New additions to Bibliotropic

The name of this blog implies books. Lots of lots of books. Which, honestly, is pretty much fine by me, because books are what I love and I’m happy to talk about them.

But sometimes I think that this blog has grown a little, well, stale. That it wouldn’t hurt to add something new to the mix. And there are a few ideas I’ve been tossing back and forth for a little while now, things I’ve wanted to do for a while but haven’t implemented yet because doing so would either mean starting up a new blog or else making this blog not solely related to books, thus sullying the, er, good name? I dunno, chalk it up to mild OCD, maybe, me not wanting to advance due to the confines implied by a name…

Either way, I’m curious to see what other people think on the matter. Thus, this post, asking for opinions.

I have the following ideas in mind:

~ Reviews of SFF-related manga (Manga Mondays)
~ Reviews of SFF and horror movies (Videotropic)
~ Reviews of SFF-related video games (no fancy name ideas yet)

Or something else entirely! I dunno, is there anything you’ve ever wanted to see me or this blog tackle that’s related to SFF?

Either way, I’d love to know what you think. Leave a comment, and maybe the opinions of others will help me settle on what to do to breathe some new life into this blog.

Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Editor’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 2, 2014

Summary: In a world of chances, one decision can bring down the house, one roll of the dice could bring untold wealth, or the end of everything. In this anthology of all new short stories the players gather, their stories often dark, and always compelling.

The players and the played, this new anthology from Jonathan Oliver (Magic, End of The Road, House of Fear, The End of The Line, World War Cthulhu) brings together brand new stories from an international team of talented authors, each with their own deadly game. This collection is set to include a full house of top authors including Hugo award-winning American writer Pat Cadigan, Brit Gary McMahon, Mexican Silvia Moreno Garcia, plus Tade Thompson, Rebecca Levene and more!

Thoughts: Games are something that just about everyone can relate to in some form or another. Board games, card games, video games, live-action role-playing, the options range on and on. And that’s just a typical sampling of games! Add in things like Russian Roulette, which is technically a game of chance, and you start to see how a concept can go from seemingly harmless to outright deadly.

Which is how it all works in Dangerous Games. Some stories, such as Lavie Tidhar’s Die, make their point very quickly, so you know that the name of the game is really death. (Also, in the case of that particular story, possibly somebody’s own personal literal Hell experience.) Others, like Nik Vincent’s The Stranger Cards or Pat Cadigan’s Lefty Plays Bridge, seem innocent enough at first, though get far more sinister as the story progresses.

There were some true gems in this collection, seriously amazing stories that made me want to find more of what certain authors have written so I can appreciate their writing and storytelling more! Paul Kearney’s South Mountain was an interesting, though somewhat unoriginal take historical re-enactors finding themselves actually in the middle of one of the battles they’ve come to re-enact, but the way the story was told and the detail behind the characters was what made the story great for me. Yoon Ha Lee’s Distinguishing Characteristics is a story that hints at much but says little, presenting a complex world that readers get to see only glimpses of before the story is over, and this is the second time that I’ve marvelled at this author’s ability to world-build like no other! Hillary Monahan’s The Bone Man’s Bride was evocative and raw, creepy in a way that makes you shiver but still leaves you with a shred of hope right to the very end. Rebecca Levene’s Loser may not have had the most compelling writing style, but was told so ambiguously that you think you understand what’s going on until the story’s almost done and only then do you get the revelation that it’s about something else entirely.

Perhaps it was just my perception, but it seemed that the best stories in this collection were in the first two thirds of the book. While the last third wasn’t bad, I felt that there were more stories in that percentage that didn’t have the same level of oomph as earlier on, like the stories there were ones that were definitely good enough to make the cut but held for later on in the book because the earlier stories were ones that definitely would compel a reader to keep going, but later ones were more of a take-it-or-leave-it bunch. As I said, I’m not sure if this was solely my perception and tendency to launch myself into anthologies with glee but soon find myself craving something novel-length again before the collection’s finished, or whether this is something that was felt by other readers too.

But even so, there are no stories in Dangerous Games that I didn’t like, or that I felt were dull or that I’d rather have skipped over. Which is very rare for me when reading a multi-author anthology; more often than not I find at least one story that resonates with me considerably more poorly than all the others. And this wasn’t the case here, so I can definitely class Dangerous Games as being a cut above other collections of its kind, and one that contains some serious talent that deserves recognition. Most of the stories do have some degree of genre element to them, hauntings or secondary worlds or events in the future, but even so, I can see this book having a good appeal to those whose primary interest isn’t SFF but just involves some good stories with a creepy setup and a heavy dash of mystery. Definitely one of the better anthologies that I have read ever, let alone just this year!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 23, 2014

Summary: Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

Thoughts: Horrorstor is one of those rare books that actually manages to combine disturbing imagery and good tongue-in-cheek humour that pokes fun at not only foreign-sounding product names but also the unique experience that is Retail Hell. It’s hard not to grin when you get to read amusing descriptions of Tossur treadmill-desks and Rimmeyob shelving. The whole thing is an Ikea riff, which the book doesn’t pretend to hide; it cheerfully says that the whole Orsk store idea was a company deciding it wanted to do exactly what Ikea was doing, only cheaper!

