The water knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The water knife Book Cover The water knife
Paolo Bacigalupi
Science fiction, dystopia
Knopf Doubleday
May 26 2015
e-book
386

The water knife will sort of inevitably suffer from comparison to Bacigalupi's previous non-YA novel, the award-sweeping Wind up girl.  I loved that one, and so did everyone else, apparently.  It was thematically related, too - Bacigalupi's futures are environmental dystopias,  which is relevant and, of course, more than a little depressing.

Being a Scandinavian whose newsreading is scattered at best, I wouldn't necessarily have been very aware of the California drought if not for SFF writers like Seanan McGuire, who has talked about it in various social media, and wrote a short story about the topic for Lightspeed recently.  (And the two Elizabeth Kolbert books I read recently, but my wish to do that was also quite directly inspired by fiction, so...)

But, oh, here we are.  The water knife takes us to an American southwest where water is worth more than blood, and borders between us and everyone who isn't us are more rigid than ever. The states aren't all that united, anymore. Texans have become homeless, desperate refugees. A couple of them, along with the rest of the cast, find themselves in Phoenix, Arizona,  which is about to go the same way as Texas did.

As always, Bacigalupi builds a world that is real to all my senses; Reading this, I feel like rubbing my eyes as if they're dry from the sandy air,  coughing,  grimacing at the likely odors of a city without flushing toilets.  I'm grateful my imagination doesn't stretch into sharing the resignment of people accustomed to urinating into clearsacs so the fluid can be drunk again.

If I had been able to start connecting with, or caring about, the characters before I'd already worked through half the book,  it would be near perfect.  That first half felt like a long, long wait for a hook to latch onto, though.  With a book like that,  it almost makes me feel guilty, like it was a failure on my part to be sufficiently excited by environmental disaster alone.

When I did start to care what was going on with Lucy the reporter and Angel the waterknife,  things almost immediately turned very grim for everyone.  Very.

As I came to the last page, I certainly didn't regret having spent the time it took to read it -  but if I had been the kind of person with the ability to just not finish a book, I can imagine I might have put it away about a hundred pages in.   That experience does, obviously,  detract from the overall rating of a book, even if it's excellent by the time you get to the end.

So my recommendation goes to readers into environmental SF, obviously, but perhaps only the most patient of them. Who are okay with waiting a certain amount of time and pages for a work of fiction to really get rolling.  I imagine you know yourself well enough to judge whether or not you can cope with a few hours of not-immediate-gratification, for now.  (Where I am, it's the thundery, moist, hot part of the year, which probably has my own patience at a minimum!)

Cringe-reading

Ugh.  I’m currently reading a book – a sequel to one I loved – in which a main character is, to be blunt, a bit of a naive bumpkin who is arriving in a larger, much more populated and sophisticated place, and, of course, everyone can spot her lack of streetsmarts from a mile off.

It’s awful. Not just for her – she doesn’t understand yet what’s going on or what’s being done to her –  but for me, too.  This is probably my biggest non-genre-specific reading turn-off;  I hate having to follow a character through lengthy, painful descriptions of events in which I know exactly what’s going to happen, even if the character doesn’t.  I know, it doesn’t mean the writing is bad, but I just can’t tolerate it.   My cringe-reflexes are too strong!

Sooo that’s problematic.   I have to suffer through this, which already feels like it’s been going on for hours (I’m doing the audio copy of this book),  before the plot can move on, and presumably grow into the greatness of the previous book in the series.

But, oh my gosh.  This is just 100% unpleasant.

(I’m like this with all kinds of storytelling, though, TV/film included. I cannot watch those “comedies” where the comedy is based on just… prolonged, painful awkwardness or stupidity. Shudder…!)

Slow bullets, by Alastair Reynolds

Slow bullets Book Cover Slow bullets
Alastair Reynolds
Science fiction, space opera
Tachyon
June 9 2015
e-book
192

Slow bullets is a novella I would have liked to be longer so that I could spend more time with it.  It is also a great reminder of the fact that I really, really like Alastair Reynolds.   It's been a long time since I read any of his books, but I have unusually strong memories of some of his characters and places in the Revelation space universe.  (Perhaps especially of Volyova!)

I think we should mention his name a lot more often when discussing female characters in hard SF, because he provides them.  He brings about these women so matter-of-factly that you barely even take notice, which is of course exactly the way to do it (according to me).  When I think about it, I get the distinct idea that here's an author who goes "Well, does this character arc specifically involve testicles? No? Then it can belong to a woman."  And this is done without automatically bringing ovaries into focus.

It's so great.

(And at the same time, I believe this is exactly why a great many readers often complain about 'cardboard' characters. I dunno. I'm just ecstatic when I get a female character who gets to have not a single thought about anything pertaining to her reproductive system.)

