James S.A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes is the most recent Expanse book. I’ve said in the past that this series is a mix of SFnal big ideas and human-scale intrigue; this installment is almost entirely human-scale politics, though.
But that doesn’t mean it’s about small things; I’m not going to spoil this series at this point, but if you’ve been reading along, you’ll remember that some major shit has gone down in previous volumes, and it would almost be ridiculous if the various factions of humanity weren’t focusing on their own divisions and future plans right now. (I read this not too long after the recent election, and in a weird way, it feels like the first post-Trump piece of fiction. Which, considering what this book is about, is not the most optimistic statement ever, obviously.)
The series continues to be excellent in the ways I want it to be, with its found-family crewmates working together in a universe where it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the fate of humanity hangs in the balance on the regular, trying to tip things over to the good side. It also wraps up some important storylines and moves the series forward, although I admit I have no idea what will happen in the next book at this point.
If you like space-flavored SF at all, this series is basically a must-read at this point.
David Weber’s At the Sign of Triumph is the ninth Safehold book, and it’s a good one.
When I wrote up the last one, I mentioned that while I liked it a lot, it felt like nothing significant had happened in it. I sort of suspected this was just going to be an ongoing series that continued on predictable paths until the heat death of the universe. But this book is, uh, not like that.
A lot happens in this one, including some very major things that have been set up since the first book. It’s not the end of the series, and it’s possible to imagine this series still going on for many, many books, but it’s a huge shift in the status quo going forward, at the very least, and points the way toward the end.
Which is probably good on the whole. The series has to eventually end, and at nine lengthy installments, there’s no question Weber has spent plenty of time getting to this point. Still… I’ve been loving this series a lot, and now I’m unsure what the next installment is going to be like. Fingers crossed, I guess. And if it turns out that things really go off the rails from here, well, hey, at least these nine books tell a fairly well-contained story in their own right.
So Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those classics that was instantly hailed on its release, winning Hugo and Nebula awards and reshaping conversations around the genre. There’s no discussion to be had about whether it’s a major work (it is) and whether anyone interested in the genre should read it (you should), but it is worth looking to see how well it holds up nearly half a century after it was published. Fortunately, the answer is “very well.”
Most of the obvious places where it would show its age are neatly worked around by the setting: The protagonist is the point man for first contact on a new world. So, no, there’s no internet or GPS or anything… but it’s easy to think that’s because he’s on a primitive world, and that in the normal, tech-rich society he comes from of course people have those things.
(This is almost certainly not true, and it’s probably canonically disprovable: A thing I hadn’t realized is that this novel takes place in a future history Le Guin invented, with ten or so novels, and as many short stories, in it. This is apparent in the book—the references to backstory feature too many proper nouns and specific events to just be flavoring—but this book stands alone just fine.)
The one thing that does seem weird is the gender attitudes of the protagonist, who believes in a very, very strong kind of gender essentialism that seems odd to a modern reader. What’s not clear to me, though, is whether that’s supposed to be a tic of the protagonist’s society, to set him off in more clear context to the gender-fluid society he’s contacting, or if he’s supposed to embody “normal” attitudes at the time the book was written in the 1960s. Either is plausible, which feels a bit weird in its own right.
But so anyway, yeah, the exploration of gender is clearly a big thing that the book is about, and if it feels somewhat conservative in that exploration from today’s perspectives (it uses male pronouns throughout, it assumes a kind of heteronormativity that Le Guin later regretted), it was certainly novel at the time.
But of course, it’s also about more than just that. A book that just had one thing to say wouldn’t be a masterpiece that holds up for so long. There’s also an adventure novel in here, and a novel of political intrigue, and thoughts about what makes societies and governments good, and about the difficulties of communicating across cultures, and a lot more.
So yeah: Major classic, holds up well. You should read it, and I should have read it forever ago.
So Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom does a really cool thing, which is to combine two things that are usually not combined, and make it obvious that they should have been together all along.
And so here we have a familiar tale of Lovecraftian horror—eldritch mysteries and sleeping gods and the like—set in the 1920s era that’s so distinctively Lovecraftian. Except that instead of being set on the rural New England coast, it’s set in New York City, and the protagonist is a black musician living in Harlem.
