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Since I suspected the novella category would be the hardest to read, I decided to tackle the novellas after the short stories. I'm ranking "No Award" as my first choice for this category. I finished only one of the nominees, hurled another aside with great force, and declined to spend time on the other two novellas the writer had gotten on the ballot in the novella category.

"Flow", Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, 11-2014): A competent adventure of a young man in a place that might or might not be a future Earth. Rist travels to the "warmlands" from his cold northern home with a group of "icemen" who guide and sell the icebergs that calve off his homeland's glaciers. The prose is stiff, and prone to infodumping, in the tradition of the Future as Travelogue; in fact, the juxtaposition of infodump and remnant technology reminded me a bit of Niven's Ringworld, as did Rist's adventurous personality. That's the strength and the weakness of this story: it could have been written any time in the last fifty years without changing a beat. The treatment of women only as "birthers" and sexy things to have sex with is a step down from Ringworld and other stories of the '60s and '70s, when science fiction was rediscovering that women are people too. Teela Brown at least gets her own scrap of story in Ringworld; in "Flow", Rith's mother is the only named female character, even though one might think the prostitute he screws - twice - might be another way our adventurous young lad could talk to and learn about the new horizons opening to him. In a stronger year, I'd have equally competent and more innovative choices to rank above this; for the 2015 awards, this is the only novella I actually read most of the way through. I started skimming at the two-thirds mark, but I finished it.

Big Boys Don't Cry, Tom Kratman (Castalia House): Super-sized tank with some level of AI is in her final battle and is scrapped for salvage by her human creators. ("Her" is correct; the the tank is definitely gendered by the narrative.)

I was recently pitching a story idea to a third party, with interleaved flashbacks as part of the structure. She gently and firmly nixed the structure.

This is an example of why she said to toss the flashback stricture. Stories benefit from chronological order. If the story will be told out of order, it better be for a really good reason. Thematic clustering, where theme is overpowering every other element of the storytelling. It's bouncing between linked stories set during World War Two and the '90s and have more than 300,000 words to play with (hi, Cryptonomicon). It's tracking River Song and the Doctor's hop-scotching personal timelines. There is a very specific information game it's playing (hi, Ancillary Justice). Whatever reason is in play, it helps to have strong technical skills when approaching the story's tone, prose, themes, and characterization that will help make or break the structural choice. The technical skills on display in this story aren't up to the challenge.

Big Boys Don't Cry opens in a "now" frame, told from a super-sized tank's PoV. Then it breaks for a didactic history lesson that reminded me of nothing so much as the opening of Cyteen, only with more riots and hanging. Then it jumps back to the tank and a salvage team. And then there's a bunch of character and temporal shifts into the tank's past, the salvage team doing its job in the now, and the tank in the now, with occasional outbreaks of Didactic Textbook Voice, aka infodumps. Made it to chapter 4 of 10, where the dying hulk flashes back to her first combat mission, and noped out.

One Bright Star to Guide Them, John C. Wright (Castalia House): Not read.

"Pale Realms of Shade", John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House): Not read.

"The Plural of Helen of Troy", John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House): I started reading this before I read Wright's nonfiction, hit multiple "nope" items in quick succession and skipped to the end. Structurally this attempts to disguise Wright's extensive technical weaknesses by telling the story in reverse chronological order. Because it's a time travel story, get it?

Wright does not have the technical chops to pull this off. I did not lightly toss aside "The Plural of Helen of Troy", I deleted it off my ereader with great force.
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For the Related Works category of the Hugo packet we have "John C. Wright's Patented One-Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction", an essay from Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth. I want to burn it and take a shower.

I cannot believe I am putting this behind a cut for sexual content in an essay on basic fiction skills. And yet, here is a cut with a warning about surprise gross objectification of women in an essay on basic fiction skills. There's bonus slurs on non-Western beliefs. )

When an artist has mastered his or her craft and does amazing things with it, it's possible to have engaging debates about the merit of art versus the artist's personal failings. Sometimes there are good people who are not great at their chosen craft, but we'd like them to find success to reflect the quality of their character, even if their work isn't to one's taste. My exposure to Wright's fiction and nonfiction work fulfills neither of those categories. In fact, I'd characterize his fiction as amateur work unworthy of the Hugos, and the nonfiction I have read as actively harmful to building a vibrant community of high quality writers capable of engaging with the questions of speculative fiction, be those extrapolation of contemporary hard science, examining the human condition, exploration of space and the future of humanity, or... take your pick. Wright's advice on writing is lacking as his fiction is lacking.

In light of what I interpret as bad writing and a general vibe of "off", I won't be reading anything else be Wright for this year's Hugos and will be leaving his work off the ballot.
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Recognizing that people have different interpretations and relationships with fiction, and also that shorter fiction just doesn't hit my buttons the way a fat novel will, I usually try not to just say, "wow, I hated this story." However, I suspect that exposure to this year's Hugo short story nominees actually killed some of my brain cells. I almost certainly will be marking No Award for this category.

Comments are in alphabetical order by surname.

"On A Spiritual Plain", Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014): Chaplain makes journey to release the spiritual remains at a physical site, for Reasons.

Meh. Just... meh.

"A Single Samurai", Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books): Sword-wielder in Japan-flavored setting strives to kill a monster the size of a mountain.

It's an unpolished story, which suffered by comparison to "Pacific Rim" every time the author wrote "kaiju", but good try!

"Totaled", Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, 07-2014): Woman dies in car accident, becomes a component of her own research study.

This gets points for actual speculation on technology and its impact on the human condition! The execution is not awesome, but it's competent. I would read something else by this writer.

"Turncoat", Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House): AI-powered warship votes "no" on killing fleeing civilians, opts to defect to the enemy.

"Turncoat" is so cute! It's like reading a David Weber short story, only with even less grounding in science and also even clunkier prose! Take a look:

If I were a superannuated Homo sapiens sapiens, I suspect fear would have taken hold of me at that moment. Instead, I run a rapid analysis of the pros versus the cons of having my entire operating system rebooted and my memory banks wiped. The outcome is decidedly in favor of the cons.

