Reviews, November 2014

Of historical interest only

Ralestone Luck — Andre Norton

1938’s Ralestone Luck was the first novel Andre Norton wrote (although it was the second she had published) and it is one that is completely new to me. It’s actually a good thing I only just discovered this because, if this had been the first Norton novel I read, there probably would not have been a second.

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A change of pace

Girl Friends — Milk Morinaga

On November 22, I vowed that “I swear, the next new book I get sent that’s about the doleful world after EVERYTHING FELL DOWN AND EVERY ONE WAS SAD AND ALSO THE SUN CRIES BITTER TEARS, the review after that is going to be a manga by Morinaga Miruku.” Hoping for recent F&SF that isn’t a variation on EVERYTHING FELL DOWN AND EVERY ONE WAS SAD AND ALSO THE SUN CRIES BITTER TEARS was stupid of me1 but at least having to live up to the vow gave me a pleasant change of pace.

Doing the requisite background research also drew my attention to an aspect of this work that made me sit back and go “huh”. More on that after we visit the land of schoolgirl romances

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The Editor Strikes Back

Five-Twelfths of Heaven — Melissa Scott
The Roads of Heaven, book 1

1985’s Five-Twelfths of Heaven was Scott’s second published novel after 1984’s The Game Beyond. It is the first volume of the Silence Leigh trilogy. The other volumes are 1986’s Silence in Solitude and 1987’s The Empress of Earth. I enjoyed this back in the 1980s (which is why I picked this particular Scott to review) and I enjoyed rereading it.

(Note: 1985 is almost thirty years ago. Baen Books was a very different brand then, so people who stumble over an old copy of this will not find the book they may expect given Baen Books’ current output.)

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In this case my tears are for all of you who will never read these stories

Heaven Chronicles — Joan D. Vinge
Heaven Chronicles

Whereas Vinge’s Psion was written in Andre Norton mode, and her Snow Queen was a Space Opera retelling of a fairy tale, Heaven Chronicles contains three works — a novel and two novellas that have been merged into one longer novella — that are all pure, hard SF. However, this volume contains features such as plot and characters not normally (well, not necessarily) found within slide-rule SF. The result is a solid collection of stories I would strongly recommend you purchase if only any of them were actually in print.

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And now for something so new it is not even out yet

The Buried Life — Carrie Patel

I have a habit of focusing on older works because there are so very many of them. Here’s a more recent — forthcoming, in fact — work from a new author that I think is worth your time: Carrie Patel’s March 2015 novel, The Buried Life.

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The 50 Nortons in 50 Weeks Begins

Huon of the Horn — Andre Norton

When I picked up Andre Norton’s 1951 novel, Huon of the Horn, I was expecting a standard fantasy. What I got has a lot more in common with Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s Saga,which is also a modern presentation of a centuries-old work. This discovery casts a lot of light on some of the peculiarities of the Witch World series now that I know one of the sources that inspired that series.

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The one with a thinly disguised Walter Cronkite as villain

The Venus Belt — L. Neil Smith
North American Confederacy, book 2

1981’s The Venus Belt came out the year after The Probability Broach. The astute reader can tell that Smith is now more comfortable thinking of himself as an author of overtly ideological fiction1. The lectures on libertarian right-thinkery are more frequent and more heavy-handed2, and the plot more perfunctory. The villains, on the other hand, are very villainous. Plausibility was never a goal but the result in this case is not all that interesting. 

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More Intrigue, sorcery, intrigue, swashbuckling adventure and intrigue

Five Hundred Years After — Steven Brust
Khaavren Romances , book 2

As one might guess from the title, 1994’s Five Hundred Years After picks up with Khaavren and friends half a millennium after the events of The Phoenix Guard. Dragaerans are very long lived and so rather than having been dust for four centuries, Khaavren has merely matured into a comfortable middle-age as the respected commander of the Phoenix Guard. All of his old companions, Tazendra, Pel, and Aerich, have also found lives suitable to their characters.

spoilers

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New Society, Familiar Crimes

The Dark Colony — Richard Penn
Asteroid Police, book 1

The Dark Colony is Richard F. Penn’s debut novel, published in 2014. It turns out if you want a positive review from me, it really helps to write a hard SF novel that addresses my frequent lamentation: too few authors have seen the plot possibilities in Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 essay “Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships.” Penn appears to have written out of a parallel interest in the same subjects rather than because he was specifically trying to please me. Well done, at any rate.

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The Disco-Era Libertarian Utopian Novel

The Probability Broach — L. Neil Smith
North American Confederacy, book 1

1980’s The Probability Broach launched Smith into what turned into a twenty-one-year-long career with such major publishers as Del Rey, Baen, and Tor1. It was the second novel to win the Prometheus Award, which Smith himself founded. He was a frequent nominee for that award and pretty much only that award. Smith would go on to win the Prometheus three more times2. The Probability Broach is the book that began it all. Follow me into a land of commodity-based currency, talking gorillas, and grade-schoolers with guns as big as they are!

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Special Double Review! Part Two!

