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At present, a visitor to this journal will find my book reviews are available to them, as well as some old posts recommending/talking about books; however, they'll find little else, and this policy of making only the book reviews public is going to persist.  All personal posts - political, philosophical, journal-style - are friends-locked, and thus invisible to the casual viewer.  I am, however, pretty liberal about adding friends, so if you ask to be added, you probably will be.

A note about the books I review: Those books I review are those I read, and most of those I read are those I have bought.  The majority of exceptions are given or lent to me by family or friends.  The selection will therefore be eclectic and will not be, necessarily, the most up-to-date of books, and almost certainly will not be pre-publication copies; however, I don't reckon that renders them useless as reviews or recommendations to my readers.

Thank you for your attention.

Why, Guardian? Why, Observer? Why?

Over the last week, the Guardian and Observer have managed to publish a series of articles in their print editions which have been deeply insulting and upsetting to transgender individuals, including Cheryl Morgan, whose blog I follow and who therefore brought the issue to my attention, as I haven't been reading the paper much over that time period, being in London studying for my dissertation instead.  Some of the articles published have been so shocking, offensive and ugly that I felt more than moved to write a letter to the Readers' Editors of each paper, demanding that apologies be printed and a right of reply given; and that in future such content not be printed.  Whether this will happen or not I can only speculate, but I urge you to read my letter, follow the links at least to the Guardian and Observer articles from the last week, and please, make your feelings known to these supposedly socially responsible and tolerant newspapers.

Letter (With Footnotes) Under the CutCollapse )

Review: Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

Tidbeck's slim volume of short stories is fascinating as much for the story behind it as for the volume itself.  Largely published in Swedish as a volume entitled Vem är Arvid Pekon? in 2010, Cheeky Frawg (a VanderMeer publishing project) has now published a translated volume of the stories with some new material published between 2010 and 2012; the translation was undertaken by none other than... Karin Tidbeck herself.

The first term that springs to mind to describe Jagannath as a collection of short stories is refreshing; the mixture of whimsy and horror, very Swedish and much more indeterminately international, sweet and dark, even within the same story much of the time, is something we very rarely see in English-language fiction.  There's no consistent feel to Tidbeck's stories, because each is an individual and unique thing in and of itself; there's a mix of first- and third-person, of episodic and simple narrative, even of linguistic complexity and pace.  Jagannath's brief length - there are 13 stories and around 100 pages across this volume - encapsulates a huge variety on those levels, creating a beautiful, well-crafted and stylish sense of place and time in each story, but also a consistent and refreshing feel which arises from the mixture of different kinds of story here.

Tidbeck's ability to turn a different style is helped by her ability to create a character and a setting very quickly and with a small number of brushstrokes, and then layering over it build up a greater level of texture through detail and precision, rather than use of extensive infodumping; over the course of each brief story in Jagannath, we are introduced to a new setting and a new cast or individual character, and within the course of the few pages for which we stay with them, we learn a huge amount about them. Indeed, Tidbeck's various characters are all very different and very human; the supernatural is liminal and stays in the shadows, if it exists at all, in most of these stories, which have a feeling not unakin to that of Walton's Among Others in its treatment of the magical.

In the end, Tidbeck's short stories are wonderful and fresh, and Jagannath is a demonstration of a brilliant new talent introduced to the English-speaking part of the field of genre fiction; one can only hope it is Tidbeck's gateway to greater prominence.

Review: Turbulence by Samit Basu

Turbulence is a superhero novel.  That is, it is a novel about superheroes.  The first thing that phrase brings to mind is tights and spandex; the second, the dark world of 90s comics, where tights and spandex were replaced with grimdark and violence; and the third is lowbrow American literature.  Basu certainly plays with those images and conceptions, but this is a literary-influenced Indian novel which strikes a balance between grimdark and spandex, whilst drawing on both.

The opening of the novel is our first intimation of the non-traditional nature of this superhero novel; we meet Vir Singh of the Indian Air Force over a nuclear facility in Pakistan.  Not in a plane, but hovering there, preparing to go in and wipe out the nuclear facility. And then, he receives a phonecall.  This strange sort of combination of elements - the mundanity and normalcy of a phonecall compared to the strange otherness of a man hovering over a military facility in sky-camo - are one of the basic elements of this excellent novel.  This is backed up by a plain writing style that could have been a weakness, but is handled effectively by Basu such that the simplicity of language in Turbulence draws the reader in and along, and takes us for the ride.

