Saturday, April 27, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six

Announcing Bracket Six of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books!

Battle of the Books continues with Bracket Six. For why we decided to do a Battle of the Books, click here. For the rules, click here.

Previous Battle of the Books winners have been Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear, The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner, The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis, The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, and Harmony (alt.human in the UK) by Keith Brooke.

Aaron will review and judge Bracket Six, which features a new group of sixteen (16) contenders. (Amy pulled together and formatted all the book cover graphics.)

We've selected four "seeded" books -- four we are especially looking forward to (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:

Ari Marmell
False Covenant
Clay and Susan Griffith
Vampire Empire:The Kingmakers

Ross S. Simon
The Snow
Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
Earth Unaware

Second Quarter of Bracket

Sam Sykes
The Skybound Sea
Nancy Kress
After the Fall Before the Fall During the Fall

B.V. Larson
Rachel Coles
Pazuzu's Girl

Third Quarter of Bracket:

Tim Lebbon
London Eye
Liz Williams

James S. A. Corey
Caliban's War
Robin D. Laws
Blood of the City

Fourth Quarter of Bracket:

Bernd Struben
The13th Zookeeper
(Strider Nolan)
Megan Powell
No Peace for the Damned

Ian McDonald
Be My Enemy
Rowena Cory Daniells

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, 4 high fantasy, 3 urban fantasy, 1 YA fantasy, 1 YA science fiction, and 1 horror.
-- The field is comprised of eight men, five women, and three collaborations (James S.A. Corey is two people).
-- The contestants include 5 books from Pyr, 2 from 47North and 1 each from established publishers Orbit, Paizo, Prime, Solaris, Tachyon, and Tor and small publishers Damnation, JournalStone, and Strider Nolan.
-- 4 of the books are labeled as book one of a series, 7 are books continuing an existing series, 1 is a tie-in to the roleplaying game Pathfinder, and the rest appear to be stand-alone books.

We will begin announcing results on Wednesday, and try to make a Battle of the Books post every other day from then until we are done. Best of luck to all the competitors!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"The Visited" by Anaea Lay :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

My story recommendation of the week is for "The Visited" by Anaea Lay, from the April 2013 issue of Lightspeed magazine. This is Anaea Lay's second SROTW.

"The Visited" is the obituary of musician Manuel Black, written by a former fan and lover. Black became a huge celebrity, because his music somehow helped people to make sense of the "Visitation," when everyone in the world had a vision of an unnaturally beautiful man or woman, accompanied by an intense sense of longing. But our narrator was a devoted fan even before the Visitation; here she describes his earlier work:
It’s still him, but now he’s angry. He hasn’t found his Morrisonian black leather pants yet, but he’s not afraid of the audience anymore. Curls fly around his face as he stares them down, challenging them to answer the questions he raises with his lyrics, to justify the world in the face of his seething despair and melancholy. Critics of the time wrote the music off as angst-ridden wankery. Audiences found it unpalatably depressing and turned instead to catchy dance pop. Listen to it now and you’ll realize his melancholy was a foreshadowing of the post-Visitation malaise waiting for all of us, that his anger was founded in an optimistic belief that things could be different if we’d just bother to acknowledge they ought to be.
In this elegantly written story, Lay makes no attempt to explain what the Visitation really was. Her focus is on the enigmatic Manuel Black, and how an artist's work can transform the meaning of what is happening in his audience's lives, to tragic or transcendent effect.

I once had a friend, who had been a Deadhead in an earlier phase of life, try to explain what compelled fans to follow The Grateful Dead from concert to concert, but I didn't understand the communal experience he was describing. "The Visited" is a piece of fiction, a form of art, yet it enables me to appreciate my friend's real-world experience in a way his factual words couldn't——and oddly enough, that's just what this story is about.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Book Review Teaser :: God's War by Kameron Hurley

New on Fantastic Reviews is Patty's review of God's War by Kameron Hurley.

