Pub Day Excitement: Stone in the Skull

Weee, it’s pub day for one of my favorite authors!

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Stone in the Skull lives in the same universe as the Eternal Sky trilogy, but takes place over in the Lotus Kingdoms, where a few of the supporting characters either come from or have lived.  I’m super exicted that  Elizabeth Bear chose to expand this universe and write more!

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August 2017 Library Checkouts

It’s September, and another month of reading has faded into the past.  Here’s what I checked out from my local library system in August.  I also read a few ARCs, or at least started a few, and maybe I’ll get around to talking about them.

I checked out and listened to all four books in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series through my library system’s Overdrive service.  They were fun and irreverent, and I’d definitely listen to at least four more of them!

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I also finished up Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series (for the second time), also on Overdrive, and am avidly looking forward to the next book in the series.

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As far as the read word, I checked out (and finished) Noumenon, by Marina J. Lostetter, The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin, Upgraded, a short fiction collection edited by Neil Clarke, and The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst.  That novel certainly takes the cake for most fascinating fantasy world that I’d never want to live in!

Top 5 Wednesday: 7/26/17

Series That Got Better

This is my first attempt at a group themed post, so here goes.  Mostly I picked it because I had a particular series I’d been wanting to talk about for ages.

118368  Top 5 Wednesday was created by Booktuber Gingerreadslainey, and the guidelines can be found on the Top 5 Wednesday GoodReads group.

 

1. Crown of Stars, by Kate Elliott

This series is very important to me as a fantasy reader.  Before I discovered it, I’d read the likes of Tolkien and Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series, and some other epic fantasy, but Crown of Stars was the first series I ever read where each book got better than the one before (and it’s seven books long), where the planning and research that went into these books showed with every plot twist, and where the series came to a satisfying and logical conclusion.  It was, in short, the series that made me realize that long fantasy series can get better.  They don’t have to start out with a cool idea and then just sort of peter out with more and more tenuous plot strings.

This series follows the stories of Liath, an orphan trying to discover her own history, Sanglant, mixed race son of the king trying to prove his worth, and a host of secondary characters representing the various kingdoms and races in conflict within this series.  The main drivers of the world are a monarchy reminiscent of the medieval monarchies of Europe (with corresponding technology and trade), a religion reminiscent of early Christianity, and overtones of imperialism and superstition that make these somewhat primitive nation states aggressive and riddled with domestic issues.

The thing that makes this series so great (and pretty much any series Elliott has written) is that she doesn’t lay all the major conceits and awesome ideas on the table in the first book.  She doles them out slowly for the reader to discover one at a time and add to their shiny collection of ideas and curiosities, to ponder over even while the drama of the story unfolds.  Also, Elliott is great at writing characters and subverting well-known fantasy tropes.

2. Eternal Sky, by Elizabeth Bear

Bear has written a lot of series, in a lot of subgenres of both fantasy and science fiction, so it’s no wonder, really, that her most recent trilogy should be her most successful.  In this story of an alternate universe where the stars and sky change depending upon which empire rules–and therefore which belief system rules–Temur, grandson of the Khan, who ruled the nomadic tribes of what could be Central Asia, and Samarkar, once-princess and now wizard of the Rasan Empire, must work together to stop a powerful sorcerer and his cult of death who wish to bring about the return of a god long thought destroyed and change the sky forever.  It’s a broadly sweeping story that gallops along like the horses so prized in Temur’s culture, that remixes the mythologies of various ages and cultures into something like them, but not.

I have to admit a lot of my enjoyment of this series comes from nostalgia over the year I spent in Central Asia, and how much reading these books reminded me of the endless steppes and towering mountain ranges, and of the feeling that the sky really could go on forever.

3. Bone Universe, by Fran Wilde

This series isn’t actually finished–book 2, Cloudbound, just came out last fall–but it is such an adventurous and unique series that I had to include it. The first book, Updraft, follows Kirit as she attempts to find her place in the sky-bound world of bone towers and rope bridges that make up the City.  In doing so, though, she make shake the foundations of everything her people hold dear.

