Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cool Book Giveaway Contests

I just saw on Ann Aguirre's blog that Renegade, the short story about March from the Jax Universe is up on the "Free Reads" section on her site now. If you read the story and leave a comment on that post about what you liked best or liked the least about the story, you will have a chance to win a galley of the next novel in the Jax series, Wanderlust. The contest runs until June 2.

Also, I saw news on another interesting contest over at The Book Swede today. Chris reviewed and enjoyed Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan, and announced that there will be a contest on the author's new website for not only a signed copy of the book but also a 250 pound book voucher to spend at the book retailer of your choice. That sounds like a contest to look out for.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fun ways to waste time

I recently became addicted to the never-ending book quiz on Goodreads. Unfortunately, it lies and it just ended for me, but since members of the site are adding new questions every day, I'm sure there will be more before too long. Not all the questions are science fiction and fantasy related (in fact, very few are) but it was kind of fun to see what I remembered from high school literature and books I read a long time ago. I was amazed at how much useless trivia I remember from reading "The Baby-sitters Club" books as a kid.

If you haven't checked out Goodreads, it's a great place to read book reviews, meet other book-a-holics, keep track of your books, and simply check out what your friends are reading. I also use it to view what books I have available to choose from that I have not yet read when trying to decide what to read next. It's a lot of fun, as is LibraryThing.

LibraryThing is also a great place for keeping track of your books, and it tends to have more active forums than Goodreads for discussing various book-related topics, such as fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, and so on. You can also get recommendations based on books you own or even anti-recommendations (which are semi-accurate, kind of like Amazon recommendations). It's also a good place for reading book reviews. LibraryThing is less social than Goodreads, although I don't actually have friends on LibraryThing so I'm not sure how that part of it compares.

One of my favorite recent LibraryThing discoveries is the Early Reviewer books. Every month the option is available to request books to review, and if you are lucky, you may get one of these books. Early Reviewer books are either relatively new releases or books that have not yet been released. My copy of Last Dragon was from this program, which was quite a surprise since there were only 15 copies and 800 people requesting it. Unfortunately, I didn't get a copy of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which was one of the books they were giving away this month.

Of course, Amazon is also a fantastic way to waste time with all the books to drool over and add to the wish list, reviews to peruse, and author blogs to read. Neil Gaiman, Robin McKinley, Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Brandon Sanderson, Carol Berg, and Daniel Abraham all have blogs on Amazon Daily.

Does anybody know any other fun book sites?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Around the Blogosphere

It's kind of strange not to have a review that needs to be written since last weekend is the first time I've been caught up with reviews since March. I'm hoping to finish Dune in the next couple of days since it's a long weekend and then it's on to Brandon Sanderson's Elantris, the winner of the what to read next poll.

In the meantime, here are some interesting reviews or other speculative fiction related posts I've seen lately.

On his blog, Neil Gaiman recently wrote that ARCs for The Graveyard Book are going out and the first review of the book is up. I want this one. A lot.

SQT over at Fantasy & Sci-fi Lovin' Book Reviews recently read and enjoyed the second First Law book, Before They Are Hanged. It made me want to pick up the copy I still have on my bookshelf, but it will have to wait a bit like most of the other unread books.

It's a little over a week old but I have to include this review of Ian Cameron Esslemont's Malazan novel Night of Knives from Speculative Horizons because I really enjoyed reading it.

OF Blog has a review of Paper Cities: An Anthology of Urban Fantasy edited by Ekaterina Sedia. Also of interest is the recent abundance of favorite author polls.

Fantasy Book Critic has a fantastic interview with Greg Keyes, author of the recently completed "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" series. There is also a review of the new story collection by Keyes, The Hounds of Ash and Other Tales of Fool Wolf. I'm not normally a big short story fan, but this one did sound good to me.

Graeme's Fantasy Book Review has a review of the forthcoming Tobias Buckell novel Sly Mongoose. This one sounds very good, too - the to-read list just gets longer and longer.

