Silver on the Road

Monday, March 28, 2016

Silver on the Road
Laura Anne Gilman, 2015

Premise: Isobel has grown up in the Territory, working in the saloon in the town of Flood. In the Devil’s West, life is what you make of it, if you choose to make a Bargain.

Fantasy Western? YAY!

I picked up this book out of curiosity, because fantasy western is a subgenre that I enjoy, but don’t see that often. And I loved it. I have pre-ordered the sequel.

I love the setting. In this world, everything from the Mississippi to the Spanish colonies is the Territory. The Native nations co-exist with small settlements from outside, all governed by the Agreement: give no offense without cause, and the Devil protects his own. Magicians and marshals both ride the roads, and crossroads are places of power and danger.

Who is the man who runs the Territory? It’s unclear, but Isobel has grown up in his saloon, under his teachings, and as she comes of age she is given the choice what to make of her life. Her choice sends her out to ride the lands, and the resulting tale is full of adventure, mysticism, danger, and a gorgeous depth of description.

The land itself is practically a character, it’s described in such a compelling manner. I have always loved the sea and the mountains, but this book could convince me to love the plains.

I also loved that there is a female main character and NO romance in this book! Everyone is too busy getting stuff done/running for their lives/fighting evil magic/etc. Also, Isobel deals with many aspects of being female in a matter-of-fact way that I appreciated.

There’s intriguing and worrisome foreshadowing for coming books as well, dealing with events outside the Territory and what might happen as history marches on.

In short, this hit right in my sweet spot.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Saint Peter’s Fair/The Leper of St. Giles (Brother Cadfael, Books Four and Five)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Saint Peter’s Fair/The Leper of St. Giles (Brother Cadfael, Books Four and Five)
Ellis Peters, 1981

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900.

Premise: (Follows, although requires no knowledge of, Monk’s Hood.) The annual fair has returned, after being disturbed by civil war the year before. A clash between the abbey and the merchants of the town raises tension, but are the resulting deaths due to commerce or more secret agendas? Then, an expensive wedding is to be held at the abbey, but the match seems poor. That would be all there is to it, if there were not also secret loves, hidden identities, and a mysterious wanderer at the St. Giles asylum.

These are both solid entries in an enjoyable series. St. Peter’s Fair, like One Corpse Too Many, deals significantly with the civil war in England at the time. According to Wikipedia, this war is sometimes called ‘The Anarchy.’ In short, it revolved around who should succeed to the throne of England: Henry I’s nephew Stephen (called King Stephen) or his daughter Matilda (called Empress Maud due to her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor).

There is no actual fighting going on at this time, but factions are working behind the scenes, and several characters are using the fair to cover information gathering or meeting with confederates. I enjoy that there are simultaneously characters who care desperately about these causes and will do anything for them and characters who don’t give a fig for who rules England, because it doesn’t matter to their lives.

Both books feature a romance and interesting female characters. In the first, a merchant’s daughter at the fair is stalked by tragedy and courted by a flashy young nobleman. It sounds simple, and perhaps it is, but Emma’s strength and bravery tells in the exciting climax.

Romance is central to The Leper of St. Giles, as it features an unhappy match between a cruel older nobleman and a very young heiress who only has eyes for the knight in the lord’s train. Machinations on both sides complicate matters, and murder follows, as this is a mystery series.

The best parts of this book are split between Cadfael’s former apprentice Brother Mark’s work at the leper-house, and the way this plot touches lightly on Cadfael’s time in the crusades. His attitude towards all the characters is colored by the knowledge and experience which sets him apart from many at the abbey. Plus there’s a surprise character late in the book who only appears briefly, but Cadfael and I are of one mind about how awesome she is.

Both tons of fun and great reading.

4 Stars - Very Good Books


Monday, March 14, 2016

William Gibson, 1984

Hugo Winner - 1985

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book originally published in the decade you were born

Premise: Case used to be a hacker, until a job gone wrong caused an angry client to damage his nervous system, making it impossible for him to interface with cyberspace. He’s picked up by a new patron, though, who wants his particular skill-set, and drawn into a mission beyond earth and beyond humanity.

The first line of Neuromancer is extremely evocative, and I’ve heard it cited as such many times. But, it now occurs to me: Disregard the issues of which technologies in this book have come to pass, which are functionally similar and technically different, and which are still strictly fiction. Instead, consider what color “a television tuned to a dead channel” is, how that has changed and is still changing, and how long that phrase will have meaning.

This is another one of those books that is more important than good, although it is still pretty good. The setting is more interesting than the plot. Molly the ‘razorgirl’s body modifications, the way cyberspace is described across multiple senses, the tangible picture painted of everything from the high-tech slums to the luxurious satellite resort… all these are why this is the seminal work of cyberpunk, and why it has been so influential.

Neuromancer flirts with themes involving the limits of an artificial mind, ethics of copying a mind into a computer, cultural reactions to a high-tech, plugged-in society, and more. It’s a fun, fast read, but I admit I prefer many of the works it spawned over it itself.

I enjoyed the read, although I more enjoyed wondering about the influences. For example, does the overly visual idea of ‘hacking’ in movies (think Jurassic Park for a good example) have its roots here?

This came out in the early 80s, and yes, there’s some dated material, mostly involving a lack of women, and minor characters of color all being fairly ‘weird’ in stereotypical ways. Other than that, it’s a well-written sci-fi thriller with great flavor, but one that doesn’t loom as large on the cultural landscape as it once did.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Alif the Unseen

Monday, March 7, 2016

Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson, 2012

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book that is set in the Middle East

Premise: Alif is scraping by as a gray-hat hacker, helping clients and ducking government censorship and getting his heart broken. But both his girl trouble or his coding skills lead him to a side of the city he’s never known, and he’ll have to adjust what he thinks of as reality to survive.

This was delightful in so many ways. I kept thinking about Snow Crash as I was reading it. Alif is set in the modern (2012ish) Middle East rather than the future, but the relationship between code and myth was both familiar and far more fantastic.

The characters are interesting, the explanations of culture well-placed, and the whole book was a bit prescient. Wilson was living in Egypt as things were shifting towards the 2012 revolutions, and she put all of that movement toward using technology for social change into this plot, but I believe the book was finished before the first open clashes actually happened.

Wilson is in a particularly interesting place to tell a story like this, as both a fan of genre writing and an American-born convert to Islam. It appeals to the American/western speculative fiction fan, but it features entirely Muslim main characters. And the fact that they are Muslim is not incidental to the plot - it is central. This dealt with the mythology of Islam in a way I’ve hardly ever seen, and I loved it. If you’re missing my allusions here, let me spell it out: there are djinn in this book, treated in as interesting, serious, and nuanced a manner as I’m used to seeing fae/elves/angels/etc.

The main criticism I have is that Alif is a fairly reactive character and a little bit of a cliched ‘unlikely hero’ at times, but he pulls it together and I was with him by the end. There is a bit of tone whiplash between a period of serious imprisonment and somewhat wacky running about. Also the ending wasn’t wholly satisfying, aspects were a bit easy and pat.

But overall this was a great world to dip into and a rollicking tale that I really enjoyed.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book