This year's nominations are all very different and good in their own way, but only one really stood out to me and will get my vote (read them yourself and decide which one is worth your vote!). We'll cover the others first:
"The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013) at first threw me off because it reads like an essay--which is essentially what it is, but it's merely another way to tell the PoV character's story. Technology has made perfect memory available to every human being via a product called Remem that not only records one's life, but you can instantly search for events and replay them. Had an argument with your wife and she swears you're wrong? Simply run a search and find out. In parallel, Chiang tells the story of Jijingi, a young man from a simple village who learns writing from a missionary. Chiang's prose is easy to read, the tone conversational. We follow the thought process as the PoV character works through the issues involved in instant memory and insists that sometimes it's better to forget, otherwise forgiveness is difficult. But then he learns an important lesson about himself as a result of instant memory...and for most readers it's that revelation that made this story nominatable, but to me it felt disingenuous and preachy. I finished it without the satisfaction I usually expect at the end of short works.
"Opera Vita Aeterna" by Vox Day (THE LAST WITCHKING, Marcher Lord Hinterlands) is a fantasy about magician-elf Bessarias who travels to an abbey to discover how men of faith obtain power to perform their miracles. He asks to stay and learn, but the abbot makes him promise not to use his magic while there. An unlikely friendship is formed as they discuss theology and other topics, and Bessarias discovers a love of illuminating sacred texts. But his stay there is interrupted once a year as his demon familiar attempts to convince his elf master to return home. Here the prose isn't as clean as the other authors', Day tends to wander in his story and wording, giving "Opera" a fairy-tale feel. While it was interesting, I didn't find the story as compelling as it could have been, mostly as a result of a lack of attachment to the characters.
"The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard (THE OTHER HALF OF THE SKY, Candlemark & Gleam) was hard to follow at first, the plot not telegraphed early on--which threw me off since it's a short work. Fortunately, the author is able to say a lot in few words, and the story begins to blossom when we meet Catherine, who is stuck in an institution, the circumstances unclear as to why she's there or why she yearns to travel out into space. At the same time Lan and her cousin Cuc work to rescue their family spaceship from the Outsiders, who've captured the ships and the Minds that power them. De Bodard weaves a compelling story as we attempt to understand the mystery of Catherine's situation and also the interesting culture of Lan and Cuc. I finished the story feeling like there's so much potential in the world-building--the shortness of "The Waiting Stars" was a disappointment because there was still so much to learn about these fascinating people (not necessarily a bad thing!).
"The Exchange Officers" by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013) is about an American space station where the "astronauts" are avatar-like proxies that are controlled by military "Operators" from a safe distance on Earth. The Chinese have decided to try to take over the incomplete space station, and Chopper (Warrant Officer Dan Jaraczuk) and Chesty (Warrant Officer Mavy Stoddard) are the only Operators able to fight back after the initial EMP. Torgersen jumps from action to flashback--where they meet and begin training with the proxies. He has complete control of the story, it never lags, but still gives you the information you need to begin liking these characters and understand the delicacy of their situation. It's a fun story with an unexpected ending--my second favorite of the nominations.
"The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com/Tor.com, 09-2013) tells us that humans have been settling Mars since the 1950s, all thanks to the lady astronaut Elma. Now Elma is in her 60s, long past the age for any more space missions, no matter how badly she wants to go. But even if there were to be a mission, her beloved husband Nathanial only has a little while longer to live. Then she's approached by the director of the Bradbury Space Center on Mars for a solo mission from which she might not come back. Now she must make a painful decision: leave Nathanial before his death and feel guilt over it for the rest of her life, or turn down the mission and regret her one last chance to be in space again. Kowal is a beautiful writer, full of emotion, even if it's not the grand epic variety--I think it's the closer-to-home stories that touch us best. Here Kowal moves us to Mars where one would think that life would be different, but then shows us that no matter where we go the human experience remains the same. I teared up because the story so lovely.
So maybe I'm a sap for a sweet love story, even if it's for a couple of geriatric astronauts, but "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" gets my vote for the 2014 Hugo.
