Category Archives: Reviews

2014 reading: Short Stories.

I fell well short of my goal to read 100 short stories in 2014. Two stories a week, every week, sounded manageable. It wasn’t. This year I’m going for 52 shorts stories: One a week.

My reviews of (most of) the 2014 stories I read are here, with links to the stories where they’re available online.

January:

“A Letter from Your Mother” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley in Daily Science Fiction (DSF) was a good little flash fiction in epistolary form that used one voice to develop two well realised characters and the relationship between them.

“The night my Dad became English” by Joseph O’Connor in the Irish Independent was a reflective piece from a son to his father, which touched on issues of family, identity, nation-hood and those decisions we make in our lives which shape who we are to be.

“In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape” by Jeremiah Tolbert inLightspeed Magazine mixed a lot of stylistic and genre ingredients – some quite new, others a little cliched – into an interesting near-future sci-fi about our place in the universe.

“Apotheosis” by Rosamund Hodge in the Lightspeed Magazine was a Fantasy piece exploring the meaning of divinity and the role of the deity in societies. It had a number of imaginative elements in its world, and was stylistically like a parable or myth more so than a modern narrative.

“After the Trains Stopped” by J Kyle Turner in DSF was a great story about an Artificially Intelligent (and empathetic) factory.  It developed its central premise (and character) well, but for me its greatest strength was the creeping Horror element.

“The Next Generation” by Michael Adam Robson in DSF was a short sci-fi in the old-school sense of a scientist struggling with the moral implications of his invention. It runs along a relatively predictable path where the creation surpasses its creator, and the last line lays on the moral a little thick.

February:

“Baby Feet” by Rene Sears in DSF was a sci-fi invasion story told from an interesting perspective. I really engaged with the character and her circumstances. Unfortunately the ending came in thick lumps of expository dialogue.

“Saltcedars” by Shannon Peavey in DSF was an alternative world fantasy with an interesting central concept. The world was nicely built and the main character realised. It was well crafted and structured, right until the final sentence, which I think dropped with a clunk and robbed the ending of some of its power.

“Mermaid” by Jonathan Schneeweis in DSF was the second mermaid-related story I have read in the last few weeks, and I think the better of the two, despite – or perhaps because of – being less complex. There is some foreshadowing which is a little too obvious, but the turn in the narrative was good and the recurring motif of the counting of ribs was a nice way to tie it all together.

“The Seventeen Executions of Signore Don Vashta” by Peter M Ballin DSF was an excellent tale of an unlikely friendship between a man who would not stay dead and the man who was once his executioner. In the interests of full disclosure, I know Peter through a friend. The quality of this story though should speak for itself. The narrative voice is engaging and the development of the relationship between the characters very well handled.

“The Devil as a White Swan” by Jane Ormond in Machines Will Not Give Change (a print anthology produced by Cardigan Press) is a more Lit-fic flash fiction about a gift given by an insensitive man and the relationship break-up that precipitates. It’s a flash fiction piece, at about 500 words, and opens with a strong tone, but I found the first person subjective a little suffocating and the inner monologue was hard for me to relate to.

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” by LaShawn M. Wanak in Strange Horizons was a story about the ways we can change our lives. The central premise seemed initially to be quite limited, but Wanak took it into such interesting dimensions. The narrator, and the narrator’s mother, worked well together to give opposing perspectives on the phenomenon of the spiral staircases, and the style made palatable what might otherwise have been heavy-handed symbolism. It took me a few false starts, but I really enjoyed this one.

March:

“Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado in Strange Horizons was amazing. The story is kinda NSFW, tracing the life of the narrator through her sexual encounters, but not graphic. Machado allows the back-story to come through gradually, seeping into the tale and growing – dare I say spreading – until it overwhelms. I sat a moment after reading this and just appreciated it. Really a great piece of writing.

“Walking Home” by Catherine Krahe in DSF had a well-realised protagonist whom it was easy to empathise with. The fantasy elements were minimal and had little direct influence on the plot, but there was a sense of the setting being second-world and the world building was revealed gradually to have depth and texture. It seemed to take a while to get going, and to end abruptly, but I enjoyed it.

“Litany of the Family Bean” by Gemma Files in Strange Horizons is not actually a short story, it being filed under poetry, but I include it here because it did feel as if it had narrative qualities and the setting and characters I found fascinating. The use of language early in the piece was evocative and drew me in. The shock value of the opening  fell away quickly, replaced by a curiosity which wasn’t quite sated. Always leave them wanting more, I suppose.