The story of Horrorstor centres around Amy, a disgruntled Orsk employee who doesn’t get along with her manager and who finds her life at loose ends. Barely hanging onto her shared apartment, fearing having to move back in with her mother, a university drop-out who sees no real future except for mediocre employment at a store and company she doesn’t really feel any attachment to. So when she and model worker Ruth Anne get hand-picked to join the investigation team to find out who’s been vandalising the Orsk store at night, the only reason she agrees to do the extra work is the money and the fact that her supervisor will put in a transfer to get her to another store.

And that alone can provide some creepiness, as anyone who has ever been in a building after hours can attest to. Go into a store or school when the place is closed, dark, and devoid of the usual crowds of human life you’re used to seeing, and suddenly everything echoes, odd sounds are louder, the shadows deeper. So even when some of the mystery is explained by the unexpected presence of 2 other employees and a homeless man, this part of he novel is still creepy.

And then he real haunting begins.

I loved the book’s prodding of Retail Hell. I loved the characters, who were real and diverse and carried their own quirks admirably. I didn’t love the lack of originality that the story held, which was analogous to just about any one of a dozen or more horror movies that relied more on imagery than plot to keep you interested. The Orsk store was built upon the site of an old psychiatric treatment centre from the 1800s, run by a sadistic overseers, and right there I think you can see what I mean by the way it’s a little lacking in the originality department. The actual plot of the novels seems to largely just be a frame for the creepy images to hang upon, rather than a real driving force behind the novel’s progression.

Admittedly, the imagery was terrifying, and those with an active imagination are forewarned not to read Horrorstor at night. (And definitely don’t read it if you’re working after-hours security at a retail store!) If you don’t find the idea of a woman working her fingers literally to the bone in a madness-induced bid to claw an escape from the now-tangible monsters of her childhood to be disturbing, then you’re more jaded than I am. Oddly, the only part that I found decidedly undisturbing was the most action-packed scene in which the entire store is being flooded with dirty water and the remaining two employees are desperately trying to escape before drowning. At was at that point that I realised that I’d already hit my limit on being creeped out, that the balance had swung too far, and that what should have been a tense scene was just being read with detached curiosity.

However, this was, I think, an entirely person thing, as everyone’s limits for horror are different, and I suspect plenty of readers viewed this as being more intense than I did.

Horrorstor would make a fantastic movie. I can say that with utter certainty. Hendrix has a good flair for both approachable wry humour and characters that you want to know more about, and these aspects of the novel were brilliant, highly enjoyable! And the imagery was crystal clear throughout, so I was never in doubt as to what was happening even when things were chaotic. Seriously, I would love to see this transformed with visual media.

One minor downside I feel I should mention is that if you’re not reading this book on a tablet or as a dead-tree version, there are things you’re going to miss. The booked was packed with images that provided some more background detail, amusing little tidbits, and as I’ve seen mentioned in a couple of reviews, even the ads of Orsk products carry some small detail that really adds to the flavour of the story, and all of this was utterly missed by me because I read it on a basic e-reader that only displayed a small fraction of whatever image was actually there. Finding out there was more to it was disappointing, since it’s a drawback to anyone who doesn’t have the option of reading it in one of two specific formats. I can see why such formats would be needed to properly display the images, of course, but that doesn’t make the lack of them for everyone else any less disappointing.

Still, Horrorstor was a good horror novel, a quick read with a fast tight plot, excellent characters, and disturbing imagery that will stay with you long after the last page. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a good blend of horror and humour, or for those looking to hip their toes into the horror genre to see what it can provide.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Market Demand, Misogyny, and Mansplaining.

Unless you’ve been living under the Internet equivalent of a rock lately, you’ll know that the portrayal of women in media is a big bone of contention among many. Not just in video games, though that has been the big focus thanks to the minds behind GamerGate. In general. Portrayal of women in media is a minefield of stereotypes and people getting their backs up because more than ever they’re being told that they should stop being so narrow about their treatment of women.

This stuff blows up. It makes news. It’s starting to make news channels now, TV and newspapers and their Internet equivalents. The explosions are starting to get way more attention, and this is good because the more attention it gets, the less it can continue unchecked. People are watching. People know.

But if the explosions are what get attention, then it should be said that the grumbling in back alleys doesn’t. And while it’s not a new argument, it’s one I started to see crop up in smaller ways in a dozen or more low-key places these days, and it’s really getting on my nerves. And that is this: Those lousy feminists aren’t leaving us the ability to write ANY women!

By the supposed rules these grumblers claim feminism has lain down, you can’t write a woman who’s not in charge of her sexuality, because then you’re not being fair to women who really like sex. And you can’t write a woman who is strongly sexual because then you’re just making her a sex object. And you can’t not write any women at all, because then you’re just being unbalanced in your representations. You have to get it just right, not too little and not too much, or else you’re just being a horrible horrible man who should die in a fire.

