Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Book Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Pros: intricate world-building, fascinating plot, diverse characters, thought provoking


Three hundred years ago the people of Saypur rebelled against the Continent, killing its Gods and enslaving the populace as they had been enslaved.  Continental history has been suppressed and any mention of the Gods and Their Miracles is considered a criminal act.  With tensions high in the ancient capital of Bulikov, it’s not surprising when a Saypuri professor is killed while studying the history of the Continent.  Shara Thivani, an intelligence officer with an unhealthy interest in said history, goes there to investigate, and finds more than a simple murder.

While the content and scope are decidedly different, the closest parallel to this book I can think of is Dune by Frank Herbert.  Instead of a distant planetary system in the future, City of Stairs deals with gods and an imperialistic past, but the weight of its history and the intricacy of the plots left me thinking, numerous times, of Dune.  This was likely helped by Bennett’s use of quotations from historical sources and politicians at the start of each chapter, something Dune employed to help disseminate information without resorting to info dumps.  If you want a more modern comparison, then Mad Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead comes to mind.

The book captures your attention with the troubling and thought provoking first quote from The Book of the Red Lotus, one of many holy books for one of the Continent’s 6 Divinities:

And Olvos said to them: “Why have you done this, my children?  Why is the sky wreathed with smoke?  Why have you made war in far places, and shed blood in strange lands?”
And they said to Her: “You blessed us as Your people, and we rejoiced, and were happy, and they were willful and ignorant of You.  They would not open their ears to Your songs, or lay Your words upon their tongues.  So we dashed them upon the rocks and threw down their houses and shed their blood and scattered them to the winds, and we were right to do so.  For we are Your people.  We carry Your blessings.  We are Yours, and so we are right.  Is this not what You said?”
And Olvos was silent.

The idea that the Continent’s people were chosen of the Gods is central to the book.  What does it mean when you’re backed by divine right?  And conversely, what does it mean to those you enslave, that they are not?  Turning the tables on their oppressors, the Saypuri have become what they once hated.  It’s clear that despite the time that has passed both sides are still heavily influenced by their past, even if the people no longer have a proper understanding of their history.  Old tensions and hatreds cloud modern judgement and ensure that the people of Saypuri keep those on the Continent in poverty, rather than letting them rebuild and start over.

But that’s not the only thought provoking issue the book goes into.  It’s hard to read this book and not compare the philosophies it espouses to the conflict in Gaza*, though the book would have been finished long before the fighting there started up again.  My original thoughts were that the book drew on experiences from the British occupation of India, though I don’t know enough about that to know if any specifics were cribbed.  The book has a ‘what if India managed to rebel earlier and ended up subjugating England’ feel to it.  Saypuri character names sounded Indian to me, which helped this impression.  Though the Continental names sound Russian, so Bennett may have been cribbing from several real world occupations, rather than just one.  Or none at all.  Regardless, I love fantasy that makes me think about the real world and its history.  I’ve not studied colonialism in any detail so this book was fantastic in that it helped me understand more of the complexities surrounding it including the underlying resentments, the hold the past has on you and the inability descendants have with moving on.    

Though the core cast of the book is fairly small, there’s a large enough supporting cast to give the book a grand, epic, feel.  The cast is nicely diverse, with several people having visible disabilities (a limp, a missing eye, a facial scar), there’s a prominent homosexual who must hide what he is in the still ultra-conservative Bulikov, and the people of Saypur, we are told, are a dark skinned people.  The Saypuri are an equal opportunity country with women in numerous positions of power, though the protagonist is still referred to as ‘my girl’ by an older gentleman of her nation, showing that not everyone there is progressive.  

The book did a remarkable job of showing world building through subtleties rather than overt references or gratuitous scenes.  For example, rather than have someone raped, the protagonist is quietly asked if a particular official’s female servant is pregnant, implying both that the official was one to use his position of authority to get sex, but also that women of the subjugated race face these kinds of dangers/pressures.  

This is a brilliant novel, the kind of book aspiring authors should read over and over again to see how Bennett made his characters and places come alive.  If you like intense world-building of the style used in Frank Herbert’s Dune or Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, pick this up.  If you’ve been looking for diverse characters, pick this up.  Seriously, pick this book up.  You won’t regret it.

* Since not everyone’s familiar with the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, the Israelite people were promised a land (modern day Israel) as long as they were righteous.  To claim the land they first had to remove the people inhabiting it.  Over time the country was conquered by successive groups and the majority relocated and eventually scattered.  While none of that directly contributes to the current conflict, there’s a lot of religious underpinnings that indirectly affect things (Zionism being just one of them).

