middle of the book, which I think a more ruthless editor could have trimmed, and would have possibly made it stronger, but it comes home strong and the last 200 pages are gripping. It still remains one of the best books in the series, as far as I got anyway, and it's still my favourite. Next month: The Dragon Reborn.

Flashman in the Great Game - Chapter 12

How long has it been since I've done one of these? Oh...right...that long. Sorry about that. I've had a lot to read and not enough time to do it, and there's been a waning of interest with this particular volume of Harry's adventures. I've never been the biggest fan of Flashman in the Great Game. Harry often seems to act in very unFlashmanlike ways at times. There's also the subject material itself, it's largely a series of unrelenting blood soaked atrocities by both sides. I know, aside from Flashman himself, that it's all real, but it's still rather tedious to read.

Chapter 12 is a little different, although it's still frustrating at times. Harry is sent back to Jhansi to finish off the mission he was originally dispatched to India to perform. Although the mutiny has largely been put down, Jhansi, or rather the Rani, is still a problem. Harry makes the remark that if Lakshmibai weren't so attractive or young then there may not have been an issue with killing her, but she is both beautiful and young, she's also beloved by her people. Simply killing her is only going to make a bad situation worse.

The British, under Hugh Rose, have Jhansi under bombardment. Flashman likens Rose to another of his brothers in arms General George Custer. According to Harry both men looked similar and acted alike, but that's where it ended. Rose was very competent, Harry didn't share that opinion of Custer. He goes on to intimate had Rose commanded at Little Big Horn, instead of Custer things may have turned out differently. Harry can comment, he was at Little Big Horn (see Flashman and the Redskins).

MacDonald Fraser has managed to dig out an obscure text that supports the book's idea that the plan was to let the Rani escape and take her into custody that way. Flashman's obsession with Lakshmibai resurfaces. They have no problems convincing him to put the plan to her. He does this largely because aside from Elspeth and Havvy, the only person in the world Harry has any real affection for is the Rani. This interest has, to me, never really been explained.

Harry does worry that something will go wrong, that's his nature, it however goes worse than he ever could have imagined. He's intercepted by, of all people, Ignatieff. The Russian plans to out Harry on the rack to get him to give up information, he knows that won't take long, given Flashman's aversion to physical pain, and then rack him to death, just for the fun of it. Before Flashman can break, the Rani's major domo, who knows Harry, runs and fetches his mistress, who orders the torture to stop and roundly scolds Ignatieff.

While she cuddles up to Harry and accepts his message, she won't untie him, and has him escorted somewhere he can be kept under guard by her loyal Pathan Sher Khan. The name always reminded me of the villainous tiger in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. I wondered if the writer had been influenced by Flashman. I eventually concluded that as there's no mention of it, and Harry never misses an opportunity to drop a name, that it's just a coincidence.

When the time comes to escape Harry is taken with the Rani, and he's manacled to the saddle. The penny finally drops and Harry wonders if in fact he ever did have an encounter with the Rani all that time ago, and if he's being used. He can't get past his love of her, though. Very odd.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

While the J’s were wonderful, the K’s haven’t been so kind. I was underwhelmed by Anna Kavan’s Mercury, and whilst Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana was well written, it was also quite flawed. I’d read Stephen King before, nearly everyone has read at least one Stephen King book or seen one of the films, he is one of the world’s most successful novelists after all. I was largely done with King by the time people started to really make noise about The Dark Tower, although I think the series’ first book; The Gunslinger, was originally published in the early 80’s.

I wanted to like it, I really did. Stephen King’s It is one of my favourites from that genre, and I even liked things like Carrie and Salem’s Lot. The premise behind The Dark Tower series; an epic quest/revenge fantasy story in a western setting, featuring heroes that fight with six guns instead of swords, is fairly unique for the genre, although others are now starting to utilise the western setting, it lends itself to steampunk, and Joe Abercrombie has adapted it into epic fantasy for his upcoming Red Country. I’d seen The Dark Tower’s hero; Roland Deschain, rank highly on people’s lists of fantasy heroes. It all boded well.

It went wrong for me. Where and why? I think firstly it’s the style. In The Gunslinger, King tried to jam a number of types of story into the one. It contains elements of dystopia, a western, horror and quest fantasy. I’ve seen mashups done successfully, but more often they fail, and for me that happened in The Gunslinger, it couldn’t really decide what it wanted to be, and consequently came across as very uneven.