“How to Become a Robot” by A.Merc Rustad in Scigentasy used a variety of story-telling forms and techniques to assemble an interesting narrative which explored gender and identity and belonging. Strong characterization and surprisingly effective use of 1st and 2nd person shifts.
“Like Bread” by Patricia Russo in SQ Mag was character focused with a sense of otherworldliness. Interesting structure which allowed for foreshadowing and a building of tension/suspense.
“The Church of Asag” by Cameron Trost in SQ Ma was built on a good concept, with interesting use of setting. At times overly direct in exposition. Rushed/unsatisfying ending.
“Codename Delphi” by Linda Nagata in Lightspeed was Sci-Fi (ish). Near future with a focus on remote and drone warfare. Well structured and communicated the frenetic balancing act well. Simple, linear plot.
April :
“The Final Girl” by Shira Lipkin in Strange Horizons was a good meta-horror piece, reminiscent both of Freddy Kruger and Whedon’s Cabin.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Childrenby Gabriel Garcia Marquez was just wonderful. Utterly wonderful.
“The Armies of Elfland” by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick  inLightspeed has a really fascinating opening, but then let’s fall away some of its most original images and concepts and almost – thankfully never entirely – reverts to familiar tropes. Some cliche moments drop in with a thud, but engaging and interesting throughout.
“Select Mode” by Mark Lawrence and available for free on his websiteprovides a good example of Jorg’s voice and Lawrence’s style, and of the fusion of Fantasy and SciFi typical in his work.
“Alsiso” by KJ Bishop in Lightspeed was a narrative without a protagonist, unless a lexeme can be protagonist. Tracing the history of a word through elevation, deterioration, semantic shift and all manner of reclassifications and transmutations, the author gives an insight into an evolving culture that makes it’s way from foreign to familiar. Cleverly written and enjoyable to read.
May:
“Zombie” by Chuck Palahniuk in Playboy (link is sfw) was a thought provoking story of dissatisfaction and confusion. It wades full into the despair of modernity, lashes celebrity, consumerist culture, and yet finds some hope in modern hyper-connectivity. Written with a beautifully direct, conversationalist style.
“Abomination Rises of Filthy Wings” by Rachel Swirsky in Apex Magazine was a very difficult story to read. A trigger warning is given, with cause. Apparently written to show that a domestic/relationship revenge fantasy could be readable, the result is genuinely disturbing. The mix of sexual dominion and the domesticity of the violence was horrific, as was the brutality and contempt, unhidden behind a gossamer-thin veil of the supernatural. A compelling but difficult story: undeniably well-written but not enjoyable.
“A Tank Only Fears Four Things” by Seth Dickinson in Lightspeed was a good exploration of PTSD in some alt-history, alt-Earth that is disturbingly familiar and yet suffuses with novelty. The Russian ethnicity adds a sense of the other, but ultimately is tangential. The story never quite fulfills the promise of its title and opening line, undercutting the fantastic element for metaphor.
“Paperclips and Memories and Things That Won’t be Missed” by Caroline M Yoachim in Apex Magazine was a beautiful, touching story. At times almost horror, at times melancholy, at times strangely beatific. I keep wanting to use the word ‘haunting’, which would be accurate but rather trite.
“Schrödinger’s Outlaw” by Matthew W Baugh in DSF was a very short short. The opening paragraphs had a well set scene, conveyed economically and without the exposition seeming too lumpy. The protag’s voice was clear. From there it fell into a sadly predictable path. The most harmful thing, for me was that it fundamentally misunderstood its central premise. Schrödinger’s cat is not ‘dead or alive’, but ‘dead-and-alive’ – the whole paradox hinges on the superposition of two simultaneous, yet contradictory states. By then end this seemed a bad pun that went too far.
June:
“Mephisto” by Alan Baxter in DSF was a well-contained tale. Tight and lean.  Baxter uses the dichotomies well, the crowd’s adoration and the magician’s hatred in return. The showmanship and pretense serves well to orient and then disorient the reader. It’s a creeping horror, more apprehension than fear, really. Baxter shows his hand artfully at the end, the exposition delivered but not dropped upon the reader, revealed but not ruined.
“Days Like These” by Erica L Satifka in DSF was a good Sc-Fi concept well handled. The protagonist was vividly drawn, as was the world in which he lived. The uncertainty was maintained well throughout, and the reliability of the narrator gradually questioned.
It is more a back-handed compliment than a criticism to say that it left me wanting more, but the ending was a little dissatisfying.
“Anyway Angie” by Daniel Jose Older, published by Tor, was a case of a good character and great atmospheric prose. The first person worked, the characterization and exposition of back-story was smoothly given without chunks. I found my way to this via Kameron Hurley, whose novel I am reading. It shares a bug motif, which here is used effectively for horror. The story did feel dislocated though, perhaps I wanted it to be an excerpt of some larger work, or perhaps that balance of what the reader was given and what the reader had to infer was ever-so-slightly awry. A good story though. I’d read more.
“Trigger Warning Breakfast” was published in various places (I read ithere). This anonymous story is a punch in the guts. Perhaps a webcomic, perhaps an illustrated narrative, it is told with short, stark sentences, crudely but effectively illustrated. A very powerful and personal piece.
July
“Polynia” (available to read through Tor) is familiar in China Mieville’s oeuvre. Weird and fantastic, a London familiar and yet changed, the narrator slightly distant from their own narration, hints of politics, a cameo from a rail-road, clever wordplay, impressive prose. The vocabulary is accessible, the core concept visually arresting and ultimately unresolved. The changes in the world are accepted because there’s nothing else to do than to accept them.

