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Books I Liked in 2017, All In One Part

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2017 Books A Plenty

At long last, the 2017 books that made me happy/recommendations post. Did you miss me?

Past years:

This year, I’m doing it all in one post, because if you are going to write 4000 words it’s best to get it all in at once, that’s just science.

The rules are:

  • These are all books I read in 2017
  • That I liked
  • The books are organized into arbitrary groups, because there were weird coincidences, in that I read a number of say, unusual time-travel books this year.
  • Within each category, books are alphabetical by title.
  • The order of the categories is arbitrary
  • Links go to Amazon Kindle version.

For each book this year, I tried to add a Recommended If You Like.

Weird Portal Fantasies

For some reason, I read a lot of revisionist takes on portal fantasies this year.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

Recommended if you like: Alternate London, flashy magic, pirates, characters with names like Alucard.

This wraps up Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy, which takes place mostly in Red London, an alternate London where there's a lot more magic. I often find that later books in perfectly good series tend to drop off these lists for some reason, but the last two books in this series have. This is a really good fantasy trilogy with great characters, and there’s more to come in the eventual future.

Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGwire

Recommended if you like: Weird portal fantasies, very weird gothic horror, books with sisters named Jack and Jill.

Seanan McGwire/Mira Grant continues to be crazy prolific. Two books on this list, and two other ones. I also liked the other two, but you know, this thing is already 4000 words and I had to draw the line somewhere.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, which you should go out and read immediately. The series is about a collection of kids who have gone to their portal world, and for various mostly involuntary reasons, have returned.

It’s got the same amount of bonkers invention, but it’s a prequel covering the origin story of two characters from Every Heart. So the down side is, it’s a story that is already somewhat covered there, so you’re reading it for mood and not plot. Luckily, it has mood to spare.

I love this series, book three will get covered in next years listing.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Recommended if you like: Snarky heroes, non-traditional portal fantasies, jokes about gender roles, loving satire of fantasy tropes, joy.

I loved this book. I loved the characters, I loved the setting. I loved the jokes, even the jokes that Brennan takes a little to far. I loved the earnestness, and the decency even of the characters who don’t think they are decent. I loved that it’s a fantasy novel about conflict resolution.

It’s actually about a boy named Elliot, who is thirteen when he is led to a border wall and transfers into The Borderlands. He’s excited, but also kind of cynical and snarky. He quickly forms a sort-of friendship with an elf warrior maiden (as she’s described in the book) named Serene, and the big man on campus hero, named Luke. Elliot doesn’t want to fight, quite blatantly uses sarcasm to avoid feelings, and generally turns himself into an useful pain in the neck.

The tone of this novel is so light, and so fun (you do sometimes wish Elliot would figure people out faster, but it’s completely in character that he doesn’t). It’s really nothing like Discworld (okay, actually it’s a little bit like Discworld), The Goblin Emperor or A Close and Common Orbit, but it has some of the same spirit of warmth and generosity to it’s characters.

It Devours! By Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor

Recommended if you like: Night Vale, weird fiction, a deliberate lack of rational explanation, oddly touching discussions of faith.

The second novel to take place in the same universe as the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, this book doesn't really depend on knowledge of any other Night Value stories, though I suppose it'll seem less strange if you are at least familiar with Night Vale's tone.

This one winds up being a story about faith and science in an absolutely unique way.. Okay, the title of the book is the motto, more or less, of the Church of the Smiling God. There’s a scene where a member of the church is explaining to the clergy how he feels the church’s core doctrine — that the Smiling God will devour all there sins — is a beautiful metaphor. And the clergy tell them no, it’s not a metaphor, there’s a real creature they believe in who will really eat everybody. It’s very Night Vale: weird, funny, profound in the oddest way.

Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker

Recommended If You Like: alt-portal fantasy, realistic display of mental illness, fantastic tales of Hollywood

Book two of a very good portal fantasy series, which does exactly what you want a book two to do. Without the burden of re-explaining the premise, it makes the world bigger, weirder, and more complicated. Baker remains exceptionally good at writing characters who don't always make good choices.

SF

This section is Science Fiction books that didn’t fit in any other section.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Recommended if you like: Marvin The Paranoid Android, binge-watching Netflix, vaguely dystopian AI

So, imagine Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide, only in a non-satirical story. Our viewpoint character is security robot in a space-opera universe who has hacked itself to be fully sentient and in control of his body. It refers to itself as “Murderbot” due to an unknown event in its past. It’s happy to live up to his security contract, but honestly, Murderbot finds it awkward and strange to be around humans, and would rather binge-watch TV. This turns out to be surprisingly relatable.

This book is absolutely an exercise in voice, where what might otherwise be a pretty normal story of scientists on a new planet being double-crosse is turned into something amazing and fun because the narrator is so interesting. It’s novella-length, there are three more planned, and I’m in on this one, I loved it.

Artemis by Andy Weir

Recommended if you like: Heists, the moon, authors who show all their math.

This book carried big expectations as The Book By The Guy That Wrote The Martian. It’s not The Martian. But it’s a pretty good SF novel in its own right. I read a lot of SF heist novels this year — this is another one of them. It takes place on the moon, and Weir has worked out the tech and economics of the moon colony in detail. Much like The Martian, he shows his work, and if you find that off-putting, this may not be the book for you. That said, he’s clearly trying to write something with a little more character, and I thought it wound up being compelling. I read it very fast, which is typically a sign that I’m engaged and curious about what happens next.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Recommended if you like: SF about future pharma, Human/Robot relations, dystopian futures.

So, I liked this, but it’s not hard to find people who loved it. On the one hand, this book has a Pharma-pirate fabricating patented drugs and distributing them to the poor. She’s made a terrible mistake, and her most recent distribution may be killing people by causing them to hyper-focus on a mundane task to the exclusion of minor distractions like, say, eating. On the other hand, a cop. And a robot. Together they fight crime. And fall in love.

The AI part is interesting, and has a unique post-cyberpunk kind of vibe. Really the whole book does, the setting is well done. My main dispute was that I wasn’t really rooting for any of the characters, and my tolerance for dystopias is way down in 2017.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Recommended if you like: Really wild aliens, setting in Africa, “indistinguishable from magic” tech.

Another one that I liked where others lived, this is the second book in a trilogy of novellas about Binti, a young girl of the Himba people. In this book, Binti returns home after her time at basically Weird Space University (a term I use with respect, the descriptions of the University are amazing). People aren’t exactly glad to see her, she may spark an interplanetary war, and also learn a mysterious secret about her family.

My main problem with this book is that nothing is resolved. It’s interesting, but it’s also very middle-book-ish, basically a bridge to get to the fireworks in the third book, which is a 2018 book that I liked quite a bit.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Recommended if you like: spaceships, slow motion collapse of civilization, Scalzi

This is Scalzi's newest attempt at a space opera franchise, taking place in a series of worlds linked by a hyperspace "river" that connects them. It's very Scalzi, the setup is well thought out, the characters are smart and quippy, and the plot moves. My main quibble is that the book felt very short, like not much happened beyond setting up the series. But the series being set up, I think I like.

Provenance by Ann Leckie

Recommended if you like: low-key space opera, heists, Jack Vance

The follow up to the Ancillary Justice trilogy, in that the events of those books are in the deep background of this one. I’m really happy that Leckie wrote a completely different book here, much smaller scale, more of a caper, with a neat, some what Jack Vance-ian weird society in the background. What seems like a pretty straightforward plot eventually becomes part con, part mystery, and part planetary diplomacy. Leckie continues to do interesting things with gender in her societies — this society has a third gender with a third set of pronouns… I tell you this because it’s not explicitly spelled out in the book, and I’ve seen some reviews where people were confused.

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

Recommended if you like: Unusual SF mysteries. Locked rooms. Vaguely dystopian clone stories.

This one is just so crisp. It’s a locked room mystery, in essence. The victims are the seven-person crew of a small scouting spaceship. All of them. They are also the detectives, since their death triggered the “birth” of new clones. One problem, whoever killed them also wiped twenty-five years of memories of common experiences.

Over the course of the books, the characters rediscover their connections, and how their histories on Earth got them on the ship in the first place. It’s a very well-constructed mystery and a well-thought out SF novel.

Triple Threat by Gwenda Bond

Recommended if you like: Superman, Comics without superheroes, finally seeing beloved characters meet after three books, spunky YA detectives.

The third book in Bond's YA series about a teenaged Lois Lane and her mysterious online friend named Smallville Guy. They are really fun, and I don't have much new to say about the series (except that it seems like this is the last one and that is too bad…). In this one Lois and Clark finally meet and it's just as great as you hope. One of my favorite parts of the series is the way it subverts the common structure of Superman stories -- in this telling, Clark becomes a hero to emulate Lois.

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

Recommended if you like: Oddly hopeful science fiction, post-scarcity, very communal economics, books with Edward Snowden blurbs…

Doctorow’s first adult SF novel in years, I could not get this one out of my head. It’s a relatively near future where you are either effectively infinitely rich, live at the sufferance of the infinitely rich, or have nothing. A group of people “walkaway” and create a separate society that I guess you’d call post-scarcity tech anarchism? It’s not quite anarchism. Anyway, the story is about how that society might work, and what the infinitely rich would be willing to do to control it.

The structure of it is weird, but the characters are interesting, and it’s always interesting to read Doctorow’s ideas about how things should work.

Non-Traditional Fantasy

If you’ve ever read this list in the past, you know I love fantasy worlds that have some modern technology mixed with the magic. There were some great ones this year.

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

Recommended if you like: Absent Gods, fantasy with modern tech, fantasy mysteries.

The third book in a trilogy that I’ve already raved about in this space twice before. The world’s a little hard to describe, but basically about two generations in the past there was a world-spanning empire that was built on the power of gods. This empire collapsed when the oppressed people figured out how to kill the gods, which removed their power.

This is book three, and it's not exactly the recommended jumping off point. Book one is City of Stairs, start there. Let's just say that it starts with an investigation into a mysterious death that eventually becomes a plot from a old god to take over the world. This series doesn't seem to be as well known as Jemisin or Gladstone -- if you liked either of those, there's a good chance you'll like this one too.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Recommended if you like: Well, the book jacket calls it “The Godfather with magic and kungfu, set in an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis”, so I’m guessing if you like those things…

The metropolis in question is an island city where the tech is basically pre-digital modern, and is ruled by two rival clan families. Oh, and some members of the population get superhuman powers when they touch jade. (Don’t say magic, nobody in the book treats them as supernatural, the powers are studied, teachable, and somewhat replicable…)

The book itself is a little bit of a slow burn, there are a lot of characters and setting to introduce, and it’s not immediately apparent why we should be rooting for the main characters. About halfway through, something unexpected happens, and the book catches fire from there. The ending, while it does wrap up the immediate story, leaves the world wide open for future books.

Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone

Recommended if you like: Fantasy with modern tech, satire about startup culture, fantasy in space, sentient squid parasites, creepy living buildings

Book six of the craft sequence, and the start of a somewhat new story after the original five books kind of wrapped up a bunch of threads.

In this book, the main character is Kai, the... investment priestess, I guess I'll say from Full Fathom Five. She's gone to the city of Agdel Lex to try and invest in some startups, as you do in fantasy (there's some very pointed satire in the startup pitches...). But it also turns out that Agdel Lex is built on the ruins of an older city, destroyed in the God Wars, and the older city is still kind of there in the sense that some people can see it and walk through it.

There's an absolute ton going on in this book -- I haven't even mentioned the squid parasites. It takes a while to get going, but once everything is lined up, and it literally launches into space, it's pretty great.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Recommended if you like: The Fifth Season, naturally. Once-in-generation-important fantasy trilogies.

This is book three of what might be the first trilogy to win a Best Novel Hugo for each book. The action at this point is hard to sum up. But I’ll try. In a world that is subject to frequent near-extinction-level seismic events, a group of people — called orogenes — who have the power to control seismic activity are both necessary to the society and are feared and despised by it.

I was a little worried that this book would resort to some hand-waving generalities in order to make the ending work, and maybe it does a little. But it somehow manages to honor the complicated narrative structure of the previous books, while explaining the origin of the oppression and fear that caused the world to be in it’s state, winding up in a struggle between people who want to save the world and people who want to “save” it by destroying it. This is a historic trilogy, that will be remembered as one of the great fantasy works of it’s time.

Time Travel And Alternate History

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

Recommended if you like: creative time paradoxes in comic packages, mad science

It’s hard to have a book be basically light but also keep some serious stakes. In All Our Wrong Todays, Tom starts out in a 2016 that is a near-perfect utopia thanks to an invention in the 1960s that created near-infinite, cheap, clean energy. Through a series of craziness, Tom, a genuine screw up, is sent back in time to observe the initial use of the energy source. He screws up, and causes the experiment to fail. Then he wakes up in a much different, less utopian 2016. Our 2016. Then things get weird. For one thing, he’s happier in our objectively worse world.

This book is funny, but not at the expense of making the main characters story feel important. It’s also clever about time travel (in particular about how the same person could be born to the same parents in different time lines, which when you think about it, is a weird conceit).

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Recommended if you like: Buddy Cop stories, backwards time travel

This may not have been the best book I read this year, but it’d make a hell of a Netflix series. Time travel, it seems, goes back into the past and creates its own timeline, so no paradoxes, yay! The owner of the tech has set up what is basically a resort in 1871, shuttling future folk out for some tourism in the past, and hiring a bunch of locals to staff the place.

Our main characters are just such a local with a bit of a seedy past, and a futuristic woman security officer. They run a smuggling case together and fall in love, kinda. (Wilson takes some care to give the guy a backstory that would make him not automatically a sexist jerk.)

It’s got action, and adventure, and a kind of predictable plot. It engages a little bit with the moral hazards of mass tourism to the past. (At one point they look up Edison because he won’t get to invent any of the technology that the future travelers bring with them.)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Recommended if you like: Neal Stephenson, of course, books thick enough to hurt your foot if you drop them, time traveling witches, cool use of background time paradoxes.

Neal Stephenson, who actually does have a history of playing well with others (Interface is one of my favorites...), co-wrote this first book of a series. Which, given Stephenson's normal pace, will be wrapped up sometime around 2030. (I can find no Internet evidence that the sequel is even a gleam in anybody's eye.)

Anyway... D.O.D.O. There are witches. But magic depended on quantum effects and died out in the 1800s after the rise of photography messed up the relation of watcher and watched (work with me here...). Anyway, there's still one witch, and a military grade research project. And time travel (and time paradoxes). And secret societies. It's a lot, is my point.

This is Stephenson in his funny mode (I’m sorry for not talking more about Galland, I don't know her other work, but I assume from her bibliography that she had a lot to do with the historical fiction parts.) I like Stephenson in funny mode.

River of Teeth / Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey

Recommended if you like: Crazy bananapants alternate history concepts, heists, bi and non-binary representation, hippos, barely controlled lunacy

Two novellas that I think are also being published as one novel called American Hippo. These books were supper buzzy—all the SF authors I follow were talking about them for months. They are probably this year’s biggest “if you only read one”, as in “if you only read one novel where feral hippos control the Mississippi Delta, it should be this one. Very loosely based on an actual plan considered by the US government, in these books, hippos were unleashed in the delta region, and well, things didn’t go to plan.

What we wind up with is a fun heist novel, and then a fun aftermath of heist novel, with a diverse and interesting cast, who all ride hippos through the countryside. I mean, if you aren’t all-in by that description alone, I don’t think anything else I can say would sell you.

Non-Fiction

I did’t read a lot of non-fiction this year.

Grant by Ron Chernow

Recommended if you like: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Civil War revisionism revisionism.

This is excellent, like Chernow’s Hamilton and Washington bios, if somewhat less likely to be turned into a musical. Two quick takeaways:

  • Grant was just a wildly unlikely success. At the time the war started, he was not only not a member of any elite group, he was a flat-out failure, dependent on his family for financial support and totally down on his luck.
  • It’s staggering how quickly efforts to rehabilitate the image of the confederacy started, how fierce they were, and how successful. The south was able to regain much of rights and prestige that it had lost on the battlefield, and the fruits of that rehabilitation propaganda still echo today.

The Man From The Train by Bill James

Recommened if you like: True crime, random woolgathering about society and justice, heavy research skills

This book is unusual. A few years ago, James started writing some true crime vignettes on his web site about some bloody murders that took place around 1910, where he had started to see some patterns that had not been evident to the locals in that time. James and his daughter began to research in earnest, and believe they have discovered the identity of a person who committed a series of unsolved murders across the US over about 15 years. These crimes were not generally believed to be linked at the time (One of James’ general points about true crime is that law enforcement basically did not believe in serial killers until the 1970s). It’s a dazzling bit of research, and in places, an amazing book. The book is best when discussing the research or commenting on how society has changed, and weakest when discussing the actual crimes — it’s a bit hard to keep the details of all the events straight. Still, a fascinating true crime book.

Monsters

The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Recommended if you like: Stross, satire about the eldrich evils of late-period capitalism, chaos ensuing

Stross’ Laundry Files series, which is about Lovecraftian horrors that are summoned and managed by computation, has been moving for years toward the moment where the supernatural beings finally got too powerful to remain hidden. It’s here, and it led to my one of my favorite books in the series. This is not a good place to start, the plot is dependent on quite a few previous books. Start at the beginning, with The Jennifer Morgue

There is, of course, mass panic in the wake of the events of the previous book, namely a supernatural army destroying Leeds. The Laundry is now public, is attracting the attention of both government forces wanting to privatize it and other supernatural horrors that want to defeat it. Not having to keep things secret seems to be freeing Stross to blow things up with abandon. Stross has said that one of his biggest problems was keeping his satirical British government more ridiculous than the real one…

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Recommended if you like: Suspense horror, scientific mermainds, very strong representation, never wanting to go in the ocean again

Into the Drowning Deep posits first contact (well… second contact) with hyper-predatory mermaids in the Pacific. It’s structured as a horror story, with suspense, people getting killed one by one, and plucky heroes surviving while evil jerks get what’s coming to them. The mermaid science is unique, well thought out, and very creepy. It’s a very well-structured suspense story.

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Recommened if you like: Knocking Lovecraft down a peg, Get Out, historical fantasy

This is a riff on Lovecraft and Ancient Powers and the like where the real horror is racism. (Jordan Peele, who also knows something about horror stories where racism is the real horror, is adapting for HBO).

The novel is really a collection of interrelated short stories that builds to a conclusion. It's the 1950s, and a man named Atticus Turner is headed from Chicago to New England with his uncle, who happens to publish travel guides for African Americans to find safe places to stay. They are trying to find Turner's father, who has been taken prisoner by a mysterious group trying to raise Lovecraftian horrors.

This is one of those books where describing the premise makes it sound a little cliched, but the execution is clever and interesting in the way it balances the supernatural and the mundane.

Mira’s Last Dance / Penric’s Fox / The Prisoner of Limnos by Lois McMaster Bujold

Recommended if you like: Fantasy with quirky theology, romance in fantasy, Bujold

I have to admit that I'm kind of enjoying the writing-whatever-the-heck-I-want mode that Bujold has been in for the last few years. Last year, of course, was Gentleman Jole. And she's been returning to the Chalion universe in kind of sideways way by writing a bunch of connected novellas that have no connection with anything else in the other books. By now, she's up to six, maybe two novels worth?

Anyway, all these books feature Penric, a young man who winds up being possessed by Desdemona, a demon with the life experience of about a dozen previous hosts, and also some supernatural abilities. Penric gets in and out of scrapes, Des saves him, there's a love story, some adventure and intrigue. They are fun, and Bujold remains a fantastic storyteller.

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Recommended if you like: Buffy, but thought it was too violent, clever reuse of classic horror characters, London as the HQ of all fantasy ever

This is the first book in a series about a descendent of Van Helsing who is a doctor to the vampires, mummies, and other supernatural denizens of London. (Why always London?) It's quite good, using spare characters from various Vampire novels past in a fun way. I was maybe expecting something a little bit more of a pacifist anti-vampire-slayer -- in the end the bad guys still need to be handled violently, but the book is closer to the Seanan McGuire "The are no bad cryptids, only misunderstood ones" then "monsters need to be slain".

Books I Liked In 2016 Part Two

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Here’s part two of my 2016 “Books I Liked List”. This is the list of books I really, really liked, for the list of books I just liked one “really” worth, head here. All the book titles like to the Kindle edition of the book, so enjoy.

All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I really did like this book quite a bit, though not as much as other people: you’ll find several online lists that have it as the best or one of the two or three best books of the year. (It was also one of three books on both these lists to be nominated for a Nebula Award for best Novel.) (Though now that I think about it, we’ve also got a Novella nominee in here.)

The book features two characters, he’s basically a mad scientist, she’s basically a magician. They meet in middle school, bonding over separate childhoods that are Roald Dahl levels of bad, and come back into each other’s lives as adults trying to prevent the end of the world. So, it’s throwing all kinds of different tropes together and seeing what works. Most of it works, the book is very clever. I think my quibbles were with the first part of the book — the childhoods are really grim. Overall, though, I really liked it.

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

I already wrote a review this one and I don’t know that I can improve on it:

Every year, it seems, there’s one book I read that stands out for the sheer audacity and weirdness of its premise. I usually call that my “if you only read one” book, as in “if you only read one book about anthropomorphic sentient elephants who can talk to the dead and are part of a space empire of other anthropomorphic species, make it Barsk.”

