Thursday, February 28, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Round :: Paradox Resolution by K.A. Bedford vs. Nightglass by Liane Merciel

We turn to the bottom half of Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, beginning with Paradox Resolution by K.A. Bedford against Nightglass by Liane Merciel. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Paradox Resolution: Edge trade paperback, August 2012, 253 pages, cover art by Martin Pasco. K.A. Bedford is an Australian author who has published five novels with Candadian press Edge Publishing. Bedford's novel Eclipse won the Aurealis Award for best Australian science fiction novel of 2005. Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, the prequel to Paradox Resolution, won Bedford a second Aurealis Award and was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Paradox Resolution is the second novel featuring "Spider" Webb, an ordinary Australian bloke who is good with machinery. He keeps finding himself in strange situations, simply because the machines he's especially adept at repairing happen to be time machines. In the opening section of Paradox Resolution, Spider looks in the office refrigerator and find the severed head of his former boss, who was not so affectionately known as "Dickhead." Disconcertingly, the head speaks to Spider, pleading for help. Spider later learns from his policewoman friend Iris that the Dickhead mystery has attracted attention from the highest levels of government.

Nightglass: Paizo paperback, July 2012, 345 pages, cover art by Tyler Walpole. Liane Merciel is the author of the Ithelas fantasy series, consisting so far of The River Kings' Road and Heaven's Needle. My fellow middle-aged aspiring writers will be disgusted to know that Merciel (under the name Jennifer Andress) published a story in Lucy Snyder's Dark Planet webzine when she was still in high school. (If you don't remember Dark Planet, it also published writers like Kelly Link, Gary A. Braunbeck, Tim Waggoner, and Robert Boyczuk.) Merciel is a prosecutor in her copious free time.

Nightglass is a tie-in to the Pathfinder role-playing game. It's the second Pathfinder book to try its luck in the Battle of the Books——Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes) made it to the second round of the Fall 2012 Battle. Nightglass takes place in Nidal, an especially foreboding area of the Pathfinder universe. In the prologue, the only survivor of a survey party into Nidal is nursed back to health by a fearful single mother. In chapter one, the mother's oldest son is due to be tested for magical abilities by the strange and malicious "shadowcallers." The boy, Isiem, pretends not to have any such powers, at first.

The Battle: I like the tone K.A. Bedford is going for in Paradox Resolution——Spider is just an ordinary joe who wishes all this weird crap would stop happening to him. But I think in the first 25 pages, Bedford overplays it just a bit. In particular, a good portion of the opening section focuses on Spider's impending divorce from a woman for whom he still carries a torch, but who doesn't seem to care a whit about him. This is meant to make Spider sympathetic to us, but to my tastes it shades too far into making him into a schmuck. Still, I like where Bedford is going with the character, and I am interested in the talking Dickhead mystery, even though we haven't seen any actual time travel yet. That should be enough to get Paradox Resolution past an RPG tie-in, right?

Except that through 25 pages, Nightglass has utterly failed to deliver the kind of routine, by-the-numbers story I snobbishly expected from a tie-in book. This is my second venture into a Pathfinder novel, and I am most impressed with the quality of this series. I wasn't so surprised that Song of the Serpent was good, because I know Matthew Hughes is an excellent writer. But I had never before read anything by Liane Merciel, and I am pleased to report that her writing so far is also extremely strong.

Nightglass is absorbing from the outset, without any need for prior familiarity with the Pathfinder game. I like that Merciel trusts her readers to make connections that are not explicitly stated; for example, nobody ever mentions Isiem's father, but the boy strongly resembles the pale and powerful shadowcallers. Merciel also does a nice job conveying her characters' emotions through their dialogue. Here, for instance, Isiem asks his mother why the group of shadowcallers, just arrived to test the village's children, laughed at the villager who stepped forward to tend their horses:
"Because their horses aren't real. They're shadow and magic; they never needed tending. In a few hours they'll vanish, and Belero will have fed and watered empty stalls."

"Does Belero know that?"


"Then why did he do it?"

"Because he knows, as we all do, that their contempt is what keeps this village safe. If we're stupid yokels who can't tell false horses from real ones, then surely we don't know enough to evade their other sorceries. Ignorance is safety." She pinched his chin, turning his head so that his eyes met hers. It hurt, but there was such intensity——such raw fear——on his mother's face that Isiem bit back his protest. "Do you understand me? Ignorance is safety. And nothing they offer you, nothing they promise, is real. It's all shadows and lies, like their horses."
From this, Isiem knows to feign no reaction when the shadowcallers later have him look into their magical "nightglass." But he is soon forced to give his own magical abilities away, in order to save a friend about to be killed by the nightglass. The chapter ends:
His mother was wrong, Isiem thought. Not everything they promised was shadows and lies. They promised death, too. And that was real.
When you end your first 25 pages on a note like that, it compels me to read more.

THE WINNER: Nightglass by Liane Merciel

Nightglass advances to the second round, to take on either The Devil's Nebula by Eric Brown or Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Round :: The Croning by Laird Barron vs. Fated by Alyson Noël

The first round of Bracket Five of Battle of the Books continues with a match-up of The Croning by Laird Barron versus Fated by Alyson Noël. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Croning: Night Shade hardcover, May 2012, 245 pages, cover art by Cody Tilson. Laird Barron has been publishing horror short fiction since 2000, winning three Shirley Jackson Awards and receiving numerous nominations for the Stoker Award and the International Horror Guild Award, as well as a World Fantasy Award nomination. His short fiction has been collected in The Imago Sequence and Other Stories, Occultation, and the forthcoming The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All.

The Croning is Barron's first novel. The initial chapter is an elaborate and dark reworking of the Rumpelstiltskin story, as if told by H.P. Lovecraft. The tale is from the point of view of "the Spy," a miller's son and half-brother of the girl who became Queen when she managed to spin straw into gold. We soon learn that the Spy is the father of the child the Queen has promised to a strange Dwarf in payment for his help. The Spy is desperate to find the Dwarf, but his search leads him to a mysterious, evil conspiracy of followers of the "Old Leech." The second chapter skips ahead to Mexico City, 1958. Visitor Donald Miller(!) searches for his wife, who has disappeared, but the authorities to whom he turns for help seem to be toying with him. Through 25 pages, we have no idea how this relates to the Rumpelstiltskin tale.