August

“Selkie Stories are for Losers” appeared in Strange Horizons and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It is a mix of the modern working class domestic narrative and ancient myth/fairytale. It’s told cleverly, through narrative denial and breadcrumbs of exposition. At times the short segments felt a little too isolated from each other, and only in re-reading could they be more comfortably pieced together. That’s a minor quibble on a well told story though.

“The Turing Test” appeared in Lightspeed Magazine. I liked the subject matter, but to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the concept of the Turing Test the ‘twist’ was easily picked (perhaps at fault here is the title?), and the second part seemed unnecessary. The dialogue was very good, and the prose flowed smoothly. Didn’t seem to do very much with its length though.
“Resurrection Points” appeared in Strange Horizons and attracted deserved acclaim. It was beautifully written. An insight into my own world through a different lens. Terrifying in the banality of violence and death, and in the sense of hopelessness or inevitability. The ending was a touch bathetic, but that’s a minor quibble on an outstanding story.
“Stone Hunger” appeared in Clarkesworld. I struggled with this one early. It felt like I was flailing for meaning, no foundation to build on. The tense was a barrier for me. Once we were in the city though things got very good, very quickly. I loved many of the concepts, clashing powers as taste sensations, the stone-eater turned sentient statue, the city of monsters. Once into it, I really enjoyed it. Very descriptive and with a strong narrative voice.
September:
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal was publishedby Tor.com. It’s a beautiful story. An alt-history retro-futurist Sci-Fi. A return to a more classical Sci-Fi, where space faring and punch-card programmes and the mystery of Mars loomed large. It’s a story infused with dying and departing, concerned with what legacy each generation leaves to the next. As mid20thC sci-fi has left its legacy on this generation. An atypical protagonist – past middle-aged and female – is drawn with tender realism, and the difficulty of her dilemmas is frankly, honestly drawn. The ending ties the threads together in a satisfying, if somewhat convenient, solution.
“Wikihistory” was also from Tor.com. A clever little story told as a series of forum posts and dealing with tropes of time travel and determinism. It tests out Godwin’s Law, and presents us with an alternative view of cultural assumptions. The plot-premise is familiar, but this is a fresh approach.
“Enemy States” by Karin Lowachee was published by Apex (and part of their Military Sci-Fi anthology) It was an epistolary narrative, and frequently told in the second person. I found that it shifted in time in curious ways, sometimes in ways hard to follow.
It did have moments of beauty, both in terms of its attention to detail and in its prose. The central relationship was finely drawn, a romantic-tragedy set against the backdrop of an interstellar war.
“We are the Cloud” was an excellent story by Sam J Miller, published in Lightspeed. I really enjoyed it. A near-future sci-fi. The technology is plausible and integral and its significance mounts as the story progresses. The wounded, vulnerable protagonist is taken down some dark paths, and us with him, but he never loses our sympathy.
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind) was a story by Holly Black that also appeared in Lightspeed. I almost didn’t read it all. What a mistake that would have been.
I don’t generally like the 2nd person. I don’t generally like lists as narrative scaffolds (and Rule 1 annoyed me from the start). The exposition on several occasions came in thick dumps. This had so much going against it that I nearly bailed before the end of the second ‘rule’.
But for all of that the story turned me fully around. The characterization, the rich and deep world-building, the twisting plot, the moments of genuine emotion. This packs a lot into a story that could have been so much less. Excellent. This is the sort of story for which I undertook this project. This taught me a lot about being a better story teller.
“As Good as New” was in Tor.com, a story by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s a mash-up of apocalypse, genie wish cliche, and post-modernist theatre.
I’m at a bit of a loss for this. I don’t know how it worked so well, but it worked really, really well.
Wonderfully relatable protag. The ennui of a western millennial middle class. Patient plotting that allowed the story to meander pleasantly without ever getting lost.
October:
“Tomorrow is waiting” by Holli Mintzer appeared in Strange Horizonsback in 2011. I only just found it and read it through some aggregator site (I forget which) listing good short stories about AI. This is a nice story about an AI muppet kind if accidentally achieving sentience. The writing is stark, quite bare of description, but it has warmth and a beating heart. Anji’s not a strong protag, but she’s relatable. The conflict leaks from the piece in the final third, but the effect of this is a positive ending note and a view of sentient AI which is optimistic, rather than fearful.
November:
“Brain, Brain, Brain” By Puneet Dutt appeared in Apex. It’s a very cool little poem, clearly aware of tropes and prepared to flirt with them before twisting to the zombie POV. The imploring insistence of ‘we’re not the bad guys.’ Some beautiful use of language.
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‘Bound’ Review

