Reviews, July 2015

The Warlock’s Tale

Warlock of the Witch World — Andre Norton
Estcarp, book 4

1967’s Warlock of the Witch World is the sequel to Norton’s 1965 Three Against the Witch World. Having journeyed east to Escore, a long forgotten part of their world, siblings Kyllan (the warrior), Kemoc (the scholar), and Kaththea (the witch) are now caught up in the war between light and darkness that divides that ancient land.

Rather inconveniently for the siblings, they will find themselves divided in their choice of allies: light or darkness? Are they sure which side is which?

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It’s Latin to Me

NVSQVAM (nowhere) — Ann Sterzinger

Ann Sterzinger’s 2011 novel NVSQVAM (nowhere) establishes its protagonist Lester Reichartsen as a rather unlikable fellow on its very first page. If asked, Lester would doubtless explain that he’s prickly because he is suffering. Cue litany of woe: a decade ago he was kicked out of his band; he had to marry his pregnant girlfriend Evelyn (so self-centered that she refused an abortion!); he can’t stand the resulting kid; he isn’t keen on his faculty colleagues; he hates his thesis topic, the students he has to teach, and the southern Illinois town where he and his family live; he hates his dad; and he’s not fond of the family cat.

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Someone to watch over us

The Red: First Light — Linda Nagata
Red Trilogy, book 1

Linda Nagata’s Nebula-nominated The Red: First Light is the first volume in Linda Nagata’s Red Trilogy.

At first glance, life in Nagata’s near-future seems pretty sweet. Many of the civil liberties that have long been such an onerous burden to hard-working Americans have been set aside, allowing them to focus on more important matters. Lieutenant James Shelley is a fine example: in another life he might have wasted his life as a political activist, agitating against wars and other profitable activities. In this life, his first attempt at political activism prompted a firm response from the government that stands in loco parentis over all its subjects. One plea bargain later and Shelly became a hard-working member of America’s military forces serving overseas.

If that wasn’t wonderful enough, the same advances in neurological interfaces that allow Shelley and his fellow soldiers to function as a Linked Combat Squad allow his minders to keep an eye on what he is doing, or even feeling, pretty much 24/7.

There is, however, one glitch in the program.

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No shinjū featured in this story

Emma — Kaoru Mori
Emma, book 1

No, not the Jane Austen Emma. Aside from nation of origin and sex, Kaoru Mori’s Emma has almost nothing in common with the more famous Emma; neither class, occupation, personal character, nor personal history.

Emma has no money, no family, no surname, and she owes her position as a maid (and her education and her glasses) to retired governess Mrs. Stowner’s generosity. Despite her lack of prospects, she gets lots of offers, being a comely lass. But Emma has no interest in matrimony

And then one day, Mrs. Stowner’s former student William Jones comes to pay his (extremely belated) respects to his former governess….

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The crimes that haunt us

Zoo City — Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes’ 2010 novel Zoo City takes us to a fantastic South Africa where magic is real, where transgressions will saddle people with familiars, life-long magical animal companions, where corruption, crime and betrayal still work just the same way as they do in our world.

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A worthy adaptation of a classic

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds — Jeff Wayne

No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized, as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets and yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us.

Ever since its publication in 1897 (1898 if you don’t count serialization as publication), H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has been adapted to a variety of media: stage, radio, comic book, and, of course, movies, each one worse than the one before.

And of course, there was the concept album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, whose introduction I quote above.

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The causality in this makes my brain hurt

Operation Time Search — Andre Norton

1967’s Operation Time Search is a stand-alone. Spoiler warning.

By the far off year of 1980, the people of Earth—or at least an Earth—have done a pretty good job of using up all the resources of their world. Other worlds beckon, but rather than reaching across space, the researchers Hargreaves and Fordham have cast their eyes across time, with some success. Their time probes have reached something, somewhere, somewhen—the past, or perhaps some alternate world—but it’s definitely not modern Ohio.

Thus far, Hargreaves and Fordham have settled for peering through time; physical transportation is for later. Or at least that was the plan until photographer Ray Osborne snuck onto the Indian mound the researchers had commandeered. Hargreaves and Fordham’s device may not have been intended to catapult physical objects through time, but as Ray discovers, it is nevertheless quite capable of punting the young man all the way from modern Ohio to … somewhere.

Somewhere wild. Somewhere with old growth forests of a kind not seen in North America for centuries or more. Somewhere where Ray is almost immediately captured by soldiers from a place called Atlantis, soldiers who suspect that Ray is an agent of Mu….