Scur,  the protagonist of Slow Bullets, is no exception.  She's a soldier, unfortunately derailed on her way home. There's been a ceasefire.   She never does get home, though.  In fact, she ends up farther away from everything she knows, everything she had intended to return to,  than she could have imagined up until the moment she finds herself in a cryo chamber, just waking up... where?

The opening scenes of this story did not allow me to guess what was ahead.  It's difficult for a story to achieve this without doing some absurd tricks, or, well, failing at natural plot progression.  Slow bullets does everything exactly right, and I love it.   True to his established space noir style, Reynolds paints memorable images, vast and dark and quiet.  Humans remain human.  Aliens are utterly alien.

Read it if you want to scratch that space opera itch! Or, perhaps, if your interest is piqued by what I've said about the treatment of female characters.   If you like this novella, and haven't already read at least the first Revelation space novel and Chasm city,  you'll easily add those to your to-read list.   (I haven't read the more recent trilogy, but I probably will, sooner or later...!)

The singular and extraordinary tale of Mirror and Goliath, by Ishbelle Bee

The singular and extraordinary tale of Mirror and Goliath Book Cover The singular and extraordinary tale of Mirror and Goliath
The Peculiar adventures of John Loveheart, esq #1
Ishbelle Bee
Fantasy, Horror, YA
Angry Robot
June 2 2015
e-book
336

Look at the title. That collection of words and names has already set the stage and mood of the story it headlines.  It's effective - it caught my interest immediately, and, paired with the fact of it being an Angry Robot title,  I threw myself at it.  (Not to forget the beautiful cover design. Being a digital reader, I often ignore and/or forget about the cover, but this is definitely spot on for what I consider beautiful and interest-stirring.)

The singular and extraordinary tale of Mirror and Goliath is a fast read, despite all of its quirks: We have a story told in multiple first-person viewpoints, scattered all over the timeline, disorganized and not always purposeful.  Every chapter is absolutely thick with magic and otherness, delicious and rich; there's old London, Jack the Ripper, clockmaking, demons, angels, immortality, self-professed insane villains, shape-shifting and police-uniformed heroes, mediums, tarot readers,  exorcists.  It's such a good list of ingredients.

Unfortunately, it just doesn't come together all that well.  Keep in mind, of course, that I am very much a structure/plot-oriented reader - I'm unhappy when I don't get enough of a plot/drive/resolution-skeleton on which to hang all the moods and poetic phrases and all those frills.  Some readers are content as long as they get to immerse, and those readers might fall in love with this thing.  I certainly didn't hate it - it was a nice read, it just made me sort of sad towards the end as I realised I wasn't going to get any satisfactory revelation or closure.

Then again, I now know this was a series starter. The sequel is titled The contrary tale of the Butterfly girl: From the peculiar adventures of John Loveheart, esq. It will be published in a few months, and I'm already sort of curious about how the series takes its name from a character that isn't the first book's Mirror or Goliath Honey-Flower.   Huh.

Given how quick this was to read,  I'll likely give the sequel a chance - which is (really!) a positive rating from me, given what I've said about the weak plot issue.

I think I'm being lenient because the atmosphere of this novel reminded me a bit of Cat Valente's Palimpsest.   So if you liked the textured dreaminess of that one - maybe have a look at Mirror and Goliath, too!

(Do we have a specific name for Londoncentric SFF yet? I mean, Londoniana? Londonpunk?  Not that this novel is all London, of course, it reaches out to Egypt and the Underworld, too - but the London factor is strong, even so...)

 

Yay the Nebulas! And things

The Nebula awards 2014 have been announced, I’m happy to see Annihilation getting the limelight (and remind myself to read the other two Area X novels). The rest of the novels/novellas list is mostly familiar to me, but I hadn’t come across the Andre Norton award winner before – Love is the drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson – and I think I have to add it to my to-reads, because it looks like a combination of two of my favourite things in the world, which are terrible epidemics and the horror film The Faculty.  (Not because I’m convinced this book has bodysnatching going on in it, but, well, your friendly drug dealing genius? I think I just identified a favourite trope. I’ll call it the Zeke.)    This is the amazon blurb:

From the author of THE SUMMER PRINCE, a novel that’s John Grisham’s THE PELICAN BRIEF meets Michael Crichton’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN set at an elite Washington D.C. prep school.

Emily Bird was raised not to ask questions. She has perfect hair, the perfect boyfriend, and a perfect Ivy-League future. But a chance meeting with Roosevelt David, a homeland security agent, at a party for Washington DC’s elite leads to Bird waking up in a hospital, days later, with no memory of the end of the night.

