Charles Stross – Saturn’s Children (2008) | Book Review

Charles Stross Saturn's ChildrenCharles Stross is a name in science fiction that is relatively well-known. It doesn’t have quite the recognition of writers like China Mieville or Neil Gaiman, but it is fair to say that the vast majority of readers whose favorite literary genre is science fiction have at least heard of Stross, even if they haven’t actually read one of his works. Saturn’s Children is our first exposure to Charles Stross’ novels.

The easiest way to describe the impression given by Saturn’s Children is to compare it to a movie. It’s like seeing a wonderful, perfectly edited trailer that makes the film seem like something that absolutely must be experienced, only to find upon going to see the film it is disappointingly clunky and borderline uncomfortable to watch. The idea of a sex bot whose creators are long gone and thus she has to find a new career choice is interesting and amusing, but the novel is so awkward that it is a very unrewarding experience.

It doesn’t help that the main character is forced into strange sexual situations that come across as slightly misogynistic. Early on in the novel, she travels to Mercury aboard a strange travel device that actually has sex with her to keep her calm during the trip. It gives the impression that Stross is trying really hard to write a comedic novel, something like a slightly more eccentric Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but misses the mark by a whole lot. The writing itself is fine, but the novel on the whole feels like a total mess.

Being that Saturn’s Children was actually nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2009, it’s surprising to find the work to be so utterly disappointing. Apparently, the novel is intended as something of a tribute to the work of science fiction legend Robert Heinlein, whose work seems pretty overrated based on what we’ve read of his. Maybe Stross is similarly overpraised, or maybe Saturn’s Children just isn’t his finest hour. Either way, it will be a while before we read anything else of his.

Rating: 1.5 stars (of 5)

Michael R. Underwood – Geekomancy (2012) | Book Review

There seems to be a new trend in modernist urban fantasy to try to squeeze in as many pop cultural references as humanly possible. Some readers seem to get a kick out of reading a book that uses the word “frak” so that they can think to themselves, “I know that reference.” Not really sure why that is appealing, but these sorts of novels seem to be selling pretty well. Michael R. Underwood‘s Geekomancy is definitely that sort of book.

The primary basis for the world is that there is a large underground group of people who are able to channel nerdy pop culture things into temporary magical powers. Ree is a struggling screenwriter working a crummy day job who is drawn into this world when a crazed man wanders into her store, purchases a copy of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, and runs away. The next time she sees him, he is battling a troll straight out of classic fantasy, and she becomes one of the lucky ones that is actually able to remember the fantastical things she sees instead of going through a convenient amnesia following any supernatural incidents.

Roughly the first half or so of the book is spent introducing Ree and the reader into the world, as well as filling just about every page with a reference of some kind. Eastwood, the teacher who Ree originally meets buying the classic graphic novel, is an unlikable jerk who teaces Ree how to take power from the geeky things she likes; the stronger the user’s connection is, the better the results. The remainder of the half sets up the basic elements of what will become the actual plot, and breaks it up with so much useless dialogue that if the comedy style isn’t to your liking it is hard not to skip ahead pages at a time.

Once things start to get serious and the first of two significant twists comes, the plot becomes a focus of the novel rather than an afterthought. Ree and Eastwood are essentially trying to stop a chain of cosmically connected suicides, a surprisingly heavy idea considering that the book spends the majority of its time as a fluff piece. At the very least, Ree is an extremely likable character who shines when the plot starts to roll, and Underwood is actually a good writer with solid, believable dialogue and prose that does its job without being distracting.

Although this kind of novel will absolutely not age well, it will be enjoyable for some right now. It lacks any kind of real depth and definitely feels like the candy bar equivalent of urban fantasy, but it is still enjoyable if one is able to adequately suspend his or her disbelief and take the book on face value. Appreciated on its own merits, Geekomancy is an enjoyable romp that is easily forgotten when the last page is read. Comparing it to other works of urban fantasy that have managed to be similar entertaining while also accomplishing more in terms of literary significance is a mistake. Geekomancy can only be enjoyed if you simply go along for the ride and appreciate the nostalgia.