Black God’s Kiss — C.L. Moore


I would like to say that Jirel would never wear a battle-bikini. She wears a full set of armour, enough that it’s not clear if she is a man or a woman.

Two thousand years before Northwest Smith wandered between the planets, Jirel used her impressive capacity for violence to rule and protect the fiefdom of Joiry, somewhere in France. Proud, easy to offend, and very, very stabby, Jirel is not stupid but she never over-thinks situations, preferring direct solutions.

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Special Double Review! Part One!

Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith — C.L. Moore

And now, a very special double review!

C.L. Moore was one of the comparatively few1 women active in pulp-era fantasy and science fiction. Whether on her own or with husband Henry Kuttner (whom she met when he sent her fan mail), she was one of the big names of the period. Moore won both the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the Gandalf Grand Master Award; she would have been the first woman Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America had her second husband not intervened to prevent this2 on the grounds it would confuse Moore, now suffering from Alzheimers .

Among her many works were two series linked by a common setting. Her two protagonists, Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry, were born two thousand years apart in a solar system that was old before humans ever conquered it:

Man has conquered space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names — Atlantis, Mu — somewhere back of history’s first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues — heard Venus’ people call their wet world “Sha-ardol” in that soft, sweet slurring speech and mimicked Mars’ guttural “Lakkdiz” from the harsh tongues of Mars’ dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own.

Humans are not the only ones who have left relics across the many habitable worlds of the Solar System. Visitors from other stars and other universes have also laid claim the worlds orbiting the sun. Some of those visitors are long since gone. Others….

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James and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Heinlein Juvenile

Podkayne of Mars — Robert A. Heinlein

1963’s Podkayne of Mars was, if Heinlein’s comments in Grumbles from the Grave can be believed, not intended as a juvenile:

March 10, 1962: Robert A. Heinlein to Lurton Blassingame

Is Poddy a juvenile? I didn’t think of it as such and I suggest that it violates numerous taboos for the juvenile market. It seems to me that it is what the Swedes call a “cadet” book — upper teenage, plus such adults and juveniles as may enjoy it — and the American trade book market does not recognize such a category.

Despite that, some people, including me, lump it in with his juveniles because the lead is a fifteen-year-old girl, with her eleven-year-old brother in an important supporting role.

Remember how in my review for Have Space Suit — Will Travel, I said:

As I closed the cover of the last true Heinlein juvenile, I really wonder what this book would have looked like if in 1958 Heinlein had been able to envision and publish a juvenile with a female lead.

?

We will never know the answer to that. We do have the answer to the question what would such a novel look like if Heinlein wrote it five years later and the answer is “horrible”.

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Claustrophobic and austere but still intriguing

Dreaming in Smoke — Tricia Sullivan

1998’s Dreaming in Smoke won the Clarke in 1999, beating out John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass, Peter Delacorte’s Time on My Hands, Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division, Christopher Priest’s The Extremes, and Alison Sinclair’s Cavalcade. That seemed like a good enough reason to select Dreaming in Smoke for review.

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An Emo Police Procedural

Faceless Killers — Henning Mankell
Kurt Wallander, book 1

First published in 1991 under the title Mördare utan ansikte, and translated in 1997 by Stephen T. Murray, Faceless Killers introduces Kurt Wallander, a morose Swedish policeman. Wallander is painfully aware that middle age is transforming him into a doughy old man; he is worried about his hostile and increasing senile father; he is alienated from his daughter; and his wife of many years just left him because living with Wallander was killing her soul. Wallander’s disposition is in no way aided by the human depravity his job forces him to confront every day, depravity like the brutal attack on Johannes and Maria Lövgren that left the old farmer noseless and beaten to death. Maria is barely clinging to life after the attack.

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Dream of a Better Life

Becoming Alien — Rebecca Ore
Becoming Alien, book 1

Tell me if you’ve heard this one:

A teenager in a rustic, backward community happens to be in the right place at the right time to encounter a distressed space craft. His attempt to help entangles him with a vast interstellar government, one that sits in judgment of humans. His actions could affect the course of human history.

Except this isn’t squeaky-clean Kip Russell, but Tom Gentry — who, when we first meet him, is the unwilling witness to his brother Warren’s ambitious drug dealings. Warren is trapped by mental illness and a criminal record; manufacturing drugs is the only way he can imagine to pay the mortgage on the family farm and keep the family fed. Tom doesn’t have Warren’s mental issues but he might as well have the criminal record, because the local authorities, all too familiar with the Gentrys, have marked him as a future criminal. Tom might dream of a better life but his odds of escaping to one are slim.

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“Intrigue, sorcery, intrigue, swashbuckling adventure and intrigue”

The Phoenix Guards — Stephen Brust
The Khaavren Romances, book 1

1991’s The Phoenix Guards seems to have intended as a one-off, as far as I can tell from the two “about the author” pieces. Nostalgic for works in the style of Sabatini and Dumas, Brust set out to create a new work reminiscent of the French Romantics, one set in the distant past of his on-going Vlad Taltos series.

