Wednesday, February 27, 2008

SF&F “Best Of” 2007 (the definite list!)

The staff at Locus Online has gathered several “best of” 2007 lists from various internet sources which they deemed referential – the lists that contain memorable science fiction, fantasy and horror releases of the past year; afterwards they counted the number of times that a certain book was mentioned and then composed their own “best of” list categorizing the novels according to the number of times they were mentioned. If you noticed, I keep bracketing the word best of, the meaning of me doing this will be disclosed soon enough. Now back to the topic at hand - The staff at Locus Online looks at the "best of" lists from some of the more widely popular sites that usualy aim for the interests of a more general public (, Publishers Weekly, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Library journal,, New York times and Los Angeles Times), as well as at the lists of a few devoted genre blogs and other fan sites (SF Site, Bookgasm, Fantasy Magazine and Strange Horizons). You can look at the expanded version of the list here, but the stripped down version of the list that cites the most mentioned novels, is essentially as follows:

• J.K. Rowling - “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (YA fantasy; mentioned on 8 lists)
• Ian McDonald - Brasyl” (science fiction; mentioned on 7 lists)
• Michael Chabon - “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (alternative history interwoven with various elements of the science fiction genre; mentioned on 6 lists)
• Dan Simmons - “The Terror” (horror; mentioned on 6 lists)
• Patrick Rothfuss - “The Name of the Wind” (epic fantasy; mentioned on 5 lists)
• Richard K. Morgan - “Thirteen”(GB title) / “Black Man”(USA title) (sf noir thriller; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Guy Gavriel Kay – “Ysabel” (contemporary YA fantasy; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Kay Kenyon - “Bright of the Sky” (sf; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Emma Bull - “Territory” (magical realism in the wild-west; mentioned on 3 lists) ...there is also an insigtful review at Jumpdrive and Cantrips
• David Anthony Durham – “Acacia: War With the Main” (epic fantasy; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Matt Ruff - “Bad Monkeys” (surreal story with a pinch of Philip K. Dick and David Lynch; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Shaun Tan - "The Arrival" (graphical novel with fantastic elements; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Robert Charles Wilson – “Axis” (sf; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Susan Palwick – “Shelter” (sf; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Kathleen Ann Goonan – “In War Times” (alternative history; mentioned on 3 lists)
William Gibson “Spook Country” (if it is a sf novel, then it would be a very dubious classification; mentioned on 3 lists)

This list, conveyed at Locus Online, presents a good balance between popular and quality genre prose, although it lacks many quality (as well as popular) releases of 2007. In my opinion, Locus Online’s source-pool should include more of the genre enthusiast blogs and fan sites (such as The Wertzone, OF Blog of The Fallen, Neth Space, Pat’s Fantasy Holist etc.) to provide a livelier and I believe more accurate list - these sites (blogs) are becoming more and more recognized among exceedingly aware and informed genre fans, as prominent opinion generators, spin-doctors and in some cases an extension of the book publishing PR and advertisement departments. There are just some titles and authors, which should have been mentioned at the top of their respective genres in the year of 2007.

A few days ago I’ve encountered another “Best f&sf of 2007” list, this one generated on Visions of Paradise. It partly copies the Locus Online “best of” list, but goes through the lists of some sites that weren’t accounted for at Locus (blog's author examines 20 different “best of” lists, some of them overlapping with the ones that Locus Online looked at), and his list turns out a bit more representative. The most notable titles missed by Locus Online are:

• Joe Abercrombie – “The Blade Itself” (epic fantasy; mentioned on 7 lists)
• Scott Lynch – “Red Seas Under Red Skies” (epic fantasy; mentioned on 6 lists)
• Alastair Reynolds – “The Perfect” (sf; mentioned on 6 lists)
• Charles Stross – “Halting State” (sf; mentioned on 6 lists)
• Mark J. Ferrari – “The Book Of Joby” (fantasy take on a biblical story; mentioned on 5 lists)
• Catherynne M. Valente – “The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin & Spice” (YA fantasy in the vein of 1001 Nights; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Peter F. Hamilton – “The Dreaming Void” (space opera; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Elizabeth Hand – “Generation Loss” (uncategorisable; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Nalo Hopkinson – “The New Moon’s Arms” (mainstream magical realism; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Jay Lake – “Mainspring” (high concept space opera; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Paul J. McAuley – “Cowboy Angels” (sf technothriller; mentioned on 4 lists)
• John Scalzi – “The Last Colony” (sf; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Karl Schroeder – “Queen of Candesce” (sf; mentioned on 4 lists)
• Lucius Shepard – “Sofspoken” (mentioned on 4 lists)
• Daniel Abraham – “A Betrayal In Winter” (epic fantasy; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Tobias Buckell – “Ragamuffin” (space opera; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Steven Erikson – “Reaper’s Gale” (epic fantasy; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Joe Haldeman – “The Accidental Time Machine” (hard sf; mentioned on 3 lists)
• John Crowley – “Endless Things” (alternative history; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Ken Macleod – “The Execution Channel” (sf; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Caitlin R. Kiernan – “Daughter of Hounds” (dark fantasy; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Susan Palwick – “Shelter” (near-future sf; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Terry Prattchet – “Making Money” (fantasy; mentioned on 3 lists)
• Kim Stanley Robinson – “Sixty Days and counting” (sf; mentioned on 3 lists)

Now this list a bit more “wholesome”, but since I don’t believe in any !definite! "best of" list, there should be a lot of novels, that were or were not mentioned on any of the lists I’ve had the time to look through, but are of a high enough quality to be mentioned - and these are:

“Pirate Freedom” (by Gene Wolfe), “The Fade” (by Chris Wooding), “Auralia’s Colors” (by Jeffrey Overstreet), “Un Lun Dun” (by China Mieville), “Rainbow’s End” – a Hugo award winner! (by Vernor Vinge), “Privilege of The Sword” – a Hugo nominee (by Ellen Kushner), “Wintersmith” (by Terry Prattchet), “Children of Húrin” (by J.R.R.Tolkien), “God’s Demon” (by Wayne Barlowe), “The Last Wish” (by Andrzej Sapkowski), “The Mirador” (by Sarah Monette), “Shadow Bridge” (by Gregory Frost), “Undertow” (by Elizabeth Bear) and “Thunderer” (by Felix Gilman).

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the following novels made it on the “best of” 2007 list: “Deadstock” - available free online version (by Jeffrey Thomas), “Fatal Revenant” (by Stephen R.Donaldson), “Mainspring” (by Jay Lake), “Mistborn: Well of Ascension” (by Brandon Sanderson), “The Metatemporal Detective” (by Michael Moorcock), “The Traitor” (by Michael Cisco), “His Majesty’s Dragon”a Hugo nominee (by Naomi Novik), “The Court of the Air” (by Stephen Hunt), “The Inferior” (by Peadar O Guilin), or “Stealing Light” (by Gary Gibson).

All of the above mentioned titles are worthy of your attention, so go forth, acquire, read and then comment upon - I insist. If you think I’ve done some author or another a terrible injustice by not mentioning him/her please feel free to add them in your comments.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Glen Cook - The Tyranny of the Night (Book Review)

Sha-lug, the slave soliders in the Kaifate of al-Minphet have only two choices – to do, or to die. For that they were bought and for that they were raised. Bringing mummies to the court of Gordimer the Lion, through the Holly Land around the Wells of Irhian was just one the missions that Else found himself doing of late. When a bogon, instrumentality of the night so powerful it could almost be considered a deity, turns up, he deals with it. The new invention, a falcon – blackpowder cannon – loaded with silver coins puts an end to the creature. It also puts Else in a centre of attention he's not even aware of, for how could a mere mortal kill even an almost deity. There's another's attention that he's much more aware of. Else is getting more and more sure that Gordimer, once a slave warrior himself, is trying to get rid of him. When he returns to the Kaif's court at al-Qarn another mission awaits him. To go alone and spy in Brothe, the heart of the of infidels, to see if another crusade for the Wells of Irhian, the Holy Land of Pramans and Chaldarean alike, is brewing.

