Monday 15 February 2016

February Reviews at the Nameless Zine

I write book reviews for The Nameless Zine, an online zine run by the Western Science Fiction Association (WesternSFA), a non-profit fandom group based here in Arizona.

As the Nameless Zine follows a graphical indexing system, I also maintain my own text index of what I've written at my own website. You can find it here at the Reviews at the Nameless Zine page.

Reviews at the Nameless Zine post monthly on the 15th of each month and February's batch are now online. I reviewed between seven and nine books this month, depending on how you count:

A, B, C - Three Short Novels

This is a collection of three early novels by Samuel R Delany, a multi-award winning science fiction author who I've somehow never got round to before.

The Jewels of Aptor was his first novel to see print, written at nineteen and originally published in 1962, though this is the full version, with the fifteen percent cut for space restored.

It's science fantasy, setting up as a fantasy novel, with some characters congregating together in Leptar to end up on a quest together, working for a priestess and former personification of a goddess, to retrieve the jewels of the title from the island of Aptor and her daughter with them. It becomes more science fiction as it goes but remains fantasy throughout. It's interesting but not essential, important mostly as a debut.

The Ballad of Beta-2, however, overjoyed me. I adored this novel, originally published in 1965, and can easily see this becoming a long term favourite. It's the shortest of the three novels in the book, but it resonated with me.

It follows a graduate student in galactic anthropology on an assignment he doesn't want, to provide a historical analysis of the ballad of the title from primary sources, which means he has to visit the Star Folk, who live on generation starships that mostly got where they were going only to find that the rest of humanity jumped ahead when a hyperspace drive was invented. This book looks at how these folk changed during their journey of twelve generations and what they found on the way to change them even more. This may sound dry, but it's utterly engaging and as accessible as a Heinlein juvenile.

They Fly at Çiron, which was mostly written in the sixties but didn't see print until 1993, is the work of three decades and feels like it. It's enticing but somehow not quite right yet. It's accompanied by a couple of short stories set in the same world.

It's back to fantasy, with the blissfully peaceful town of the title (they don't understand what weapons even are) attacked by a passing army who conquer because they need to expand. It's a strange tale that follows a number of different characters on a number of different sides, as the experience builds them all in ways they couldn't expect. I liked it but was still thinking about The Ballad of Beta-2 even once it was done.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

A Crucible of Souls

This novel, the first in the Sorcery Ascendant Sequence and Mitchell Hogan's first book, looked like a relentlessly generic fantasy and frankly didn't do much to dissuade me from that thought. It also feels like a five hundred page prologue, as we're set up strongly with Caldan, our lead character, and a host of others in support, as well as the the city of Anasoma and a little of the world it's part of, but the story we're waiting for starts s the book finishes.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and devoured its five hundred pages in two sittings. If it's an Emperor with no clothes, he's a thoroughly engaging Emperor, drawn in exquisite detail and generating questions all over the place. This is a world of sorcery but we're not quite sure who the good guys are and what's going to come crashing in from outside the city. It's told in three strands, two of which meet halfway through the book and the third waits until the very end, setting us nicely up for chapter one, I mean book two.

I'm looking forward to finding out some of the answers, because none of them show up in this volume. Maybe the next one will explain to me why I enjoyed this one so much when nothing of grand importance really happens.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Press Start to Play

This is an anthology, edited by Daniel H Wilson and John Joseph Adams, which aims 'to recreate the feel of a video game in prose form.' It's a mixed bag, as anthologies tend to be but it's an interesting one with only a few stories worthy of exclusion. Sadly the first two are among the list of what shouldn't have made it, but persevere and you'll get to some real gems.

Early highlights for me include S R Mastrantone's Desert Walk and Charlie Jane Anders's Rat Catcher's Yellows, which brought my faith in the book back. The former uses videogames not just as a subject but as a way to explore obsession and it gradually slides from the banal to the surreal. It felt very true. The latter looks at games not as entertainment but as therapy and explores a fascinating relationship between two married women, one of whom has been neurologically damaged by the disease of the title and doesn't even recognise her wife. This story goes nowhere I expected and I adored it.

