Author Archive

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Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente

Myths of OriginIt is easy to love a book when it has been cruel to you. Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente is a hard book, and one that will encourage most readers to put it down. It contains four short novels, each of which will challenge the reader to make sense of its elaborate metaphors and strange perspectives. The language in this book shows a poet’s fondness for unexpected juxtapositions. Anyone who cannot read a book simply for the beauty of the writing should not pick this one up at all.

However, those who are brave enough to read the Myths will be rewarded with four extraordinary novels. The first one, The Labyrinth, is by far the least comprehensible. Most of it seems to be happening inside the protagonist’s head. She reminds me of Alice, and her Wonderland is the Labyrinth of Crete. Whether or not there’s a minotaur in the middle is still an open question at the end, I think — there is a bull of sorts, but it’s complicated. This novel is dense and wild and does not seem to have much of a point other than to prove that a novel like itself can exist. I liked the bit with the rabbit.

The second novel is Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams. This is the one that I was most looking forward to when I picked up Myths of Origin, though I found that the next novel in the sequence did most of what I wanted this one to do. Once again, Valente finds the connections between totally unrelated things — in this case, a wild woman living in an abandoned pagoda in the mountains of Japan, and the Sphinx of Thebes. Each chapter begins with the name of a season from the Japanese calendar of the Heian period, and most don’t last more than a page. Like Labyrinth, this book is filled with powerful images. I had a sense that if I’d spent more time studying Japanese folklore or Babylonian creation myths, I might have gotten more out of Yume no Hon.

The Grass-Cutting Sword is my favorite of the four, but also the most upsetting. It tackles the story of Susano and the eight-headed maiden-eating dragon. It also speaks to the varied cruelties inflicted on women — on beautiful women, on plain women, on obedient women, on wild women, on mothers and on sisters. Valente plays with voices in The Grass-Cutting Sword. The dragon and the eight maidens speak while sharing the same body, while Susano narrates his own story and the story of his mother. This book is bloody.

Under in the Mere proposes that California is a place where questing knights from King Aurthur’s court can go to hunt their beasts or find their grails. It matches each character from Arthurian legend up with a card from the tarot and with an overarching image — Kay the robot, Galahad the shapeshifter, and so on — and plays each image out to its furthest extreme. It quotes the relevant passages from Malory in case the reader is unfamiliar, and then takes them in the most unexpected directions. It is a fine book in and of itself, though I will admit to being tired after reading the other three.

If you can treat each of these novels as a separate piece, and perhaps take breaks between them, then Myths of Origin is a fine collection. Fans of Catherynne M. Valente should read this book, not just because it is more of her beautiful prose, but also to see reflections of ideas that she returns to in her other works. Myths of Origin is beautiful. It demands patience; it speaks in riddles. I am glad that I read it, but I am also a little bit glad that it’s over.

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Myth: Deadly Throwing Knives

The hero is cornered by the bad guys! Thinking quickly, she pulls out a brace of throwing knives. She flips the knives at two of her attackers. They go down, one clutching the knife embedded in his chest, the other lying still with a knife in his eye.

Stop doing this. Writers, moviemakers, everyone — just stop. Unless your hero is also wielding a magical get-out-of-physics free card, thrown knives don’t work that way.

One of the most important aspects of a weapon is its stopping power. That is, its ability to stop your attacker in his tracks and render him incapable of hurting you any more. Some weapons, such as pepper spray, do this by inflicting severe pain and blindness. Others, like a sword, inflict enough physical damage to make further attacks impossible. Thrown knives are usually shown to be the latter sort of weapon. In reality, thrown knives have negligible stopping power because they lack three crucial elements: Mass, velocity, and accuracy.

It takes quite a lot of force to push a knife through skin and muscle and bone. The force with which a weapon hits its target is determined by its mass and its velocity. Knives are relatively light — an alleged throwing knife that I borrowed from a friend weighs only 50 grams (~1.8 oz). The heaviest knife in my collection still only weighs 310 grams (~11 oz). Throwing spears are far heavier. This modern example weighs in at 1134 grams (2 lbs 8 oz). A person who uses a knife in hand-to-hand combat benefits from the ability to put their body weight behind each thrust. A thrown knife, on the other hand, has only its own weight to work with. When you see a thrown knife in a movie that has buried itself up to its hilt in the bad guy’s chest, what you are seeing a cliché with no basis in reality.