And what a ride it is; Turbulence is aptly named on a number of levels, not least for the nature of its plot.  The bumps in the road encountered by our fledgling Justice League of India - what Aman is conciously trying to build - in its efforts to do good are many and varied in a recognisable and yet changed world.  That world is one in which a flightful of people, going from London to India, have mysteriously gained a variety of superpowers; some big and flashy - as with Vir's flight and superstrength - and some much more low-key, and with Uzma's power that we don't get let in on the secret of until the very close of the novel.  Naturally not all superpowered individuals have the same ideas of what to do with these powers, and it's a conflict between Vir, Aman, Uzma and Tia, on the one hand, and a Magneto-inspired ultimate warrior (Magneto-inspired in his view that superheroes deserve to inherit the world) on the other, in a world where these superpowers are still unknown.  Watching the conflict play out is nothing new - after all, these are powers and sides we've seen drawn long ago (quite literally; we're largely drawing on the X-Family of books here); but the Indian cast gives a different slant to the characters which makes retreading the ground worthwhile.

The cast of characters is relatively simple; Tia, with the same powerset as Madrox; Vir, who can fly and has superstrength and limited invulnerability; Aman, who can use or access any technology connected to the internet; Uzma, with a somewhat nebulous powerset; and the criminally underused temporally unhinged Sundar.  They're influenced by their Indian heritage and by their Marvel pedigrees wherein the latter tends to overwhelm the former, but each has a somewhat distinctive personality, at least as we move through the books; the distinction is more derived from the world than from any of the characters who are relatively flat, but with inflections of individuality, rather than being truly developed.

In the end, Turbulence is far from ground-breaking, but Basu's X-Men derived work is interesting for its Indian setting and cast, and its modern reinterpretation of an old idea that hasn't been rebooted for many years.  In the end, this is a novel for fans of superhero comics of the middle-brow middle-weight sort; for completists and casual fans both, but sadly not for anyone looking for the intellectual satisfaction of a comic like Kingdom Come or Sandman in prose form...

Review: The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

After an extremely long and unintended hiatus, I return to reviewing with a collection of short stories by Sarah Monette, better known for her short fiction than her novel-length works. Monette's collection of the tales of Kyle Murchison Booth are undoubtedly influenced by the Lovecraftian and Jamesian traditions of horror, but also by a disappointment with their characterisation and treatment of, especially, emotionality; Lovecraft famously wrote lush (some say purple) prose with flat characters as simple motors for story, and The Bone Key showcases something of the opposite tendency.

Monette's prose is never sparse, or spare, but it is much more controlled that Lovecraft's; where the word "squamous" is almost the defining term of the Chthulhu mythos, it is not even of the kind of term that Monette uses, as much because Monette's prose is cleaner and more accessible as because of the more-than-half-a-century that separates them.  The Bone Key is scary for its atmosphere and build as much as for its content; after all, the content is nothing that we haven't read before in the annals of the weird, especially by the time I'm coming to it in the second decade of the twenty-first century, but the use of those same basic elements is undertaken in such a way as to bring a new sense of the uncanny to them.

Monette's interest in characterisation shows strongly through the stories; their disconnectedness aside, the thread of Booth's life through The Bone Key and the series of unfortunate coincidences that lead to his repeated involvement in the uncanny are clear.  Booth gains agency and awareness over the course of the stories, even as he remains a bit of a bumbler, and a social recluse; his sexuality becomes a feature and fades away again, influencing things from the background (he is a homosexual, but it is treated with a combination of the modern and period-accurate attitudes in such a way that he is sympathetic as a character, and does not accept or perhaps even recognise his homosexuality). Booth is also our viewpoint character, and the fact that he sees himself as a bumbler and a little incompetent at anything but his archiving is a breath of fresh air in a genre all too often afflicted by the Asimovian hypercompetent.

Between the open attitude to sex and emotion, the attention to characterisation, the fresh prose and the new approach to old themes, The Bone Key is a fantastic collection of linked stories, and the autobiography of Kyle Murchison Booth contained herein is a treasure to be sought out.

Hugo 2012 5: Editor (Long-Form)

Lou Anders
Not only is Anders' selection of novels long, it's also very varied - ranging from hard SF through YA steampunk via almost everything in between, I may not like every author on the list, or even think some of them are fantastic books, but the fact is that this kind of range of selection is really impressive and quite daring, with a number of debuts and first-in-series on the list, which suggests a willingness to take risks; many of which have been pretty well rewarded.

