Friday, May 20, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith vs. The Just City by Jo Walton

The eighth and last first round match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith taking on The Just City by Jo Walton. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Towers Fall: Talos Press, November 2015, 386 pages, cover images by Thinkstock. Karina Sumner-Smith was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2007 for her short story "An End to All Things." Towers Fall is the third volume in the Towers Trilogy, after Radiant and Defiant.

The Towers Trilogy is set in a world of extreme social stratification. The elites live in floating towers clustered around a "Central Spire," while the downtrodden live on the ground in the Lower City. Among the poor folks in the Lower City is our young heroine Xhea, who has various magical abilities including the power to talk to ghosts, particularly her ghost companion Shai. Through her magical senses, Xhea has realized that a supernatural being has come to life underneath the Lower City. It seems in the prior books, there was a failed attempt to lift a new tower into the sky. When the tower came crashing down, Xhea persuaded the living Lower City to catch it and prevent utter disaster. This has alerted the Central Spire to the presence of the being under the Lower City and to Xhea. In the opening 25 pages of Towers Fall, the Central Spire orders all the inhabitants of the Lower City to leave, presumably so they can find this supernatural entity, and they send a ghost to place a spell on Xhea that seems designed to strip away her powers.

The Just City: Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings was published in June 2015. The third book, Necessity is due out in July 2016.

The Just City is set in a shining city created by the goddess Pallas Athene, modeled after Plato's Republic. Having no difficulty jumping about time, she decides to locate the city near Atlantis before its fall (which we learn will be triggered by a volcanic eruption). The first 25 pages consist of first-person chapters from the point of view of Apollo, who decides to become mortal to experience this city; a young girl named Simmea who was rescued from slavery in the distant past and brought to the city; and another girl Maia, who wants to be a scholar but finds no such opportunity in 19th Century England, so prays to Athene for the chance to live in Plato's Republic, and ta-da!

The Battle: We have two fantasy novels doing battle, each with a very different tone. Towers Fall arguably fits in the current dystopian subgenre, while The Just City is more of a utopian story.

Towers Fall starts with the disadvantage of being the third book in a trilogy. But Karina Sumner-Smith does a nice job of catching us up in the story without letting the summaries slow down the pace of the narrative. I feel like I have gotten a good sense of the story so far, and yet things have already happened, including the shocking announcement that everyone must evacuate the Lower City and an attack on Xhea and her magical abilities. It's actually The Just City which has the slower pace so far. We've met some of the characters and learned their backgrounds, but have yet to get much sense of Pallas Athene's eponymous city.

But as I've noted before in the Battle of the Books, it isn't always action that pulls me into the opening passages of a novel. While Sumner-Smith opens Towers Fall capably enough, the story has yet to grab me. After 25 pages, I don't feel like I've gotten much sense of the main characters Xhea and Shai. I like the notion that the entity under the Lower City was created as an unintended byproduct of dark magic being dumped by the towers. And yet the blatant social stratification in the story feels heavy-handed to me, especially since the motif is getting overused lately:
It was clear that the Spire cared little for the people on the ground, nor for how those people might suffer as a result of the dark magic poured down upon them, night after night. The Spire did not care that Lower City dwellers' own magic was thin and weak; that they died young, or sickened frequently, or were poisoned by the very walls around them, the ground beneath their feet.
Star Trek gave this same scenario, with the privileged living in the clouds, a more even-handed treatment fifty years ago.

Meanwhile, I already feel a connection to the three viewpoint characters in The Just City, each of whom has a distinctive voice. Jo Walton's dry wit is on display. And while the story tells of the attempt to create a utopian society, Walton has already signaled from the first page of Simmea's narrative that such lofty goals can generate unintended consequences:
When I came to the Just City I was eleven years old. I came there from the slave market of Smyrna, where I was purchased for that purpose by some of the masters. It is hard to say for sure whether this event was fortunate or unfortunate. Certainly having my chains struck off and being taken to the Just City to be educated in music and gymnastics and philosophy was by far the best fate I might have hoped for once I stood in that slave market. But I had heard the men who raided our village saying they were especially seeking children of about ten years of age. The masters visited the market at the same time every year to buy children, and they had created a demand. Without that demand I might have grown up in the Delta and lived the life the gods had laid out before me.
After reading only 25 pages into The Just City, I am already absorbed and anxious to read more.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City advances to the second round to face Letters to Zell by Camille Griep.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep vs. Originator by Joel Shepherd

Our seventh and penultimate first round match of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books pits Letters to Zell by Camille Griep against Originator by Joel Shepherd. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Letters to Zell: 47North, July 2015, 326 pages. Letters to Zell is an epistolary novel, consisting of letters written to Rapunzel ("Zell") from her good friends CeCi (don't call her Cinderella!), Bianca (Snow White), and Rory (Sleeping Beauty). It seems Zell has abandoned their home in Grimmland to go manage a unicorn preserve. CeCi takes this gracefully, while Bianca begins her first letter, "Z, you silly bitch." The ladies are getting bored and so decide to travel Outside (i.e., to our world) to take a cooking class. Snow White ignores that she is officially "discouraged" from going, because her wedding has not yet happened, and therefore she has "unfinished Pages."

