As anyone who reads this blog has no doubt noticed, it is mostly miniature movie reviews. That is not at all what I intended this blog to be, and I am still confident that it will be more than that in the future, but for now, with the crushing weight of finishing my PhD research pressing upon me harder every day, it will have to be enough.
Except for today. Today, I am going to talk about books, rather than movies! While my love of collecting books never lessened during my graduate studies, unfortunately the time I spent actually reading for pleasure did. When I left Toronto last fall and realized just how willing I was to sit and watch reruns of TV shows I had already seen, I decided I needed to remedy this sad neglect of my library.
While I have not come remotely close to the number of books I would like to be reading, I’m on track for at least one per month this year. (Usually the book gets read over the span of 3–4 days, then nothing for a few weeks.) I have also started going through the years worth of unread comics I have been collecting, to try and catch up. Those will perhaps get their own post later on.
Anyway, here are my thoughts on some of the books I have been reading, in no particular order. Originally—as with many of the movies I see—I had intended to grace each of these with their own, more in-depth blog post, but since I read some of them quite a while ago, some briefer musing are in order.
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher
Though urban fantasy is definitely not my thing when it comes to reading, I actually picked up the first book of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files a while back after reading a blog post and discussion about series that keep getting better with every book. The Dresden Files was suggested by many, many participants, with no qualms, caveats, or exceptions. Since it was up to book 9 or 10 by that point, I figured it might be worth checking out, so I grabbed the first volume, Storm Front.
I think I read it in its entirety that first night.
As I said before, the general content (Harry Dresden, the protagonist, is a Wizard private investigator in Chicago) is not really my thing, but Butcher tells a story with break-neck pacing, lots of humour, and a compelling mystery. It’s not a deep book—I wasn’t thinking about it for days after, or anything—but it was incredibly enjoyable. The book was told in first-person (again, not usually a favourite), the action took place over a few days, and the world-building, plot development, and character development were deftly intertwined to keep the pages turning effortlessly.
I was tempted to continue the series right away, but I try to vary the authors I read, so I put off reading the next books until earlier this year, when I read books 2 and 3 (Fool Moon and Grave Peril) back-to-back over a couple of days. I’m happy to say that so far the trend is holding. The follow-ups to the first one are not necessarily better, but they are certain as good. Each book so far is also standalone; while they do refer to events from previous books, they are definitely their own stories, as well.
About the only quibble I might have is that a lot of character development is done off-stage. Since each book takes place over the course of a few days where months might pass between books, we have newly-blossomed relationships suddenly appearing, new characters well-known to the protagonist introduced in media res, and so on. Butcher handles this very well, but all the same, a lot of that kind of stuff is what I might like to read about.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more Dresden Files, albeit after I get a few more authors read in the meantime.
Angelmass, by Timothy Zahn
Timothy Zahn is probably best known for revitalizing the Star Wars brand—of novels, at least—with Heir to the Empire. As you can see if you view his bibliography in that first link, he has written quite a lot outside of the Star Wars universe, and Angelmass is one of those. I picked this one up ages ago; in my younger days I had read Zahn’s Star Wars novels, so if I see a new book of his I always at least pick it up to have a look. This one sounded interesting.
he initial premise is that there is a black hole—Angelmass—that emits particles that cause humans in their proximity to behave calmly, reasonably, and without lying. An empire of human colonies called the Empyrean requires that all politicians wear them; the rival human empire called the Pax believes the “angel” particles are an alien plot, and send in a spy to learn more about them. Naturally, wackiness ensues.
Of course, by “wackiness”, I mean a sort of complex, multi-layered thriller that weaves several narratives together, peeling back mystery after mystery until we reach the end. I think it paid off on that initial premise in spades (though at this point I forget if we ever learned exactly what the “angels” were), and I was happy to have read it.