Cloudbound takes place in the aftermath of Kirit’s discoveries, with citizens attempting to rebuild and look higher, always higher, but it becomes more and more apparent to Kirit and her friend Naton that they must look down, backwards, into the history that made their civilization.  This book took such a hard left turn at the end that I didn’t know quite what to think, but it reminded me of the Golden Age science fiction that so many people seem to be nostalgic about, the sense of wonder those authors had at the ability to create whole new worlds and universes, that I can’t help but include it in this list and look forward to the third and final installment of this trilogy.

4. Inheritance, by N.K. Jemisin

This series follows a world, and a pantheon of gods, more closely than it does a particular group of characters, which I think is a large part of why I liked it so much and why it improves with each book.  It’s a story that doesn’t stagnate, that doesn’t get bogged down in details or how characters continue to navigate in a world of fixed rules or magic or belief.  The first book follows Yeine and the ways in which she comes to terms with the gods who have made the world what it is, and, perhaps, subvert a system that has been dying under its own weight for generations.

The next book, though, barely remembers Yeine, and is instead the story of Oree, and artist who has come to live in Shadow, beneath the great city of Sky, in the shadow of the world tree that grew as a result of Yeine’s actions in the previous book.  Oree has her own encounters with the gods, must come to terms with the ways in which the world has changed since Yeine’s time, and what it means for her.  And finally, book 3, The Kingdom of Gods, is told from the point of view of one of those gods, returning to the royal city of Sky and the family that held onto power there for so long.  Again, this series is about moving forward by accepting the past, and Jemisin’s imagination and reinterpretation of creation mythology is top notch.

5. Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds

For m last series I’m going to a hard science fiction trilogy that’s also written by possibly my favorite male sf author.  This series gets better, I think, because of Reynold’s ability to imagine such far futures, when huge ships traveling close to the speed of light almost create separate timelines and humans and aliens alike modify their bodies in order to cope with the rigors of deep freeze and changes in gravity that come with long duration space journeys.  The story, again, is not told from one perspective through all three books, or in a completely chronological progression.  Instead, it is just as much mystery as it is space opera, and the reader collects the pieces of how an ancient alien culture was annihilated almost instantly, and whether it could happen again.  I like that Reynold’s doesn’t agonize over the question of whether aliens could exist and dither over first contact stories, but gets down to the business of crafting a story around people the reader can identify with, and setting up the possibility-laden concepts of aliens so completely different from everything we know that every discovery is not just a curiosity, but a revelation.

I’m also including this series because Reynolds is a writer I’ve followed for a number of years and I’ve enjoyed watching him consistently improve as a writer with each new novel, each new series.  I don’t read a lot of men, but I’ll always check out whatever he comes up with.

SFF Books of 2017 I’m Excited to Read

Bear with me, these may not all be from this year, but I’m still excited for them!  I’m really bad with deadlines/pub dates.

  1. The Ship Beyond Time, by Heidi Heilig

The characters of The Girl From Everywhere really stuck with me, and I loved the way she plotted this time travel fantasy (I’m kind of a sucker for time travel), so I will definitely be checking out this sequel.  Plus the cover art!

2. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells.

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This novel has gotten awesome reviews from SFF fans I trust.  Plus it’s got robots, in space, with snark.  What’s not to love?

3. Provenance, by Ann Leckie.

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I finally acquired Ancillary Sword, which I mean to read soonish, and I loved Ancillary Justice for more reasons I can express in this teeny space, so anything she writes is on my auto-TBR list.

4. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly.

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This novel makes me think fantasy noir roaring twenties.  It came out early in the year, but crops up on my Twitter feed from time to time, and every time I’m reminded I need to read this novel!

5. The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear

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Bear is one of my favorite authors, in any genre, and this novel is set in the same world as the Eternal Sky trilogy, only taking place in a different kingdom.  Her superior skill with narrative and character make Bear both versatile and readable, as she’s published in multiple sub-genres, both in short and long fiction formats.

