Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold

Warning! This review is probably going to be more about my uneasy relationship with science fiction than the latest entry in the Vorkosigan Saga.

It seems that every time Lois McMaster Bujold writes a Vorkosigan book it gets nominated for the Hugo. I think three have won the rocket ship for best novel and if Captain Vorpatril's Alliance gets up that will put her level with Robert Heinlein for Best Novel Hugo's, with five overall (she also got one for an unrelated fantasy series).

For some reason the Vorkosigan's don't do it for me. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is the third one I've read. I read the previous book in the series (Cryoburn) when it was nominated for the Hugo in 2011 and I think I've one of the early books, maybe the first one, years ago, but I can't reliably say that I did. If I did, it again failed to excite me.

I should have liked Captain Vorpatril's Alliance. Yes, it is science fiction, but it's heavy on the fiction and light on the science, which is how I tend to like my SF. It's also one part heist novel and one part romance. I can take or leave romance, although if it's done well with strong characters I can often be drawn in by it, but the word heist or caper is generally enough to sign me in.

The basic idea behind Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is that the one of the least highly regarded members of the powerful Barrayaran Vor clan, Ivan Xav (my wife, who has read more of the books than I have, and quite likes them, tells me that he is generally referred to by his family members as 'you idiot Ivan') becomes involved with an attractive girl called Tej, marries her hurriedly to give her the protection of his family, falls in love with her and then discovers that she appears to be from a family of con artists and thieves who want to steal the Barrayaran hidden fortunes and use Ivan to do it.

I think a lot of my issues with the Vorkosigans is that while Bujold tries to bring new readers up to speed on where the saga is that she's been writing these books since 1986 and they span a period in excess of 30 years. Most of the books take place in Miles' lifetime, but there are others about his parents generation as well.  So coming in cold is very difficult. I liken it to attending a party where you really don't know anyone and all the other guests have a shared history.

I find the amount of names and history I'm trying to deal with confusing and hard to follow. In this book it didn't help that Tej also had a large and convoluted family.

I didn't dislike the book, it just didn't hold my interest. The romance was nice and ended happily ever after. The heist was audacious and quite often amusing, if a little too clever for the good of the plot, and had possibly catastrophic and startling consequences, but I just felt a little lost throughout most of the time I was reading it.

I've seen nothing but high praise elsewhere, but my final conclusion is that the Vorkosigan books simply don't connect with me and that could be because most science fiction tends to leave me rather flat.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Bite Club by Rachel Caine

I think it's fair to say that I thought Ghost Town (the 9th Morganville Vampires book) was becoming a little formulaic. This is probably a natural consequence of writing a YA multi book series set in and around the same small Texas town. Even the titles tend to follow a pattern. They're mostly about death or blood. Bite Club is probably the most openly groanable play on words that they've done, though.

As the title may indicate the story is largely about an underground online viewable fighting ring that pits vampires up against steroided human opponents. Unsurprisingly it is Shane Collins from the little gang that readers follow who winds up in the middle of all this.

The story is pretty complicated for a Morganville. As Claire fights to keep her boyfriend out of the ring, and possibly getting killed she uncovers all sorts of things, including bad guy Bishop and another former villainess in the form of Kim, who at one stage nearly upset the apple cart by trying to turn Morganville into a reality show.

Bite Club is full of revelations, both big and small. The reintroduction of Bishop and Kim are two of the big ones. Another is Michael, Eve and Shane finding out that Myrnin is using Frank Collins brain to control the computer that runs Morganville and of course that Claire knew this, yet chose to keep it from her friends. Yet another is when Eve drops the bombshell that she and Michael are engaged to be married. This particular storyline will have ramifications moving forward and is viewed badly by both sides of society in Morganville. The humans can't understand why anyone would marry someone who is effectively dead and feeds on human blood. The vampires on the other hand don't like the idea of one of their own marrying someone who is considered by them as cattle and food and clearly inferior.