Liz Gorinsky
Gorinsky's got only a few relevant novels published this year, and a very varied list in terms of quality at that.  They're also all steampunk or steampunk-inflected, suggesting a very thin range of expertise, and all but one are by established authors, which implies an unwillingness to take risks.  Not a great nominee, or at least not based on this list, which is of course the only relevant one for this year's Hugo.

Anne Lesley Groell
Groell puts us back with an interesting and varied list of novels; also a pretty good one in terms of female representation, which can be a bit of an issue in SFF.  Having read, or even heard of, very few novels on the list is a bit of a disadvantage - some are blockbusters (Martin, for instance) and other by authors I like (Bloodshot/Hellbent), but either I was not the target market for most of these novels or they just weren't marketed much, which isn't a good sign.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Hayden's selection of novels is pretty impressive - Among Others being one of my top-rank Hugo votes - and Tor has an incredible, undeniably strong stable, of which Hayden is editorial manager, which means he's got more than a little responsibility for it.  That makes him a great candidate for Hugo, especially given (again) the variety within the stable he himself acquired - Among Others at one end of the spectrum, The Quantum Thief and Fuzzy Nation at the other.

Betsy Wollheim
Wollheim's another pretty damn strong candidate; even leaving aside Wise Man's Fear, and her role as DAW's President, she's got a strong stable of personal acquisitions, including Kristen Britain, C. J. Cherryh, and Mercedes Lackey, and one that has a strong female representation, which (again) I find pretty significant and important.  Those names also demonstrate the variety of work Wollheim's acquired - horror/paranormal romance (White Trash Zombie), epic fantasy (Rothfuss can hardly be described otherwise), and SF (Cherryh).  A strong stable and an impressive resume.

This is another really hard category.  That there's three really stand-out contestants, one who barely makes the ballot, and one strong but not outstanding contestant helps a little, but choosing between the top three will be near-impossible and may come down to coin-tossing (or just which published my favourite book, rather than whose stable is overall strongest).  A really good field, and thankfully strong on women!

Hugo 2012 4: Short Stories

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld, April 2011)
I really like Yu’s story; whilst not perhaps the most characterful piece, the length does have something to do with that, but the anthropomorphism and political engagement are wonderful.  This encapsulates in its brief span a huge number of ideas absolutely brilliantly, without missing a beat; and unlike, say, Ken MacLeod, avoids in-jokes about political factions or coded references, rather creating a political fable understandable by all but with not only unclear, but also multiple, morals.  Whether or not you happen to agree with its final political conclusion – and I’m not at all sure what I think of it – it is a fantastic little piece of writing.
“The Homecoming” by Mike Resnick (Asimov's, April/May 2011)
This story is the sort that leaves a lump in the reader’s throat.  There’s nothing unexpected in it – it is, in fact, the expected catharsis and sadness that leave that lump – but Resnick constructs a brilliant cast and concept, of xenological immersion; and the story is presented as a xenologist coming home, still looking like the aliens he is studying, to his father, who has disowned him for his choice, and his mother, with Alzheimer’s.  Told from the perspective of the father, it’s a brilliant, moving, sad tale; the concepts are powerful and wonderfully conveyed, the aesthetics fascinating and the alien world glimpsed just enough to leave it mysterious and provoke the imagination.  An absolutely wonderful and very human story.
“Movement” by Nancy Fulda (Asimov's, March 2011)
I’ve heard it said that this is a story about autism.  Indeed, it arguably attempts, in its internal denials that it is a story about autism, to reinforce that notion.  The problem is that it really isn’t a story about autism; Fulda has made it first person, without even attempting to think about how an autistic person might see the world, see other people – and whilst assuming “savant” is the typical representative of autism.  I have a serious problem with the story on that level which, if we’re honest, is pretty much impossible to overcome and thus I can’t come at this story with any attitude other than its failure; in attempting to familiarise autism, Fulda has Othered it more than ever by mispresenting it…
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2011)
Liu’s story does not pull its emotional punches – indeed, it could even be said to be a bit heavy-handed; but as a study of a parent-child relationship, of the problems of racism and of gulfs of understanding, of simple human character, it is more than inspired.  This story moves the reader completely; at times obvious, at times much more subtle, it worms its way into the reader’s heart and mind and sits there, working its magic.  An absolutely heartbreaking story, this really is a masterpiece of emotional and minimalist fantasy…
“Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” by John Scalzi (Tor.com)
Reread for voting purposes. This is a rather silly story, a parody of an epic fantasy introduction; this, to me, strikes me as a rather poor and excessively excessive over-the-top parody to the point of failure.  As an April Fool, it perhaps works, just about – although without actually being a “fool”, instead just being a joke; as anything else, and especially a Hugo entry, it completely falls flat on its face, because the humour isn’t (after the first paragraph, which is brilliant) humorous, and the parodical elements are excessively extreme.
This category is one of the more variable - there's some brilliant stories (standouts for me are the Yu, the Resnick and the Liu) and some appalling ones (the Scalzi and the Fulda - neither remotely worthy of their places on the ballot).  Choosing how the top three places fall out is going to be very hard, because those stories are all so good, and in quite different ways, even as two of them tackle very similar subject-matter with very similar emotional resonances; I just wish it was so hard to choose between all five options, rather than having two that'll end up ranked below "no award"...