Sarah of Jumpdrives and Cantrips reviewed a science fiction classic - Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

Fantasy Debut has a review of Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Robert Asprin has died

Robert Asprin, author of the Myth and Phule series and one of the original editors of Thieves' World, died yesterday. As I mentioned in my review of Dragons Wild earlier this week, he was one of my favorite authors when I was growing up, and I've read and reread his early books probably dozens of times. Though Asprin had a very difficult personal life for many years that was reflected in his professional struggles, he at least was able to climb back in the last few years of his life and was reportedly living happily in his adopted home of New Orleans when he died.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Upcoming Releases

I've seen a couple of release dates lately that caught my interest.

Nation, the upcoming young adult book by Terry Pratchett, is scheduled for release on September 30 of this year. This is not a book in the Discworld universe but is a book he has had in mind for a few years and finally decided to write. It is available for preorder on Amazon.

There is an announcement on George R. R. Martin's news page that the next "Wild Cards" book, Busted Flush, will be available in this December. It can also be preordered from Amazon.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ann Aguirre Answers Reader Questions

This post on Ann Aguirre's blog answering reader's questions about her novel Grimspace is absolutely hilarious. Apparently the ladies go wild for Vel. Who would have guessed a bug-alien would be so hot?

Edit: Oops, had the wrong link to the post. I guess I didn't actually copy the link and the last one I had was for a work-related site I was debugging in Internet Explorer earlier. It actually goes to the right post now, though!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Guest Review of Dragons Wild

Dragons Wild is Robert Asprin's return to solo writing after a long run of co-authored books and marks the beginning of a new humorous fantasy series from the author of the Myth and Phule's Company books. Though his best work is now nearly twenty years old and many of his recent efforts have been uneven (and that's being generous), Dragons Wild shows glimmers of Asprin's previous talent. Whether the rest of the series can build on that remains to be seen, but Dragons Wild functions as an acceptable book on its own and sets up a world that has a great deal of potential.

Griffen McCandles has what you might call a genetic disorder: he's a dragon. After living the first twenty years of his life in blissful ignorance of this fact he is let in on the secret during a job interview with his uncle Mal. It seems that his entire family is of dragon blood, and they are far from alone; dragon society functions as an Illuminati of sorts, living secretly among humans but exercising their supernatural powers to gain power and wealth. Needless to say, the job interview is not exactly for the position Griffen thought it was for. Mal really does want to recruit him though, since not only is Griffen a dragon but, as the son of two (murdered) purebloods, he is likely to be among the most powerful dragons alive once his abilities fully develop.

Mal is not the only dragon who wants to gain the support of Griffen and his younger sister Valerie. The various draconic power blocs all show their interest in different ways; some are content to observe from afar, while others take a role in their lives. The latter group quickly drives Griffen and Valerie out of their current lives and into hiding with a group of lesser dragons in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where the pair quickly rise to leadership in the dragons' underground gambling operation. Given their powers though, this relatively low-profile life cannot last for long, and the local police are the least of their problems.

I should probably start out by saying that I am a die-hard Robert Asprin fan. This isn't necessarily a sign of intelligence on my part, to be honest; I said that his best work was written twenty years ago, and with the exception of the first two Phule books, nearly everything he's published since then have been somewhere between mediocre and horrible. But I've bought and read them nonetheless based on the quality of the early Myth books, which I read and reread until the covers literally fell off...and then bought new copies, which I read until they also fell apart. Luckily, I had pretty much memorized them by that point, so missing pages were no big deal.

Yeah, I lived what you might call a solitary childhood.

But the point is that I've suffered through a lot of books where it seemed like Asprin had completely lost not only his wit and talent but, in some cases, his most basic writing skills. Dragons Wild is certainly not back to the level of the pre-M.Y.T.H. Inc Link books, but it is a step up from anything else he's written in fifteen years. There are still some fairly large flaws--the first few chapters are as ham-fisted an attempt at introducing characters and setting as you'll ever read--but Asprin's wit starts to come through despite those problems.