There are some smaller ones. Apparently Eve is a gun fencer. That was fun finding that out. Claire gets offered a position by MIT. This I found interesting and I'm not really sure why the author did it. Any long time reader (if you're 10 books in you're pretty invested) knows that Claire won't accept the position, even if Amelie does let her go, she's not going to let Shane, Eve and Michael leave and Claire won't go if they don't, especially Shane. So she keeps this poor MIT recruiter hanging on for most of the book, yet we as readers know full well she's going to knock it back. It just seemed to be an unnecessary side plot.

One interesting thing Rachel Caine tried in this was the altering of perspective. Generally the books are told from Claire's point of view in third person. This one had sections labelled Shane where we got his point of view in first person. I think next to Myrnin, Shane is probably the character that Rachel Caine most enjoys writing, so this made sense. It was necessary as Shane spends a lot of time away from the others and often in his own head, so we needed that. It was just how it was done. I found it a little clumsy and at times jarring. It broke up the story's usual smooth flow.

The teenage seeress Miranda also reappeared. I really like her and hope she comes back. She's rather painful to read, because she knows what is going to happen and feels that she needs to do this, because the consequences may be worse. I almost felt like crying when she let Monica's psychotic violent friend Gina break her nose, because to not do so would have meant Claire died at Gina's hands. To make things a little better Gina did get in a serious car accident soon after, which she could have avoided if she hadn't been hell bent on hurting Miranda. I feel so sorry for Miranda, she seems like a nice kid, but has been dealt a wretched hand by life and cursed at the same time. Despite that I hope she comes back, because she's compelling to read about and I don't think her story is done by any means.

I have to say I loved Myrnin in this. His driving or lack of ability is wonderful to read about. As was the fact that despite him having a mobile phone and knowing how to text he still feels the need to pass notes wrapped around rocks through the portals to let Claire know what is going on.

This one also ended a major story arc and leaves the way clear to start a new one as well as deal with the aftermath of some of the things that happened in Bite Club.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

Knife of Dreams is the 11th book of the Wheel of Time and the last book in the series that Robert Jordan was able to complete before his premature death.

By the time Jordan started writing this he had been diagnosed with the disease that did eventually claim his life and had to face the reality that he may not be able to complete the series.

I think this prompted him to take a look at where the series was going, and come to the conclusion after looking through Crossroads of Twilight that the answer was: nowhere.

I hoped Knife of Dreams would be better than Crossroads of Twilight, it couldn't possibly be worse, could it?

The prologue, while still being overlong as had become customary with the books, contained more story development than the entire 700+ page book that proceeded it.

Knife of Dreams tightened the whole story up, started to conclude story lines (Faile was finally rescued) and showed signs of eventually reuniting all the characters for a big finale.

It suffers, as does most of the Wheel of Time, from Jordan's excesses and repetition (there's an unusual preoccupation with spanking. It could have almost been retitled Fifty Shades of Wheel of Time) as well as his delight in really hurting his characters without actually killing them.

I started to see some of the fan delight with Egwene, although she only has a section of the prologue and one really long chapter she rocks it. Conversely Elayne turned into the most ineffectual and tedious ruler in the history of epic fantasy.

Mat alternates between taking charge and being SuperMat, to being Tuon's play thing. She even continually and very annoyingly refers to him as Toy. This was hard enough to deal with when she was talking to him, but when one chapter took her PoV it was downright confusing. Would it have killed her to at least use his name when she's thinking about him, rather than addressing him?

I'd been hearing things about Rand's hand (that wasn't meant to sound as stupid as it does), but I didn't know where he actually lost it. This is it. Jordan has a habit of emphasising the small things and glossing over the big ones. I nearly missed the loss of the hand. Loial got married somewhere along the line and I missed that too. The Ogier take an age to make a decision, but they appear to favour shotgun weddings. Odd.

Overall this was an improvement on Crossroads of Twilight and sets it up well for the final three books which were written by Brandon Sanderson, working from extensive notes left by Robert Jordan.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ghost Town by Rachel Caine

I'll start this by saying that I really loved Kiss of Death. I think of the nine Morganville books I've read so far Kiss of Death is my favourite. It may have been the fact that Rachel Caine shook it up a little by taking the gang on a road trip, thereby taking them and herself out of a comfort zone without having the  safety net of Morganville.