The description above tries to catch the essence of the beginning of the main story, or perhaps better main character, that we follow through the larger part of the book. And just to make the things clear – all of this happens on the two thirds of the first fifty pages of the book.

Every short description of the book would do it injustice. Glen Cook liberally uses European High Middle Ages, blending together: crusades, pope (and antipope), Jews, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the King of Spain, Janissaries, ruling noble families of Rome caught in everlasting cloak and dagger games for papacy, corruption of the medieval Catholic Church, catharism and it's centre the Languedoc and last, but not least the Vikings and their pantheon. Now add to that the gods, or perhaps the demons, for this is the land where EVERY god truly exists. The strong ones may not meddle in the affairs of mortals, gorging on magic and prayers, but the small ones are an ever present threat which man had learned to live with, and sometimes tame.

All of that has to be told, put in place and woven in the story, and each of these aspects has a different, new name! If you don't have at least a general idea of European medieval history or if you aren't a careful, composed and systematic reader the first hundred, hundred and fifty pages can easily overwhelm you.

So I suppose the main question is: "Is the rest of the book worth the bother?"

In my opinion: yes. But for objectivity's sake I must in the same breath add that I'm Cook's fan. Well, time used to read a book is always well spent, and I think Cook will have a pleasant surprise or two in store for you. He is well practiced storyteller even if some of his books are not to be counted among the top in the genre. His characters are always realistic – they eat, they shit and they f**k and sometimes die doing one of those things. And above all they tend to be cynical to the extreme. In his books there is little place for idealism, but always for great ideas. If for no other reason to show what people do with them.

The Tyranny of the Night, the first book in the series The Instrumentalities of the Night is a rather old book. It was published three years ago - in 2005. The second volume of, I think, trilogy: Lord of the Silent Kingdom was published in the beginning of 2007, and mass paperback just a few months ago. Hopefully I will get my hands on one of those soon.

On this blog we have a habit of ending every review, with some kind of numerical appraisal. For the life of me I couldn't make an objective one, so form me this book gets a big, blue:


(And if you aren’t satisfied you can always go read the book yourself.)

- BlindMan -

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Claymore (anime series) and the new Indiana Jones movie trailer

Claymore is a 2007 anime series, comprising of 26 episodes, with average length of 20 minutes per one episode. Anime's setting is clearly Western European and medieval, with a few fantastical elements. Foremost of them being "Yoma" - evil monsters which feed on human intestines, and "Yoki" - monster's life energy (similar to chi in Eastern Philosophies and/or Religions). Our main protagonist is a claymore named Claire. Claymores are half-human half-yoma beings, equipped with giant swords (hence the name), with a sole purpose to their existence - seek and destroy all Yoma life. Their half-yoma nature gives them preternatural abilities enabling them to fight Yoma, whose strength, speed and overall fighting abilities are far superior to humans. Yomas and Awakened Beings (something like advanced gen Yoma) may camouflage as humans, but their true forms vary considerably - from giant godzilla-like creatures to many limbed arachnids, winged demons and insectoids. Their repulsiveness (evil) is in stark contrast with the beauty of Claymores (good), who just happen to be blonde women, one and all of them, without exception.

The story picks up fast and I held to my seat well past after the middle episodes were behind me. The story of Claire and her personal vendetta against a particular Awakened Being is quite compelling as her power progresses in a similar fashion to roleplaying games. The plot is not as pedestrian as the setting might lead one to believe, but its not as complex or depressing as is the deal with some of the more philosophical animes on the market (Neo Genesis Evangelion, Akira, Ergo Proxy, Gilgamesh etc.).