Then there were the characters. There’s really only two main characters in The Gunslinger, one is the book’s title character, Roland of Gilead, although his first name is rarely used, and he’s most often referred to as the gunslinger, which is what he is.  There are elements of an Arthurian knight about Roland, and the sections of the book that deal with his upbringing and talk about his fallen friends do have a Knights of the Round Table feel to them, he’s also quite reminiscent of The Man With No Name as played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s so called ‘spaghetti westerns’. He doesn’t talk much and readers get to know him through flashbacks to his tragic past. Maybe it’s just the recent prevalence of this trope, but I’m, getting a little tired of the taciturn, world weary, morally ambiguous anti-hero as protagonist, and that’s exactly what Roland is. I felt he was rather one dimensional as a character so failed to get much of a reaction beyond ‘Another one of those, eh?’

The second major character is Jake. Jake’s nine years old in some editions, and he’s been aged up to be 10 or 11 in others. Roland doesn’t know what his actual age is, but in the book I read, he believes him to be about 9. Jake is from our time and our world, he was snatched from it for unexplained reasons and transplanted into Roland’s world. He’s probably dead here, as a result of being hit by a car. Up until this point I had thought the blasted surrealistic world that Roland was travelling through in pursuit of the man in black was a post apocalyptic Earth, there are certainly hints of that, with remnants of our world such as roads and rail tracks remaining, there’s also references to songs like ‘Hey Jude’ as being an old classic. However the fact that Jake comes from our time means that Roland’s world isn’t ours, or Jake was brought through both time and space, maybe this is explained in a future volume. The main issue I had with Jake is that he doesn’t behave or speak like any normal 9 – 11 year old, and this makes him hard to believe or even care about.

Some sections of The Gunslinger were very well done, Roland’s flashbacks and the action sequences when the lead is flying, were first rate, however these are brief, and King employed a different style than I had been used to from him for the book, unfortunately it did not engage me. I often found myself thinking that it was quite badly written, which from a novelist as experienced as King is surprising. He does say in his afterword that it was begun when he was still young (in college) and he added bits to it over the next twelve years before deciding to bring it altogether and publish it, that showed, and it may account for the unevenness I felt between some sections as opposed to others.

There are 7 novels in The Dark Tower series, with an 8th (The Wind Through The Keyhole) published just this year. Chronologically it fits in between the 4th and 5th book. I didn’t really enjoy The Gunslinger, so don’t feel I need to read the rest of them.

Aside from the other novels in the series things I can recommend as being similar are unsurprisingly westerns. One was Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove and the other were parts of James Michener’s Centennial. The two other images that continued to pop into my head while reading  The Gunslinger were the AMC western series Hell on Wheels. The hero of that show; Cullen Bohannon, is another tight lipped, gun toting, vengeance seeker, much like Roland Deschain. The other was  the iconic Kung Fu, Roland and Caine bore some similarities in background, and of course both took place in a western setting.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Underground is the third of the Folly series by Ben Aaronovitch, an urban fantasy series chronicling the adventures (Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho) of bi racial London police constable and apprentice magician; Peter Grant.

This time around the body belonging to the son of a wealthy US politician turns up dead in the London Underground, and once Peter discovers a whiff of vestigial (trace of magic) on it, it’s up to him, his partner Lesley May, and their guv’nor Nightingale to find out whodunit and bring the culprit to justice. They’re aided and abetted, occasionally hindered, by an eager, shoot first FBI agent; Reynolds, the foul mouthed Chief Inspector Seawoll, newly promoted DCI Miriam Stephanopoulos, and the urban explorer and member of the British Transit Police Jaget Kumar. There are also cameos from some of London’s river goddesses (I’m sure Lady Tyburn is going to become very important in the future, if she isn’t already), Dr Walid, and the cheeky pre teen Abigail. Of course Nightingale’s loyal servant Molly (still not sure what she is) and Peter’s dog Toby also reappear.