Early on I was feeling a bit Morganvilled out by Ghost Town. It seemed rather formulaic, and I guess books like this that become a bit of a franchise of their own do get that way after a few books, it's hard not to, when you're dealing with the same characters book after book. Morganville is unlike other long running series that I like, such as the Dresden Files, in that because the main characters are stuck in the town and it's rare for people to come to Morganville, it doesn't get to develop a large cast of supporting characters in the way that Jim Butcher has been able to do with his wizard for hire.

Things changed significantly about halfway through when the real hook for this book became apparent. The magical computer that keeps people in Morganville and causes those that are able to leave to forget the place was broken when the force that kept it alive died.

Teenage genius Claire Danvers is tasked with fixing it. Claire does manage to get it fixed, but then weird things start happening. People begin to lose memories. They lose about three years. That's bad enough when it's people, but when it starts to affect the vampire population as well it becomes downright scary.

The only people that seem to escape the 'amnesia' are Claire and one of Morganville's vampire mover and shakers Oliver, as well as Claire's boyfriend's father Frank Collins. Claire and Oliver can be explained by the fact that neither of them was in Morganville three years ago. Frank Collins has a hatred for the place that somehow manages to keep his mind in the here and now.

It's up to that unlikely trio of allies to try and put things right, but to turn the computer off they have to get past Myrnin.

For most of the books Myrnin is portrayed as a fairly quirky and cuddly kind of character with his fanged bunny slippers and pet spider named Bob. Prior to Claire's arrival and her becoming his lab assistant Myrnin was both devious and dangerous. This is the Myrnin readers see for most of Ghost Town. Kudos to Rachel Caine for doing that, because it's not easy taking both an author favourite and an audience favourite and altering them so that they see the less pleasant side of them.

Another thing I thought was done very effectively and was also extremely clever. Taking most of the major players back three years in their lives showed their backgrounds and the background of the town wonderfully well, and doing it this way meant there was no clumsy and lengthy exposition, it was done as part of the storyline.

Things, as generally in Morganville, are wrapped up fairly happily at the end, but there are a couple of loose ends that are very deliberately left untied to move into the next book in the series (Bite Club). One is a history book that Claire manages to find, a history of Morganville, it gives facts and details about the town's founder Amelie that she would rather be kept private. Claire knows she has the book and she knows that Amelie if she knew about it, would prefer that it did not come to light. The other was something that Myrnin did at the end of the book. It's rather chilling and again highlights no matter how much Myrnin likes to play the absent minded mad professor he is still an old and ruthless vampire who will do whatever it takes to keep things running the way he wants them to.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire

Last year when I read and reviewed Discount Armageddon the first of Seanan McGuire's InCryptid series I said that it was urban fantasy in it's purest form, and it is. Midnight Blue-Light Special continues that. When I hear the words urban fantasy from now on I will think of InCryptid.

It's been three months since professional ball room dancer and cryptozoologist Verity Price hooked up with former Convenant of St George member Dominic DeLuca and saved New York's one and only dragon in residence (this is male dragon, there are many females). Life isn't too bad and Verity's nearing the end of her year long sabbatical and is facing the fact that she soon needs to make a life choice: dancing or cryptozoology. One is a life long dream, the other means that she makes a significant and life saving difference for others.

It's about then that Dominic tells her that the Covenant of St George are coming to town and to borrow from a well known Western movie: 'Hell is coming with them!'

Once the Covenant arrive, even though their team is only three strong, every cryptid in New York is in danger. Verity tells the dragons to bunker down and warns the Indian Madhura siblings to get out of town. She tells her cousin the 'cuckoo' (other dimensional race of telepaths, Sarah is adopted and it's really complicated) to lay low and prepares to move herself and her colony of talking mice to somewhere safer than her semi legal sublet apartment.