 

So that’s just a taste of what I’m looking forward to reading from this year.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty  more to add to this list before the year’s out!

The Eternal Sky trilogy, by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth
Bear is continually proving that there is no limit to what you can write a
story about.  Having tackled space,
cyborgs, and Norse gods, she’s moved on to a captivating alt-world adventure
story taking place in a reimagined spice road landscape.  The Celadon Highway connects the
temperate empires in the East to the arid steppes and deserts of the West, each
kingdom carved not just out of the land but the sky as well.  In a twist that only Bear could
imagine, the sky changes depending upon whose kingdom one is in.

Temur
never thought himself destined for greatness, but then again, he never expected
to wake up on the battlefield surrounded by the bodies of his clan, killed in a
brutal war of succession for the Qersnyk Khaganate.  Samarkar had grown up in luxury as the daughter of the Rasan
princes, thought herself destined to live out her life within a marriage of
political necessity, until her husband died and she was shipped back to Rasa in
shame.  But instead of giving in,
she went to the Citadel and became a wizard of Tsarapeth.  United in a quest to rid the world of a
man who would rip it apart to bring back a long-dead god, Temur and Samarkar
gather a wary, weary band of outcasts and dispossessed whose lives had been
torn apart by this al-Sepehr, head of the Nameless, to try to find a way to
stop him.

The
Eternal Sky series is at its heart an adventure story—Temur and Samarkar
travel the length and breadth of their known world to accomplish the vows they
have sworn—but it is also a quiet meditation on the pull of personal
motivations and relationships, and how one decides between those greater and
smaller duties.  Bear has a knack
for creating stories in which characters who, though they be at the mercy of
outside events, are still in control of their own stories, still
three-dimensional actors, within the larger narrative.  The Eternal Sky is a compelling story,
each novel self-contained enough that the reader could start anywhere, but together
the novels bring the lives of their characters and the backdrop of their world
to startling life and presence.

Readers
who enjoy a diverse cast of characters and a story that stretches the limits of
traditional fantasy storytelling will have no trouble becoming fully immersed
in Bears wonderfully realized world. 
Those who like alt-world fantasy and variations on earth cultures will
enjoy the way this series blends history with fantasy.  Anyone who craves action and adventure
but can’t give up strong characterization will fall in love with Temur,
Samarkar, and the other characters in this series. 

Time travel: Recent Trips, edited by Paula Guran

Time
Travel: Recent Trips
is a collection of eighteen short
stories which feature time travel as a major or minor element, in all its
various forms.  It’s a wide-ranging
collection of themes and modes, to be sure, with something that is guaranteed
to appeal to any time travel enthusiast. 
Guran has pulled stories from a number of sub-genres and to top it off
the book has great cover art by Julie Dillon herself.

All
stories were published within the past ten years, though some belong to newer
writers in the field, while others are from established authors, and range from
literary, to experimental, to pulp science fiction in style and subject.  Paul Cornell is perhaps best know for
his television and novel work with Doctor
Who
, and his comics work with DC and Marvel, but his story The Ghosts of Christmas is a visceral
trip into the life of one scientist working with schizophrenics who discovers a
way to move through time along her own timeline.  The story explores the notions of infinite possibility and
predetermination through the story of one character, letting the reader mull over
all that was going on in the background after the story is over.  Mating
Habits of the Late Cretaceous
, by Dale Bailey and Bespoke, by
Genevieve Valentine, both deal with the concept of tourism through time in
quite different ways.  The former
is a saw on the familiar unhappy married couple trope, while the latter
examines desire and need through the lens of a clothing maker specializing in
exact replicas of period clothing for time travelers.