Fated: Macmillan audio, May 2012, 9 CDs (also published in hardover by St. Martin's). Alyson Noël is the author, by my count, of 19 young adult novels, which have sold very well. Her books include the six-volume Immortals series, beginning with Evermore, and the four-volume Riley Bloom series, beginning with Radiance.

Fated is the first in a new Noël series, called "The Soul Seekers." The second book Echo is out, with at least two more planned, and the series has already been optioned for film adaptation. The heroine of the series is Daire Santos, a young woman with magical abilities she does not yet understand. In the opening chapters of Fated, Daire is in Morocco celebrating her sixteenth birthday with a young actor, when she has a series of strange visions that feature a great many crows and severed heads. She regains consciousness in a hospital, to learn that she attacked her actor boyfriend. The doctor has had Daire restrained, and orders her mother to get her back to the United States for psychiatric treatment. The back of the book suggests she will wind up in New Mexico with her grandmother, who we believe knows more about Daire's abilities than Daire herself.

The Battle: The only time I feel bad about the apples-to-oranges nature of the Battle of the Books is when I have to judge a book that is clearly targeted at an audience that ain't me. Alyson Noël is writing for teenaged girls, the Twilight demographic. So the opening chapter of Fated places heavy emphasis on the dreamy looks of Daire's heartthrob actor boyfriend, not very subtly named "Vane." Daire and Vane share a kiss, the description of which extends for over 200 words. I don't doubt that the scene gave shivers to many of Noël's young readers, but it didn't do much for me.

Meanwhile, I very much enjoyed the opening chapter of The Croning, with its distinctive mashup of fairy tale and Lovecraft and a modern voice——e.g., the Spy affectionately thinks of his half-sister/lover the Queen, "She'd elevated herself unto royalty by convincing the old King she possessed the secrets of alchemy, that she could spin flax into gold, or some similar horseshit." I don't yet know how Rumpelstiltskin ties into a 1950's disappearance in Mexico City, but I am eager to find out.

THE WINNER: The Croning by Laird Barron

The Croning advances to the second round, to face Harmony by Keith Brooke.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Round :: Wildcatter by Dave Duncan vs. Harmony by Keith Brooke

The first round of Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books continues with Wildcatter by Dave Duncan going against Harmony by Keith Brooke. As always, the winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Wildcatter: Edge trade paperback, August 2012, 153 pages, cover art by Ralph Kermunski. Dave Duncan is the author of over forty books, predominantly epic fantasy. He is a two-time winner of the Aurora Award for Canadian science fiction and fantasy.

Wildcatter is a story of planetary exploration, drawing on Duncan's experiences as a real-life wildcatter with independent oil exploration companies. Our protagonist Seth Broderick is part of a six-person crew hoping to strike it rich by discovering something on an unexplored world that could be converted into a medicine or other valuable commodity. Seth is the prospector, with the hazardous duty of actually scouting out the planet surface. In the first chapter, the crew arrives at a promising new world, only to discover a hazard beacon left by a previous ship that found the place so dangerous as to warrant quarantine. The second chapter flashes back to when Seth interviewed to become part of the crew.

Harmony: Solaris paperback, June 2012, 413 pages, cover art by Adam Tredowski. Keith Brooke is the author of over a dozen science fiction books under that name, as well as four YA books as by Nick Gifford. He is also the founder of the Infinity Plus website and e-book imprint. I've long been a fan of his work, as evidenced by the fact that the blurbs inside the front cover of Harmony include one from my review of Brooke's excellent novel Genetopia.

Harmony (published in the UK under the title alt.human) is set long after Earth has been taken over by aliens. Humans are herded into "Ipps," Indigenous Peoples' Preserves. Our teenaged hero Dodge is bold enough to venture outside his Ipp at night, on penalty of death if he is caught in a place where his "pids," the identifiers in his bloodstream, say he is not authorized to be. Dodge is an expert at manipulating the pids to create fake authorizations, a skill that comes in handy when he encounters a young woman who, inexplicably, has no pids at all.

The Battle: We have a battle between two futuristic science fiction novels. They are both capably written, and both authors have succeeded in getting me interested in their future universes. But after 25 pages, Harmony is the book that has really gotten me engaged with the story.

For one thing, Harmony hits the ground running, with a sense of real danger right from the opening scene, when Dodge is in peril of being caught and killed by Earth's alien overlords. In contrast, Wildcatter works us into the story gradually. For Battle of the Books purposes, it doesn't help that the second chapter of the book is an extended, and not very dramatic, flashback.

For another thing, from the outset Harmony gives the reader a powerful feeling of strangeness. The multiple alien races treating Earth as their home, the aliens' use of pheromones to give humans panic attacks, and the odd emotion-based language in general use, even by humans, all combine to make for an interestingly bizarre setting. This sense of strangeness is a strength of Keith Brooke's, as I noted in my review of Genetopia.

In contrast, Wildcatter's future has rather a Golden Age feel to it. Even the crew's fascination with the various sexual permutations possible among its crew of two men, two women, and two "herms," strikes me like something out of an old Robert Heinlein or Philip José Farmer story. While I like Heinlein and Farmer, I already have plenty of their books on my shelves. Harmony promises a more original reading experience.

THE WINNER: Harmony by Keith Brooke

Harmony advances to the second round, to meet eiter The Croning by Laird Barron or Fated by Alyson Noël.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Round :: Railsea by China Miéville vs. The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh

We continue the first round of Bracket Five of Battle of the Books with Railsea by China Miéville vs. The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Railsea: Del Rey hardcover, May 2012, 424 pages. China Miéville is arguably the most important British fantasist of this generation. His second novel Perdido Street Station largely created the New Weird subgenre. His unclassifiable novel The City and the City won a Hugo Award, World Fantasy Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award, among the numerous awards and honors Miéville has received. Just this week, Railsea was nominated for the Andre Norton Award for young adult science fiction and fantasy.

