Just read the Hanged Tree by Ben Aaronovich, the latest PC Grant novel about the wizards of the Met. Following on from Andrew Cartme's Vinyl Detective, it leaves Cartmel far behind. These are evocative and really enjoyable books and I recommend them to anyone who's not read them yet.. The comics next..
# Books in December 2017
Quite unintentionally, December became a bit of a SF month for me.
## *Artemis* (Andy Weir)
So, the sequel to *The Martian*, a book (and film) that I enjoyed immensely. I made the mistake of reading the [Adam Roberts’ review in *The Guardian*](https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/15/artemis-andy-weir-review-the-martian "Artemis review in the Guardian") before I started this. My initial impression of that was that it felt like sour grapes about the success of the first, self-published novel. But was he right?
On reflection, I do think that some of the criticisms are justified; the novel - stylistically - is not sophisticated. It is more akin to the old juvenile SF that I loved growing up. The style is the same as *The Martian*, but this time the info-dumps tend to come in the form of letters between the protagonist and a pen-friend, something that actually meshes very tightly to the plot at the end of the novel. Like *The Martian*, it carries itself along with the energy that the main character has in overcoming the problems that they are faced with. That in itself harkens back to an older form of SF.
I really enjoyed this book, probably because of the nostalgia for a style that it engenders. *Traveller* is, after all, my favourite SF-RPG and that is grounded in the same roots. It isn’t as good as *The Martian*, but is definitely worth a look.
## *Ready Player One* (Ernest Cline)
This one is so grounded in geek culture that sometimes it almost tries too hard. The concept is simple; with climate change and a thirty year recession that shows no sign of going away, the world is a much less pleasant place than it is today. The protagonist - Wade - is a student, growing up in trailer stacks (imagine a 3D trailer park) and attending school via OASIS, an interactive 3D virtual reality that much of the population retreats into to escape a world with far too few opportunities. Wade - or Parzifal, as his avatar is known, is hunting for a huge prize in his spare time; the chance to inherit the fortune of the founder of the company who created OASIS.
The prize is hidden in the form of a quest that brings in a mixture of 70s and 80s tropes; video games, D&D, music and pop culture. As Parsifal progresses, the pace and the risks step up, and he finds that there are those who will take action in the real world to enable them to succeed at the quest. Like video game, the tempo at the end made me read the last third of the book in a single sitting, not wanting to put it down. It isn’t the best book I’ve read recently – I only gave it four stars on Goodreads – but I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to seeing what the film version will make of it[^1].
## *Fever Swamp* (Luke Gearing)
A short sandbox hexcrawl setting compatible with most OSR rules, set in swampland that can only be realistically traversed by boat. Nicely presented (there is something that reminds me of the old Ladybird books in the small hard cover format) and clearly laid out, this is a setting that could be dropped into other fantasy campaigns quite easily. Even though there are some plot hooks that can be used to draw characters in (the search for a missing - and wanted - scholar, for example) the direct engagement to another campaign is less obvious than the previous Melsonian Arts Council book, the Crypts of Indormancy.
The other area that is a little lacking is on the environmental hazards of the journey through the swamp. I feel that there was an opportunity lost to present some none creature and combat based encounters; however, this may well have been influenced by the ongoing play I have had in a One Ring campaign where travel is much more significant. As it stands, the longer you travel in the swamp, the more likely you are to catch a disease. The drag of the environment itself - coldness, wetness, dirt - is left to the GM to improvise.
That said, this is a competent, well presented, well organised and useful setting. It just doesn't scream "run me" in the way that others like Crypts of Indormancy, Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Hot Springs Islands have.
## *Persepolis Rising* (James S.A. Corey)
The seventh book in the Expanse series (so this would equate to something like series 8 and 9 on TV at the rate that they are converting the books). This book does something radically different; it advances the timeline of the story thirty years further into the future, allowing us to discover the long term consequences of the events in *Babylon’s Ashes*. Holden and the *Rocinante* are still around, but some of the old alliances and power structures have realigned, as might have been expected after the cataclysmic events in the preceding books. It’s interesting to see the shifts in motivation that have occurred; everyone is recognisable but they’ve also moved on. The story builds on elements from the previous books, things that have been left there hanging, and the ending, while satisfactory, leaves me wanting more. I enjoyed this a lot, but you don’t carry on reading up to the seventh book of a series if you don’t enjoy it.
[^1]: Especially if the D&D module reference makes it into the plot.
Having taken the plunge late last year and not just updated my standard glasses and prescription sunglasses, but also acquired some prescription reading glasses, I have been reading a bit more.