Here's a some from Patty's book review of God's War :
Kameron Hurley has a serious thing for bugs. Inventor of a subgenre of the New Weird, she initially described her first novel God's War as "retro-cyberpunky," but added: "It's funny, when you don't have a word that describes exactly what you want, you sort of just cobble them together from existing words. Because I think what I meant was, you know, steampunk without the steam, but with a little cyber, only, organic punk? er...Bugpunk."

For Hurley, bugs are integral to credible world building. And for the most part, it works, as shown by the novel's 2012 Nebula Award and James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award nominations. Bugs enrich the landscape of God's War to the point where they are a fact of everyday life and a major component of the economy....Bugtech is used for powering automobiles, practicing medicine, detecting weapons, and other feats of magic/science....

God's War occurs on the planet Umayma, colonized thousands of years ago by humans. The two countries where most of the action takes place, Nasheen and Chenja, have been involved in a centuries-long war whose reasons for fighting have been forgotten.

The protagonist is Nyx, a solid woman, broad through the hips and breasts, and heavily muscled. In short, she's a brick house. Her physical aspect only reinforces her unstoppable nature. Like the terminator, she just keeps coming back....

To read the entire review -> God's War

Monday, April 15, 2013

Book Review Teaser :: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

New on Fantastic Reviews is Aaron's review of Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear.

From Aaron's book review of Range of Ghosts :
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear won the very first bracket, the Winter 2012 bracket, of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, and a wonderfully deserving winner it was.

Elizabeth Bear is still a fairly new author - her first novel Hammered appeared in 2005 - but it feels like she is a veteran of the field. She has already published over twenty books, ranging between science fiction and fantasy in both series and stand-alone books, and she has won the Campbell Award for best new author and two Hugo Awards for her short fiction.

Range of Ghosts is the first in Bear's epic The Eternal Sky fantasy trilogy, drawing heavily on the history of the Mongol Empire. As the story begins, the Great Khagan has died, and his descendants have fought a bloody battle over succession, the kind of civil war that actually fractured the Mongol Empire. Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan, fought on the losing side for his brother. Temur survived the battle only because he was so grievously wounded he was left for dead....

...Our second major viewpoint character is Samarkar, from the neighboring Rasan Empire. Samarkar has willingly left her powerful family and undergone surgery leaving her barren, so that she may train to be a sorceress. Sent to investigate reports of dark sorcery, Samarkar encounters Temur...

To read the entire review -> Range of Ghosts

Monday, April 08, 2013

“The Long View” by Van Aaron Hughes :: Patty’s Story Recommendation of the Week

Hi.  Let me introduce myself: I'm Patty Palko, a new reviewer to Fantastic Reviews.  I thought that my first post should concern Aaron's story "The Long View" just published in the March/April 2013 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I was afraid that Aaron would be too humble to tout how great this story really is.  So, I thought I would do it for him.

"The Long View" follows genetic engineer Emzara Ghali-Gordon on a trip into deep space with a shipload of colonists.  Many authors have used faster-than-light drives, suspended animation, or multi-generational ships to bridge long travel times.  Instead, Aaron's Ghali-Gordon is responsible for altering the settlers' genetic code to slow their bodies to 1/20th their normal speed.  Aging a mere 6.25 years for a 125-year journey is an ingenious method of allowing humans to explore the universe.  As a doctorate holder in the biological sciences, I was impressed with how well the science and complications of gene therapy were communicated.

Yet from the beginning, it is clear that this is a tale of loss:
What makes a person decide to desert everyone she knows and leave the whole world behind?  My name is Emzara Ghali-Gordon, and the first time I did it was easy.
Through the well-integrated flashbacks, Emzara describes her history as jabaan, or "coward," for fleeing her native Egypt due to its unprogressive ways.  As the story advances, her actions result in an emotional impact wrapped within an unexpected ending.  It's time well spent following this sympathetic character to find what she gains, and loses, along the way.

(If you like "The Long View," I recommend my favorite Hughes story "The Dualist," from the anthology Writers of the Future Volume 27.  There is some damn fine storytelling in those pages.)

