Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Stepford Wives (1972)

The Stepford Wives (1972) is a horror-thriller by Ira Levin with some SF elements. As the SF elements aren't clear in the story, the tales doesn't read like SF at all.

The book itself is short and to the point, building itself just like a suspense or horror tale from late night radio. This story could easily be a radio script. With the tale's simple language and minimal description, the story weathers its age far better than expected despite its period 70's foundation. The first quarter develops the setting, the second quarter develops the fear, the third the anxiety, and the fourth the panic.

For its slim size, this little volume sure packs a wollop, much like a bigger or longer book. If it had been written in a more literary style, it would have proven just as large. As its writing is so tight, you can't skim through the book.

The horror of this story isn't in what happens, but in the whole premeditated scale of it all. As in all the best horror stories, humans make the scariest monsters of all.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Lathe of Heaven (1971)

The Lathe of Heaven (1971) by Ursula LeGuin is the science-fiction novel that you never asked for. Lean and tight, this short novel packs a heavy punch. A man finds that his dreams literally change the world.

Like many 70's science fiction novels, the premise itself is pure fantasy. There's no way for someone's dream to change the world retroactively, yet these dreams do. However, these dreams can't change the rules of the universe, they can only change the course of events. Once the changes have happened, what remains fits well within science fiction.

This book is essentially a time travel novel without time travel. It contains all the tropes of that sub-genre: messing with time brings with it vast moral implications, and the results of messing with time are quite unpredictable, and worse, come at a higher cost than you'd expect.

If there's any message to be found here, it's that you can fix the world because you can't fix humanity.

I found the overall level of writing quite engaging, with appropriate descriptions that created the setting without overburdening me with detail, conversations that stayed well inside the narrative, and a tight use of all the major characters. Overall, I'd describe the work as minimalistic, using just enough narrative to get the story across. By the time that you reach the end, even though the book is short, you're emotionally ready for the end. The novel has done its job.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Phoenix and The Swan

I am proud to announce The Phoenix and The Swan, the conclusion to the Swan Song series.

This is the last stand of Targa Tik. She who lived by the sword will die by it. Exiled from Astrea, Targa seeks to atone for her former life by bringing good into this world. By fair means or foul, she vows to find the Silver Lord, a powerful god that championed the common man. Yet even as Targa seeks to leave her past, the curse of her sword weighs upon her, pointing her to one last, unwinnable battle. 

Set in the Endhaven universe, The Phoenix and The Swan concludes the Swan Song series, a wuxia inspired sword and sorcery fantasy, featuring fast pacing, deadly politics, and personal betrayals.

I had a blast writing this series and I hope that you have a blast reading it.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Restoree (1967)

Restoree (1967) by Anne McCaffrey is a science-fiction romance that's well worth overlooking in Anne's corpus. However, anyone interested in Pern would do well do read it, for in this unengaging work lies the seeds to Pern.

The plot revolves around Sara, who was kidnapped from Earth, only to come to her senses on an alien planet caring for a patient in a mental asylum. This man turns out to be the future man for Sara, more important to the future of this planet than she knows.

This book is a period romance. The heroine is firmly wedged into her mid-20th century socially appropriate roles as caregiver and woman. Early on she has the agency that she needs to propel the story along, but after a while, becomes bound by her genre's limitations. She can be an alpha social beast, but never the interplanetary hero.

As writing goes, the characters come across as bland. Some have their own agendas, but most of them are just sorta there. You don't really cheer anyone on, not build favorites. Objectively, the cast is entirely forgettable for there's no reason to remember any of them.

Where this novel connects with Pern is in its DNA. Our alpha male is the warlord of his planet, but he's been sidelined. Now he has to regain his command of the planet's fleets to stop an outer-space aliens species so bad that humans have taken to living in caves to escape them. There's an incompetent warlord in the way, of course. Although the planet has some high-tech to it, they're really a low-tech society that's using the alien's own tech to defend themselves. Other familiar features include the Warlord's half-brother, a looser definition of marriage, tunics (Anne always in this writing period), sailing, and council meetings.

Think of this as Pern 0.1. Think of this as Pern done wrong, but necessary in the evolution. It's there that Anne did everything wrong, but found a few things that she had done right, recycling them into those stories that became Dragonflight.

The novel is full of other period references as well. Tapes, screens, and circuits dot the book's vocabulary, emphasizing just how pedestrian Anne's view of the future worked. Not only is this a book brought out in 1967, it would have been written several years before, and if you include shopping the novel, several years before that, so a writing date of 1963 would be a fair guess.