Railsea is an homage to Moby Dick. Instead of a ship hunting whales on the sea, in Railsea the crew of a train hunts giant moles (moldywarpes) through a frozen tundra criss-crossed with rail lines. Already there have been hints that the captain has a vendetta against a particular moldywarpe that took her arm on a previous venture. Our protagonist Sham is the young apprentice of the train's doctor. Sham has no particular interest in medicine, or in very much else. But in the opening 25 pages of the book, Sham thrills to the hunt as his fellow trainsmen successfully pursue a vast moldywarpe.

The Express Diaries: Innsmouth House hardcover, September 2012, 290 pages, cover art by Eric Smith. Nick Marsh is a British veterinary surgeon, who has previously written a fantasy novel called The Ancients, and the first two volumes of a science fiction series, Soul Purpose and Past Tense.

The Express Diaries is an epistolary novel, set in 1925 and told through the characters' respective diaries, as well as news clippings and other documents which we can imagine inserted into the pages of the diaries. The main characters are all friends of the wealthy and eccentric London widow Betty Sunderland. In the opening 25 pages, an acquaintance of theirs is killed for what he knows of a strange artifact called the Sedefkar Simulacrum. Before he dies, he begs the group to find this artifact and destroy it. His notes describe various locations in Europe containing clues or portions of the artifact. Mrs. Sunderland persuades her friends to undertake this quest, traveling via the Orient Express, where we expect most of the story to occur. The premise of The Express Diaries is drawn from the "Horror on the Orient Express" campaign for the Lovecraftian role-playing game Call of Cthulhu.

The Battle: Aside from separating the four "seeded" books into different quarters of the draw, I do the Battle of the Books bracket entirely randomly, yet we repeatedly get interesting matchups. Here, for instance, we have a first-round matchup between two books both set on a train. (We've only had one previous train book in the Battle of the Books, Christopher Fowler's Hell Train, which reached the semifinals of the Spring 2012 Battle.) So far, both Railsea and The Express Diaries have succeeded in interesting me in the trains at the heart of their stories.

The epistolary format of The Express Diaries seems a bit limiting, but Nick Marsh has done a nice job of using the diarists' formal language to contrast with the strangeness of his grotesque imagery, for example when one of the characters reports finding a body that has been entirely skinned. While we haven't yet reached the Orient Express in the first 25 pages, Marsh has effectively suggested what evil and sinister forces await our heroes when they board.

In Railsea, China Miéville employs similarly stilted language, emulating Herman Melville, but still manages to convey Sham's exhilaration in their wild trip across a strange landscape:
Sham was awed at the light. He looked up into the two or more miles of good air, through it into the ugly moiling border of bad cloud that marked the upsky. Bushes stubby & black as iron tore past, & bits of real iron jagging from buried antique times did, too. Atangle across the whole vista, to & past the horizon in all directions, were endless, countless rails.

The railsea.
I confess I have never been a great Herman Melville admirer, but then Melville never made whaling seem so exciting to me as the bizarre moldywarpe hunt at the beginning of Railsea. Nick Marsh hasn't done anything wrong in the opening of The Express Diaries, but he had the misfortune to be paired against one of the very best writers in our field, who has once again created a remarkably original and unique vision, of which I'd like to see more.

THE WINNER: Railsea by China Miéville

Railsea moves into the second round, where it will take on Ghost Key by Trish J. MacGregor.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Round :: Ghost Key by Trish J. MacGregor vs. Kangazang! Star Stuff by Terry Cooper

We begin the first round of Bracket Five of Battle of the Books with Ghost Key by Trish J. MacGregor vs. Kangazang! Star Stuff by Terry Cooper. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Ghost Key: Tor hardcover, August 2012, 351 pages, cover photo by Marta Bevaqua. MacGregor has written over two dozen mysteries and thrillers under the names T.J. MacGregor, Trish Janeshutz and Alison Drake. She won an Edgar Award in 2002 for best paperback original for her novel Out of Sight. MacGregor has also written over a dozen non-fiction books, mostly on astrology. She is married to fellow novelist Rob MacGregor.

Ghost Key is the second in the The Hungry Ghosts series. I have not read the first book, Esperanza, but apparently it concerned a struggle with malevolent spirits in a magical city in the Andes. Now in Ghost Key, some of those angry ghosts have fled to the United States. The first 25 pages introduce two viewpoint characters. Kate Davis is a middle-aged bartender in the Florida keys, struggling to support herself and her teenage son Rocky. She wonders if people around her are behaving strangely lately, when her mild-mannered boss and the shy local librarian remove any doubt by suddenly tearing each other's clothes off in the middle of her crowded bar. Nick Sanchez is a "remote viewer," a psychic working for a secret government agency. He is investigating the same disturbance Kate is experiencing first-hand. Nick is visited by his mother's ghost, who furthers his investigation by giving him some names to Google. (I am relieved to know we can still use search engines in the afterlife.)

Kangazang! Star Stuff: Candy Jar hardcover, July 2012, 141 pages, cover art by Terry Cooper. Terry Cooper is the co-founder of CGI company Strangetown Animation. The Kangazang series is his first published fiction.

Kangazang! Star Stuff is the sequel to Kangazang! Remote Possibilities (the audio version of which is narrated by Colin Baker of Dr. Who). The Kangazang! books are slapstick science fiction in the style of Douglas Adams. Our two heroes are Jeff Spooner and Ray Scump. In the tradition of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, Jeff is a human who left Earth with his friend Ray, who turned out to be an alien visitor. Apparently the two saved the universe in the first book, so now they are enjoying a well-earned holiday on Ray's home of Kangazang, along with their android companions Gridlock and Tailback. Tailback has a female form, and she and Jeff have started a relationship. But Tail decides things aren't going to work, because Jeff would like to have children and she is not equipped to oblige him, and so she runs away.