Hugo 2012 3: Novelettes

“The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell (Asimov's, July 2011)
The world of this novelette is an exceedingly odd one; whilst Cornell posits an alternative physics and an alternative Newtonian system (conveniently leaving aside that the Newtonian system he suggests is in fact Berkeleyan, and was posited), how this leads to the rest of the world he describes – great powers, the balance, and so on – is very unclear to this reader.  Granting that premise, however, and the story simply becomes a fun, confusing mess; there’s too much and also too little happening, with the reader never given any clarity on what’s actually going on in the story, and with characters failing to actually make sense as coherent singular individuals, a real problem in a work this length.  Some interesting and fun ideas, but a novel(la) would’ve been a better length to explore them at.
“Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)
Read in Eclipse 4; reread for voting purposes. On a reread, much of the strength of this story evaporates, leaving the bones behind; Swirsky’s story – a paean to nostalgia and “innocent” childhood over actually confronting problems, dealing with difficult emotions or even engaging with them – doesn’t have characters so much as archetypes, none of whom deserve sympathy or raise interest, and none of whom are particularly believable as characters.  This may be Swirsky’s third Hugo nomination, but it’s certainly not Hugo-worthy.
“Ray of Light” by Brad R. Torgersen (Analog, December 2011)
Torgersen’s story is a strange little piece.  Leaving aside the strange contradictions and weirdness of the story (no one thought to attack the cloud with, say, a nuke or two?), the characters just don’t seem true; we keep being told about the life-changing events and massive, global tragedy that our protagonist went through, but never see it really having an effect on him at all.  Indeed, the whole story feels a bit like that – Torgersen never quite accepting his premises, walking back from them, and in so doing immeasurably weakening his own story by failing to accept his own premises to the point that nothing quite works…
“Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com)
Anders’ story is a romanceless romance, a piece of writing that I really don’t have the mind or heart to believe in; in no small part because I don’t understand either character, neither of whom strike me as remotely human – although perhaps Doug does, somewhat.  Both clairvoyant, in different ways, neither actually seems to use their gift in the way it’s described; Doug doesn’t simply follow the script (because we see him do things not in it), and Judy doesn’t ever try to change her script, seeming more like Doug from the very start.  It’s a really problematic little piece, because its own conceits fail completely, and its own ideas aren’t held to; a surprisingly poor entry onto the ballot, honestly.
“What We Found” by Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2011)
This story is very much not really genre fiction – it breaks science fiction by turning away, completely, from science as its very premise, and doesn’t really embrace that premise even as it seems to accept it.  As a character study, it has no characters, really; just a set of people who can’t really seem to come into focus in the narrative, worst of all the narrator who doesn’t seem to have character, just be the imprint of others; and as a set-piece, it doesn’t work, because it’s not coherent or whole enough.  This really does disappoint on a number of levels, but most of all in its characters, because they work so poorly as characters.
All in all, this is a really weak field – disappointingly so, given the strength of both novellas and novels this year (to my mind).  Nothing really worthy of a Hugo, I think the only honest vote will be “no award” here, sadly, with only the Cornell to perhaps come before that!
Unlike Countdown, San Diego 2014 doesn't really need much knowledge of the Newsflesh universe - set at the time of the Rising, the start of the zombie apocalypse, whilst it draws on some characters from that series, and some hallmarks of Grant's thinking, only some elements are more elucidated by a knowledge of the apocalypse she creates.  Rather more knowledge, on the other hand, is required of science fiction fandom (there's a reference to sapient pearwood in there, contextless, assuming the reader will get it.  This reader, unsurprisingly to those who know my comfort-reading habits, got it).