Lovecraft’s stories are famously super-racist, so obviously this is in one sense a pushback against that, a subversive reclamation. But it’s also more than that, because from the other direction this is telling a story of the black experience in Jazz Age New York, and the Lovecraftian elements serve to mirror and reinforce that story in a way that makes the supernatural layer feel like literalized metaphor. That is, it’s not just telling a Cthulhu story that has Tommy Tester as its protagonist, it’s telling a story about Tommy Tester that has Cthulhu as a plot element—and it works in both directions.
This is good stuff. Strongly recommended.
So let me preface this post by saying that Dave Duncan is usually a reliably solid fantasy writer whose books range between excellent and decently entertaining. You should absolutely read stuff he’s written, and I’ve written up a bunch of it positively.
So with that out of the way, now I’ll say this: Dave Duncan’s Eocene Station is a terrible book. It is not good at all. It’s full of sexist attitudes (which are lampshaded a bit by references to “the New Morality” ushering in a sort of neo-Victorianism, but it goes well beyond the ability of the setting to explain or excuse), it’s rapey in a really creepy way that seems more about the character development of the male protagonist than anything else, and it is just in general not good at all, despite a few fun action scenes and a setting that could have been interesting in a different book.
Back when I was a teenager, after I’d read a bunch of Duncan’s fantasy, I picked up his Hero, which was SF. It was so much worse than his fantasy that I wondered at the time if it was actually the same Dave Duncan or a different guy. These days, I’m certain it’s the same guy, but if I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t believe it. Stick to his fantasy, is my advice.
So I read William Doyle’s The Oxford History of the French Revolution at the same time as I listened to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions Podcast take on the subject in the course of 55 episodes (roughly 27 hours). There actually ends up being nearly the same amount of detail in book and podcast, so it’s interesting how different they were.
The podcast focuses on the narrative aspects of the history. It gives you more fleshed-out and fully-realized characters. It gives you events in purely chronological order, so that they flow in cause-and-effect order at all times. It gives you a good chunk of military history as it delves into Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy and Egypt.
The book has very little of that. Its characters are largely just names; it covers subjects topically, so that it’ll get to things out of order; and it skipped right over most of the military details. But what it gives you in exchange is more context of the international situation outside of France; more analysis of economics and institutions; and more of the broader implications of events beyond the story of the moment.
Honestly, they complement each other well. So if you’re going to read this book (and it seems a decent enough, if not stellar, survey text), I do recommend listening to the podcast either right beforehand or in conjunction with it. If you’re only going to do one, though… as much as it pains me, a fan of the written word, to say it, I’d go with the podcast. Duncan just does a better job of making things comprehensible and memorable than Doyle’s book does.
Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Relics of War is the latest of his Ethshar books. It’s been three years since I wrote up a book in this series and even then, it was just a quick blurb as I cleared out my backlog, so let me give a bit more context.
The Ethshar novels are all individual standalone novels that tell a complete story, but which take place at various places and times within the same world—a very traditional kind of swords-and-sorcery world where a great war of demons and wizards ravaged the landscape, and city-states and small kingdoms replaced the grand empires of old in the ruins of that war. The first book actually takes place during that war, and I think that at least one volume takes place in the distant past, but most of them are well past that time.
This one is a few decades past the war, and it’s set in a rural farm where children playing in the wood find a magic artifact that might be a leftover from the war. Local nobles are notified, and events spiral upward as new wrinkles emerge.
I really like the Ethshar series—it manages to be charming and fun and clever in almost every installment—and I did like this installment, too. But I will say that it’s definitely on the slight side. Whereas something like The Unwelcome Warlock, the book before this one, got at one of the core mysteries of the setting and dealt with grand magics, this is just a small story about some farmers and a thing that happened to them. But that’s okay; the ability of the series to jump from grand tales of war and magic to little stories about farmers and apprentices is one of its charms. You wouldn’t want to start reading the series here, but I tore through it quickly enough.
So Jo Walton’s Thessaly series is definitely one-of-a-kind. I feel very confident in saying there’s not a whole lot like this out there, especially by the time you get to the third book.