The Battle: Ghost Key starts out promisingly. MacGregor does a nice job of establishing an ominous mood, for example with her descriptions of a mysterious fog invading Kate's home:
The fog pressed up against the windows of the hotel bar with the persistence of a living thing. It eddied, flowed, constantly moved. Through the glass, she could see it drifting across the weathered brick in the courtyard, wisps of it caressing the leaves of the potted plants, and wrapping around the trunks of trees like strings of pale Christmas lights.

The strange fog looked dirty, greasy as kitchen smoke.
MacGregor also successfully builds interest in her lead characters, Kate through her relationship with her son and Nick through his history with his parents. An added touch many readers will enjoy is their distinctive pets, Nick's a lovable mutt and Kate's a protective hawk. I confess I tire easily of urban fantasy, but so far Ghost Key is definitely holding my interest.

In Kangazang! Star Stuff, Terry Cooper counters with humorous science fiction. Humor is devilishly tricky to pull off. You know you're funny enough to make your friends laugh over a drink. You write your jokes into the story and they seem funny to you. But you don't know if they are funny until people read them and either laugh or don't laugh. Sorry to say, through 25 pages I haven't been laughing. The humor relies too much on puns and silly wordplay for my tastes, as in this scene where Gridlock the android, who is a successful stand-up comic, packs a suitcase:
"All ready, Grid?" asked Ray.

The Orbot nodded, closing the case.

"Yes indeed, Mister Ray. Case closed. Har har."

Gridlock opened the case again. "Look, it's an open and shut case! Hee hee!"

Then he disconnedted his head unit, and put it on top of the case.

"Oh no! I'm a real headcase! It's a nutcase! Ha ha ha!"

Jeff groaned. How this artificial idiot managed to become a success with this cheese-laden material was beyond him.

"Pack it in, Grid!" complained Jeff. Gridlock fell over in hysterics at this.

"Oh suit yourself . . ." groaned Jeff, suddenly realising he'd done it again.
Kangazang! Star Stuff is much the easier of these two books for me to put down.

THE WINNER: Ghost Key by Trish J. MacGregor

Ghost Key advances to the second round, to face either Railsea by China Miéville or The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five

battle books Announcing Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books!

This is our fifth bracket of the Battle of the Books. For more about why we decided to do a Battle of the Books, click here. For all the rules, click here.

Aaron reviewed and judged the Winter, Spring and Fall brackets of the Battle of the Books, won by Elizabeth Bear, James Renner, and Paolo Bacigulupi. Amy reviewed and judged the Summer bracket won by Ian Tregillis. This new group of contenders in Bracket Five will be reviewed and judged by Aaron. (Amy pulled together and formatted all the book cover graphics.)

We've received sixteen (16) more contenders, selected four "seeded" books -- the four we are most looking forward to out of this group (marked with asterisks) -- placed one seeded book in each quarter of the bracket, and then filled in the rest of the bracket randomly.  Here are your matchups.

First Quarter of Bracket:

Trish J. MacGregor
Ghost Key
Terry Cooper
Kangazang! Star Stuff
(Candy Jar)

China Miéville
(Del Rey)
Nick Marsh
The Express Diaries
(Innsmouth House)

Second Quarter of Bracket:

Dave Duncan
Keith Brooke

Laird Barron
The Croning
(Night Shade)
Alyson Noël
(St. Martin's)

Third Quarter of Bracket:

K.A. Bedford
Paradox Resolution
Liane Merciel

Eric Brown
The Devil's Nebula
Steve Rasnic Tem
Deadfall Hotel

Fourth Quarter of Bracket:

Tim Pratt
City of the Fallen Sky
James Enge
A Guile of Dragons

Jane Rogers
The Testament of Jessie Lamb
Phillipa Bornikova
This Case is Gonna Kill Me

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Some notes on the field:
-- Several of the books are difficult to classify, but by my best count 6 are science fiction, 3 contemporary fantasy, 4 high fantasy, 1 historical fantasy, and 2 horror.
-- The field is comprised of eleven men and five women; no collaborations this time.
-- The contestants include 2 books from Tor, 2 from Solaris, 2 from Edge, 2 from Paizo, and 1 each from established publishers Abaddon, Del Rey, HarperCollins, Night Shade, Pyr, and St. Martin's, and small publishers Candy Jar and Innsmouth House.
-- 2 of the books appear to be direct sequels, 2 books are obviously the start of series, 2 are Pathfinder Tales related to the roleplaying game, and the rest appear to be original.

Best of luck to all the competitors!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012 :: Wrap-up

clapping handsThis concludes the belated Fantastic Reviews Fall 2012 Battle of the Books. Aaron posted the book battles in this bracket swiftly, helping us to get back on schedule. Hope you enjoyed it!

Congratulations to The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, winner of the Fall 2012 bracket of Battle of the Books!  There were some fierce battles along the way.  Let's give a round of applause for all the participating books!

To see the whole bracket, click here.

All sixteen of these books are now available. Listed below are the featured books, sorted alphabetically by author. Click on the book title links to go that book's most recent book battle review.

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little Brown)
Losers in Space by John Barnes (Viking)
Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont (Tor)
Cuttlefish by Dave Freer (Pyr)
Lance of Earth and Sky by Erin Hoffman (Pyr)
Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson (Tor)
Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones (Lazy Fascist)
Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Finding Poe by Leigh M. Lane (Cerebral)
Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (Paizo)
Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth (Tate)
Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy (Farrar Straus Giroux)
Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson (47North)
Bloodthirst in Babylon by David Searls (Samhain)
Dark Magic by James Swain (Tor)
Auraria by Tim Westover (QW)

Some of these books and authors may be new to you, but after reading Aaron's book descriptions and battle reviews, I hope some of them sparked your interest. Only one book can win the bracket, but there were many good books in the competition.