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One of the gentler voices of the Golden Age

The Best of Eric Frank Russell — Eric Frank Russell

This is intended, not just as a tribute to an author whose work I remember fondly, but also as a tribute to a line of single author collections that had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager. Under various series names, Ballantine’s Classic Library of Science Fiction collected the short works of various pulp-age notables, authors of whom I might otherwise have remained ignorant. I very quickly learned to snap up anything from Ballantine (and later, Del Rey) whose title was of the form “The Best of [Unfamiliar Author Name Here]”. This Eric Frank Russell collection was one of those books, and one of the better purchases I made in 1978.

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A fantasy of political agency

The Goblin Emperor — Katherine Addison

Addison’s 2014 novel The Goblin Emperor was a pleasant change of pace from so much of my current reading at the time (grimdark fantasies and War-On-the-Enlightenment SF). The world of her novel is deeply flawed; her protagonist, the goblin emperor of the title, is an abused, despised half-breed, hemmed in on all sides by the customs and laws of his land. It would have been comprehensible if he had spent his reign sticking the heads of those who had abused him on spikes. That is not the choice Maia makes. A protagonist who does his best to leave the world a better place than he found it really shouldn’t be something so rare that it catches my attention … but, alas, it is.

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Into the Abyss

Starship Troopers — Robert A. Heinlein

In the spirit of Social Credit leader Camil Samson’s wonderful phrase, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Union Nationale has brought you to the edge of the abyss. With Social Credit, you will take one step forward,” follow me over the edge and into the abyss that is Heinlein’s post-Scribners work.

Scribners rejected 1959’s Starship Troopers, marking the end of what had been a fruitful relationship between the touchy Heinlein and that particular publisher. It also foreshadowed the end of his career as an author of books deliberately aimed at young adults. Rereading it, I was reminded of something I was told in Economics 101 way back in 1980: “don’t try to apply any of this to real life.”

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The Whole World is Watching

Ancillary Sword — Ann Leckie
Imperial Radch, book 2

2014’s Ancillary Sword is a sequel to 2013’s Ancillary Justice. Ancillary Justice won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the BSFA Award, the Locus Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Justice also made the Tiptree Honor List, was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick award, and was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for best first science fiction/fantasy/horror novel. When a debut novel sweeps awards like this, the author’s second novel will be ruthlessly examined by legions of reviewers and critics who want to see if the author can catch lightning in bottle a second time. Justice won so many awards that Sword will be subjected to particularly close attention. But no pressure!

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“Such misfortune!”

A Certain Magical Index 1 — Kazuma Kamachi
A Certain Magical Index, book 1

Academy City! Home to the reality-redefining espers, able to alter natural law at will and filled with scientific marvels! For student Touma Kamijou, it is merely the setting of the endless series of humiliations, failures, and mishaps that is his life. His school marks are dismal and accidents dog his heels. His esper power, Imagine Breaker, the ability to negate all unnatural powers, is1 dismissed as Level Zero, the very lowest of rating in Academy City.

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Someone whose books I need to obsessively collect.

Fire Logic — Laurie J. Marks
Elemental Logic, book 1

I think Fire Logic  is my first Marks novel. It is certainly not my last. Normally my Rediscoveries are books familiar to me but not to others. In this case, I am the beneficiary of someone else’s experience. 

Fire Logic begins rather like Harris’ Seven Citadels quartet (or The Lantern Bearers, or indeed a lot of secondary world series). For the last generation, Shaftal has suffered a continuing invasion from the Sainnites, an aggressive warrior people of unclear origins. Despite the wise guidance of Harald G’Deon, Shaftal has done nothing effective to drive the invaders back into the sea. Two grim bits of news mark the end of Harald’s era: Harald has died without naming an heir and the Sainnites have taken the holy city of Lilterwess, leaving none alive.

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In the tradition of Dune and Norstrilia, Tiamat: grumpy natives, secret of immortality

The Snow Queen — Joan D. Vinge
Snow Queen Cycle, book 1

Due to injuries and poor health, Joan D. Vinge has not been prolific as of late; her most recent non-tie-in novel was 2000’s Tangled Up in Blue. In the 1970s her body of work was not so large as some but that series of novellas was enough to establish Vinge as an author of note. 1980’s The Snow Queen was only her second novel, after 1978’s Outcasts of Heaven’s Belt and it earned Vinge the 1981 Hugo for Best Novel. For good reason.

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A Boy and His Space Suit

Have Space Suit — Will Travel — Robert A. Heinlein

1958’s Have Space Suit — Will Travel brings us to the end of the Scribner Heinlein juveniles — universally recognized [0] as the only true Heinlein juveniles — and leaves us perched on the abyss that contains the Heinlein juveniles written without the firm hand of editor Alice Dalgliesh to moderate Heinlein’s various quirks (or alternatively, to insist he play to hers). While it isn’t quite up to Citizen of the Galaxy, it’s an interesting example of how much Heinlein could milk out of a very straightforward plot.

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