Claymore is not spotless thought. There are a few notable plot holes and some unnecessary filler content when the series crawls towards its conclusion. The Claymores are quite indistinguishable between each other, even with the different hairdos. The different fighting techniques become too numerous with progression of the series, making them lose some of their initial uniqueness. There are also a lot of unbearable cheesy moments, and that includes the ending itself. Nevertheless, all of the complaints I might have had with Claymore, I still have to admit that I absolutely loved the series and cannot remember the last anime I've enjoyed as much as this one. Highly recommended 4/5

As an aside - the new trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is awesome. Check out the link to watch it in HD.

- Thrinidir -

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Steven Erikson - Blood Follows (Book Review)

I have to admit that the Malazan series is still on my waiting list. I don't know any of the characters, I have no idea even of what it is all about, but Thrinidir gave me Blood Follows to read nonetheless, saying I needn't know anything about previous Erikson's works to enjoy it. Since it is 'only' a novella and therefore not taking much time to read, I gave it a try.

The first thing I've noticed was that the plot flows smoothly throughout the book. Emancipor Reese - married to a woman who gives off an impression that Xanthippe was her kind grandmother, having two kids who are probably not of his own seed and on top of that being followed by a severe case of bad luck - is a character you can't help but sympathise with, even though you never really get attached to him. With his employers getting constantly killed – many of those in odd ways, he can't help but to fruitlessly search for a new job over and over again. This time around, the gods may be finally smiling upon him, since he managed to apply for a job and get it, all in the same evening, and on top of that, he does it while being dead drunk.

Sgt.Guld is another POV character, conducting his duty as a kind of detective, trying to solve the mysterious murders haunting the city of Lamentable Moll. Erikson, however, avoids the traditional trope of a detective and rather depicts Guld as a cross–over between a guard, an examiner and a simply curious subject.

Erikson's style clearly shows competence, skill and experience, not to mention a rich vocabulary (well, to be perfectly honest, it almost feels like Erikson is showing it off a bit in the beginning, using as many unusual words as possible, and as a non-native speaker, I had some problems with that – but it is a small gripe that can be easily ignored by reading the meaning of the words out of the context).

As I've already mentioned before, the world of Malazan is not only unknown, but also a riddle to me – as well as to most of you who are familiar with it (or so I've heard), therefore I felt a bit lost at particular moments, with all the secondary characters parading about. With the plot tugging at you to keep reading, the unfamiliarity with the universe, however, represents just a minor distraction. But regaring the pacing and the plot not everything is perfect, as I found the quick uncoiling of the story at the end quite dissapointing, since the beginning and the middle part seemed to offer more. I guess I'll have to read the main series to discover the potential hidden behind this novel. To sum it up: for a reader, who has never read any of the Malazan books, many questions regarding not the story itself, but the characters and wider setting, stay undisclosed. A few pieces of the puzzle fall together in the last few pages, but the picture that it offers is not entirely satisfying.

The novella gives an overall impression of a mix of horror, fantasy and detective fiction, an easy read but interesting nonetheless. The plot includes some bizzare, extraordinary (but nonetheless compelling) characters and a lot of subtle sparks of humour. The reading experience is probably different for those who've read the series (and thus know some of the characters in Blood Follows at least briefly), but this novella makes a worthy reading either way.

3,5/5 (reviewer)
3,5/5 (Thrinidir)


Monday, February 11, 2008

Scott Lynch - The Lies of Locke Lamora (Book Review)

Camorr, a bustling city-state reminiscent of renaissance Venice, full of prosperous merchants and boisterous nobility, whose riches are ripe for the taking for those daring and smart enough to evade the consequence of being caught – a hang man’s noose on the Black Bridge. A small band of master-thieves, naming themselves the Gentlemen Bastards, and their ingenious garrista Locke Lamora, believe themselves just the ones for the job…until one of their most ambitious con-jobs goes awry, as the Midnighters - the Duke’s secret police - get a whiff of their trail, and the ruling seat of Capa Barsavi, a godfather like figure of Camorr’s underground, is being played against by the mysterious Grey King, whose identity and motivation eludes all.