Meanwhile, the world has fallen apart: A deadly flu virus is sweeping the nation, forcing quarantines, curfews, even martial law. And Roosevelt is certain that Bird knows something. Something about the virus–something about her parents’ top secret scientific work–something she shouldn’t know.

The only one Bird can trust is Coffee, a quiet, outsider genius who deals drugs to their classmates and is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. And he believes in Bird. But as Bird and Coffee dig deeper into what really happened that night, Bird finds that she might know more than she remembers. And what she knows could unleash the biggest government scandal in US history.

Unfortunately, it isn’t available to me as a kindle book, but I found it on audible, so I’ll throw a credit at it this month.

In other news?

I read, finally, The goblin emperor by Katherine Addison, and I loved it. It was pretty much one continuous sitting of a read, only reluctantly interrupted by undergoing minor surgery. (It was just a diagnostic peek inside, and I now have it on paper that most of my insides are, quote, unremarkable.  Isn’t that something!)   Having said that, I also read and loved the bazooey out of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted,  and both of these novels come together in my mind as representatives of, well,  pleasant fantasy. Uprooted is forest-dark, and The goblin emperor is steeped in thorny politics, but both of them left me feeling, well,  good.  This has caused me to move Novik’s Temeraire series way up in the TBR-pile,  and I’ve added a bunch of Sarah Monette titles to my radar, aswell. (Sarah Monette is, of course, Katherine Addison.)

And now, in my post-op happy drug&bandage-rashes party, I’m finally well immersed in long awaited Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.  I love this too. Awesome things are awesome.

Rat Queens vol.2: The far-reaching tentacles of N’Rygoth, by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Rob Upchurch

Rat Queens vol.2: The far-reaching tentacles of N'Rygoth Book Cover Rat Queens vol.2: The far-reaching tentacles of N'Rygoth
Rat Queens
Kurtis J. Wiebe (author), Rob Upchurch (illustrator), Stjepan Sejic (illustrator)
Graphic novel, Fantasy
Image comics
May 19 2015
e-book
136

A band of adventurers, going on quests, enthusiastically shedding blood and wreaking havoc, and then double the havoc when spending the earnings in the tavern later on.  Warrior, mage, priest, thief.  It's your basic RPG setup, so... how is still still bringing anything new to the table?

I assure you, the Rat Queens are different, and it's not just because they're women. Kickass women.   In this volume, The far-reaching tentacles of N'Rygoth, the story continues without pause from Vol.1: Sass and sorcery, so, of course, go and read that first.  I've re-read that volume half a dozen times because everything is awesome, especially the art.

It's hard to pick a favourite character - all the rat queens have so much attitude.  In this volume, we get extensive back stories for two of them - Violet the dwarf, who left home and the weight of tradition in favor of close shaves and basically any alcoholic drink other than ale.  Hannah,  the wielder of magic and multitudes of middle fingers, and some of the background for her allegedly stone-cold heart.    An unexpected piece of Dee's past in that weird blood cult  shows up.

Oh, and Betty the smidgen goes on an adventure inside someone's backpack.  Her past is still a complete unknown, which gives me a lot of hope for a Betty-centric third volume.  Betty rocks.  Betty could be my favourite character, except maybe it's Dee, or maybe it's Violet, or maybe it's Hannah, or...  maybe it's Orc Dave.

We get a tiny little orc Dave flashback, too.  It prompted a lot of happy giggles.

Also: Tentacles!  The tentacles of N'Rygoth,  the entity only previously mentioned as central to the... the religious community in which Dee was raised.  She totally did not call it a cult.  That would have been disrespectful. Okay, maybe she did say cult.  But what are the tentacles doing here in the town of Palisade?

The Rat Queens fit right in as a funny and terribly relevant part of things inbetween all the current discourse on topics such as the Hugo award puppy debacle,  the Mad Max movie, and Sansa Stark on Game of thrones.  If you don't know the gist of it, you don't live on the internet.   You don't have to agree on every single little statement in order to recognise deep-seated issues, and sometimes it makes reading even a booze-soaked adventure in which a naked man is heroically rescued by a team of angry avengers into an experience that is... pleasing in more ways than just pure entertainment.  Though it is, absolutely, wildly successful as pure entertainment!

Someone in my twitter feed a while back lamented a lack of "Women who look like me" in graphic novels, which is still a big challenge,  and Rat Queens was the closest thing I could think of to recommend.  Body type representation isn't what it focuses on, but there are a whole lot of females in there who are less diminished by typical fantasy art gender dimorphism than what we tend to expect.  The orc women are, in fact, big orcs.  It seems like such a small detail, and yet. So many cookie points.