Monday, 1 September 2014

Science Fiction and Fantasy Coming in October, 2014

Before the World's Biggest Bookstore closed, one of my co-workers predicted that we'd start seeing fewer mass market original releases (where the book is released in mass market without a hardcover or trade paperback edition first) and more ebooks and trade paperback originals.  Either October's a slow month for mass markets, or her prediction's coming true faster than I anticipated because there are very few new mass market books coming out that month, and not many reprints of other formats either.  This list was compiled from Amazon's Canadian website, and while I try to make it as comprehensive as I can, I'm sure some books have been missed.  Several of E. R. Eddison (a contemporary of Tolkien and Lewis)'s books are being reprinted, as well as two by John Wyndham.  And anyone anxiously awaiting the follow up to the Hugo and Nebula Award winning Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie, the wait is almost over.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The Nearly Definitive Edition – Douglas Adams
Heraclix & Pomp – Forrest Aguirre
A Vision of Fire – Gillian Anderson & Jeff Rovin
Doctor Who Official Annual 2015 – BBC
War Dogs – Greg Bear
The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliah – Ishbelle Bee
The Shotgun Arcana – R.S. Belcher
Hawk – Steven Brust
The Lesser Dead – Christopher Buehlman
The Lost Stars: Imperfect Sword – Jack Campbell
Poison Fruit – Jacqueline Carey
Silverblind – Tina Connolly
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy Box Set – Ian Doescher 
Star Trek: Ships of the Line – Doug Drexler & Margaret Clark
Chasing Power – Sarah Beth Durst
Fire in the Blood – Erin Evans
Of Bone and Thunder – Chris Evans
Chaos – Sarah Fine
The Peripheral – William Gibson
Warhammer: Gotrek & Felix: Kinslayer – David Guymer
Scarlet Tides – David Hair
The Abyss Beyond Dreams – Peter Hamilton
Spark – John Twelve Hawks
The Incorruptibles – John Hornor Jacobs
Seventh Grave and No Body – Darynda Jones
A Mountain Walked – S.T. Joshi, Ed.
New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft – Leslie Klinger & Alan Moore, Ed.
Closer to Home – Mercedes Lackey
The Collected Short Stories of R.A Lafferty v2 – R.A. Lafferty
Lady Paranorma – Vincent Marcone
The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin, Elio Garcia & Linda Antonsson
Poison – Sarah Pinborough
The Drawing of the Dark – Tim Powers
The Tales of Victor Coachman – Bimey Reed
Prince Lestat – Anne Rice
Doctor Who: The Secret Lives of Monsters – Justin Richards
Bete – Adam Roberts
Death by Paradox – R.M. Robinson
Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss
Wizards: The Myths, Legends, and Lore – Aubrey Sherman
Daydreams for Night – John Southworth & David Ouimet
Fish Tails – Sheri Tepper
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil – J.R.R. Tolkien
The Steampunk User’s Manual – Jeff Vandermeer & Desirina Boskovich
Star Wars: Imperial Handbook Deluxe Edition – Daniel Wallace
A Call to Duty – David Weber & Timothy Zahn
The Fire Artist – Daisy Whitney

Trade Paperback:

The Secrets of Life and Death – Rebecca Alexander
The Devil Lancer – Astrid Amara
TimeBomb – Scott Andrews
Five Portraits – Piers Anthony
Line War – Neal Asher
Burn – Julianna Baggott
The Time Roads – Beth Bernobich
Red Rising – Pierce Brown
Touch of Evil – Cathy Clamp & C.T. Adams
A Floating Life – Tad Crawford
Hello Devilfish! – Ron Dakron
Blood of Gods – David Dalglish & Robert Duperre
The Cutting Room: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen – Ellen Datlow, Ed.
The Baen Big Book of Monsters – Hank Davis, Ed.
A Fish Dinner in Memison – E. R. Eddison (reprint)
The Mezentian Gate – E. R. Eddison (reprint)
Mistress of Mistresses – E. R. Eddison (reprint)
The Worm Ouroboros – E. R. Eddison (reprint)
Quarantine – Greg Egan (reprint)
Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug – Raymond E. Feist & Stephen Abrams
The Shattered Crown – Richard Ford
Paraside – Mira Grant
Time Travel: Recent Trips – Paula Guran, Ed.
Facial Justice – L.P. Hartley (reprint)
Beyond This Horizon – Robert Heinlein (reprint)
The Madness of Cthulhu – S.T. Joshi, Ed.
Dead Set – Richard Kadrey
Devil Said Bang – Richard Kadrey
The Grand Hotel – Scott Kenemore
The Last Rite – Jasper Kent
Falling Sky – Rajan Khanna
Black Dog – Caitlin Kittredge
The Last Book Ever Written: by Victor Vale – Jonah Kruvant
Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie
Haunting of Heck House – Lesley Livingston
The Last Man Standing – Davide Longo
Cyberstorm – Matthew Mather
An Exchange of Gifts – Anne McCaffrey (reprint)
Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets – David Thomas Moore, Ed.
The Wolves of London – Mark Morris
Apex – Ramez Naam
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - Claire North
Tales from High Hallack v3 – Andre Norton
Living Language: Dothraki – David Peterson
A Brief History of the Hobbit – John Rateliff
The Tone Poet – Mark Rickert
The Path of Anger – Antoine Rouaud
The Free – Brian Ruckley
Lost Cantos of the Ouroboros Caves – Maggie Schein
The Blood of Angels – Johanna Sinisalo
The Age of Scorpio – Gavin Smith
We Are Not Good People – Jeff Somers
Shovel Ready – Adam Sternbergh
Fearsome Magics – Jonathan Strahan, Ed.
Darker Edge of Desire: Gothic Tales of Romance – Mitzi Szereto, Ed.
Warhammer: The Doom of Dragonback – Gav Thorpe
The Chaplain’s War – Brad Torgersen
A Taste for Poison – Aleksandr Voinov
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk Adventures – Sean Wallace, Ed.
The Dark Blood of Poppies – Freda Warrington
The Wayward Eight: A Contract to Die For – Robert Waters
The Ninth Talisman – Lawrence Watt-Evans
The Martian – Andy Weir
Warhammer 40K: Angels of Death – C.L. Werner & Christian Dunn
Prophecies, Libels & Dreams – Ysabeau Wilce
Knife Sworn – Mazarkis Williams
Consider her Ways – John Wyndham (reprint)
The Seeds of Time – John Wyndham (reprint)
A Night in the Lonesome October – Roger Zelazny

Mass Market Paperback:

Esrever Doom – Piers Anthony
Otherworld Nights – Kelley Armstrong
Penumbra – Keri Arthur
Autumn Bones – Jacqueline Carey
Forgotten Realms: The Sentinel – Troy Denning
The Tess Noncoire Chronicles – P.R. Frost
Reckoning – S.J. Harper
Black Spring – Christina Henry
Blood of Dragons – Robin Hobb
Broken Soul – Faith Hunter
Riding the Unicorn – Paul Kearney
Bastion – Mercedes Lackey
Revolution – Mercades Lackey, Cody Martin, Dennis Lee & Veronica Giguere
Star Trek: Section 31: Disavowed – David Mack
Dangerous Women 2 – George Martin & Gardner Dozois, Ed.
Drawn Blades – Kelly McCullough
Starhawk – Jack McDevitt
The Undead Hordes of Kan-Gul – Jon Merz
Nevermore – James Patterson
Rising Steam – Terry Pratchett
Kris Longknife: Tenacious – Mike Shepherd
Dream Stalkers – Tim Waggoner
Star Wars: Razor’s Edge – Martha Wells
Unbinding – Eileen Wilks
Binding – Carol Wolf
Scars – Chris Wraight


Seasons’ Beginnings – Sandra Lubrich Almazan
Archivist – Corryn Anderson
Earth Angel – Alex Apostol
Liberation – Andrew Beery
Surrogate – David Bernstein
Tears of a Heart – Chase Blackwood
A Forest of Dreams – Roy Booth, Ed.
The Curioius Case of Miss Amelia Vernet – Dana Cameron
A Legend of the Future – Augustin de Rojas
Doorways Home – Jacqueline Dooley & Judith Krongard
The Protectors – Trey Dowell
The Splicing Project – Heather Dowell & A.S. Oren
Demon’s Vow – Jocelynn Drake
Cipher – Aileen Erin
Herakles and Geryon – Eric Feka
The Ambition of a Man – Francisco Figueira
The Judgment – Francisco Figueira
Cloudstalker – J.J. Gadd
Knight of the Sword – A.J. Gallant
New Vegas – Michael Beardsley, Renee George & Emma Ray Garrett
The Faerie Queen – Kiki Hamilton
City of Endless Night – Milo Hastings (reprint)
Into the Shadows – Amber Haupt
The Crossover Gene – Brian Jarrett
Flower’s Fang – Madison Keller
Cybersaurus: The Awakening – Nicholas Kory
Return to Emerald City – Allyson Lindt & Sofia Grey
Dante’s Heart – Stant Litore
Unlucky Number Four – T.J. Loveless
Beyond the Gloaming – Brendan Murphy
Ennara and the Book of Shadows – Angela Myron
In the Void – Sheryl Nantus
Spirit Blade – M.A. Niles
The Twin Prophecies: Origins – Nina Perez
The Body Electric – Beth Revis
Frontier Resistance – Leonie Rogers
The Elementalists – C. Sharp
The Turquoise Tower – Travis Simmons
Stranded – Nicholas Sansbury Smith
The Changing of the Sun – Lesley Smith
Wishes and Sorrows – Cindy Lynn Speer
Silence is Golden – Robert Stanek
Eden, Noon – Archer Swift
Taste of Treason – April Taylor
Joe Devlin: In the Moon’s Shadow – James Thomas
The Younger Gods – Michael Underwood
Crown of Flames – Mara Valderran
The Death: A Post-Apocalyptic Novel – John Vance
Storm Chaser – Angela Wallace
The Minus Faction: Crossfire – Rick Wayne