In this story, suspicion is not an emotion, but fear is, okay. Cybernetic death is bad, and also that conclusion is delivered in a bizarrely convoluted sentence, okay. But the cumulative effects don't add up to a coherent vision. Weak, but I give it a few points for being oddball enough I kept reading to figure out the worldbuilding, even if the entire story was telegraphed by the title.

"The Parliament of Beasts and Birds", John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House): Animals meet, discuss humanity's departure from the mortal plain, are elevated to Manhood.

It's like C.S. Lewis, minus Lewis' mastery of the tools of writing. The style choices are all over the place, slip-sliding between parable, pulp, and contemporary irony. Look at this quote, emphasis mine:

And there were pleasure houses where harlots plied their trade, and houses of healing where physicians explained which venereal diseases had no cures and arranged for painless suicides, and houses of morticians where disease-raddled bodies were burnt in private, without any ceremony that might attract attention and be bad for business.

Whoa. Total tone-break right at the end of the last sentence. Also, minus one million points for working in a reference to "harlots" in a story with no women.

The erratic capitalization adds on to the style issues. First there is When Raven and Wolf came to where Hound and Horse and the slow and solemn Bull were all exchanging whispered eulogies and reminiscences, and put their question to him, the Hound shrugged philosophically. The animals' names are proper nouns! A paragraph later it's The wolf said... and The hound shook his shaggy head. Whoops, proper nouns dropped. Why? What is going on here?

It's hard to screw up pacing at this length, but the story really tries to. And the science is wrong. There aren't black lions. You can't have the waning moon rise at sunset, it doesn't work like that. If these are supposed to be a signpost of the End Days, or that we're in a fantasy story, well, the slip-sliding prose does not make that evident.
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I have cracked the Hugo Nominations packet! It's an exercise in suffering! No, really, I see writers I've "noped" out of in the past! For example, I have been hating on Kevin J. Anderson's mediocrity as a writer since the Jedi Academy trilogy was published in 1994! (Sorry, KJA. I am glad other people like your writing enough to support you as a professional writer, but I am profoundly unmoved by the overwhelming "meh" of your fiction.) I will be doing my best to apply my usual questions to what I read:

Are the ideas compelling?

Does the plot interest me?

Do the spelling and grammar conform to a contemporary style guide?

Have the spelling and grammar been mangled for good reasons that support the idea or plot?

Based on previous experience with Hugo nominees in general and some cursory perusal of the nominees so far, I have serious doubts about some of the nominees doing well when judged by these questions. To keep my head from exploding, there will be a very special guideline for this reading project:

Do I have serious reservations about the writer's grip on her or his prose? Stop reading.

Usually I am a die-hard finisher. Sometimes this is justified: Possession was a slog for hundreds of pages and came together in a dead brilliant fashion at the end. However, from the very first page it was clear Possession was in the hands of a writer who had a very clear grasp of what she was trying to do and the impact of each word and sentence, plus the cumulative effect of each little building block as the story unspooled into paragraphs and chapters and a complete novel.

I do not have faith each and all of the Hugo nominees will demonstrate such subtlety or control over their tools. So watch this space as I suss out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

More Books

May. 26th, 2015 09:13 pm
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The Cyberiad (Stanislaw Lem) (1965 / English tans. 1974): A collection of short stories about two Constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, in a parable or fairy tale mode.

Trurl and Klapaucius are robots, by the way. It took me a few stories to figure that out.

(It took me about a story and a half to mentally model Trurl off Rodney McKay and Klapaucius from Radek Zelenka, but that is neither here nor there.)

Works in translation are a tough read for me, as I am generally keeping in my mind two layers of interpretation: what the author is trying to say and what the translator thought the author was trying to say. Add in the complications of '60s writing translated into '70s vernacular read in the 2010's, on a smartphone, and see where that gets you. I found the prose tough going, having been spoiled by recent reading. But what I liked, I really liked. Mad scientist robots! The lurking humor nearly destroyed in translation! Every now and then it would break though. I particularly loved the hypothetical dragons, the treatment which starts "dragons are impossible, of course" and then uses the language of abstract mathematics to bring the hypothetical dragons into the world. I really want to reread this on paper, preferably in a better translation.

Being Mortal (Atul Gawande) (2014): Nonfiction. Dying in America and the first world. The thesis seems to be: the current system for caring for the aged grew out of mid-20th-century hospitalization, and as such answers to the metrics of hospitals. Safety is valued over autonomy. However, studies are showing that self-determination is correlated to better quality of life, and sometimes even longer quality of life, so rearranging The System to allow people to be the "authors of their own stories" as long as possible might correlate with reduced end-of-life costs, better quality of life, and even a bit of an edge on length of life. Some of this is very good, and rings very true to my experiences. Gawande echoes a thirdhand quote that "we want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love," (p106 HC) which seems like a trenchant observation. But sometimes the arguments get a little too tidy, a little too slick, as when Gawande talks about the Ars Moriendi, a guide to an "ideal" death. I detect the whiff of English classism in adherence to this standard, which made me a little more dubious of Gawande's arguments, no matter how compelling.

The Price of the Stars (Debra Doyle, James D. MacDonald) (1992): Being, as the cover so flamboyantly proclaims, Book One of the Mageworlds. It's absolutely classic romantic space opera, Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off. There's an assassinated Domina, her grieving smuggler-turned-war-leader husband's charge to their free-trader daughter to find the identity of her mother's killer, which eventually draws in psychic Adepts, the Domina's other two children, some dramatic faked deaths, a mysterious and slightly sinister man incongruously known as "the Professor", and, of course, dramatic space-chases.

Stuff blows up really well. I append the stamp of beach reading approval, and look forward to tearing through the rest of the series (long out of print) when I can scrape it up from used book stores.
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My grandother, my father's mother, passed away Monday night. She was the last of my grandparents living. We weren't as close as either of us wanted to be, I think, especially after I moved to the West Coast, but she was still an important part of my life. My uncle is handling the arrangements, and I've checked in with him and with my father, so they know I'm on tap if they need something.

