Friday, July 24, 2020

The Year's Best Science Fiction Vol. 1 The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2020 Edited by Jonathan Strahan

As I have said before, I am wary of anthologies - I worry about changes in quality and tonal whiplash between stories in themed multi-author collections.  However, when I saw that Saga Press was launching a new series of the year’s best science fiction anthologies called The Year’s Best Science Fiction vol 1 edited by Jonathan Strahan with the best of 2019’s short fiction, I figured it would be a good bet and requested an eARC from NetGalley.  I wasn’t wrong! This collection is full of excellent stories.   Are they necessarily what I would have picked personally? No, but I can’t argue that there is a dud in the bunch.  It contains many of this year’s Hugo nominees, like “As the Last I May Know” by S. L. Huang and “A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde. (Fun fact - I met Fran Wilde at NYCC a few years ago and she made my day by complimenting me on the Wonder Twins tshirt I was wearing.) Among my favorites are Hugo nominee “Emergency Skin” by N. K. Jemisin.  This story was a fascinating, surprising take on a post-Apocalyptic earth with a very unreliable second person narrator.  So much fun! I also loved “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders, which was full of warmth and heart and really made me miss going to bookstores during this pandemic.  Probably my favorite story from the entire collection is “I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now 000 my parents think we’re getting married” by Fonda Lee.  Written in an incredibly realistic style of a series of internet posts, it is a cheeky yet introspective look at technology and relationships in the digital age.   A great anthology all round.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Annihilation Aria, by Michael R. Underwood

I regularly read Seanan McGuire’s twitter. She often tweets about ARCs that she has read and enjoyed.  I usually request those books from NetGalley, and I usually enjoy them.  So when I saw Annihilation Aria, by Michael R. Underwood available, I requested an eARC of it.  Sadly, Annihilation Aria did not work for me.  Billed as a space opera, it felt more like space fantasy.  It was long I’m tired tropes and short on new ideas and characterization.  This book was all tell and no show.  Two of the three main characters are supposed to be a married couple in love, but nothing they do ever makes me believe that they’re going steady, let alone married.  The aliens have no distinguishing characteristics to differentiate them from each other.  I was shocked when I found out that this was not the work of a first time author.  In the acknowledgements, Mr. Underwood explains that he was trying to write a novel that recaptured the feel of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy (which to me feels much more cosmic comic than space opera, but I can see that that is a minor distinction).  That made sense, since many of the story beats were lifted directly from that movie.  The author also pats himself on the back for having his male protagonist be a black man from Baltimore, but absolutely nothing about the text made him seem any more than just a cipher, like all of the other characters.  Furthermore, the third main character, not a member of the couple, a character named Wheel (get it? She’s a third wheel!), repeatedly betrays the couple’s trust by keeping massive secrets and nothing ever comes of it! The book is not all bad.  It was mildly diverting but, overall, not worth your time.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

This book is gosh darned delightful. 

I was tempted to leave my review at that but I guess I should say more. 

Like many people, I first encountered Katherine Addison when I found the Goblin Emperor on a bunch of awards ballots. I was immediately enchanted. Within six months of reading it, I doubled back and listened to the audiobook. Goblin Emperor is charming and delightful and wonderful and even deeper than I realized the first time though. 

So I was thrilled beyond belief when Tor and NetGalley gave me an eARC for her new book, the Angel of the Crows. (I must’ve spent 15 minutes trying to explain to my bemused wife why I was so excited.) 

I have a shameful secret I must confess: when I start a new book, I often skip to the end to read the acknowledgments. I don’t exactly know why. I’ve been doing it for at least the last thirty years. I think it comes from reading single-author short story collections that have forwards and afterwards and really enjoying the authorial insight. I don’t want to have to wait until the end of a novel to get that insight, so I skip ahead. 

And am I glad I did! 

<spoiler alert> 

Ms. Addison explains at the end of the novel that this books genesis was in fanfic. Specifically, something called wingfic (which I have never heard of before, but is fanfic where a character has wings). She explained that the story began as wingfic from the BBC show Sherlock, the one with Benedict Cumberbatch. Understanding the DNA of the story really made me appreciate it more. 

The Sherlock analog is Crow, the angel of London, and the Watson analog is Dr. Doyle, and they become roommates and solve mysteries together in a world where werewolves and vampires are commonplace and it’s just wonderful! Sorry to gush. But as I said at the beginning, this book delights me to no end. The only possible complaint I could have with this book is that it feels a little episodic and the overarching plot seems thin, except that the overarching plot isn’t the heart of this novel, but instead it is the characters and relationships. 