Griffen and Valerie are both interesting characters, and the supporting cast certainly adds a lot of flavor. Cajun, to be specific...Asprin fell in love with New Orleans many years ago, and that props up large sections of the book. In fact, anybody with an exacto knife and a photocopier could make a pretty good tour guide of the French Quarter out of Dragons Wild. This is not always a good thing as the descriptions often don't add anything to the book, but they do occasionally provide a space for Asprin to riff, which he does well.

Dragons Wild is not a return to glory for Asprin, but it at least is an indication that he is not as far gone as he has often seemed lately. Whether it is worth reading will probably depend on how future books in the series pan out; the potential is there, but whether Asprin can continue to regain his ability to execute that potential is yet to be determined.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Review of Last Dragon

J.M. McDermott's debut Last Dragon is one of the books published under the new Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint. Discoveries includes novels by new authors in all types of speculative fiction instead of just epic fantasy with settings outside of the Forgotten Realms universe. The goal is to publish more mature fiction that appeals to adult readers instead of the simplistic but fun stories that often end up getting adolescents hooked on reading fantasy. Far more original and artistic than the typical Wizards of the Coast book, Last Dragon succeeds at meeting this standard, though it is not flawless.

Last Dragon is the fragmented memories of the dying empress Zhan. She reminisces about the creation of her empire via letters to her former lover Esumi, removed from her by the emperor after they had a child together. As a young woman, Zhan trained to be a warrior as all second children in a family did. On the night Zhan was to officially become a full-fledged member of the rider tribe, a messenger arrived with the news that Zhan's entire family except for an uncle had been murdered by her grandfather. The young woman's dreams of battle are shattered since duty means she must leave to avenge her family's death and become the apprentice of her remaining relative, who is a shaman.

Zhan and her uncle Seth journey south to find and kill their kinsman. Once there, Zhan meets the elderly paladin Adel, who served the last dragon before it died. Adel joins Zhan and Seth, along with a mercenary and Seth's new gypsy girlfriend, and is instrumental in forging the new empire. Zhan recalls that Adel was a hero who inspired many skald songs but she is not sure if Adel was actually their savior or not.

Plot is not the point of this novel - its highlight is lovely, descriptive prose that creates a strong sense of atmosphere and evokes emotion. Events do not occur in chronological order but are recounted in a free association style. Zhan will briefly refer to something that happened in one of her memories, then she will recount the details of that event. After this, she may go back to the previous remembrance or it may remind her of something else that she writes about next. At times, this can get confusing, and due to this, Last Dragon would probably make more sense on a reread. It's not very difficult to get the general idea but since some characters are introduced before the time and place they are in is revealed, a second reading would be helpful for tying all the pieces together.

The entire story is told in short chunks of text, some of which are just a couple of lines long or a single paragraph. The longest passages are about 3 pages long, making this book shorter than it looks. This method of storytelling adds to the sense of atmosphere and gives the feeling that you are actually reading a letter or journal.

The main flaws with this novel were that it dragged a little about 2/3 of the way in and at times it seemed a bit repetitive. The repetition seemed fitting since I got the impression Zhan was getting worse as time went on and perhaps a bit delirious, but it did not make the book more interesting to read.

The characters were interesting and being in Zhan's head gave a very clear sense of her harshest memories. Other characters were not as fleshed out since they were seen through the eyes of the empress who certainly was not an omniscient narrator. Yet at times Zhan summarized them simply and with great clarity, as in the following passage:
This woman was Adel. Esumi, You have heard of her, from all the skalds’ songs and the rumors that have spread in the decades. I place no stock in most of them, but I know two rumors to be true. She was one of the greatest paladins once, before the fall, and love ruined her, twice.
In this literary fantasy, J.M. McDermott superbly captures emotions and a wonderful sense of atmosphere with florid, descriptive writing. It does get a bit redundant after a while, and those looking for a book with a strong plot or lots of action will definitely want to look elsewhere, but Last Dragon is certainly more unique than the typical fantasy.


