Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wednesday Review: Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel by Jacqueline Koyanagi


Title: Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel
Author: Jacqueline Koyanagi
Publisher: Masque Books
Publication Date: 2013
Genre: Science Fiction (Space Opera with a strong Romance streak)
Price: $6.99 (ebook), $14.95 (trade paperback)
Where to Purchase: Powells   |   Amazon   |   Barnes & Noble
Reviewed by: Julia Dvorin


Happy Holidays to all you Heroines of Fantasy readers! Hope you are staying warm and dry and making merry in the ways you like best. This time around I’m reviewing Ascension, a debut novel by Jacqueline Koyanagi. This was one of the random books that showed up in my swag bag from World Fantasy Convention, but it made the “schlep home on airplane” cut because it looked like just the kind of character-based, space opera sci-fi I like best. Plus its protagonist was a working-class, queer woman of color with chronic illness issues, which sounded intriguing to me as I am heavily in favor of reading stories from traditionally underrepresented points of view.

Ascension is told from the point of view of Alana Quick, a “sky surgeon” (spaceship mechanic) with a chronic illness who struggles to make a living in a world which is slowly being gentrified by Transliminal, a large alien-run corporation with a whole different (and cheaper) kind of technology. Gearhead Alana has a passion for ships and space and has always dreamed of getting off planet as a ship’s engineer. The novel begins as she finally gets her chance to do just that by stowing away on the Tangled Axon, an old-fashioned human-built ship with the kind of motley crew that makes for good space opera: Ovie, a big strong-but-silent type ship’s engineer who is also sometimes a wolf; Slip, a cynical doctor with a heart of gold; Marre, a mysterious pilot with parts of her body that randomly disappear, layer by layer; and Tev, a sexy, tough-broad captain who secretly loves to garden. They’re a tight-knit family of rogues and outcasts, and Alana wants nothing more than to be a part of the crew and to get her hands in the Tangled Axon’s engines (and possibly in her captain’s pants).

The catch? They don’t want Alana, they want her sister, Nova. Alana gets the captain and crew to provisionally accept her presence as a way to get to her sister, but once they do get to Nova, things start to get weird and the stakes get higher. I won’t go into the plot much further here, since plot intricacies are half the fun of space opera to begin with, but suffice to say that they are, in fact, generally fun, and that, just as you might suspect, Alana eventually gets accepted into the family (and the captain’s pants).

There was a lot I really enjoyed about this book. Koyanagi’s prose is solidly readable and the pacing was good, so I kept wanting to know what happened next. I think the book was at its best when delving into the characters and their motivations. I really appreciated the vibrant, diverse, cast of mostly women characters, and the way that “non-traditional” (e.g. queer or polyamorous) relationships were treated as normal and unremarkable. I liked Alana as a protagonist, and liked the way she (and the author) ruminated on class, passion, illness, personal/familial relationships, and grieving. I especially appreciated Koyanagi’s deft and nuanced portrayal of a heroine who struggles with chronic pain and disabilities yet still manages to be convincingly heroic when needed. I enjoyed the buildup (and payoff) of the romance between Alana and Captain Tev, and I appreciated the depth with which the sibling relationship between Alana and Nova was explored. I also enjoyed the setting and the world-building that Koyanagi did, although I found it a bit too thin in places. (Which is usually a sign that I’m intrigued enough to want to know more about something/somewhere, so that isn’t really a big negative thing.) This book appears to be the first in a possible series, though, so perhaps we'll get some more world-building with future books.