You probably are either all-in or totally out based on that description. (We do eventually learn how all the talking animals came to be, if that helps. Or hurts). The elephants, who have been exiled to a single planet, are the sole creators of the drug that lets some people speak to the dead. The rest of the alliance has basically had enough and are willing to go to great lengths to recover the drug. In addition to being totally bonkers, the book is really clever, the characters are memorable, and the ending lands. So pretty much everything I look for in a book.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

Wow, did I love this book, which is book two in a trilogy of what seem to be loosely connected novels in the same world. The series takes place in a fantasy world where the old gods have been killed, and the empire they supported overrun by the people it formerly ruled. In this book, a general of the new rulers heads to the former stronghold of the god of war, now a source for a very precious metal. The question becomes whether the old god of war is as dead as promised. Or if the god is poised to, you know, destroy the world.

The book winds up being a mystery, a thriller, a very cool fantasy setting, and eventually resolves to a philosophical debate about the nature of soldiers, as the general comes to terms with her past actions. This one is really special.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

This is a sequel to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a book I liked but found a little slight. In this one, Lovelace, the AI that escaped at the end of the first book goes off to live her life, by highly illegally being dowloaded into a physical body. She’s helped by Pepper, an engineer who is paying forward for the way in which an AI saved her life and helped her escape from a terrifying situation.

The book is surprisingly warm, it’s about being human, but not in the kind of flashy way that a lot of SF treats AI, but in a quieter way, with friendships and tea, and worries about the memory capacity of a physical brain. Pepper’s quest to recover the AI that saved her resolves in a tremendously satisfying and kind of sweet way. I read this book at a time when a book about people simply being kind to each other despite differences felt particularly important, and it was just a super helpful world to escape into.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is terrifyingly prolific. In the last eighteen months, unless I’m miscounting, she has published books in 7 different series (Toby Day, InCrypted, Velveteen, Feed, Parasitology, Indexed, Wayward Children), plus a standalone or two. This one could be the best. The only reason I’m okay with the fact that she and John Rogers aren’t collaborating on making this a TV series right this moment is that Rogers is busy working on the far-flung Patrick Rothfuss empire.

This book takes place at a… retreat for children that have gone off and have portal fantasy adventures (think Narnia), and have escaped, left, or otherwise been rejected by their fantasy world. Each child has gone to different world, and there is kind of a taxonomy of fantasy worlds that’s pretty great. The plot itself is a murder mystery, and it’s perfectly good, but the setting, the variety of the cast of characters, the sheer joy with which McGuire showers us with incidental details about fantasy worlds, those are the real star.

Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

Okay, look, I rave about this series pretty much at a drop of a hat. This is because the books are great and I enjoy them tremendously. They was also engineered in a lab to appeal to me. (Industrial or post-industrial tech with magic, theology with gods that interact with people, unusual magic system treated in-world like science, somewhat satirical tone… since you asked. You didn’t ask).

This book is a direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, and incidentally catches up on the characters from Last First Snow and Two Roads Cross. (I think there’s a slight reference to the characters in Full Fathom Five . In this world, magic, law, and finance are all intertwined, and the events at the end of Three Parts Dead have left the god Kos Everlasting in a vulnerable position. Concerns over whether Kos will actually meet his godly/legal obligations lead to the possibility of the what is in essence a credit run, “bankrupting” Kos, who is decidedly too big to fail — reference to Lehman Brothers and that ilk decidedly intentional. Tara, who we last saw saving Kos in Three Parts Dead has to do so again.

If the description above makes the book sound like vegetables, it’s not. It’s funny and clever, and the characters are interesting — Gladstone’s ability to throw in amazing details that are just background is nearly Pratchett-esq. I don’t want to spoil it, but at one point in the book Gladstone has this amazing offhand reference about zombies, which is something I’ve never seen but is cool and perfect for this world. About ten pages later, he follows that up with something equally neat about vampires.

I love these books. As part of the shift to Gladstone being published by Tor.com, all of them are available digitally for $2.99, and there’s a five book e-omnibus coming out soon. You should totally read this.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

Okay, this is the umpteenth book in Bujold’s Vokosigan saga, the main span of which covers some 40 years in the lives of her main characters. As much as I love this book, it is decidedly not a great place to start the series, there’s just too much implied backstory. Start with The Warrior’s Apprentice or maybe Shards of Honor, or maybe Brothers In Arms.

This book takes place a short time after the death of Count Aral Vorkosigan, which was basically an epilogue in the most recent book in the series chronologically (which is not the most recent book published, but if I start explaining every little bit we will be here all day). Cordelia, the Countess Vorkosigan, is grieving, surviving, trying to wonder what to do with the rest of her life (she’s about 70 with a 120 year expected life span). It turns out, in a reveal that is part-retcon, part something that the author had discussed widely outside the books, that she and her husband had actually be part of a somewhat secret poly relationship with a shared partner, the title character, Admiral Oliver Jole. (It’s kind of fun to read various synopsis of the book try to delicately walk around the exact nature of the relationship).

And… Jole and Cordelia discover that they still have feelings for each other even without Aral. And that’s the story. I like this book, I love these characters and would happily read them just having pleasant chats about their lives. Which is good because that’s basically what we get here. There’s very little external plot, but its all charming and witty and charismatic as all hell.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

It’s World War One, and it turns out the the turn of the century spiritualists were right. Even more so, the British Army has been able to militarize spiritualism by binding soldiers to have their ghosts report back to trained mediums after death. This proves to be an important source of military intelligence, and therefore becomes a target of the German army.

We seem to be setting up our main characters as a young couple. Ginger, a medium in the spirit corps, and Benjamin, an officer with British intelligence. Very quickly however (maybe this is a spoiler, it happens really early), Benjamin is mysteriously killed. His ghost has no information, but it’s all very suspicious, and Ginger ends up trying to fulfill his mission, solve his murder, and protect the Spirit Corps.

Kowal is very good at this, she’s a very precise sentence-by-sentence writer and plotter, and she’s also very good at writing couples who actually seem to love and respect each other. In this particular case, this skill makes Benjamin and Ginger’s interactions somewhat bittersweet, what with him being dead and a ghost and all. It’s all very well done and satisfying

Necessity by Jo Walton

This series was last years winner of the “If you only read one” award, and honestly if it wasn’t for Barsk it’d still be a strong contender, what with the Greek Gods, alien planets, time travel, AI robots, all bouncing around the same story. At the end of Book Two, Zeus had moved Athene and Apollo’s experiment in good civic management to another planet. As the book opens, they are about to receive their first visiting spaceship from Earth (they’ve already made contact with a couple of alien races), which might lead to some awkward conversation about how the ancient Greeks wound up on another planet.

So this is not a little bit bonkers, in the best way, and Walton’s characters continue to argue about philosophical points of justice and goodness. Once again, we get to see Sokrates debate with robots. It’s pretty great, and a satisfying end to the series. I have no idea what muse made Walton want to write about this combination of things, but I’m glad it did.

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

The middle book of the trilogy that started with The Fifth Season, and which feels like it’s not just good, but historically good. As in, potential to be a cornerstone work that gets read and referenced for decades. The series concerns a planet where extinction-level geological events happen regularly, and people need to survive anyway. Essun, our main character, is an orogene, meaning she has the ability to both cause and prevent earthquakes. In The Fifth Season, we learn how orogenes are both vital and despised. The book is about oppression and fear, and, I guess, survival in the face of both of them.

Without giving too much away, The Obelisk Gate trades the three separate plot threads over time for a somewhat more conventional three character threads at mostly the same time. It’s still beautifully written, and contains the quote “No voting on who gets to be people”, which I cite in my head at least once a week these days. It’s a little middle bookish, and I’m not completely sure I understand how all the supernatural forces are coming together here. It’s still fantastic, and I can’t wait for the final book.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Some of the books on this list I think have very wide appeal. I think nearly everybody reading this will like Every Heart a Doorway or A Close and Common Orbit. Others, while I enjoy them very much, I suspect are probably a bit more narrow.

Which brings us to Too Like The Lightning, which is a dense SF novel that does not wait around for the reader to catch up with what’s going on. Its a deliberate attempt to have a world 400 years in the future that is as disconcerting and strange to us as we would be to somebody from the 1600s. (Most SF futures cheat for good reasons, and persist ideas that the reader is likely to be comfortable with to keep the story moving along).

A summary of the word building and plot defies my ability to summarize, and possibly my memory, no idea what I’m going to do when the second book comes out. Our main character, we come to learn, is a notorious criminal, sentenced to wander the world serving others more or less anonymously. We eventually come to understand that he’s become part of one or more plots to control what passes for the world government, while also hiding a boy whose seemingly supernatural abilities might make the whole society moot anyway.

I’m not even scratching the surface. We have transcontinental driverless cars. A culture that responds to every death by trying to eradicate the cause. Some elaborate and baroque governmental structures. A different view of gender. A strain of classical thought winding through all of it. It’s also structurally inventive going back and forth through characters viewpoints and different kinds of storytelling — this was definitely a book where I regretted the limitations of Kindle formatting.

There’s a lot of book here. I found it fascinating and unique and it compelled me to try and figure out what the hell was up. You should try it if this was at all compelling.

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

To stroll past the elephant in the room. Underground Airlines came out at almost the same time as The Underground Railroad, and they are both genre books about slavery. Ben Winters, who wrote Underground Airlines, is white, Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, is black. This got more awkward when an article about Winters made it sound like Winters was the first person to ever use SF to write about slavery, a ridiculous statement that Winters couldn’t back away from fast enough. Anyway, I feel a little bad about liking this book more than Whitehead’s, but this book is much more of a plot-based thriller, and I tend to like those. You should still read them both.

Underground Airlines is an alternate history, still taking place in 2016. We eventually learn that Lincoln was killed en route to Washington in 1861, and a pre-existing compromise proposal was hastily passed to avoid chaos. As a result, no Civil War, but slavery was protected from the federal government in those states that already have it. By 2016, four of those states persist in being slave states, though the preferred term is PBL — persons bound by law.

Our main character, Victor, is an escaped slave who is being blackmailed by the US Marshall service to help them to recover other escaped slaves. He’s, as you might imagine, somewhat conflicted by the work. On the trail of one of his quarries, he discovers a larger conspiracy that will affect the future of the US and of slavery. (A very disturbing larger conspiracy, as it turns out…)

What Winters does really well in this book is imagine how horrifying slavery would be when joined to the modern day surveillance state. When we finally do get a glimpse of what slave life is like, it’s chilling. He also touches on what the US might be like if it had to adapt to actual slave states alongside modern liberal democracy. Like Whitehead, he does not skimp on the idea that slavery requires a lot of violence to sustain it. In general, none of the other 46 states purchase goods from the four slave states, for example. And then there will be a throwaway reference to whether PBLs can play pro football. It all manages to echo both Civil War-era slavery and modern-day police and racial tension in way that’s very effective.