I look forward to Folly books every bit as much, maybe more, as I do to a new Harry Dresden or Toby Daye, now. If you have any idea how much I adore Toby Daye, then you’ll understand how big a statement that is. The Harry Dresden’s do share a few things in common with the Folly books. Both are narrated by magically adept (although Harry’s a fully fledged wizard, and Peter’s in the equivalent of wizard pre school), somewhat sarcastic antagonists. They’re both set in large metropolises and they both put their antagonist in harm’s way for a good chunk of the time. Both Harry and Peter regularly pepper their narration with pop culture references (Peter’s are naturally more British, and I’m not sure if all of them are understood as well by US audiences as they are by UK and Australian ones, although some of the specifically UK ones go over my head, too). Something Harry Dresden’s creator Jim Butcher has done very successfully over the course of the 13 published Harry Dresden adventures is build up a large cast of characters that enable him to lose one for a book or two and not have it matter a lot to his audience. Ben Aaronovitch has also begun to do this. There wasn’t a lot of Dr Walid in Whispers Underground, and I didn’t miss him all that much, come to think of it Nightingale wasn’t as prominent in Whispers Underground as he was in Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the US) and Moon Over Soho, but there were other characters both old and new who took up the slack. I appreciated more Lesley, and I will never tire of reading about Molly, she doesn’t even have to do anything, but I giggle every time she appears.

To me now, the plot isn’t even that important. I could read Peter’s descriptions of police procedurals (he writes about it so comfortably and knowledgeably that I wonder if Ben Aaronovitch ever actually spent some time in uniform) and his explanations of Britain’s magical history, complete with his own snarky observations, all day.

Then there’s the setting. The author clearly loves London. He writes about it in a way that marries the modern day city with it’s long and colourful past and puts you right there. It becomes more than just a setting.

As with the previous two books Whispers Underground is self contained, you could jump in right here and read without looking at it’s predecessors, although you’ll enjoy it even more if you do read the other two, and come away entirely satisfied. Now having said that, Whispers Underground does reference the earlier works, and some of it is concerned with the investigation of a villain from those books, it also very neatly lays the ground work for the fourth book, currently called Broken Homes and due for release in 2013.

Whispers Underground is wonderful fun and highly entertaining, any book that so amusingly references one of the all time great James Bond quotes gets an A in my book, too!  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Despite his standing and reputation in the genre, not to mention the amount of books he’s written over a long period of time, I’d only ever read one Guy Gavriel Kay novel, and that was A Song for Arbonne, I think I had a go at the Fionavar Tapestry, but never got very far into it. I couldn’t remember a lot of A Song for Arbonne, although I think I found it inoffensive enough. People kept recommending Kay to me, so I was pleased to see one of his highly regarded works in Tigana pop up on the list.

It’s a long book, and largely about a rebellion organised by a small group of rebels to overthrow magical tyrants in order to take back their country and restore it’s memory. One of the sorcerors; Brandin, had not only brutally defeated Tigana in battle when his son was slain in action, he had actually erased all memory of the country from people’s minds, and had it renamed.

World building and characterisation are Kay’s strengths. Both are on full view throughout Tigana. The world is painstakingly built and beautifully described, Kay makes it seem very real, at times it’s more like reading a historical fiction novel than a work of pure fantasy. By basing the world of Tigana on medieval Italy, despite it having two moons, the author has been able to give it life and texture, plus a frame of reference for readers.

The story is told featuring a handful of point of view characters; young singer Devin, former prince and rebel Alessan, and one of Brandin’s concubines; Dianora, who was once a prominent citizen of Tigana. Devin was interesting at first, but the whole wide eyed innocent thrown into dangerous situations and turning into a committed and talented rebel fighter trope wore a bit thin later in the book. I found Dianora the most interesting, and as she was also in a rather foreign and fascinating court there was more scope, she was also the most conflicted of the protagonists, hating Brandin for what he and his forces had done to her country and family, but at the same time loving him for how he treated her, and his nobility.

Tigana was an interesting read and well built world, but it needed more to be truly successful. The plot was a little thin, and the coincidences were overdone. Some characters required more explanation for their actions. Overall there was too much padding and not enough substance. Where are the ruthless editors now?