Are you seeing the problems with this argument?

Well, first of all, nobody’s saying those things. Different people have said them, sure, looking at things from different angles, at different times, and different situations, and if you assume those are the laws of the land then sure, there’s a problem. But nobody’s actually saying you have to strike the absolute perfect balance or else you’re horrible, while at the same time pretty much saying that there is no perfect balance. To assume that’s what everyone wants is like saying that because a restaurant one day served me soup that was lukewarm, and on a different day a different restaurant served me ice cream that had melted, then thus I am a picky eater who will only eat things at exact temperatures.

Second of all, did you notice those ‘rules’ only have to do with sex, and subsequent nonexistence? Yeah, that’s just a touch problematic right there.

Here’s what it actually comes down to. Many women are fed up of having their only representation in popular media be either a sexual conquest for a hero, or a someone in trouble who needs to be rescued. Or both. And before somebody points out to be any number of characters who don’t fit that stereotype, I’m going to ask you to stop right there. Using that as a way of saying the problem doesn’t exist is like saying America doesn’t have a problem with racism because they currently have a black president. One exception does not disprove the rule.

Overwhelmingly, this is what women get relegated to in video games, in TV and movies, and yes, even in my beloved books. I’d love to say that the problem exists less in book form than other forms, but to be truthful, I think that’s more of a sign of the kind of books I read rather than some representation of a whole.

But despite the Internet’s current focus being on the issue of women in video games (where it is painfully prevalent, given that there’s a common but mistaken idea that the overwhelming majority of gamers are men, or that only men play ‘real’ games and women just play sims and puzzle games and maybe if you’re generous, RPGs so they can have a nice story to focus on instead of the ‘real’ fun of blowing up aliens all day long), it’s definitely evident elsewhere. I’m going to use one of my favourite TV shows as a good example: Supernatural.

This show’s issues with women are pretty well known. And when I first started watching, I thought it was going to buck the trend. In monster-of-the-week episodes you’d see men who had to be recused as often as women, women who knew how to use guns when their boyfriends didn’t, women who would rush into danger to save themselves and those around them. It looked promising. I was impressed.

Then the show wore on, and it became obvious where the problems were. If you were a recurring female character on that show, you had limited options. You were either evil, a romantic interest, or going to die without the show’s typical resurrection machine bringing you back. In one very memorable event with a mother-daughter competent knowledgeable demon-hunters, you were going to die in a sacrificial blaze of glory so that the main men could escape and continue to save the day.

…Yeah…

I still like the show. So much. But I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t have problems with the treatment of women. Hell, some of the actors have even publicly spoken out against it. It’s not an unknown problem. The point is that it is a problem. You can’t just hand a girl a gun and claim she’s a great example of a strong female character and claim you have no problems treating women fairly if what you’re going to do in the end is kill them off, make them evil, or make them a sexual or romantic conquest for the main man/men.

So to the people grumbling and grousing about how ‘the rules’ are so restrictive that you can’t write any women at all without being shat on, consider this: maybe the problem isn’t the evil women who want to take control of or shut down your creative process. Maybe the problem is that you can’t write for beans. Maybe the problem is that you have no clue how to write a women without her glorifying a man.

Consider this: Does your story involve a woman being rescued by the male lead? Yes? Then why? Can the story happen perfectly well without the rescue scene? Then why is it there to begin with?

If the story needs a rescue scene, then okay. You get a pass. But when I say needs, I don’t just mean something flimsy like, “If he doesn’t go to rescue her, he won’t be in a position to find out info from stupid guards who are talking about stuff they shouldn’t, so he won’t know to do something else later on.” That doesn’t get a pass. Aside from being really sloppy writing, what you basically did was turn a person into a plot device, something that exists only to get the man what he needs. Can he find out this info some other way? Yes? Then do that instead. If you really can’t think of another way to accomplish that info-getting, then I strongly recommend you take some creative writing classes.

Consider this: Does your story attempt to circumvent the whole “women are weaker than men” stereotype by giving her a weapon, psychic powers, etc, but she still needs the man to rescue her? See above for the problems with that, but add on a dose of, “Why did you give her strength only to take it away?” Because what you did there was even more painful. You gave her the ability to be awesome, but took it away at  convenient moment so that, once again, the hero could accomplish hero things. She became a thing, a means to an end, and ceased being a person.

Consider this: Is your main female super hot, legs from here to tomorrow, a great body, outstanding with martial arts or some weapon, all guys want to sleep with her but she won’t give them the time of day, but oh, when she gets to know the leading man, she gets all gooey for him and totally wants to sleep with him? Dude, what the hell? You basically just use the woman as a marker of standards to prove that your male lead is so awesome, even the pickiest of women want to get in bed with him. At that point, it doesn’t matter so much that you made her awesome. What matters more is that you dipped your toe into murky waters and threw her into the growing pile of stereotypes that so many people, women and men alike, are trying to stop!