What makes me most sad today is that whatever's undone will remain undone. I hope she knew she was loved, even when we weren't that great at picking up a phone or a pen.
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As a form of bonding with a non-geek coworker, I watched "The Notebook". In the spirit of enjoying things for what they are, not what you want them to be, I will note there were several moments where I was moved: the young lovers' screaming fight that acknowledges the character flaws that will be part of their relationship if they're going to continue as a couple; the meditation on love and choice when Allie's mother reveals her own youthful fling to her daughter; and the very end, where the lovers romantically pass away on the same night, the night Noah sneaks into Allie's room at the nursing home. But by all that's holy give me friends to lovers with ridiculous snark and banter, or true love in the context of a bigger world, or a character study with science, for my go-to entertainment.

The new Avengers movie is on this week's to-do list.

The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison / truepenny aka Sarah Monette) (2014):. Fantasy novel about the ascension of Maia, the Elvish emperor's disregarded fourth son, to the throne of the Elflands. The novel opens with Maia shaken awake to learn his father and three brothers have been killed in an airship explosion, right before he is whisked from an impoverished country estate to the imperial palace, so this is not a big spoiler.

This novel is a warm fuzzy blanket of feelings. It's like Monette took what she learned from writing the Mirador quartet (which I loathed), combined it with wolftimes feedback, and produced this tempered work borrowing from the hurt-comfort tradition with beautiful attention to structure and sequencing of information. The interwebs tagged it "fantasy of manners", which does not seem inappropriate. People keep spontaneously offering to teach Maia. Maia keeps figuring out how to deal with people! Maia charts path toward being a good person and a good Emperor! Maia connects to his remaining family! This could have been a byzantine political novel; instead, it's a complex humanist novel. In a stronger Hugo year, I probably wouldn't expect The Goblin Emperor to make the ballot, but I'd pick it up for comforting rereads for years.

Katherine Addison is Monette rebranded, as mentioned multiple times on her livejournal. If you haven't read Monette's work, and liked this novel, you might or might not like her previous work. Look it up, but if you don't like the first chapter of The Mirador, set it aside before you're tempted to hurl it into a wall later on. (Wow. As I write this, I find I am still disgusted with the obligation d'ame in The Virtu.)

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi) (2009): 23rd century Bangkok, generations after peak oil, faces a number of environmental, technological, and biological challenges to its existence. I liked the structure, and like that it tries to break out of the northern hemisphere, but it feels, how to put this, exactly like it was written by a Western man. There is a habit of attention, a certain angle on the world, that is rooted in that heritage and experience.

But within that frame of reference, there's a lot going on. The post-oil economy, a sincere effort to write a future Krung Thep that is energy-poor; at constant risk of being drowned by the rising ocean; poor, and fiercely defiant of the "calorie men" of the West.

The structure is amazing, a loose ricchochet collection of multiple PoV characters whose actions influence each other in direct, indirect, and generally unexpected ways. The yellow card refugee Hock Seng schemes to rebuild the wealth and stability of his old life in Malaysia, destroyed along with his family during ethnic purges, by stealing a Maltese Falcon plot device from the factory where he is employeed. The factory is a front for Ken Anderson, one of the calorie men of the West, in Thailand to find and exploit a rumored seedbank, a priceless treasure in a future ravaged by genetically engineered plagues. He is thwarted by the Environmental Department's Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, and his lieutenant, Kanya, sworn to protect Thailand against the aggressive bioengineered life forms: beetles that have claimed entire forests; crop diseases that blight harvests, threatening famine; viruses and bacteria that rip through human populations like a scythe. They're professionally and personally disgusted by the New People like Emiko, the "windup girl" of the title. Emiko is a genetic construct, originally from Japan, abandoned by her owner and left to survive in Krup Theng, where she is considered so much biological trash to be recycled, and maybe beaten to death first. Emiko survives under the questionable patronage of a foreign pimp, one of Anderson's acquaintances. Her experiences are related in detail bordering on torture porn, so this is probably a skip for people who nope out of sexual assault descriptions.

I love this sort of plot. I love the ping-ponging cause and effect which become the causes of more effects. I love that Emiko struggles with her biological constraints and deep-seated psychological programming to find agency. I do not love that The Windup Girl will probably date very quickly, because of its topics and its approach to subjects that we're struggling with in the here and now, like climate change and genetic engineering. But it was enjoyable in the moment, and probably has a few more year before it's too dated to recommend without caveats. That's the problem with science fiction: the more detailed and interesting the extrapolation from the current body of knowledge, the less well it ages. Read it if you like kinetic plots with thoughtful future science.
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The Ships of Air (Martha Wells) (2004): Second in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. Road trip, including worldbuilding, with political marriage of convenience, only by "marriage of convenience" the story means "and they actually are kind of MFEO" with the occasional secondary character death to make me feel vaguely like this is not pure swashbuckling indulgence. Wells does really good ensemble work, which I really enjoy. The end of novel character reveal was... eh, I'd been spoiled by a Gate of Gods blurb. But structurally, there'd been a little too much of Absent Character infodump to be anything but setup.

The Gate of Gods (Martha Wells) (2005): Final novel in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. More of the same! The later reveals about the Gardier were adequate, if not as much fun as Our Protagonists and their trans-universe journeys on the Queen Ravenna, a close cousin of the Queen Mary. I could read about Tremaine and the Rienish factions figuring out how to deal with the Syprians all day. The larger scale politics aren't as much sheer fun. I like Wells in "people in small groups work to overcome obstacles" mode. I like the sense of humor at work. Oblique spoilers. ) I'm mentally bookmarking that for the next time I need something to cheer me up.

The Statue Within: An Autobiography (François Jacob) (1987): The 1988 Franklin Philip translation. One of the scientists who netted a Nobel for lac operon work describes his life, 1920 to 1959.

It's difficult to tell what style is an effect of translation. A certain approach to the structure of a sentence, of a paragraph. Short sentences. Almost too short. The gulf between the writer and the reader, widened by a translation. Does the sense of familiarity, of a like-minded outlook, reflect true similarity, or an effect imparted by chance? Questions unanswerable without learning another language.

Without getting too bogged in the exercise of imitation, this is not the most brilliant or compelling autobiography ever. There's moments of character sketches, there's moments of contemplation, but when I thought Jacob was going to skip over his WW2 experiences I cheered, because I picked this up with science, and insight into the creation of science, in mind.