Books I Liked in 2016, Part 1.

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Books 2016: Part One

This is part one of my “books that made me happy in 2016”. As usual, we’re doing this in two parts. This one is the books I liked, the next post is the books I really liked.

I had a hard time separating the list this year, there were a lot of likable books, so there are kind of a lot here. In alphabetical order by title.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker

I went back and forth about whether to include this in the list, it’s a little “one of these things is not like the others”, but ultimately I decided I did really like it and who cares. Anyway, this is a straight out romance novel, a romantic comedy basically, featuring a cranky London West End leading man and his much nicer co-star. They are asked to pretend to be dating to prevent tabloid gossip. And well, you know where it’s going from there. It’s not surprising, but it is charming and funny.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti won the Hugo and Nebula for best Novella. It’s an extremely well done story about a young girl, the first of the Himba people to study at the galaxy’s premiere university. On the trip there, she’s immediately placed in a unique and horrific situation, which she solves with the help of her wits and her indistinguishable-from-magic technology (not a dig, the far-futuristic tech of the story is a strength). It’s elevated because of Okorafor’s very well-observed description of Binti, and how she struggles with being of her home even when she is not at her home. It’s a wonderful story, and I’m sure we’ll be talking about the sequel here next year.

Borderline by Mishell Baker

Book one in a series called “The Arcadia Project”, Arcadia being the land of the Fae. This is a portal fantasy, where the magical creatures from the other side have soulmates on our side. When they meet, the human gains tremendous creativity, and the, for lack of a better word, fairy, also becomes more powerful and more individually willful.

Our main character, Millie, has Borderline Personality Disorder, and recently lost a leg in a suicide attempt. She’s recruited to the group that manages Arcadians on our world, and naturally immediately gets tangled in a complex and dangerous plot.

Baker does a really great job of explaining Millie’s actions; her BPD often causes her to make seemingly irrational decisions, and and Baker explains why that happens in a way that keeps Millie sympathetic. The magic and portal setup is interesting, and even the soulmate part leads to some interesting character work.

Brute Force by K. B. Spangler

Book four in the Rachel Peng series, mentioned here multiple times in the past. The series concerns a group of people who have been implanted with chips allowing them tremendous mental control over electricity and electronics. This one is a kidnapping case, prominently featuring some extreme anti-government militia groups. It doesn’t have all the intrigue of the others, but it is still a tense, well-told story.

The Dark Forest/Death’s End by Cixin Liu

The final two books of the trilogy originally written in Chinese that started with The Three Body Problem, also recently recommended by no less a personage that Barack Obama. The first book ended with the knowledge that Earth was 400 years away from being invaded by an advanced alien fleet, and that those aliens had been using faster-than-light particles to sabotage advanced physics research. The Dark Forest is largely about solving that problem, focusing on a small group of people called “Wallfacers” who are tasked with creating defenses against the fleet. Death’s End is sort of hard to characterize, but it’s basically what happens next until the heat death of the universe.

In many ways, these books are like the greatest Golden Age SF novels ever written. The physics speculation, and the ideas about how truly advanced star-faring cultures would defend themselves are mind-bending. It also has characters. I think. None of them spring to mind at the moment. Anyway, if you like really neat speculation on the makeup of the universe, and are inclined to cut a little slack on characterization, these books are well worth your time.

The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells

This is the first in a two-book series that Wells says will be her last novels about the Raksura, which the book blurb describes as “shape-shifting creatures of flight that live in large family groups”, and I’m not even going to try to improve on that. Except maybe to mention the claws.

I love this world. It’s huge and ancient and strange and filled will all kinds of amazing and unique creatures, starting with the Raksura themselves. On top of that, the characters that we’ve been following for four books and a bunch of short stories are great. This book is only half the story, it ends in mid-stream.

A Gathering Of Shadows by V. E. Schwab

Book two in Schwab’s “Shades of Magic” series, which is kind of the fantasy equivalent of Stross’ Merchant Prince series, in that it involves people who can walk between several different earths. This book spends a lot of time in “Red London” the Earth that has the healthiest relationship with magic, and at least for most of the time is about a competition to determine the best magical practitioner in the world. Red London is, I think, the best creation of the series, so I’m glad the book mostly takes place there. I don’t enjoy the actual plot of the series quite as much, but I’m still looking forward to book three and whatever Schwab decides to do next.

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

I like superheroes in novels, which is probably a weird thing to like. Anyway, this is a very light, very fun superhero story. This is a world with very few superheroes, and what is generally a specific job they do—fighting against magical demon breaches, rather than punching out random muggers. Our main character, Evie Tanaka, is the personal assistant and childhood friend of San Francisco’s main superhero. Except of course, she has powers that she can’t quite control. And there are plots and betrayal afoot. And a kind of charming romantic plot. This pretty much defines “It’s light but cute. But light. But cute.”

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Okay, there’s a magical library that stands between all the alternate universes and collects variant books and fiction from them. Our heroine is one of the librarians, and she has an assistant who turns out to be — well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s got some fantasy resonance. We head to a kind of a steampunk alternate world with magic, and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and honestly this book seems like it was designed in a lab to appeal to a particular personality type. Since I significantly overlap with that type, I certainly get the appeal.

Lois Lane: Double Down by Gwenda Bond

This series remains a lot of fun. It’s a little bit too bad that the off-stage “Smallville Guy” that Lois continues to correspond with is way more interesting than Lois’ actual on-stage friends. But Bond has a great grasp on Lois as a character, and the bit at the end where Smallville Guy pledges to be the kind of hero Lois deserves feels like the best kind of Lois/Clark dynamic (If I’m remembering correctly, this book also hints that Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor exist in it’s world…) I read a few media tie-in books that I liked this year. This one was the best.

The Liberation by Ian Tregellis

This is book three of the Alchemy Wars trilogy, which we discussed last year. It’s an alternate-history fantasy where the Dutch took over the world with the help of alchemically powered and controlled robots, called Clakkers. At the end of book 2, many Clakkers were freed from their compulsions to serve, which much chaos promised.

The Liberation delivers the chaos. And a pretty satisfying conclusion to the trilogy (though I do wonder what happens to the rest of the world that isn’t Amsterdam). I’ve really enjoyed Tregellis’ last couple of books after being kind of lukewarm on an earlier series. His books have been all over and I’m looking forward to where he goes next.

Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald

This one gets glibly described as “Game of Thrones in Space”. Which is a) glib, and b) a perfectly awesome thing to be, and hey, if somebody was going to write Game of Thrones in space (and somebody was, of course, going to), Ian McDonald is a good choice.

The book is actually more a modern Moon Is A Harsh Mistress with more modern takes on both technology and libertarianism. The moon cultures are interesting and based on a variety of underlying earth cultures, the politics are generally clear enough to follow (though there are a lot of names). Like a lot of intrigue and conflict stories, you don’t really root for any of the characters, but there are definitely some you’ll root against. I’m waiting for the second (and final) book here and hoping that it sticks the landing.

The Nightmare Stacks by Charlie Stross

It’s book seven of “The Laundry Files” series, which is a series where computation is demonic magic, or possibly vice versa. And at long last, this book moves from being a secret history to being an alternate history, as the Lovecraftian horrors that our heroes have been fighting have done something that is too public to cover up. (It’s not Stross’ fault that what probably seemed like a dystopia nightmare when he plotted it is now starting to seem kind of like escapism…) Anyway, Stross has been working on expanding this world for some time, and it all pays off here, as things go gloriously wrong and set up the long-awaited endgame for the series. CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which has been teased since the beginning of the series as the end of the world, finally comes out to play.

Penric’s Demon, Penric and the Shaman, and Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

These three novellas all take place in Bujold’s Chalion universe, one of my favorite fantasy settings. The Chalion novels have a unique and interesting set of gods and demons. These stories start with Penric somewhat accidentally becoming possessed with a demon, which is somewhat more benign in Chalion than you are probably expecting. The demon has been moving from person to person for lifetimes, and has a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience, and a personality that is somewhat strong willed. These stories are charming and have likable characters solving interesting problems.

Stiletto by Daniel O'Malley

Sequel to The Rook, a book I really, loved. This is kind of a sideways sequel, in that it spins out of the direct end of The Rook, but follows a largely different class of characters. The Rook was a) a debut novel, b) with a very unique tone that c) threatened to, but never quite went off the rails. As a result, I was a little nervous about this book, especially since it has taken some time to come out.

I shouldn’t have worried, this one keeps both the silliness and the seriousness of the original. It might not be quite as pitch-perfect, or quite as focused, but it’s still pretty great, and I still like its unique magic and science mix.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Oprah Book Club book and National Book Award winner, so obviously a lot of people liked it even more than I did. As you’ve probably heard, the main conceit of this book is that the Underground Railroad is a real thing, with tracks and engines and stations and everything, and the story is about Cora, who runs out of slavery, and uses the Railroad to travel the country.

The writing is never less than brilliant, and Whitehead does a very powerful job of underscoring that slavery necessitates a huge amount of violence and compliance across an entire society to be viable. The book’s descriptions are often matter-of-fact descriptions of horrific things, where the style underscores how awful the society is.

There’s another bit of genre in the book, in that all of Cora’s various stops are not just fictional, but ahistorical — built from real events, but not from that time or place. For example, there was medical experimentation, but not in South Carolina when Cora goes through it. In other words, the various environments Cora goes through are extremely stylized representations of history. I’m not criticizing — they are interesting, but it does give the book a weird feel of being on the edge of being magic realism without ever quite being magic realism.

It’s a really interesting book, with at least one outstanding moment toward the end.

2015 Books That I Liked, Part 2

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I really did want to get this done sooner, but I didn’t.

See part one for the other books I liked in 2015. Consider this the books I really liked. You could call it a top ten, but there’s more than 10. But still, my absolute favorite books of 2015, alphabetically by title.

Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

In trilogies, first books get to have all the fun. The first book is where you get the full thrill of discovery, of learning about a new thing. The third book has to actually finish a story, which sometimes, feels a lot more like work. I was happy that Ancillary Mercy, the third book of maybe the most decorated SF trilogy in the last five years, really does stick the landing.

But… it might not be the landing you expect. I think it’s fair to say in the end, a lot of the flash and bang was a misdirection from the idea that this was, from the very beginning, a small-scale story about an interesting person that eventually got caught up in a galactic civil war. And not, say, a galactic war story that sort of has a personal component. (If you see a review that calls the ending “muted”, this what they mean—it doesn’t end in fire, it ends in personal change). I thought it was really satisfying, (in addition to being technically impeccable) and it was one of my favorite books of the year.

Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I can’t decide whether this is the most pessimistic SF book ever written or if it winds up being weirdly optimistic despite everything. Aurora is the story of a generational ship. At the beginning of the book, the ship is near its destination after a couple of hundred years. Just in time, too, because the colonists are starting to run out of stuff, like oxygen. And then they get to the planet, and it’s not exactly the end of their problems.

Robinson winds up being deeply pessimistic about the practicality of generation ships and colonizing other planets in a way that is directly (almost gleefully) in conflict with decades of science fiction. And while that makes a great essay, Aurora is also a great story, with interesting characters making hard choices. The narrator for most of the book is the ship’s AI, which lets Robinson play with narrative structure a bit. I’ve run hot and cold on Robinson in the past, this is my favorite book of his in years, even if it does end with a very-Robinson sort of mini-essay on how great it is to be outside.

City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennet

A few things I generally like, in fantasy novels:

  • Post-medieval or industrial technology.
  • Living gods, or some kind of really powerful supernatural being that shapes the way the world works.
  • A story that takes place in the aftermath of the cataclysmic struggle, rather than being the struggle itself.

And so, City of Stairs, which is all these things. It takes place a generation or so after a conquering empire was itself conquered, because the other side figured out how to kill its gods. It takes place in the former capital of that city, now home to a resentful conquered population. A place where the gods have supposedly been outlawed but where their magical artifacts still can cause havoc. It's a murder mystery against a fraught diplomatic backdrop, and with a couple of main characters that have a history together.

It’s weird, and the characters are interesting, and the magic is cool, and the mystery and politics all holds together. It’s really something. If you like Gladwell and Mièville, you will like this. (Late note, watch for the 2016 version of this list, because the sequel is, if anything, better.)

Fallout, by Gwenda Bond

One of the books that I most flat out enjoyed reading this year was a YA novel about Lois Lane. Not a sentence I expected to write, but here we are. I expected this book to be a decent novel in a media property that I like. It’s way better than that. It’s got a great take on teenage Lois, Girl Reporter, and her mysterious pen-pal SmallvilleGuy (who has not revealed his existence to the public). It’s got just the right amount of Superman and DC mythology, and it’s just really, really fun. Very happy that it sold well enough to justify a sequel in 2016.

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

So, there are certain kinds of subtle things that you rarely see in a fantasy novel because it takes tremendous skill to make them apparent and its often not worth the effort. For example, your human characters will usually sleep about eight hours in a 24-hour day, have five senses, live on geology similar to Earth’s, be mostly right-handed. You get the idea. There are a lot of powerful defaults that we assume even in a world with magic, or elves.

I’m not giving much away to say that The Fifth Season takes place with characters who have a sixth sense, often have hair that is not quite like what you’d expect, and live in a world where civilization shattering earthquakes take place reasonably regularly.

So the technical bar is high. And I haven't even gotten to the fact that Jemisin uses multiple points of view that relate in an unusual way, and that the book is also very much about the consequences of systematically oppressing a certain group of people.

And she just nails it. It's just staggeringly good, the world-building is rich, unique, and interesting. The characters are complex, the story is deeply engrossing. The only thing keeping it from being a slam-dunk choice as my favorite book of the year, is that it's book one of a trilogy. But at that, it also has one of the best last lines ever. It's just an amazing accomplishment, and I can't wait for the next one. With any luck, it’s going to win a boatload of awards and you should read it.

Last First Snow, by Max Gladstone

This is the fourth annual Max Gladstone Craft Sequence visit to these lists. It might be clear that I kind of like these books. This one, which is a direct prequel to Two Serpents Rise and kind of a prequel to Three Parts Dead, has as its not-very-subtle subtext gentrification, as the rich business interests (who happen to be powerful magicians and animated skeletons) try to knock down the land belonging largely to the poor and marginalized (who happen to often be members of a discredited cult that gains power from human sacrifice). Also, there are dragons.

This book is great, but I rave about this series all the damn time, and it’s a prequel so you kind of know how it ends, which takes a little bit of the edge. This is a fantasy series that uses a lot of SF DNA in its world building — it seems that I see a lot more SF that uses its background to comment on the world than fantasy. Did I mention that I really love this series? I made a flip comment this year that I was looking forward to the next ten years of Max Gladstone books more than any other author. (Which I might now amend to be Gladstone and Jemisin…)

The Mechanical / The Rising, By Ian Tregillis

You know, just another alternate-history book where the Dutch develop “alchemical” mechanical robots in the 1600s and proceed to conquer the world. As the book starts, it's something like 1920, and Dutch control of the world is only moderately bothered by a French government-in-exile based in Quebec.

The Dutch control their “clakkers” through elaborate programming with alchemical symbols called “geasa” — think Asimov’s laws if Asimov had been even more into the metaphorical implications of mechanical creatures who are forced to do anything you ask. As you might imagine, the details are top secret, and even the merest hint that a clakker has broken their programming produces a harsh response.

So, pretty much in chapter 1 we get a clakker who goes rogue. Our other viewpoint characters are the leader of the French government’s spy network, and one of those spies who is, I think I can say, spectacularly compromised early on.

Tregillis does a great job of making the clakkers seem implacable and dangerous, not just to the French who are fighting for survival against them, but also to the Dutch, who owe their world domination to their fragile ability to keep them under control. The details of the world and where technology is different from our time are really nicely done (to give one example, the French fight the clakkers with, basically, weaponized glue that immobilizes them). This is a really well done and engaging series. Supposedly book 3, The Liberation, is coming in 2016.

Of Noble Family, Mary Robinette Kowal

This may be the only five-book series I’ve ever read that improved from book to book. (I think I said that last year). The series started as a kind of Jane Austin pastiche with glamour, which is magic that allows for the illusion of light and sound, and which fit very nicely with the Austin world. Over the course of the series, Kowal has investigated the implications of the glamour and also broadened the world, we’ve been to Napoleonic France, Venice, and now the West Indies. She’s also written one of the best married couples I’ve ever read in fantasy.

In this novel, Jane and Vincent are dispatched to oversee one of his father’s holdings in the West Indies, and they essentially find a total mess. As usual, Kowal does a great job showing the world, in this case, including the appalling conditions of a slave society, and the story is intense. Jane and Vincent remain a pleasure, and earn their — spoiler alert — happy ending.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson

I think Neal Stephenson might be on to something. Rather than ship a book a year, he ships an entire trilogy all at once every three years. Seveneves is even more clearly a trilogy than most of Stevenson’s other huge-mungo works (and yes, this theory means the Baroque Cycle is a nine-logy). In book one, the moon breaks up and we quickly learn that this will doom the entire world. A plan is set up to get enough people and resources into space to survive. In book two, the survivors… survive. Well, (spoiler alert), many of them don’t. Book three takes place 5000 years later after Earth starts to become habitable again.

How much you like this is going to be somewhat dependent on how much pure Neal Stephensonness you like in your Neal Stephenson novels. The first two thirds contain a lot of orbital mechanics and the kind of science you’d need to quickly get a bunch of people into space. It’s exactly rocket science. And if your eyes are already glazing over, this may not be the book for you. I also found the political maneuvering in the middle third to be, well, depressing.

The final third is something we haven’t gotten a lot of from Stephenson, which is a genuinely far-future SF environment. It’s a little… weird from a story standpoint, though I actually kind of liked it.

This is starting to sound kind of ambivalent for a book on my “books I liked a whole bunch” list. I did like it, but I’m a super huge Stephenson fan.

The Traitor Beru Comorant, Seth Dickenson

I started hearing buzz about this book several months before its release from other authors who read advance copies. And it's another one that more than lived up to its advance reputation.

Beru Comorant is a small girl when her peaceful island nation is absorbed by a large empire. She's very smart, and is soon schooled by the empire with an eye toward becoming one of its leaders. But Beru has decided to try to bring the empire down from within. Her first major assignment is to suppress rebellion on a different island nation, which has ongoing strife from multiple noble houses with different agendas. Her methods for managing them, as you might imagine, put her various loyalties in question in complex ways.

One of the best things I can say about this book is this: I often feel that authors under-explain complex political motivations in books... This book has some of the most complicated cross-currents of goals and betrayal that you'll ever see, and yet there wasn't a moment where I wasn't pretty sure I understood who was doing what and why. It’s dark without feeling totally cynical, smart, features the dramatic use of monetary policy, and will probably break your heart.

Uprooted Naomi Novik

These things are both true: I liked this book a lot, and it is also not hard to find online reviews from people who liked it even more. Uprooted starts with a simple, very fairy tale, kind of setup. A village, Eastern European in affect, and The Dragon, an evil wizard in a castle who takes one girl from the village every ten years. Why, the villagers don't know, but they have some imagination.

To the surprise of basically nobody who has ever read books, our narrator, a girl named Agnieszka, is selected by the Dragon, somewhat to her shock, as she imagined a more popular friend of hers would be chosen. Once in the Dragon's company, she learns... well, I don't want to give too much away. She learns that he's not evil (though is is kind of a jerk, at least at first), and that there are much scarier things in the world than The Dragon).

I picked this book up after hearing a lot of great things about it -- I had kind of let Novik's more famous series (the one with the literal dragon) slide after a few books. I'm really glad I did, the book is really well structured, with a very creepy villain, and a plot that never quite goes where you expect it. I kind of wish one of the side plots didn't really get as much emphasis as it does (even hinting is probably a spoiler), and that kind of dulled my enthusiasm for it a bit when all was said and done. But that's more a minor quibble, overall, the book is really great and you should read it.

Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor

Night Vale is a weird place where time doesn’t work and all the conspiracy theories are true. I’m a big fan of the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, so I was anticipating this book for some time, although my expectations were on the order of “nice book that’s basically a media tie-in”. Which was lowballing it — this book is really spectacular. You don’t need to be a fan of the podcast to read the book, though if you are, you’ll perhaps have a little more background on some of the Night Vale weirdness alluded to in the background.

Fink and Cranor have a unique command of language, results in some amazing, frankly kind of dazzling turns, of phrase in the book. (The podcast generally works best at the level of the individual joke, and at the level of multi-episode plots, individual episode plots are often relatively less interesting.) On top of which, the book hits themes of family with the same off-center but genuine tone as the podcast. It’s a lot of weird fun.

2015 Books That I Liked, Part 1

BooksNoel RappinComment

Thanks to the literally one person who encouraged this list last year, I’m presenting the 2015 list of books I liked. Last year, I split between Fantasy Books I Liked and SF Books I Liked. This year, the split didn’t work out evenly, so I have “Books I Liked”, and “Books I Liked Even More”. Here’s the first batch: “Books I Liked in 2015”.

First, the Books I Liked. Well, not all of them, but especially the ones I thought I could write an interesting paragraph about.

The books are alphabetical by title…

Bookburners, Season 1

I think there's a lot of potential in prose fiction that's structured like a television season, meaning a series of novella-length stories that build to tell a connected story, with a common set of characters, and anyway, you don't need me to tell you what a season of television is like.

