Agents of Dreamland

August 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

agentsAgents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Agents of Dreamland is my first exposure to Caitlín Kiernan. I’ve known of her for a long time (I even had a copy of Silk for a long time), but she never pinged my radar enough for me to read her work. Later, I found a quote of hers where she discarded the use of plot in creative writing, and I, being a function-over-form reader, figured she wasn’t for me. I kept hearing good things about this novella, though, and I figured it was time to try her out.

I’m glad I did, because what I found is a story that has some plot (just enough, really), but excels for its use of language, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a piece that draws on The X-Files as much as Lovecraft, and it paints a picture of a moment that presents a terrible future. It flows through time, and introduces us to a couple of characters who appear to be on the same side, but are only marginally so. We don’t get caught up in their relationship, nor are we presented with the characters in such a way that we find ourselves immediately relating to and caring for them, but that’s not the point of the story, so it’s hard to complain about it.

Kiernan has an hallucinatory style to her narrative that’s a perfect fit for a story like this. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors have always resembled something from a bad acid trip, and here we have a writer who embraces that style with her writing. She also peppers the story with some named horrors lifted right out of our reality, giving the book a sense of reality, and reminding us that we don’t have to look far to find something to fear. The novella is an unsettling piece of work.

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure if her style would sustain me over the length of an entire novel, but I’m more willing to give her a shot now than I was before. Agents of Dreamland strikes me as a perfect starting point for Kiernan. I can see that she wouldn’t be a writer for just anyone (heck, the jury’s still out on whether she’s one for me), but readers who like the dark and questionable and enjoy stories that aren’t traditionally told should give her a chance.

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Saga: Volume Seven

July 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

saga7Saga: Volume Seven by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

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Saga is fantastic. It’s so good, it’s hard for me to be objective about it. I understand why people like it, and I understand why some people are put off by it, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s some of the best graphic storytelling out there.

What makes it work so well (and what makes any good story work so well) is the characters. Marko and Alana, our protagonists, embody the Romeo and Juliet characters, and once Hazel, their daughter, gets involved, they become that much more likeable. The antagonists (and there are several) are all out to kill them, for different reasons, but Vaughan gives them more traits than just being assassins. He makes them likeable in their own way, or at least sympathetic, and the interplay of all the characters across the comic make for some powerful storytelling.

Volume Seven continues with that trend, giving us more insight into the family dynamic of Marko and Alana and Hazel (and all who make up their extended family), giving us joy and happiness, sorrow and grief, and an ending that will break your heart. Vaughan continues to create worlds and beings that are original, and Staples continues drawing them in just the right way to inspire awe, fear, or wonder, depending on the context. The two work so well together that it’s impossible to imagine the series without both of them.

So, Saga. Check it out. You’ll know within just a few pages of Volume One whether it’s for you (yes, you’ll know), but if it is, then you have an astounding world ahead of you. It keeps getting better as the story progresses.

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Perfect State

July 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

perfectPerfect State by Brandon Sanderson

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It seems like whenever I read a Brandon Sanderson novella, I learn of another Brandon Sanderson novella that’s escaped my attention. I wasn’t aware of Perfect State until I finished Snapshot, so of course I had to add it to my list. I started and finished it a lot faster than I expected.

Perfect State starts off telling us about an emperor who is immortal and all-powerful (well, almost; he’s still working on controlling the weather), but it quickly veers out of fantasy and straight into science fiction when we discover that the emperor is living in a computer simulation. This isn’t a spoiler, mind you; it’s revealed within the first ten pages or so. What makes it interesting is that the emperor knows he’s living in a simulation, and that his powers come from the master computer that runs the simulation. It hasn’t stopped him from ruling for hundreds of years and finding more and more challenges to keep him engaged. Then he receives a mandate from the master computer, to find a woman (a liveborn woman, not a Construct) and mate with her. The computer even gives him a list of available women, ranked by compatibility, to make it easier for him.

Sanderson creates an interesting world here, and it’s easy to like Kairominas, the emperor, but the story seems like it has too much wasted potential. There’s nothing extraneous to the story, mind you, but to spend so much time creating this kind of world and using it for such a brief story makes it feel underutilized. I’d like to know more about the other liveborns in their own worlds, and how they feel about being pawns in a simulation. Maybe Sanderson was trying to avoid the tropes of this kind of story, but I can’t help but feel like this is a setting ripe for a larger, more complex kind of story.

