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Showing posts by: Elizabeth Bear click to see Elizabeth Bear's profile
Dec 10 2010 3:31pm

“We’re a bad machine.” Being a review of Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall

The Fortunate Fall by Raphael CarterThere’s a long literary tradition of legendary “only” novels—books with no siblings, authors who only published one novel—and Raphael Carter’s The Fortunate Fall is one of them. It’s been reviewed extensively—here at, among other places, by our own Jo Walton—and remains widely admired.

And it is, in fact, admirable. And rich enough to reward repeated reading and discussion.

Among its other strengths, The Fortunate Fall is a beautifully constructed first-person narrative, told from the point of view of Maya Andreyeva, a “camera.” Which is to say, a person whose entire career is devoted to being a first-person point of view for faceless, amorphous millions. She broadcasts a full-sensation telepresence to the net.

[Here there be no spoilers of significance]

Dec 7 2010 6:02pm

It is in far Siena that our scene is set—being a review of Anne Fortier’s Juliet

Juliet by Anne FortierThis is the first in a series of posts discussing various works that may be considered “stealth” speculative fiction—by which I mean, science fiction that is not marketed as such, but which undeniably embraces speculative elements. This may include movies, books, plays, poetry, and anything else that catches my eye.

Good. Whew. Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Anne Fortier’s Juliet.

Juliet is the story of Julie Jacobs, a woman orphaned at a young age in Italy and raised by her Aunt Rose in America, who returns to Italy after the death of her aunt seeking some clue as to her family history. She’s been both urged to and cautioned against this trip, but she’s left with little option, as her aunt’s entire estate has been willed to Julie’s despised sister Janice, and Julie (feckless, unemployed, and deep in debt) is left with only a ticket to Italy, the name of a bank manager, and a passport in her birth name—which turns out not to be Julie Jacobs at all.

[A plague on both your houses!]

Sep 1 2010 9:57am

Your Tamagotchi misses you. (Being a review of Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects)

So—shock of shockers here, I know—I really like Ted Chiang, and not just because he’s got really awesome hair and is proof that it’s still possible to amass a very good reputation as an SF writer while sticking to a focus on short work. My favorite story of his to date is “Stories of Your Life,” which may have made me have to find a Kleenex quickly.

In short, I jumped at the opportunity to review his new novella from Subterranean, The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

This? Ladies and gentlemen, this is a very peculiar little book, and I mean that in the absolute best way possible. Chiang gives us a rapid overview of the evolution and abandonment of a species of digital pet that may—or may not—be evolving artificial intelligence, and a very cogent overview of how people might respond... the ones that even notice.

[Spoilers want to marry out of their species]

Aug 30 2010 3:29pm

How many cyberwizards can dance on the head of a pin? (Being a review of Omnitopia Dawn, by Diane Duane)

For those who are familiar with the ouvre of Diane Duane, Omnitopia Dawn will seem a departure. Duane is best known for her fantasy: the Young Wizards series of children’s books and their spinoff novels about wizard cats, and the seemingly eternally incomplete Tales of the Five series, which seem to be linked to these others by way of universe.

Omnitopia Dawn is something very different—a near-future science fiction novel structured like a thriller, rather than an epic fantasy revolving around the moral judgments of human or feline wizards. I think it’s more fair to consider it as a thriller than as science fiction, actually, because while it does ask some questions about how future technologies may affect human interactions, those are not its central concerns.

[Spoilers aren’t really spoilers at all]

Aug 6 2010 9:48am

One children’s book without so much squid in it...being a review of Greg van Eekhout’s Kid Vs. Squid

When I was a kid, children’s books that had magic in them almost always seemed to end with the kids giving up the magic because they had earned their character growth and could be adults now. At the time, I thought this was bogus and lame, and it’s a good part of the reason I liked Oz and John Bellairs so very fiercely.

John Bellairs never made anybody give their magic up to hold down a day job.

I find that even as an adult, I am feeling a similar fierce loyalty to Greg van Eekhout’s middle-grade novel Kid Vs. Squid, despite the fact that the second-billed squid doesn’t make an appearance until very late in the novel, which seems to me a bit of false advertising.

On the other hand, I couldn’t pass up a title like Kid Vs. Squid either. So who am I to judge?

[So other than the squid, what’s this book like then?]

Jul 1 2010 6:18pm

Scavenge: Being a review of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker

First, I must confess my bias: ever since we shared a particularly challenging convention guest appearance a few years back, I have considered Paolo Bacigalupi a fast friend, and I am absolutely delighted by the critical and reader attention his recent books have been getting.

That said—man oh man, this boy can write. And worldbuild, and make you feel for his characters.