So the premise (which happens quickly enough into the book that I don’t think it counts as a spoiler) is that Athena and Apollo—the literal Greek gods—decide to set up a city by the plan in Plato’s Republic. They gather up a bunch of interested philosophers and scholars from throughout time, grab a handful of robots from the future, and set about building a city on an island that lies outside of recorded history. After a while, they buy up a bunch of ten-year-old children from slavers in various times and places, and then it’s off to the society-building races.
The first book follows the evolution of the city and the people within it as they try (or, occasionally, not) to live within Plato’s dictates. There’s a degree to which its arc is predictable—hands up if you really think that the Republic would be workable with actual humans living in it—but it also goes in unexpected directions.
Book two takes things into even less expected directions. And book three, which is straight up science fiction, is by far the strangest of the lot, and it’s a miracle that it even works as a novel.
But somehow it does. Somehow, the whole series hangs together, when all logic and common sense says that it won’t. It’s very distinctively Waltonian—if you had stripped off all authorial identifiers, I wouldn’t have gotten far in before I suspected the author, and by the third book I would have been iron-clad certain of it—and I can’t imagine that every reader would like it. But if you’ve liked her other stuff (particularly the also-unusual Lifelode, which this isn’t exactly like… but which may be more like this than anything else I can think of), you’ll probably like this.
So people recommended Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence; I looked at thumbnails of the covers, decided they were generic urban fantasy, and added them to the middle-ish “I’ll get around to that some day” portion of my to-read list. Then people recommended them more. Then they recommended them more and I was in the mood for urban fantasy, so I started the first one, and… um, oops, it turns out these aren’t urban fantasy after all? In fact, they’re secondary world fantasy set in a world that’s unique and fascinating for three reasons.
The first is that it’s set in the aftermath of a more conventional fantasy book—the God Wars, when the Craftspeople (newly in command of their eldritch powers) rose up and contended with the gods themselves for the rule of the world, and… kinda won, leaving the world in the kind of messily inconsistent situation that you get in the aftermath of real wars.
The second is that it’s focusing on an unusually modern time period. The world isn’t any identifiable era from our world—as you’d expect, having gods and magic around changes the way that technology would advance—but it feels modern-ish. Jazz Age-y, maybe? But very much its own thing, still.
The third is that the magic system itself, the Craft, is basically a magical version of legal practice. Craftspeople have student loans, work for big firms (or sometimes do low-paid public service), and their battles consist of arguments that just happen to be made to the universe itself about its very nature. Contracts are binding in very real ways, and souls can be sold to pay debts.
So it’s an interesting setting. It also turns out to have interesting characters. Click on the thumbnail of those urban-fantasy-looking covers, and what jumps out at you in the full-sized image is that the people on them are not your generic white-dude-with-a-hat or white-woman-with-a-bared-midriff, either. The books are focused on telling stories from different perspectives, which comes through both in the protagonists and in what the stories are about.
Because this is where things come full circle a bit: While these aren’t urban fantasy in the usual sense, they’re actually about cities in a way that goes deeper than most urban fantasy. The stories are about things like water rights, zoning issues, gentrification, banking crises, religious pluralism, law enforcement practices… and also, yes, old gods rising and lich kings and conspiracies and demons. They manage to be about those “relevant” things without giving up an iota of fun or excitement. (In a sense, maybe the thing that’s most like them is Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork books. But in another sense, that’s a completely ridiculous comparison, because these aren’t humorous in that way, though they have their moments.)
At any rate, the upshot of this one is simple: These are excellent fantasy novels by basically any criteria that you’d care to mention, and some that you wouldn’t have thought to. Go read them.
Dave Duncan’s Ivor of Glenbroch books are a YA trilogy (actually collected in one volume now as The Adventures of Ivor), and they’re YA of the old school: They focus on a boy coming into his manhood, and show him being competent and honest and just generally exhibiting virtues of all sorts as he faces particular challenges.
In this case, the challenges are those facing a message-runner in medieval Scotland, as he seeks out a hermit on behalf of his thane, negotiates with a prince on behalf of his feudal lord, and carries a proposal of marriage where all is not what it seems.
They’re straightforward books, with plots that barely even have a half-twist in them, and characters that mostly exist in broad archetype. But they read quickly and Ivor’s a pleasant companion, so they go down easily. Recommended as a palate cleanser between weightier works.