Knowing Sanderson as an author, though, there’s a good chance that he’ll revisit this world to tell those other stories. I imagine he’ll stick with telling them using novellas, which will limit the scope of the setting, but maybe he could write them as a series of its own, creating a novel-length story over the span of four or five novellas. That’s just me dreaming, though; there’s no indication this is Sanderson’s plan.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It was better than the Legion stories, but not as good as The Emperor’s Soul. It’s probably on the same level as Snapshot, which is fitting, since that’s the story that led me to Perfect State. The hardcore Sanderson fans will like it best, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an entry point for readers new to him. It just doesn’t show off his strongest talents.

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The Obelisk Gate

July 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

gateThe Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

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After the brilliance of The Fifth Season, I was hesitant to get my hopes up too much for its sequel. Sometimes trilogies that start off strong can peter out over the course of the remaining books, and I didn’t want to have too high expectations to appreciate the novel. I shouldn’t have worried, as Jemisin brings the same attention to detail and character to The Obelisk Gate as she did with The Fifth Season.

The book picks up right after the events of The Fifth Season, continuing to tell Essun’s tale. We still have the alternating chapters, some of them told in the second person, but that second person narration is now more than just a stylistic choice. It wasn’t in The Fifth Season, though that wasn’t apparent at first, but here that choice becomes more apparent.

Essun, now a part of a new comm, is continuing to learn new abilities and growing her strength. That this new comm is made up of orogenes who work out in the open is encouraging, as is the fact that she finds Alabaster again, after ten years. Now that the Earth is entering its latest, longest season, the different comms are preparing for the worst, which means they’re fighting each other for the supplies they’ll need during the hibernation.

Despite Essun finding a comm, and losing her lead on Nassun, her daughter, the story is still about her search for her daughter. In this book, we get to hear Nassun’s story from her perspective, seeing how she feels about Essun, Jija, and everyone else who orbits her life. It’s shocking in some ways, heart-breaking in others, but above all it’s engaging, especially when we consider how the reunion between them will go (because the way the story is going, there has to be a reunion).

The story is shaping up to be a tragedy, which is to be expected. After Essun lost two children in the previous book, lost her remaining daughter to an unstable husband, and after Alabaster set out to destroy the Earth, there’s no way it could be otherwise, but Jemisin still gives us hope — hope of reunion, hope of redemption, and hope of a better Earth. Whether she continues this trend with The Stone Sky is yet to be seen, but she’s bucked expectations up to this point, so why have any regarding the third book?

The Broken Earth is shaping up to be my favorite read of the year, and N.K. Jemisin is shaping up to be a new favorite author. I regret not reading her fiction in publication order, because I get the feeling her other novels will be shades of this series, but I plan on reading all of her work. She’s just too good a writer to do otherwise.

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Reunion

July 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

reunionReunion by Rick Hautala

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I tried re-reading Rick Hautala’s books last year, but gave up on them three books into his bibliography. They weren’t that substantial, and I questioned his portrayal of women in his stories, so I moved on to other writers. This year, I discovered I had a novella of his among my e-books, and figured I would give him another shot.

Reunion is the story of a young boy, thirteen, who’s out camping with his best friend when they get it into their head to crash a party out at the country club. Parallel to this story is one involving John, a man in his mid-forties who’s desperately trying to attend his class reunion. The two stories intersect in strange ways, and Jackie, the thirteen-year old, is given much to consider.

This isn’t a horror story, though it has some supernatural elements to it that probably make it fantasy, though even that is a judicious use of the term. Hautala has to bring his two main characters together, and he uses the simplest method possible to do it. The story isn’t about its fantasy, though; it’s about the lesson Jackie has to learn.

One of Hautala’s skills is in capturing the emotions of his characters (I still have a vivid memory of how menacing a croquet mallet was in Dark Silence), and he uses them to great effect in this story. We have to understand John’s emotions to understand his part in the story, and we have to understand Jackie’s emotions to understand the consequences of the events, and we get them through the story. That the story is a little underwhelming isn’t the fault of the emotions as much as it is the structure of the story.