“But,” I hear some of you say, “You don’t get it. I wrote a character like that, and my main male character is misogynistic, but see, she exists to show him that women can really be awesome and shows him the error of his ways.”

You wrote a women that exists for the sole purpose of improving and advancing a man’s development. Do you want applause for this? To be hailed as some great visionary writer who will bridge the gap between the sexes?

It’s actually not that hard to write good realistic women in any form of fiction. If you really want to simplify it to the most basic and easy way to tell if you’re writing a character in an unsexist way, do the following: Say, “[Character name]‘s purpose is: [fill in the blank]” For all your characters, male and female alike. And if you find yourself with a lot of lines like, “Joe’s purpose is to defeat evil because he’s the Chosen One,” and “Jane’s purpose is to marry Joe because their baby will be the host for all human evils,” then there’s a problem. You’ve made your female character’s purpose in the story entirely dependant on the male’s. If they have no other purpose in the story than to prop up or advance the male in some way, then you’re doing it wrong. And when you’re answering this question, don’t just stop with one event. It’s not enough to say, “Jane’s purpose is to unearth an ancient tomb and activate an artifact that starts the apocalypse,” and stop there when the rest of the story is “…so Joe can stop it.” Can she have a story independent of the males around her? Then great! You’ve got yourself a better beginning than so many other writers out there.

The problem isn’t that the damsel-in-distress and romantic conquest stereotypes exist at all. It’s that they’re used so often that it’s practically become the status quo. When it’s seen as normal to reduce half the population to a couple of tropes, there’s a problem with portrayal. And if you honestly can’t think of a way to not reduce your female characters to those tropes, then, as I said, the problem isn’t the narrow confines feminazis are supposedly giving you to work within. The problem is that you can’t write well.

And the blame for that doesn’t rest on the shoulders of the people who are sick and tired of seeing hundreds and hundreds of women written that way.

So instead of grumbling about the fact that you’re supposedly not allowed to write the way you like to write anymore, spare a moment to think about why you like to write that way. And spare another moment to consider that nobody’s actually telling you that you have to stop writing that way. What they’re telling you is that they don’t want to see it, they won’t keep buying it, and if you want to keep selling your books, your screenplays,your video game plots, you might just have to try something new. They’re not making you do anything. They’re telling you what a new market demand is. If you can’t supply, well, that’s not their fault either. When a product loses sales, it does no good to sit in a board room and gripe about how it’s all the fault of your customers, that if only they’d just buy more of your product, this wouldn’t be happening.

Well, yes, that’s true. If you only look at one very tiny perspective that doesn’t allow for a significant fraction of the whole picture. The reason they’re not buying is because you’re not selling anything they want to buy anymore.

People tell me all the time that if you want to make money from a creative endeavour, you must have some business sense too. And this is true. It’s not enough to make an awesome product. You have to market it. You have to advertise, you have to convince people that they want to give you money in exchange for your product. Otherwise, you’re not going to be making any money. Simple as that. Econ 101 (or so The Simspons have explained to me): money is exchanged for goods and/or services. If you’re selling stories, you have to make sure that somebody’s going to want to read them enough to hand over the cash.

So if you’re ignoring the market demand and continuing to churn out a product that sold well in the past but that more and more people are saying they don’t want anymore, what good does it do to complain that fewer people are buying? People are telling you they want less sexism. Selling more sexism isn’t the way to counter that.

Clearly, the product still sells. But less than it used to. Because society marched ever onward, people who were silenced are finding ways to find their voices, and those voices are getting heard more and more often. And judging by the reactions commonly seen online, daring to tell suppliers that they don’t want more of the same product is freaking dangerous. Imagine if Coke issued death threats every time you drank a Pepsi. Or vice versa. That shit doesn’t fly! That’s what’s being done, though, sad to say. The status quo is having a bright light shone upon it, and examiners are finding that what’s there needs some polish and repair and outright change, and all the little creepy-crawly bugs inside the machine are afraid of losing their homes. But when your home is rotting around you, clinging to the remains and biting the hand that wants to show you how to live in a better place isn’t the voice of reason. It’s the voice of rabies.

End rant.

 

Closer to Home, by Mercedes Lackey

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 24, 2014

Summary: Mags was once an enslaved orphan living a harsh life in the mines, until the King’s Own Herald discovered his talent and trained him as a spy. Now a Herald in his own right, at the newly established Heralds’ Collegium, Mags has found a supportive family, including his Companion Dallen.

Although normally a Herald in his first year of Whites would be sent off on circuit, Mags is needed close to home for his abilities as a spy and his powerful Mindspeech gift. There is a secret, treacherous plot within the royal court to destroy the Heralds. The situation becomes dire after the life of Mags’ mentor, King’s Own Nikolas, is imperiled. His daughter Amily is chosen as the new King’s Own, a complicated and dangerous job that is made more so by this perilous time. Can Mags and Amily save the court, the Heralds, and the Collegium itself?