Recurrent themes include blurring the boundaries between games an real life, health and social issues and text adventures, an old genre that I remember well and which perhaps fits in story form better than any other.

The worst thing about anthologies is that they're almost never consistent and this is no exception though it's decent overall. The best thing about them is being able to discover a bunch of great writers that you've never heard of before. To me, that was Mastrantone, Holly Black and Hugh Howey, each of whom I'll be looking into now. I had heard of Anders but hadn't read her, so I'll be rectifying that too.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Three Parts Dead

Having been given the fourth volume in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence to review, I thought I should work my way through the first three, especially as I'd bought them from the author at Phoenix Comicon last year.

I thoroughly enjoyed Three Parts Dead, which is a fantasy novel set in a world where gods are real, but they serve as channels for energy, receiving it through worship and expelling it in a number of physical ways, such as fire which generates the steam that runs the city of Alt Coulumb. When the fire god dies, as gods can be killed, the lawyers are summoned because the work of gods is bound by legal contracts. As those lawyers are also necromancers, they can resurrect if appropriate.

Mixing up fantasy, steampunk and legal action, this is original and fascinating. Gladstone's prose is glorious and far better than it ought to be for a debut novel. His characters are good too and his plotting is tight. It's hard to find anything bad to say about this book and I thoroughly look forward to following up with the second, third and fourth in the series.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Apollo the Brilliant One

A large format graphic novel skimpy on the page count, running under eighty pages, this is a cross between fun adventure and textbook for kids. It's clearly aimed for children in school, right down to the list of questions at the end to spur children to discuss what they've read.

It's the eighth in George O'Connor's Olympians series, each of which focuses on a different Greek God. Some former subjects show up here, such as Hera, Ares and Poseidon, so the books will build on each other, but this is Apollo's story and, to a lesser degree, that of his son, Asklepios.

I enjoyed the approach, which was to split Apollo's story into a set of short vignettes, each introduced by a different muse. It's a fun read too, written and illustrated well, but it's not exactly challenging. Kids ought to enjoy it very much but this isn't where the rest of us should go either for information or adventure. To be fair, we're not the audience, but hey.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

The Land Leviathan

I reviewed Michael Moorcock's 1971 proto-steampunk novel, The Warlord of the Air, in January, and I'm following up this month with its 1974 sequel, The Land Leviathan, which returns Oswald Bastable, time traveller, to a new future, this an earlier one, having him move forward from 1902 to only 1904 but a different one to earlier.

This time out, he finds a world which had become utopian, with the various inventions of Manuel O'Bean, a child genius from Chile. However, the pace of technological change outstripped man's ability to cope with it and a War Between the Nations erupted on a scale more vast even than the ones we know from our own history. Biological weapons scorch the planet and much of the northern hemisphere is reduced to rubble. Into this vacuum moves the Black Attila, Cicero Hood, whose New Ashanti Empire expands across most of Africa, throughout Europe and is set to take North America too.

As before, this is told in the Victorian style, not only with its vintage prose but also its vintage philosophising, which is, of course, most of the point. It's even more thoughtful than the first book, playing with concepts like good and evil, war and peace, justice and injustice and so on. More real people show up, such as Gandhi, who runs the racially integrated Marxist Republic of Bantustan here, formerly known as South Africa.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed The Warlord of the Air.

The Polar Treasure

I've been reviewing a Doc Savage novel every month, working in the order of publication in the pulps rather than the Bantam paperbacks. This is the fourth book, The Polar Treasure, from June 1933, which shows a steady improvement for Lester Dent, writing, as always, as Kenneth Robeson.

It's a lost treasure story, triggered by a blind violinist who was on a liner chased into the Arctic during the Second World War and lost, along with fifty million dollars in diamonds and gold bullion. Unbeknownst to him, the map to the treasure was tattooed on the violinist's back with ink that can only be seen by X-rays. Now the two factions who want it have come to get it and only Doc Savage and his men stand in their way.

This is still relatively predictable, but it's handled well with believable twists and turns, more believable exotic locations and more to do for Doc's men. I enjoyed it as much as I did the previous episode, but it's a better book and it shows how much Dent was progressing with his new series.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed The Man of Bronze, The Land of Terror and Quest of the Spider.

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