There were some things that I felt like the author was not as successful with as she was with her character building, although nothing was a flat-out failure or irritant. For example, though I was intrigued that the author tried to create a world in which there was a blend of spirituality (magic) and technology, I didn’t necessarily feel like either the magic or the tech were explained or applied consistently enough that they were fully believable. And though there were some good plot twists and turns and the action scenes were good, overall the “we have to go here and get this person so we can get this other person to do what we want” plot felt at best like a fairly standard “macguffin” plot (aka “collect all the shiny things to win”) and at worst somewhat forced. More than once I found myself asking “now why would so-and-so agree to that?” or “why do they really need that?” or “why did they have to go there?” I don’t mind hand-waving around technology or world-building when it’s not intrinsic to the plot (that’s why I like space opera better than hard science fiction) but it felt like there were times when a little more explanation of why or what or how could have helped ground this world and make it more memorable.

In summary: I liked this book, and I'd happily read others with these characters and this world. You’ll like this book if you like ensemble-cast space opera featuring strong women characters, romantic lesbian relationships, and non-traditional protagonists.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Tapestry of Plot


 Little Red Riding Hood is my favorite fairy tale. I even have her tattooed onto my shin. I am not a big fan of the Charles Perrault version, wherein pretty little girls are admonished to follow the rules or else. I'm a fan of the older stories. Little Red is always a cautionary tale, but while Perrault wants well-bred girls to beware of wolves, listen to mom and dad, and never stray from the path, the first stories were about taking the wisdom of the grandmothers, of saving oneself, and of sexual awakening.
Because it's my favorite fairy tale, I recently watched a movie I've been meaning to see since it released way back in 2005--Hoodwinked. It got the gist of the old tales while modernizing the themes. The wolf was not a blatant sexual male. In fact, the wolf had nothing whatsoever to do with Red's virtue. Gaining grandmother's wisdom, however, was a huge theme, and--in my opinion--the best and most enduring piece of the Little Red Riding Hood tale.


I will admit, I'm not a fan of the animation for the film, but the script was killer. Funny for adults as wekk as for kids. Great cast. (Anything with Patrick Warburton in it is sure to please. Glenn Close, Anne Hathaway, Andy Dick, etc.) The messages were clear without being preachy. Red gets to be who she is meant to be from the oldest tales. All-around enjoyable. But that's not why I'm writing this post.

The weaving was flawless. Spot. On. Flawless. For any readers who love the intricacy of so many threads being woven together to form a whole tapestry, or for writers who want to see the mechanics of such a thing at work, Hoodwinked is a must-see. Without giving anything away, the story starts out at a scene near the end of the story--Little Red walking into Grandma's house to find Wolf in the bed. Wolf pounces, Red fights back, tied-up Grandma bursts out of the closet, and the Woodsman breaks through the window with his ax. The whole scene is broken up by the police who hold all of them for questioning--and here is where the weaving truly begins.

Each of the characters gets to give their perspective of events. Into each and every tale, the others' threads are woven--only you don't know it until another character's story gets told. Little by little, you see bits and pieces, and how it got woven in from the very first scene. A random character at the side of the road in Little Red's story is an integral part of the Woodsman's tale. And so on. It's brilliant. And it gives a depth that made Hoodwinked a great film, not just a cute kiddie movie.

If you get a chance to watch it, do. Enjoy it! But then watch it again to really see all those threads, how they got woven, and remember it next time you're writing, or reading. It will give you a whole new perspective.

~Terri-Lynne DeFino

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: The Immortality Game

Title: The Immortality Game 
Author: Ted Cross
Genre: SF
Price: $3.99 (ebook) / $12.59 (paperback)
ISBN:  978-0990987710
Point of Sale: Amazon  
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

I was attracted to this book by two things.  First, Ted Cross, the author, has spent serious time in Moscow, where the story is set, and currently resides in lovely Baku, Azerbaijan.  Second, just look at that cover!  It’s from Stephan Martiniere, one of the premier SF illustrators.

Fortunately, The Immortality Game lives up to its cover.  Set primarily in Moscow in the summer of 2138, the book is the story of Zoya and Marcus.  Zoya is a Russian teenager, who by accident comes in possession of some military cyber-ware.  Marcus is a twenty-something American and former addict of “The Mesh,” an all-consuming virtual reality place. 