VEIL OF THE DESERTERS is the sequel to SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER by Jeff Salyards, a Sword & Sorcery novel that earned a spot in our Best of 2012 lineup. The first book in Bloodsounder's Arc unexpectedly blew me away (so much so that I read it and reviewed it twice) and I've been waiting for the sequel ever since. In the time that has passed I've read a lot of books but SCOURGE has managed to remain vivid in my imagination.
I've also come to understand (if not completely agree) with some of the criticisms leveled at the first book. This time I've got some criticisms of my own to share, though they hardly kept me from loving, what is shaping up to be, one of my favorite fantasy series of all time.
Here's the Amazon book description:
Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual. The Syldoonian Emperor, Cynead, has solidified his power in unprecedented ways, and Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be complicated and dangerous. Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and Soffjian are at the heart of his plans. The distance between “favored shadow agent of the emperor” and “exiled traitor” is unsurprisingly small. But it is filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian.
So VEIL OF THE DESERTERS picks up immediately after SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER leaves off. VEIL is a much larger book (nearly twice the length) but in a lot of ways it reads like the next installment in a serial. Those who complained about the length and ending of SCOURGE can consider this PART II. Neither of these books should be read as a standalone, nor should they be read out of order. This isn't a condemnation (this is a series after all) so much as it is an observation. With this sequel Salyards further develops the characters and their relationships with the world and with each other.
The characters were my favorite part of the first book. Told from the perspective of Arki, readers learn to love and loathe the Syldoon soldiers. The beautiful prose brings Arki to life. If you're going to tell a story from the perspective of a scribe it's best to make the writing reflect that and Salyards succeeds on this front. He strings vivid sentences together with a mastery I consider unrivaled, even among my favorite authors. The world portrayed in these novels could be called grimdark -- characters bear surnames like Killcoin, inns go by titles such as the Grieving Dog and there's a Forest of Deadmoss, the capital of the Syldoon empire is called Sunwrack, and the gods are deserters -- but there's an undeniable beauty that can be attributed to the prose.
In his short time with Captain Killcoin and the crew Arki has endured personal loss, though he is still an outsider. The Syldoon don't trust him and the arrival of two Memoridons, magicians that manipulate memory, only serves to pique further suspicion. Those who complained about the lack of female characters in SCOURGE (despite the presence of Lloi, a wonderfully realized character) will find much to appreciate in the Memoridons. Both are strong characters with agency, but for different reasons. Soffjian is sister to the prickly Captain Killcoin, and she can match him verbal blow for blow. Then there's Skeelana, a woman out of her element, much like Arki. These two new characters provide new opportunities and dangers for our narrator to navigate through.
Those who survived SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER make a return. Captain Braylar Killcoin continues to be vastly compelling. I've never read a character that better exemplified bipolar disorder. It's impossible to predict Braylar's moods and there's an aura of danger that permeates his every action and word. The presence of his sister throws a wrench into all of his careful scheming and we even get a glimpse of Braylar's back story.
With VEIL OF THE DESERTERS Salyards spends time building on all the delicious bite sized morsels he teased at in the first book. We get to learn more about the Syldoon and their recruiting practices, the Memoridons and their magic, Bloodsounder with its ties to the Deserter Gods, and even the governing practices in the Capital of Coups. All of these details and more create an irresistible and absorbing setting. Reading SCOURGE I suspected that what at times appeared to be the trappings of typical Eurocentric fantasy concealed something much deeper. It's good to see that I was not mistaken. And still I want more. Visiting the Syldoon city of Sunwrack, Capital of Coups, was marvelous but short lived. Such a grand city(the likes of which has not yet been experienced in the series) deserves a larger section of the book for exploration. I get the feeling that we're still only catching a glimpse of what Salyards has in store and I hope the series is long lived so that we can delve into all its nooks and crannies.