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five :: Wrap-up

clapping handsWe have just concluded Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books. There were good, competitive matches along the way, perhaps even some upsets. Hope you had a good time!

Congratulations to Keith Brooke's Harmony (aka alt.human), winner of Bracket Five of the Battle of the Books! 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 Croning by Laird Barron (Night Shade)
Paradox Resolution by K.A. Bedford (Edge)
This Case Is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova (Tor)
Harmony by Keith Brooke (Solaris)
The Devil's Nebula by Eric Brown (Abaddon)
Kangazang! Star Stuff by Terry Cooper (Candy Jar)
Wildcatter by Dave Duncan (Edge)
A Guile of Dragons by James Enge (Pyr)
Ghost Key by Trish J. MacGregor (Tor)
The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh (Innsmouth House)
Nightglass by Liane Merciel (Paizo)
Railsea by China Miéville (Del Rey)
Fated by Alyson Noël (St. Martin’s)
City of the Fallen Sky by Tim Pratt (Paizo)
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (HarperCollins)
Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem (Solaris)

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. Perhaps we introduced you to a few new books. 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 Bracket Six of Battle of the Books. We have another sixteen books lined up for the next competetion. Aaron will be reviewing. We'll be announcing the new group of contenders soon.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, Championship Round :: Harmony by Keith Brooke vs. The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

We have arrived at the championship of Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books. In one corner we have Harmony by Keith Brooke, a science fiction novel set on an alien-occupied Earth. In the other corner we have The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, a near-future science fiction novel featuring a virus that kills pregnant women. So two books in the SHTF ("shit's hit the fan") sub-genre of SF. I (Aaron) have read through page 200 of Harmony and The Testament of Jessie Lamb, and the book I most want to continue reading to the end will be the champion of Bracket Five of the 2012 Battle of the Books.

Harmony: Solaris paperback, June 2012, 413 pages, cover art by Adam Tredowski. Harmony (published in the UK under the title alt.human) reached the championship by defeating Wildcatter by Dave Duncan in the first round and The Croning by Laird Barron in the second round, then edging Railsea by China Miéville in the semifinals.

In Harmony, Earth has been taken over by multiple races of aliens, who have herded all the humans into "Ipps," Indigenous Peoples' Preserves. Our teenaged hero Dodge inhabits the caves of the Craigside Ipp. Refugees from the nearby town of Angiere arrive, reporting that humans have been eradicated from that town. Our second viewpoint character, Hope, was among those who left Angiere just in time. Hope previously escaped some sort of hospital, where she woke with severe memory loss. Dodge knows there is something strange about Hope, because she lacks the "pids," personal identifiers, aliens have placed in all humans' bloodstreams. When aliens seize the leaders of Craigside, Dodge finds himself suddenly in authority, desperate for a way to save his community from the attack he fears imminent. One possibility is to bolt for "Harmony," a fabled city where humans and aliens live as equals.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb: Harper Perennial trade paperback, May 2012, 240 pages, cover photo by Clayton Bastiani. The Testament of Jessie Lamb advanced to the championship with wins over This Case is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova in the first round, A Guile of Dragons by James Enge in the second round, and Nightglass by Liane Merciel in the semifinals.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is the memoir of a teenager imprisoned by her father (for reasons I don't want to say, since they are not expressly revealed unil halfway into the book, but careful readers will know long before that). In Jessie's near-future world, bioterrorists have unleashed the MDS virus, which makes it fatal for any woman to become pregnant. Scientists, including Jessie's father, work desperately to find a cure. The best they have managed so far is to create a vaccine to immunize frozen embryos, permitting healthy children to be born to comatose "Sleeping Beauty" mothers, who will never wake. Deprived of its future, society is rapidly deteriorating. Jessie experiments with various protest groups but finds little comfort there. Finally, Jessie makes a momentous decision that her parents refuse to accept.

The Battle: I am required at this point to name a winner, and I will wish to justify my selection, which may misleadingly suggest that one of these novels is flawed. So let me first say that these are both excellent books, and either would be a worthy Battle of the Books winner.