We get to see some of the other Price family allies, like Verity's Uncle Mike, who is revered by the Aeslin mice as the High Priest of Godammit Eat Something Already. Verity's co-worker the waheela Istas also comes along in the hope of there being some significant carnage.

This was the first real good look readers got at the Covenant of St George and they well and truly lived up to their reputation. They are capital N Nasty.

The book is tight and action packed. I give kudoes to Seanan McGuire for not shying away from the fact that when you're playing this game people will get hurt and killed. McGuire has shown in both the Toby Daye and Newsflesh books (written under the pen name Mira Grant) that she can do tension and make you fearful for the fates of her characters and that happens again here. She has a way of keeping one riveted to the page and I had to finish half of Midnight Blue-Light Special in one sitting, because I just had to find out what happened next! This is rare for me. I'm not one of those people who generally get so involved with a book that the outside world ceases to exist.

This one finishes off Verity's story arc for now and the third book (Half Off Ragnarok, seriously I adore the titles) will follow the misadventures of another member of the Price family and in a different setting.

I liked something that was done later in the book and that's the switching of perspective. Writing a book in first person can limit you a little to the narrators view of things. McGuire got around it in Newsflesh by having the second book narrated by a different character and here she takes the perspective of Sarah for a while. I love Sarah as a character, she's just so quirky, so I really enjoyed seeing things through her eyes. A couple of times the voice slipped and she became Verity, but mostly she was believable as Sarah. In terms of presentations, Tara O'Shea's little dingbats at the top of each new chapter altered slightly to reflect the narrator's passion. Verity is a dancer and Sarah is obsessed by mathematics.

One negative thing that carried over from Discount Armageddon was the relationship between Verity and Dominic. I can buy them as partners working together, but I just cannot buy them being in a romantic, hot sex kind of relationship. I don't know why, it just doesn't work for me.

Back to the positives I completely adore the Aeslin mice and want a colony of my own, they started to develop some more distinct personalities in this and while I can see the problems inherent in overusing them I will be most disappointed if Alex Price doesn't have a colony helping/hindering him in some way in Half Off Ragnarok.

Something else that McGuire has done very successfully and you don't often see it in urban fantasy is create an entire world, history and very believable back story, not just for the cryptids, but their human allies and enemies.

I also really like that while she does mention well known cryptids such as bogeymen and dragons, she also finds more obscure ones like madhuras and waheelas, and then there's the ones she's invented herself such as the cuckoos and the Aeslin mice, this all adds depth to the books and the series in general.

I'm on board with this for wherever it takes me.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Redshirts by John Scalzi

I actually bought Redshirts not that long after it came out, long before it was nominated for a Hugo. It went on the TBR pile. The Hugo nomination and my determination to at least read all the novels to make a better informed vote bumped it up the pile a little.

Redshirts is actually my second Scalzi novel. I read his online debut Agent to the Stars a few years ago. I have Fuzzy Nation somewhere on Mt Toberead, but just haven't gotten around to it.

Having now only read two fairly light books by Mr Scalzi I've probably got the wrong impression of him as a writer. He's better know for more serious work like Old Man's War.

Redshirts does in some ways have things in common with Agent to the Stars, both deal with the entertainment industry and both poke fun at certain things about the industry. They're also both light, comedic science fiction books.

The title of Redshirts is a reference to the science fiction TV theory that the characters wearing red shirts are expendable extras who get eaten by aliens, shot, blown up, contract incurable alien diseases, etc... For those who don't know, the term comes from Star Trek (as do many science fictional TV terms) in that it was generally those wearing the red uniform that bit the dust.

There's a belief that you need to be very familiar with Star Trek to get all the jokes. I don't think this is the case. I have only a passing knowledge of Star Trek, and maybe I didn't get all the references, but I certainly got enough of them to have a good laugh while reading Redshirts.