Mostly re-reads recently though - the EarthSea trilogy, and then Altered Carbon. LeGuin remains a supreme craftsperson and Morgan's first work is a flawed but powerful and intriguing work that the Netflix show badly mistranslated to the small screen IMO.
Have just picked up the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandemeer, as the trailer looked mildly interesting, but the chatter online indicated the book was perhaps more to my taste.
Stalingrad (Antony Beevor)
Although nearly 20 years old an excellent overview. Moves from high level decisions to the circumstances that the soldiers on the ground had to endure due to those decisions. Uses a very wide selection of sources including letters from both sides, many of which never got delivered. The slow descent of of the Sixth Army trapped and starving to the disregard for the lives of his own citizens by Stalin via Hitler's delusions with situation. Excellent book covering the turning point of WWII.
I'd definitely give any of Beevor's other history books a go.
Anthony Beevor has a real talent for looking at things from both a strategic level and then mixing it up with recollections from those on the ground. Berlin is up there with Stalingrad but is a gruelling, albeit necessary, read.
I picked this up before Christmas, started it, but never finished; I’ve now remedied the situation.
Falco’s nephew Larius, a landscape painter in Pompeii, is caught up in the events of AD79, along with his wife, Ollia, and children. No happy ending here; Larius and his eldest daughter are caught at Oplontis, Ollia and the younger children fail to escape from Herculaneum.
This novella ties up a few loose ends from the Falco series; we meet Vitalis the fisher-boy from Shadows in Bronze (who also fails to escape), but we don’t see what happens to Aemilia Fausta who is mentioned as dying in the eruption, although her son survives.
Interesting to read, with some philosophical observations on the disaster. I suspect that many of the minor characters were taken from the bodies found at Pompeii and elsewhere and Davis wove the story around them.
Icy Clutches, by Aaron Elkins (bk 6 in the Gideon Oliver series)
I picked this up as a recent 99p deal on Amazon - which is very unusual as it’s published by Open Road Media who very rarely extend any deals to the UK. I suspect it’s because none of Elkin’s books have a UK publisher. I have the series in print copies and will eventually get the lot as ebooks.
Gideon Oliver is an osteoarchaeologist with a sideline in forensic anthropology; hence his nickname of ‘the skeleton detective’. He is frequently called in to consult on skeletal remains. Visiting Alaska with his second wife who is a National Park Ranger on a training course, he is asked to look at some skeletal remains that have been discovered at the snout of a glacier.
Some 30 years ago, 3 members of a student group had been killed when a glacier collapsed following an earthquake; some very partial remains had been discovered a few years later, but it proved impossible to ascertain who they belonged to. The new remains indicate that a murder had been committed, rather the accidental death originally assumed. The story details the investigation; first, ascertaining which of the missing students was murdered, secondly, ascertaining who was the murderer. Along the way, a further murder is committed, and after some twists, the murderer is brought to justice.
I do like this series; they’re entertaining reads with enough to keep me interested. The books can be read in virtually any order, although the first 2 need to be read first (Oliver meets his second wife in book 2). Mostly set in the US, they also go elsewhere - at least 3 are set in Europe, another is set in Tahiti, and another 2 in Mexico.
A couple of freebies from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme:
One Velvet Glove, by Dave Duncan
An enjoyable romp, part of the wider King's Blades series. Following on from a brief vignette in Lord of the Fire Lands, we find out the story of what happened to Sir Spender and his comrades, and the final outcome of the story some 20 years after.
The King's Blades are a Musketeer-like Royal guard force transplanted to a magical version of Tudor England; King Ambrose is basically Henry VIII. Trained as master swordsmen, the young men are mostly magically bound to protect the king, but occasionally are bound to royal favourites. Sir Spender was bound to one such, Lord Bannerville, who was to be sent as an ambassador to the court of Fitain. The mission went disastrously wrong, Sir Spender barely escaping with his charge back home, in the process loosing a fortune which was to be used to further the mission. King Ambrose was severely displeased and bankrupted Lord Bannerville to repay the monies.
The story opens with 3 King's Blades being released from their binding; at liberty they chose to accompany Sir Rhys who is to visit his family for the first time in years. Sir Rhys turns out to be the son of Sir Spender; Lord Bannerville has recently died, and left nothing but debts. Sir Spender inherits a box which the creditors agree is valueless and allow him to take it away. This turns out to contain a single velvet glove parti-coloured in black and gold. This revives old memories of the mission to Fitain, and the Marquesa Deseridata whose colours were black and gold. Both colours contain enchantments - the black unpleasant, the gold an invitation. Choosing to honour the invitation in the gold side, Sir Spender and the other blades head for Fitain on a hunt for the lost treasure.
Well-written and enjoyable, this stand-alone story in the King's Blades series is probably closer in tone to the original series rather than the later YA stories.