Ship Breaker (Little, Brown, 2010) is a YA science fiction novel—more sociological/adventure than hard SF, but one that takes an unflinching look at what life may be like for the majority of people in the Western world given a few more decades of ecological degradation, economic collapse, global climate change, governmental failure, and corporate pillage. I say “the Western world” because in all honesty, the future this book portrays is a world that most human beings on Earth already live in—surviving as scavengers, repurposing scraps, living on the margins and the waste of wealthier cultures, existing to be exploited and discarded.

[Spoilers want to steal your gold]

Jun 30 2010 3:58pm

Don’t you forget about me: being a review of Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music

Jonathan Lethem’s debut novel (Topeka Bindery, 1994) has one of the best titles I’ve ever heard. It is everything a title should be—iconic, inventive, intriguing, thematic. I admit, I read the book for the title, not really expecting that it would live up.

It does. The book, too, is iconic, inventive, intriguing, thematic. On the face of it, Gun, with Occasional Music is a classic hard-boiled detective novel with a series of well-worn science fictional genre twists (anthropomorphic animals; totalitarian dystopia), but this particular novel manages to engage with its genre trappings while not being constrained by them.

[Read more...]

Jun 25 2010 12:31pm

“Life is so cheap in D.C.”: being a review of Pat Cadigan’s Tea from an Empty Cup

I’m going to out myself right now and say I did not understand the last paragraph of this novel. I have several theories about what just happened, mind, but I’m not convinced of any of them, and so it goes with John Crowley’s Little, Big on the short shelf of books I really pretty much liked but feel like I have assigned my own ending to, in a sort of Rorschachian fashion, based on some interesting ink blots that the author provided.

In the case of Tea from an Empty Cup (Tor, 1998) that may just be thematically appropriate.

[Read more...]

Jun 23 2010 10:21am

When magick has fallen from fashion: being a review of Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

Galen Beckett’s debut novel, a fantasy of manners entitled The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (Spectra, 2008), came as an absolutely delightful surprise. I had heard absolutely nothing about the book or author until a perspicacious friend thrust a copy upon me.

Reader, I was engaged.

Mr. Beckett is a skilled writer, demonstrating unusual control of his voice and prosody for someone at the start of his career. Indeed, the attention to language—and to the structure of his narrative—and to the individuality of the female characters—were such that I initially suspected “Galen Beckett” might be a pseudonym for an established author (it proves to be so) and a woman (and here I was wrong).

[Read more]

Jun 3 2010 9:41am

Be careful what you ask for, being a review of White Cat by Holly Black

In the interests of honest disclosure, I should mention that Holly Black brought the first three chapters of this novel to a workshop I attended in 2007, and I loved it then. However, those chapters were significantly different from the published version, and I had not seen the book between then and when I held a printed copy in my hand.

Also, this is a caper novel, and caper novels are a dear thing to my heart. So I may not be an entirely unbiased reader.

That said, this is my favorite Holly Black book to date. Cassel, the protagonist, is the scion of a venerable family of “curse workers,” people who can manipulate such things as luck, memory, or emotions. But Cassel—a sleepwalker—has no supernatural abilities, just the knowledge that as a much younger child he murdered his best friend in a fugue state, and his family covered it up to protect him.

[Spoilers want to change your mind.]

Jun 2 2010 3:03pm

Facts universally acknowledged, being a review of Robin Hobb’s Dragon Haven

If Dragon Keeper, the first installment of Hobb’s new Rain Wilds Chronicles series, was long-winded for what it accomplished, the second volume corrects that fault. Often, Book Twos are bridges, but in this case felt as if Book Two was where the story actually kicked into gear, and what had been past was merely prologue. Here, at last, is significant character development. Here is exploration of the world, and progress towards a goal beyond merely identifying it. And here are some developments in the central mysteries of the world.

Most of Dragon Keeper was devoted to establishing protagonists and villains and getting the quest fantasy show on the road, but Dragon Haven opens with the primary conflicts firmly in place and the characters struggling to run alongside the plot long enough to grab hold and swing aboard. This makes for much better momentum and a more interesting narrative, overall.

Thematically, this book also exhibits more unification and arc. At the core of this book are a series of romances and potential romances. There’s someone for everyone, apparently, including the carrier-pigeon keepers whose scribbled messages to one another remain one of the more enchanting aspects of the work. As characters work toward adulthood, they also pair off—or fail to pair off—in fairly predictable manners. And they finally—finally!—begin talking to one another.

[Spoilers are really rather more vague and flattering generalities]

Apr 27 2010 4:09pm

A hound among hounds: Margaret Ronald’s Wild Hunt

It is a truth (nearly) universally acknowledged (by authors) that second novels are harder than first novels. Often, they’re the first book that a writer has to create under deadline pressure, and the additional pressure of public expectation—which can be both ego-crushing and ego-inflating, sometimes simultaneously, and is certainly distracting as all get out.