Bookburners is the first offering from Serial Box, a publishing house that is going to be doing a lot of these kinds of stories. This one, conceived by Max Gladstone and featuring other authors I like, including Mur Lafferty, is the story of a group of investigators working for the Vatican to remove magic from the world.

If I have one quibble about this structure as it develops, is that it has a strong tendency to be about a ragtag group working in secret against some kind of supernatural force. (Including Shadow Unit, which is, I think the first that self-consciously modeled itself on a TV season, and also some single-author serials like Seanan McGuire's Indexing.)

Anyway, Bookburners does a lot of things well. Interesting main team characters, including some who are Not What They Seem. An overarching story that doesn't go quite where you think, and a solid season-ending moment. It's worth your time, and I'm looking forward to future Serial Box work.

Career of Evil, by Robert Galbreath

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Galbreath is a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling, right?

Anyway, I’ve always thought that all the things that have been written about Rowling have tended to overlook the fact that she’s really good at constructing a plot. It delights me that she’s turned out to write these nice, relatively low key private-investigator mysteries, of which Career of Evil is the 3rd.

This book is a serial killer mystery, which, granted, I do kind of feel I’m close to my lifetime allotment of. Rowing does a legitimately great job of splitting the plot among three suspects, all of which seem both plausible and impossible as the murderer. The final twist was, of course, there in plain sight, and the chapters from the killer’s point of view are genuinely creepy. If you like this kind of mystery, it’s a well-done example.

Cibola Burn / Nemesis Games, by James S. A. Corey

Book four and book five of the Expanse series, which has been rewarded with what I keep hearing is a quite good TV show on SyFy. Hoping to catch up on that sometime soon.

The two books are quite different. In Cibola Burn, James Holden and his intrepid crew are called upon to mediate a dispute on one of the thousands of planets opened up to colonization in the wake of the first three books. A group of squatters and a group of “legitimate” colonizers are both claiming the same platen, and Holden is asked to solve the problem in the full understanding, and maybe even the hope, that he’ll screw up. Making matters more complicated is that the planet itself appears to be fighting back.

In Nemesis Games, the action returns to the solar system as a group of outer-planet militants drop a large asteroid on the Earth, killing billions and basically upending the entire political status quo. My main problem with this book was a feeling that the series didn’t need to drop a big rock on the Earth to keep things interesting, and that the plot dynamics that would come out of the action seemed to lead to less interesting areas. I can’t say that the book completely mitigates my concern, but I’m still waiting for book six, coming out in June.

Fangirl / Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell

Deep breath: Fangirl is a YA novel about a pair of twins who are entering their first year in college, and share a love for the fictional story of Simon Snow, boy wizard, including writing a lot of fanfic. In college, one twin basically abandons the fan world, and the other finds refuge in it. After finishing Fangirl, Rowell decided she liked Simon Snow so much, she wanted to write an entire novel about him. To be clear, Carry On is not supposed to be the fictional novel in Fangirl or its fanfic, it’s Rowell’s separate take on the “Chosen boy wizard” story.

For all that metafictional baggage, and all that it obviously owes to Harry Potter, Carry On is actually kind of great. If it has a flaw, it that it’s sometimes unsubtle about the way it addresses common issues in Potter, such as minority representation, or the morality of placing children in harms way to defeat the evil thing. To be fair, those are issues worth addressing, and Rowell deals with the issues interestingly, and it’s a lot of fun. I particularly like the way magic spells work in the book — based on common phrases and idioms.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

An ambitious book. It's an epic fantasy story using Chinese history and literary techniques as inspiration. More specifically, it's the story of a long revolt against a powerful empire, and the two heroes who lead the revolt, only to find themselves with vastly different views of what should replace it.

The world building is stunning here, the history of the empire, the magic systems, and especially the depth of plans and counter-plans through a plot that covers decades. My main quibble with the book is that the narrative voice is unusual, which I don't mind, but is sometime kind of distancing, which I kind of did mind. There's a lot of stuff that would feel like telling not showing in other books, it works better than you might expect here, because the whole structure of the story is built for it, but again, there's still some distance here. That said, this is apparently book one of a trilogy, and I'm looking forward to it.

I am Princess X, Cherie Priest

What seems like a straightforward younger YA story is elevated by some cool text and graphic novel interplay, and also just by being impeccably well done. Our teenage heroine, May, is mourning the death of her best friend in a car accident, when she happens to see signs and stickers about Princess X, a character the two of them had created together and kept secret. Turns out Princess X is a webcomic with a secret author, and May is convinced it is her friend, somehow alive.

You probably have a good idea where the story is going from here, so I'll just say it's a really satisfying adventure story about smart plucky kids defeating evil grown ups. I resisted reading this for a long time, despite many online recommendations. And then I initially resisted putting it in this list. But it kept creeping up the list, because I just feel so warmly toward it.

The Just City / The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

The annual winner of my “if you only read one” award, as in “if you only read one book where Socrates is pulled out of time to have conversations with sentient worker robots before being turned into a literal gadfly by the Goddess Athena, make it this one". Walton is one of my favorite authors, and this book, where Athena and Apollo pull people out of time to create a literal Plato’s republic, is really, really loopy in the best way.

As you might have gathered by that synopsis this book is kind of bonkers. It’s also a book about big ideas of how to manage a society, when violence is appropriate, and the nature of intelligence. Walton has never written two series that are anything like each other, and yet this book is so clearly a result of her passion for the arguments of Greek philosophy that it’s hard not to get swept up.

Lost Stars, by Claudia Grey

This was the somewhat less-hyped Star Wars tie-in novel of the fall. (I didn’t read the other one, Aftermath, until 2016, so it doesn’t qualify for this list). This one is shelved as YA, and concerns two kids born on a small, insignificant planet in the same year that the Empire forms. He, born to wealth, she born to poverty. Both go to the Empire Academy, and become pilots and commanders. He washes out, joins the rebellion, she becomes the Empire’s up-and-coming star, while still doubting. Oh, they’re in love. Did I even need to mention that?

Together, they wind in and out of each other’s lives and around the events of the original three movies — they are both stationed on the Death Star when it blows up Alderaan, the both wind up on Hoth and at the battle of Endor, and then again at the battle of Jakku, which provides the debris in The Force Awakens. They briefly meet several characters we know, just enough to keep us in the world and not enough to feel crazy contrived. And somehow it works. It works because Grey makes the characters motivations over time work, converting the original trilogy to the character arc of her two characters (both characters are deeply affected by seeing Alderaan destroyed, for example). It’s particularly good at showing how the Empire works, and why one might support it anyway. It’s a good book, deeper and more fun than it needed to be. I read this in a rush right before I saw The Force Awakens, and it was a great table-setter.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho

This book takes place in a fantasy version of what is invariably described as Regency England, and with it's emphasis on English magic, it's more than a little reminiscent of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Zacharias is the new Sorcerer Royal, having come to the position suddenly on the death of his mentor, he's unprepared, and he's also an orphan from Africa, who most of the other sorcerers look down on because of his race and station.

English magic is disappearing, and nobody knows why. Zacharias is suspect because the decline effectively started on his watch, and because his race and station are, shall we say, not appreciated by English sorcery as a group. Eventually, he meets a woman named Prunella, who is being trained not to use magic, as is the local custom regarding women, and together they… save the day? Well, not quite, because there are more books in the series.

State Machine / Greek Key, by K. B. Spangler

I’ve recommended Spangler’s books here before. She’s the author of the webcomic A Girl And Her Fed, and these novels tie into the continuity of the comic. Among a few other things, the comic is about a group of people who have a brain implant that allows them to manipulate EMP signals along with other super-powers.

State Machine is an SF mystery, staring Rachel Peng, whose implant allows her to read people's emotional state and involving the theft of an artifact from the White House, It's very similar in tone to the previous two Rachel Peng books, maybe to a fault. That said, I like the tone of the other Peng books, and I liked this one, too.

Greek Key is kind of a spinoff novel, starring Hope Blackwell, who is actually the main character of the webcomic. Where State Machine is kind of a mainstream SF thriller, Greek Key brings in some more... esoteric aspects of the comic. By which I mean it has ghosts of famous figures in history, a super-intelligent sentient koala, and time-travel. I mention that because its useful to go into the book realizing that it's less Law and Order: 2025 and more Raiders of the Lost Ark with a hyper–intelligent koala.

And when I put it that way, who wouldn't want to read Raiders of the Lost Ark with a hyper–intelligent koala?

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu Tr. by Ken Liu

This is the book that won the Hugo award for Best Novel, and while I'm pretty sure nobody wants me to chime in on that entire mess, I was basically okay with it. It wasn't my first choice, or my second choice, but I can see what people liked about it, and I even liked a great deal of it myself. (As was observed multiple times, even though it was translated from Chinese, the book has a lot more in common with golden age American SF than most of the other nominees...)

The book starts, more or less, with a number of inexplicable phenomena happening against the backdrop of recent Chinese history. The title refers to the physics problem of solving the chaotic attraction of three objects in mutual gravitational attraction, and also a mysterious computer game that simulates and alien civilization that is under the influence of three unpredictable suns and must continually rebuild.

Eventually, we find out the source of the game and the phenomena, along with a couple of different Earthly responses. The book has some really neat SF ideas, there's a simulated computer made up of people (well people inside the game) that's really neat, and the ultimate source of the game and related activities is neat. The translator helpfully footnotes cultural references that might slip by American readers.

SF Books that Make Me Happy in 2014

BooksNoel RappinComment

After last week’s Fantasy novels that made me happy, here’s part two. These are the Science Fiction books that I read in 2014 that made me happy. Again, alphabetical order by title.

Also, I’m noticing that my writing-about-books skills are rusty, though I always found it hard to write anything decent about a novel without spoilers.

Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie

This is the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which one all the awards last year. It’s also the middle book of a trilogy, and like many middle books, leaves some plot unsettled. While Ancillary Sword continues the somewhat ambiguous gender roles of the first book, the tone is much different. The first book was more of a quest, but in this book Breq now has command of a her own ship (it'd be spoilery to explain why), and a mission to protect a planet from the events triggered by the end of the first book (is that vague enough?).

So this book is more, well, anthropological, and more of a mystery (Breq uncovers some corruption). The descriptions of the Radch culture remind me of Jack Vance and a little bit of Urusla K. Le Guin. What's interesting about Breq's viewpoint here is not so much the gender thing (which fades into the background), but the way Breq is able to integrate information from all different inputs--Leckie does a great job of handling Breq's somewhat alien point of view.

While this book may not have the technical splash of the first, I think I enjoyed it more, and I'm looking forward to the third book this year.

