Monday, July 02, 2012

Favorite SFF Books First Half 2012

I did this last year so I might as well keep the tradition alive. We’ve just passed the halfway point of 2012 and thus far, I’ve read 35 novels (some of those were part of an omnibus so the technical book count is 30).  19 of those books hold a 2012 copyright . Since it isn’t always easy to place one novel above another when the writers are creating different stories, I’ll do this top 6 alphabetically (6 months, 6 books). Right, I know that’s a cop-out but I make the rules here:

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
With Doctor Adoulla Makhslood is that overweight, aged (60+) protagonist. He loves the city in which he lives, Dhamsawaat; and is the foremost ghul-hunter in the city, in fact he’s the last. His young assistant is the holy/monk swordsman Raseed bas Raseed who takes out monsters with his dual-tipped sword. When the two are tasked with investigating a string of ghul appearances, the cross paths with the were-lion Zamia, or as her powers are considered in Ahmed’s world – angel-touched. Zamia is the Protector of the Band, a desert wasteland tribe that, as Adoulla and Raseed meet Zamia, has been decimated. As the appointed protector, Zamia blames herself, but soon joins Adoulla and Raseed since they have a mutual goal of finding and eradicating the man responsible for creating these powerful ghuls. Complicating matters is the roguish Pharaad Az Hammaz AKA The Falcon Prince, a master thief/rebel who is seeking to bring down the strong, controlling grip of Khalif who sits upon the titular Throne. In addition to these characters, Ahmed surrounds Makshlood with a strong-knit group of associates who are much of a surrogate family for the good Doctor who would rather relax with a cup of tea alongside Miri, “the one that got away” than battle demons
Where Ahmed excels is with his protagonist, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood. He’s the type of guy you want to have as the ‘crotchety but cool uncle’ at the bar with you to share a drink or at your side should that bar-room brawl occur. We get in the head of Makhslood as he re-examines the decisions he’s made in the immediate past and ponders of how he should best proceed particularly with the Falcon Prince. Where Adoulla shows the most emotion is in his regret of the lost love of Miri, who he set aside – for lack of a better term – to give into his calling as protector of Dhamsawaat, his city which he does truly love.

I hadn’t read any novel-length fiction from Elizabeth Bear before this year, though I did read various short stories in a few anthologies. Considering those stories often stood out, I wasn’t surprised I enjoyed Range of Ghosts, but I didn’t expect to be as entranced as I was:
Did I mention the gods are alive and real and each ‘nation’ has a different sky which contains different moons and stars? Yeah, there’s that too. One of the things that make this novel so amazing is Bear’s ability to weave these elements into a wholly cohesive narrative. Woven along with these elements is an incredibly lush and powerful resonant element of mythology. The vital connection between the creation myth one character recounts has great bearing on the world itself. In many other fantasies the gods may be part of the world, but more so in Bear’s richly developed world the gods, or beings thought of as gods, actions have logical connections to how the characters react, in terms of consequences of the gods actions and how the characters internalize those elements into their own actions.

I mentioned the resonance in this novel that Bear has constructed so wonderfully, I felt the same power reading Range of Ghosts I did reading and enjoying archetypal myths and folktales that have been around for thousands of years such. While I enjoyed reading the novel in the moment, the sense of gravitas in the story settled in with my imagination after I’d set the novel aside for the day’s reading or even when I completed the novel. In a sense, Range of Ghosts, from my reading experience, can be seen as a successful experiment in modern mythmaking. What is even more promising is that this is just the beginning and Bear has more to tell in this resonant story.