Thoughts: Even though I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the last 5-book Valdemar set, figuring that it could have been cut down to 4 books if there weren’t as many long descriptions of sports games or copy-and-past flashbacks from previous books, I still knew that I was going to end up reading the latest book in the very large series, Closer to Home. It was still a Valdemar novel, and even if some of the stories haven’t impressed me, the world probably always will. As with the Collegium Chronicles books, Closer to Home still centres largely around Mags, with the addition of more chapters from Amily’s viewpoint, which was good to see as a bit of variation.

There’s a bit of a double meaning going on with the title. Closer to Home represents both how Mags and Amily are a step closer to settling into their lives and roles as adults and finding themselves at peace with the situation, and also incorporates the struggle of handling problems at your doorstep instead of the far-flung or nation-wide issues that were the focus of previous novels. ‘Potential’ is the name of the game, as this book deals very much with the role of women in Haven and through Valdemaran society in general, and whether or not their wants are determined by actual personal desire or by ignorance of anything else. It’s a complex issue, one that sometimes it seems Lackey is trying to present as complex while also trying to simplify it to an either-or debate. The argument came down to a lot of agreeing that much of it was determined by upbringing and awareness of potential, with also a lot of shrugging and saying, “You can’t win ‘em all,” when it came to actually doing anything about those views. Given that it took the intervention of the King to stop one man from marrying off a daughter who didn’t want to marry and to make sure she got additional education that might awaken interest in other avenues, it’s clear that the society has a long way to go.

It does, to its benefit, ask some of the hard questions. Aside from asking why women can’t do things that men do, or why they’re only treated as marriage prospects, it also addresses class difference, asking why common workers don’t get the same benefits afforded highborns when it comes to rights and privilege. It was a question that ultimately had no answer, except to say that it was simply a matter of time and resources; there weren’t enough people with enough eyes on the comings and goings of everyday folk whereas the rich and titled had eyes on them all the time, so what they did was more visible and easier to address. It’s an unsatisfactory answer, but to its credit, it was realistic for the setting, and at least the question was asked, openly and boldly, instead of being hinted at vaguely and hoping that someone, somewhere, would pay attention to it.

Looking at this book on its own, out of context from the series whole, it could easily be taken that the book is trying to just handwave a serious issue by declaring, “Eh, we can save a few but not all, and that’s good enough for now.” And I suspect that a lot of people probably got annoyed at that. In context with the rest of the series, however, and keeping in mind that this book takes place far in the past of the main Valdemar stories, I’m tempted to forgive it this sin. As the world’s timeline advances, great societal changes get made. It would be like getting angry at a historical fiction novel for portraying history accurately. There’s a certain amount of allowance that I think can be made, even if the attitude and behaviour of many characters is difficult to swallow.

And by difficult to swallow, I do mean difficult. There’s a scene that can essentially come across as rape apology. A 14 year old girl sends a besotted love letter to a handsome man she’s only ever seen the once, and when it gets found out, she’s dressed dow quite fiercely by someone who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that the guy could have raped her and the law could do nothing if that letter was brought into play because clearly she threw herself at him. Despite the fact that Heralds can literally tell when somebody is lying, and despite the fact that in a previous book that appears chronologically before this one it was said that Heralds accept mental and emotional evidence in crimes, no no, the law could do nothing because a girl sent a letter saying she loved a guy from the moment she saw him, so that apparently means all sex is okay.

Yes, this scene raised my blood pressure. I can’t give that one a pass, because while it may be how people think a lot of the time, it grated against what has been established time and again in the Valdemar novels, which are largely about hope and improvement and how anyone can be something great and so long as justice can be done it will be done.

When it comes to the story, though, I can’t say that much about it. Most of it was a Romeo and Juliet retelling with a sick twist, though that sick twist doesn’t really get revealed until after a few eye-rolls at the way the story was mirroring Romeo and Juliet so closely. It’s a story that requires patience, given that it seems at first to be rather unoriginal and trite. And very little really develops outside of one mystery being solved and a few characters adjusting to their new roles in life. The story seems to be mostly a backdrop against which questions of social justice can be asked, the solid story being an unimportant prop for nebulous “what if”s. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but if you’re like me, who spent years reading Valdemar novels for tales of epic adventure, it would be a bit disappointing.

Lackey’s smooth writing style does make up for a lot of that, though, since I’ve always found her storytelling to be as welcoming as a hot bath on a cold night. You sink into it and you get so lost in it all that you don’t notice the passage of time. Her novels are 99% of the time such fun that the writing itself covers up a multitude of minor sins, and since I started reading her in my teen years, it always brings with it a sense of comfortable nostalgia that draws me back every time, not just to read whatever new story she’s written but also to experience the storytelling.

In the end, I have to say that while Closer to Home had its problems and I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who hasn’t read previous Valdemar novels, I still enjoyed it and I’m curious to see how the rest of the books in this branch of the series will go. Some plot threads regarding Mags are still dangling (though I’m starting to suspect I may be the only one who’s noticed them…), and Amily’s new role as the King’s Own has the potential to give rise to some interesting stories. Hopefully they’ll just be a bit more exciting next time around.