More information on Last Dragon (including a sample chapter)

Other opinions:

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review of Hood

Hood is the first book in the new "King Raven" trilogy by Stephen Lawhead. Scarlet, the second book in the series, is also available, but the concluding volume Tuck has not yet been released. Much like the tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood is a story that has evolved over the years and Lawhead wanted to tell the tale set during the time it seems to have first appeared. Thus Hood begins a version of the classic legend set in 1093 during the reign of William II.

Bran, the irresponsible Welsh prince of Elfael, is more interested in charming women than in duty and politics. Because of this, he is trying to steal a kiss from a young lady when he should have been riding to Lundein with his father's war party to swear fealty to William II. Bran heads out to catch up with the warriors and meets his friend Iwan, riding to Elfael as quickly as he can with terrible news. Bran's father and the rest of his men were killed by Normans, and King William II has given these invaders the land of Elfael.

Bran and Iwan warn the people who take refuge at a nearby monastery. The young prince believes he should flee to the north, but the monk Ffreol and Iwan convince Bran that they must go to King William II and attempt to get their land back. The three journey to the capital where they are told that Elfael is theirs again for the price of 600 marks, which is about 3 times as much money as the small Welsh kingdom has in its treasury. Regaining their homeland seems hopeless at first, but the prince and his friends devise a plan to purchase it using the conqueror's own funds.

Although part of the plot contains tales of a giant raven that haunts the forest and Celtic mythology, this novel falls more into the category of historical fiction than fantasy. Magic does not play a key role in this book. The setting is the real world and many of the events, such as the Norman invasion of Britain and the reign of King William II, actually happened.

Hood definitely feels like the first novel in a series since most of the novel feels like it is setting up the story and the pace does not seem to pick up until the end. The first part of the book describes the death of Bran's parents and the turmoil taking place in England and much of the middle is dedicated to detailing Bran's recovery from an injury and training for leadership. Bran's preparation for responsibility was drawn out and I did get bored reading about Bran wandering around the woods making long bows. Fortunately this part of the book was interspersed with the political rivalry of the count who invaded Elfael and the baron who would like the land for himself, which I found far more interesting.

The prose was neither elaborate nor florid but crisp and to the point. It was descriptive at times, but never so detailed that it was drawn out and dull.

The characters have potential to be interesting in later volumes, but Bran was the only one who really developed in this book as he went from a selfish young man to a leader. The Normans seemed like pure villains without any good qualities, but they were not the cackling, monologuing type of bad guy either - they appeared to be doing their job as citizens of a conquering country while doing their best to advance their own interests. Count de Braose was up front about not caring about the people, and to counteract this, his enemy Baron de Neufmarche put on a false front to get into the good graces of the Welsh people. Tyrannical rulers throughout history have failed to address the needs of the people unless it suits their own ends, particularly if the commoners are not from the same country. Because of this, even though they were not particularly gray characters with lots of depth, the "villains" did not seem like unrealistic characters either.

"King Raven" shares many similarities with Lawhead's "Pendragon Cycle", which told the story of King Arthur. It is a somewhat twisted version of a familiar legend with a Celtic backdrop, and Bran's teacher Angharad appears to have a similar role to Myrddin (Merlin). The older series is much more easily recognizable as the tale of King Arthur than at least the first book of "King Raven" is as Robin Hood, however.

Hood is an entertaining take on the tale of the rogue who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, although it does suffer from a slow middle and the feeling that it mainly exists to set up a larger story. The end was where it began to come together, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next installment of this series.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Free Reads by Ann Aguirre

Recently, I read and enjoyed Ann Aguirre's first novel in the Jax series, Grimspace (my review). There are several short stories available for free on Aguirre's website that may be worth checking out. I haven't actually read any of them so I'm not sure how they compare to Grimspace. Even though I'm not a big short story fan, I am looking forward to reading the forthcoming story Renegade, which takes place in the Jax universe and is told from the point of view of March. It is supposed to appear with the rest of the free reads sometime in June.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Polls Are Fun!