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Meredith Means Well

Shelter — Susan Palwick

Susan Palwick’s 2007 novel Shelter takes us to a future America where:

  • excessive” altruism has been pathologized;
  • machine intelligences have joined humanity;
  • criminals and the mental ill (then as now overlapping sets) can be mindwiped;
  • immortality of a sort is available to those with the money to pay for it;

and where, as always, the people who pay for rich people’s mistakes are never the rich people themselves.

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Comedic Sociopathy Meets Military Science Fiction

Black Lagoon, Volume One — Rei Hiroe
Black Lagoon, book 1

2003’s Black Lagoon manga collection is military fiction! it’s a translation! Two, two, two reviews in one!

Although one might argue that this book is at best marginally SF, as the only aspects that seem at all speculative are the alternate laws of physics to which some of the characters appear to have access.

The crew of the repurposed WWII-era torpedo boat Black Lagoon (Vietnam War vet Dutch, nihilistic gun nut Revy, and hacker Benny) don’t bother with the conflicted personal histories of a Drake protagonist or the shiny white aura of a Pournelle mercenary. On the grand moral scale of sell-swords, they’re well towards the unabashed-villains end of the scale. The only reason they’re at all sympathetic is because their enemies are even more depraved (and because the plots conspire to keep them from giving in their their worst impulses).

Enter the unfortunate Rokuro “Rock” Okajima, a salaryman who has the great misfortune to be in possession of a computer disk the Russian Mafia hired the crew of the Black Lagoon to … acquire. The crew have no problem snatching the disk and as an extra cherry on the sundae, they snatch the hapless Okajima as well. Why not? If he proves useless, they can always toss his bullet-riddled corpse over the side.

And it gets worse from there.

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A Labour of Love

Larry Niven’s Ringworld: Roleplaying Adventure Beneath the Great Arch — John Hewitt & Sherman Kahn

Many, many role-playing game companies have been tempted into doing RPG adaptations of established media franchises, such as books, TV shows, or movies. The attraction is obvious; the product comes with a built-in market. Unfortunately, there are also many, many pitfalls. Many of the companies who have dabbled in licensed products have emerged from the experience poorer for it. There’s a trick to surviving adaptations and not every company has it.

Way back in 1983, I was thrilled to read in Different Worlds 29

that Chaosium Games had acquired the rights to do a role-playing game based on Larry Niven’s Ringworld (a title that did not at that time inspire feelings of melancholy and despair over the decline of a once-great author). Not only had Chaosium created Runequest, one of my favourite RPGs, but they had ample experience at turning literary properties into games [1]. By 1983, Chaosium’s licensed products included Thieves World, Stormbringer, and of course Call of Cthulhu.

It’s not entirely true to say that Ringworld the RPG got caught up in Development Hell but I do think it’s safe to say the project turned out to be bigger than John Hewitt or any of the other people involved could have envisioned. Despite delays, Larry Niven’s Ringworld: Roleplaying Adventure Beneath the Great Arch was finally released in 1984 [2].

And what did a youthful James find when he popped open his copy of the game?

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The last of Aud?

Always — Nicola Griffith
Aud Torvingen, book 3

2007’s Always is the third (and as-of-this-date final) volume in Nicola Griffith’s Aud Torvingen [1] mystery series. The book opens with Aud far from Atlanta (where she makes her home), visiting Seattle to meet her mother’s new husband. She also plans to deal with an investment that isn’t doing as well as it should be.

Aud is a very straightforward person, brusque to the point that she may seem to have a social disability. She does not hesitate to bring the metaphoric hammer down on her local property manager, Karenna Beauchamps Corning, blaming her for the way Aud’s property is under-performing. As Aud soon discovers, there’s more to the story than one lax property manager: someone is going to a lot of trouble to sabotage the businesses that lease Aud’s property

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Swashbuckling Tour Guide

The Hostage of Zir — L. Sprague de Camp
Krishna, book 4

L. Sprague de Camp’s 1977 novel The Hostage of Zir is part of de Camp’s Viagens Interplanetarias series, his attempt to come up with a swords and blasters setting that made sense.