I remain impressed that anyone can turn in a book under those circumstances. It’s a true trial by fire, and what’s even more amazing is that sometimes people turn in good second novels.

Margaret Ronald’s Wild Hunt is a good second novel.

I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first one—I admit that I lost the plot in one spot, and there’s a thrashy bit towards the end of the first act—but in general, it’s enjoyable, increases the depth of characterization and worldbuilding, and maintains the reader’s appreciation of Ronald’s masterful grasp of folklore. It doesn’t have quite the great sense of place that Spiral Hunt does—Boston is one of my local cities, along with New York, and Spiral Hunt felt like a day trip—but some local landmarks are given a great presence, which makes up for a lot.

[spoilers wanna be your dog]

Apr 23 2010 11:40am

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis - a review

Reading a first novel by an old friend is always a somewhat trepidatious experience for any writer. There’s the anticipation and excitement, of course–the hope that the book will be awfully good, and will do well, and then you can mooch off your friend for drinks at any given convention. But less often spoken of is the fear–the risk that you won’t like the book, or worse, that it will be “a unbudgeable turkey.”

There’s the risk that you’ll find yourself saying things like “I really liked your use of weather imagery in chapter 3,” and praying that the friend doesn’t figure out that you never got past chapter 4.

This fear can be ameliorated by familiarity with short work by the same author. If you know your friend rocks the shorter narratives, there’s more advance evidence that the book will probably be okay. The anticipation can outweigh the dread.

On the strength of prior acquaintance with his short work, I’ve been anticipating Ian Tregillis’s Bitter Seeds for Some Time Now, and I am pleased to report that no dread is indicated or required. In fact, this book is really very good, and I don’t just mean “good for a first novel.”

Tregillis has journeyed into that most overtilled field, World War II alternate history, and in the process he has created a unique, unsettling, and deeply atmospheric setting; populated it with a diversity of grimly fascinating characters; and turned up the heat with the sort of plot that requires those characters to keep shoveling frantically if they are ever to stay in advance of the needs of the firebox.

[spoilers want to conquer Europe, and will stop at nothing to do so]

Apr 16 2010 11:37am

Review: Laura Bickle's debut novel, Embers

I picked up Laura Bickle’s debut novel, Embers, without undue expectations. In the course of my various review columns, I read a lot of urban fantasy, and to be frank–as with any booming subgenre–a great deal of it is somewhat mediocre.

Embers, however, proved one of the most promising debut novels I’ve read in a great while. Bickle gives us a strong and interesting—but vulnerable and believable–protagonist in Motor City arson investigator Anya Kalinczyk—who also happens to be a “Lantern,” a sort of medium psychically linked to fire elementals and fire. One of my biggest complaints about urban fantasy is the preponderance of authors who seem to confuse “kickass” heroines with brittle, mouthy, neurotic creeps who make most of their own problems.

[An engaging fantasy set in the Upper Midwest, and not the one you are thinking of, either.]

Apr 14 2010 10:40am

Selfish, selfless, or something in between: Ash, by Malinda Lo

If all anybody has told you about Malinda Lo’s Ash is that it’s a lesbian Cinderella, they have done you a grave disservice. Because Ash is something else entirely. It’s a re-imagining of Cinderella, yes, but it’s important to consider that it’s a re-imagining, not a retelling. Rather, Lo’s book shifts the focus of the fairytale entirely—away from any romance Aisling (“Ash”) may pursue, or that might pursue her, and instead into her personal growth and her ability to choose and bargain for herself.

While the generic outlines of the story—girl orphaned, abused, and rescued—cohere to the broadest plot of Cinderella, the details and the thematic freight stand apart.

Ash’s romantic objects (the prince, the huntress, and the fairy lord) barely enter into the book for the first half. Instead, Ash’s father is widowed, and (in a nice nod to older versions of Cinderella) Ash waters her mother’s grave with her tears. Ash, a weird and bookish girl, is unable to move past the death of her beloved parent, to the point where the village wisewoman fears that she will be taken by the fairies.

[As, indeed, she very nearly is.]

Mar 29 2010 10:35am

Graham Joyce, How to Make Friends with Demons

There’s a current pattern in male protagonists of otherwise excellent contemporary British fantasy and SF novels that kind of drives me nuts. It seems as if the trend is for these fictional men to come across as narcissistic, self-pitying, and incredibly judgmental.

Unfortunately, the protagonist of How to Make Friends with Demons is no exception.

Don't get me wrong: Graham Joyce is a brilliant writer. His prose is pellucid, his ideas engaging, his characters crisply drawn. This book has texture, nuance, and guts.