Marcus is also being led around by his “dad” – or rather an AI construct that has his dad’s memories and personalities.  Marcus’s dad thinks that Zoya’s cyber-ware, or rather the folks that made it, can be used to download him into a real body.  Alas, said Russian cyber-tech is valuable, and the Russian mob wants it.  Also, the world of 2138 is a radically different place, with what’s left of America being ruled by the Mormon Church. 

This basic setup leads to an action-packed series of events, as the two young people struggle to survive.  Also struggling are the Russian scientists who invented the tech, and pretty much all of the good guys are way out of their depth.  While all of this action is going on, the author doesn’t skimp on character-building.  Everybody, from our leads to the Russian hit men and their bosses, has at least some character arc and development. 

I have to say I also liked the ending.  The author has a chance to go with the conventional “happy ever after” ending but he doesn’t, subverting it while not being a complete downer.  Zoya, Marcus and his “dad” all have more substantial development, which leads them to some interesting places.  I also liked Mr. Cross’s eye for detail.  For example, his Moscow is full of poplar seeds floating like snowflakes in the summer breeze.   

If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed reading The Immortality Game.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Magic and the Mystery

How is it possible to mourn the loss of a world that never existed?

This mystery occupied my thoughts over the weekend, in the aftermath of a Friday night reading binge that culminated with the conclusion of Guy Gavriel Kay's epic tale, The Lions of Al Rassan.

Now I mourn the loss of Al Rassan, the dissolution of that great empire, and the rich, complex society that flourished - and perished - with it. In reading the novel, Al Rassan's history somehow became my history, its people my people, its passion, violence, ambition, and loss reflections of something deep and very real in my own experience.

What is this magic that one author can achieve, to create something so real and palpable we can hardly distinguish it from fact?

What books have been your canopy emergents?
Novels like The Lions of Al Rassan are canopy emergents in the tropical forest of fantasy. They rise above all the other trees, spread their branches wide, and drink in the sunlight with abandon. We look up at them in awe from below. If we're lucky, we might have some ropes that allow us to climb to the top, where for a brief moment we will see the forest from a completely new perspective.

Perhaps we meet friends along the way with whom we can share the discovery and enjoy the view. But sooner or later, all of us have to rappel back down to the forest floor. We wander on foot through the dark under story and delight in its lesser wonders -- no less beautiful in their own way, but somehow never quite as significant as that one climb we all remember.

Perhaps our long and winding path will lead us to another of those rare super giants, but we know instinctively that they are hard to come by. So we hold each of those encounters in our hearts as if they might have been the very last; sparkling gems that will not be forgotten.

The author's craft plays an important role in this experience; of that there can be no doubt. And Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at the craft.

But there is another piece to the magic over which the author has no control, and that is the disposition of the reader in the moment he or she picks up a book.

I was primed for Al Rassan. For much of my life, I have interacted with Latin American and Hispanic cultures that share deep roots in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. Over the past couple years, my free time has been devoted to a fascination with medieval Spain, and most particularly with the stories of Isabella and Ferdinand and their war against the Moors.

This most recent literary journey began with C.W. Gortner's The Queen's Vow, a book that focuses on Isabella's rise to power. Admittedly, this is the most user-friendly part of Isabella's history, a place in her life where we can admire the princess' courage and resolve; where we can stand beside her as she overcomes the many obstacles that stood between her and the throne of Castille.

The TVE series ISABEL recreates the surrender of Alhambra
(Granada). By the time the viewers reach this moment, we
understand both its triumph and its tragedy. 
Shortly after finishing The Queen's Vow, I began watching Isabel, a Spanish language series about this remarkable, if controversial, period in Spain's history. Season I culminates in the crowning of Isabella, letting us enjoy that period of innocence and hope before she came to power. Season II brings to life the decidedly thorny aspects of her reign: The Inquisition, the war against the Moors, the expulsion of the Jews.