Doing polls for what to read next are fun every once in a while so I added a new one to the right. Since it's a little clunky to include more than just the title in it, I'll add the full list including author and series (if any) below:

Young Miles (omnibus - #3 and #4 Miles Vorkosigan) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Blood and Iron (#1 Promethean) by Elizabeth Bear
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin
Calenture by Storm Constantine
Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
Scarlet (#2 King Raven) by Stephen Lawhead
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Right now I'm reading Dune for the first time. I finished Stephen Lawhead's Hood and J.M. McDermott's debut Last Dragon over the weekend so those reviews will be coming soon.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Review of The Player of Games

I have wanted to read one of the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks for quite a while and one that sounded particularly interesting to me was The Player of Games. Unfortunately, that particular title was difficult to find in the U.S. -- until it was reprinted here a couple of months ago. I am very glad it was since this is definitely one of the better novels I have read this year, containing layers and depth without ever becoming too dry or a chore to read.

Gurgeh has a talent for mastering strategy, making him one of the best professional game players in the known universe. In fact, games no longer present a challenge to him, causing him to look for new thrills to ease his boredom. He does not find any until a machine from Contact visits him and briefly questions him about his willingness to go on a voyage. Since he hates traveling, Gurgeh states he would not be interested, but a psychotic robot blackmails him into developing an acquaintance with Contact. Once Gurgeh finds out the mysterious trip is to a secret empire whose entire culture is based on an intricate game, his curiosity is piqued.

The game and life are so intertwined that both the empire and the game have the same name - Azad. Ability to play the game during a large tournament determines people's placement in society - those who play well get better positions and the last man standing achieves the honor of becoming Emperor. Members of this society learn to play the complicated game from the time they are very young since becoming skillful at it requires years of practice. The Culture's premiere game player has found just the occupation he was looking for - learning to play this elaborate game during his two year journey to Azad.

This book was very easy for me to get into, particularly since the first half a page immediately drew me in. There was a slow part toward the end of Part One and the beginning of Part Two, but other than that, the story sucked me in more and more as I read. I was riveted and unable to put the book down for the last 100 pages or so.

At first, I found the prose very straightforward and to the point, but some of the descriptions toward the end of the novel made me change my mind. Banks has a gift for painting a visual picture without being verbose and getting his point across succinctly. He is very much a "show not tell" author and his characters were well done through their conversations and actions without pages of description about every thought and feeling.

The setting and atmosphere were the highlights of The Player of Games. The Culture is a lawless utopia in which humans and sentient machines live together in harmony. (Well, almost - the machines are allowed to develop random personalities which can result in conflicts with smartass robots.) In contrast, under its glamorous sheen, the Empire is an amalgam of all the worst aspects seen throughout our world - racism, sexism, violence, and general cruelty all run rampant in this society. Both of these cultures were fascinating, particularly the way in which Banks twisted them. The Empire may be horrible, but the Culture is hardly perfect in spite of its lofty ideals.

The author does not shy away from disturbing depictions but they are told with a sort of flippancy. It's just the way it is and that's how he tells it without spending time elaborating on how horrifying it is. Brutality is not all there is, though, as the conversations between characters are often sarcastic and humorous (although some of the humor can be a bit dark).

The Player of Games is intelligent science fiction with a wonderfully realized setting. It manages to be profound and entertaining simultaneously. I highly recommend this novel and will certainly be reading more books in this series.