Battle of the Books match-ups are decided based on reading a sample of the book. Most upon reading a mere 25 pages or 50 pages. So if a good book starts slow, in this review format, it may face an uphill battle. These matches are inherently subjective. Battles are decided based on which book the reviewer, Aaron, would rather continue reading.

Stay tuned for the next bracket of Battle of the Books. Another sixteen books are lined up waiting for their chance in the ring. Aaron will be reviewing. We'll be announcing the new group of contenders on Monday.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Championship Round :: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi vs. Auraria by Tim Westover

We arrive at the championship of the belated Fall 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, which presents a classic David-and-Goliath matchup. Paolo Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities, the follow-up to a National Book Award nominee and Michael L. Printz Award winner, had to be considered one of the favorites of this bracket, while the success of Tim Westover's independent book Auraria was quite unexpected. Auraria reached the finals with surprise wins over Stephen Graham Jones, Matthew Hughes, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Can it pull one more upset? I have read through page 200 of The Drowned Cities and Auraria, and the book I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of the Fall Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books.

The Drowned Cities: Little, Brown hardcover, May 2012, 434 pages, cover art by Neil Swaab. The Drowned Cities got to the championship with wins over Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth, Dark Magic by James Swain, and Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson.

The Drowned Cities brings together Tool, the bioengineered man-beast who was many readers' favorite character in Bacigalupi's previous novel Ship Breaker, and Mahlia, a young "castoff." Mahlia is the daughter of a Chinese peacekeeper, who left her to her fate when the Chinese pulled out of the "Drowned Cities," the ruins of Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas. Tool has been badly wounded and a local militia is hunting the area for him and for Mahlia, for reasons I won't spoil. Mahlia administers antibiotics to Tool, hoping that he can recover and help her escape this battle-ravaged area. But Tool has little interest in her plans, and Mahlia's friend Mouse and her benefactor Dr. Mahfouz do not wish to leave, so by the midpoint of the book, Mahlia is facing some tough choices.

Auraria: QW Publishers trade paperback, July 2012, 390 pages. Auraria advanced to the finals with upset wins over Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones, Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes), and Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Auraria, Georgia is an Appalachian mining town. James Holtzclaw has arrived by carriage with instructions from his employer Mr. Shadburn to buy out all the land in town. This he manages quite well, undeterred by all the spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural forces to be found in Auraria. It turns out that Mr. Shadburn grew up in Auraria. He is determined to build a dam, flood the entire town, and build a luxury hotel on the shores of the resulting lake. He wants to do this not to make money——indeed, he antagonizes Holtzclaw by his recklessness with his money——but to compel the residents to abandon their unhealthy fascination with gold-mining.

The Battle: The first thing to make very clear is that, through 200 pages, both of these books are excellent.

The Drowned Cities is the kind of engrossing, hard-edged YA story that we need if we are going to attract young readers to books in general and to science fiction in particular, and there is also plenty here to satisfy adult readers. The book matter-of-factly presents a nicely, and frighteningly, imagined fallen America of the future, focusing on the swampland around our former capital. For his protagonists, Bacigalupi pairs the amazingly powerful Tool with Mahlia, who survives by her wits. Early in the book, Tool wipes out half a company of pursuing soldiers by brute force. Later, Mahlia manages nearly to destroy the rest of the company through sheer cleverness. They make a terrific combination.

Auraria is a quieter book, but also very effective. Westover does a wonderful job combining small-town personalities with whimsically magical story elements, all tied together with a wry sense of humor. I will stick with my description in the semifinals, that the novel reads like a collaboration between Garrison Keillor and Neil Gaiman.

But as much as I'm enjoying both these books, I'm only permitted to choose one winner. The Battle comes down to two factors.

First, there is more depth to the characterization in The Drowned Cities. Mahlia is a believable and interestingly conflicted young woman, and Tool is a fascinating character, with a most unique outlook on life. The characters in Auraria are not as fully developed. Please note that this is not a complaint. Holtzclaw in particular is a fairly flat character by design——he is there as a straight man to observe the bizarre goings-on in Auraria, and that works quite well. But because I don't feel terribly connected to him as a character, Auraria is not quite so difficult to put down as The Drowned Cities.

The second deciding factor is story. While the first two rounds of the Battle of the Books are mostly decided on style points, since few of the books are very deep into their stories after 25 or 50 pages, plot becomes a greater factor by the semifinals and finals. And for all Auraria's strengths, midway through the book the plot isn't developing quite so much as I'd like. There is some friction brewing between Holtzclaw and Shadburn, but nothing to match the dramatic tension of The Drowned Cities. Mahlia has had to confront what seemed to be a monster, to overcome an entire company of soldiers, and now she faces an agonizing dilemma over her best friend and her mentor. Halfway through the book, her entire life has fallen to pieces. Readers don't know if she will be able to save herself or her friend Mouse, and we very much care whether she can. And that makes the book impossible to put down.

THE WINNER: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Congratulations to Paolo Bacigalupi, who is the fourth Battle of the Books winner, joining Elizabeth Bear, James Renner, and Ian Tregillis. We will feature The Drowned Cities in a full review at Fantastic Reviews, and we will also try to arrange an interview with Bacigalupi (although we already interviewed him once, so Paolo may have had his fill of us).

Thanks for joining us for the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books, and stay tuned for Battle of the Books #5, which will feature another array of talented authors, including Laird Barron, Keith Brooke, China Miéville, Jane Rogers, a pseudonymously cloaked Melinda Snodgrass, Steve Rasnic Tem, and many others.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Second Semifinal :: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal vs. Auraria by Tim Westover

Our second semifinal in the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books matches one of our "seeded" books, Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal, against the Cinderella of this bracket, Auraria by Tim Westover. The book I most want to continue reading after 100 pages will advance to the championship round, to try its luck against Paolo Bacigalupi.

Glamour in Glass: Tor hardcover, April 2012, 319 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Glamour in Glass reached the Final Four by defeating Bloodthirst in Babylon by David Searls in the first round and Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont in the second round.