One thing I respect about the series Isabel is that, in the best tradition of authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, it attempts to give us multiple sides of the conflict. We are not allowed to think in terms of 'good' and 'evil', except to recognize that each human heart harbors both of those qualities, and that all of us are capable of great heroism and intense cruelty.

Season II of Isabel covers the fall of Alhambra, now known as Granada. We are brought into the heart of this beautiful medieval city, and allowed to relive the elegance and sophistication of its Islamic rulers. We also see their cruelty, in no way greater or lesser than the harsh ambitions of their opponents, Isabel and Ferdinand. Season II of Isabel, which I finished this fall, left me with a great curiosity regarding the world of medieval Islam.

And so, without knowing it, I had been primed for The Lions of Al Rassan.

I had picked up a paperback copy of Kay's book long before The Queens Vow and Isabel. A few years ago at the Campbell Conference, KU's Center for the Study of Science Fiction hosted a dollar sale on used books. The Lions of Al Rassan was buried in one of several boxes scattered across the living room floor of a dorm house. I had heard of the author, but I had not read his work. And the book was only $1. What did I have to lose? So I bought it.

That same weekend, my father-in-law passed away. Supporting my husband and his family through this loss occupied all my thoughts and energy. Al Rassan was shelved and forgotten.

Fast forward to 2014.

This year, Guy Gavriel Kay was the guest of honor at the World Fantasy Conference. While packing for WFC, I remembered I had a book by him somewhere. Sure enough, The Lions of Al Rassan was right where I'd left it two years before on my bookshelf. So I took it to D.C. and had it signed by the man himself.

My copy was well-worn by the time it
came to me; now it is also well-loved.
Afterwards I began reading the novel. At first, I kicked myself for not having sat down with this amazing story earlier. But here's the truth, and the mystery:

I bet that if I had read The Lions of Al Rassan two years ago, or five or ten or twenty years ago, it would not have had the impact that it had this past month. I would have enjoyed the story and recognized it as an excellent novel, but a canopy emergent? Maybe not. Because there was other information I needed, other experiences I had to have, before I could truly appreciate what Guy Gavriel Kay accomplished with this work.Before I could recognize his story as somehow, deeply, mine.

What influence did Kay have on the events that primed me for The Lions of Al Rassan? None whatsoever. This is the piece that no author anywhere on the planet can control: Whether the reader has the disposition to fully engage with a story in the moment he or she picks up our work.

Once someone told me that reading Eolyn was like encountering her own story, a retelling of something she herself had lived. This is one of the greatest complements a reader can give the author, and yet it is so beyond our power to ensure such an experience.

What we can offer is the best story possible given our particular talents at writing. The rest depends on the circumstances by which that story lands in the hands of our readers.

That is the magic and the mystery of this forest we call fiction. Finding those canopy giants can entail a long, winding path. Whether they achieve that height in our minds depends as much on ourselves as on the author. At the end of the day, it's still the journey that gives the destination meaning.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Wednesday Review: Everything I Know About Zombies I Learned in Kindergarten



A case of choosing a book by its title...

Letitia is nine years old, living in foster care and looking out for her five-year-old sister, Jahayra, as best she can. So when a horde of ravenous zombies attack their school, she shoves Jahayra and her classmates into a bathroom and locks the door. When at last the screaming stops and they dare to emerge, their teachers are all (un)dead, the streets are filled with mindless killers and nobody’s mom is answering the ’phone. It’s up to Letitia to look after those kids.

She does a pretty good job too. It’s not long before Letitia and the children have the zombies sussed. Routine, practice and regular bedtimes – that’s the key to coping after a zombie apocalypse. It’s also a good idea to build up a collection of DIY texts showing happy white men rowing boats and digging the garden and catching fish and mending windows (if ever there was a novel advocating literacy, this is it). Letitia quickly becomes the mother to this family, building a home, growing food, providing stability and thus enabling the children in her care to develop their own self-worth and self-respect. But, determined and able as Letitia is, she cannot survive in complete isolation and events necessitate her making contact with adult survivors of the zombie apocalypse.