Hautala spends a lot of time creating John, the adult character, though the structure suggests he’s a bit of an incidental character. The story starts out alternating chapters between Jackie and John, but once John has served his purpose, his chapters stop, even though we’re only about halfway through the novella. I expected the novella to maintain that structure, so it was odd when it veered off in a different direction. It’s necessary to get John’s point of view to get the whole story, but how Hautala incorporates the two stories doesn’t feel natural.

Reunion shows me I shouldn’t dismiss Hautala due to his earlier works, but neither does it make me want to run out and read everything else he wrote. I have a couple of his later novels in my to-read stack, which I still plan to read, but beyond that, I’m just not that interested. Maybe those other novels will change my mind (especially if they’re structured more naturally).

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The Fifth Season

July 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

seasonThe Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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Five stars is not enough for this book.

The Stillness is an alternate Earth that is plagued by seismic activity. On an irregular schedule, the Stillness erupts, sending enough ash and other debris into the air to cause a lengthy winter, known as a Fifth Season. Among the Stillness are a handful of extraordinary people known as orogenes, who can control the movements of the Stillness, either preventing such cataclysmic events or causing them. The Fifth Season takes us to the time when the largest and longest Fifth Season is just beginning.

The story revolves around three independent stories:

Essun, an orogene, has just learned her husband has murdered their son and taken theirdaughter from their village, because he learned they, too, were orogenes. She leaves on a quest to find him, not just to save her daughter, but also to kill him herself.

Daimya, a young orogene, has been taken by a Guardian to take her to the Fulcrum, where she will learn to manage her powers. The Fulcrum does not promise an easy life; orogenes who don’t learn control are removed from the Fulcrum, but are not returned to their earlier lives.

Syenite, a four-ring orogene from the Fulcrum, is sent on a journey with Alabaster, a ten-ring orogene, to help a town. Syenite doesn’t know what help they are to provide, because she is a lowly four-ringer. Along the way, it is expected for the two of them to mate in order to create another orogene. That neither of them can stand the other is immaterial, to them or to the Fulcrum.

Jemisin reveals the world of the Sanze Empire to us through each character instead of using info-dumps. She writes with an ease that belies the complexity of the story and her characters. She writes Essun’s story in the second person, which struck me as questionable, but became easier to understand as the story progressed. In the end, there’s a good reason for this choice, but it takes time to understand it. Her characters are vivid and real, their relationships honest and convincing.

The Fifth Season is a fantastic, powerful book. It requires patience, and benefits from reading it slowly and methodically, which is a challenge, since you won’t want to leave the story. I read this book over the span of about three weeks, a chapter at a time, which gave me time to consider each section and piece it together with what came before. The story will linger in your mind, like a haunting melody or a youthful memory.

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The Two of Swords: Part Fifteen

June 12, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords15The Two of Swords: Part Fifteen by K.J. Parker

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This installment of The Two of Swords — the last one to become available — was published in April 2016. According to Amazon, the next installment won’t be available until June of this year. That’s over one whole year that’s passed since Parker last released a chapter of this story. I can’t imagine waiting that long for it; heck, I’m impatient to wait the four months until then! The good news is Parker at least brought the story to a good stopping point before taking that hiatus.

For one, we finally learn the ultimate goal of the Lodge. I’m not going to tell you what that is, but rest assured, we do get an answer. (Maybe. Lord knows, Parker hasn’t been playing us completely straight this whole time, so who’s to say he’s not throwing us another red herring?) We also get a few new characters, revisit some we’ve seen before, and start to see how all these various plot points are coming together. As it is, if Parker had to break the story at a point before taking some time away from the story, he picked the right place for it.

There are actually two chapters to this installment, which was odd, but makes sense, since the second one was only about twelve pages long. It was weird seeing them break within the same ebook, but I understand once this is complete, it will be published as a single volume, so if nothing else, this setup gives us a taste of that. Plus, this isn’t the first time Parker has put two chapters in one installment; it’s just the other one was only three extra pages.

So, I’m kinda bummed that it’s over, but I’m looking forward to what remains. Part Fifteen wraps up some of the loose ends, but we still have a lot of frays that need mending. As good as this first half (?) has been, the second half should be mighty impressive.