Rating: 3 stars (of 5)

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Drowned Cities (2012) | Book Review

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl was the best debut novel of just about anyone, maybe ever. It was fresh and brilliant with wonderful characters (despite almost all of them being unlikable) and a world unlike anything seen in science fiction. It won the Hugo Award, and Bacigalupi managed to follow that up with a National Book Award nominee and Michael L. Printz Award winner in Ship Breaker, which told the story of a young boy forced to scavenge from derelict ships in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by global warming. The Drowned Cities is that novel’s successor, in that it shares the world and one major character. It is the best work Bacigalupi has ever done.

The Drowned Cities centers around Mahlia, a part-Chinese war orphan living in the D.C. area who had one hand removed by soldiers. Despite her handicap, she works as the assistant for the doctor of her small town, in a region that is constantly ravaged by always changing regimes of violence. The current occupiers are the UPF, but it is hard to believe that one could tell the difference between them and the Army of God or any of the other potential military dictatorships. Life is miserable, and soldiers come through from time to time just to rape and murder for the hell of it. Mahlia is a remarkably strong and wonderful character, who believes that she can escape the horrors of her world despite everything around her being so miserable and so dire that hope is in short supply.

The plot really begins when Mahlia and her best friend Mouse discover an unconscious half-wolf man called Tool. Thinking him to be dead, they try to cut into him to salvage what they can for meat or otherwise, but he awakes and takes Mouse hostage. Mahlia pleads for Tool not to kill her friend, and in exchange promises to go steal antibiotics and other medication from the doctor to help the half-man recover from injuries sustained in a prison break. To go any further would be to spoil, but it is an absolutely amazing story that is sometimes hard to read because of gore and the pure sorrow in every aspect of Mahlia’s situation.

Bacigalupi’s quality of writing is astounding. Both his prose and dialogue are just about perfect, and there are so many moments through the novel that beg the reader to stop and re-read. There’s just so much here and so much power in every part that it gives one the strong urge to run around telling every single person about it. The book may not be for everyone; it is often so depressing that it can be hard to return to. But this novel is so good, so perfect, that it would be a crime if it were not to win just about every award for the genre. Paolo Bacigalupi is absolutely the best writer working today.

Rating: 5 stars (of 5)

Book Review: The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis (2012)

The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis
Tor Books, 2012

Rating: B+

The most important aspect of any fiction dealing with war is that the conflict isn’t interesting if the characters of both sides aren’t treated with the utmost care. A handful of archetypal British heroes fighting a group of Nazi cannibals with no depth whatsover is not worth reading; black and white war stories should have died with John Wayne. Ian Tregillis understands this. The characters in The Coldest War, and its predecessor Bitter Seeds, are all very real people, with some flaws and some admirable traits no matter which side of the conflict they are on.

In the case of Klaus, there is a German who was forced into fighting for the Nazis from a very young age after being experimented on and augmented with technology that allows him to pass through walls. Although there is a sadness that he always carries with him, he is well intended despite his upbringing. The other side of the conflict in Bitter Seeds is Raybould Marsh, a proud Brit and intelligence agent. In the time that has passed since the first novel, Marsh’s life has fallen apart and he’s become a borderline alcoholic with severe marital troubles that stem from the loss of a child and the apparent mental disabilities of a second. When the story picks up, Marsh is essentially dragged forceably from the bottle by his country to “battle” the Soviet Union in a re-imagining of the Cold War, teaming up with Klaus and his sister, Greta. Although Greta is a bit lacking in depth, but serves an important purpose in that throughout the novels she uses her ability to see the future to basically be the master of all that is going on. She is a purely terrifying villain throughout.

The “history” part of alternate history has become fuzzy with this novel, as is only natural in a book taking place more than twenty years later in a universe where the British used warlocks to fight superhuman Nazis (and thus ending the war early). It doesn’t really feel like an alternate history novel in the Harry Turtledove sort of way, but is something unique that is brilliantly well-written with some of the most memorable literary characters in recent memory. Although The Coldest War doesn’t have as many amazing single moments as Bitter Seeds, and it takes a bit longer to get rolling, it is a worthy sequel to arguably one of the best science fiction novels of the 21st century.