Guy Gavriel Kay got his start working on Tolkien’s work under the guidance of Christopher Tolkien, and the influence shows in his writing. As Kay has drawn on Tolkien I can see Kay’s own influences in the writing of others since. Whilst reading Tigana I was reminded of George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and most especially Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin. On that front I can’t recommend Abraham highly enough, anyone who liked Kay, especially Tigana, would be well advised to read Abraham’s in progress series.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Hugo Awards - Questions & Answers

Prior to attending my first Worldcon in 2010 I didn’t really know that much about the Hugos. I think at the time my experience of the Hugos was a recommendation I would sometimes see on SFF books (ie: Hugo award winner of insert year here!), I knew it was an award that they gave out at Worldcon, and that George R.R Martin really wanted one.

It wasn’t until the 2010 Worldcon that I really found out much more about them. I didn’t nominate or vote in 2010, I didn’t even realise I could. I did attend the ceremony, and I think that’s when I found out more about the award and fandom in general.

I’ve become quite interested in the award since, and I participate by nominating and voting. We’re coming up to Worldcon 2012 (Chicon in Chicago) and I’ve seen some talk about the Hugos, and some questions about the awards themselves. So I thought I’d do a post talking about them. This post is mostly going to cover the award for best novel. Hugos are awarded for best novel, novella, novelette, short story, etc… The best novel award is considered by many to be THE award and it’s awarded last on the night. The John W. Campbell for best new author is also awarded at the Hugos and is nominated and voted on by the Hugo voters, but it’s not actually a Hugo (Jay Lake went into this last year at the awards, claiming that his Campbell even has a sticker on it proclaiming: NOT a Hugo!).

Some of the questions I’ve seen are how do you nominate and vote? Who nominates and votes? Why is there a cost involved? What exactly is the cost?

They can all be answered at once really. To nominate works for consideration for the Hugos you need to be a paid up attending member or supporting member of Worldcon. Attending membership (this gives you the right to nominate and vote for the Hugos, it also gets you admission to the convention itself and gives you access to all the panels and events, including the Hugo award ceremony) is roughly $215 US. The price actually alters. The earlier you sign up the less it costs, the later, the more. Supporting membership is $50 US. So why do you have to pay $50 just to vote for an award? You don’t just get the right to vote, all members (whether attending or supporting) receive an electronic voter packet, and this contains ALL of the nominated works: novels, novellas, novelettes, etc… That’s a lot of reading material for a fairly reasonable cost. There’s usually a reaction adverse or otherwise to nominations and winners. The more people nominate and vote, the more likely a favourable outcome will be had. I think it’s a product of any award, whether it’s something that is voted for by fans like the Hugo or a jury voted award like the Nebula.

I’m going to speak a little bit about the works nominated for Best Novel, and how I think they’ll fare, rather than my own reactions to them. That’s something I’ll cover after they’ve been awarded.

The 5 works nominated for Best Novel in 2012 in no particular order are: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R Martin, Embassytown by China Mieville, Leviathan Wakes by James S.A Corey, Deadline by Mira Grant and Among Others by Jo Walton.

A Dance with Dragons is the long awaited 5th book in George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Given the author’s profile and the popularity of the series, this one was always going to make the ballot. Two previous books in the series (A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows) have been nominated, and the loss of A Storm of Swords in 2001 to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is something that the author and many of his supporters are actually rather bitter about. George Martin has won Hugos before, but not for Best Novel, and he’s made no secret of his desire to get at least one.

Embassytown is China Mieville’s science fiction book. Mieville’s a popular author when it comes to handing out awards. Four of his earlier books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council and The City and the City) have been nominated with The City and the City tieing with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl for the Best Novel in 2010. He’s popular with voters and critics alike.      

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A Corey is old fashioned space opera with a large dose of noir. James S.A Corey is a pseudonym and ‘he’ is actually two people: prolific author (The Long Price quartet, The Dagger and the Coin ongoing series and a handful of urban fantasy novels under the pseudonym M.L.N Hanover) Daniel Abraham and newcomer Ty Franck (previously known as George R.R Martin’s assistant). It’s Franck’s first novel and while Abraham has released a number of books this is his first Hugo nomination.

Deadline is the second book in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh  trilogy. Mira Grant is the pseudonym of urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire. McGuire won the Campbell in 2010 for her Toby Daye series, becoming the first urban fantasy author to do so, and to many people’s surprise the first book in the Newsflesh trilogy; Feed, was nominated for the 2011 Best Novel, narrowly missing out to the controversial winner; Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear. Seanan McGuire has been nominated in 4 categories in 2012 (Best Novel and Novella as Mira Grant, Best Related Work for her album Wicked Girls, the woman is multi talented and I don’t think she ever sleeps, and Best Fancast for the Squeecast along with her partners in crime on that).