Light projectiles, such as bullets, have to rely on the other side of the equation: Velocity. The muzzle velocity of the popular 9 mm cartridge is usually around 400 m/s* (and this round is still not considered powerful enough for self-defense by many experts**). Compare this to a fastball, which travels at around 40 m/s — a speed that is still far above what can be achieved with a thrown knife. In fact, the fastest speed I could find for a thrown knife was only 16 m/s! The essential difference between the thrown knife and other ranged weapons is its lack of mechanical advantage. Bows use the energy stored in the curve of the limbs. Guns use chemical energy stored in gunpowder. Atlatls and slings are essentially big levers, multiplying the reach of the thrower’s arm and thus the speed with which the dart or stone is thrown. A throwing knife, in contrast, relies solely on the velocity that a human arm can give it.

Finally, there’s the question of accuracy. Even a light, slow projectile can be deadly if it hits its target in just the right way. Pointy projectiles — bullets, arrows, darts, and spears — travel pointy-end-first, making them aerodynamic. They often spin on their long axis for stability, like an American football. Knives, on the other hand, spin end-over-end. This creates comparatively large amounts of wind resistance. Thus, a thrown knife will lose what little velocity it has very quickly, making it next to useless at long range. The end-over-end spin also means that a knife spends very little time with its pointy end towards its target. Even a talented knife thrower is more likely to hit her target with the side or the butt of the knife rather than its point when the target is moving, as in a melee. Combine that with the knife’s limited range, and your hero would probably be better off walking up to the bad guy and stabbing him in the face.

My favorite depiction of how thrown knives could be used in hand-to-hand combat is in Steven Brust’s Taltos series. Our hero, Vlad, frequently gets himself into scrapes where he’s outnumbered by people who are bigger than he is. One of his tricks for winning these fights is to throw a knife. The flying piece of pointy steel makes his opponent flinch, giving him an opening. He does not expect the knife to hit the person point-first, and he certainly doesn’t count on the knife to kill anyone. Killing someone with a thrown knife is not impossible. It just isn’t something that a character can rely on in a life-or-death situation.***

Even with years of training, throwing a knife is still slightly less effective for self-defense than throwing a large rock (rocks are cheaper, heavier, and sometimes more aerodynamic). Please, the next time you’re arming your hero or her sidekicks for combat? Leave the throwing knives at home. They’re silly, they’re clichéd, and physics doesn’t work like that.

* This number is a rough approximation. Actual speeds will vary by load and barrel length. However, it’s still way faster than a knife.
** I will not indulge in the fast & light bullet vs. heavy & slow bullet debate here — .45 ACP still goes way faster than a knife.
*** Hunters who use throwing knives are usually after small game, like rabbits and squirrels. They also use very heavy knives.

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Podcast Review: Astronomy Cast

Astronomy Cast is one of the most informative and entertaining science podcasts that I have found to date. The chemistry between the hosts would be enough to make me keep listening, even if the subject matter wasn’t fascinating. Astronomy Cast episodes are short and focused, usually on a single aspect of the larger universe in which we live.

The hosts of Astronomy Cast are Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor of Physics at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today. Dr. Gay is the kind of scientist that somehow never makes it into the movies. Her sense of humor and her joyful enthusiasm for science make her an easy person to listen to and to learn from. She picks brilliantly gonzo phrases to describe her topics, and she never hesitates to let the audience know where the gaps in current scientific theory lie.

Astronomy Cast’s motto is “Not only what we know, but how we know what we know.” They don’t just recite facts. That would be boring. Instead, Fraser Cain acts as the audience’s stand-in, asking questions and trying to understand the concepts that Dr. Gay describes. He insists that Dr. Gay justify the opinions of modern astronomy. Often they will work through a topic, like black holes, from the first mathematical thought experiment right up to the most recent physical evidence of black holes eating stars. Astronomy Cast highlights the most important aspect of science: That it is a process, and one that inherently self-correcting.