Disclosure: I met Alan Baxter once, briefly, at Genrecon. He seemed like a great guy, and since then I’ve been following him on Twitter and FB and reading some of his short fiction. He’s a writer I admire, a local writer too. He’s always been generous with advice and with sharing his experiences of being a writer, and I’ve learnt a lot from him. He’s given me a very valuable perspective of what being a writer entails. I was really happy to hear that he got the book deal, and I was looking forward to reading about Alex Caine.

Review:

‘Bound’ drops us straight into the action. We’re in Caine’s head and he’s in a fight, an illegal MMA match somewhere in Sydney’s underworld. We are quickly introduced to Caine’s ability – to see the ‘shades’ of his opponent’s intent. It makes him a formidable fighter, so much so that he attracts the unwanted attention of an organised crime boss. When a mysterious Englishman arrives who recognises Caine’s powers, and offers to teach him more about himself, the fighter reluctantly follows his new mentor’s call. Thus begins a globe-trotting adventure of rapidly escalating magic and quests to find ancient objects of great power.

This is Urban Fantasy with a magical bent and lashings of sex and violence. If you like ancient prophecies and street fights and magic and shadowy organisations in the wainscoting of normal life, try this book.

There are possible spoilers from here on, but if you want to know more, and are prepared to risk spoilers, read on.

Photo courtesy of author's website

Photo courtesy of author’s website

There are some very cool concepts here. I haven’t read Baxter’s original – self-published – novels, but their titles echo here. Some characters sit meaningfully at the edges of Caine’s story and I suspect they’d be even more meaningful to readers familiar with Baxter’s earlier work. The magesign to which Caine is so perceptive is a great idea. Other elements are from more familiar tropes: elemental control, warlocks, grimoires, gargoyles, faeries, ancient demi-gods, shape-shifters. Baxter has thrown them all into a blender of his own design though, and they each come out with some new twist. It’s in combining these elements that Baxter is at his best.

I also really enjoyed the globe-trotting. Australia, England, Iceland, Canada, Italy, Scotland… it was like Bond, if Bond was a magically empowered brawler. Baxter evokes each location in his writing and the shifting geography, the litany of airports, adds a layer of the familiar and mundane over which the supernatural elements can rise.

As we become more familiar with Caine’s growing confidence in his own powers, we are shown the even greater forces opposing him. It’s a steep incline and Baxter drives us forward relentlessly, ever-changing, ever-escalating. The consequence of this is that the stakes quickly become very high indeed, perhaps too quickly. Caine’s transition from neophyte to dominance is even quicker. I found that he lost me a little somewhere on the climb. The Caine of the early chapters was a guy I could relate to. By the latter half of the book this was no longer the case. The previously engaging fight scenes lost their fizz when the outcome was no longer in doubt. A fighter out of his depth fighting for his life against two gargoyles is tense. An invincible superpower tearing through powerful opponents with ease, less so. I also struggled to maintain my sympathy for the character after his decision to take a life, even if that was a decision influenced by a force at that point uncontrolled. Another review I read suggested that Caine was an author-surrogate, and though I wouldn’t entirely agree with that assessment, I can see where it comes from.

The antagonists are varied. The sub-contractor was probably the most interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more of him. The Weird Sisters were also strong. Their introduction was one of the best scenes in the book, clearly the darkest and most horrific. I’m not easily put-off by horror, but that scene in a Scottish hotel required a pause for recovery. Again they were perhaps under-utilised. Other antagonists came and went.