With that said, there are moments of great beauty and personal resonance in the book. Reflections of the roles luck, chance, serendipity play in life; that unfocused mid-twenty's period; the way Jacob describes falling in love. It's a mind I am glad I met in text, where I can read a presentation with unthinking absorption, and again with a critical eye, and maybe once more with both layers added to the context of a wider world. Especially when the narrative lyrically opens into meditation on some incident or theme, like here on isolation, and a particular moment after WW2:

Doubtless, one is always alone. But not to the same degree, not in the same way. In Africa, it was the sudden break with my whole past that had given me a sense of isolation. Returning to Paris, I should have found what I had been missing. But it did not work out that way. I felt out of step. I felt I did not matter a great deal to anything or to anyone. Loneliness had become a sort of natural setting, an element; and in it, I immersed myself, as both island and ghost. Perhaps I was missing the fellowship of fighting men. Perhaps I envied those who were active in a political party and could say "we." But I had an aversion to parties and their lies. For several months, the conquerors remained isolated by their victory, the conquered by their defeat. The time came to reunite. To smooth things over. Which revolted me. One evening near the Ópera, I entered a café. It was the hour when the colors begin to falter, to free themselves little by little from the sun before being lost in the oncoming evening: as the fish that one throws back in the river take on the color of the water before disappearing in it. Though the window of the café, I looked at the crowd going by on the boulevard. I was trying to identify people. To type them. To search their faces for signed. Signs of the hangman and of his victims. Clues to the torturer and to the tortured. To those who had fought the Nazis and to those who had done business with them. But everything was leveled, equalized in the evening's grayness. Nothing but smooth and neutral faces. All these people passed one another, ready neither to flee from each other nor to come together. The world was submerging the horrible tragedy that had lasted five years, closing over it like water over a stone. Then what would joining a political party be but a coat with holes? An illusion thrown over loneliness.
(p200 HC).

That moment of timeless theme and personal experience is sticking with me.

Dreamsnake (Vonda M. McIntyre) (1978): [personal profile] skygiants read it, so I decided it was time to reread this for the first time in more than a decade. The catalyst of the story is the novice healer Snake losing her dreamsnake, the symbol and tool of her practice, and setting out to explain her failure to her teachers - then switching up to seek out a new source of the rare, difficult to breed dreamsnakes to atone for her mistake.

The '70s, you guys. The Seventies. The tail end of the New Wave. So the narrative structure is loose: Snake's goals change more than once as she interacts with and connects to new characters. The "hard" technology of the Campbell years, spaceships and nuclear power, is not an unmitigated good or the inevitable march of progress. In this postapocalyptic landscape, the desert Snake crosses is dotted with radioactive craters, the deadly aftermath of a conflict so distant the hard fallout is its only legacy. The speculative elements are the social structures and genetics. There's unquestioned polyamory, and pretty frank discussions of sex, but homosexuality is oddly invisible.

In my usual fashion, the only thing I remembered was the dreamsnake reveal at the end, and the irony that the healers' successful attempts to breed more dreamsnakes were accidents; I'd forgotten 90% of the novel. Snake's rashness, pride, and self-consciousness about her failures, I'd spaced out on those. The three-ness of the human relationships, and the three-ness of the snakes, is something I'd also spaced on.

I'd like to say there's a three-ness to the structure or themes, too, but that's not quite right. The wandering structure drapes over episodes about fixing things, either injuries or attitudes, in a way that I'm still thinking about. Spoilers. ) It's definitely SF in the postapocalyptic vein, rejecting the Old and trying out new things. I like that; even when it doesn't entirely work, I like it when fiction stretches my brain.
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NEW BUJOLD NOVEL. AND IT'S A CORDELIA NOVEL. Clearly a massive Bujold reread is in order. Crap, I had other plans tonight and I have been SIDETRACKED BY LIFE. And booze! If that were not clear from the capslock.
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Amazon tells me I have a credit in the bank. What apps are worth paying for? I have a Samsung Galaxy S4 and already paid for the pro version of Moon Plus Reader. The only thing I really want right now is a document app that shows MS Word tracked changes and comments. What else should I shop for?
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Stories of the Raksura, Volume One (Martha Wells) (2014): What the cover says: less than novel-length stories set in the world of Wells' Raksura novels. "The Falling World" is one of the adventures of Indigo Cloud court, some time after The Siren Seas. A party led by Jade is lost on a trading trip, and a rescue is lead by Moon and Stone. "The Tale of Indigo and Cloud" covers a kidnapping which shaped later relationships between the renamed Indigo Cloud court and Emerald Twilight. It's a pretty serious history story, but also a story about Raksuran politics, as shaped by Aeriat and Arbora psychology and biology. If you like that sort of worldbuilding detail, you'll really enjoy the story. "The Forest Boy" is a story about young Moon, from an outsider PoV, and also about the bitter fruits of jealousy, which I found surprisingly moving. Chime's transformation is covered in "Adaptation".

Saga, Volume 4 (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples) (2014): I was a little over-excited for this, which wasn't helped by the plot of these issues. The tropes in play were not the tropes I love. Spoiler-cut. ) Volume Five is still on the to-buy list, but it's been downgraded in urgency.

Finished a back-to-back reread of Leckie's Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword. AS is a middle novel, oh yes. I encourage readers to consider it in light of Cherryh's Foreigner series, where the narrator is not exactly unreliable, but questions the validity of his interpretations of everything in agonizing detail. There's this extrapolation from fiddly micro-events to the macro impact on the two-species planetary political scene. Breq is an unreliable narrator, with a trick of focusing on exactly what is in front of her and not cluing the reader into the wider context. Spoilers, and lots of speculation. )

Walk to the End of the World (Suzy McKee Charnas) (1974): One of those '70s dystopias where war and technology have destroyed the world, with cannibalism, and explicit descriptions of what happens to the bodies. I can see how the nuanced elucidation of the white males' racism and misogyny, alongside the institutionalized drug use (oh, the '70s) and casual homosexuality propelled this novel to a retrospective Tiptree, while being nauseated by the experience of reading about the horrific abuse of women, and did I mention the cannibalism?