Mary
Robinette Kowal makes an appearance with a meditation on the notion of aging
and being remembered, in a world where one can only travel backwards in time
within one’s own lifetime, and suddenly the forgotten elderly are important
again.  For those feeling the loss
of Kage Baker, “The Carpet Betds of Sutro Park” explore another aspect of time
travel tourism with an employee of a company that films historic places for
future use spending a lifetime observing the same place in San Francisco and
the people who visit it throughout its lifetime, seeing the degradations of
time in a way that humans can’t. 

Other
notable stories in this collection come from Ken Liu, Elizabeth Bear &
Sarah Monette, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Suzanne J. Willis, and Eileen Gunn.  Readers looking for a collection with a
variety of tastes, old and new, will find much to enjoy in this
collection.  Many of the stories
are tightly plotted and experimental in nature, making them natural expressions
of their time travel subjects and riveting reads. 

On Historical Accuracy, Pt 2

Elizabeth Bear

What I like most about Bear is that she has such a grasp of whatever historical context she’s using, that when she does deviate from it you know that it’s intentional, and it has meaning.  I also like that she is such has such a wide range; she writes historical fantasy, mythology-based altworld fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction–and these are just her novels.  Elizabeth Bear is also a prodigious short story and novella writer.  Check out her bibliography here.

While she has written a number of novels/series that are placed within a specific historical context, much of what Elizabeth Bear writes imagines worlds that might resemble ours, or are set in a future/present that could have happened had the past gone another way.  This means that in order for Bear to imagine an alternate version of the present or future, she has to have done some serious, actual research into actual history.  Being a trained anthropologist helps.  Many of her series approach the story from a culture point of view, looking at the intricacies of how religions and cultural systems have developed, and how people react to them and work within them.  

Her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy takes place in the mid-to-far future on a generation ship, full of the last remnants of humanity trying to escape Earth and find a new home.  The ship’s population is divided into two basic classes–the officers and the workers.  But Bear has taken these basic divisions and created two different types of humans–the basic, unaugmented workers and the officers who have been both genetically modified and who use nanotech to become more than human–whose differences are startlingly offset by their aching similarity.  More than practically any pseudo-medieval fantasy novel, this series really explores ideas of nobility and right to rule, why some are thrown down while others are lifted up, and doesn’t take the easy way out.  I like to contrast this series with Jordan’s ridiculous optimism when dealing with the Perrin story line in The Wheel of Time, how Perrin has a string of other guys come in and explain how every noble once came from humble origins, and nobility is earned by taking responsibility and all that.  Bear plays with this happy origin story, asking the reader to really consider where the right to rule comes from, and whether meeting the responsibility is enough to balance things out.

All of Bear’s novels are experiments in some aspect of human culture or sociology.  She doesn’t just assume that the future will or the past did look a certain way, and work from there.  She asks, “what if this happened?” and then asks the reader to go on a trip with her.  Whether it’s Elizabethan England, the Central-Asian steppe, an alt-world dystopian future city in which the Norse gods are alive and well, a universe traversed by the Jacob’s Ladder, or any other of her great settings, Bear is in control of how fantasy and “history” blend in the right proportions to build the story she wants to tell.  

This may explain why I found Karen Memory somewhat less exciting than most of her novels.  Though it is Steampunk, Karen Memory is quite firmly set in a historical period (if not place), and focuses most on action.  The first-person narrator–Karen herself–has very definite opinions about the world, and the plot of the novel is more a detective, Holmes-ian affair than spec fic.  Nevertheless, Bear’s sense of historical accuracy still reflects that known fact that SFF with stated roots in history often leaves out the marginalized, the non-white, the non-male, and she includes a range of characters who feel rooted in the world of Karen Memory not because they are “believable,” based on some ahistorical definition of the word, but because Bear has written them convincingly.  

To wrap up Pt 2 before it gets too much longer, Bear has taught me how important it is that we not take history and adherence to it as a given.  That we accept that a writer may be writing to a version that may or may not actually have existed, and that an author’s willingness to engage with those questions not only says a lot about the quality of their writing, but about their actual engagement with the idea of historical accuracy.

Go read Bear!

And stay tuned for Part 3 of ….