Warden of Time – Sarah Woodbury

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Books Received in August, 2014

My sincerest thanks to the people at TOR for the following books. You'll be seeing several TOR reviews coming up as I try to work my way down the pile.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone - This book has jumped the queue as my next read.  I loved the previous 2 books (Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise) and can't wait to see where Gladstone takes the series of roughly interconnected stand-alone novels with this one.

On the island of Kavekana, Kai builds gods to order, then hands them to others to maintain. Her creations aren't conscious and lack their own wills and voices, but they accept sacrifices, and protect their worshippers from other gods-perfect vehicles for Craftsmen and Craftswomen operating in the divinely controlled Old World. When Kai sees one of her creations dying and tries to save her, she's grievously injured-then sidelined from the business entirely, her near-suicidal rescue attempt offered up as proof of her instability. But when Kai gets tired of hearing her boss, her coworkers, and her ex-boyfriend call her crazy, and starts digging into the reasons her creations die, she uncovers a conspiracy of silence and fear-which will crush her, if Kai can't stop it first.

The Ultra Thin Man by Patrick Swenson - A new SF noir novel!  Sounds pretty cool.

In the twenty-second century, a future in which mortaline wire controls the weather on the settled planets and entire refugee camps drowse in drug-induced slumber, no one-alive or dead, human or alien-is quite what they seem. When terrorists manage to crash Coral, the moon, into its home planet of Ribon, forcing evacuation, it's up to Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos, contract detectives for the Network Intelligence Organization, to solve a case of interplanetary consequences. Crowell' and Brindos's investigation plunges them neck-deep into a conspiracy much more dangerous than anything they could have imagined.
The two detectives soon find themselves separated, chasing opposite leads: Brindos has to hunt down the massive Helkunn alien Terl Plenko, shadow leader of the terrorist Movement of Worlds. Crowell, meanwhile, runs into something far more sinister-an elaborate frame job that puts our heroes on the hook for treason.
In this novel from Patrick Swenson, Crowell and Brindos are forced to fight through the intrigue to discover the depths of an interstellar conspiracy. And to answer the all-important question: Who, and what, is the Ultra Thin Man?
Wolfsbane by Gillian Philip - This is the third book in the Rebel Angels series.  I really enjoyed the first one, Firebrand, but haven't had time to pick up the second, Bloodstone.  Ever wish you could read 5 books at once?

It's tough being the foretold savior of your race. Rory MacGregor, kept a virtual prisoner in his own father's dun and hunted by the Sithe queen, needs a break now and then-and what better fun than tearing the Veil no one else can tear and escaping to the Otherworld?
In that dangerous Otherworld, Hannah Falconer is as trapped by circumstance as the strange wild Sithe boy whose horse nearly kills her. When Rory tricks her into crossing the Veil and entering his world, she's sure it can't be any worse than her usual home life.
Meanwhile, Seth MacGregor is fighting to keep his clan safe from the malevolent queen Kate. When an attack comes after years of stalemate, he is shocked to discover who is leading it...and who else is conspiring against him.
Black Ice by Susan Krinard - This is the second book in an urban fantasy series that started with Mist.

Centuries ago, all was lost in the Last Battle when the Norse gods and goddesses went to war. The elves, the giants, and the gods and goddesses themselves were all destroyed, leaving the Valkyrie known as Mist one of the only survivors.
Or so she thought.
The trickster god Loki has reappeared in San Francisco, and he has big plans for modern-day Earth. With few allies and fewer resources-but the eyes of the gods and goddesses of an old world upon her-it's up to Mist to stop him before history repeats itself.

Echopraxia by Peter Watts - I'm honestly not sure I'm intelligent enough to understand this book, but it sure sounds... different.