It’s just that I want to stab his protagonist with a fork until he pokes his head outside his own little alcoholic bubble of self-imposed misery and takes notice of something. Preferably something other than an attractive and selfless woman—although, as much as the gender politics of that trope frustrate me I must admit it is in large part an image drawn from life, and there are enough self-aware, agenda-driven females in Joyce’s universe to mitigate my irritation a great deal. 

My irritation is also mitigated by the fact that the narrative—

Oh, wait. Maybe I should actually do a little exposition before I continue this rant.

[So you know what I’m talking about, at least.]

Mar 11 2010 1:39pm

Gene Wolfe, The Sorcerer’s House (review)

The Sorcerer’s House is exactly the sort of thing you would expect from Gene Wolfe if you had for some reason been expecting him to write a disturbing urban fantasy set in a cryptomunicipality called Medicine Man, populated with the sort of quirky characters you might expect to find in a cozy mystery. Which is to say, it’s clever, intentionally obscure, deeply ambiguous, and above all gorgeously written.

When I say “urban fantasy,” I mean “urban fantasy” in its original sense. Which is to say, there are no leather-pantsed werewolf hunters in this novel, although there is a werewolf. Or twelve. This is more in the mold of Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliament–a dreamy, ineradicable sort of a book that does not worry itself overmuch with explanations.

[read more]

Feb 5 2010 10:19am

The Golden Age of Epic Fantasy (a review of Robin Hobb's Dragon Keeper)

If the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, it’s quite possible that the golden age of epic fantasy is fifteen. That’s the age when nobody understand you, the world is deeply unfair, and romantic angst proliferates.

Dragon Keeper (Eos, January 26, 2010 in the USA; the UK version has a definite article and a better cover, and came out last year) fits neatly into that sweet spot.

This book, the first in a new trilogy, marks a return to the setting of Hobb’s Liveship Traders books: the Rain Wilds, a vast swampy forest where anything that lives must live in the trees, because a caustic river runs through it. Dragons had all but died out in this world, as a result of a particularly nasty/clever worldbuilding twist that I won’t spoil, for those who have not yet read that first trilogy. But now they have returned to the world—and the first group to undergo metamorphosis into their adult forms are crippled due to privation and neglect.

Because of this, they constitute an economic drain on local humans, who have contracted with the lone surviving adult dragon to care for her kin. When that dragon vanishes amid rumors that disaster or love have befallen her, the young dragons gradually slip further and further down the ladder of civic commitments, until certain elements of the human establishment are strongly considering selling them off for parts.

[spoilers abound!]

Dec 27 2009 9:26am

In keeping with the long tradition of Americans putting on British accents in Guy Ritchie movies: Sherlock Holmes

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is that rarest of animals—a thoroughly terrible movie that is also thoroughly enjoyable, in part because it embraces it’s own badness with such gleeful aplomb. It knows it’s ridiculous, and like a satisfying Bond movie of the not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously era, it manages to ride that ridiculousness to an amusing if not revelatory conclusion.

Admittedly, I entered the theatre expecting only the worst, thus invoking the magic of lowered expectations. I am a Sherlockian of sorts, more devoted to the original stories than any of the adaptations (Although I thought Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind was brilliant and heartbreaking), and I will admit to an abiding fondness for the Brett-and-Hardwicke Granada Television productions thereof. This evidence will no doubt reveal that I am, to put it mildly, a traditionalist when it comes to Sherlock Holmes. But this—

Well, it isn’t Holmes. Not even remotely. But the curious thing about it is that in some ways it is Holmes, and perhaps closer in spirit than any of the other movie adaptations I have seen.

[spoilers want to blow up Parliament]

Dec 8 2009 9:30am
Original Story

The Horrid Glory of Its Wings

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.


“Speaking of livers,” the unicorn said, “Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that.”

—Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

* * *

My mother doesn’t know about the harpy.

My mother, Alice, is not my real mom. She’s my foster mother, and she doesn’t look anything like me. Or maybe I don’t look anything like her. Mama Alice is plump and soft and has skin like the skin of a plum, all shiny dark purple with the same kind of frosty brightness over it, like you could swipe it away with your thumb.

I’m sallow—Mama Alice says olive—and I have straight black hair and crooked teeth and no real chin, which is okay because I’ve already decided nobody’s ever going to kiss me.

I’ve also got lipodystrophy, which is a fancy doctor way of saying I’ve grown a fatty buffalo hump on my neck and over each shoulder blade from the antiretrovirals, and my butt and legs and cheeks are wasted like an old lady’s. My face looks like a dog’s muzzle, even though I still have all my teeth.

For now. I’m going to have to get the wisdom teeth pulled this year while I still get state assistance, because my birthday is in October and then I’ll be eighteen. If I start having problems with them after then, well forget about it.

There’s no way I’d be able to afford to get them fixed.

* * *

The harpy lives on the street, in the alley behind my building, where the dumpster and the winos live.