Among Others by Jo Walton is probably 2012’s surprise nomination, although it did win the Nebula, and Walton is a popular author at the convention. Her 2004 novel Tooth and Claw also won the World Fantasy Award, but she’s never previously been nominated for a Best Novel award in the Hugos.

Now how do I think they’ll place? Note: this is just my opinion and it’s not how I’m voting, I’ll get to that after.

I can’t separate A Dance with Dragons and Embassytown for first place, it’s possible there will be another tie like in 2010. If that happened I think Mieville would have achieved a record (first author to have tied twice for the Best Novel award). Why do I think either or both of these books will win? There’s a few reasons. Both authors are regular nominees and they both have large fanbases that tend to vote (around 5,000 people attend Worldcon, and only about 1,000 vote, so having fans that do vote is important), in Mieville’s case he’s a past winner and that also tends to help. Martin’s a little different, I don’t think A Dance with Dragons is the best book he’s written, and I don’t think it’s the best book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, but the author has a large and fiercely loyal fanbase which has increased since A Feast for Crows and the HBO series based on his books, like Mieville’s fans, they’re largely rusted on and will vote for his work, whether or not it’s the best book nominated. He’s also a bit of a sentimental favourite in that there is a large amount of popular opinion that he was ‘robbed’ in 2001. Whether or not Martin’s supporters wish to admit this, it could be some time before the 6th book (The Winds of Winter) of A Song of Ice and Fire is released, if ever, so this could be the last chance to give George R.R Martin the Hugo for Best Novel award that he so craves. While I personally don’t think it’s the best book I don’t begrudge the author the honour. The Locus awards (another popularity vote) are also a good guide. A Dance with Dragons won Best Fantasy and Embassytown won Best SF.

I think Leviathan Wakes will get the next spot. It’s a fun read, the Martin association (Abraham is a close friend and Franck is his assistant) has helped the popularity of the book and I think a lot of Martin supporters will give it their attention. A few things hold it back: it’s written under a pseudonym, and it’s not as open as the Mira Grant pseudonym that McGuire uses, it’s not one person, it’s two, and neither of them have been nominated before. Hugo voters tend to be conservative and they tend to vote for people who have either been nominated before or won other popular awards.    

Then we have Deadline. Both the nomination of Deadline and Feed seem to have been met with surprise by a lot of those that comment on the Hugos. I do understand this. A lot of the commenters don’t read work like Deadline, but a lot of fans do. It’s a zombie book, zombies are very popular right now. I describe the Newsflesh trilogy as the zombie trilogy for people that don’t generally read zombie fiction. Seanan McGuire’s fanbase is also underestimated. It’s large, enthusiastic and growing. Last year at Worldcon Seanan McGuire managed to draw more people to one of her signings than George Martin did to one of his, that’s big, even taking into consideration that Martin did more signings over the convention.

Sadly I think Among Others will come in last. That’s not a reflection on the book. It’s a damn good book, it won the Nebula. Jo Walton, while popular and respected among authors and well read fans, does not have the built in fanbases of authors like Martin, Mieville and McGuire (Grant), nor could she call on someone else’s fans because of an association in the way that Abraham and Franck (Corey) could. I think Among Others did really well to get nominated, and I know I’ll be barracking for it.

How am I going to vote?

I’ll do this from 5 to 1:

5) Embassytown. I couldn’t actually finish it. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood, I’m not sure. It was my first experience of Mieville, and I have heard that there are people who don’t ‘get’ him, maybe I’m one of them. It just didn’t connect with me.

4) A Dance with Dragons. What? But you’re a fan! You’ve sung his praises, and that of this book on more than one occasion. Yes, I have, and I still think it’s a good book and worthy of nomination (mind you I didn’t nominate it. I think only one of my nominations made the short list), but there’s something lacking when I stack it up against the others.

3) Leviathan Wakes. I’m really not an SF person, and maybe this is because I don’t read much space opera, but I really enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, there was a sense of fun about it that often seems absent from works nominated for literary awards.