Excerpt from The Player of Games

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Review of A Kind of Peace

A Kind of Peace
by Andy Boot
303pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 2/10
Amazon Rating: 4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 1/5
Good Reads Rating: 1/5

A Kind of Peace by Andy Boot is the first book in the "Dreams of Inan" series. "Dreams of Inan" is a shared world universe similar to Forgotten Realms in that more than one author writes stories that take place in Inan, a land in which technology and magic are intertwined. It is supposed to be an action-filled, fast-paced fantasy adventure, but unfortunately, it was not all that fast paced or exciting.

The nation states of Inan have formed a peace treaty after warring with each other for over five hundred years. Suddenly the people have to learn to get along with others they have been taught to hate since they were children. One powerful mage is brought in for each nation state so they hold approximately equal power. The warrior Simeon 7, released from a prison camp after the truce was called, is appointed as the new bodyguard of Ramus-Bey, the irritable but studious mage of Bethel. Simeon suspects that this new-found peace may be a cover for an underlying conspiracy against his nation-state and Ramus-Bey.

I did not read this book expecting anything mind-blowing or original since it was just supposed to be a fun adventure. However, it started out slowly, especially for a book that was not all that long to begin with - the book did not begin to pick up until about halfway through. There was a lot of exposition and a lot of this was repetitive to an extent where it felt like it was insulting the reader's intelligence. I do not need to be told twenty times that there is a conspiracy or that a character is smarter than everyone else believes him to be or how the power structure works.

The writing involves a lot of telling instead of showing. I do not normally have a problem with that, but this book did so much telling that it annoyed me (especially since we had gotten the idea already the first ten times we were told about it). For example, in the first few pages we meet Simeon and his love interest Jenna. Jenna is very snide toward Simeon but instead of showing the nature of their relationship through actions, the narrator keeps saying how Jenna sees anyone lower in rank to be inferior to her and compares Simeon to her pet a couple of times.

The characters were very generic and flat, especially the female character Jenna, who rang hollow throughout the entire book. Her actions just did not make sense to me with the attitudes she was attributed with earlier in the book. It states she thinks everyone lower in rank is beneath her and her view toward Simeon is nothing personal but later she just decides he's ok after all. Her character seemed very forced and her presence felt like it served as nothing more than the token female character/love interest for the main character.

The rest of the characters are very, very good with one or two minor flaws or very, very evil. Simeon is loyal and smart, Ramus-Bey is intelligent but grumpy (although he becomes nicer later in the book). There is one character who starts on the side of evil but has a moment of redemption and turns to good. The bad guys go on and on about their ingenious plans and how intelligent they are but then prove to be very incompetent and not nearly as bright as they think they are.

There were also more typos in this book than in the average book. I found two errors within the first three pages, one of which was "the" missing an "e" in the very first paragraph. Omitted punctuation and more typos were prevalent throughout the rest of the book.

This book was mildly entertaining at times once it got to the point and Simeon and Ramus-Bey were somewhat likable since they had the cookie cutter qualities that have drawn people in for ages, although they were never interesting. There were also times where the book tried to be philosophical, but it just wasn't that deep. It was like the author couldn't decide if it should be a high-action adventure or a thoughtful story, tried to do both, and failed to make it work on both levels.

What little I know about the Inan universe from this book has promise - a society in which magic and technology are both present has potential to be interesting. The effects of the end of 500-year war could also be an interesting aspect of the world to explore. Most of the problems with this book were writing and the rest of the books in this series are written by different authors, so perhaps one of these later novels will be more to my liking.

A Kind of Peace just wasn't that entertaining, well-written, or unique. In fact, it was repetitive, dull, and generic.


Other opinions:

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Poll Winner - Coming Soon

I just finished The Player of Games today, so I'll be closing down the what to read next poll in a minute. The winner is Stephen Lawhead's Hood so that will be the next book I read.

This weekend I should have a review of the first Dreams of Inan book, A Kind of Peace, up. Sometime after that, I'll be reviewing The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, which I loved. It was the first book I've read by Banks and it exceeded my expectations. I'm very glad some of the Culture books are being reprinted in the U.S. since now I have to get the rest of them to read.