jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Ken MacLeod, The Restoration Game

I've read two novels by Jon Courtenay Grimwood: Stamping Butterflies and, um, End Of The World Blues. I remember very little about Stamping Butterflies except that I enjoyed the writing and that at the end it pulled the "universe reset" / "erase the fact that the story occurred" trick, which (it turns out) really, really irritates me. End Of The World Blues didn't do that; instead, it set up an intriguing premise and then used that premise mostly to illuminate a single character's life and growth in the way that more literary novels often do.

Verdict: Grimwood writes well and succeeds admirably in what he sets out to do, and that goal does not line up at all with what I want out of a book. To quote James Nicoll, I don't mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface. Or, in this case, that the surface be integral to the story that's being told.

I mention Grimwood because The Restoration Game does something similar to those two books, but it works for me. I think.

This is not a spoiler: the opening scene of the novel involves space-cops discovering that some jerk has set up a computer running a simulation of a universe and all the life in it, including the sentient life. Said sentient life are scientifically advanced enough to start bumping up against the limits of the universe's physics engine. Creating such a simulation is a horrific crime against those sentients-- but the space cops may have an idea of how to fix things. And then much of the rest of the novel is a contemporaryish (set in 2008, written in 2010) spy thriller revolving around something strange that's going on near the border of Russia and Georgia.

I like spy thrillers, so I was predisposed to like this... but I also like weird worldhopping near-future cyberpunk, and End Of The World Blues left me cold. That said, Restoration Game wisely doesn't try to do anything clever with its frame story except use it as a) the Macguffin and b) closure. It's a spy thriller that peters out to a weirdly philosophical resolution. It's not even deus ex machina (dea in machina, rather, the goddess entering into the machine) because nothing gets solved by the arrival of God, they just talk for awhile. It's just ... what it is.

It helps, I think, that Restoration Game explicitly acknowledges its setup from the start. You know, unless you aren't paying any attention at all, that the world is "just" a simulation, though that doesn't make it any less real to anyone involved. It doesn't come as a surprise when the curtain gets tugged away and then pulled down altogether. It feels more like a natural conclusion. Everything drawn together.

I've been chewing on the question of whether I liked it for the past three days. I think that's a good sign.
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Hal Duncan, Vellum

The prologue is absolutely amazing: a fractured narrative of a university student who tracks down a book that may or not have been written by God. Highly atmospheric, chock-full of conspiracies and esoterica. Excellent.

Shame the rest of the book didn't continue in that vein. Instead we get a compelling enough retelling of a Sumerian myth and a lot of interesting stuff about names, and reality, and creatures that may be gods, or angels, or demons. Then it shifts gears into a retelling of Prometheus Bound in several different timelines, and at about that point I got fed up with having been badly misled by the prologue. Into the go-away pile.

Walter Jon Williams, Dread Empire's Fall: The Sundering

Continuation of very good space opera; devoured in the space of about eight hours, with various breaks. Spoilers follow.

Midway through the book the two viewpoint characters, who have been smoldering at each other despite a communication screwup early in book 1, get together, and it is brilliant and incandescent and I loved it. Then they have another falling-out due to Secrets Being Kept and Not Speaking To Each Other, and spend the rest of the book blaming each other and obsessing. Which, argh. It keeps them from being in the same place for the rest of the series, and it is perfectly realistic, and if I never see this particular plot device again I will die happy. I just want to shake them both.

Apart from that frustration, still very good.

Eden of the East

Anime. Picked this up awhile ago because the back cover copy looked promising: conspiracies, amnesia, all that good stuff. Two episodes in and it is a romance between two irritating people with random conspiracy stuff thrown in at times. Based on the Wikipedia summary it will continue to irritate me for another nine episodes as the conspiracy stuff gets more random. Bah. Into the go-away pile.
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

I read Okorafor's Zahra the Windseeker a few months ago and thought it was a deeply original and imaginative YA / middle-grade novel, with a plot that didn't hold up at all. Who Fears Death is her first adult book. It maintains the originality and tones down the imagination a bit, and has a plot that hangs together pretty well too. It's that peculiar breed of fantasy that's set on what might be a future Earth, with magic and advanced tech coexisting more or less peacefully.