Originator: . Pyr, January 2015, 397 pages, cover art by Stephan Martiniere. Originator is the sixth volume in the Cassandra Kresnov series of science fiction adventures by Australian Joel Shepherd. This book begins with Sandy (Cassandra) at a school play starring one of her three children. Her enjoyment is interrupted by the announcement that the moon of Cresta has been destroyed by forces unknown. Sandy immediately moves her Spec Ops forces into action, beginning with trying to capture "Subject A," a mysterious figure they have been trailing. It turns out that Subject A is also under surveillance by FedInt and a League infiltration team, while meeting with an alien Talee. (Don't wait for me to explain who these various groups are, because I don't know.) Sandy has her cruiser shot out of the sky, but she survives to find a murdered Subject A. She meets up with her other people in time for a firefight over Subject A's companion.

The Battle: We have a chick-lit fantasy against an action-packed science fiction adventure. Letters to Zell faces an uphill battle, because I'm a huge science fiction fan, not much of a chick-lit reader. But upsets do happen . . .

The opening 25 pages of Letters to Zell are a lot of fun to read. Each of Rapunzel's three correspondents has a distinctive voice. They all have more attitude than one might expect from their Disney incarnations, but in different ways. I particularly like Snow White, who apparently came away from her years with the dwarves with a bit of a potty-mouth. Here Sleeping Beauty describes meeting up for their first visit to Outside:
Thinking our outing was to be an informal affair, I was enjoying five extra minutes of sleep when CeCi turned up attired as though we were attending a party, blond hair coiffed and complexion perfect, as if she'd been up for hours. As for Bianca, she managed to secure some sort of Outside clothing from Rumple's tailoring shop. We spent the entirety of the walk from my castle to Solace's Clock Shop arguing whether her arms were inserted through the correct openings. I maintain to this minute that she put the outfit on wrong, because it didn't cover very much of her. Bianca informed us she'd been reading something called Cosmo, and that we could kindly go fuck ourselves.
We're not far into the story after 25 pages, but I'm enjoying the set-up enough that I'd be happy to keep reading.

Meanwhile, 25 pages into Originator, things are happening at a break-neck pace. Already a planetoid has been destroyed, our protagonist has survived having her aircraft shot down, visited a murder scene, and burst into a firefight that erupted in the middle of a wedding on another world. This should be a page-turner, but I confess so far I feel quite distant from all the action.

Part of the problem is this is the sixth book in a dense series, and I have no concept yet of who most of the major players are or what they want. I don't even know what planet Sandy is on. Even if I had read the previous books, however, I'm not sure I would have followed why Sandy believes "Subject A" has anything to do with the destruction of Cresta. I think this is an example of a narrative that is too fast-paced, giving the reader no time to understand the significance of all the action.

Another issue for me is that Shepherd's writing style does not do much to convey the immediacy of the situation. Here, for example, Sandy leaps from one cruiser to another in mid-air:
She stopped tracking the situation long enough to pop the door as Vanessa steered her cruiser underneath and to one side Wind blew in, not much, she was nearly hovering . . . she leaned to recover her bigger weapon from under the rear seat, locked the cruiser's course on auto, then stepped out. She fell five meters onto Vanessa's rooftop, then swung over the edge through the window Vanessa had opened for her.
Oddly enough, this will be the first of two times this chapter Sandy leaps from a moving aircraft. The second time: "The door cracked, and again Sandy stepped out." This matter-of-fact statement does not really give me an adrenaline rush, nor am I impressed with such bland descriptions as "her bigger weapon." I think it's all meant to suggest that Kresnov is such a badass that dropping from a moving aircraft is a walk in the park for her. But perhaps she is too much of a badass? Too many descriptions like this make the whole story start to feel like a walk in the park, no matter how many deaths and explosions have occurred. Which doesn't much compel me to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Letters to Zell by Camille Griep

Letters to Zell advances to the second round to face either Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith or The Just City by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson vs. Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson

Our sixth first round match-up of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson doing battle with Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Blood Will Follow: Jo Fletcher Books, January 2015, 266 pages, cover photo by Arcangel Images. Blood Will Follow is the second book in the Valhalla Saga. The first book, Swords of Good Men competed in the Battle of the 2014 Books, falling to Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson in the second round. Kristjansson is an Icelandic writer now living in London.