The library of old Astronomy Cast episodes is huge. A new listener could spend days listening to old episodes in order, or pick which episodes to listen to based on subject matter. The Astronomy Cast website is set up to aid the listener in doing just that, with the episodes classified into groups like “Amateur astronomy,” “Planetary science,” and “Space flight.” The episodes themselves are short, usually no more than a half an hour, and are well-paced and edited so as to make it seem that the hosts have stayed on topic the whole time.

As a non-scientist and a science fiction writer, I have found Astronomy Cast to be an inspiration. Dr. Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain have a great time recording the episodes, and it’s easy to be sucked into their enthusiasm. They aren’t afraid to explore the furthest implications of the theories they describe — one of Mr. Cain’s favorite phrases is “but what if?” They make me want to spin science concepts into stories, and they explain the science well enough that I feel confident when I’m staring at a cursor on a blank screen.

I highly recommend Astronomy Cast to anyone who wants to learn about astronomy, or anyone who just wants to listen to two unapologetic geeks talk about the science they love. The content is, I believe, appropriate for both children and adults. Their website is www.astronomycast.com, or look them up on iTunes.

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Book Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of CuriositiesBefore the internet, before television, before jets and superhighways shrank the world to a manageable size and science gave us the tools to understand it, men of substance and education created wunderkammer. These rooms showcased curiosities, genuine artifacts and forgeries, from around the world. Their creators did not distinguish between plant and animal, ancient artifact or modern painting, classical relic from down the road or clever device brought from half a world away. The beauty of the wunderkammer is in the juxtaposition of strangeness that drives the human mind to find patterns in an assemblage of the bizarre.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is an attempt to capture the same feeling in a book. At times tongue-in-cheek, the Cabinet of Curiosities brings together authors, styles, and illustrations, all arranged to keep the reader off-balance and wondering.

The book itself is a lovely artifact. I knew that I had to have it the moment I picked it up. Hardbound, without a dust cover, the Cabinet of Curiosities feels deceptively light for how much material it contains. It is filled with black and white illustrations. Most are fake etchings, but there are some photographs and some paintings. I’ve dragged my copy halfway across the country, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it.

The introduction to the Cabinet warns the reader not to try to read the book all in one sitting. Believing that I knew better, I ignored this warning, to my dismay. The Cabinet holds more things than it ought to, given its size. I now agree with the VanderMeers — readers should not expose themselves to all of the Cabinet’s weirdness at one time.

Readers who are familiar with Thackery T. Lambshead’s Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases will already understand the underlying premise of the Cabinet. The book assumes that there was (or, depending on which conspiracy theory you believe, still is) a doctor, scholar, and collector named Thackery Lambshead who lived (or lives) in our world and interacted with various historical figures. The authors, too, make appearances in the book, both in the editorial notes and in a few of the stories.

The book is divided into themed sections. There is no reason not to skip around — the sections are only loosely related to one another, and often seem to describe very different Cabinets and Doctors Lambshead. Some sections deal with items in the Cabinet, their origins, histories, and uses (if known). Others describe visits by such luminaries as our own Mur Lafferty to Dr. Lambshead’s house and his Cabinet. China Mieville, Mike Mignola, and Greg Broadmore each curate their own sections. Other contributors include Michael Moorcock, Amal El Mohtar, N. K. Jemisin, and more.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is weird, and disturbing, and probably not most people’s idea of a good time. Those readers who enjoy a dose of old-timey macabre should pick this book up. Readers who really want to mess with their heads should read it all at once, the way I did. By the end, you may find something composed of incongruous parts and loose bits of prose lurking in a dusty corner of your brain. Try not to worry — after all, it was a very good book.

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Book Review: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

The SteerswomanRosemary Kirstein’s remarkable book, The Steerswoman, exists in the place between science fiction and fantasy. It looks like a fantasy novel, and uses the familiar story of an improbable band of heroes on a quest through a fantasy kingdom as a backdrop, but its core is made of the hardest science fiction. The underlying story of The Steerswoman is about the triumph of science and the human will over superstition and elitism. I like nothing better than a book that plays with genre and a protagonist who wins by being smart. The Steerswoman does both, and does them well.