San Diego is two things; first, Grant's novella is a zombie apocalypse novel, in the way she does best: dark, emotionally charged, moving, powerful and believable, especially in the reactions of the characters: disbelieving until they're forced to believe, and then reacting incredibly humanly, not in the superhuman way most people would like to think we might react if it was us found in these situations.  That they are us - the geeks, the SF fans, the cosplayers, the Browncoats - makes this created empathy all the more effective and powerful, and that's a really strong element of this novella; the empathy with the characters, both in 2014 and Lorelei, retelling the story years after the fact in Grant's framing device.

It's this fact that the characters are us that is the second characteristic of this novel.  Reading Red Planets, there's an essay on utopian depictions of art, analysing Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula K. Le Guin.  But how often do we see art in our genre fiction, or literature?  Newsflesh has it built right in at the bone, however, and San Diego 2014 embraces that; not only art of the real world, but also ideas of future art, which follow on from and critique current art and culture, and also demonstrate part of how we get from this world to the world of the Rising, something really effectively conveyed by this novella as an intermediary stage.

Overall, San Diego 2014 showcases Grant's best talents; emotionally resonant and effective work, drawing out similarities between characters and readers, and the occasional (more common here than across the rest of the Newsflesh cycle) reference to modern geek culture.  A very nice novella.

Hugo 2012 2: Novellas

Countdown by Mira Grant (Orbit)
Review here. It's absolutely true and undeniable that I quite enjoyed Countdown, and thought it was a good story; and indeed it is, in a nihilistic, scientifically precise, world-ending kind of way.  The problem with Countdown is the required knowledge; for a reader not versed in the Newsflesh series, there are chunks of the novella that won't work, and that's a problem that brings this down the ballot a little, although it remains a great piece of work worthy of its place here.

“The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2011)
Review here. This novella doesn't deserve its place on the ballot, on the other hand.  A cackhanded attempt to tackle issues of genocide and survivor guilt, Gilman's piece really reads rather appallingly; it doesn't quite have the honesty to tackle the Holocaust dead-on, but the degree to which the Vind are obviously the Jews (they're bankers and financiers! they're accused of a secret conspiracy to control everything!) and the use of "Holocide" to describe the genocide, really undoes that.  I can't see what the merit of this one is, honestly, other than some faux-worthiness, perhaps...

“Kiss Me Twice” by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's, June 2011)
Review here. Kowal's story is a fun little piece, an intelligent and well-written AI-based whodunnit/detective story; the clues are a little mixed at times, and the red herrings well laid, but in the end this tends towards working far more often than not, which is more than you can say for many of these kinds of stories.  The one problem is a combination of implausibility in one of the basic elements of the plot, and a slight lack of substance - it's a good and intelligent story, but doesn't really seem to leave much behind after reading...

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson (Asimov's, September/October 2011)
Review here. This is an absolutely beautiful, brilliant and astounding story.  The combination of the mundane and the fantastika, unique amongst this ballot, of bridge-building with the strange and unexplained "mist", is absolutely amazing, and the human relationships and indeed characters altered over the course of the story as our bridgebuilder touches them is awesome to behold; Johnson's grasp of every aspect of her story is incredible, and the whole thing is told in a way that to me is reminiscent of a fairy-tale in its slightly fuzzy edges, almost.  An utterly beautiful, wonderful piece of work.

“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu (Panverse 3)
Review here. This is another great entry onto the ballot, and everything that The Ice Owl wanted to be, I suspect; after all, Liu's story similarly deals with genocide, with survivor's guilt (albeit only ever second-hand or second-generation), and with ideas of history and the past.  The documentary format works rather well, albeit at times a little strangely (presenting it as an audio documentary might've worked better, as oftentimes we're left with no visual sense of what's happening); and characters still shine through quite strongly.  A dark, horrible piece all too close to reality, but Liu's handling of it is sensitive and masterful.

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld / WSFA)
Review here. Another novella of beautiful prose and interesting ideas, Valente's work suffers slightly from comparison to some of the other pieces on the ballot, but as a character-portrait rather than a story in the traditional sense it is fantastic; the slow building up and creation of the character of Elefsis works incredibly well, and the mythological underpinnings are used very effectively.  As a story it is not only well-told but also an interesting one, but at the same time the language can feel a little mixed; immediately compelling, on reflection a little more mixed of a blessing in some ways. This is, however, a very strong piece.