I’ve seen comparisons made between this story and The Lord of the Flies, but I’m not sure I’d make them myself. The surface similarities are there – the children rapidly become expert survivors, dispatching zombies (and the odd junky) with ruthless efficiency – but, in fact, the underlying group dynamic of the children in this story is much more positive than that in Golding’s book: they survive because they are a group, because they work together and look out for each other, because, in the breakdown of society, they build themselves a better one. Their beast is external, rather than within. There is indeed an almost idyllic feel to the chapters in which the children establish themselves on their island (I’ll note the island – representing both isolation and safety – is almost a defining feature of post-catastrophic fiction), sufficiently so for me to wonder if this was going to be a cosy catastrophe.

That’s not to say there’s no cost to Letitia; the cost is shown plainly in her internal monologue and list making. She’s a humane, flawed creation: clear-sighted, clear-headed and tenacious; ruthless without, whilst, within, questioning why the world is as it is (and not flinching from the obvious conclusion). With some of the other children, it’s less clear whether they survive because they are ruthless or whether the actions necessary for survival make them so. Either way, I appreciated the lack of sentimentality.

As I was reading, I found myself reflecting on the parallels and differences between various imaginings of the world-as-we-know-it’s aftermath. The zombie wave of recent years has largely passed me by, so I’m not the person to comment on whether Williams’ story adheres or not to the finer points of zombie lore. I did, however, enjoy his book tremendously, for reasons that had nothing to do with the bioscience it used to shore up zombies. Everything I Know About Zombies is that highly agreeable thing: a book for adults (don’t, please, give it to your nine-year-old) about children, written largely from a child’s viewpoint, that is not at all childish. That’s quite a clever balancing act to perform, and one at which far more experienced authors have failed.

The thing is, zombies do not a satisfying antagonist make. They are deadly, brutal and relentless, for sure, but their mindlessness, the fact that one zombie is exactly like another in action and intention, means that once you’ve learnt to deal with one, you can deal with all. There are moments of pathos or horror to be had from individual zombies but en masse they aren’t really that interesting, and thus an author needs something else to add tension and drive narrative. Here, something else is other people and, with their entry to the story, Williams shows he is too canny a writer to fall into the cosy catastrophe trap. People are dangerous, and the children face the obvious threats (looters with guns; rulers of petty fiefdoms) but also the more subtle dangers arising from kindly people who mean no harm, but make mistakes. Letitia's world isn't one where, if you make a mistake, you get a second chance, because zombies!! Not complicated, but they do one thing well.

I loved, too, the extremely deft narrative voice, its shifts in dialect with point of view, its wry, sometimes ironic, tone. Moreover, the book gives itself the space to use its characters to explore ideas, important ideas about race, and society, and parenting, about self-sufficiency and inter-dependence and violence. And that’s where the fiction starts holding up a mirror to reality, and why – over and above the wonderful Letitia  – I think this is a book (and a genre) worth reading. I’d suggest that post-catastrophe novels are really about society today. The nature of an imagined apocalypse reflects the fears of the moment and, by choosing what to retain after the world is swept away, an author can let the remaining parts stand for the whole.

It’s not quite perfect (which book is?) and might have benefited from tighter editing: there are a couple of sections (a Christmas party comes to mind) that plot-wise come from nowhere and go nowhere; I also found some of the point of view jumps to new characters in the middle reaches of the book a little disorientating. It is, however, an extremely satisfying book, driven by strong characterisation and total immersion in the experiences of those characters. It’s not a cosy catastrophe (could one even be imagined, in these austere and fearful times?) but the author has absolute faith in Letitia, and so do I.

One to read, even if you’re not a zombie lover.