Mr Hood and Miss Sparks are the most enduring, and ultimately the truest antagonists of the novel (other than the force behind the grimoire). I felt Miss Sparks was one of the more interesting POV characters. There seemed to be more to her than was revealed. Perhaps this waits for me in the second and third volumes of the series. Mr Hood was menacing and confident and a good counter-point to Caine. The Sparks/Hood relationship was repulsive and fascinating, even though the sexual elements of it sometimes dropped in with a thud. I have no qualms about the sexual content, and even as it is Baxter is never overly explicit with it, but there were some instances that felt gratuitous.

Which brings me to Silhouette. I didn’t like Silhouette. I understand how she was necessary to the narrative and how Caine couldn’t have achieved what he did without her. I understood why he went from Welby to Silhouette, why he came to depend on her, and then she on him. I didn’t feel that the emotional connection really evolved naturally, but that wasn’t really a problem – emotional connections can be unexpected and inexplicable. I just didn’t like her, as a character. She promised to become quite interesting, briefly, or to reveal a side of herself to which Caine was unaware, but it never really happened. As Caine’s power grew her independence and agency seemed to contract accordingly. A shame, because she entered with a certain sense of self that seemed by the end to have been diminished. Her (many) sex scenes with Caine were unsexy, probably deliberately so, and some of them deeply discomforting – for much the same reasons as with Hood/Sparks.

‘Bound’ kept me hooked throughout. I finished the whole thing in a week, and there’s plenty in it to keep you wanting to turn the next page (or swipe the screen in my case). It’s the novel of a writer who knows his craft and can deliver on a promise. I’ll read the others in the series too, at least because I’m interested in where Baxter goes from here. With such a powerful protagonist, and such powerful enemies already defeated, I’m sure there’ll be something even bigger to come.

***Alan Baxter will be in Melbourne this Friday (26th Sept) and will be signing books. Check out his website – http://www.alanbaxteronline.com – or follow him on twitter – @AlanBaxter – for details.***


‘Cormorant’ Review

I should out myself first as a fan of Chuck Wendig and of Miriam Black. I really enjoyed my introduction to her in Blackbirds (as much as one can enjoy being introduced to Miriam), and while I got a little lost in the murkier plot of Mockingbird I found Cormorant something of a return to form.
If you have read other of Wendig’s work you’ll know what to expect here: swearing, off-kilter metaphors, a morality of greys and blacks, frenetic pacing. It’s a strong hand and he plays it well. Miriam’s no cheerier. She remains wounded and brutal, abused and abrasive. Her ‘gift’ still feels more like a curse. An offer she can’t refuse tempts her to Florida where the consequences of her past come back to haunt her. If you have read Miriam’s earlier books you should definitely read this one too.
And now we enter (potential) spoiler territory. I haven’t deliberately included any specific spoilers, but there’s the potential that some detail below might spoil it for you, so turn back now if ye be weak of heart.

image
Transplanting Miriam to Florida works well. As with Dexter the setting provides a bright contrast to the dark heart (and dark deeds) of the character, a kind of thematic chiaroscuro. In many ways Miriam is the same as she ever was, but the effects of the previous novels are telling. From the beginning we see her life spiralling further downward, this from a starting point already best described as doldrums.

The development of her character had a sense of natural progression, but I didn’t accept it easily. The ghoulish opportunist of the first novel – a woman prepared to wait like a vulture over those due to die – is replaced with a murderer (the blurb says ‘killer’. I don’t think that’s strong enough). Miriam takes an active hand in deciding who lives; who dies. She has done so before of course, but for nobler ends. Where before the difficult decision to end a life was made to protect someone she loved, here it seems little more than experimentation. The kid she shoots – point blank to the skull no less – is no saint, but nor is he the kind of arch-criminal who Miriam has killed in the past. It’s a difficult balance to paint a character from so dark a palate as Wendig has chosen and still keep her sympathetic, and her decision to kill here makes that even more difficult. Granted, the decision has lasting effects on her.

It’s a theme of these novels that Miriam causes such distress and damage to those about whom she most cares, and who care most about her. Louis is mentioned, but when she has the opportunity to reconnect with him she chooses not to do so. Instead it’s her mother she calls. Wendig handles this expertly. The image we have had of Miriam’s mother in previous novels – entirely presented through Miriam’s perspective – is shattered quickly. She is not the woman Miriam remembers. Gone is the oppressive influence of religion. She has been hurt by her daughter’s experiences, and by her daughter’s absence. Now that Miriam’s back, there’s more hurt to come. Preventing the foretold murder of her mother becomes Miriam’s driving motivation, and a far more compelling one than the MacGuffin that got her to Florida in the first place.