In some ways, I found this novel entertaining despite its flaws. It isn't without merit. The book doesn't get bogged down by its own pacing, the romance moves along at an engaging clip, and there's some fun ideas at work. Being a slim volume, you should be done fairly quickly even with the pains it causes.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Silver on the Road (2015)

Silver on the Road (2015) by Laura Anne Gilman begins a tale of the Devil's West. The year is somewhere around 1800-1810, Jefferson is president of the nearby United States, and the territory which we call the Louisiana Purchase is dominated by "the devil," a man of unknown origin and subtle power. Indentured to the Devil is Izzy, who on her 16th birthday gets her freedom. When she chooses to continue working for the devil, she gets far more duty that she anticipated.

Judging by the stars, many people enjoy this novel. I must conclude that I am just not one of the people who this novel was aimed at. To me, this novel felt like it had no fire in its belly. At the end of the introduction, where the plot should have propelled us forward with energy, I found the story sagging, the agency of the lead character sapped from the very beginning. On the other hand, if you want an easy read where your brain gets a little fun away from work, then this book would work for you.

I felt like Izzy operated the whole novel with a safety net under her. Anytime that any great tension or doubt formed around the characters or situations, Gilman expertly defuses that tension, returning us to the placid story that dominates. Nothing mattered much to us, and what should have mattered, we quickly forgot.

Where plots are simple, a work can be challenging through interior character growth, but not in this book. Our heroine rarely gets a chance to make a mistake, to live with her mistakes, and to dig out from her mistakes. She grows, but not nearly as much as she could have grown. As a reader, I never feared for her. Even when we reach the climax of the tale, there's no tension to cut. Without that tension, I couldn't see her personality well.

The plot took forever in developing. I don't think that half the novel was even necessary, meaning that this novel felt like an overstuffed novella. Any tolerable editor could have cut it down with little work.

I found the secondary characters unchallenging and equally lacking in character. They existed and said their parts, each doing their own thing, but their thing didn't nearly express their character.

I quickly grew to dislike the ninja indians, who were essentially ninjas dressed as indians. Given a chance to give us people, Gilman gave us caricatures. Given a chance to give us humans with concerns and conflicts, we got placid words and little else. I would far rather have had more time be paid to the people on the road than the long descriptions of nothing in particular.

I feel like this book missed its niche. It could have been a YA book, but it doesn't dwell enough in the YA experience. It could have been a historical book, but she doesn't know the time period well enough to bring us into the experience. It could have been a dark fantasy, but it's too milquetoast. It could have been literary fantasy, but we just don't get the kind of character growth that would require. That leaves me wondering where it fits and partially explains why the work fell so flat for me.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Swords and Ice Magic (1977)

Swords and Ice Magic (1977) marks the sixth collection of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories. I found this book to contain two halves: the confusing first half, and the Rime Island set of stories, which beyond my own belief, I found engaging and sincere.

I do not overstate just how storyless some of these stories were, and how inane. I found them so utterly lacking that I expected to give this collection two stars, with prejudice.

Then there was the second half, the stories about Rime Island, the stories where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were a little older and a little wiser. In these stories, Leiber took took out his tongue so fully planted in his cheek, and instead told a more sincere story. The women were real, the men weren't the center of the world, everyone gets a little scarred, and the story almost has something resembling an ending. Almost. Somehow, the man almost (keyword almost) wrote a story without confusion, where all motivations were plain, and nobody existed as a physical manifestation of jest.

Shame it took him so long to get this far. I blame the editor for his last book, who used a baseball bat to beat some story sense into him. It obviously worked. The days of slipshod story writing was over, and even veterans like Leiber had to step up to a more challenging market.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Swords of Lankhmar (1968)

1968's Swords of Lankhmar marks the first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novel. In this single story, Lankhmar is threatened by intelligent rats.

As Leiber novels go, this one is almost coherent, most likely due to the novel having an editor. God bless that unknown editor, who with a baseball bat and chainsaw, somehow almost got Leiber to produce a coherent novel. For the most part, the events unfold in an orderly and comprehensible manner, story arcs are begun and completed well, and side narratives are kept to a minimum. On the downside, about half the novel is filler and could easily be cut, taking this work down to novella length with nary a blink. In some areas he still tells a story back-assward, but these episodes are now in the minority.

As a work of fantasy comedy, the whole thing works astonishingly well. Plant your tongue in your cheek and chuckle from beginning to end. Where this book works, it works quite well (assuming that the prose doesn't undermine it). The absurdity of rats conquering Lankhmar in the first step to conquering the universe is the pinnacle of anti-heroicism.

Even with praise, I can't generally recommend the book. If you like fantasy humor and you know the old genre, this book is a good choice for you. Outside of that, I'm very iffy recommending it at all.