In Harmony, Keith Brooke does an outstanding job of taking our own planet and turning it into a bizarre and frightening place. Here, for example, is Hope first arriving in Dodge's town:
She had understood those people [in Angiere], she had known how to get the right responses from them.

But here . . . she did not know what to make of a club where grey-skinned, bug-eyed aliens went to have their skin painfully flensed with metal graters, or where liquid was poured on a creature that was something like a slug on many legs, the liquid attracting a seething mass of bugs to eat the creature's flesh. She was strangely disturbed by the alien scabs that latched onto buildings and watched everything that passed with individual slow-moving eyes, colours flashing across their crusty surfaces. She did all she could to avoid the humans she came to know as nearly-men, the ones with dead emptiness in their eyes and alien growths on their bodies, with twitching faces and limbs and naked bodies covered in scars and filth and bruises.
Brooke conveys the strangeness of his transformed Earth and its various types of alien occupiers so effectively that it feels as if the humans, like native Americans today, have become outsiders in their own land. Even better, Brooke shows us this strange landscape through the eyes of a likeable young protagonist, who faces a host of challenges, some quite familiar and others nearly beyond our comprehension.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb also features an appealing young protagonist, who similarly has to navigate becoming an adult against the backdrop of an awful future. Jane Rogers tells Jessie's story through superb prose, including an exquisitely written scene where Jessie loses her virginity, then afterwards remembers that her boyfriend is soon to leave on a dangerous protest:
I couldn't bear to be left on my own, I was so sensitised I needed him to keep his arms around me at all times. It was like I had been peeled. When he asked, "What is it?" I told him, and he hugged me and said he'd be back soon. But I couldn't help it, and I cried. "Stop it," [he] whispered, "stop it, stop it," and he licked the tears off my face like a dog until I couldn't help laughing, and he called me an idiot. . . . Part of me wanted him to stop talking and just start kissing me again, my blood was fizzy and it made my whole body tingle. But another part of me wanted to have my clothes on and be outside in the cold night walking home, breathing the dark air and letting the thinking bits of me catch up with the feeling bits.
The battle between these two excellent novels comes down to their respective stories.

Early on, I felt that Rogers was effectively using Jessie's personal struggles to suggest the larger societal turmoil caused by the MDS epidemic. But in the second hundred pages, the balance has shifted, with nearly all the focus on Jessie's personal decision and her resulting conflict with her parents. What is happening with society at large, including whether the human race will survive at all, has been relegated to the background. After 200 pages, it is apparent that Rogers is using MDS to frame various metaphors about parent-child relationships, gender issues, etc., but society's battle with the MDS virus is rather tangential to the book's actual plot——how Jessie's story ultimately plays out will do nothing to resolve the larger story about the death, or at least transformation, of society as a whole. This is not a criticism of Jessie Lamb. Rogers deliberately chose to keep a narrow focus to her tale and for the most part it works, but it's an authorial choice that, in the end, makes it a bit easier for me to put the book down.

Meanwhile, Harmony is also very closely tied to a single young protagonist. But, unlike Jessie Lamb, Brooke's protagonist Dodge finds himself in a leadership role where his decisions carry consequences for many other people. The first 200 pages close with a harrowing scene, which requires Dodge to react quickly. What's more, there have been plenty of hints to suggest that Dodge and Hope will be the key figures in a greater story that will impact all of Earth. And that compels me to keep reading Harmony to the end.

THE WINNER: Harmony by Keith Brooke

Congratulations to Keith Brooke, who is our fifth Battle of the Books winner, joining the illustrious company of Elizabeth Bear, James Renner, Ian Tregillis, and Paolo Bacigalupi. We will feature Harmony in a full review at Fantastic Reviews, and we will also try to arrange an interview with Keith Brooke (who has already blogged about the Battle of the Books, so we hope he'll be open to that).

Thanks for joining us for Battle of the Books #5. Stay tuned for Battle of the Books #6, which will feature yet another array of talented authors, including James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck), Orson Scott Card, Nancy Kress, Ian McDonald, and many others.