I cannot enthuse enough about this book. Go buy it right now!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Planetfall was amazing.  I didn’t know what to expect going into this book, but I stayed up every night of my summer vacation last year to finish it.  Fully realized characters, a fascinating world, and an excellent mystery.  I felt the hoarder’s point of view was so reasonable, it took me by surprise when I realized the extent of her problem.  I can’t wait to read more by this author.

Spy, Spy Again by Mercedes Lackey

I have loved Mercedes Lackey’s books for thirty years. I still have the SFBC omnibus of the Last Herald Mage trilogy on my shelf. I can’t tell you how many times I read it. It was probably my first reading experience with gay characters and it probably helped me to be open and welcoming to my friends who came out a few years after I read it. 

I haven’t read many of her Valdemar books in the last few years. I read the Collegium Chronicles series, which was fun, but I felt it dragged on too long, with too many kidnappings, and Mags’s accent drove me bananas. I lost touch with the series when my library stopped buying the ebooks of the Herald Spy series after Closer to Home, so I was very excited to see what happened to Mags and his kids when NetGalley and the publisher gave me an eARC of Spy, Spy Again, the third volume in the series focusing on Mags’s kids. 

Sadly, I found this tale disappointing. Instead of the interesting coming of age tale the blurb was promising, this book was a boring slog with paper-thin characters. Perhaps I missed something by not reading the preceding volumes? Mags’s cipher of a son and a boring Valdemarian prince are enlisted to help one of Mags’s assassin cousins to rescue another assassin cousin who has been captured. Lackey does nothing here to make me like the assassin family or culture. They kill for money and nothing in the text explains why these characters should be likable. Yet every other chapter is spent with Sira, assassin who is kidnapped by Karsites. Why was she kidnapped? What was the Karsites plans? The book doesn’t bother to go into these things. The book really lost me here when the Karsite guards come to rape Sira. Why? Why is rape necessary as a motivating factor? It seems so unnecessary. Sira fights off the rapists and eventually she is rescued and she and the prince immediately fall in love in a way that feels particularly unrealistic. 

I hope Mercedes Lackey keeps writing Valdemar books. I look forward to when she decides to move away from Mags and his family. And enough with the rape! It’s the 21st century! Haven’t we moved beyond that awful trope? In the meantime, I may go back to my copy of the Last Herald Mage. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker

The cover made me hope for some “cooking is magic” action, so I felt a bit betrayed by it when that didn’t happen.  Mooncakes had no impact on the plot! But otherwise a cute story.  Some coming of age stuff, some excellent representation, but most of the beats felt a bit trite. This didn’t feel like it tread any new ground, which is fine, but disappointing after all of the good stuff I had heard about this.  I also wasn’t a huge fan of the art.  Most of the characters looked so similar to each other that I had a hard time some times remembering who was whom, and I also found the omnipresent warm color palette monotonous.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Devolution by Max Brooks

I’d been thinking a lot about Max Brooks lately. This pandemic has made me looking for my copy of his Zombie Survival Guide.  When I requested an eARC from NetGalley months ago, I never imagined that the world would start to resemble something from one of his novels.

I have enjoyed Max Brooks’s work for years.  I still remember picking up the Zombie Survival Guide at the Borders bookstore in Columbus Circle from the new paperback table.  I knew nothing about it and was instantly hooked.  Later, I devoured World War Z - it was so creative and well thought out.  It felt very realistic.  Too realistic.  

I saw Max Brooks at New York Comic Con a few years ago, talking about some of his comic work.  He didn’t want to talk about the execrable World War Z movie, and neither do I (but I expected better from a script by J. Michael Straczynski). Brooks was cool, and funny, and thoughtful, and kind.  I love it when authors I like turn out to be cool people in real life!

I was stoked when I got this book, hoping I would enjoy it as I did World War Z.  It did not disappoint.  Devolution is about. Bigfoot attack that wipes out a small enclave of about a dozen homes.  It is presented as the diary/journal kept by a woman for her therapist, annotated by a researcher and supplemented with a few interviews.  Max Brooks has an incredibly readable style and this is quite the page turner.  Sometimes the conceit of the structure of the novel worked against it - there were times where I just stopped and said to myself “no one would actually write a journal like this” or “ if these events were happening, this woman would’ve quit journaling by now.” That being said, it was a super fun book.  The monster biology was interesting and the human dynamics felt very real.  

But a lot of this novel hits home a little too hard during this pandemic.  I’m sure that Max Brooks didn’t know when he wrote it how jarring it would be to reference the hospital ship Comfort heading to a major metropolitan area to help out during a disaster, or how raw it would feel to read about some isolated lonely people desperate for the world they once thought was safe.  

I saw the video Max Brooks posted with his dad about social distancing.  I read his piece in the New York Times in March.  I think he might agree that while this is a great book,  it not necessarily a great book for right now.