2) Deadline. My one nominated work that made the shortlist. I didn’t like it as much as Feed, which I rated as one of my top reads of 2010, but it was still an excellent read and carried on with the story begun in Feed. I’d like to see Seanan win, and one day I think she will, but I have to go with what I genuinely think and not just vote for someone because I like the author.

1)    Among Others. This one really surprised me. I didn’t think I was going to like it. I thought it was the novel that got a nomination because it’s literary cred. I guess there is an element of that about it, but it’s just so accessible. Embassytown failed to connect with me on any level, and Among Others pressed nearly all my buttons as a fan.

I’m not attending this year, but I will be voting and I will be keeping an eye on proceedings whether that’s through a web feed or just reading about it afterwards.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hexed by Kevin Hearne

After really getting into Kevin Hearne’s Hounded, the first of his Iron Druid series, with the cooler than cool 2,100 year old druid Atticus O’Sullivan I was eager to find out what Atticus had been up to since vanquishing Aenghus Og. Hexed is that tale.

The book picks up pretty much where Hounded left off. All Atticus really wants to do is run his book shop, train his gorgeous apprentice Granuaile and hang out with his wolfhound Oberon. However killing a god has it’s own problems. Mainly that everyone else seems to have a god they’d like taken care of, and once you have a reputation as a godslayer it’s pretty hard to shake.

Hexed is essentially the story of Atticus and his many friends and allies, among them his vampire and werewolf law firm, the native American trickster god Coyote, Granuaile, and of course Oberon, taking on a cadre of German witches who are in town to try and wipe out the coven of Polish witches that Atticus first encountered in Hounded.

Hexed is fun and the action keeps coming thick and fast. Occasionally in Hounded I felt Hearne infodumped a little on readers, he has to do it in Hexed as well, but he’s come up with a clever way of making it part of the story. Oberon, whilst a pretty extraordinary dog, is still a dog and has to have things explained to him, this is often how Hearne imparts necessary information without making it feel like he’s overdoing the infodumps. It’s a great way of doing it, and it allows readers some more time with Oberon, who I am sure is one of the series most popular characters.

At times it does feel like there’s a little too much story. The first action sequence mainly concerns some clean up from the first book. In the fight with Atticus, Aenghus Og brought a giant insect demon to our plane, and Coyote insists that Atticus do some extermination before it starts preying on his people, it seems strangely out of place in the book, which is mostly about the fight with the witches. It does however tell us that Atticus’ grumpy neighbour Mr Semerdjian may be more than he first appears, and has some definite reasons for wanting to keep to himself.

It then moves onto another action sequence concerning a group of Bacchants, if this doesn’t pay off down the track in another book, it’s going to appear rather unnecessary. It also kept making me think of the unpleasant maenad sequence from season two of HBO’s True Blood.

Scenes with Oberon and Atticus (the wolfhound has gone from dreaming of becoming the canine version of Genghis Khan to wearing tie dyed shirts, calling himself Peace Dawg and wanting to stick it to the Man), Granuaile, and especially, Atticus interaction with the witches are very successful, and the showdown between the two covens is fantastic. I hope he keeps the Polish girls around, I liked them.

If you liked Hounded, then you’ll like Hexed, it’s more of the same, but has some more of Atticus back story and Hearne has definitely improved as a writer. I’m looking forward to Hammered, where readers will hopefully find out exactly what’s behind Atticus’ animosity towards the Norse thunder god; Thor. Something Atticus agreed to in Hexed and the title of the third book definitely indicate that will be the case.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Mercury by Anna Kavan

I thought from what was said about Anna Kavan's Mercury that it would be litfic uncomfortably fitted into the fantasy genre. This was largely confirmed when I saw that Doris Lessing had written the foreword, and what she had said about the book. Litfic and I seem to have an uneasy relationship. I generally don't like it, I'm getting the feeling I must be some sort of literary philistine.

I guess you could classify Mercury as fantasy, the people who wrote the list did. There's a rather dreamy unreal quality about the world the characters wander through, and I don't think it's ever actually confirmed that any of what they are seeing is real, or if in fact they are real. The man sized lemurs on the tropical island of Indris certainly aren't real, although they may have once existed.