It's also about rape, and race, and rage, and growing up and learning who you are. I am really not sure what else to say about this: it's like nothing else I've read. Recommended. (It's also got a callback to Zahra the Windseeker, for good measure.)

Nancy Kress, Steal Across the Sky

Near-future SF. In the first half aliens arrive and tell us that ten thousand years ago they picked up some number of humans and dropped them on other planets as an experiment. Now they want to atone for experimenting on us, so they take a handful of human visitors to the other planets and drop them there to figure out what it is the aliens are atoning for. This is kind of a bombshell revelation, and the second half of the book is humanity dealing with that revelation.

Solid characters; fascinating alien cultures; questionable science; shaky post-revelation plot. Interesting, but more interesting than good.

Emma Bull, Falcon

Falcon reads like two short books that happen to have been published under the same cover.

The first book follows Dominic 'Niki' Glyndwyr-Jones, wastrel youngest son of the ruling dynasty on a colony founded by the Welsh, as his planet's economy collapses and turns into a police state. Niki develops a social conscience, starts sneaking out at night to help the resistance, uncovers a far-reaching plot to destabilise his planet's government, and barely escapes offworld with his life.

The second book picks up some years later. It's a sequel to the first so far as it has some of the same characters and explains a few of the mysteries left behind in the wake of Niki's flight. Niki Falcon is now an experimental pilot, the last of his program. He takes on a contract to a planet that's in some jeopardy, and political hijinks ensue. Ultimately he unravels the plot and does a bit of growing up.

The trouble with these books is that they're both so thin. There's just enough worldbuilding and secondary character development to carry the story, but not (quite) enough for the emotional payoff. I wanted more: more of Niki's relations with his family, more of what the resistance is doing, maybe more of the other gestalt pilots (though, maybe not). There are bits that I remember as being deeply affecting: Spin's ship, Laura's last hurrah. Most of that effect is from memory, and from how it resonates for the rest of the book. It deserves more impact in the moment.

Which is not to say that Falcon is a bad book: far from it. I think I read it because I didn't want to reread Growing Up Weightless yet again, and it served well enough. But I wanted it to be so much more.

quick bits

Apr. 7th, 2012 08:45 pm
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman

A very modern novel, and very strange throughout. E.g.: the narrator, who for much of the book cannot recall his own name, spends a great deal of time in conversation with his soul, who has no name; "For convenience I called him Joe." Filled with bicycles, questionable metaphysics, and footnotes and asides about the nonexistent works of a fictitious philosopher named De Selby. It doesn't say a whole lot, I think, but the way it says it is at least entertaining. I could hear O'Brien's Irish brogue in my head the entire time I was reading the book. I think I would have loved it to death had I the good fortune to encounter it in high school.

Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon

Fantasy derived from Arabic cultures rather than European, featuring an old wizard and his young paladin sidekick. Light and fun. It reminded me a great deal of the Master Li & Number Ten Ox books, and of Lloyd Alexander's The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha. If you're in the market for a popcorn fantasy novel you could do a lot worse; if you're looking for something substantive, this is unlikely to do the trick. Unfortunately I'm mostly looking for substance in my fiction these days. I get all the fluff I need from television. Speaking of which...

Ronald D. Moore (dev.), Battlestar Galactica: Season 1

Military SF concerned with how the military system can coexist with the civilians it's there to protect. Individual episodes range from "okay" to "pretty good;" nothing's blown me away yet, and the things that I've objected to aren't so problematic that I'll stop watching. The humans and the episode-to-episode plots are good. Big problems that I can foresee include 1) the religio-mysticism is currently getting on my third-to-last nerve and seems to be growing more prevalent, and 2) I cannot see any rhyme or reason to the Cylons' actions. (As a friend said, "There are many copies, and they have a plan... but the writers don't.")