The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett was a stunning novel and like most of the other novels in this post, it was my first exposure to the writer’s novel (or in this case, any) writing
The small things are important, too, Bennett’s The Troupe reminds us. Sure there may be an apocalyptic, near biblical conflict that serves as the engine, or rather, the sheet music of the events, but engine parts and players are what put these elements into motion. In the case of The Troupe, George Carole is of course this major part although to call him the driving character may not be completely accurate. Sure his initial query about his father brought him to Silenus’s Troupe, but once there, he’s more of a front-seat passenger than the actual driver. He’s a young man searching for his family – an orphan if you will – and for a sense of purpose in life. Initially, he’s headstrong and unwilling to hear that he’s young and perhaps not ready to take the stage in Silenus’s Troupe. After all, as George likes to inflate himself by saying, he could headline and make an appreciable sum for his performances. What truly makes George stand out to Harry is that George is the only audience member who has ever been able to remember the Troupe’s final act.

Harry, comes across just as headstrong, but as the mentor who seemingly holds back necessary information from the young hero of the tale. Harry’s obsession – something he’s initially unwilling to share with anybody other than the silent Stanley – is what drives the story and the Troupe across the country in search of something supernatural and away from something equally supernatural, though much darker. There’s a great aura of confliction surround Harry, he’s got very honorable intentions and goals but he often comes across as a callous and harsh individual. I felt some resonance in the Harry/George relationship to the relationship portrayed in Gangs of New York between Daniel Day Lewis’s Bill the Butcher (who might make a terrific Harry if The Troupe ever made it to film) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam or even to Roland the Gunslinger and the boy Jake Chambers in King’s
The Dark Tower, and there was something about Harry that reminded me of Jessie Custer, the title character from Garth Ennis & Steve Dillion’s landmark Preacher comic book series. Bennett’s deft depiction of Harry as a conflicted character is evident down to his speech pattern, Harry’s dialogue often includes allusions to wondrous things which are soon punctuated with a contrarian “fucking…this” or “that fucking bastard.” In short, Harry is a gem of a character

In perhaps the most assured debut since Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man (no coincidence since the two writers are long time friends and share an agent). Shadow OPS: Control Point by Myke Cole really hit all the right cylinders for me:
Oscar Britton is part of a military unit responsible for rounding up ‘Selfers,’ those people who suddenly manifest magical abilities and run amok. In, Shadow OPS: Control Point, Myke Cole’s near future saga blends Urban Fantasy and Military Science Fiction, two branches of Speculative Fiction that don’t come together often. The Great Reawakening has taken place, magic is real as are the creatures out of fantasy and myth like goblins and Rocs. The military has permitted (and controls) schools of Elemental magic dealing with wind, fire, water, and earth control. Other ‘schools’ such as reanimating the dead and opening up portals for quick travel, are forbidden. Oscar manifests sorcerous powers in the forbidden school of magic – Portomancy, the ability to open portals allowing for instant transportation to any location. Due to the laws in place, he must immediately turn himself into the authorities. As an officer in the military responsible for bringing in those who manifest out of the public, Oscar has seen what happens to Latents, people such as himself, so he flees and becomes a fugitive. What drives home the fact that Latents such as himself are treated like dangerous criminals is the opening scene of the novel – Oscar and his military team, step into a dangerous scene where two young people have manifested and are causing havoc at a school, killing people, and harming the officers tasked with quelling the situation. Oscar must decide if it is better to turn himself in and eventually cooperate or if he should buck the system and forge his own path.
Told in a third person perspective, Cole still conveys the stress and conflict Britton experiences both physically and mentally in a supremely believable fashion. At times I found myself sympathizing with Oscar’s plight, other times, I wanted to whack him upside the head and shout “Just go with it!” It proved frustrating at times, but I’d almost say in a car-wreck kind of way because I wanted to see if Oscar would actually do what he’s told or continue to rebel. I don’t know if this is what Cole intended, but also found myself siding with characters that were likely set out as antagonists – specifically legally empowered magic practitioner Harlequin who was once part of Oscar’s team and then attempted to secure Oscar once he manifested.
Paul S. Kemp has been carving out a nice swath in the sword and sorcery genre with his popular Erevis Cale novels set in The Forgotten Realms. It can both be risky and rewarding for an author to jump from shared worlds to their own worlds, but it paid off VERY well for Kemp’s first non-shared world/tie-in novel: The Hammer and the Blade:
Sword and Sorcery is making something of a renaissance in genre fiction, thanks in no small part very recently to writers like Scott Lynch, James Barclay, and James Enge. Part of the reason for such a flourishing of these personal tales of fantasy featuring blue collar heroes getting in over their head is the popularity of role playing games over the past couple of decades allowing players to participate in what amounted to collaborative sword and sorcery storytelling. One of the most popular and widely played games during that time (and now) is The Forgotten Realms and one of the more popular authors of novels tied into that franchise is Paul S. Kemp. That’s the long way of saying how Kemp’s pedigree, for lack of a better term, provides him with a strong foundation to pen his first novel set outside any previous shared worlds to which he contributed. Thus, we have The Hammer and The Blade A Tale of Egil and Nix. I’m very pleased to say this sword and sorcery novel was a blast.