The story follows ensign Andrew Dahl and his fellows on board the starship Intrepid for most of the book. Dahl soon realises that weird things happen. People die in the oddest ways, yet none of the senior officers like the captain or his second in command or the engineer seem to be affected, despite often being in the firing line. The only ranking officer that ever seems to be in danger is Kerensky and as he's an astrogator why is he even on most of these off ship missions? Then there's the way Kerensky never actually dies or even shows ill effects once he miraculously survives. A lot of what they do onboard doesn't make any sense and too much is fixed by the 'magic box'. A strange hairy character known only as Jenkins is also on board and spends his time hiding in between decks.

Eventually Dahl, along with his friends and with the help of Jenkins work out that they're extras on a cable science fiction show and the only way they can save their own lives is to somehow affect the show in a meaningful way.

Once this has been figured out the story really becomes very very funny. There's a lot of laugh out loud moments throughout this. Most of the book is very meta, although it doesn't really break the fourth wall until the first Coda (there are 3 of them, written in first, second and third person). I do confess that whole reading it I wondered why no one had ever written something like this in quite the way Scalzi did. I suspect his time writing for Stargate Universe had more than a little to do with the idea for writing Redshirts.

The first two thirds of Redshirts are a hoot. I wish the book had finished there. The Codas form the last 100 or so pages and they didn't work for me. I appreciate how hard and clever it was to write them in first, second (especially second) and third person, but it was just too much and I felt unnecessary.

The first one is done in blog form and it does read almost like posts from Scalzi's popular blog Whatever. For me the gimmick got old quickly and I was hoping it ended sooner than it did.

Overall the book is a lot of fun and for most of it's length it very successfully gently mocks the very genre that spawned it. The last third lets it down a little for mine. If you like your science fiction funny and you enjoy watching it on TV then you'll get a kick out of Redshirts.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Kiss of Death by Rachel Caine

Morganville goes on a road trip!

In a nutshell that is pretty much what Kiss of Death is. I have to confess that this is one of my favourites in the series now.

New vampire Michael Glass gets given a shot at a recording studio in Dallas and his friends Claire, Eve and Shane get to accompany him on the trip. As both Michael and Eve were born and bred in Morganville they've never left the town, so heading off to Dallas with their two best friends is a big deal. Before allowing them out of the town the head vampire; Amelie, insists that they take her 2IC Oliver as a chaperone. None of the quartet are particularly happy about this stipulation, but as they either take him or don't get to go at all they can't do a lot else.

The fun really starts when Oliver detours via a small town. The kids have a run in with some locals and this leads to them torching Eve's car. She replaces it with a hearse, which I think survived the book, and  being a Goth Eve loves her new mode of transport. The reason for Oliver going off course was never explained in this book and I hope it's covered down the track, because otherwise it's a giant plot hole.

Other escapees from Morganville lead by Morley, take some of the locals prisoner and the gang go after them. They eventually wind up in the even smaller town of Blacke. Dangerous vampire Bishop has visited Blacke with his crew and turned most of the town into vampires. They've also been infected with the disease that Bishop carries, which causes vampires to lose their mental facilities.

Claire and her friends do manage to save themselves and come up with a compromise that allows Morley and his fellow escapees, including Patience and Jacob Goldman, to live in Blacke and basically create another Morganville there.

While it looks like nice neat bow I can see the Blacke deal creating some problems. Morganville was planned, it has infrastructure and the nearby university helps to support the local economy, plus Amelie and Oliver are smart operators. Blacke wasn't planned, it doesn't have Morganville's infrastructure, nor does it have outside economic support. Most of it's vampires are young and the town was both destroyed and decimated following Bishop's visit, plus the fact that Morley is while competent, not as strong or smart as either Amelie and Oliver, nor is he anywhere near as stable.

Another thing that may have future ramifications is Amelie's hardness at the end when she lays down the law to Michael, Claire, Eve and Shane and tells them that they will not be allowed to leave Morganville unless she says so and even then it won't be for long. She has Claire and Eve's families as insurance and if the girls won't leave then neither will the boys.

Rachel Caine has got another 7 books to wrap this up (she believes it will end with 15) and it's going to be fun to see how she does so.