It’s March, and I’m still nowhere near caught up on needful reading. Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni eyes me accusingly from my shelf, from alongside Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw and Chris Moriarty’s Ghost Spin, to say nothing of Glenda Larke’s The Lascar’s Dagger… and as of this writing, I’m still not more than halfway through Nnedi Okorafor’s odd, brilliant, alienating Lagoon.*
*A tour of my To Be Read shelves might also include Malinda Lo’s Inheritance and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Untold, Kate Elliott’s The Highroad Trilogy and Melissa Scott’s The Armor of Light, K.M. Ruiz’s Strykers and Michelle West’s Battle, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Julie E. Czerneda’s A Turn of Light, as well as Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guide to New York City and Ghost Train to New Orleans… among others, including a handful of forthcoming works, like Jaime Lee Moyer’s A Barricade in Hell, or Jane Lindskold’s Artemis Awakening. There are a LOT of books in the world. And never, ever, ever enough time.
But let me tell you about some books that I have managed to read.
One vulture spiralled on an updraft, wings gleaming like beaten bronze in the strong, red, rising sun.
It’s a strange thing, to finish a novel and realise that you’ve just read the third and final act in a masterwork of art. But for what Elizabeth Bear has achieved in Steles of the Sky, the concluding volume in her complex, stunningly-drawn fantasy epic (forthcoming April from Tor Books), no other word than masterwork applies. I said after reading Shattered Pillars that only the conclusion would prove whether it had been a stunning success as a middle volume or not: well, the evidence is in, and the verdict is stunning success for the trilogy as a whole. Bear has played the epic narrative both straight and slant, tracing and subverting heroes’ traditional journey, making her world wider and stranger in every volume. And oh, that ending.
It is an astonishing achievement, and sets everything else I’ve read in the last three years utterly in the shade.
If I hadn’t just read Steles of the Sky, I might’ve enjoyed Deborah J. Ross’s The Seven-Petaled Shield and Shannivar, the first two books in a new fantasy series from DAW Books, rather more. Ross is somewhat better known for her posthumous continuations of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series than for her solo work, and it must be said that this fantasy tale, while entertaining in an entirely unchallenging fashion, has some very noticeable problems in terms of its pacing. But for those who enjoy their epic fantasy in the traditional mould, this should prove a diverting read: it may well appeal to fans of Helen Lowe, Kirsten Britain, and Mercedes Lackey’s middle Valdemar novels.
Barbara Ann Wright’s A Kingdom Lost (Bold Strokes Books) looks a lot like fantasy in the traditional mould, but it’s the third book in a series that started as lesbian romance. It’s a series I’m really enjoying, for while Wright’s prose has not improved as much as I hoped, her grasp of narrative tension and character has strengthened. Starbride and her lover Princess Katya spend most of this volume apart, fighting the forces of Katya’s usurping, demonic uncle each in their own way, and the novel concludes on a desperate cliffhanger. Will anyone survive? I’ll be tuning in next year to find out…
I don’t know what lies behind Ankaret Wells’ decision to self-publish her science fiction novels, because they deserve a rather wider audience than, as far as I can tell, they’re getting. Her first two Requite novels, The Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War, were extremely entertaining planetary opera, set on a planet whose colonisers have forgotten the existence of a wider universe, and where the lines between magic and technology are rather blurry to the eye. The latest is Heavy Ice, set on Requite generations after the first duology, and sees the wider universe rediscover their long-lost kindred—in a process that may well result in the destruction of Requite’s culture.
Wells’ strength lies in her ability with characterisation. I could read about Kallisty Hawkwood, youthful leader of a raiding party, and Raj Cordoval, the man who falls from the sky, all day. The narrative loses force and power when Wells spreads her focus: political developments for which some groundwork is laid never quite seem to come to fruition, and—this has been my problem with Wells’ previous climaxes—the climax feels rushed and incomplete.
On the other hand, Heavy Ice is a hell of a lot of fun. I look forward to reading much more of Wells’ work, as long as it’s half as much fun as this.
I had in mind to discuss the 300 sequel this column, but it is too ridiculously terrible—and since I’m bound for Athens myself, I need to figure out which parts of my conquering horde to-be-read-list will fit in my suitcase…