So when I was reading Station Eleven, it had a glancing (and enormously spoilery) reference to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which got me interested in reading it. So I did.
Turns out The Passage is an apocalypse novel (subgenre: epidemic, sub-subgenre: vampirism); it starts off well before the apocalypse and focuses on a handful of characters who are significant to the event; shortly after the event itself, it jumps forward some decades into the post-apocalyptic society that emerged from the rubble.
The apocalypse itself is interesting; the post-apocalypse… well, it’s okay. It’s fine. It’s a perfectly reasonable post-apocalypse. Good enough that after the book was over, I started in on the sequel, The Twelve.
Started, but didn’t finish. Because the problem is, The Twelve jumps back into the middle of the apocalypse with a set of new characters, which saps forward momentum. But okay, I can get through that before we get back to our story in progress… except then it jumps to a new set of post-apocalypse characters, which is yet another frustrating digression and for much less reason. And, halfway through the book, when it finally does get back to our main characters, their story is dull and repetitive enough that I just didn’t care anymore.
But I don’t know, maybe I’m being unfair. The book wasn’t bad or anything, and I read over a thousand pages of it before calling it quits. If I can’t recommend it highly, I wouldn’t warn anyone off of it. If a vampire apocalypse sounds interesting to you, it’s worth a shot.
The Phoenix Project, by Kevin Behr, Gene Kim, and George Spafford is a book about IT management practices and techniques in the shape of a novel, the protagonist of which is a dude newly promoted to the Director of IT and trying to solve some critical infrastructure problems while getting a big software project delivered.
I should probably have enjoyed it less than I did; reading about someone having problems at work and calling meetings and instituting processes to fix them really should not be a fun, compelling page-turner. But… uh, well, it was. Also some good advice in it.
Eli Goldratt’s The Goal is a similar novel, only this time it’s about a newly-promoted plant manager in the ‘80s. He’s trying to boost his plant’s production to stave off (of course) Japanese competition. As a piece of entertainment, it was somewhat less fun—partly because factory management is less interesting than IT management to me, partly because the marriage subplot is painfully dated and kinda ooky. But as a management techniques book, it’s probably more coherent—whereas The Phoenix Project was kind of a melange of techniques to apply, The Goal is a focused explanation of the Theory of Constraints.
Either way, if you enjoy reading novels about management, a) what’s wrong with you, but also b) go ahead and read both of these.
Naomi Novik’s League of Dragons is the concluding volume to her Temeraire series, and it is is a worthy ending to the series, one that satisfactorily wraps up the various themes introduced by the earlier books.
This had looked implausible at one point, so this is a very welcome development. In retrospect, the key thing is that this book focuses on Europe and Napoleon—the series was always strongest when it was exploring the contrast between Britain and France, and the complicated morality and honor to be had in that war. All the stuff elsewhere in the world is interesting enough, but it’s not the heart of the series, and it shows.
But this book doesn’t totally throw away all the global wanderings of the previous volumes, either—that stuff comes back in ways that matter and turn this European conflict into what might fairly be called a World War, in some ways.
So yeah: Excellent novel, and excellent end to a series. Highly recommended, and my initial enthusiasm for the series (which waned a bit in the middle there) is renewed. If Napoleonic wars fought with dragons, exploring issues of self-governance and human rights and international relations and the morality of war sounds good to you, check this out.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is an unusual book. In its broadest outline, it’s basically an apocalypse novel (subgenre: superflu). But… it’s not really an apocalyse novel, nor even a post-apocalypse novel, for all that it shares elements of those genres.
What it really is, is one of those literary novels that tells a portrait of a handful of characters over the course of their lives—an anecdote from their childhood, key moments from relationships, quiet moments when they’re alone—and shows them through each other’s eyes as they interact with each other. And oh yeah, these character’s lives just so happen to span an apocalypse.
This works well; the apocalypse is a relatively quiet and unsurprising one (as such things go), but because the story is more about the people than the Event, there’s no frustration from not seeing more intricate details of post-apocalypse society or the immediate logistics of the apocalypse itself, in the way there would be if (say) S.M. Stirling had decided to skip over key elements in one of his apocalypse novels.