(Tangentially, marijuana is not a hallucinogen. Unless the nuclear fallout caused some really interesting mutagenesis. Yes, it's a minor thing to notice, but the implication of hallucination-by-hash is the sort of detail that throws me out of the story.)

The worldbuilding is satisfyingly elaborate, while being right up there with The Handmaid's Tale for upsetting character-sanctioned sexual assault and related horrific human rights abuses. It's useful to read, as a complex well-executed story, and as part of the tradition of feminist science fiction, but it was full-on dystopia with barely the faintest spark of a better future.

The Wizard Hunters (Martha Wells) (2004): Fantasy novel, first in a trilogy.

Wells has this very direct approach to what could be very dark situations which can be extremely entertaining. Lots of snark in the middle of dramatic action sequences, lots of action relative to contemplation and internal cogitation, and this expectation that people can work together, even when they meet in the middle of a firefight. Or maybe that's especially when they meet mid-fight.

Cut for space, limited spoilers. )

This is Wells in awesome compulsively readable mode. I had a vague idea I'd pause between The Wizard Hunters and its sequel, The Ships of Air, to read the earlier Ile-Rien novels I'd picked up at the library. Then I read the first chapter of the next novel online. And the second. And... as soon as I could, I went back to the library to check out The Ships of Air.
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While typing part of this, I rewatched the DS9 episode where Eddington taunts Sisko with Les Miserables. It's the wrong book for the metaphor the story was trying to write: Valjean doesn't lead revolutions. Sorry, Eddington; your heart is in the right place, but you're looking for another Hugo protagonist, I think.

My reading log is so behind it starts with last year's WSFA small press nominee voting bundle. The contents were:

Cut for space, along with story comments. )

Readers, feel my shame. I reread Mercedes Lackey. )

I did not venture into Mage Winds / Mage Storms territory (much), instead making a hard swerve into the Vanyel trilogy. It seems I still have many feelings about the (possibly unintentional) structure of foreshadowing and capital-D Destiny, while being less and less invested in the actual story. Teenagers are not all that good at life decisions, who knew? Teenagers with superpowers are not that good at life decisions with superpowers, not shocking! Unless you are a Herald, apparently.

One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love (ed. Rebecca Walker) (2009): Essays on family. A mixed bag, which killed some bus time.

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Dan Fagin) (2013): Nonfiction. A recounting of the history of a chemical plant in a New Jersey town, and of the legal wrangling that arose during the plant's decline. Long, heavily end-noted, very well written. There was enough science I can look up the technical aspects for more details, and the science that was in the book was clearly described for a lay audience. The legal aspects also seemed well done to me, evoking the tedium and inanity of major legal actions, and the ambiguous closure - or lack of closure - associated with the final settlements.

Also, I will never look at tap water the same way. Highly recommended.

ETA, 2015: SAN trimer results complete, ambiguous. The study is discussed in Fagin's book in some detail.

For reasons, I reread broad swathes of Kage Baker's Company novels (1997 - 2007): In the Garden of Iden, Sky Coyote, Mendoza in Hollywood, The Graveyard Game, The Children of the Company, The Machine's Child, The Sons of Heaven, and the short story collections Black Projects, White Knights and Gods and Pawns. You'll note I skipped The Life of the World to Come, as my feelings on Mendoza's romance start at "faugh, this is not an entirely consensual relationship!" and go downhill from there.

The Company novels are wonderful entertainment: there's great worldbuilding with a number of clever little touches; a deep and wide cast of entertaining, well-evoked characters; coherence of plot and theme; deft comedic timing. They're not flawless: the Mendoza romance is predicated on some deeply sketchy "Edward is Always Right" nonsense. It's possible to argue there's an arc where Nicholas and Edward and Alec learn they aren't all that, but it's not entirely clear to me that's in line with the author's intention. I am happy to burble at length in comments, particularly about Joseph, or series structure, or the little gray men.

Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie) (2014): Sequel to Ancillary Justice. It was enjoyable, in a way that is a little aslant of AJ.

Spoilers for both novels. Also, probably nonsensical without reading both novels. )

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss) (2007): Fantasy novel. The retelling of the youth of Kvothe, called the Deathless, the Bloodless, Kingkiller, etc, by the red-haired green-eyed innkeeper Kote.

Jo Walton reviewed this favorably, and one of my friends really liked it, so I made an exception to my Fat Fantasy Epic rule. (The Rule: "Don't.") It didn't move me as strongly as others have been moved, but I'm intrigued by the artifice of the framing story. We're being told a story! The narrator may be rather unreliable! I certainly hope the portrayal of women is a side effect of the precocious mid-teens male protagonist PoV. The language is polished, nearly invisible, except when it does something particularly beautiful.

I still find myself inclined to wait until the trilogy (or series) is finished or permanently abandoned before reading the second novel.
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For New Year's Day I finally watched Guardians of the Galaxy with friends in the North Bay. It was much less immature than I'd braced for. Granted that my expectations started at rock bottom, which may have aided in clearing the bar.

GotG did a better than expected job balancing the tonal shifts between space opera and slapstick. Peter Quill's daddy issues are so very 'been there, done that', unless he turns out to be in line to inherit the throne of Asgard (because I trust Chris Pratt and the writers to play that for maximum hilarity). There were some things that I couldn't keep my mouth shut about while watching the movie. GotG seems to be set in a universe where there's interstellar ether instead of vacuum, for example. I also wish I liked Zoe Saldana's Gamora more: there were some scenes that worked really well for me, like Gamora cutting off Quill's attempt to hit on her, but I didn't really buy Gamora the Assassin. I'm not sure if it was an acting thing, or if the direction was for old school space opera, rather than emulating the more contemporary awesomeness of Aeryn Sun and Natasha Romanova and Zoe Washburn: tough as nails people who happen to also be women.