White Space, by Ilsa J Bick

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date  – February 11, 2014

Summary: In the tradition of Memento and Inception comes a thrilling and scary young adult novel about blurred reality where characters in a story find that a deadly and horrifying world exists in the space between the written lines.

Seventeen-year-old Emma Lindsay has problems: a head full of metal, no parents, a crazy artist for a guardian whom a stroke has turned into a vegetable, and all those times when she blinks away, dropping into other lives so ghostly and surreal it’s as if the story of her life bleeds into theirs. But one thing Emma has never doubted is that she’s real.

Then she writes “White Space,” a story about these kids stranded in a spooky house during a blizzard.

Unfortunately, “White Space” turns out to be a dead ringer for part of an unfinished novel by a long-dead writer. The manuscript, which she’s never seen, is a loopy Matrix meets Inkheart story in which characters fall out of different books and jump off the page. Thing is, when Emma blinks, she might be doing the same and, before long, she’s dropped into the very story she thought she’d written. Trapped in a weird, snow-choked valley, Emma meets other kids with dark secrets and strange abilities: Eric, Casey, Bode, Rima, and a very special little girl, Lizzie. What they discover is that they–and Emma–may be nothing more than characters written into being from an alternative universe for a very specific purpose.

Now what they must uncover is why they’ve been brought to this place–a world between the lines where parallel realities are created and destroyed and nightmares are written–before someone pens their end.

Thoughts: Throughout reading this book, my brain went through three different stages. First it was lightly poached. Then it started to get a bit fried. Then at the end, it was thoroughly scrambled. White Space is one of those novels that I say without a doubt isn’t for everybody, because it’s confusing as anything and requires twisting your mind in about 5 different directions at once and spending the majority of the book not knowing half of what’s going on.

But because of this, it’s a book with amazing reread potential. Not just that, but I think it requires multiple reads to fully appreciate, because the story is beautifully complex, a multifaceted gem of storytelling. It’s told from multiple viewpoints, all of teens with abilities that they don’t quite understand and definitely don’t want to reveal, thrown together by painful circumstance and forced to solve the mystery of what brought them together and what keeps attacking and killing everyone around them, before they themselves are killed. Emma experiences strange blinks where she loses time and gets visions and memories of someone else’s very disturbing life, as well as getting glimpses of a famous author’s unfinished works. Rima can sense the whispers of the dead in things that were close to them. The gifts of the others, don’t become clear until much later on, so I won’t give any spoilers in that regard, but suffice to say that some of them aren’t quite what I expected. Everything is important, everything in its place, which is impressive for a novel that’s so steeped in utter chaos.

There’s some extremely disturbing imagery in White Space, more than I’ve come to expect in novels aimed at teens, and enough to make me feel pretty squeamish at times. From people being torn apart from the inside to just knowing that any character you may get attached to might not make it out of the story alive, it’s a book that evokes a lot of emotion in the reader, and it’s something that I think some may need a bit of a warning before they get fully into it. I may not have the weakest stomach, but there was some stuff in here to make me feel uncomfortable. The imagery was terrifyingly clear.

Which is one of those things that, as the book goes on and pieces of the overarching story get revealed, gives me pause in retrospect. Much of the story is about characters in books being real on another plane of existence, part of a separate multiverse that their creator/artist reaches into in order to bring out books, paintings, and so on. To tell stories. The best books get under your skin, are so real that the reader feels them deeply, sinks into them, and sees them as if they’re really there. So when a book that plays with that notion is just such a book, well, you may start to understand why my mind felt like a cooked egg by the end of it.

That notion also can appeal to just about any writer who’s had the experience of dealing with characters as though they’re real people. Characters don’t always want to do what they’re told. You want the plot to go one way, they want to do something else entirely. It’s practically a running gag amongst those who have fictional people inside their heads. Not only does White Space address the issue of popular works of fiction being part of a real multiverse, but it also looks at what might happen if a character was unfinished, without a set beginning, middle, and end to their story, and what happens then. What also happens when the author puts enough of themselves into a character; do they become part of the character, or does the character become a part of them? Honestly, at times I started to feel like Bick must have been present for one of might late-night conversations with friends in which we discussed these very issues, because so much of this book’s exploration of reality and multiverse theory matched closely with the general consensus we all reached at the time.

Which begs the question: is Ilsa J Bick writing my life and made me have those conversations and reach those conclusions?

This is what I mean when I say this book isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have the kind of mind that enjoys those sorts of hypotheticals, and throwing a bunch of “what if” questions together all at the same time, then much of what makes this book so brilliant for me will be lost on you. It is, however, a fantastic YA horror novel with powerful imagery that challenges the notions of what teenagers can and cannot handle in their fiction, and for that alone I think this book deserves a greater amount of attention. I can’t wait to read the second book of the duology, due out in 2015, and at least this time I’ll know what a head-trip I’m getting myself into when I sit down with it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 4, 2014

Summary: Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

Thoughts: Previously, I was enamoured with the first book in this series, A Natural History of Dragons, which caught my attention for taking place in a world like ours (albeit ours about 100 years back, and with dragons), and for being the fictional memoir of a woman who disliked the role that society had decided for her based on her gender and decided instead she’d be an adventurer-scientist and make a proper study of dragons instead of just sitting there and being a good pretty housewife. Isabella was a wonderful narrator, and I went into The Tropic of Serpents expecting more of the same. I clearly was not disappointed.