Overall, this is going to be a four-tiered ballot; choosing between first and second preference, and then between third and fourth preference, is going to be very, very difficult, because it is such a strong and well-selected ballot, as a whole; so well done, Hugo nominators!
Ken Liu's story is less about science fiction or time travel than about history and our attitude to it, especially to atrocity in our own nation's historical past - in this case centred on Unit 731, a still-controversial and at best semi-acknowledged Japanese atrocity in China.  Evan Wei is the Chinese-American who "ended history", as in the title, along with Dr. Akemi Kirino, his physicist Japanese-American wife; this "end of history" is based on a concept that time-travel can only be done once to any place, and only as an observer not a participant, because it is simply observing particles generated in the past that don't disappear or decay over time.

The method of telling the story is brilliant as a concept; the use of a documentary style - so we're slowly told what happened to Evan, and in the wider world, in snatches of various sorts, from news articles to interviews to C-SPAN recordings of Congressional hearings - gives it a certain power through false veracity, a certain kind of emotional resonance that a more obviously fictional form would have sacrificed.  In this sense Liu's novella is a fascinating piece of storytelling as it manages to tackle such serious issues in a fictional form without trivialising them, and the bibliography at the end of the piece tells the reader how important it was to the author to avoid such trivialisation of Unit 731.

The Man Who Ended History is a compelling and fascinating exploration of some serious and important issues, and a really thought-provoking piece, as well as being very different in form than a normal story or novella; and all the more effective for that.  A really disturbing piece, but well worth the read; it seems to be what The Ice Owl wanted to be, but by refusing to fictionalise the history it addresses, finds itself much more powerful.
This is one of the best fantasy stories I've read in a long time.  A tale without much conflict or violence, Johnson's story is a biographical tale of Kit Meinam, a bridge-engineer; and also of Rasali and Valo Ferry, whose lives are immeasurably changed by coming into contact with Kit.  The story has a simple plot; Kit is commissioned by Empire (which never has an article attached) to build a bridge over a river which has mist - a sort of corrosive gas that can be sculled across in an appropriately built boat, and that is inhabited by fish both predator and prey of mankind.  In so doing he changes the lives of everyone in Nearside and Farside, two towns on opposite sides of the river, and especially of the Ferrys, whose livelihood, as their name tells one, is in ferrying people across the river.

The novella is a beautiful, evocative and powerful exploration of its theme; the degree to which it pitches itself perfectly on the ideas and concepts as well as strong character-work is amazing, the combination balanced on a knife-edge that Johnson controls masterfully.  The Man Who Bridged The Mist is reminiscent of what I'm told K. J. Parker's work is like (I'll be finding out later in summer); concerned with people and with ideas, using analogy as a commentary on reality, using fantasy as a way to explore issues and provoke thoughts that "realist" fiction cannot address except head-on.  This really is a demonstration of genre fiction as the genre of ideas, and beautifully-written and beautifully undertaken ideas at that; an amazing little piece of work.
At least two AI-based stories made the novella ballot of this year's Hugos, and this is the one that isn't by Cat Valente.  The thing of it is, though, that Kiss Me Twice almost feels more like a Valente story than Silently and Very Fast - it's smart, it's funny, and it assumes you're those things, too.

Kiss Me Twice is a pretty straightforward whodunnit, combining a violent theft, a murder, and AI-tinged police procedural into one glorious combination.  What makes it really interesting is that the theft is of Metta, the AI which runs all the police systems in the nameless city Kowal has used as the setting for her novella; and yet another Metta - a backup - is brought online for the story.  Thus we're treated not only to a whodunnit which is intelligent and well-written, with clues that make sense and combine the red herring with the genuine clue in such a way that the reader can, after the fact, put it all together, but the complexity of what's going on requires some rethinking of basic assumptions from the start.

The other strength of this novella is the characterwork; Metta and Huang are both fantastic individually, as an AI and an immigrant cop who treats her as a friend, but together this pair really show their mettle: the relationship between the two of them is sensitively, ably, intelligently and touchingly portrayed, with the right balance of humour and seriousness to make the increasingly dark tone of the piece work whilst avoiding losing all sense of fun.  Indeed, Kowal's balance in Kiss Me Twice of the serious and the slightly silly is excellent and largely comes down to the balance between these two characters; they have one of the best written relationships in genre fiction, and I honestly hope that if I go looking I'll find out much more about them.