Kirstein’s straightforward writing lets her ideas and her characters dominate the story. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the friendship between the two main characters. Rowan, the eponymous Steerswoman, is a member of an order of traveling map-makers. A Steerswoman’s job requires her to answer any questions asked of her, provided that her questioner is willing to answer any questions she asks in return. Refusing to answer a Steerswoman’s questions or lying to a Steerswoman puts an individual under a permanent ban — no Steerswoman will answer their questions ever again.

Steerswomen (there are some Steersmen, but only a few, due to most men being uninterested in learning the necessary skills) are trained to investigate anything that catches their attention using a system of data gathering and hypothesizing. They are, effectively, an order of scientists. Kirstein avoids turning Rowan into an unapproachable Holmes-type character by keeping her chains of inductive logic clear, avoiding absurd over-generalizations, and allowing her to be wrong. Rowan wants to help people, and that makes her an easy character to root for.

Bel, on the other hand, is a warrior. Born on the extreme edge of civilization, she walked into Rowan’s world for the sake of seeing something new. She meets Rowan in a tavern (a very familiar fantasy story, as I said). Her skill as a warrior is not only reflected in the way she fights, but in her outlook on the world, and makes her a perfect foil for the Steerswoman. Their friendship, born out of mutual respect, is simply a pleasure to watch as it grows.

The Steerswoman is constantly winking at its audience. The characters behave as if they were living in a fantasy novel, but an astute reader will quickly recognize what the “magic” that the wizards use really is. While this might annoy some readers, I found it charming. I also found that The Steerswoman only improves upon rereading. For me, knowing why a wizard might not want his spells jostled or placed too close to a fire only increases the drama of the situation.

I will add one caveat to my otherwise wholehearted recommendation of The Steerswoman: While this book comes to a satisfying conclusion (with one of the best do-your-worst speeches I’ve read in a long time), it does not resolve all of the mysteries. The sequel, The Outskirter’s Secret, answers many of the questions left hanging at the end of The Steerswoman, but it also isn’t the end of the series. As far as I know, the end of this series has not yet been written. I cannot blame readers who pass over The Steerswoman for that reason; however, I do think they’re missing out. The first two books are currently available in one volume, called The Steerswoman’s Road.

Too much science fiction glorifies mere scientific fact and appeals to scientific authority. Such books are doomed to obsolescence as the state of the art passes them by. Rosemary Kirstein’s books, in contrast, are made timeless by their emphasis on the process of science, which anyone can do. The Steerswoman is a fun work of fantasy fiction with dragons, sword fights, and magic — and also a well-honed work of science fiction, demanding to know the answers to hard questions and the logic behind the magic. The Steerswoman lets the reader watch as the characters use the scientific method to discover the true nature of their world. I cannot recommend this book, and its sequels, highly enough.

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Book Review: Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le GuinChanging Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin is a book based on a little pun — the idea that the relentless hostility of airports to the human mind can, at times, drive a person out of our plane of reality and into another. While waiting to change planes, then, one might find one’s self actually changing planes. Since only a few minutes pass in one’s home plane while one is traveling through another, there’s no reason not to spend one’s layover napping on a tropical beach or hiking through some other world’s mountains.

Changing Planes doesn’t have a plot as such. It’s a series of vignettes of the different planes one might choose to visit. Each one is enthrallingly lyrical (I was almost sucked back into the book in the process of writing this review) and drawn with the eye for telling detail that has always made Le Guin’s writing stand out from the rest of genre fiction. Each chapter addresses a different world. The shift in tone ought to be jarring, but isn’t — though she focuses on a different aspect of humanity in each world the protagonist (such as there is) visits or hears about, the book still stands as a cohesive whole.

When I picked up Changing Planes, I didn’t realize that I had already read two of the chapters when they were published as short stories in Lightspeed Magazine. One of them — “The Silence of the Asonu” — stayed on my iPod for a while so that I could re-listen to it. I love the feelings it evokes. It is not a happy story — few of these chapters are happy stories. The deep mystery of the silence of the Asonu combined with the ridiculous mysticism that tourists have projected onto them call to mind a pattern that I am familiar with from our world. That the story takes such a dark turn at the end fits that pattern.