Harriet Goodchild

Everything I Know About Zombies I Learned in Kindergarten by Kevin Wayne Williams

Buy links
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
Kevin Wayne Williams' Website

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Special Review: Rise of the Spider Goddess

Title: Rise of the Spider Goddess
Author: Jim C. Hines
Genre: Fantasy, humor
Price: $3.99 (ebook) $9.89 (paperback)
Publisher: CreateSpace
ISBN: 978-1502451903
Point of Sale: Amazon  
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib


Friend-of-the-blog and generally good egg Jim Hines is a writing machine, having released 10 quite enjoyable novels over the past eight years.  But he wasn’t born such a writing machine – like most “overnight successes” he spent a long time toiling in the trenches.  Jim’s also a giving fellow, and in the spirit of the season he’s decided to give us a special work.

Jim’s latest novel, out today, is called The Prosekiller Chronicles: Rise of the Spider Goddess.  Although it’s new to readers, it’s old hat to Jim.  Spider Goddess is Jim’s very first novel-length piece of prose, written back when Jim had hair in 1995.

I called Spider Goddess a novel-length piece of prose because it’s truly bad.  Our hero, Nakor the Purple, likes to hang around watching over-described sunsets while getting into truly unbelievable combat with unknown (and not very competent) foes.  The book also stars an angst-y vampire, an owl (or maybe a falcon, depending on the chapter) and the most cardboard world ever bound between cardboard covers.

There are two things that save Spider Goddess.  First, it’s an object reminder that even good writers started somewhere. More importantly, Jim has a sense of humor, so he’s liberally sprinkled snarky and humorous comments in the book, making fun of his younger self’s (lack of) writing skills.  Think Mystery Science Theater 3000 meets Lord of the Rings.

So, if you’re looking for a humorous diversion, go sneak a copy of Volume 1 (and done) of The Prosekiller Chronicles: Rise of the Spider Goddess.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: The Broken Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy Part 2) by N.K. Jemisin





 
Blurb:
In the city of Shadow, beneath the World Tree, alleyways shimmer with magic and godlings live hidden among mortalkind. Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a strange homeless man on an impulse. This act of kindness engulfs Oree in a nightmarish conspiracy. Someone, somehow, is murdering godlings, leaving their desecrated bodies all over the city. And Oree's guest is at the heart of it. . .

 

THE BROKEN KINGDOMS, the second novel in The Inheritance Trilogy, is the rare middle book in which is equal to if not stronger than the 1st novel, THE HUNDRED-THOUSAND KINGDOMS—which I found outstanding. That bodes well not only for the likelihood of an even stronger final book, but for Jemisin's career, and the enjoyment of all fantasy readers who hunger for authors that strike out into original territory every time.

First off, the second novel--even though having read the first definitely adds texture and and enjoyment to the story--is a true stand-alone to the point that there was no need for an info dumping or "What came before . . ." type prologue. Jemisin deftly weaves in what needs to be known from the previous book in the course of this always forward-moving story.

Blind street merchant Oree lives in Sky, the capital city for the entire planet, and sole location on the planet where godlings--powerful immortals who are not one of the three original Gods--are allowed to visit from their otherworldly realm. In fact, Oree is still heartbroken from an affair she had with one. Suddenly, godlings began dying and disappearing and Oree unwillingly becomes embroiled in the search for who or what is responsible. But her quest is forcing her to question not only the godling she still loves, but her ability to paint dazzling pictures despite being blind . . .

If you are looking for well-written 1st person POV stories in non-quasi-medieval setting featuring a strong, but not always "certain", lead female character who overcomes incredible challenges without following the well-worn paths of becoming a mighty enough sorcerer/swordsman, finding the magic talisman, or turning out to be the Chosen One, will enjoy both
THEBROKEN KINGDOMS & THE HUNDRED-THOUSAND KINGDOMS.


Review by Carlyle Clark for Heroines of Fantasy