Relativistic flight gave humans access to the nearer stars, many of which had habitable worlds. Most of the worlds also had native inhabitants. While some of these alien worlds were as technologically sophisticated as Earth, the natives of worlds like Tau Ceti’s Krishna and Epsilon Eridani’s Kukulkan were comparatively primitive. The Interplanetary Council instituted strict limits on the importation of advanced technology to these backward worlds. Given that supposedly civilized peoples, Americans and Russians, had already devastated the Earth’s northern hemisphere, the IC did not want to find out just what primitives might do with such powerful weapons.

Contact and trade are still allowed, within the limits of the law. Many Terrans have ventured out of the port city of Novorecife, on Krishna, to explore that diverse and interesting world. Several of them lived long enough to return. Now Krishna is going to be opened to broader tourism … which may prove unfortunate for Krishnans and tourists alike

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Tenochtitlan Mystery

Servant of the Underworld — Aliette De Bodard
Obsidian and Blood, book 1

Aliette De Bodard’s 2010 novel, Servant of the Underworld, is the first of her Acatl novels. For some reason I had the impression these were straight-up mysteries set in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. There’s definitely a strong mystery element; her protagonist, Acatl, would certainly find much in common with Benny Cooperman, Philip Marlowe, and Hercule Poirot. The main difference would be that none of those famous detectives ever had to deal with a living god. For Acatl, High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, dealing with the gods is a daily reality.

A mysterious summons draws Acatl, priest to the god of the dead, out of his own temple and into the House of Tears, a school for girls. There he learns that the priestess Eleuia has been abducted. Her room is splashed with enough blood to cast her survival into doubt. Not only that … it is clear that she has been carried off by some occult means.

Another thing is clear; the list of possible suspects is very short and the man at the top of that short list is Acatl’s own older brother, the warrior Neutemoc.

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Never underestimate the natives

Moon of Three Rings — Andre Norton
Moon Singer, book 1

1966’s The Moon of Three Rings is the first volume in Norton’s Moon Singer  series.

Yiktor appears to be just another world among millions, a world once home to an advanced civilization now long vanished, just as so many civilizations have flourished, then vanished, across the galaxy. Now Yiktor is a world whose current population is (seemingly) trapped in barbarism. To Free Traders, it is a possible source of valuable trade goods. To a greedy Combine seeking worlds to conquer, Yiktor looks like easy pickings. As they will learn, the great civilization that called Yiktor home is not extinct, but merely evolved beyond recognition.

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Moments in a life

A Bride’s Story, Volume Two — Kaoru Mori
A Bride's Story, book 2

Ideally one starts an ongoing series with volume one … but sometimes life is not ideal. What I actually have on hand is volume two of Kaoru Mori’s manga series A Bride’s Story, so that’s where I began. First published in 2010 as 乙嫁語りor Otoyomegatari, the English language translated version was released only a year later.

In the previous volume, Amir, a young woman of a nomadic Turkic tribe roaming somewhere near the Caspian sea, was married to Karluk, whose people are sedentary. As was customary for this time and place, the marriage is not a love match but a political alliance. The marriage forms a bridge between the two communities. Neither the bride nor the groom had much say in the arrangement. Nevertheless, Amir and Karluk seem compatible enough. With time and effort, they should be able to forge a solid family.

If only Karluk weren’t twelve to Amir’s twenty…

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The cat lives

The Lives of Tao — Wesley Chu
Tao, book 1

Wesley Chu’s 2013 debut novel The Lives of Tao appears to be warmly regarded, if one can judge by its 3.77 stars on Goodreads and 4 stars on Amazon. Once again I find myself out of step with the majority of readers. Welcome to yet another installment in “Nobody Cares Why You Hate Shakespeare, Leo,” with me playing the starring role of Leo Tolstoy.

Betrayed by a fellow agent, Edward Blair does what he can to salvage the situation by leaping from the top of an office building to certain death below. This is rather hard on Blair, but it frees Tao, Blair’s alien symbiont, to seek a new host who isn’t about to be captured by the enemy. Tao must find that host quickly, before Earth’s hostile atmosphere kills him. Alas for Tao, the only possible human host close enough is an out of shape, self-loathing programmer named Roan Tan.

It was mere luck that Tan was close to where Blair went splut. Bad luck, because thanks to it Tan finds himself drafted into a covert civil war raging across the Earth.