Prepare for a different kind of singularity in Peter Watts' Echopraxia, the follow-up to the Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight.

It's the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it's all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself. Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat's-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he's turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out. Now he's trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn't yet found the man she's sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call "The Angels of the Asteroids." Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Shout-Out: Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

Xhea has no magic. Born without the power that everyone else takes for granted, Xhea is an outcast—no way to earn a living, buy food, or change the life that fate has dealt her. Yet she has a unique talent: the ability to see ghosts and the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins beneath the City's floating Towers.
When a rich City man comes to her with a young woman's ghost tethered to his chest, Xhea has no idea that this ghost will change everything. The ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a rare person who generates so much power that the Towers use it to fuel their magic, heedless of the pain such use causes. Shai's home Tower is desperate to get the ghost back and force her into a body—any body—so that it can regain its position, while the Tower's rivals seek the ghost to use her magic for their own ends. Caught between a multitude of enemies and desperate to save Shai, Xhea thinks herself powerless— until a strange magic wakes within her. Magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.
With two extremely strong female protagonists, Radiant is a story of fighting for what you believe in and finding strength that you never thought you had.

Out September 2.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Shout-Out: The Devil’s Intern by Donna Hosie

Seventeen-year-old Mitchell discovers a time-travel device that will allow him to escape his internship in Hell's accounting office and return to Earth, but his plans to alter the circumstances of his own death take an unexpected turn when his three closest friends in Hell insist on accompanying him back to the land of the living...

Out August 31st.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Video: The Anti-List - 15 Must Read Books for Summer

Summer's almost over, so it's time to knuckle down and read Barely Political's 15 book picks for the summer.  Caution, adult and book humour ahead.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Book Review: After Party by Daryl Gregory

Pros: complicated & diverse characters, interesting plot

Cons: some far fetched action

Several years ago Lyda was part of a scientific company looking for a drug to cure schizophrenia.  But on the night of their success, the team was drugged, and the resultant overdose left one of them dead and the others seeing god.  Now in a mental hospital for delusions, Lyda encounters a young woman who’s symptoms resemble those of the drug her team created, NME 110, numenous.  In order to stop the drug from spreading in this new world where designer drugs can be printed onto paper and drug parties are de rigueur, Lyda gets herself released to hunt down the remaining members of the team and find out who’s behind it.

Be prepared to reread sections of this book in order to figure out what’s going on.  The author cleverly leaves out information that forces you - when you finally realize what’s missing - to reevaluate what’s happening.  The first one of these comes at the end of chapter one.

One aspect of the plot was easy to figure out, but other aspects kept me guessing until the very end.

I loved the diversity of the characters and how they each deal with their own… issues.  Most of the main characters have a mental problem of some sort, and these get exacerbated by the use - and abuse - of drugs.  Lyda, a middle aged black lesbian, is the point of view character for the majority of the book, and has a guardian angel thanks to NME 110.  As an atheist and scientist she knows the angel is part of her own psyche, but has to constantly remind herself that it’s not real.  Ollie is an ex-intelligence officer, whose abuse of drugs made her paranoid.  To counter those effects she must stay on different drugs, ones that dull her senses making it difficult for her to see as well as think analytically.  I loved Sasha as a character who overcomes the challenges she faces - both physical and mental - using technology.

With the exception of Sasha, who only comes in towards the end, and perhaps Dr. Gloria, the characters weren’t particularly likeable.  They were people dealing with difficult circumstances in realistic ways.  Lyda is often angry and demanding, not willing to listen to her conscience if it gets in the way of what she feels she needs to do.  At the same time, I didn’t dislike anyone, though Rovil is a bit irritating in how much of a pushover he is when faced with Lyda’s demands.

While I enjoyed watching Lyda get around her medical implant and deal with the Millies, I didn’t believe how things worked out with her getting into the US.  It seemed far fetched and over the top.  Though, I’m left wondering if Lyda was meant to be an unreliable narrator, and if so, whether her version of events is wilder than what actually happened.  I’ve got an example of why I think this might be the case in the spoiler section below.

This is an interesting book that looks into drug use, mental disorders, extreme belief systems and more.

*** Spoilers ***

The reason I suspect Lyda is an unreliable narrator is because there are major discrepancies between her description of what happened the night of the overdose and Rovil’s.  Rovil states that they all drank directly from the bottle and worried about how much of the drug would be lost due to the bubbling over of the champagne.  Lyda meanwhile pointed states that the bottle was open when Mikala arrived and that she poured it into glasses.  Psychology is a huge aspect of this book with regards to memory, hallucinations and free will.