Honestly, this is a novella I'm really glad made the Hugo ballot, otherwise chances are I'd have missed it, and that would've been quite saddening, given its quality.  Kiss Me Twice: an AI romance(?) whodunnit. Brilliant.
Gilman's novella is pretty clearly and obviously based on the Holocaust ("Holocide" in the novel), and how people respond to it - both survivors and not.  The problem with The Ice Owl is that it is not only a thin and clear analogy, but also that it doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say really...

The plot is relatively simple and obvious.  Thorn, our principal character, is a young adult who is (objectively) much older than she is subjectively, due to the lifestyle of her mother - planet-hopping successively and repeatedly.  She's also intended to be a much more mature character than her years, but the novella rather fails to show that, instead deciding to make her childish and petulant.  The cognitive dissonance that ensues is rather problematic.  She is trying to demonstrate her independence and, after her school is burned, finds a Vind teacher (the Vind being the very in-your-face analogues to the Jews) who has a past he won't talk about, linked to the Holocide.  We follow Thorn as she tries to discover what this past is - though the final revelation is a) telegraphed strongly throughout the preceding part of the novella; and b) not really consistent with the (rather inconsistent anyway) character of her Vind teacher.

The problem here seems to be that Gilman wants to tell a message-story, a parable, but doesn't really want to leave anything to the imagination or chance in terms of the reader misinterpreting it; thus we're really beaten over the head time and again by the parallels and analogies of The Ice Owl in a depressingly badly written way.  This feels stunningly sophomoric and, indeed, deeply disappointing, at least to this reader.

EDITED to fix ineptitude - confusion over the identity of the author crept in half-way through the review. Now fixed. Thanks, fadethecat, for catching that! :-)
Any novel which uses Pink Floyd lyrics as its title becomes somewhat more likely for me to read it.  Any novel which I came away from the first in the series with feelings of great frustration, but also a sense of the potential of both series and author, is also more likely to end up being read.  That Of Blood and Honey left me feeling that way, and that And Blue Skies From Pain is a line taken from one of my favourite Pink Floyd songs (Wish You Were Here), pretty much guaranteed that I'd be reading Leicht's sophomore effort...

From the off, And Blue Skies... is a very different beast than Of Blood... Rather than being about Liam's formative experiences, and about himself and his place in the world, it is much more about how Liam impacts on the world, building on the bridges created and beginnings made in the first novel, taking a broader perspective and increasingly setting everything into a world of greys.  The plot largely follows Liam's attempts, with the help of Father Murray, to convince the Catholic Church that the Fey aren't the Fallen; and the tribulations - both from the Church and the Fallen - that he goes through in order to undertake this attempt.  The increasing sense of grey morality, with no-one from the fey, through the Catholic Church, through Liam himself, coming out of the novel unstained, is well-played and well-timed, and very appropriate to the Northern Irish and Irish setting; and the increasing sense that one man's actions can change the world, especially when more political elements - Liam's IRA affiliations coming back to haunt him in a major subplot - enter the novel.

The characters from Of Blood... reappear, and once again the focus is on Liam; here, though, rather than largely being forged in the fires of adversity, as is the case in the first novel, Liam actually starts to emerge as a character with agency, rather than driven from action to action without really considering them in turn.  The elements which make up his character start to be synthesised - consciously - as Leicht starts to make a coherent character of Liam, an interesting and well-written figure in his own right who has to come to terms with the difficulties of his past.  Father Murray also increasingly emerges as a character, and his shady, or murky, past begins to appear to the reader; his difficulties with the strictures of the Church and his faith, and his role in the conflict between Church and Fallen, start to be brought evermore to the fore and his own history comes back to haunt him in a powerful and effective way, both within and without the Church itself.

In the end, And Blue Skies From Pain is a fantastic effort; whereas I was left frustrated with the shortcomings of Of Blood..., they're overcome by the strengths of this follow-up novel, which has its own shortcomings (a little too much action, some silly ideas - MILITANT AMERICAN NUNS! IN IRELAND! JUST BECAUSE! - and some rocky characterisation) but is a good, well thought out read and an excellent treatment of some really difficult issues.  A good read that I feel happy to recommend.

(Read 21/4)


reading, books
Daniel Franklin


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