When I watch a movie, I'm there to enjoy the effect of a group of people telling a story, so I am often underwhelmed by set pieces that drag the story to a crawl for the benefit of showing off this or that technical skill. But GotG used the various components that go into set pieces - fighting, CGI, VFX, wirework, green-screen, sets, musical cues - to stunning effect elsewhere in the movie. The Groot and Rocket performance capture and CGI were particularly notable. I guess this is what happens when people who are good at what they do are given staggering budgets.
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Rainpocalypse: lots of flooding in the streets, some power loss, thanks to surprisingly warm rain. A notably undercrowded commute, both ways; the Wednesday evening commute was more crowded and delayed than either Thursday trip.

It was bad sequel season last week and this weekend: the two Star Trek reboots, and the middle Hobbit movie. It's no accident I opted out of watching the one with the spiders in the movie theater. I'm not terrifically impressed with the "fast forward through the spiders" version either; I miss Bilbo's lighthearted story. AS a fan of the novel, I find the movies don't capture the tone of the book, nor do they reflect many of the themes in Tolkein's mythology. As a movie viewer, I'm disappointed that the script doesn't remember that special effects age much faster than a good story. Somewhere in those nearly three hours of wandering though Mirkwood and Erebor there's a good story. I just don't care enough to try to find it.

By the way, a year of cool-off has not reduced my disgust with the Khan reveal, or Kirk's ridiculous death and resurrection, or Zoe Saldana's absolutely thankless role. In what alternate timeline is Uhura reduced to "the girlfriend"?! Ugh! The 2009 reboot is still watchable, but even with adjusted expectations I'm not feeling Into Darkness.

Through the power of Netflix I also finally watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was charming, if very dated. Apparently I'm in a singing-dancing-hustling sort of mood.
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I keep meaning to post this on reading Wednesday, and forgetting. Have a reading Tuesday!

A Hero at the End of the World (Erin Claiborne) (2014): Scott Pilgrim redux, without Scott Pilgrim's brilliant deployment of contemporary pop culture, or the lurking plot twist that Scott recognizes and acknowledges his flaws. A story as trope-heavy as The Magicians, without Grossman's wonderful prose, or critical engagement with the problematic aspects of fantasy tropes. By chapter four (of 33) I didn't care about any of the characters, and committed the minor sin of skipping to the final chapter. A later plot element inspired false hope it would get better. It doesn't.

The novel is blurbed as "best friend of Chosen One fulfills Chosen One's destiny, timestamp: 5 years later". Sounds like a great opportunity to engage critically with the Chosen One trope, doesn't it?

This is not that novel. )

A Hero at the End of the World is the first novel published by Big Bang Press (see Kickstarter page). I anted up at the "three ebooks plus commentary" level, and will report back as the second and third novels show up in my inbox. Hero was the novel I had most expected to enjoy, so it's disappointing I bounced off it this badly. But! Now I can re-scale my expectations appropriately.

Saga: Volume 3 (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples): THIS SERIES YOU GUYS THIS SERIES. This is how you do tropes. It's space opera (I love space opera). There is a star-crossed romance, which can be done poorly or well, and in this case it's done to my taste. Though Marko and Alanna are very "us against the world", usually my least favorite romantic plot, this is constantly undercut by their own flaws and struggles with their relationship, and their awareness of the possible consequences for their tiny daughter. The young parents may be In Love, but that doesn't resolve their insecurities, interior or exterior. Someone still has to change the diapers.

Spoilers for Volume 3. )

I love this series. I love the sprawling canvas. I love the multiple perspectives the reader follows, the compromises people make (and try to break), the gorgeous full color art, the callously high body count, the Lying Cat (if you do not love Lying Cat, there is no hope for you), Marko and Alanna figuring out how to be responsible parents, the different characters engaged in some form of parenting, or caretaking, or bringing life into an uncertain world (the Robot family! Could this series signpost Major Issues with more neon lights? Cannot wait to see how that plays out), the relationships. I love Klara figuring out this mother-in-law thing. I love the random ghosts and magic and the spaceships and the transformative power of trashy romance novels. I love the art, and the shameless reveling in this broad spacious canvas by writers, inkers, artists who know exactly what they're doing with their tools.

The Empress of Mars (Kage Baker) (2010): Mary Griffith, former scientist, current bar-owner-slash-brewer-slash-mother, survives and thrives on Mars.

Not my favorite Company novel (Sky Coyote, hands down; expand to shorter works and I will nominate "Son Observe the Time"), but delivered palate-cleansing competent storytelling and mild slapstick. There is, how to say this? When Baker makes her characters immature and short-sighted, one gets the impression she does not find this charming. It's just part of the human condition. She's also got tonal range in her storytelling: The Empress of Mars is pretty frothy, compared to, say, Mendoza in Hollywood. Mary's two oldest daughters get married, Mary secures the small entrepreneurial fortune any self-respecting pioneer woman would desire, plucky quirky independence is celebrated and mindless conformity derided... this isn't deep, but it's competent.
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Life After Life (Kate Atkinson) (2013): Mainstream "kill Hitler" time loop novel. Protagonist Ursula Todd is born, lives, dies - and is born again on the same snowy night in February 1910.

Spoilers for last page plot twists, invocation of TV Tropes. )

In some ways, it's an infuriating novel: long sections meandering through Ursula's life, especially her childhood and Blitz experiences, clicking together at the very end in a fashion where the reader is torn between turning back to the first page to reread with new knowledge and throwing Life After Life across the room at the thought of subjecting yourself to all that again. Is this a mainstream thing? It reminds me strongly of the quotidian slog of Possession, turning into something much more interesting most of the way through, with a brilliant wonderful ending.
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Hild (Nicola Griffith) (2013): Historical fiction in 6th C Anglo-Saxon territory, where textile production is both integral to the worldbuilding, and does extra duty as a recurring metaphor for the politics the protagonist is involved with. It's a wonderfully dense novel, both in the plot and the sense of immersion in Hild's perspective. Griffith balances the warmaking and politics of territory with policies of taxation, the good and bad harvests, economic strategies, and Hild's interactions with her family and household. Tight third PoV narrative voice us all this with an undertow of Hild-ness in the midst of sheep and war.