To say these characters and this story is a love letter to Fritz Leiber would be selling Kemp short of what he’s done. In Egil and Nix, he’s given readers possible long-distant cousins to
Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in that he’s got the large bruiser and short thief duo, as well as the banter between the two. Furthermore, one of the main areas in this world is known as the Low Bazaar, an obvious homage the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser story Bazaar of the Bizarre. Kemp also throws out shout-outs to Green Lantern mythos along the way.

Regular readers of my blog and members of the SFFWorld forums are aware of how highly I rank Matthew Stover in my pantheon of favorite writers so it should come as no surprise that a novel by him makes this cut. In this case, the “last” Caine novel: Caine’s Law
Matthew Stover has carved out a solid niche for himself at the intersection of Fantasy and Science Fiction genres with hisActs of Caine sequence. The first book, Heroes Die was published in 1997 and introduced readers to Hari Michaelson the actor who portrays Caine, the most popular adventurer in Overworld, a fantasyland Earth discovered and exploits as the ultimate reality television experience. In Heroes Die, Caine is on what is thought to be his last adventure to save his girlfriend from a sorcerer (Ma’elKoth, probably my favorite hero antagonist) who has ascended to godhood. Heroes Die easily stands on its own, although thankfully, for readers like myself, Caine’s voice kept haranguing Stover to continue telling stories about him. The sequel novel, Blade of Tyshalle was at least as good as Heroes Die (some would say better, I might even say that sometimes) and is the story of both the fallout of Heroes Die and Earth’s continued exploitive efforts on Overworld. A few Star Wars novels later, Stover again picked up the story of Caine in Caine Black Knife (billed with the sub-title Act of Atonement, Book I) which was a dual narrative with one thread having followed the ‘modern’ day Caine while the other followed Caine on the adventure that made him a star, “Retreat from the Boedecken.”

The not-so-straightforward narrative not only changes POV character and voice, but time / history as we see a young Duncan Michaelson before he’s married and a father, a young Hari Michaelson while he’s a boy in the hospital where his mother dies, and an older grizzled Caine, among other character time-points. One of, if not the central question, of the narrative is whether or not one would change a past event filled with regret, given the opportunity. A simple question, on the surface, but of course the implications of such a question are more interesting than the question itself. To summarize the plot any more would be an injustice to the multiple branches of the narrative Stover leads the reader, but suffice it to say Caine’s Law is a novel about heroes and gods, past and present, power and manipulation. It’s about saying fuck you to the people trying to hold you down, control you and mess with your family; it’s about love and honor; and sometimes about being the right guy even if that means not being the good guy all the time. Simple enough, right? Didn’t think so.


Unknown said...

Throne of the Crescent Moon has been on my TBR list for a while, but it's nice to see a positive review for The Hammer and the Blade - I was excited for that one, but most of the response I've seen has been underwhelming.

I gave Shadow OPS: Control Point two chances, but it just didn't hold my interest. The concept seemed perfect, but I didn't find the main character worth following.

RobB said...

RE: Hammer and the Blade, interesting, I've seen mostly positive things about the book.