Apr. 5th, 2012 10:16 am
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Leah Bobet, Above

I didn't really know what to expect from Above going into it. That may be the best way to go in, honestly. So: Above is a contemporary YA urban fantasy that is, to quote the author, "about complicated, tangled, late-stage Growing Up. And people with crab claws. And living shadow-creatures. And a girl who turns into a honeybee, and a boy who grew up underground." And if that interests you at all then you should read it. Now.

... )
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
In my Monday peregrinations (of which more anon) I found myself at White Dwarf Books, a spec-fic bookstore with a wide selection. All new, as the proprietor informed me, although some have been there for awhile. They had the second and third volumes of Gwyneth Jones's Aleutian trilogy, for instance (though not the first), which have been out of print except as ebooks for some years.

I ended up walking away with the three volumes of Ian Whates's City of a Hundred Rows. It had what looked to be a fairly inventive setting (huge enclosed vertical city, stratified and run-down, with steampunk overtones that aren't quite enough to turn me off it), and the main character as introduced in the first couple of pages is a guardsman whose parents decided that his being a guardsman was their ticket to higher society but who isn't very thrilled about this.

City of Dreams and Nightmare )
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Megan Whalen Turner, the Thief of Eddis series

Fantasy with no magic (only the occasional intervention from the gods), inspired by Greek myths rather than Arthurian tales. The Thief (#1) is a pretty standard action-adventure; from there they get deeply plot-twisty (yay!) with some first-rate character development (yay!) and pretty good worldbuilding. The end of #2 (The Queen of Attolia) flails around a lot; other than that I've no real complaints. Thus far The King of Attolia (#3) is my favorite, but that's only after a reread. The fourth (A Conspiracy of Kings, featuring the POV of a character from #1) may yet grow on me.

I'm nearly regretting buying these in paperback; the binding and paper are bad enough to detract from the reading experience.

Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, the Iskryne series

A Companion to Wolves is a Norse-analogue critique of Pern with lots of gay sex (as one gets when one critiques Pern) and some fairly cool elves. It's also a book complete in itself. The sequel, The Tempering of Men, is almost a perfectly fine book: there's less gay sex but lots more angst, and more cool elves, and the Pern-critique is in transition to become a Valdemar-critique. If it weren't half a story I'd be really really happy with it. I expect I'll be happier once the third (An Apprentice to Elves) arrives.

Walter Jon Williams, Metropolitan

Urban fantasy, if the term "urban fantasy" hadn't already been appropriated to mean "in the style of Borderland and late-eighties Charles de Lint." Imagine if your local power company supplied refined geomancy on tap, instead of electricity, and you'll have some idea of what's involved. The main character's a low-level functionary at the power company who stumbles on a huge untapped reservoir of plasm (power), and in the process of figuring out what the heck to do with it touches off a major civil war. It's really first-rate stuff. I read it before the move, expecting to get fifty pages in and consign it to the go-away pile, and instead I wound up ordering the sequel. (And then didn't get time to read it. And having since learned that WJW wanted and planned to write a third but the publisher went out of business his editor got fired and all his books cancelled, I'm not sure I want to...)
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Among Others )

Oh, and the potential sequel has a title. Because what else could the sequel to Among Others possibly be called?
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Disclaimer: The only Bordertown I've read prior to these was Emma Bull's Finder. I've never read any of the anthologies: I own Bordertown and The Essential Bordertown but just haven't made time for them, partly due to not having access to the other two. But with [livejournal.com profile] ellen_kushner gushing about the forthcoming new anthology, I figure I might as well get caught up before it gets here.

Elsewhere )

Nevernever )

In retrospect I wanted these to be "Milo Chevrolet's The Last Hot Time," which is unfair to everyone concerned.