Digtal Divide and Maker Space, K. B. Spangler

I think these are the the books on this list that you are least likely to have heard of. Technically these books are a spinoff from Spangler's webcomic: A Girl and Her Fed. Don't go away -- you don't need to have read the webcomic to enjoy these books. I can prove it, I've never read the webcomic, and I love these books.

In the very near future, a government program identifies elite young go-getters and implants them with a computer chip. After some various travails in the back story, the implanted go public. The chip has given them various special abilities, including brain-to-brain communication, and the ability to interact directly with machines. Our lead character, Rachel Peng, has been attached to the Washington DC police department to use her considerable special abilities. (She has a very neat ability to see people’s emotional state as a color overlay, but is still trying to figure out what the colors mean.)

The two books are mysteries, against the SF backdrop of the existence of the cyborgs and what their abilities suggest for, say, digital privacy. The mysteries are well done, the characters are unique and interesting, and I like the world.

Lock In, John Scalzi

A very classic SF kind of structure: create a radical change and use the story to explore the consequences from as many angles as possible. Lock In takes place about twenty years after a new epidemic leads to a significant number of people losing the ability to control their voluntary nervous system. They are alive but, shall we say, locked in to their bodies, unable to move. A whole industry has sprung up to manage these victims including neural implants that allow them to control artificial bodies, affectionately known as "threeps".

Our main character, Chris, is a disease victim, but has become an FBI agent via threep. (I need to be careful here, Scalzi deliberately never reveals Chris' gender, going so far as to have are two audio books, one voiced by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson.) Is there a murder? Yep. Does it play out against the backdrop of political machinations over who pays for the treatment of disease victims? Yep. Does Scalzi pretty much run through every possible cool way of dealing with handling a threep or what it'd be like to be a victim or live among them. You bet. Good mystery, interesting characters, great world building.

The Martian, Andy Weir

Possibly the book on this list that I've recommended most often. The story is very simple: the first manned Mars mission leaves suddenly following an accident and inadvertently leaves behind a crew member, who must then try to stay alive until somebody can come and rescue him.

There's kind of an old-school SF tone here, with a lot of engineering -- it's been described as the most exciting novel ever written about potato farming. The voice of the main character is great (I'd imagine it makes a really good audiobook, though it's a prime candidate for having the upcoming movie adaptation totally miss what's great about the book). The pace is fast, it's almost impossible to stop reading in the middle.

My Real Children, Jo Walton

This book is a little hard to characterize. It's more alternate history than science fiction, at least right until the very end. Our main character is an elderly woman in the last phase of Alzheimer's, who seems to remember two completely different versions of her past.

The book than goes back and forth between the two versions, in one, she chooses to marry a suitor, and in the other she doesn't. Both worlds proceed down very different paths, which is probably not directly related to her choices. (Neither path is our time line, which I appreciated). To radically oversimplify, in one she is more personally happy and fulfilled and in the other the world as a whole proceeds down a more peaceful path.

Walton is a longtime favorite author, and both lives and both worlds are beautifully detailed. The ending is also really lovely.

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

Another book that's sort of lightly science fiction, in that it's literally fiction about science. The main character grew up as part of a psychological experiment administered by her parents, the exact details of which you are better off going into the book not knowing. Now, she's a grown-up and has to come to grips with what her parents did to her and what we will generously call her siblings.

It's hard to describe what happens here without spoiling things, if possible go into this book without reading reviews, most of which do give away the key detail. (I'm not normally a huge spoilerphobe, but in this case I think it will make a difference.) Even though this is perhaps not technically science fiction, it concerns itself with the kind of questions -- what makes somebody human, what connects people to each other -- that science fiction often asks.

What If? Randall Munroe

I can call a book of hypothetical science questions science fiction, right? (I'd bet a significant amount of money that Munroe is at least nominated for a Hugo Award for this one...) Odds are that if you are reading this you don't need me to tell you about XKCD or his What if site. This book collects a bunch of questions from What If?, plus some new ones, plus some disturbing unanswered questions. It's really fun, and a good companion to the Last Policeman books in that pretty much all of the questions wind up with the end of the world one way or another.

World of Trouble, Ben Winters

This is the third and final book in The Last Policeman trilogy. These would almost be straight-up detective novels if they didn't take place against the backdrop of this meteor, which is 100% going to hit the earth with extinction-level force. When the trilogy starts, the impact is about eight months away and society is starting to crumble. When this book starts, the impact is only days away and society is down to crumbs.

All of which makes for an odd kind of pre-apocalypse novel. Unlike, say, your typical zombie story, in this series it would have been completely possible for everything to have continued perfectly as normal right up until impact. Except of course there's no way that happens. It's impossible to read this series and not wonder what you would do under the circumstances--what's so important to you that you would continue to pursue it right to the literal end of the world.

In this book, mysteries are solved, loose ends are tied, and it closes on a scene that I swear I have thought about at least twice a week since I finished the book. It's stunning. Depressing, but stunning.

Things That Make Me Happy: Fantasy Novels, 2014

happy, BooksNoel Rappin2 Comments

Every year, I'm determined to write a post about my favorite books of the previous year. Every year, I fail at it, in part, because of my tendency to want to write a 2000 word essay on each one.

This year, I'm doing it as part of my new "things that make me happy" blog posts. And I'm splitting it into two parts: fantasy novels this week, and SF novels next week. This isn't every book I liked in 2014 (a great year for new books), but it's a list of the books I liked the most. This is also not a place for quibbles and complaints, this is about books I loved and what I loved about them.

Books are alphabetical by title.

Afterworlds, Scott Westerfeld

This is a split book, half the chapters are about Darcy, an 18-year-old who is skipping college and has moved to Manhattan to finish a novel for which she has already received a sizable advance. The other half is Darcy's novel, a YA paranormal romance.

Just on a technical or structural level, the book is impeccably put together. We see Darcy having experiences that bleed into the novel, we see her talking about old versions prior to the one we are reading, and we see her obsessing about getting the ending written even before we read it. The Darcy sections are really fun, there's a lot of great scenes about writing and the YA publishing scene, and the novel-within-the-novel is a perfectly publishable YA novel that doesn't feel like Westerfeld's normal style. That's all really hard to do.

If you have any interest in fiction writing or fiction writer's process, I really recommend this book.


Full Fathom Five, Max Gladstone

Full Fathom Five is basically distilled essence of almost everything I want in a fantasy novel. It's got a cool modern-feeling setting, the magic is unusual and resonates on kind of an emotional logic level, there's more than a hint of satire or social commentary. Plus the characters are interesting, the plot is intricate and well-structured.

In this world, magic is somewhat analogous to law and finance (Gladwell started the series in 2008 after deciding that the news items about bringing Lehman Bros. back to life sounded more than a little like necromancy...). Pieces of soulstuff are used as currency. This novel takes place on an island whose primary industry is the creation of idols where people store excess soulstuff so they don't need to spend it in tribute to various gods as they travel. Yes, it's anonymous offshore prayer. Anyway, the idols start to come to life, which is somewhat disruptive.

If I haven't hooked you by this point, I'm probably not going to. If I've even close to hooked you, you should read this.


The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

If you want to talk about books I loved, possibly beyond reason, possibly in a "don't tell me if you didn't like it" kind of way, this is the book. I have a weak spot for books about characters who are basically decent, who are placed in tough situations, and who survive by being basically decent.

Maia is the unloved, exiled, half-goblin fourth son of, well, the Emperor. On about page 2, the Emperor and his three other sons are killed in a mysterious accident. Maia moves from his country, somewhat shabby life to becoming the Emperor overnight. He finds his new role bewildering, and the existing nobility indifferent or hostile.

You may think you already know how this story goes, and you are somewhat correct. But Maia is so well drawn, and his instincts are so different from what you might be imagining, that the book works spectacularly well. It's the kind of book where there's a brief, confusing flurry of violence, and then chapters of aftermath, including Maia's second guessing. It's a book where Maia receives a demand that he abdicate, and takes it much more seriously than you might think. And honestly, I'm doing a horrible job of expressing why I loved this book. Please try it, it's really something special.


The Golem and The Jinni, Helene Wecker

This book -- truth in advertising alert -- is about a Golem. And a Jinni. Both of whom find themselves separately among the immigrant communities in 1899 in New York City. They meet while each is trying to adjust to a life that is not what they originally intended. What happens next is -- well, it's a lot of stuff. Each of them has a villain of sorts to overcome, and the various people around their lives have their own stories. It's not quite a paranormal romance, not quite a mystery, not quite epic fantasy, and not quite historical fiction, but it draws on all of them.

I recommend this book a lot, in part because the historical fiction part of it is so strong that it's a good recommendation for people who don't read much fantasy. It's also really evocative of a historical time and place that I'm really interested in.


The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

This the third and final book in a series. I describe this series to people. I say "Harry Potter. But in America. With college-age students. And they go to Narnia." People usually make a face, because honestly, that sounds potentially ghastly. So, this is one of my two or three favorite fantasy series of the past few years, even though it sounds like a weird mashup.

First off, Grossman knows the Narnia stuff cold, and he's pretty great on the wizard stuff too. (For one thing, his books have an underground magic society, which is one thing Rowling generally avoided.)

It's hard to talk much about this book without spoiling the first two in the series. So, I'll just say, this is a really great fantasy series, and it's a worthy conclusion.


The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross

This series, I describe as "Lovecraftian horror, where the evil creatures are summoned via computer programs." There's a good chance I've already hooked you. The main character, Bob Howard, starts the series as a low-level IT Tech at the Laundry, the super-secret British agency that handles supernatural horrors.

The first few books of the series parodied various spy book and movie tropes. Having run out of those, Stross is now going after urban fantasy, and in this book, as the title might imply, we get vampires. Except, as many people in the novel mention, everybody knows that vampires don't exist.

Stross is really good at imagining logically consistent versions of fantasy creatures (see his novella Equoid for a terrifying alien unicorn.) He also knows his programming stuff, and the series is littered with offhand jokes that developers will get (like the suppressed 4th volume of Knuth that contains all the demon summoning programs). This is maybe my favorite book in a series that I really like.


Something More Than Night, Ian Tregillis

How can I describe this? The main character is an angel. Who, for some reason, likes to talk in a 40s detective-noir style. He's investigating the death of the angel Gabriel. Oh, and the book takes place partly in a near-future sort-of-dystopia, and in the metaworld where the angels live. And there's more quantum physics than you'd typically expect in a fantasy novel. It's weird, and I liked it much more than I expected to.


Valour and Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal

This is a rare multi-book series where the books keep getting better. The initial book was very much "Jane Austin, but with magic". Subsequent books (this is book 4) have taken the main characters around the world. In this book, they find themselves in Vienna, where they are promptly conned out of all their money and effectively forced to stay in the city.

What's next? Naturally, run their own con/heist to get their money back, expose the evildoers, and save the day. Kowal is fantastically good at having the magic (which the characters call "glamour") act as a seamless part of the world. The two main characters are one of the more interesting fictional couples going, and the whole thing is just really fun to read.