There's plenty of action (as to be expected when dealing with the Syldoon) and Salyards treats it with all the weight and authenticity it deserves. Fighting is fast and bloody, tides turn and fortunes reverse, and a slip of footing can mean the difference between life and death. No one is ever safe in the George R.R. Martin fashion, as Salyards made evident in SCOURGE. Previously this series was of the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre but with the exclusion of Bloodsounder it was missing the Sorcery. The addition of the Memoridons brings the heat. The memory magic practiced by Soffjian and Skeelana brings some interesting possibilities to play and I'm excited to see that develop as the series continues.
My biggest complaint about VEIL concerns the dialogue. I cannot deny that Salyards writes flowing dialogue that is sharp. The problem I encountered while reading VEIL is that no matter how well written it is it can at time feel repetitive. There's too much parry and riposte to feel completely natural. It makes for entertaining reading but after a while you can start to predict the general structure of conversation. I believe that SCOURGE balanced this a lot better, though perhaps it became more apparent to me reading VEIL because the sequel is so much longer.
In all other areas VEIL OF THE DESERTERS is bigger and better. There's more action, more character, more world building, more danger, more plot development, more everything really. Salyards is hitting his stride, dodging the sophomore slump and playing the long game. Readers get some answers and pose new questions, all the while rooting for the unlikely hero Arkamondos and his deadly allies within the Jackal Tower of the Syldoon Empire.
Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Heavy and frequent.
Violence: Heavy and bloody.
Here are your links:
SCOURGE OF THE BETRAYER
VEIL OF THE DESERTERS
When I read PRINCE OF THORNS, I was blown away. I know, I know. I've said this a time or two. Or twenty. It's no secret that Mark Lawrence has become one of my favorite authors. His novels are a breath of fresh air, and are an absolute pleasure to read. And so now we come to the start of a new series set in the same world as Lawrence's other novels. PRINCE OF FOOLS.
As much as I loved The Broken Empire trilogy, I knew that I wanted something different with Lawrence's latest. I wanted the same quality of writing, and new and amazing characters. But it didn't want it to feel like he was writing an...imitation...of Jorg. I know that sounds odd. I know that sounds like I set my expectations at an absurdly high level.
From page one, PRINCE OF FOOLS the same incredible quality of writing.
The novel had new, amazing characters.
It was completely different from Lawrence's prior novels.
PRINCE OF FOOLS takes place concurrently with The Broken Empire. If there is one slight quibble, it is that I had trouble, in the beginning, placing this novel in the timeline. I wasn't sure when this was. And then all those concerns went away. We are introduced to Jalan Kendeth, the Red Queen's grandson, and thus a prince. But he's fairly far down the line of succession, so he spends his days in the beds of as many women as possible. Until, of course, everything goes wrong when he is introduced to the Viking, Snorri ver Snagason.
The most immediate difference in PRINCE OF FOOLS is tone. Where Jorg was essentially an irredeemable character--which turned off many a reader--you don't ever get that sense from Jalan. Misguided? Sure. A coward? Well, Jalan certain thinks that of himself. There is a more humorous tone throughout the entire novel, and it manages to always be perfectly timed. I found myself laughing out-loud numerous times at Jalan's internal and external musings.
Don't get me wrong, this is still dark fantasy. Things are grim. People are dying left and right. But PRINCE OF FOOLS is certainly more fun than the prior trilogy. This contributes to the pacing, which is Lawrence's most effortlessly paced novel yet.
What this story amounts to is a quest of sorts. Jalan and Snorri end up joined together by magic. While Snorri wishes to find his missing family, Jalan ends up coming along because he's rather forced to. It seems simple enough, but as the story progresses, it also unfolds into something much, much more deep and potentially sinister.
I love the characters in PRINCE OF FOOLS. Jalan never ceased to make me laugh, and his attitude of "run away" was refreshing in a fantasy novel. Snorri is the perfect counterpoint--intentionally--to Jalan. The balance between the two is incredible. Where Jalan provides the comedy and the moral progression of the novel, Snorri reminds us why Lawrence is known for writing dark fantasy. That's all I'm going to say about that. I don't want to spoil anything.
Perhaps the best thing about PRINCE OF FOOLS is how it opens up so much more of the world. It is grounded in the "present" where The Broken Empire had such a focus on how the world got to where it's at. As a result, if has a more "fantasy" vibe to it than the prior novels.