Jun. 11th, 2010 07:52 am
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Someone finally taught Stephenson what a proper ending looks like. The main thrust of the story comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion, even as the characters and their arcs continue. This works for me. I'm not ready to forgive him for Cryptonomicon yet but I'll certainly look with less skepticism on his next book.

Anyway. Anathem is a hard book to talk about, because it's not really what you think of when you think of fiction. It's set in an alternate world where the brilliant thinkers, scientists, philosophers, have all hidden away in monasteries dedicated to the worship of reason and the study of, well, of everything really. These monks are so devoted to their studies that they seal themselves off from the outside world for a year, or a decade, or a century, or (the especially crazy ones) a millenium, so they can proceed untroubled by the rise and fall of the secular world beyond their walls. The story starts out following one young monk through a few months in the monastery, and then Something Happens, and suddenly there's plot and adventure and all that good stuff.

Which is periodically interrupted by long stretches of Platonic discourse with the numbers filed off.

Not, I hasten to add, that I think that's a bad thing. There was only once where I felt like it was "all very interesting but where's the plot" (during the Messal chapter, which is structured as a series of dinner conversations at which the narrator is a servant). And it may have been those philosophical digressions I felt the lack of during the almost terminally dull section in the middle of the book when the narrator is journeying across the North Pole. They're just. . . odd and unexpected. I can see where other people would get fed up rather quickly with the wink-wink nudge-nudge mixture of Greek philosophy in a medieval "math" (monastery) with all the names changed up slightly. Me, I enjoy reading about the process of finding things out. I also enjoy an elegant geometry proof now and then.

(Speaking of names changed up slightly, "math" is merely the tip of the iceberg in the book's tendency to call a rabbit a smeerp (WARNING: TVTropes link). This is more like calling a rabbit a lapin (or, I suppose, a norska) since nearly all the words are based on familiar Latin/Greek/English roots, or at least sounds. I mostly enjoyed the sense of "oh, that's what that means!" but by the time Jules Verne Durand's dialect showed up I'd gotten thoroughly annoyed by the process.)

So: the philosophy is good but maybe not to everyone's taste. The prose keeps it moving, the plot is passable and compelling enough to keep one reading (new wrinkles are introduced pretty consistently, so that just when you think you've got a grip on what's happening it turns out to be something else again), the characters work.

The worldbuilding. . . has what look to me like some holes. The ability of the mathic world to exist more or less free from interference from the Saecular Power (whatever happens to be the government at the time) seems idealized to just this side of laughable. Even accounting for the three Sacks in the past 3700 years, it's difficult for me to accept that the Saecular Power-- or some upstart-- wouldn't be putting the monks to work developing more ways to keep and hold that power. And mathic sex passes well beyond the realm of the laughable: the boys and girls are raised more or less together but romantic/sexual liaisons are prohibited, in an effective way, until they turn eighteen. I understand the Catholic Church has tried something similar, with somewhat mixed results.

Not to mention the presence of roughly four female characters, all of whom hold tertiary roles. Oh, Neal Stephenson, if you're going to go to the trouble of claiming that mathic society is gender-balanced, could you at least do the same in the dramatis personae?

At this point I'm nitpicking. I enjoyed the book an awful lot (I must have, to have been lugging it around for a month or so). Bottom line: if you liked The Republic but thought it would have been more fun written as the Book of the New Sun, this is probably one for you.

(See also Adam Roberts's somewhat more negative review, which has done the world an invaluable service by providing us with the words "fatasy" and "worldbling.")
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
David Eddings, Guardians of the West
King of the Murgos
Demon Lord of Karanda
Sorceress of Darshiva
The Seeress of Kell

I didn't reread these three summers ago when I went on my Eddings binge because I didn't have a copy of the first one. I finally fixed that a few weeks ago, so figured it was about time to decide whether these are worth keeping.