Science fiction is at its best when it reflects aspects of our shared humanity back at us. The worlds in Changing Planes are similar to ours, with a few telling changes. I believe that anyone who reads these stories will come away with a clear idea of what Le Guin was criticizing about our society — but I don’t think any two people will necessarily agree about what that was. Take the other story that is available in Lightspeed: “The Island of the Immortals.” Is it a commentary on the quest for eternal life? Or a statement about how a society chooses to treat its elderly? Both? Or something else? Even stories that don’t feel particularly nuanced proved to be more complicated than they appeared once I tried to pick them apart. For example, I remembered the chapter called “Great Joy” as a straightforward commentary on corporate greed. Upon rereading, it was clearly a scathing criticism of the commodification of holidays.

Changing Planes will frustrate some readers. It does lack a plot and a clearly-drawn protagonist. Its style reminded me most strongly of Always Coming Home — which happens to be my favorite work by Le Guin. I think it will speak to people who love science fiction for its own sake, and not just for the superficial trappings of rockets and starships. Le Guin is once again trying to make her readers look at the world in a new way. Whether or not Changing Planes succeeds in doing that will depend on the reader. Fans of Le Guin should give Changing Planes a look. Readers who are on the fence should read or listen to the two chapters published in Lightspeed before making up their minds.

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Book Review: City of Ruins by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

City of Ruins coverScience fiction always runs the risk of getting caught up in pointless details. City of Ruins by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is one of those science fiction novels that spends too much time looking down at its feet and not enough time staring up at the wondrous ideas that it is proposing. Half explore-the-ancient-machine, half first-contact, City of Ruins should not have been dull. Nevertheless, I found my attention drifting.

City of Ruins is the second book in the Diving Universe series, following Diving into the Wreck. It takes our nameless hero, Boss, to the oldest city on one of the oldest planets in the galaxy. Her daring crew of space-spelunkers have heard rumors about remnants of the lost and legendary “stealth tech” hidden beneath the city. Boss thinks the whole mission is a waste of time. Everyone knows that starships with stealth tech are found in space, and planets are full of icky things like dirt and other human beings.

It’s hard to worry about Boss, or her co-protagonist, Captain “Coop” Cooper. They’re both calm and rational people who always think things through, even when their emotions threaten to get the best of them. While it’s nice to have a pair of thoughtful protagonists, it sucks a lot of the drama out of the book. So long as she has all the necessary facts, Boss isn’t going to make mistakes. She’s too smart for that. The really interesting conflict comes at the end, when Boss and Coop are pitted against one another. That state of affairs only lasts for a few pages, but they were some of my favorite pages in the book.

I can’t write much about Coop without giving too much of the plot away. He brings more emotion to the story than Boss does, weighed down as he is by the decisions he has made and the people who rely on him. Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to feel bad for a man who can ponder the unfairness of life over a plate of comfort food cooked by his personal chef.

The chapters in this book are short, sometimes only a few pages long. Each one ends with a cliffhanger. I found that the short chapters gave me plenty of jumping-off points, and after a while I was so inured to the cliffhangers that they couldn’t drag me back. Even with the deadly dangers of underground archeology and malfunctioning technology, very little actually happens. The protagonists bicker while the plot carefully excavates and diagrams every possible conflict between it and the end of the book.

Rusch takes a bit of a gamble with the points of view in City of Ruins. Coop tells his story from the traditional third-person past tense, but Boss’s sections are all in first-person present tense. The switch may distract some readers, but I found that it helped to draw a sharp line between the two stories. It also has a sort of symbolic relationship to the two characters’ situations.

City of Ruins is based on an award-winning novella originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. It will be followed by Boneyards. I did not get a chance to read either the preceding novellas or Diving the Wreck, so it is possible that City of Ruins is a stronger book when viewed in its proper context. I don’t plan to read the next book, and I hesitate to recommend this one. If you’re already a fan of the series, or if you’re looking for a space opera that takes place in a claustrophobic underground setting, this book might be for you.