The writing is beautiful. Anna Kavan chose her words carefully, and she paints a vivid picture with them. That unfortunately for me was where the good ended. It's easy to read, and a great example of how to write descriptively, however this is a novel (albeit quite short at 136 pages) and I always have a better relationship with a novel when it has a plot and characters that are not only real and believable, but have reasons for doing what they do. Mercury doesn't have those.

The two totally unbelievable protagonists Luke and the ethereal Luz see each other, fall in love, but never actually get together. Luz winds up marrying Luke's unstable and violent artist friend Chaz, who she later leaves. They spend their time wandering through this beautifully described landscape heading towards Indris for no discernible reason other than because the author seemed to like writing about the tropical setting and it's noisy lemurs. Eventually they find themselves in the one place at the one time and have sex. Finis. And this is literature? Okay.

I wouldn't recommend reading anything like it, because I wouldn't want to read anything else like it. Luke's way of behaving, and his lack of reason for doing things did remind me of Russell Hoban's equally inexplicable and plotless Kleinzeit. Kavan's best known work is the science fiction Ice, which Brian Aldiss chose as his favourite work of 1967. I haven't read it, so can't comment, but I know I didn't think a great deal of Aldiss' Malacia Tapestry so may not agree with his assessment.

The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

I went on a little bit of a steampunk kick last year and one of the things I read was Phoenix Rising, the first of Pip Ballantine's and Tee Morris' Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series.

The first book introduced readers to the odd couple pairing of the fiery colonial (she's from New Zealand) Ministry Agent Eliza Braun and the ministry's inoffensive archivist Wellington Books. It was a thoroughly enjoyable romp, so I was really looking forward to the next book in the series; The Janus Affair.

I was delighted to see it pop up amongst the new releases at my local SFF bookshop, and snapped it up eagerly. Books and Braun are a great couple. They complement each other so well, and although they both resist it, both they and readers know that somehow they'll wind up together.

The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences are as much romances as they are steampunk mysteries. It's an interesting mix and one I really enjoy reading, the steampunk influences, the romance and the English Victorian setting are something they share with another one of my favourite series; Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate, although the style of writing is very different. Gail Carriger recalls P.G Wodehouse and Jane Austen, whereas Ballantine and Morris are much more modern in style and tone.

Last time the agents were up against the dreaded House of Usher, and while this time that organisation may be pulling the strings (the rogue British peer Lord Sussex is almost certainly associated with them in some way whether he realises it or not), it's not as obvious and Books and Braun have to find out who is beyond the mysterious deaths of prominent suffragettes before they themselves become the next victims. They'll have to fight not only their enemies, but a prominent Victorian criminal, House of Usher agent Sophia del Morte, and one of their own in the form of double agent, Australian Ministry agent Bruce Campbell.

The Janus Affair took a little long to set up for mine, but once you got past that, and the story really got going, the sparks flew, the action rolled and the pages flew by.

Readers get more glimpses into Books rather cold and dysfunctional upbringing, and how it affects his relationship with Eliza and his life in general. They are also afforded a look at Eliza's past with the introduction of the prominent suffragette Kate Sheppard, and her dashing adventurer son; Douglas. As Douglas was one of Eliza's former boyfriends, and he's well known as a boys own hero of the realm he manages to put Books' nose severely out of joint. Books does get some of his own back by cleaning Douglas up during a rugby match. I'm sure that was Pip Ballantine's influence there, New Zealanders revere the game of rugby union with something approaching religious fervor. Being an Australian Rules follower I'm not really sure what all the fuss was about when Books put the shoulder into Sheppard. In Australian Rules Football (no, it is NOT rugby!) we call that a shirtfront, and it's a common occurrence.

The rugby match is one highlight. The caper with Books and Eliza's gang of street urchins; the Ministry Seven (who actually have eight members), is another. I loved his interaction with the gang's only female member; the cute blond Serena. Eliza's showdown with criminal queen bee Diamond Dottie is also worth mentioning.

Phoenix Rising was a bit of a mash up of steampunk, romance, mystery and urban fantasy. The Janus Affair is far more of a steampunk book with lashings of romance, it seems more comfortable in that slot, and the writers voices are stronger and more assured throughout because of it.

Some loose ends are tied up, and others are left deliberately flapping in the breeze to be followed up in future installments. At the end Eliza and Wellington looked set to travel to the United States, I do hope that's the focus of the next book, because I'd love to see them set loose on an unsuspecting American populace.