Really bloody annoying sexism? Check.
Racism as shorthand for character? Check and double check: the only reason the titular King of the Murgos is a human being is that he's half Drasnian (by which I mean "half Silk").
Plot consisting of characters being led around by the nose for no good reason? Check.
Godawful dialect? Check.
General exhaustion and no real desire to read much further by midway through book four? Check.

And yet. I've read these books so often, especially the first three, that they're seared into my brain. In a lot of ways they're the only good memories of junior high that I've got. The dialog's snappy, the individual episodes aren't too bad. . . meh. I've got the Elenium for that, and it's shorter, to boot.

Anyone want hardback copies of the Belgariad and the Malloreon?
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Robert M. Sapolsky, A Primate's Memoir

This is nominally a tale about Sapolsky's time studying a baboon troop in Kenya. In practice, it's a bunch of stories, some of which are about the baboons, some of which are about the tribes (Bantu farmers and Masai raiders) that live near the baboons, and some of which are about traveling elsewhere in Africa and what a horrible idea that was due to the endemic political instability.

He knows how to tell a really, really good story. I spent much of the book laughing in amazement, or shaking my head in sympathy. He is, in fact, so good at evoking a response that this introvert found the book kind of exhausting, in exactly the same way that being at a party is exhausting. It's great fun and you're enjoying yourself, and at the same time you need to go home and calm down for awhile, turn off the social overload.

My only other complaint is that the stories seem so fragmented. They follow a loose chronology, but often seem disconnected from each other. There's no real link between the stories of the baboons, the tribes, or the larger African situation, except for occasionally the characters.

At least, there's no link until the heartwrenching last chapter, which talks about the fate of the baboons. It ties together the lives of the baboons, the cheerfully self-absorbed culture of corruption in the tribes, and the much greater scale of endemic corruption in the government, with inevitable and horrifying results.

Early on in the book, Sapolsky notes that baboons live a pretty easy life: they have few natural predators, and they can forage for enough food in just a few hours a day. This gives them "about a half dozen solid hours of sunlight a day to devote to being rotten to each other. Just like our society." After reading this book, I can't fault the comparison.
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

You can tell this is a Neal Stephenson book by how the plot falls apart by the end.

That's not entirely fair. You can really tell it's a Stephenson by the dialogue (Judge Fang's in particular), by the names of things (the House of the Venerable and Inscrutable Colonel, at which Fang and his cohorts devour fried chicken), by the hacker in-jokes (look, it's a bazaar! With a free flow of information! And, are those cathedral bells we hear tolling at the end of the book?). And Diamond Age doesn't fall apart nearly so badly as Cryptonomicon (the book that, 2/3 of the way through, made me swear off future Stephenson books until someone gets him a proper editor).

Like Snow Crash and Crypto, Diamond Age is a fun read, full of witty characters and a plot that collapses under its own weight. Unlike those, Diamond Age is about something bigger than the wild ride. It's an analysis of societal structures, of moral virtues, and of how those virtues are passed to people (children) who don't necessarily choose them. It's about the success and failure of strict societies (Victorian, Confucian) and the need for flexibility.

I was having a great deal of fun with the book up until about halfway through, when the strange distributed hive-mind of the Drummers pops up (and absorbs a main character). At that point. . . something snapped. It wasn't precisely my disbelief suspenders. More that. . . they felt out of place in the techno-rational world Stephenson had created. At that point I stopped being swept along and started reading more critically. Which is kind of crucial for the enjoyment of Stephenson's books, and in particular for believing in and being thrilled by the upheaval and near-transformation of the world at the end of this one.

It's still good stuff; I'd reread it, I'd recommend it to other people. It's just not as good as the first half suggests. (Much like Stephenson's other books.)


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"Jazz Fish, a saxophone playing wanderer, finds himself in Mamboland at a critical phase in his life." --Howie Green, on his book Jazz Fish Zen

Yeah. That sounds about right.

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