Miriam also learns more about her powers. She meets another with a similar gift, a genuine psychic with a talent for finding what has been lost. Like Miriam her power is born from trauma, and the link is explicitly drawn. There’s also an extension of her earlier affinity with birds, in this case the transferral of her consciousness is more complete, more deliberate. The titles of the trilogy have always hinted at this affinity, but never so directly or so obviously as in this case. Her antagonist here also has a power, seemingly drawn from the other side of the same coin. Wendig explores in more detail the concepts of predetermination, of free-will, and (in a somewhat meta sense) predictability.

Miriam is put through the wringer again. Fittingly, for the third volume of a trilogy, there is an escalation in her own suffering. Physically she is hurt like never before. Too hurt, I suspect. She suffers such violence that it strains the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Even in a story about a psychic who can become birds, there’s a limit to what a human body can endure. Emotionally this is perhaps Miriam’s toughest tale. She has lost many of the support structures, fragile as they were, which she had worked so hard to build. She blames herself for the damage done to those around her, and that her antagonist is in a sense of her own creation. She struggles to reconnect with her mother, to see past the caricature villain of her memory to the woman in front of her. By the time she does, that rediscovered woman is endangered and even the saving of her life brings unimaginable trauma. For all her best efforts Miriam can’t prevent the horrors of her life from affecting others, and the more she tries to contain them the more they burden her.

She’s a fascinating character, and Wendig’s prose brings her brilliantly to life, popping off the page in a barrage of blasphemy and profanity. She’s sour and sharp and sarcastic, always the pugilist. He writes Miriam’s world-view with confidence, presenting it for us to decipher from little asides, the attention to detail. Sometimes – not often but perhaps too often – his characters can take on the role of mouth-piece, as Miriam does in the early chapters when she talks about friend-zoning. Perhaps this is a consequence of my fandom. Perhaps following Chuck on Twitter and at Terribleminds have given me an insight into his politics and perspectives such that when I read those same views in his characters I ascribe them to him. I’m not even sure that this is a criticism – authors will of course have characters who share their views, just as they will have characters who oppose them – other than that it took me out of the narrative during those moments and I had the feeling that it was Chuck’s voice in my ear, not Miriam’s.

The plot here is less muddled than I found Mockingbird’s to be, which is an improvement, but I felt that the pendulum may have swung too far. As with previous novels Wendig has the opportunity to play with flash-forwards and flash-back. Miriam’s power is a perfect vehicle for a jump into the future; her reminiscences and her mother are opportunities to flesh out her past. Wendig also tempts the reader with chapters that take us away from the main narrative to a future-point, in which Miriam is being interviewed by the agents of some unknown (alleged) agency. Despite this, Cormorant is very linear. Not a straight line, exactly, but no real dead-ends either, no red herrings worth noting. There are a few moving pieces introduced, but they remain on the periphery, never really upsetting the central narrative track. As a reader you can see what’s coming in advance and the interest becomes in seeing how it will all come together, rather than the mystery and anticipation of wondering how it will end.

Cormorant grabs hold and keeps you reading. It’s an engaging time to spend, shackled to the unfolding train-wreck of Miriam’s life, hoping despite yourself, despite her, that this might end well. Being already invested in Miriam’s story I was hooked already and enjoyed reading about her time in Florida.

Wendig is due to return to her in Thunderbird I will not hesitate to return with him.


‘Control Point’ Review

Control Point Review

I’ll open with a spoiler-free (tl;dr) summary of my feelings about the book and then go into more detail (potential for some minor spoiling therein).

ControlPoint_UK_Cover_Final

Précis:

I enjoyed the book. I rated it on Goodreads, and although it deserves more than 3 stars, I don’t think I can give it 4.

I particularly enjoyed the way it challenged and questioned enculturated values. I liked how Cole managed the powers and his action scenes were kinetic and visceral. As a writer I learnt a lot from the way he brought the genres together, forced a collision and made something new from what was there.

I will read the others in the series, and happily recommend the book to fans of comic book superheroes, military fiction and urban fantasy.

Detail:

Control Point is the debut novel of Myke Cole, and the first in a series of “Shadow Ops” novels (of which there are three, with a prequel due out next year). I picked it up because I came to know of Myke Cole through his blog, and through Twitter (@MykeCole). He’s one of those authors who is incredibly interesting when they talk about how they came to be writers and what writing means to them. He offers advice and engages with his fan-base, and his books were recommended or enjoyed by others I trust, and had a good cross-over with other authors whose work I’d enjoyed (Mark Lawrence’s review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/246427711?book_show_action=true&page=1).