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The Two of Swords: Part Fourteen

June 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords14The Two of Swords: Part Fourteen by K.J. Parker

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It seems a little late in the story to be bringing in new characters, but Parker does exactly that in Part Fourteen. Chanso, the archer who shot Corason in the last chapter, becomes our point-of-view character, through which we get to see the devastation of war (again), along with some insight into the Lodge. The Lodge has been presented to us as a well-meaning, duplicitous-yet-honorable group that (maybe?) wants what’s best for everyone at the end. The problem is that the ends justify the means, as we see in this installment.

As the story began, I had reservations, since we were dropped into a new group of people, and had to learn about them for most of the chapter. It seemed like a bad time to be bringing in new characters, since the main story felt like it was nearing a pivotal moment, but of course I should have trusted Parker. This chapter, like the Lodge’s actions, was a means to the end, which was to give us further insight into the war and its history. Parker does a great job of showing us complex events through the eyes of people who have only a tenuous grasp of the larger picture, and Chanso is another of those characters.

The good news is the chapters are getting longer again, so it feels like we’re making progress; the bad news is there’s a lot of new exposition to wade through to get to that progress. Whenever I start to question the relevance of where Parker’s taking us, I try to remember that I’ve trusted him this far, and that my trust hasn’t been misplaced. I need to keep moving forward, knowing that Parker is going to give us what we want, even if it’s going to be a little longer getting it than we would like.

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The Two of Swords: Part Thirteen

June 6, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords13The Two of Swords: Part Thirteen by K.J. Parker

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True to form, Part Thirteen picks up immediately after the end of Part Twelve, as Corason rides out of town. Immediately, Corason picks up someone trailing him, who he ultimately learns is Eudaemonia Frontizoriastes. She wears a veil, which put me in mind of Lysao, from Part Eight, but it turns out she’s someone different. She’s from the East, where women can be ordained as agents, so maybe that gives us an additional clue regarding Lysao? Possibly. It’s Parker, so we’ll have to guess until we know for sure.

This is a short chapter (24 pages!), but that’s probably for the best. Corason is annoying, and while Eudaemonia is more interesting, their banter is a little tiresome. What redeems the chapter is what we learn about the war. Something curious is going on, which could mean that Forza is still alive (no one seems to believe he is, but Parker hasn’t shown us a body yet, either), or it could mean something else. What that something else could be, though, is still a mystery. Maybe. Parker writes in such a way that he doesn’t give you all the answers explicitly, though all the answers are in the story. I’m not paying close enough attention to get it all.

I’ve seen people complain about the price of each chapter, and with Part Thirteen, I can begin to understand it. I mean, if this book runs 23 chapters, I will have paid $22.77, which is still cheaper than a lot of hardcover books, but to pay the same price for 24 pages when the other chapters run 50-70 pages, I can sort of understand it. Of course, this far along, I’ll keep paying for them as they release them. I can’t deny that it works as a marketing ploy.

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The Two of Swords: Part Twelve

June 5, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords12The Two of Swords: Part Twelve by K.J. Parker

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So, we get another look into the Musen/Axeo relationship, though it doesn’t start off that way. These guys aren’t my favorite characters in the series, so it’s hard to muster up a lot of interest for them, though the story (such as it is) keeps me interested. The chapters now seem more about individual adventures, which is good for the chapters, but less for the overall story. It seems like it’s ticking along slowly, though the more we see of the other characters in the story, the more we learn of the Lodge and its machinations.

As usual, Parker’s style and narrative carries the chapter, as the banter between Musen and Axeo is sharp and witty. We see the relationship from Musen’s viewpoint this time, which is nice, since he’s such a quiet character. We also learn more about his loyalties, to the Lodge and to other interests, which is a nice aside, since Musen has come across as such a selfish, self-interested character thus far. That could be why he’s not one of my favorite characters, but with what we learn here, he becomes a little more sympathetic.

Part Twelve is a bit lackluster, but it keeps the larger story moving along enough to keep my interest. I’m winding down to the last of the available chapters. I feel like I should start pacing myself, but it’s hard, when the end (for now, at least) is in sight. It looks like Part Sixteen won’t be available until June, so I’ll have plenty of time to let the story settle before picking it back up again.

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