Viable Paradise prep #2 – Reviews, Part One

Lately I’ve been trying to learn how to read a novel more critically, to really figure out what I liked or didn’t like about them. So this is an exercise for me, on top of whatever meager value it may have for my readers! It’s a little weird to do this when I’ll be meeting all these authors, but I figure I’ll be the target of plenty critiques of my own.

Books are listed in the order I read them. Minor spoilers only.

I definitely enjoyed reading this, but I’d say it was my least favorite of the three Gentleman Bastard books. The dialogue was still great, witty and funny, with the characters to back it. I know some people didn’t like Sabetha, but I had zero problems there. She came across to me as a character of hidden depths, of density: we only get the barest hints of her recent years, but those hints certainly sufficed for me. Some people didn’t like the ending, but I was… torn. It wasn’t entirely believable, given how easily he accomplishes things that ought to have been impossible; but it was propulsive and exciting and I loved reading it.

What I didn’t like was the main (present-day) plot. It had no tension and no stakes; nobody cared if Locke and Jean won or lost. They barely even cared themselves. Furthermore, there was no big interesting scheme, only a bunch of trivial back-and-forths between them and Sabetha. The actual election got only cursory attention most of the time (“Dot all the i’s, cross all the t’s, leave no bribe unbribed!”), aside from a clever but brief con at the end, which only made it clearer how unimportant the election was. The backstory plot from their younger years, which I didn’t like in Book 1, had all the fun tension missing from the election plot: there was danger, there was reward, there was a big con that took many tense scenes to pull off.

  • Sherwood Smith: Inda

This book helped me articulate one of the reasons why I usually don’t enjoy YA novels. The stakes were plenty high, but the motivations were all childish. The primary motivations of the princes and warrior-kings were things like old crushes, schoolyard jealousies. Affairs of state took back seat to these teenage-level personalities. There was also a distinct, literal “cleaned-up” nature to the society, which seemed to tie into the history/cosmology/plot for future books, but it wasn’t to my taste as a reader.

I had some more specific problems in the front half of the book. Tons of characters, each with a surname and a given name and a nickname. There were whole scenes that I simply could not follow because I could not tell who was who. (For example, I knew the nicknames of the main 6ish characters, but then a teacher rattled off 20 surnames and I had no idea which group contained which names-I-knew.) Those sorts of problems disappeared in the second half, though.

This story had a wonderful prologue: the MC gets a mission, which relies on the existence of her internal conflict, and hands her the external conflict. Bam, goals and stakes are go! Overall, this book was very fast-plotted and fun, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected.  The book played in fun ways with identity, acting, cover identities, though I kept expecting even more. There was no antagonist, which was not as big a problem as you might think. I may try to track down the sequels.

So, I made a strategic error. I was in the library, looking for a Brust book. They didn’t have anything on my list of good starting points, so I had to choose on the fly. “Hey, this one says it’s the first book of a set (The Viscount of Adrilankha), so it should be a good place to start.”  Alas, not so much. If I had checked the internet, I would’ve learned it’s also #3 of another set (The Khraaven Romances, I think). The plot truly did stand on its own, but the characters did not; there were many references to past places and actions, including explicit stuff like “The reader should be familiar with this character!”, which made me feel like I was listening to someone else’s inside joke.

As for the book itself: A fun read, plot that kept me going, very distinct characters. The players and stakes of the series conflict are very clear, even though many threads remain hanging at the end of this book. It was also quite funny, but some of that came from the weird courtly speaking style. Which unfortunately really started to grate on me after a while, because everyone used it, even servants. Effectively, the author voice was so strong that it muffled a lot of the character voice in dialogue. The Omnipresent Style was also very fluffy and roundabout, which meant you spend way too much time reading exchanges like this:

“There is something important!”

“What is that thing?”

“Why, I will tell you that thing this instant.”

“Please continue, I am waiting for you tell me that thing.”

It’s much funnier in Brust’s words, of course. But after a few dozen times it really wore thin on me.

More book reviews to come!

Viable Paradise prep #1 – Reading List

So in anticipation for Viable Paradise XVIII in mid-October, I’ve been trying to read a good sample of books by all of the workshop’s instructors. I figured that tnowing more about their writing should help me appreciate and contextualize their awesomeness!

