Winter Reading, part 1

As the end of the year approaches, my stack of to-be-reviewed books grows ever taller. I realized to my horror that I am rapidly approaching the point of not being able to remember what I liked or disliked about each story. So here are reviews of varying lengths for your amusement – and hopefully a few will pique your interest enough to check out the books themselves.

Tin Star by Cecil Castelluchi (Roaring Brook Press, 2014). First, a disclaimer. I met (and instantly adored) Cecil (a she-Cecil, not a he-Cecil, sometimes known as Miss SeaSkull) at Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in 2011. This story, she says, was inspired by all the space science we learned together. I got to be one of her early readers, so I had seen a rough draft of this story before. But one of the cool things about the passage of time is the sense of reading the story for the first time, maybe a story a friend told you about so you have some idea what to expect, only what is there is so very much better than what you r/e/m/e/m/b/e/r/e/d expected. Tin Star delighted and absorbed me at every turn, and I honestly can’t say whether any of my comments had anything to do with the marvelous finished product. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all Cecil’s doing! So here’s the skinny: Tula Bane, a young colonist from Earth, is left for dead on a space station, home to a host of alien races. As she learns to survive without friends or resources except her own wits, she plots revenge on the colonist leader who betrayed her and blew up the ship carrying her family. With deceptive simple language, Castelluchi takes us on a journey of growing up and learning what it is to be human. Highly recommended for adults as well as teens.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013). I was a little behind the curve in checking out the novel that won both the 2014 Nebula Novel and Hugo Novel Awards. I met Ann at the Nebula Awards weekend and liked her tremendously. Actually, that was what got me to buy the book, as the cover was a definite turn-off, way too generic space-shoot-‘em-up. In this far future, a person can have more than one body or, in Breq’s case, be both the AI of a space ship and a host of “ancillary” bodies, sort of zombie-hive-mind slaves to the AI. There’s an intricate backstory spanning thousands of years, a lot of jumping back and forth within that timeline, and a very interesting approach to gender. Since I’ve written about gender in a number of my stories (including Lambda Literary Award Finalist Collaborators, as Deborah Wheeler, in which humans make contact with a gender-fluid alien race), I was particularly curious about how Leckie handled the topic. Her alien race is binary gendered, but gender is not important or even a thing to be noticed; hence, the universal use of the feminine pronoun, leaving it to the reader or members of other races to guess who is which. I can see why readers got excited about this novel; it’s a very, very competent debut novel. It certainly grabbed and held my attention. The one thing I felt uneasy about was that the sense of a moral center was very slow in development, and on the way, there were too many times when I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters. Leckie pulled it together at the end and it might not bother other readers, so this is a highly personal quibble. I will look for her future work, but probably not set in this world. Well worth checking out, especially if you like military science fiction.

Jack of Kinrowan by Charles de Lint (Tor Orb, 1999). This is an omnibus edition of two related novels, Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon. De Lintian urban fantasy at its best, with Faerie coexisting with the mundane world of Ottawa, Canada, and a young woman, Jacky Rowan, finding herself cast as the heroic and legendary Jack the Giant Killer. Having both novels in the same volume was great because I loved the characters and setting. De Lint makes the story seem effortless in the telling, with twists and turns, reinterpretations and all sorts of romantic inventiveness. Very definitely a keeper, and a good introduction if you haven’t read de Lint’s work before.

Codex Born (Magic Ex Libris, Book 2) by Jim C. Hines (DAW 2013). I’m such a sucker for librarians as heroes, and the conceit behind this series gets me every time. We fanatic readers know all too well that books are magic, and what Hines has done is to push this just a tad farther to make it literally true. Whenever large numbers of readers dive into exactly the same text (as in, printed books), their collective belief gives that magic power. Objects can be brought through the physical books into the real world. I think it’s always easier to capture and hold a reader’s interest in the first book of a series, when the world and its characters are new and we’re discovering things along with the protagonist. The next books involve “the continuing adventures,” where additional characters and new plots may be introduced, but are these are basically variations on an established theme. Since I loved the first book, I enjoyed this one too, although I don’t advise starting with it. Still, librarians and Johannes Gutenberg and a seriously kickass dryad, blended with an irrepressible, joyous love of books add up to a very enjoyable reading experience.

Fitzpatrick’s War by Theodore Judson (DAW 2004). I regret how long it took me to get around to reading this book and that it never received the critical acclaim it so richly deserves. This is political steampunk done right (and before steampunk was hot), with storytelling that never lectures or bashes the reader over the head with A Message. In the far future, a “golden boy” is being carefully groomed to assume supreme leadership of a rigid, moralistic confederacy and then to launch a campaign of aggressive empire-building. Told through the eyes of his trusted companion – with footnotes criticizing the veracity of the narrative – the tale unfolds through manipulation, propaganda, betrayal, and military ruthlessness. Although it’s natural to make the comparison with the rise of Julius Caesar and Imperial Rome, the same could be said about many aspects of modern politics. Judson wisely lets the reader make his own interpretation. Although it begins slowly and it took me a while to get used to the change of voice between narrative and foot notes, I found this a chilling, absorbing read.

Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson (Tor, 2012). Pre-Revolutionary War Boston murder mystery with magic, just my cup of tea. I’ve read a few historical mysteries set in about the same time period (1765) and especially enjoyed the setting and mix of historical and fictional characters (Barbara Hamilton’s Abigail Adams mysteries, for example). I’d read glowing reviews of this book, but for some reason, every time I went to buy it, I couldn’t find where I’d written the author’s name. Eventually – two years after its release – I got the name right and devoured the book. Right from the get-go, it’s a winner. The storytelling is so skillful and the prose so smooth, I slipped into the story immediately. I loved that hero/conjurer Ethan Kaille is older and not necessarily wiser, and how many obstacles, internal and external, he has to wrestle with, and also that despite such odds against him, he maintains a fierce sense of justice and compassion. This is the first of series I’ll definitely be following.


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