Glamour in Glass is the second in Kowal's "Glamourist Histories" series, historical fantasies written in the style of Jane Austen. The books star husband-and-wife glamourists Jane and Vincent, who have the ability to weave visible illusions with their minds. In the first 50 pages, Jane and Vincent decided to take a trip to Belgium for a belated honeymoon and to meet Vincent's old glamourist friend Bruno Chastain. Travel to the continent has become possible again after Napoleon's abdication, but if our own world's history is any guide, Europe will soon fall back into turmoil once Napoleon escapes exile. In the second 50 pages, Jane and Vincent encounter ruffians, whom Vincent (played by Colin Firth) bravely fights off, then meet M. Chastain, who shocks Jane by administering corporal punishment to one of his children. Later, inspired by M. Chastain's daughter, Jane has a breakthrough concept for using glass to record and preserve glamour.

Auraria: QW Publishers trade paperback, July 2012, 390 pages. Auraria advanced to the Final Four with upset wins over Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones in the first round and Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes) in the second round, unprecedented success for an independent book in the Battle of the Books.

The story takes place in the late Nineteenth Century, in the Appalachian mining town of Auraria, Georgia. James Holtzclaw has been sent to Auraria with instructions from his employer Mr. Shadburn to buy out all the land in town. Through 100 pages, he has been remarkably successful at his purchases, in part because he is prepared to pay with gold coins and many of the locals are frustrated miners fascinated with gold. At each stop through the community, Holtzclaw witnesses something remarkable and magical, such as a boy fishing in the air instead of water, and a piano played by a ghost. Through 50 pages he steadfastly refused to acknowledge these supernatural happenings, but by the end of the first 100 pages he has abandoned his skepticism. The last straw for his disbelief was wandering through a house three stories tall on the outside, but containing dozens of floors on the inside.

The Battle: This Battle of the Books is between two historical fantasies both set in the Nineteenth Century (Glamour in Glass early in the century, Auraria late), and both written in a delightful style.

Kowal's previous Glamourist Histories book, Shades of Milk and Honey, was a Nebula Award nominee, and to my tastes so far Glamour in Glass is even better. It features strong characterization, an interesting magical system, and dialogue and narrative that combine for a wonderful homage to Jane Austen, with occasional winks to Kowal's modern readers adding to the fun. I am looking forward to seeing how Kowal works illusionist magic into the Napoleonic conflict. But for Battle of the Books purposes, it might have behooved her to get the Napoleon storlyine going a bit sooner——through 100 pages there is no dramatic tension building yet.

I have read enough by Mary Robinette Kowal that I fully expected the charming writing style of Glamour in Glass, but what a pleasant surprise that Auraria, by an author completely unfamiliar to me, is written in an equally enjoyable style. Tim Westover offers a humorous but affectionate view of small-town America that reminds me of Garrison Keillor, combined with a Gaimanesque imagination.

To give you a little taste, here is our protagonist Holtzclaw ascending through the different floors of the impossible house that finally shakes him of his skepticism, searching for the owner Mr. Walton. Each floor is manned by an attendant, watching over the collection unique to that floor. Holtzclaw thinks he is walking through an empty floor, when the attendant Cannie calls his attention to the piles of dust which are that floor's collection:
"I think you have stepped right into the arsenic powder and blown it to the four corners of the world," said Cannie. "I don't know I should ever sort it out from the sulfur."

"Such a collection would be better placed in vials or bottles," said Holtzclaw.

"It's not a collection of bottles," said Cannie.

"No, I would imagine that collection is somewhere upstairs."

"Maybe. I've never seen it."

On his tiptoes, Holtzclaw managed to cross the room without further scorn from Cannie. He climbed the stairs, which should not have led anywhere, but found himself in another full-sized story, and across the room was another staircase. It was impossible and astonishing, this proliferation of space under a single roof, yet somehow disappointing, too——it was only more stories in a house. A very modest wonder.

But disbelief would only slow him down. Hotlzclaw could shut his eyes, beg for rationality, but this infinite house would still be here, and Mr. Walton would still be inside. Besides, when he convinced Mr. Walton to sign over the property deed, Shadburn would own this house, and it could be demolished if the laws of nature were too offended.
If you love Jane Austen then you might prefer Glamour in Glass, but Tim Westover's wry sense of humor is right up my alley.

We like to compare the Battle of the Books to the March Madness basketball tournament. Part of the fun of March Madness is combining Kentucky, UCLA, and other powerhouse teams with teams from schools you might never have heard of, and every now and then one of those little guys like George Mason or Butler makes a deep run in the tournament. In the Battle of the Books, Auraria is our out-of-nowhere dark horse, shocking everyone by going toe-to-toe with books by acclaimed authors and more than holding its own.

THE WINNER: Auraria by Tim Westover

Auraria advances to the championship round to meet The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Semifinal :: Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson vs. The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Final Four of the belated Fall 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books begins with Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson against The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. The book I most want to continue reading after 100 pages will reach the championship round.

Further: Beyond the Threshold: 47North trade paperback, May 2012, 343 pages, cover art by Marcel Clemens & Algol. Further reached the semifinals by defeating Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson in the first round and Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy in the second round.

Ramachandra Jason (RJ) Stone is from our near-future, after Earth was devastated by a meteor strike. Stone was the captain of the first interstellar voyage, but the suspended animation system malfunctioned, and now he has been woken 12,000 years in the future. Most of the opening sections of Further consist of him looking around this strange far-future universe, in which humans, post-humans, and AIs have settled in a myriad of wolds, most connected to each other by wormhole gate. In the second 50-page section, he travels with his eagle-shaped AI guide to a world populated by "anachronists," to whom Stone is a great celebrity. There Stone meets Xerxes 298.47.29A, an envoy from a group of humans who settled beyond the web of wormholes. Xerxes is very bored, and one expects that Stone and Xerxes will soon form a plan to get outside this fabulous but very lived-in future civilization.