As background: I was so excited to apply to VP because I already loved Scott Lynch’s work from Lies of Lock Lamora and Red Seas under Red Skies, and Elizabeth Bear’s short work from 30th Annual Year’s Best Science Fiction (which included her In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns and The Wreck of the “Charles Dexter Ward”). I also read some of Stephen Brust’s Taltos novels a looong time ago, details fully faded from my memory.

So here’s what I have read thus far as my VP “homework”. I chose these books via a mix of what I wanted and what was available in my local library. Listed in order I read ’em.

  1. Scott Lynch: The Republic of Thieves
  2. Sherwood Smith: Inda
  3. Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald: The Price of the Stars
  4. Steven Brust: The Paths of the Dead
  5. Elizabeth Bear: Bone and Jewel Creatures
  6. Elizabeth Bear: Range of Ghosts

And yet to read:

  1. Steven Gould: Jumper
  2. Steven Brust: The Book of Jhereg (Taltos #1-3)
  3. Steven Gould: 7th Sigma

Next post: reviews!

Twitter!

I now have a twitter feed! Not that there’s anything of interest on there yet, but I’ll give this thing a whirl. Once upon a time I tried it for my professional science life, and gave that up straightaway due to a lack of interesting science to say (or read) in 140-character chunks. I’ll watch and learn and hopefully find more things to chirp about on this side of my life?

@BenCKinney

Virgil Magus: The Echo of a Story

I recently began reading The Phoenix and the Mirror by Avram Davidson, inspired by someone-or-other’s list of all-time best SF. Despite some frustrations with an occasionally jumpy writing style, I’m enjoying it immensely. Rich with detail and mystery, it’s a font and spectacle of ancient myth. The main character is Virgil Magus — the poet Virgil as warped and retold by medieval myths about his sorcerous wisdom. I’m only halfway through, but the plot seems interesting thus far.

But that’s not why I wrote this post. My edition of this book has a preface wherein Davidson said he planned to write more Virgil Magus books, so I glanced at Wikipedia to confirm whether this happened. Not only did he, but in those links, I found mention of a story I half-remembered from 1998! I had only remembered the second half of the title Virgil Magus: King Without Country, but it was enough to trigger the memory when I saw it listed. That (along with ) is story has been echoing in my head for years. VM:KWC is a story of Davidson’s that was posthumously finished by Michael Swanwick, possibly my all-time favorite author. If you want a slew of info and spoilers, read through the first link in this paragraph. Suffice to say the general tone and a few specific tricks in that story (e.g. the sword) inspired me in many ways throughout the years since.

This is the second time this year I’ve managed to identify a short story that inspired me >10 years ago. The other culprit was The Hydrogen Wall by Gregory Benford. That one was less serendipitous: I was thinking about it one day, and the near-closing line that stuck in my head: “The answer does not lie within your conceptual space.” That and a bit of google-fu eventually led me to a copy I could read (without having to shovel through back issues of Asimov’s in my highschool bedroom).

If I ever write a story that makes someone think, ten years later,: “Wow, I remember the story that had X and Y, that made me think about Z. I wish I could remember its name or author.” — if I write one story that accomplishes that, I will call my writing a success.

Workshop time!

It looks like I will be attending Viable Paradise XVIII this October! I am super-thrilled for this opportunity. It already looks like I’ll be joining a crew of weird and excellent and much-more-accomplished-than-I folks. My hope for the week is to get bitten by a radioactive author and gain his/her proportionate strength and speed.

JWA final results

The winner of the 2014 James White Award was “Beside the Dammed River” by DJ Cockburn. I am sad that I did not win, but still very excited that I made the shortlist. I look forwards to reading his story when it comes out, and/or eating his brain to absorb his talents!

James White Award shortlist!

My short story, “The Demands of Iron,” has made the shortlist for the 2014 James White Award! I am extremely proud to have made it this far. The winner will be announced this weekend, so stay tuned.

Website startup

Welcome to my bare-bones website! There’s only a little bit to see thus far; the links at the top of the page should work, but that’s about it.

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