Review: Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar (2011)

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar
Angry Robot, 2011

Rating: B

After the pure enjoyment factor of The Bookman, the first novel in the loosely connected Bookman Histories, it was hard not to be excited to push forward onto Camera Obscura. While The Bookman was the adventure of a young man in search of lost love, Camera Obscura is a steampunk noir murder mystery featuring a kick ass heroine and a pile of bodies that keeps getting bigger. It is sort of a Chandler-esque gumshoe story crossed with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen style steampunk that pulls characters from all sorts of different works and puts them in strange situations.

Milady de Winter is a brilliant character so well-written that she begs to reappear. To compare her to female heroes in other novels and different mediums is to do her an injustice, as she is completely unique in her badassery. Strong black characters are rare in science fiction to begin with, and strong black female characters are even fewer and further between. Tidhar using a minority character in a steampunk setting is refreshing, and to have her be as strong a character as she is makes for excellence. Although the novel is enjoyable on its own merits, the most memorable part of Camera Obscura is surely its protagonist.

A little bit more than halfway through the novel, a traumatic and extraordinarily violent episode for Milady de Winter happens that not only changes her character significantly but changes the tone of the novel so drastically that it feels like a completely new story. While the first half is pretty straight forward (and enjoyable) point to point murder mystery, the second half reads like a twisted existentialist fantasy that is interesting but sometimes hard to follow and more difficult to enjoy. Tidhar obviously is a brilliant writer whose prose is careful and exciting with characters that leap off the page, but the change in mood makes the end result of Camera Obscura feel a bit more disjointed than it should.

Although it is easy to enjoy Camera Obscura without having read its predecessor, it is recommended that you read The Bookman first to get a sense of the world that the story takes place in before moving into this second installment. Both novels are completely unique experiences that are nothing like anything else in steampunk. Despite their flaws, they are essential reading in the steampunk subgenre, as being unique in the world of zeppelins and goggles is something that just doesn’t happen too often.

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009)

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Simon Pulse, 2009

Rating: B+

Steampunk for a younger audience seems like an obvious market. Younger readers tend to eat up fantasy and science fiction like no other crowd, and yet the number of young adult novels that are considered steampunk is surprisingly small. On steampunk forums around the internet, requests for recommendations of YA steampunk nearly universally revolve around the Leviathan series and a half-dozen other novels. So why aren’t more writers doing what Westerfeld has done with this series? Maybe it is more difficult to write engaging stories about zeppelins and clockwork than it seems.

Leviathan is essentially a re-telling of World War I in a world in which the British, French, Russians, and Serbs use biologically re-engineered animal creatures as weapons and vessels; the title refers to a large airship made out of a whale, which one cannot even begin to explain thoroughly enough to satisfy anyone but is at least a cool visual. On the other side, the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians use large steam-powered ships and battle machines, which is not nearly as fresh of an idea as genetically modified whale ships but is definitely equally cool.

The main characters fit generic archetypes, but are likable in spite of this. Alek is the fictional young son of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the leaders of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who finds himself without a family when they are assassinated. His family’s closest advisors squirrel him away in a walking robot tank and head away to try to find safety. On the other side, Deryn is a young woman who wants to badly to be a pilot that she decides to hide her gender and pretend to be a man so that she can enlist. Both of these stories sound like retreads but they are written in such a way that it feels fresh anyway. It doesn’t hurt that there is something wonderfully feministic and subversive for a woman to sneak her way into a “man’s world” and not only succeed but do better than her male counterparts.

Although written for younger audiences, Leviathan will have a general appeal to older fans of steampunk as well. Nothing is too dumbed down or simplified and it has enough plot to hold interest. It is definitely action oriented, with some kind of major fight or crash or explosion every couple chapters, which will certainly help younger readers keep interest in a book of this length. Although it is definitely the first book in a series and as such is not very friendly to stand alone reading, it is good enough that the idea of continuing on into the series is hardly an unwelcome one.