The Drowned Cities: Little, Brown hardcover, May 2012, 434 pages, cover art by Neil Swaab. The Drowned Cities got here with wins over Alexander Wisbal and the Hall of Heroes by Isaac A. McBeth in the first round and James Swain's Dark Magic in the second round.

The star of the opening 25 pages of The Drowned Cities was Tool, a bioengineered man-beast familiar to readers of Bacigalupi's prior novel Ship Breaker. Tool was chased by soldiers through the demolished "Drowned Cities" of the East Coast, then did battle with a mutant alligator. The next 25 pages featured Mahlia, a young doctor's assistant, hated by the locals because her father was one of the Chinese peacekeepers who came to America to help it recover from its collapse, only to give up and leave. In the next 50-page section, the two storylines come together. Mahlia and her friend Mouse find a weakened Tool, who captures Mouse. Mahlia bargains for her friend's life, promising to bring Tool antibiotics. But she is thwarted by the soldiers who are searching for Tool, who have set up camp at the doctor's house where Mahlia lives.

The Battle: Generally, if you make it to the semifinals of the Battle of the Books, you're doing a lot of things right. What this Battle comes down to is many little things that Roberson does well and Bacigalupi does exceptionally well.

For instance, both authors do a nice job of giving their main character a backstory to help readers feel emotionally connected. In Further, Captain Stone's amazement at this future world is tempered by his loneliness and regrets from being the only survivor of his mission. There is a strong scene where he wistfully watches an old movie that fictionalized the mission while it was still lost in space, including a hypothetical romance between him and a crewmate, with whom he actually had hoped to become involved. (Forgive the plug, but I especially liked this because my story "The Long View" in the March-April 2013 issue of F&SF also features a protagonist transported into the future who watches a film glamorizing her own life.)

In The Drowned Cities, Mahlia struggles with feelings of abandonment after her father returned to China without her, while she is simultaneously persecuted by the locals for being half-Chinese, even losing her right hand to their prejudices. Here she flashes back to before her father left, when she was still proud of her Chinese heritage:
Mahlia had been glad she was Chinese then, all the way up until her father took a toy wooden horse away from her and she bit him for it. He slapped her then, and said she had too much Drowned Cities in her.

"No respect," he said. "Drowned Cities, through and through. Just like your mother. Animals."

Mahlia's mother fought with him over that, and then he called them both Drowned Cities, and suddenly Mahlia was afraid. Her father hated the Drowned Cities more than anything. And now she discovered she was the same as the people he fought every day.
This is entirely a subjective reaction, but after 100 pages, I appreciate Roberson's characterization of Stone, while I have ceased to think of Mahlia in terms of characterization, because to me she has become an actual person.

Similarly, both of these books have an excellent setting. Roberson presents his imaginative far-future through Stone's first-person point of view with wonderful exuberance, e.g., when Stone is shown his palatial new quarters, he remarks "the interior was even grander than the outside, which had been constructed out of diamond." Bacigalupi's fallen America is also fascinating, and somehow not as bleak as it should be, because this future is a backdrop to show the strength of character of Mahlia, Mouse, and their benefactor Dr. Mahfouz.

But while the opening sections of Further are a travelogue directly focused on exploring the setting, the opening of The Drowned Cities launches straight into the plot, tossing out details about this future even as the main storylines unfold. This is not a complaint against Roberson——it makes sense for him to take the time to show why Stone is not satisfied to hang around this far-future universe, before the next phase of Stone's journey begins——but it does make Further not quite so difficult to put down after 100 pages as The Drowned Cities.

THE WINNER: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Drowned Cities advances to the championship round, to face either Glamour in Glass Mary Robinette Kowal or Auraria by Tim Westover.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012 :: Final Four

We have quickly arrived at Final Four in the belated Fall 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books:

Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson vs. The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal vs. Auraria by Tim Westover

We hope you've enjoyed this tournament so far. This sixteen-book bracket, our fourth, contained a wide variety of genre books. Hopefully some sparked your interest. There were a number of appealing, well-written books. Now only four books remain.

Dropping good books after reading only 25 or 50 pages can be difficult, but this format allows us to sample and spread the word about many more new books and authors than we otherwise could.

Three of the four "seeded" books made it to the Final Four: Further: Beyond the Threshold, The Drowned Cities and Glamour in Glass. The dark horse of the group is Auraria, an independent book that has proved a surprisingly strong competitor, pulling off consecutive upsets over top-flight authors.

Thanks again to all the authors and publicists sending us great books to consider. If you're an author or publicist, click here for the rules and an address to send your book if you'd like to be included in a future bracket.

We have had a tremendous response to the Battle of the Books format. More brackets are to come, so stay tuned!

Monday, February 04, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Second Round :: Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews vs. Auraria by Tim Westover

Our final second round match in the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books pits Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes) against Auraria by Tim Westover. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will grab the last spot in our Final Four.

Song of the Serpent: Paizo paperback, May 2012, 309 pages, cover art by Adrian Smith. Song of the Serpent is a tie-in to the Pathfinder role-playing game, by Matthew Hughes under his Hugh Matthews pen-name. It reached the second round by upsetting a seeded book, Losers in Space by John Barnes, in the first round.

In the first 25 pages, our protagonist Krunzle the Quick, a small but sharp-witted thief, was captured by a wizard. In the next 25 pages, Krunzle begins the quest assigned to him by the wizard's wealthy employer: to retrieve a daughter who has run away with a headstrong man. The wizard sends Krunzle on his way with an enchanted sword, magical boots to speed his journey, and an intelligent snake wrapped around his neck to ensure his loyalty. With his amazing sword and boots Krunzle seems unbeatable at first, but by the end of 50 pages he is captured by a second wizard.

Auraria: QW Publishers trade paperback, July 2012, 390 pages. Auraria is a fantasy set in a Nineteenth Century Appalachian mining town. It advanced to the second round with a surprise win over Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones, making it the first independent book to win a contest in the Battle of the Books.