Recommended both for fans of quiet literary novels and fans of apocalypses, and I don’t think there’s another book I can say that about.
So I really did not like Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels, and I think one reason why is that it’s structured around a false mystery.
What I mean by that is… okay, this is going to be easier to explain by contrast. So consider those M.L.N. Hanover books, right. They start off with a bit of action that’s not entirely clear—who are these guys? why is he trying to do this thing?—then cut to our protagonist narrator, who does not know anything about this action, but quickly gets dumped into it. So there’s a genuine mystery, and we follow along with the protagonist, finding out the stuff with her, including some characters infodumping at her and the whole works.
And so A Madness of Angels does something that seems similar at first: We get a bit of unclear in media res action, which introduces a bit of a mystery, right—who is this guy, how did he get in this situation, all that. But the difference here is that it’s only a mystery to the reader. The protagonist narrator understands perfectly well what’s happening (give or take a few minor points), but the book is so committed to its false mystery structure that it can’t just have the narrator narrate to us. It has to keep us in the dark, slowly doling out pieces of information and giving us cryptic hints about what’s going on that we couldn’t possibly understand, but which are supposed to be tantalizing.
At first, you roll with it; it’s pretty normal to go through an action scene and not be entirely clear about what’s happening, and have the narrator fill you in afterward. (That’s a pretty common story structure in Butcher’s Dresden books, for instance.) But when you get to a pause point, where the narrator should go back and fill you in… he doesn’t. And he keeps not filling you in for at least the first half of the book, keeping you in this false suspense.
And of course, the reason the book is structured that way is that if you take away the false suspense and false mystery, there’s not a whole lot there. It’s bland, generic urban fantasy with characters that have literally zero personality or distinctiveness. I want to say that it’s not a terrible book, and it probably isn’t in some sense. And yet at the same time, I quit reading it 2/3 of the way through, because I just gave zero shits about any of the characters or any of the storylines of the book.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the latest Vorkosigan book; the protagonist this time around is Cordelia, who was also the protagonist of the first book, Shards of Honor, published back in 1986.
And this feels like an installment of a series that’s thirty years old, featuring a character who’s aged some forty-odd years over the course of the books. It’s quieter, it’s slower, and it’s suffused with reminiscence—almost everything that occurs summons up memories and associations with past events; for all that the book is taking the storyline forward, it’s doing so while continually looking backward.
And not only is it looking backward at events we’ve read about, but it’s presenting us with something of a retcon while doing so. (Call it a secret history if you think Bujold had it in mind all along; I have no idea, myself.) As suspicious as I was of the retcon before reading, I think it actually works medium-well. It’s a thing that developed over the course of her marriage to Aral Vorkosigan, and almost all of the books we’ve had since then have been from the POV of Miles, who wouldn’t after all have any idea about the inner workings of his parents’ marriage.
At any rate, this is a quiet, slow book that’s really just about the reshaping of a relationship between two people who’ve known each other a long time. It’s traded in the pyrotechnics and manic energy of earlier Vorkosigan books for a more reflective and deliberative middle age.
If I saw them in a bookstore, I would have passed right over M.L.N. Hanover’s Black Sun’s Daughter books. They look like the cheesiest sort of urban fantasy—all the covers have a midriff-baring, tattooed, leather-sports-bra-wearing woman on them—and they’re clearly marketed as the kind of books where people go around banging vampires.
But it turns out that Hanover is actually a pen name for Daniel Abraham, and I’ve loved everything he’s written, so I figured I’d give them a chance. I wasn’t super-optimistic, and figured this might just not be my kind of book, but what the hell, dude’s earned at least a look-see, right?
Well, so, it turns out that even if this isn’t particularly my preferred genre, these books are excellent. I plowed through the five book series in a handful of days, and would have been happy to keep reading if there were more of them.
Structurally, they have the episodic nature that seems common to urban fantasy—there’s a case/monster of the week in each book—but with a strong overarching plot here. Since this is a series that’s done in five books (as opposed to the 25 or so Anita Blake books or the 15+ Harry Dresden books), the plot feels a lot tighter and less ad hoc than in those longer, ongoing series.