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In Honour of Today’s Encounter with Pluto

The Secret of the Ninth Planet — Donald A. Wollheim
Winston Science Fiction, book 32

I could have decided to reread and review Donald Wollheim’s 1959 novel The Secret of the Ninth Planetas part of an epic reread of the entire SF series published by Winston … but I didn’t. I decided to reread and review this book because it happens to be one of the few books which fall in the intersection of the following sets: 1) books in which Pluto plays a significant role, and 2) books of which I actually have a copy [1]. Today is, of course, the day when the American space probe New Horizons had its close encounter with Pluto, turning what was a dot on a photgraphic plate into this:

Go, applied science! And now, back to Pluto as it was imagined in 1959.

The years since Sputnik have seen great strides in manned [2] rocket travel to near space and the Moon, and in unmanned space travel to other worlds. As far as young Burl Denning knows, manned flight to other planets will have to wait until something better than the current primitive rockets comes along. What Burl doesn’t know is that the necessary advances in propulsion have already been made. Just not by humans.

Humans are not the first or most advanced civilization to develop space travel. One of humanity’s neighbors is working on a scheme that will doom life across the Solar System!

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Love is the plan, the plan is death

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon — Julie Phillips

Anyone setting out to write a biography of a revered author could do a lot worse than to take Julie Phillips’ 2006 biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, as a model. It’s that good.

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Thank Greece’s Alexis Tsipras for this

The Green Ripper — John D. MacDonald
Travis McGee, book 18

John D. MacDonald’s 1979 novel The Green Ripper will always be a special book to me. In some respects, this book has not aged well and my review is going to face that fact head on. But it is the very first Travis McGee novel that I ever read and that counts for something.

(I know where I bought this but for the life of me I cannot recall why I bought it; I didn’t get into mysteries in a big way until a few years after 1980. My suspicion is that the decision to pick up this novel was one part eye-catching green cover and one part laudatory references to MacDonald by reviewers like Spider Robinson.)

McGee is an aging adventurer, a man with a bewildering list of odd skills picked up from friends, acquaintances, and lovers (so many lovers) over the course of a long, colourful career as a problem-solver and salvage expert.

At the beginning of The Green Ripper, McGee’s career as a two-fisted man of action seems fated to come to a well-earned end. In the course of the seventeenth book in the series, The Empty Copper Sea, McGee encountered something he hadn’t thought possible: a lover (Gretel Howard) with whom he could imagine spending the rest of his life.

McGee isn’t going to spend the rest of his life with Gretel. Gretel is, however, going to spend the remainder of her life with him.

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Not quite a jolly romp

Let The Right One In — John Ajvide Lindqvist

I needed something to review for Saturday (all the remaining commissioned reviews are waiting on books yet to arrive). John Ajvide Lindqvist 2004’s novel Låt den rätte komma in (published in English as Let The Right One In) seemed like just the right book for a quiet Thursday evening: young protagonist, exotic location [1], a hint of the supernatural. I’ve read Swedish juvenile fiction so I have a pretty clear idea where this would lead: one part Pippi Longstocking to one part Kalli Blomqvist, am I right?

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Destiny, Not Luck

The Year of the Unicorn — Andre Norton
High Hallack, book 2

1965’s The Year of the Unicorn takes us back to the Witch World, across the ocean to High Hallack. Gillan has lived among the people of that land for almost as long as she can remember, but her skin and hair brand her an outsider. She can be thankful that she is not one of the hated Alizon, High Hallack’s great enemy, but she can never hope to be truly accepted by those among whom she lives. A quiet life in a rustic abbey may be Gillan’s best option.

But that is not her destiny.

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Band of Sisters

The Way into Magic — Harry Connolly
The Great Way, book 2

When last we saw our heroes, monsters from another dimension had swarmed out of an inter-dimensional gateway to overwhelm the Morning City and then the Peradaini empire (of which the Morning City had been the capital). As the cast of characters dwindled rapidly (in a way that those of us with crappy memories appreciate) the survivors have gained a realistic understanding of their situation.

The empire is dead, although parts of it remain unconquered by the invaders. But it gets worse.

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Dresediel Lex Spring

Last First Snow — Max Gladstone
Craft Sequence, book 4

The thing to bear in mind about Gladstone’s Craft series is that while it has an internal order, that’s not the order in which Gladstone is publishing them. The titles suggest an internal chronology, but the title of 2015’s Last First Snow is a bit ambiguous on that point.

It is forty years after the God Wars, when craft-wielding mages overthrew the gods. The city of Dresediel Lex is a well-ordered oasis in the middle of a vast desert. It is a city freed from the superstitions of the past and from the oppression of chattel slavery, a vibrant community whose economy is growing quite nicely. At least that’s the point of view of the King in Red, the skeletal autocrat who runs the city. If you cannot trust your dictator, whom can you trust?