In the opening 25 pages of Auraria, our protagonist James Holtzclaw arrived in the town of Auraria, with directions from his boss to buy out all the land in town. Over the next 25 pages, Holtzclaw starts to acquire swathes of the town, meeting several interesting characters and all the while refusing to acknowledge the ubiquitous presence of the supernatural in Auraria.

The Battle: It would be a major surprise for either an RPG tie-in or a self-published book to make the Final Four of the Battle of the Books, but one of those two things is about to happen. But either way, it will be a pleasant surprise, since through 50 pages, both Song of the Serpent and Auraria and very well-written and entertaining.

Song of the Serpent does not require any prior familiarity with Pathfinder, but it's not hard to tell that some of the props of the story, such as the enchanted sword, derive from the game. Still, Matthew Hughes takes a breezy approach to the Pathfinder universe that makes for fun reading, even if you're not especially interested in role-playing games. I particularly like Hughes' snappy dialogue, althought there is less of that in the second 25-page section, as Krunzle commences his solitary quest.

Meanwhile, so far the storytelling in Auraria is remarkably confident. Even without the fantasy elements, the descriptions of the scenery and the delightful dialogue would make Auraria a very strong historical novel. But it's the fantasy touches that make the book especially memorable. I love watching Holtzcraw try to rationalize or ignore the unmistakeable magic of the town. For example, he reacts in a wonderfully deadpan fashion when he goes to buy a farmer's home, asks the farmer to introduce his wife, and is told to ignore her: "She's been fluttering around here ever since she died."

When we decided to allow independent books in the Battle of the Books, it was with the hope that perhaps somewhere along the line we would find a hidden gem about which we could help spread the word. Auraria is it. Tim Westover writes at a professional level, and through 50 pages, his quirky tale about a strange mining town where magic hides in plain sight is wonderfully fresh and original.

THE WINNER: Auraria by Tim Westover

Auraria advances to the semifinals to face Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Second Round :: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal vs. Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont

We continue the second round of the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal vs. Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will proceed to the semifinals.

Glamour in Glass: Tor hardcover, April 2012, 319 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Glamour in Glass reached the second round by defeating Bloodthirst in Babylon by David Searls.

The first 25 pages of Glamour in Glass showed us Jane and her husband Vincent, characters introduced in Shades of Milk and Honey, at a Regency-era royal dinner party featuring "glamour" illusions Jane and Vincent created. Through the next 25 pages, Jane and Vincent work through a misunderstanding about the party, have an uncomfortable lunch with Jane's family, and begin a vacation to the continent, where we expect they will have a run-in with Napoleon.

Orb Sceptre Throne: Tor trade paperback, May 2012, 605 pages, cover art by Steve Stone. Orb Sceptre Throne got past Erin Hoffman's Lance of Earth and Sky to reach the second round.

The opening 25 pages of Orb Sceptre Throne introduced us to multiple different viewpoint characters, in various parts of the Malazan universe created by Esslemont and Steven Erikson. The viewpoint shifts slow only a bit over the next 25 pages. Stranded in the "Shores of Creation," Kiska and her rival-turned-lover Leoman meet a huge "Maker" named Stone, who tells them about one of the other characters we glimpsed in the previous section. The archeologist Ebbin discovers a fabulous underground chamber and enlists criminal aid to unlock its secrets. A brooding man named Rallick tracks the other characters' movements. A warrior named Jan is challenged to combat by one of his fellows who covets his rank, before learning he has a greater challenge ahead.

The Battle: The most difficult battles to decide are those with two very strong contenders in the first or second round. I've read enough of Glamour in Glass and Orb Sceptre Throne to know they are both extremely well written and engaging, but not enough to know where the authors are going with their respective stories. Yet the rules of the contest require me to pick one to keep reading.

Through 50 pages, the star of Glamour in Glass is not Jane or Vincent, but the delightful authorial voice, combining the style of Jane Austen with some sly modern touches. In this scene, for instance, Vincent confides in Jane that as a boy, he would practice glamour from a distance, so his sisters would take the blame for his mischief:
Jane pushed herself up and stared at him in astonishment. "You did not."

"I told you I was not a nice boy."

"You did not say you were wicked."

His voice roughened. "I would have thought you had learned that by now."



They were occupied for some minutes, then, with duties marital. To disturb their privacy would be indecorous. Suffice to say: the Vincents were a healthy couple, and with their differences settled, they were happily matched in temperament.
I love that. Here's something else I appreciate about Glamour in Glass: Most romance stories end with the hero and the heroine getting together. But anyone who has been through an actual romance knows that's the easy part. The hard part is making it work over the long term. While the prequel Shades of Milk and Honey brought Jane and Vincent together, Glamour in Glass focuses on how they make their relationship work. Even though they are certainly in love, it will be a challenge to grow their feelings for each other, given his taciturn nature and her insecurities. As with any romance, you are pretty sure they will make it happen, but you want to see how.

Through 50 pages, Orb Sceptre Throne has been a most pleasant surprise. I had the impression of the Malazan books as standard swords and sorcery, and perhaps they are, but if Orb Sceptre Throne is any indication, they are standard swords and sorcery done exceptionally well.

Most of the first 50 pages of Orb Sceptre Throne are devoted to arranging Esslemont's characters, like pieces across the board of a very complicated game. The set-up would probably mean more to someone who has read the previous books in this universe, but even though I have not, the game to come looks very interesting.

So how to choose between two books that are so successful to this point? I have no half-way objective basis for dropping out either one. But I ask myself, what I will do if both these books end up getting knocked out of the Battle of the Books? The answer is: I will still read Glamour in Glass to the end, but I will put Orb Sceptre Throne down in favor of another Malazan book that might be a better starting point for me——perhaps the first Malazan book, Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson; or Esslemont's first book, Night of Knives; or Forge of Darkness, the first in a new trilogy by Erikson. In other words, while both books have strong openings, for me Orb Sceptre Throne does not stand alone quite so well as Glamour in Glass.

THE WINNER: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

Glamour in Glass proceeds to the semifinals, to face either Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes) or Auraria by Tim Westover.

To see the whole bracket, click here.