That tight plotting, combined with the other attractions of the genre—the found family element is pretty much straight text here rather than subtext, and there’s plenty of world-building discovery and competence porn—makes this compellingly readable. This is one of those books where I’d actively read pages while walking across a parking lot or hallway, and pretty much blew off any activity I could ignore in favor of reading.
It was actually disappointing that the series was only five books, because while the story does wind up its big questions and feels finished enough, there are enough sequel hooks to support more entries in the series. Apparently sales have been disappointing, though, so presumably those won’t be coming anytime soon. This would bother me a lot more if it weren’t that I love all of Abraham’s other work maybe even more than this, so am fine with him writing other things even though I would like more of this thing.
Anyway, highly recommended. It’s not doing anything startingly original with the genre (Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series is probably more distinctive), but the execution is just top-notch, and it’s hard to imagine anyone liking the urban fantasy genre but not liking this series.
So I’ve loved pretty much everything Daniel Abraham has written—both his Long Price Quartet and his Expanse series of SF. So as soon as Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series was finished, I started in on the first book.
And pretty much didn’t stop until I came to the end, because it turns out this series is absolutely excellent, probably the best epic fantasy series of this millennium. I’m not going to talk about the plot, because this is one of those books where part of the pleasure is seeing the shape of the story forming, without knowing even the big picture about how the storyline shapes up. So don’t read any book jackets or capsule descriptions or anything, because they’ll spoil too much.
But what I can safely say is that it combines the virtues of “modern” epic fantasy—the genre that George R.R. Martin really brought into being with his Game of Thrones, all full of psychological and political realism—with the virtues of traditional ‘80s-era quest fantasy, with their found-family D&D party characters and worlds deep in ancient magical mysteries.
It actually reminds me a lot of Robin Hobb’s Assassin/Ship/Fool/Dragon serieses (which I also love enormously), except that where Hobb’s books tend toward the bleak—usually staying on the right side of the line to my taste—Abraham puts enough humor into these books that I actually laughed out loud a couple of times.
Recommended super-highly for anyone looking for a serious-but-not-grim mix of quest fantasy and political intrigue.
So one of the things Brandon Sanderson does best is build up a magical world on logical principles, not tell those principles to the reader, and then make discovering those principles drive the plot of the series. Brandon Sanderson’s Calamity, and really the whole Reckoners trilogy of which this is the third book, is a perfect example of that approach.
As I read the first two, I liked the mystery setup, but was unsure whether he could actually resolve all the mysteries in the third book. The good news is, he was able to. By the end of the book, everything is wrapped up in a way that’s relatively satisfying. The better news is, this series really is self-contained and not part of Sanderson’s horrifically misconceived Cosmere multiverse, so you don’t have to worry about another book coming along later and retconning this into being about shards and investiture and a bunch of other meta-series nonsense.
Taken as a whole, the Reckoners trilogy isn’t super-great or revelatory or anything—but it’s decently enjoyable superhero-flavored fantasy, so worth reading if you’re looking for a satisfying quick read.
So when I wrote up Shadows of Self, the book to which Brandon Sanderson’s Bands of Mourning is the sequel, I said a bunch of positive things, but was wary that the series might devolve into “Cosmere” meta-story bullshit, so the obvious question is: Has it?
And the answer is: No, not yet, but… it’s getting closer. There was one moment in the book when I thought it was going to jump the rails, focusing entirely on meta-cosmic nonsense, but it pulled back from that brink, and went back to being about the actual world the characters live in, and the things they should care about. But if this book wasn’t irredeemably contaminated with Cosmere silliness, it points the way clearly to a next book that is. Given a couple of plot elements here, I actually don’t know how this series can wrap up without being all about Cosmere stuff, which displeases me greatly.
And that’s a particular shame, because—just as I said about the previous book—this is some of the best work Sanderson has done. It has the best characters, maybe the most absorbing plots, and certainly the sharpest writing stylistically. Having that ruined by Foundation and Robot-style meta-fictional awfulness is just a huge waste.
Maybe I’ll be wrong, and things will wrap up without crossing over the bullshit event horizon; that’d be wonderful, and if it happens, I can recognize these books unreservedly. But for the moment, I’ve got reservations.