Hild's awareness that she plays the game of thrones, combined with her sense of isolation and tight kin bonds, may be familiar to Cherryh fans. Definitely recommended for readers jonesing for a story where thought and the occasional manipulation of other characters play a significant role. The major caveat: the novel rewards close attention. This is a rare case where I wanted more family trees in the frontispiece.

A few plot and thematic elements also reminded me of Jo Walton's The King's Peace / The King's Name duology. KP/KN is set a few universes over from ours, in a British Isles analog in fragmented disarray following the withdrawal of a Roman-like "civilizing" force. The novels are the memoirs of one of the unifying king's fighters. (There's a prequel, The Prize in the Game, that hasn't floated to the top of my to-read stack yet.) In sharp contrast to Hild, in KP/KM the gods are real, manifest in miracles and face to face interactions as well as some prophecy or destiny stuff. This does not stop people from manipulating religion for secular ends. Hild and KP/KN share the spread of a unifying monotheistic Christian or Christ-like religion, the often bloody attempt to unify an island nation, and a particular attention to women's roles and relationships. Walton is inventive in building a world a little to the left of ours, Griffith in meticulously evoking a plausible secret history. They converge in the sense of verisimilitude the novels evoke. So it was The King's Name I wanted to reread after finishing Hild, rather than, say, Cyteen.

(Tangentially, Hild and Ari are on the "never allowed to hang out together" list. Even if they get along, the gamesmanship would be ridiculous. And if they didn't get along, they'd probably rend the political fabric of the known universe.)

Currently slogging through Life After Life, a mainstream novel executing a flavor of the Groundhog Day trope.
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Two novels very good in very different ways:

Star Wars: Razor's Edge (Martha Wells) (2013): Reread. A fun SW romp. Wells is really good at the sort of second-order worldbuilding I can't get enough of. Not just saying "abandoned mine taken over by pirates" but digging into that premise, and bringing out the sense of things pirates might do with an abandoned mine: yes to shooting galleries and slave pens, no to routine maintenance. Very standalone, which is a plus and a minus. Sometimes, it's really cool to see authors tie into and interpret existing material (from other writers, I, Jedi comes to mind); sometimes it's fun to see what new ideas authors can come up with (Alderaanian pirate ship!).

Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) (2006): Fiction set during the Biafran War, or the Nigerian Civil War, of 1967 - 1970. Picked up after an NPR interview with the author; it's certainly a capital-L Literary novel. The reader can engage on the level of "Richard wants to be a Writer more than he actually writes"; or the psychology of Odenigbo's affair, and Ugwe's horrified reactions; or Richard and Olanna sleeping together, especially in the context of Richard's dismissiveness toward the expat community*. Certainly it's possible to be gripped and bored by turns during the war itself, as the conflict radically alters the characters' lives: middle- and upper-class Igbo like Olanna and Kainene struggle with privation, and Ugwe is drafted, exposing readers to the ugliness of combat and how the chaotic military life affects those fighting.

*"But this was expatriate life. All they did, as far as [Richard] was concerned, was have sex with one another's wives and husbands, illicit couplings that were more a way of passing the heat-blanched time than they were genuine expressions of passion." (chapter 21)

But there's the other level, too, where one remembers this is a novel, where the author has made choices. The choice that Olanna and Keinene do not speak for years after Kainene's lover sleeps with her twin Olanna; the significance of Olanna and Kainene's twin-ness; their shifts in fortune and friendship with the struggles of Biafra. So it's tempting to read extra signficance into each character and relationship: European Richard's infatuation with angry Keinene can become a metaphor, as does his impotence, literal and narrative; the child Baby, not just Olanna's lover's daughter, might also be a symbol of Biafra or the Igbo attitude toward Biafra. Kainene's disappearance is not only the open wound of family missing in war, for months and years, but carries extra weight as it occurs during the dissolution of Biafra. Even the PoV choices - Olanna, her lover's servant Ugwe, Richard - become significant, especially in light of the romantic affair that fractures the narrative, and the strained relationship between Olanna and Keinene. Even the lack of perspective from the passionate revolutionary Odenigbo comes into play.

Next up: Hild has floated to the top of the to-read pile, yay!
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Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Anthony Bourdain) (2007 edition; original pub 2000): Specialist writes about his beloved field, warts and all. A colorful mash of frank minutia, which I loved; blunt honesty; and just a dash of machisimo. The colorful recollections of knife accidents and burned hands don't always make for appetite-enhancing reading during lunch or dinner, but the emphasis on narrative by anecdote makes this a fun book to read on the bus and train.

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Piper Kerman) (2010): Prison memoir; picked up after watching the first season of the show. Knowing the writer is telling a story, it's interesting to compare the book to the series, and to consider how those diverge from the lived experience.

My Real Children (Jo Walton, 2014): Being a double life framed within the slippery memory of a woman with advanced Alzheimer's.

It feels like Walton writes a novel when she has a new experiment to try. Cut for space, incidental spoilers. )

If anyone else has read My Real Children, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it; this was definitely more of a thinking than feeling novel for me.
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What better day than reading Wednesday to tackle the backlog of the last - ahem! - months of things read?

Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco (Jason Henderson) (2013) gives what it says on the tin. The author enters a discourse on the car and car alternatives in San Francisco, viewed through the interactions of three major camps defined by Henderson: progressives, neoliberals, and conservatives. That concept I found an interesting lens for viewing some of the history of transportation in the City, but the execution was somewhat draggy. Perhaps it's a side effect of the intended (academic?) audience? The prose is decent, but less than brilliant, hampered by several quirks or writing choices. It may be a philosophical choice to obscure some parties' names - forces of history versus Great Man? - but ultimately I think some of the elliptical references to, say "the recently elected [public official]" instead of explicitly invoking Agnos or Jordan or Brown undercuts the enjoyment of placing the events and the writer's interpretation of events into a larger context. Also, it damages the book's long-term relevance to people outside the scholastic/social justice hard core. Speaking obliquely of the 2011 interim mayor who said he was not running for mayor and then did is relevant information, but why not just say, "Ed Lee, interim mayor who..." for the person stumbling across this in 2020?