Readers of the previous novel will understand why her husband is no longer around, so I won’t go into details of how sad that sill makes me, because I really enjoyed seeing them as a wonderful pair of partners, not just in marriage but also in science. Here, Isabella has a young son whom she’s not quite sure what to do with, a friend and protegé who accompanies her on her journey to the strange new lands of Eriga, and, as before, still must deal with social gender norms, albeit slightly different ones than she’s used to as she encounters unfamiliar cultures and comes to a greater understanding of them.

You can’t read this book without a sense of wonder, the kind that accompanies great stories of adventure and exploration and discovery, and there’s enough of the familiar in this series to make readers feel as though they could be reading a memoir from our own history. Which is exactly its point; it’s written as though it’s a real memoir, complete with commentary on various issues, first-person viewpoint, and Isabella’s lack of immunity from her own criticism. Exactly as one tends to do when they’re writing about an event in hindsight. Brennan also pulls more inspiration from the primary world to build her secondary world, drawing up cultures and societies analogous to ones that exist here, adding another layer of realism to an already beautifully designed story.

Unlike A Natural History of Dragons, however, The Tropic of Serpents is less concerned with the dragons themselves and spends more time detailing the lives of the people Isabella encounters, especially the Moulish, whom she spends a great deal of time with as she hunts down the dragons that were her primary reason for going on the expedition in the first place. Most of the knowledge she gains about dragons happens in the final few chapters of the book, and the rest is entirely about the reasons for her hunt, and the people she meets. Which is no bad thing, and given that this book provides and expansion of the world and takes place mostly in locations she’s never been in before and is presented as mysterious and foreign, it’s understandable why so much time would be devoted to that. As an anthropology geek, I ate it up, and adored every bit of the cultural exploration. Those looking for more information on dragons, however, may have found themselves a bit disappointed.

I’m not sure I could love this series more. Taking a scientific approach to fantastical concepts is something that has appealed to me for a long time, and Brennan does this with the ultimate fantasy trope of dragons. How they’re built, how they live, what they do, it’s all in here. And despite this book having more of an emphasis on the people than the dragons themselves, there is an ultimate reason for that; the lives of the Moulish are inextricably intertwined with that of the swamp-wyrms. You can’t tell the story of one without telling the story of the other. Dragons in Brennan’s world may not be commonplace as such but they are everywhere, a presence in every corner of the world. Studying them is like studying, say, birds; it’s not enough for some people to know that they can fly, but they want to know how they fly, how their bodies allow it when our bodies don’t, whether flightless birds are still technically birds, all the questions that scientists and explorers in this world have asked about any number of things over the course of history. Applying real scientific laws to such things instead of just handwaving it all by saying, “It’s magic,” or, “It’s fantasy so it doesn’t have to follow rules” allows for the creation of not just a richly complex real world but also shows that there’s plenty of room for rational thought within fantasy, something which I’ve heard is the biggest perceived detriment to a highly creative genre.

Fans of A Natural History of Dragons will likely still love this book as much as they did the first one. And those who haven’t yet started reading Brennan’s fantastic novels really ought to do so. They’re intelligent, creative, and a powerful deconstruction of so many things we take for granted even here and now, making them well worth paying attention to in more ways than just the obvious good storytelling. I know there’s going to be at least one more book in the series, and I, for one, can’t wait to dive back into the world and see what Isabella discovers next!

On the Watchlist

It’s time again for another round-up of 5 books that I’ve got my eye on but do not yet have in my collection!

Closer to Home, by Mercedes Lackey

Mags was once an enslaved orphan living a harsh life in the mines, until the King’s Own Herald discovered his talent and trained him as a spy. Now a Herald in his own right, at the newly established Heralds’ Collegium, Mags has found a supportive family, including his Companion Dallen.

Although normally a Herald in his first year of Whites would be sent off on circuit, Mags is needed close to home for his abilities as a spy and his powerful Mindspeech gift. There is a secret, treacherous plot within the royal court to destroy the Heralds. The situation becomes dire after the life of Mags’ mentor, King’s Own Nikolas, is imperiled. His daughter Amily is chosen as the new King’s Own, a complicated and dangerous job that is made more so by this perilous time. Can Mags and Amily save the court, the Heralds, and the Collegium itself?

 

The Just City, by Jo Walton

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now. Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons.

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

Breq is a soldier who used to be a warship. Once a weapon of conquest controlling thousands of minds, now she has only a single body and serves the emperor.

With a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to go to the only place in the galaxy she would agree to go: to Athoek Station to protect the family of a lieutenant she once knew – a lieutenant she murdered in cold blood.

October in Retrospect

Happy Halloween, and Blessed Samhain to those who, like me, celebrate it as such. It’s the last day of October, and so time to take a look back at the past month and see what went on, blog-wise.