Phosphorus, a Winterstrike Story, by Liz Williams
I enjoyed this novella very much. Not having read Winterstrike, I can’t tell whether this is a prequel or a sequel, but it seems to be a stand-alone story.
The story is mainly set on Mars, but also has flash-back sections of the last of an alien race. The alien appears to be some kind of intelligent social insectoid who is a hunter - like soldiers in an ant heap. They appear to exist in a niche where they keep other intelligent species in ecological balance. One of these ‘prey’ species has managed to exterminate the Hunters.
Mars has a pulp feel to it; it’s not explicitly stated, but it seems that society is all female - some kind of genetic engineering has made males redundant, and they are largely extinct. A young female moves in with her aunt after one of her mothers enters a rehab facility and the other remarries. They live in the city of Winterstrike, which is at war with another city, and is under bombardment. The aunt takes her niece to the abandoned city of Tharsis.
In Tharsis, the two plot lines converge; the niece turns out to be not really human.
Recommended, and I will be looking out for a deal on Winterstrike.
I've just read Phosphorus by Liz Williams too (although I bought my copy). You are right that the Martian society is all female. Whilst it is closest to Winterstrike, the novel Banner of Souls is also set in the same universe albeit some hundreds (maybe thousands) of years earlier.
As I read about 3 a week I will not be giving a full run-down on all my recent reads. I will mention Diving Into The Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Which is about a character who dives space wrecks for money and mainly for the history. However when she discovers an old Earth wreck parsecs from where it should be things begin to unravel. It is in essence a fixup of novellas but they are connected by more than just the main character. I would also note I bought this as an omnibus with the next two books in the series.
Finished! Here's some random thoughts (WITH SPOILERS). Note, I haven't read many books by Gaiman and I haven't seen the tv series.
- Wow! Shadow probably qualifies as the most "passive" hero of fantasy literature! Basically, things happen to him for the whole book and the most pro-active thing he does is accepting to be crucified on the World's Tree. That's probably a feature, of course. Still, it was unexpected.
- The beginning of the book is great. In the middle the plot drags along a little, despite (or perhaps because of) the variety of inspired side treks and character vignettes. The end does what it is meant to do, that is not what you expect.
- Laura the zombie wife is a great character. Love her. Epic stuff!
- Hinzelmann is a wonderful "monster". I was suspecting him, but I had not figured out the trick of the car on the frozen lake. Anyway, scary stuff.
- The "New Gods" are kind of "meh". That's maybe because they're not the real antagonist.
- From a gaming point of view, really a lot of inspirational stuff for a modern fantasy game. It makes want to dust my old Nephilim books or pick-up the new After the Vampire Wars for Mythras. Reskinning Nephilims as gods would rock. Of course, a campaign based on the novel's storyline would be a massive railroad!
- In a sense, the whole book describes a sort of Gloranthan hero-quest.
I think I've got Diving into the Wreck (I seem to recall it being in a bundle) but as it would be on the Icarus, I won't have got around to reading it yet (when commuting, I prefer short stories which I read on the phone). Now I have some time on my hands, I can start catching up.
I enjoyed this. Basically, the book is about the romance between Wilhelm Grimm (yes, the fairy tale one) and Henriette Dorotea "Dortchen" Wild who became his wife. Not much is known about her except that she was the daughter of an apothecary who was their neighbour in Cassel during the Napoleonic Wars.
Dortchen was the "wild" daughter of the family - and her tyrannical father does his best to break her spirit, disapproving of any connection with the poverty-stricken Grimm family. However, Dortchen and her sisters get round his rules (not without consequences) and Dortchen is one of Grimm's storytellers, contributing several stories to the book of fairy tales. Starting out fairly light-hearted, as Dortchen's sisters get married and move out, the story gets darker in tone culminating in Herr Wild sexually abusing his daughter after his son is conscripted into the Russian invasion and he dismisses the family servant who is protecting Dortchen from his attentions.
Eventually, her brother returns (the only young man from Cassel to do so), and Dortchen's life becomes easier. Then her parents die, and Dortchen becomes the foster mother to her deceased sister's children. Slowly she learns to trust men again and the book ends with her agreeing to marry Wilhelm Grimm.
Very much fictionalised, the sexual abuse is inferred from reading the original version of the story of 'All-Fur'. The more modern tellings tend to be based on a later version, which Grimm made more palatable. It's an instructive read; the hardships endured by the two middle-class families during and after the Napoleonic Wars were not uncommon even up to fairly recent times.
I'm in the final stages (95 days to go) of an OU degree so all my reading time goes on coursework - current module is Mythology in Ancient Greece and Rome so am reading Ovid's Metamorphoses which is just heaving with game inspiration