I was also disappointed to see scant attention to another sort of mobility, the physical body's perceived or actual capabilities, as a component of car-centric "automobility" and alternatives. Calls to improve transit and increase trips by bicycle are great, but the failure to acknowledge the role of physical and mental ability to negotiate alternative transit options was a notable gap that could have benefited from greater attention.

It would also be interesting to hear the author's take on the flurry of taxi-like services like Uber and Lyft. On the one hand, expanding ride-share expands non-auto-owning options for urbanites, a progressive goal; on the other, the target audience for these services seems to be a smartphone-savvy class the author might not consider particularly progressive.

When the Hugo nominee lists were published, I put Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie, 2013) on hold, and got to read it in June. It's a strong first novel, but after finishing it I was surprised it vaulted to the Hugos. Then I looked at the rest of the list, and started listing the things it does: a solid workmanlike job with a double-stranded narrative, tricky PoV issues, a great job with the relationship between Seivarden and Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, big fat space opera worldbuilding delivered in reasonable chunks that (1) set up a mid-novel plot reveal, (2) takes your "the future will be genderblind" and says, "oh really, let's play that out to a logical conclusion" in understated efficient and effective tight-third narrative, (3) get really creepy with respect to police states, concepts of self, and concepts of culture if you start thinking about it... and it became less surprising.

Spoilers discuss plot and worldbuilding. )

I am not certain I can say this rewards close attention in the manner of some SF classics, but I am sufficiently intrigued to look for Leckie's shorter works and keep an eye out for her next novel. Certainly would encourage others to read this, but with the caveat to bring adjusted expectations.

For reasons I am having a bit of a middling-gray tea-time of the soul, but in this time of self-reflection I was graced with a ray of light, or at least validation that I'm not the only fool in the world. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile (2012), a tedious mix of ego and One True Theory which confuses anecdotes with inductive reasoning*. Personal weightlifting goals as an entry point to biological "overshooting". Unnamed high school acquaintances as a door to psychology. Feelings on the "inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature". (Cruel betrayal by the laws of physics. Wow.) And I find that, somehow, I am not all that enthused by analogies of failed entrepreneurship to dead soldiers. The loss of money and being laughed at is a crisis from which one might recover; unless one is religious, being killed has no Chapter the Next.

*Author: "No, you do not understand. Go read Black Swan and the light will shine upon you."
Me: "Maybe, but given the ratio of ego to insight, I find myself strangely reluctant to waste more time on this prating. Come back with an endnote including datapoints replacing each instance of isolate personal experience, mister. If I want thought experiments I will revisit New Wave science fiction and its inheritors."

The concept of examining that which is harmed by chaos (the fragile), that which is neither harmed nor benefits from chaos (the robust), and that which benefits from randomness (the antifragile) seems like a good idea, and the book came recommended as "interesting", but I think it's time to chalk this up as "superficially intriguing, unforgivably sloppy execution" and move on, before I devolve into asking "is the author saying type systems should be antifragile and constructs within a type class should not be?" which is going to end with a five-paragraph rant on infrastructure deprecation and sustainable value extraction from high-diversity ecosystems (of organisms and businesses).

Dis-rec, unless one brings a drinking game.

On impulse, I picked up World War Z: An Oral Histroy of the Zombie War (Max Brooks) (2006), a post-apocalyptic mockumentary of an international zombie plague. Zombies are very much not my thing, but fragmented narrative where the reader is expected to pay attention absolutely is up my alley. Much of the book was a fine dance between queasiness (zombies, ew) and assembling the implicit narrative. There's some enjoyable second-order worldbuilding details, as the interviewees reflect on their experiences: initial cover-up attempts; humans fleeing early outbreaks, not necessarily smartly, and the consequences; novel military tactics; individual and collective survival actions.

I am told the movie based on the novel focuses on an action-adventure Brad Pitt character seeking first Patient Zero and later an utterly ridiculous biological shield from zombie attention, in ways strongly divergent from the tone and themes of the novel.

Julie E. Czerneda's Survival: Species Imperative #1 (2004) is the first Czerneda novel I've picked up in, oh ten-plus years, when I read her first novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger (space opera, with telepaths, and aliens, and telepathic aliens who look sufficiently human for a romantic thing, with amnesia). Survival is in a similar tradition of space opera. Research-obsessed scientist is unwillingly, even unwittingly drawn into interstellar politics! There are aliens! There are life-threatening cross-species miscommunications! There is emotionally significant long hair! There are terrifying interstellar conflicts between aliens! The main character has four given names, opting for the gender-neutral "Mac" over Mackenzie Winifred Elizabeth Wright Connor, and who can blame her?

There's some interesting twists on space opera embedded in the sprawling narrative: intersections of biology and interspecies diplomacy, strong professional friendships within and across genders. Our Mac has Romantic Tingles for one character, a Coulson-esqe secret agent man, but that's one (running cold and hot) thread of a much larger social tapestry. At least as important is her relationship with another - female - researcher, and by the end of the novel it's looking like that friendship is going to drive far more plot than anything to do with Mr Romantic Tingles, tying into her interactions with an alien researcher and the plot twists associated with his secretive species.

That social tapestry is one reason the novel takes so long to get moving, flirting with sabotage and investigations before stretching out for places unfamiliar to Mac and the reader. The prose is workmanlike third person tight-ish, with one quirk: the italicized-thoughts convention is in third person past tense. So something like, "A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of them, Mac decided, must look like small yellow tends themselves (DAW pb p21)" would be "A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of us, Mac decided, must look like small yellow tends ourselves in most novels. Flouting genre convention is no bad thing - see Ancilliary Justice - but generally I enjoy it most when there's a reason the trends are being ignored. In this case, with much of the narrative hewing closer to ground familiar to the McCaffrey-Lackey-ish generation, it didn't encourage reflection on the cool or interesting things the story was doing so much as it threw me out of the narrative pretty much every time it cropped up, throughout all 435 pages.

I'm feeling no burning rush to tackle the sequel. This was entertaining without leaving me a burning desire to find out what happens next, so it'll probably be saved for bus or airplane reading when I'm in a Big Fat Space Opera mood.

The current book in hand is Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (originally published in 2001; reading the 2007 edition with a new forward), which strips any romantic illusions about fine restaurant dining from the reader.


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