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Book Review: Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresault by Genevieve Valentine

Cover for MechaniqueIn a time of thousand-page fantasy epics, a little book like Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is easy to overlook. I recommend making the effort to track it down. Mechanique is a beautifully written book. Genevieve Valentine says more with hints and suggestions than some authors can say in a thousand words of blunt narration. There is more truth in Mechanique than in other books twice its size.

Mechanique has been categorized “steampunk,” but it does not indulge in the Victorian nostalgia that marks the steampunk literature that I’m familiar with. The world of Mechanique is a post-war wasteland, where last scraps of civilization survive in walled cities. It is outside these cities that the Circus Tresaulti pitches its tents. Little George, the book’s first person narrator, is the circus’s advance scout, putting up posters and checking the mood of the inhabitants to see if they’re the kind of people who might enjoy a circus — or who would rather enjoy chasing a circus out of town.

The mechanical legs that Little George wears for these excursions are fake, but the core of the circus are its genuine half-mechanical performers. Women with metal bones, men with reinforced mechanical bodies, and, once, a man with mechanical wings. It sounds like a good deal — have your fragile and overheavy bones replaced with light, flexible copper and spend your days on a high-flying trapeze. The Boss doesn’t take just anyone, though, and being accepted by Boss and having the bones installed doesn’t mean you’ll survive being part of the act.

No one joins the Circus Tresaulti who isn’t at least a little bit broken. Valentine’s narrative is equally fractured, slipping from second person to third person, pausing in the present tense and then sliding back into the past. Little George narrates in first person. Elena and a few other characters narrate in third person. The reader also hears whispers and asides from another narrator, the voice of the storyteller, who points out when the characters aren’t quite being honest with themselves. The overall effect is strange, and could be off-putting for many readers. I found it entrancing.

Readers of Fantasy Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies will already be familiar with stories about the Circus Tresaulti. All of those stories are available as podcasts: Study, for Solo Piano; The Finest Spectacle Anywhere; Bread and Circuses. If you’re unsure whether you’ll like Mechanique, give those a listen. The tone and the style of the narration does not change from the stories to the book. Valentine just pulls the curtain back a bit more in her novel, and lets her readers see things that she only hinted at in the short stories.

Mechanique steps away from traditional adult fantasy literature with its illustrations. I heartily approve of this trend. The artist who did the cover (and the promotional Tresaulti tickets) has done a handful of lovely black and white illustrations for the interior. One picture in particular that stands out in my mind is the drawing of Elena sitting alone in the big top, swinging back and forth on the trapeze and staring away into the darkness.

Mechanique is surreal. The narrative is nonlinear and the magic works because Boss says so. Readers looking for traditional fantasy narratives should probably look elsewhere. Fans of Genevieve Valentine, and those readers who are willing to take a risk, should buy a ticket for the Circus Tresaulti. They have beer in glasses, dancing girls, and mechanical marvels to shock and amaze you.

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Book Review: The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

The Cloud Roads coverBooks like The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells are why I love fantasy literature. In The Cloud Roads, Wells has built a world where people aren’t just divided by color and language, but by species and life-cycle. In a surprisingly short time, Wells touches on the kinds problems that a world like hers would have, and populates it with compelling, believable characters who provide the driving force behind the narrative.

Our hero, Moon, is surrounded by people from a hundred different races — but no one who looks like him. There is one species whom he resembles: The Fell, a race of flying predators. Moon rarely gets to stay in one place for long, because eventually someone notices that, hey, this guy can shapeshift into a big flying dragony thing, kind of like the big flying dragony things that smashed up our city and ate our families. Once someone notices, it’s just a matter of time before Moon has to move on. Every time he moves, he has to integrate with an entirely new species.

Living alone and constantly under suspicion of being a ravening beast has made Moon into a deeply suspicious person. He never overlooks the possibility that people are simply lying to him, either out of malice or because they want to use him. Wells is careful to show the reader that Moon’s suspicious nature isn’t just a personality flaw — his instincts save the day more than once. Despite everything, Moon is a basically decent person, which helps keep him sympathetic through his moments of self-pity.

