Continuing my reviews of this year’s Hugo entries. Remember, if you want to get a ton of SF ebooks for $50 and vote in the Hugos yourself, you can get the Hugo packet here.
One point here – the four books I’m reviewing here are a sequel, part one of a two-volume story set in a world where that author has apparently set several previous books, part one of a trilogy, and part of a ‘saga’. The Best Novel candidate I’ve not yet read is also part one of a trilogy. Since when did SF writers become physically incapable of writing individual, stand-alone books?
Grandville Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot
Nominated for Best Graphic Story, while this is far from the best comic released during its year of eligibility, it’s still a Bryan Talbot comic, and therefore deserves to win.
The sequel to Grandville, this has the same strengths and weaknesses as the previous book. The art is still gorgeous (though reading it as a PDF on the computer means you can’t see his masterful layout work in full) and it’s still as fun to play spot-the-reference as with the early League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen issues (I especially like the cameo by the misogynist aardvaark). But like the earlier work, the plot is a bit lightweight – and while the first one was roughly based around the conspiracy theories around the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, this one is *very* roughly based around Jack The Ripper conspiracy theories. This means it invites comparisons with From Hell, which are unfair, as this is a deliberately light, pulpy comic.
It’s no Luther Arkwright or Alice In Sunderland, but even when he’s just having fun Talbot is always worth reading.
Blackout by Connie Willis
This was really, really, really annoying. Five hundred and eleven pages long, this is all set-up with no resolution at all, because the resolution is in another book (I didn’t realise this til I was up to page 507 and the major plot point hadn’t happened yet). It would be an exaggeration to say that nothing at all happened in the book, but certainly the actual *events* in it could be compressed into a short story. Well, half a short story. The Wikipedia page for the book has a nine-line plot summary – and a nine *paragraph* summary of the sequel.
Willis writes well, but fundamentally this is like if someone had taken just the World War II parts of Cryptonomicon (say), removed all the discussion of ideas so you were just left with the painfully accurate research about the war years, and put that out as a book. Except have all the fiddly little details right about the war but totally wrong about the country in which it’s set. Yes, it’s part one of a two-part novel, but it’s still not structured *at all* as a single volume – it just stops, and after 511 pages giving the reader no reward whatsoever seems more than a little unfair.
Over and over again Willis assumes that the UK is really just exactly the same as the USA except for us all drinking tea and loving the Royal Family. It’s a minor point, but the biggest problem I had with the book was that everyone speaks in USian dialect – they say “I’ve got to go get that” rather than “I’ve got to go *and* get that”, and “January thirteenth” instead of “January *the* thirteenth”. If you’re going to go to the trouble, as Willis obviously has, of researching dates of bombings and the names of shops on Oxford Street in the 40s, you could at least bother to listen to an English person speak. Maybe even get one to read the book before you put it out. Judging from these posts, the ePub has actually been revised and the most egregious errors fixed compared to the original paper publication. Christ alone knows how bad this was before that. Utter, utter, unmitigated crap.
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
The ePub file for this crashes my e-reader, so I’m just mentioning it so people know I’m not ignoring it.
Feed by Mira Grant
While I’ve had more than enough of zombies at the moment, seeing on the title page that Grant also writes as Seanan McGuire gave me hope, even despite this being ‘part one of the Newsflesh trilogy’ – McGuire’s piece had been the one piece I’d really enjoyed in Chicks Dig Time Lords, so I expected this to be at least decent.
And while hardly great, it was a pleasant, enjoyable read. The worldbuilding is deftly done – set a few decades after a zombie outbreak, the anti-zombie precautions are very much in the same mould as our current ‘anti-terror’ laws – though I’d question the idea that blogging will still be regarded as ‘new media’ at that time, rather than hopelessly antiquated. All the characters were well sketched, the plot, while predictable, does have one twist that I at least didn’t see coming (though I really should have) and the prose style is very easy to read.
In fact, this reads like what we are now euphemistically supposed to call ‘Young Adult’ books (they’re not for young adults. I’m a young adult – I’m 32 – and they’re not aimed at me. Call them what they are, children’s books – or use the old term Heinlein used, ‘juveniles’). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it makes the book very, very readable. But the end result is something lightweight and lacking substance.
That sounds a harsher judgement than I mean it to. I enjoyed this (and despite it being part one of a trilogy, it had a proper structure and ending. It can be done, Willis) and while I’m not going to eagerly seek out parts two and three of the trilogy, nor am I going to avoid them. Definitely the most enjoyable of the ‘best novel’ candidates I’ve read so far.
Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold started with so many strikes against it that I almost didn’t even get through the first chapter. It’s part of a ‘saga’ (I don’t do sagas, and I’m certainly not normally going to start reading something that’s part nineteen or whatever of a story). The characters have odd names in what appear to be multiple different orthographies, causing extra cognitive load to keep track of them. It’s set on a planet where people address each other with -san or -sensei endings but in all other ways behave like Westerners, and its main characters are important in some sort of Galactic Empire (unless you’re Asimov, I want my viewpoint characters to be fighting against hereditary dictators, not helping keep them in positions of power) and have hereditary titles themselves. Were I not trying to read everything so I can vote honestly in the Hugos, I wouldn’t have read this if you’d paid me.
However, *despite* all those things I ended up quite enjoying this. It seems to be riffing off Clifford Simak’s Why Call Them Back From Heaven? and its main effect was to make me want to reread that book, but I found myself almost unwillingly drawn into the story. Admittedly, the plot runs on rails so obvious that I predicted one twist ( “Gung’f abg zl zbzzl!” (ROT13 to avoid spoilers)) two chapters in advance down to the precise wording, but it’s still a *decent* plot, and it’s well-written. I won’t be seeking out any more of Bujold’s work based on this, but am pleasantly surprised by how decent it seemed given that it’s very, *very* much Not My Sort Of Thing.