I'm going to say this, and I don't say it lightly. I love PRINCE OF FOOLS just as much as I loved PRINCE OF THORNS. I didn't think I could be any more impressed by Mark Lawrence, but I find myself mistaken. Lawrence proves, with PRINCE OF FOOLS, that he is one of the best in the business. Period.
Waiting for the next book is going to be pure agony.
Recommended Age: 17+
Profanity: What you expect from Lawrence's novels, but a bit less frequent.
Violence: Holy crap, yes. All sorts. It's more visceral in this series. More immediate.
Sex: Alluded to, talked about, initiated, but not quite shown in detail.
Get this book. It's incredible. You don't even have to have read the prior series.
PRINCE OF FOOLS
I was in the mood for some Horror short fiction the other day. Fortunately, Cemetery Dance sent me over a small collection from one of their regular authors, Brian James Freeman, that seemed like just the ticket.
WEAK AND WOUNDED is the name of the collection, and in it are five horror stories.
The interesting thing about Freeman's brand of Horror, in my limited experience thus far, is a more grounded type of Horror. I had my first reading experience of Freeman's work in TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS with the story, "An Instant Eternity". It was one of the stories I liked the most in that collection, and it really made me anticipate reading WEAK AND WOUNDED. I wanted to see if the style I saw in that story would feed through this collection.
The following is from Cemetery Dance's webpage:
In "Running Rain," a devastated husband and wife try to pretend life can somehow be normal again after their son becomes a victim of a serial killer known as The Riverside Strangler... but the dark secrets they're keeping from each other push their relationship to the brink.
In "Marking the Passage of Time," a couple approaches the end of the world in their own ways as the clock ticks down and they try to figure out where all of the time has gone...
"Where Sunlight Sleeps" is the tale of a grieving father and his young son, both dealing with a shared loss the best they can, who take a trip down a memory lane lined with jagged edges and vicious traps...
On "The Last Beautiful Day," a devoted husband returns to the scene of the worst day of his life by volunteering for a job that is both morbid and profound.
"Walking With the Ghosts of Pier 13" is the story of a young man visiting the beach front amusement park where his brother died during a terrorist attack. He wants to understand why a madman came to this place and blew himself up and killed so many innocent people... but the answer to that question might not be the only thing waiting for the young man when he starts walking with the ghosts.
Of all those stories, my favorite was "Running Rain". Don't get me wrong, all the stories were good. "Running Rain" was great. It's the kind of story that has me looking at my own writing to see how I can improve. I keep trying to pick my second favorite story, and I change my mind every time. Each has merits. What I love about all these stories is the way in which they are all grounded in a version of reality.
What Freeman seems to understand is how to make every situation utterly horrific. These stories are very personal Horror rather than monster-centric. I know many people that would scoff at this brand of Horror, and to each their own I suppose. To me, these stories were far more terrifying because they seemed more...I don't know...close to home. Certainly not all of Freeman's stories will follow this narrative vein, but I love that he can write this type of story so incredibly well.
I would also point out that there is a haunting quality to the way Freeman writes. "Where Sunlight Sleeps" and "The Last Beautiful Day" really demonstrate this. It's a bit hard to write about in reviews of short stories without spoiling anything, so trust me. These stories are terrifying in their own way, and will haunt you.
If there is an issue with this collection, it is that it is hard to find. It sold out at Cemetery Dance. Hopefully they will make it available as an ebook. It is an extremely quick read due partially to length, but mostly to not wanting to put it down.You can find it on ebay and Amazon, fortunately, but probably not for long.
WEAK AND WOUNDED is a terrific collection, and one of the Horror anthologies that has stayed with me most, and caused me to simply nod my head in appreciation. Freeman is an incredible author, and I cannot wait to read more of his work.
Recommended Age: 16+
Profanity: Only in one story, and it's brief
Violence: I'm not gonna say much here, but it's what Freeman DOESN'T show that stands out
WEAK AND WOUNDED