The one sore point in the King in Red’s otherwise satisfactory eldritch post-life

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Not saving these for a rainy day

White Trash Zombie Apocalypse — Diana Rowland
White Trash Zombie, book 3

I hadn’t actually planned to write a review today, because I knew I would be spending Saturday [1] moving enough wood to fuel the campfires for the upcoming FASS camping weekend. Turned out that three determined people can move a lot of dead trees very quickly. Fortunately, I had packed a paperback just in case [2].

White Trash Zombie Apocalypse picks up a few months after the conclusion of Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues. Angel Crawford is still working at the parish Coroner’s Office and as far as she knows, the biggest crisis facing her is her looming GED test. It’s just too bad for Angel that while the parasite responsible for zombification confers on its hosts a number of useful abilities, a facility for studying isn’t one of them.

Even the zombies shuffling around town don’t alarm Angel much, because they’re just extras from a horror film being filmed in Tucker Point, Louisiana.

Or so Angel believes.

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The tragedy of John Varley

The Persistence of Vision — John Varley

The tragedy of John Varley’s 1978 collection, The Persistence of Vision, isn’t that its contents have aged; although time has not been kind to some of them, others have fared well. The tragedy is the stark contrast between the John Varley of the 1970s and the John Varley of today. Young Varley was one of the few male authors of note to emerge in the disco era, the author of a remarkable series of short works [1]. The mature Varley wastes his talent on second-rate Heinlein pastiches [2] and novels whose moral is that, as bad as the collapse of civilization would be, at least it would turn women back into homemakers and get the kids off the Twitter.

To quote a noted social activist, “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”

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Learn from my mistake

The Necessary Beggar — Susan Palwick

While she had been actively publishing at shorter lengths, Susan Palwick’s 2005 book The Necessary Beggar ended a thirteen year novel publication drought, a return to longer form her fans certainly appreciated. Inexplicably, despite counting myself among those fans, this is the first time I have ever read this novel [1]. Having finally read it, I regret having delayed gratification so long.

No one in Lémabantunk knows why Darroti murdered Mendicant Gallicina; Darroti won’t explain and of course Gallicina cannot. Darroti’s punishment is the harshest the city can exact: exile through a one-way gateway to another universe, to an alien nation calling itself America.

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The Scouts Are Dicks

The X Factor — Andre Norton

Andre Norton was never known for bright shiny futures but 1965’s The X Factor is a gloomier novel than most of her books. Protagonist Diskan Fentress is a large, clumsy man who feels like a subhuman; he sees himself as suitable for nothing save brute labour. He has recently been reunited with the Scout father who left before he was born. Diskan believes that he falls far short of his father, Renfrey Fentress, in every conceivable way (a belief that Renfrey does nothing to correct). To rub more salt in the wound, the aliens with whom Renfrey has made his home are to Diskan’s eye without fault. Their perfection only highlights Diskan’s flaws.

Better to turn criminal than suffer under the lash of charity. Diskan steals a starship and a navigation tape (to a world his father had marked as anomalous) and heads up and out. He is lucky enough to reach his destination and survive a bad landing whole and largely unharmed. His luck would seem to have ended there. He is alone, poorly equipped, and trapped on a planet whose mysteries even his talented father was unable to unravel. What hope is there for poor, dim Diskan?

(This will get somewhat spoilery.)

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Trapped in a warzone

Trading in Danger — Elizabeth Moon
Vatta's War, book 1

If I am going to review MilSF that doesn’t suck, at some point I need to address the Elizabeth Moon issue. On the one hand her books (or at least some of them) are clearly candidates. On the other hand, many of them have been published by Baen, whose publisher is a willing participant in this year’s attempt to nobble the Hugos. Baen is a company whose works I don’t review. A company that’s dead to me.

However … thanks to various events that are Googleable, Moon moved over to Del Rey. That company is not colluding in an attempt to nobble the Hugos and is not dead to me. The system works!

2003’s Trading in Danger kicks off Moon’s Vatta’s War series. Well-meaning Ky Vatta is booted out of the naval academy when a well-meaning attempt to help a friend results in a PR-disaster for the service. The navy doesn’t consider “meant well” a defense. Former cadet Ky finds herself on the curb outside the Academy, waiting for a ride home.

This is a bold opening gambit if the series as a whole is supposed to be military science fiction.

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