Coming Soon: Getting Things Done In JavaScript

Books, Jasmine, JavaScript, MeNoel Rappin5 Comments

Okay, the blog has been very quiet for the last month or so. Please be polite and pretend you noticed. I’ve alluded online to a new book one or two places and now I think it’s far enough along that I can mention it in public without being too scared.



Let’s do this Q&A style, call it an infrequently asked question list…



Q: What’s the new book?



A: Great question. The working title is Getting Things Done In JavaScript. That may not be the final title. My proposed titles, Enough JavaScript to Get By and JavaScript for People who Hate JavaScript were (rightly) deemed unsuitable.



Q: Okay. That’s the title. What’s the book?



A: Here are some excerpts from my proposal:




  • The intended audience are developers used to doing back-end development, probably but not necessarily in Rails, who are increasingly asked to move functionality to the client, and are not familiar with the best JavaScript tools available for the job.


  • This book is aimed at developers who are explicitly working on front ends for web applications and looking for guidance on how to approach the simple parts first and the complex parts as needed. In my head, this is triangulated with three non-JavaScript books that I think are around that level: Beck’s Smalltalk Best Practice Patterns, Olsen’s Eloquent Ruby, and Valim’s Crafting Rails Applications.


  • Everything is test-driven. This book will contain more Jasmine than a Disney princess convention.




Does that help? Put another way, it’s the JavaScript book I wanted to hand our last apprentice when he asked for a good guide to JavaScript. Another way I’ve described the audience is people who have poked at JavaScript a few years ago, just got back into it, and aren’t quite sure why everything is an anonymous function these days. I’ve also called it JavaScript: An Idiosyncratic Guide, as in the thing you use after you have the information in the definitive guide.



Q: Why a book on JavaScript?



A: Because I was a guy who poked at JavaScript a few years ago, just got back into it, and wasn’t quite sure why everything is an anonymous function these days…



Well, that’s part of it. I felt like it was an area where I had something to offer, and where I could leverage the time that I had spent getting back into the latest and greatest JavaScript tools and make it easier for others to do the same.



Q: When can I buy it?



A: The initial draft is maybe 1/3 done. Ish. The hope is to get it available in beta sometime in November, and given the schedule that Pragmatic likes for books these days, to have the final come out something like January. That’s still an aggressive schedule, and I’m probably just a smidge behind, but I have a decent idea where I want it to go, and I’m making steady progress.



Q: What’s actually in the book?



A: The outline is still a bit in flux, but the basic idea is to take a pure server-side application and bit-by-bit move features to the client-side in a slow and not-even-a-single-tiny-bit-contrived way. The JavaScript topics are largely focused on creating what passes for objects, so there’s discussion of the object model, functions and scope, and the like – it’s not (at least at the moment) a tutorial on the basics of JavaScript. There’s a lot of jQuery, and a lot of Jasmine, and there will also be jQuery UI, jQuery Mobile, and Backbone.



That’s the story. Coming soon to a theater near you. Hope you like it.


Bill James, Sabermetrics, and You, or At Least Me

Books, MeNoel Rappin2 Comments

I was a nerdy kid.



I suppose that isn’t much of a surprise, given how I turned out. But in those pre-computer days, I was nerdy about math and baseball. I was the kind of kid that kept a daily log of my batting statistics in the recess kickball games.



So you can imagine my surprise and happiness when this image appeared in Sports Illustrated, in May 1981. I was ten:



Bill James in Sports Illustrated

The man in the foreground is Bill James, who would soon go on to be one of the most influential baseball writers of the last thirty years. At the time, though, he was self-publishing his baseball book to a small but fiercely loyal group of fans, one of whom actually wrote the SI article.



In the background, on the scoreboard, was one of James’ inventions – a formula called Runs Created that purported to be the most accurate way to measure a baseball player’s contributions.



Okay, I’m getting carried away. The relevant point is that I was dazzled enough by the original article to start looking for James’ annual book once he started getting published and distributed nationally. As I said, I was young, and the books cost like seven dollars of my own money, so this was kind of a big deal.



I got lucky in my choice of baseball writers. Not only was James iconoclastic and funny, but he was very good at explaining his methods. And I don’t mean that he was good at explaining the math – James is the first to admit that he is no mathematician (admittedly joking, he once described the “standard deviation” of batting average as “about what your standard deviant would hit”). James’ skill was in explaining why he did his experiments in a particular way. In a very real way, the most important things I learned about how science works were from reading Bill James.



In, I think, the first book of James’ that I read, he responds to criticism of earlier work:




“Journalists start with the answer… [Sabermetrics] starts with the question”




Sabermetrics, by the way, was the word that James coined for the search for objective knowledge about baseball – “saber” from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research".



In other words, where a journalist would start with “Derek Jeter should be in the Hall of Fame”, James would start with “Should Derek Jeter be in the Hall of Fame?”, and not in the lazy-local-news-headline way where you know from the question where the answer is. More likely, James would start with “What kind of player is in the Hall of Fame? Does Derek Jeter meet that standard?”



I suspect that this distinction is obvious to most of you reading this (though it’s easy to find places in our public discourse where nobody seems to understand it.) But it was a big deal to 12-year-old me.



Later, I remember an epic dismantling of the phrase “Pitching is 75% of Baseball”, starting with wondering what that even meant, and then going one by one through the things that would be implied of that statement was true, determining that none of them actually were, and eventually concluding that even the baseball traditionalists who were fondest of the claim didn’t act in any way consistent with actually believing it. I can still quote large chunks of that one.



Some quotes didn’t really become meaningful to me until I started writing myself:




“One of the operating assumptions of this book is that you either own McMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia or don’t care what it has to say. In either case, you don’t need me to tell you what an outfielder’s assist totals are”




I’ve used some variant of that comment for every book I’ve written (though it didn’t always make into the final version). I’ve also used in when reviewing books. It’s a really useful way to think about your audience, to realize that you can assume knowledge of or disinterest in certain information.



Another quote that was big with me when I used to read academic papers all the time, but that I also keep in mind when I write.




“This isn’t a bull session, this is science. I only write like it’s a bull session because I don’t like how scientists write”




James is always been a little cranky on the subjects of professionalism and expertise, which he sees as often being used as nothing barriers to keep out the riff-raff.




“When you write something it is either true or false and being an expert or not being an expert has nothing to do with it”




What’s really stuck with me, though is the way James went about seeking more objective knowledge. The process was simple.




  • Ask a question.

  • Determine something that is observable that would be true if the answer to the question is true.

  • Use small, empirical measurements. James is the king of quick-and-dirty measurements that favor ease of calculation and understanding over multi-digit precision.

  • Compare similar items that differ in one aspect. In the mid 80-s James was more excited about a method to measure how similar two players were than almost anything else, because it allowed him to create controlled studies.

  • Follow the data. You probably won’t learn what you expect. Respect the data and respect its limitations.



If you are interested in James’ baseball work, the best introduction right now is probably the Historical Baseball Abstract, which is an overview of both his statistical methods and his historical interests. A more biographical look at his effects can be found in Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, which is about how the Oakland A’s applied James-style methods to actually win games. It’s a great non-fiction narrative, and Lewis is, as far as I can tell, unusually factually accurate.



James’ most recent book is Popular Crime, which is not about baseball, but rather a historical overview of crime stories that become pop-culture touchstones, and also the books that have been written about them. It’s cranky, scattershot, obsessive, and hard to put down.


June 21, 2011: In Brightest Day

Alternate History, Books, Comics, Cucumber, Rails 3Noel RappinComment
I'd like to pretend there was some thread connecting these things, but you and I both know there just isn't...

1. Actual News: Cucumber 1.0


Starting with something approaching a real news story, Cucumber 1.0 was released today. According to that post from Aslak Hellesøy, the project has had nearly 750,000 downloads. Oh, and there's a native JavaScript port in progress. I didn't know that.

Anyway, Cucumber 1.0 adds Rake 1.9.2 support. Recent changes you may not know about include a -l and --lines command line switch as in RSpec's and a new transform syntax that allows you to factor out duplicated parts of step definitions. Haven't seen official docs on this, but it looks like it allows you to capture bits of step definition and run a block against it. The code example within the Cucumber tests looks like this:
Transform(/a Person aged (\d+)/) do |age| 
Person.new(age.to_i)
end

Given /^(a Person aged \d+) with blonde hair$/ do |person|
puts "#{person} and I have blonde hair"
end


In other words, the snippet a Person aged \d+ is captured and transformed and the result of that transform block is what is passed to the step definition block.

Interesting. I wonder if people will use it?

2. The End of the World As We Know It


This post from the Armed and Dangerous blog tries to imagine a world without the web. The general idea is that if Congress had understood what DARPA was up to in the early 80's, then funding would have been cut, and TCP/IP would not have been developed and popularized.

It's an interesting argument, and as much as I'd like to believe it's to dark, the examples of the cable and cell phone industries are eloquent. (I'll grant that the author is probably trying to make a libertarian point I wouldn't agree with in general...)

3. Books: Fuzzy Nation


Continuing playing catch-up with brief book reviews, Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi. Fuzzy Nation is something odd -- a genuine remake of a beloved SF classic (well, beloved by some, I've never read it), namely Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. Scalzi has taken the basic elements -- a guy who encounters small, sentient aliens who are, wait for it, Fuzzy -- and wound his own story around them.

Fuzzy Nation is pretty much purely entertaining, fun, well structured, fast paced. It's not as much interested in the existential questions around alien intelligence as the practical question of protecting them from a corporation that wants to strip-mine their planet. (Subtle, it's not.) It's one of those books that isn't interested in re-defining the genre as much as telling a good story inside the existing boundaries.

4. Moving Beyond Thin Controllers To The Downright Emaciated


Gary Bernhardt over at the Destroy All Software blog posts some suggestions about using routing or routing-like structures to effectively remove controllers from the system. The theory is that if controllers just exist to dispatch to a specific method someplace else in the system, and Rails manages all the other connections, then why not route directly to that method with some declarative or rules-based logic to handle things like security logic, exceptional conditions, or other high-level logic.

It's interesting, and probably could be built within Rails 3. I suspect most systems aren't pure enough in the controllers to take advantage of it, which I guess is the point, and I wonder if the gain is worth breaking the default linkage between URL and controller/action pairs, but I'd be curious to try it.

5. In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night


Finally, I haven't seen the Green Lantern movie yet, but I've been telling anybody who will listen that I've been waiting 30 years to be disappointed by it. Thanks to io9 for reminding me why be recapping an awesomely over-the-top Green Lantern comic from 1980 that I owned, loved, and could still quote alongside the recap. Watch GL stagger through the Arctic wilderness without his ring set upon by polar bears and wolves.