Reviews

The Doubt Factory, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Black Swan, White Raven, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Meritropolis, by Joel Ohman
The Younger Gods, by Michael R Underwood
The Red Magician, by Lisa Goldstein
Blindsight, by Peter Watts
The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin
The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu

And a guest review over at Bookworm Blues, where I reviewed The Free, by Brian Ruckley

10 books read and 9 reviewed! I’m not complaining at all! Most of the reading time was due to me smacking my head as I fell down a flight of stairs, leaving me with a concussion and no ability to work but still the ability to read so long as I was using actual books or my very basic-model Kindle. So I got a fair bit of reading done, and the reviews still got written, albeit little chunks at a time as I built up my technology stamina again.

Guest Posts

An excerpt from Michael R Underwood’s The Younger Gods.

Other Stuff

I did the first Release Day Regrets post, in which I highlight a few books that, for whatever reason, I wanted to read but didn’t get around to by release day. I expect I’ll end up doing more of these posts in the future, since they’re a good way to give some books a bit of a signal boost without me needing to rush and review them.

I also threw in my two cents on the Kathleen Hale issue, where an author wrote an article admitting to stalking one of her negative reviewers and sounding like she felt justified in doing so because she uncovered that the reviewer was using a pseudonym…

Upcoming

Business as usual, I suspect. I don’t go back to work until half way through November, so that’s another 2 weeks of resting my mind and catching up on reading. I’m aiming, as always, for 8 books read and reviewed.

As for what books they’ll be? All I know is that they probably won’t be many books I’ve gotten for review, since my Kindle broke the other day and I’m now e-readerless. That isn’t to say that I don’t have any hardcopies of books to review scattered, oh, all over my apartment, and I was lucky enough to find some books at the library that I had older e-ARCs of so I can check them off the backlog, but until I get a new e-reader (which is looking to be a Kobo at this point), my list of review copies via NetGalley isn’t looking to decrease any time soon.

But still, plenty of good books await, and now I have absolutely not excuses not to pick up some books that I’ve been ignoring in favour of books on my easy-to-carry-everywhere old Kindle.

So that’s been my month in a nutshell. Lots of reading, lots of lying around in bed cuddling cats and novels. How was your October? Got any big plans for November that I should know about?

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 1, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

Thoughts: A race of ethereal aliens has been guiding life on this planet for millions of years, and with humanity now a player in the game, these aliens are taking a more involved approach to things by inhabiting the bodies of people and manipulating them into prime positions to further their own goals. If that sounds sinister, well, it can be. Even the faction of aliens that wants the improvement of humanity alongside its own goals (as opposed to the Genjix, who want their own goals achieved even if it means sacrificing humanity to do so) still end up sitting inside somebody’s headspace and throwing their lives for a loop in order to turn them from nobodies into power-players.

Such is the case with Roen Tan. He didn’t ask to be partnered with Tao. Tao didn’t ask to be partnered with Roen. A lousy set of circumstances threw their lives together and now they have to deal with each other as best they can.

The relationship isn’t parasitic, though. Though Roen didn’t ask to be sucked into a world of espionage and real-life action movies, he does get some gain from Tao’s presence. He finds a reason to leave his much-disliked job. He goes from being overweight and generally unmotivated to someone more than capable of holding their own in a frantic fight. The circumstances may have been less than ideal for both of them, but by the end, Roen is a vastly different person than who he started out as. Though it could be said that Tao brought some very positive changes to Roen’s life, some I even wouldn’t mind in my own life (though not at the cost of joining up with an alien war, thank you very much), I still can’t get over the slight creepiness of the whole thing being largely nonconsensual. It was established pretty early on that once Tao took Roen as a host, the only way to cut that relationship would be for Roen to die. He didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

It does make for an interesting launch point for a story of extra-terrestrial conspiracy, however. And Chu writes this all with good sarcastic and observational humour, making a cast of very believable characters doing very believable things in a messed-up situation. Roen was an excellent character to follow, in no small part because I could relate very well to him. I think just about anyone who’s felt stuck in a rut and yet little motivation to find a way out will be able to do the same. Combined with intense action scenes and very real reactions to them (Roen panics when first put into combat situations because surprise, he’s never been in one before and suddenly people are shooting at him), you get a fantastic story that’s easy to fall into and one that hints at much more exciting adventure to come!

People tell me that the sequel, The Deaths of Tao, has a greater focus on the Prophus/Genjix war, and I’m very much interested in seeing further into that. Chu sets up just enough to get readers interested without giving too much away, providing good backstory in the way of Tao explaining some of the history to Roen, but there are a lot of questions that go unanswered and I’m curious to see how it all plays out. Action scenes are all well and good, and they’re part of what makes The Lives of Tao so much fun, but I like a fair bit of meat to my stories, and it’s good to hear that future books in the series provide just that.

If you’re looking for some sci-fi that’s got good action and fantastic dialogue but still comes off as a light fun read, then definitely check out The Lives of Tao.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)