The Valhalla Saga pits Vikings with traditional beliefs in the Norse gods such as Odin and Thor against followers of the "White Christ," including King Olav. In Swords of Good Men, King Olav and his men won a battle for the town of Stenvik. As Blood Will Follow opens, a dangerous man named Valgard convinces Olav to march north to engage the other Norsemen immediately, rather than waiting for springtime. Meanwhile, the adventurer Ulfar and blacksmith Audun march away from Stenvik. They have been granted immortality by a witch, something they both regard as a curse. Ulfar decides to head home (Ulfar seemed like the primary protagonist in the 50 pages I read of Swords of Good Men, but he has appeared onstage only briefly so far in Blood Will Follow.) Audun trudges forward without him, eventually finding shelter with a strange old man.

Hexed: Pyr Books, May 2015, 278 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Hexed is the opening volume in the Sisters of Witchdown series, which is based on Michael Alan Nelson's Hexed comic books.

In the prologue of Hexed, a teenage girl named Gina is terrified from having seen an old woman in a mirror in a haunted house called the Worcester House, which she visited with friends. She runs home, and her policeman father tries to comfort her. But the old woman has followed and reaches through another mirror for Gina. Then in the initial chapters, we meet our young protagonist, Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves, Lucifer for short. The policeman gets a tip that Lucifer is knowledgeable about phenomena like this and begs her to help find his daughter. Lucifer starts by questioning Gina's boyfriend David, from whom she learns that Gina had recently been to Worcester House.

The Battle: I'll confess I was not especially looking forward to this battle. I had previously read 50 pages into the first book in Kristjansson's Valhalla Saga and it didn't much grab me. And Hexed looked a lot like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer rip-off, a number of years after that would have sounded like a fresh idea. But I was pleasantly surprised by the opening 25 pages of both books, both of which have strong openings. I'm taking that as a reminder of just how many talented authors we have in the SF/F field.

In the last Battle of the Books match-up, I complained that the opening of one of the contestants didn't pull me in because it was busy recapping earlier volumes in the same series. Impressively, in Blood Will Follow, Kristjansson recaps the story so far in his series in a way that helps advance the new story elements:
The day fell into a steady rhythm: heave rough wood, hammer, nails, move on. Audun had to admit that the old man was an excellent worker. There was no fuss, minimal talking, and no stupidity. The old man did what needed to be done and never got in his way. Thank the gods for every man who isn't an idiot, Audun thought. Then he grinned. That would be the kind of thing he'd have muttered under his breath crossing the square in Stenvik, before . . .

"What happened?"

The question came out of nowhere and broke the quiet.

"I . . . what?"

"Tell me."

Audun looked at the old man, who just looked levelly back at him with his one good eye. "There . . . um . . . there was a siege. Around Stevnik. Someone called Skargrim surrounded the city." Fjölnir nodded at the mention of the name. "A lot of good men died."
The old man Fjölnir proceeds to force the tale out of Audun, letting new readers know more about the story to date, while also revealing the old man as someone more powerful and dangerous than we realized.

That scene in particular set a strong tone I thought would be difficult for Hexed to match. But the opening scene of Hexed, in which our missing girl Gina is abducted by a witch who reaches for her through a mirror, is effectively chilling. And I'm finding our young protagonist Lucifer spunky and tough but also sympathetic and funny. In this scene, for instance, she tries to interview Gina's boyfriend, who is playing basketball. One of the other players (Ethan) objects to Lucifer interrupting the game and calls her a "bitch." She bets him five dollars she can score on him in five seconds:
As soon as Greg started counting down, Lucifer raised the ball straight over her head. Ethan reached out to snatch the ball from Lucifer's hands, his arms uncoiling as quick as vipers. When he grabbed the ball, Lucifer let go and twisted her hips as hard as she could, bringing her shin up between his legs.

There was a dull, wet sound of bone on flesh. The impact lifted Ethan clear off the ground, and he cried out with a sharp, brittle yelp. He seemed to hang in the air for a moment, confused and disoriented before falling to the ground in a fetal heap. The basketball fell and hit him in the head before rolling off the court, its bouncing pitter-patter the only sound in the suddenly silent gym.

The other boys erupted in laughter. Lucifer grabbed the five-dollar bill and tossed it down at Ethan who lay on the ground clutching his privates and struggling to breathe. "You win."
After reading 25 pages, I'm enjoying both these books, but the wry sense of humor puts Hexed over the top.

THE WINNER: Hexed by Michael Alan Nelson

Hexed advances to the second round to face Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz.

To see the whole bracket, click here.