Scott Lynch is a magnanimous new talent, who provided us with a playful, stylish, rich and shadowy debut sprinkled with high-octane thrill rides, witty dialogue and intriguing and well defined characters. The flash-back subchapters explain the genesis of the Gentlemen Bastards and reveal their childhood backgrounds, thus making their choices and motivations more transparent. These flash-backs might disrupt the pacing a bit, but are more intriguing and definitely preferable to large info-dumps taking the form of whole paragraphs/chapters.

One of the biggest advantages of Lies of Locke Lamora is the unparalleled world-building – the living and breathing city of Camorr, a most vivid experience for a susceptible audience. One can almost smell the stench of the canals, through which various barges plough in a similar way that cars navigate our cities. Camorr feels dense, smelly, busy, corrupted, but what is most important: never unrealistic and always shifting, just like a real metropole should be. The sea life and the decadent festivals that take place upon which, where prisoners and paid mercenaries fight ferocious, unrelenting and unique sea predators in an gladiator like manner, are also unnaturally tangible.

Locke Lamora and his fellow Bastards are possibly not always the most sympathetic of people, nonetheless all of the characters deserve the reader's respect, since their actions comply with the rules of plausibility and can be thus rationally explained, when exposed to scrutiny.

The narrative flows smoothly as Lynch is obviously a competent (an understatement!) storyteller and a most able writer in making. Lies of Locke Lamora is an utterly compulsive page-turner, I haven’t got the slightest idea, when it was the last time that I was so spellbound by a book until it was finished.

Some reviews I’ve managed to read present the book and especially the dialogue as intrinsically funny, but while I’d agree that Lynch is an intelligent writer with a sense of humour, I would not comment on the book as saturated or marked extensively by these “lighter” elements. The comparisons drawn between LoLL and the Ocean’s movie saga (Ocean’s 11, Ocean’ 12 and Ocean’s 13) is not completely undue (intelligent and able crooks, stealing from the rich, heist as the prevalent focus of the plot, occasional humorous banter etc.) but not entirely accurate either (LoLL has some “darker” elements than the movies mentioned in comparison, it is also not as overtly optimistic in tone, neither is as polished).

Despite all the praise, the book deserves just criticism as well. One of the rare things that bothered me, but it did so profoundly, is the resolution of the main plot and the ending. Without giving away too much, I must confess that I found the machinations behind the main storyline quite prosaic in comparison to what I was being led to expect from the sheer brilliance of exposition and ingeniousness of the main protagonists – especially Locke Lamora and his ability to outwit the devil himself. Also, the power of magic is just off-the-scale ridiculous and suspiciously feels like a deus ex machina that topples anything that stands in its path and as well covers for the plot holes, especially those behind Grey King’s unexplained power. The other thing that bothered me as well, is the occasional grittiness or rather bloodiness of the tale, which contrasts the more prevalent neutral-storytelling in quite an ungainly manner (for this reader anyway; and I am usually not against explicit content).

All things said, Lies of Locke Lamora remains one of the most visceral, compelling and fun fantasy reads that I’ve managed to lay my eyes upon. By now, the second part of the Gentlemen Bastard series (seven books are announced), Red Seas Under Red Skies, is already available and the third book is on the way; therefore if you like what you’ve read in this review and if you enjoy light but well written and highly exuberant read, I warmly suggest that you get your hands on your own copy of the book, it is definitely worth your time (and other resources as well).


- Thrinidir -

Friday, February 1, 2008

Brian Ruckley - Winterbirth (Book Review)

In many ways, Winterbirth, author’s debut and the first part of The Godless World trilogy, is just another standard epic fantasy, bursting with clichés. It includes:

- Good Guys of moderate nobility, who do nothing wrong at all and would like to enjoy their lives in blissful inactivity they are privileged with. Instead, they have to send half of their armed forces south, because the Internal Foes (who happen to be the country's sovereign, his right hand and some of the other high-positioned nobility) are being selfish bastards. And as if that wasn't enough, the External Foes come and ruin their lives further. But there is no question about the Good Guys being as righteous and proud as it gets – they will fight until the very (bitter) end.