Martha Wells seems to have mastered the trick of making every character in The Cloud Roads sympathetic, even if only when seen from a particular angle or at one moment in the story. Some people will have trouble with this book because there aren’t any humans in it. However, there are more three-dimensional and fully-realized characters in The Cloud Roads than I’ve seen in some books that only feature humans. I even caught myself feeling bad for the Fell. Sure, they’re murderous cannibalistic monsters, but they can suffer (I still cheered when Jade ripped a Fell’s head off — regardless of pathos, rampaging cannibal monsters make lousy neighbors).

Jade isn’t the only kickass woman in this book. It’s always a relief to see women written as people, rather than as collections of stereotypes — particularly when they’re fierce shapeshifing dragon-women. The women in The Cloud Roads are just as flawed and just as compelling as the men. I could see Wells having fun with the gender roles in her society — Moon’s place, when he finally finds it, was such a wonderful twist that I will not spoil it here.

Wells’s writing is straightforward and functional. The reader will be working hard to understand this complex alien world that Wells has built, and so she doesn’t waste time with literary distractions. The Cloud Roads is Moon’s story, and never strays from his point of view. The pacing in The Cloud Roads is superb. It drops the reader right into Moon’s bad day, sketching the outlines of his world right before the action begins and everything changes.

The Cloud Roads is a short book and a fast read. It also comes with some beautiful cover art — the thumbnail attached to this review doesn’t do it justice. I recommend The Cloud Roads for readers who are looking for something different, thoughtful, and fun.

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Book Review: River of Gods by Ian McDonald

River of Gods coverThe average science fiction novel takes one or two interesting ideas from recent history and modern science and extrapolates them forward for fun and enlightenment. In River of Gods, however, Ian McDonald found a place for a little bit of everything in the caldron of India’s future. Artificial intelligence, climate change, extreme body modification, alien artifacts in space, alternate realities, and cyberpunk-flavored digital warfare all have their place in this enthralling work of near-future science fiction.

One hundred years after its founding, the now-Balkanized nation of India is facing both the emergence of superhuman artificial intelligence and a war over water. Being one of the only nations that has not banned advanced AIs, they also find themselves in the unique position to translate the output of an artifact that the Americans have found in outer space. River of Gods covers the events of August 15th, 2047 — the day when these factors (and others) come together and everything explodes.

River of Gods was published in 2004, and has a more action-movie feel than McDonald’s most recent novel, The Dervish House. Like The Dervish House, it tells the same story from the perspectives of many different people — a vicious street criminal, a cybercop, a genderless fashonista, a politician, a lonely housewife, a pair of naive computer programmers, a reporter, a comedian, and a prophet. Through their eyes, McDonald draws a picture of a future India that stands on the edge of a technological revolution, but has not yet finished its struggle with poverty and religious bigotry.

One of McDonald’s thought experiments is the character called Tal. Tal is a neut — short for neuter and neutral, a self-described noncombatant in the war for genetic survival. The description of what Tal went through to achieve this state is simultaneously frightening and fascinating — the ability of an individual to choose that level of body modification could have been the core of its own novel. Instead, McDonald has Tal embody the emotional and social consequences of this technology. In my opinion, McDonald does a masterful job in drawing a character that is neither male nor female, but still human and relatable. Tal’s fall and redemption is one of the most compelling plot arcs in River of Gods.

Seeing the same city in India through ten sets of eyes can be overwhelming for the reader, particularly given McDonald’s dense and image-rich prose. Car chases and judiciously-placed explosions help to hold the reader’s interest. As the book progresses, the cuts between perspectives come faster and faster until they literally converge in an anime-style ball of white light. For me, the end of River of Gods is not as strong as The Dervish House. I felt like the book reaches for a science fictional twist and leaves many of the characters — whom the reader has, by this point, been seduced into loving — spinning off in poorly-defined directions.

Despite my (slight) disappointment at the ending, I do recommend this book. If you, like me, miss the glory days of cyberpunk, you’ll find something to love in River of Gods. If you enjoyed The Dervish House or if you are looking for some high-concept science fiction combined with war robot action sequences, political intrigue, and heart-tearing drama, pick up this book. River of Gods is complex, beautiful, and a lot of fun.