Cole is a US Military vet, having served in Iraq, and is currently a member of the US Coast Guard. It’s not a common résumé for Fantasy writers, and the world he has created is not common Fantasy. It has been described as a cross between ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘X-Men’ (by no less a reliable source than Peter V Brett), and you can definitely see the way that the influences of his professional militarism meet his personal geekdoms, with influences apparent from the battlefield, to superhero comics to D&D.

In an unspecified near-future USA there has been an awakening of previously latent powers. People have discovered that they can control elements, or – in rarer cases – exhibit other ‘magical’ powers. This awakening is quickly legislated and the military steps in to attempt control. Oscar Britton begins the novel as a military man charged with controlling (or killing) the awakened latents (selfers), but he sympathises with those he must hunt. When he exhibits powers himself he is faced with an impossible choice, to submit, or to flee.

Cole’s greatest strength is in his world-building. On gross structure this is familiar from any number of superhero origins, but it is in the minutiae that Cole’s world takes shape. Each chapter presents excerpts of speeches, legislation, media, etc from this new world which gives us a better insight into how society has sought to adjust. From this we can hold a mirror to modern cultures. The novel forces us to ask how we balance liberties against regulation, how we respond to de-centralised terrorism, how existing cultural and religious world-views have adapted – some better than others. The heavy-handed government control of the US is more criticised than endorsed. Cole takes an interest in the fictional indigenous of his magical source-world, and his understanding of Islamic and Native American cultures adds nuance and depth to what might otherwise have been a one-dimensional speculation.

That our protagonist finds himself more often opposing than endorsing his government’s militarist approach is particularly interesting, given Cole’s own history. If anything this is overplayed. The gung-ho militarists are obvious antagonists. Unfortunately Britton – our protagonist in this world, from whose perspective it is shown to us and to whose internal monologues we have access – is often a confused and confusing moral compass. Perhaps this puts the need to moralise back on the reader, something with which I am generally more comfortable, and yet the character suffers because of this uncertainty. From the beginning, when teenaged selfers are attacking their school, Britton sides with them over his command structures. This jarred me, as a reader, because the actions of the selfers were unsympathetic – they obviously needed to be stopped.

The pacing is rapid, the novel quite heavily plot-driven. This can mean that the prose is stark and direct, sometimes to the extent that it felt lacking. I think this is a necessary quality of the prose for the story being told, and this was a debut novel, but it makes no claims to high literature. This is fast-moving pulp and should be enjoyed as such.

Similarly, most characters are to be taken on face value, and while some show development and growth many others come into the narrative, serve their purpose, and depart the stage. Many remain archetypes or sketches throughout, and while this is a criticism, I think it’s one that flows inevitably from keeping the plot moving quickly. The character I found most sympathetic was the indig ‘Marty’, and he becomes a key motivation for the protagonist, as well as a key player himself in the build to the climax. Too often I confused characters, or forgot their names, or forgot which call-sign went with which name, etc. In large part this is my failing, but it also suggests perhaps that many of the secondary characters weren’t memorable beyond being a super-power in a uniform.

For Military/Fantasy/Sci-Fi with fast-paced action and a 2nd world twist this is a good series to get into.


‘Embassytown’ Review

Over on Goodreads I have a review in which I have tried to avoid spoilers. Here I go into more depth and there may be some minor spoilers for several of Miéville’s books, but I think I’ve largely avoided that again. Fairly warned though.

I am unashamedly a fan of China Miéville’s work. Look over to the tag cloud and you’ll see his name boldly prominent. I like to read his books, and I like to talk about his worlds and his writing.

Perdido St and The Scar were both magnificent. They changed the way I understood the Fantasy genre, my understanding of genre as a costruct, and what imagination and creativity really looked like. They opened shackles I’d unknowingly worn since my early-pubescent reading of Tolkein, Feist, et al. Fantasy was no longer the cobbling together of the D&D Monster manual. Fantasy was worlds drawn from a global supply of myth and eons of folklore and it was new things as well like physics and invention and theoretical sciences. The Fantasy hero could be a fat, middle-aged scientist, a bug-headed artist, a surgically enhanced man-dolphin. The Fantasy villain could be a moth, or a mayor, or some trans-dimensional benthic leviathan. That said, I’m not one of those calling for Miéville to return to Bas Lag. I am as interested in where he is headed as where he has been.