- Internal Foes, who are not enemies in the traditional sense of the word, but represent the unwanted governance over the Good Guys. Their greed and ambition makes them forget their ancient enemies and instead, they take on the idea of conquering the rich and fertile south. Their motivation is based on their spoiled and misled nature.

- External Foes, who are actually outcasts from the past. They reside in the frozen North and they start the war by brutally slaying the innocent populace of Glas Valley – but, it is the only way to get back the land that was taken from them. There’s no thing like home, even though it’s littered with corpses and ruin.

- The 'hero' of the story, who is, in fact, a mere youth without any unusual powers and/or knowledge (but of notable bravery). He is in fact just a run-away from the war, being protected by a motley crew assembled with various outcasts, but who are surprisingly, not trying to put up revenge. At least not until the war is done with.

I could continue, but it would be of no use, because even though Winterbirth is filled with clichés like these (mentioned above), it can be and is (in overall) quite an enjoying read, once you get past the first hundred pages or so – the interesting part starts with the celebration at the beginning of the winter, called Winterbirth (where the book got its name from).

Why, you ask?
Winterbirth is Brian Ruckley's debut, and even though his writing style is good (far from outstanding, but I noticed no bigger flaws that would put me off), his lack of experience becomes painfully obvious when it comes to names.

There are 12 different Bloods (allegory for noble families), an excruciating number of different places and even more significant count of people –Ruckley mentions all of them casually during the beginning chapters, scribing them into every description and naming every minor character until the reader gets completely lost and is tempted to start skipping names altogether. Which is a shame, since there could be many pleasant 'Ah, I remember that one!' moments when the story evolves further on. But since, at least at the very beginning, every single person, from maidservants to simple by-passers, is named in full (usually one has two first and two last names), and every road has its origin and end-destination mentioned, usually crossing some river or another and passing through various (un)important cities (which are often even named alike – Kolglas, Koldihrve, Kolkyre, for an instance), a reader can't really be blamed if (s)he gets lost in all the name throwing-about. But we can get past that, since Winterbirth is Ruckley’s debut and at least another two Godless World books are on horizon – he probably just made a mistake by being too eager to explain everything at once.

Luckily, the feeling more or less passes after the story grabs hold and starts to pull. There are less names saturating the pages (which is somewhat logical, since there are less insignificant characters contending for our attention), and the story picks up with intensity. Winterbirth is not the 'I can't put it down' type of book, but it is definitely an interesting enough easy-read, just waiting to be munched over on vacations, when bored or when in need of a light-fantasy fare. There are no convulted conspiracies or secrets (yet?) to spice up the story, so there is no need to memorize all the things that look as they might be of some importance. Winterbirth is a pretty straightforward tale and the plot can be pretty predictable for an experienced reader. And while Winterbirth does not deliver any great surprises or twists, I nevertheless found it to be a worthy free-time consumer.

For those interested, there is a bit of history of the world itself included, and Ruckley includes some serious world-building; sometimes a bit tedious, at least at the beginning (endless descriptions with endless names included), but this tendency calms down in time, though without it, the book would perhaps be more memorable than it is. And while certainly it is not the kind of book you put on your bookshelf and forget about it, it is neither a guaranteed re-reading material, nor it is meant to be included on your favourites list. It is a pretty straight-forward classic fantasy epic, and that is all you are going to get... an interesting plot and easy enough read, but definitely not an essential one. There’s one thing though … I believe that the sequel might be better. Ruckley, after all, still has time to develop his promising skill and correct the deficiencies that are currently separating Winterbirth from being a really memorable read.
~ Trin ~


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