I liked Kraken and King Rat. I liked the London it showed me, familiar and strange at once, lovingly recreated and then twisted and shaped by myth and magic. I liked the subversions and inversions of ancient tales, of folklore, of nursery rhymes, of drum and bass. I liked the cross-culturalism of a modern city clashing with the ancient history of place. I liked the urban organic. I liked the religiosity and sociology of these ab-Londons.

Although some I know disliked The City & The City, I found it fascinating and I enjoyed the way that he drew back from what could have been absurdly fanciful and made it more about psychological dissonance, whether imposed or by way of self-discipline. I went away and researched towns with amorphous boundaries and cross/hatching. I developed a different understanding of geography and place. I found Iron Council to be a tough slog. At times it was frustratingly slow and tangential, but it had its rewards.

I was so looking forward to Embassytown: Miéville writing sci-fi, on an alien planet, with a whole alien race – a whole alien city – to create, with the technology for AI and constructs. Miéville exploring the artificiality of language, the interstice of translation, cross-cultural semiotics.

Miéville, sci-fi, linguistics.

What a recipe!

This should have been a book which I loved: brilliantly high-concept, detailed world-building, fascinating originality, clever and witty… and yet I really struggled to stick with it.

Embassytown is far from being a bad book. It is a very good book. Structurally it works well: builds a world, introduces us to characters, makes clear the complicated relationships and politics of people and place, twists and turns through an active plot and leads us to a satisfying conclusion.

I know that Miéville’s prose can alienate some readers, but I am not one such reader. His word-play, and his word creation, are fundamentally attractive aspects of his novels for me. In Embassytown we again have many of his signature phrases, his unique formations and phrasing, his extensive vocabulary, and I loved some of the passages. Miéville made me see the power of the adjective used adverbially when, in Perdido Street Station, a small seedling pushes pugilist through train tracks. It is a technique he continues to use to good effect. The Germanic origins of many of the terms gave depth to the world, but the hearkening to Latin and Greek gave variety. Neologisms of mashed nouns (terretech, citynaut, biopolis) were immediately sensible. The abbreviations (autom, exot, trunc) and others perhaps entirely invented (floaking – a term that has every right to join ‘Grok’ in the vocabulary of geekdom and perhaps beyond) fitted so naturally and seamlessly into sentences that it seemed that they just belonged. The numerator/denominator, cut/turn, expressions of the Hosts and the Ambassadors were a fascinating concept, as was the singular identity in dual physical bodies. I loved immersing myself (pun intended) in the language.

I also share an interest in many of the themes Miéville explored: metaphysics, existentialism, philology, the linguistics, the exploration of truly alien culture and the limitations on cross-cultural communication. The essence of self-hood, explored here through the ambassadors whose singular identity manifests in paired bodies, and names like CalVin and EzRa. The same theme I felt was sadly underexplored through the Automs – Artificial Intelligences whose personhood is hinted at but largely dismissed, most fully realised in Ehrsul. Of all the automs Ehrsul is said to be remarkable, even unique, and yet her narrative arc fades during the second act and is all but absent from the final.

Several characters annoyed me, but most notably Avice and Scile. This is perhaps because of the way the chapters inter-stitch different time periods, cross-hatching the Formerly and the Currently until the two narratives meet and we can finally progress to the finale. This makes Avice seem more inconsistent than she would be on a linear narrative, but even allowing for that I found many of her actions (and inactions) infuriating. Some of the tangents came to overwhelm and distract, there were Chekhov guns which remained loaded and mounted to the wall without ever being taken down or fired. Maybe – likely – this is deliberate. Likely Miéville is knowingly subverting such expectation, is touring us through the world he made so that we might simply enjoy it as an act of creation. He did the same in parts of Perdido, and Scar, and Iron Council, to varying success. He makes Embassytown more central than mere setting, just as New Crobuzon is, or London, or Beza/UlQuoma. To that end he is effective. The immerverse has massive scope for story-telling and an impressive depth beneath what little of it we see. Yet this efficacy comes at the cost of narrative pace and engagement, and for me there were times when the price paid was too great. The pace of the final act is effective, but for much of the middle it is glacial. Slow pace is not inherently a problem, but apparently it was a problem for me in this instance.

I gave Embassytown 3 stars on Goodreads, because for all that was good about it, I did not love it. More accurately, I loved it at times, in passages, intermittently. Other times it wearied me, it dragged, it rambled along and allowed me to follow without my ever really being clear why we were taking these detours. In sections, it floaked.

If you are a fan of China Miéville you should definitely read this. It follows through in detail and sophistication on many of the themes which are closest to his interest. If you are new to China Miéville, or unfamiliar with his brand of Weird / New Weird literature then I’d recommend starting with some of his others before working your way to Embassytown.