There was one aspect of the novel’s structure that irritated me a bit, though it is really about personal preference. The novel has a number of viewpoint characters, all of whom start apart in what appear to be entirely unrelated stories that eventually converge. (I have noticed this structure in a number of other big space opera and hard SF novels, too.) I find it irritating in the beginning—I hate being sidetracked from one character’s story into another one that seems entirely unrelated! As I said, though, it all comes together, and that quibble really is just because a preference of mine. (I don’t mind novels with multiple viewpoint characters, but I prefer when they start together and later split up.)
Anyway, Angelmass was an interesting and enjoyable novel. I will definitely keep my eyes open for Zahn’s other non-Star Wars books.
The Sunless Countries, by Karl Schroeder
Karl Schroeder is one of my favourite writers these days, and I’ve talked about his works here before. The Sunless Countries is the fourth book in his Virga series, and is, perhaps, a bit more standalone than the previous two, even though characters from earlier books do show up.
The Virga series started big with Sun of Suns, which introduced us to a world that was a giant bubble floating in space, with people living in rotating cities that floated inside, clustered around artificial suns. (As you may have gathered, I think this is awesome sauce!) The follow-ups Queen of Candesce and Pirate Sun expanded the ideas and the world, and happily this trend continues into The Sunless Countries.
Apart from the awesome ideas and mysteries presented as part of the plot, what delighted me most about this book was the fact that the main character—one Leal Hieronyma Maspeth—is, essentially, a grad student. (Technically, I think she was a postdoc or lecturer, but her life was close enough to grad student for me.) She gets caught up in events much larger than her, but rather than just letting herself get swept along, she begins to chart her own course. She is a fun character who more than holds her own in the face of big events and even bigger ideas.
I really enjoy this series. You should too. It is full of exciting plots and characters backed by ideas that are truly big. Just what I want out of my science fiction.
Hammered, by Elizabeth Bear
I have read a number of short stories by Elizabeth Bear, drop in on her blog periodically, and have bought several of her novels, but only with my recent purchase of—oddly enough—her first published novel, Hammered, did I actually sit down to read one.
Hammered is the first book of Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy. Jenny is a retired augmented soldier who is simply trying to endure the pain of her physical and psychological trauma and lead a quiet life. Her former employers want her back, however, and aren’t willing to take no for an answer.
(How’s that for movie tag-line writing! I should get paid to do this kind of stuff.)
What follows is a peculiar sort of novel. Or, at least, peculiar compared to the stuff I normally read. While the novel has plenty of action, not much of it rests on Jenny’s shoulders. Hell, for much of her story, she can’t even take any action. Sections from her point of view are in first person; it shifts to third for the other characters. And despite the machinations around her, the story is basically about Jenny’s personal growth.
But it works. It works well. It kept me up late at night reading it. This kind of book is not the sort of SF I normally read, but I’m glad I did. I do, perhaps, wish the ending had been a bit punchier—I was a little irked that the book ended just as they were exposing some cool stuff that I wanted to know more about. Of course, I guess that’s what the next book in the trilogy is for….
Napier’s Bones, by Derryl Murphy
I picked up Derryl Murphy’s Napier’s Bones at Ad Astra last April after hearing some good buzz about it (and because it was pretty, like all of CZP’s stuff). Uncharacteristically, I actually got around to reading it!
The world of Napier’s Bones is one in which numbers have a power that underlies everything, and a select few can manipulate that power. Those select few—numerates, like the protagonist Dom—tend to seek out artifacts that boost their mojo, often battling it out with other numerates seeking the same item. (It’s kind of like Highlander except with numbers instead of swords.)
This is probably the most relentlessly fast-paced novel I have ever read. It starts off with Dom on the run after just barely escaping another, more powerful numerate, and I’m pretty sure there was not a single chapter thereafter in which he was not in immediate peril at some point. It’s almost like the novel was all climax and no rising action or denouement. (A tantric novel, perhaps?)
This led to Napier’s Bones being a rather intense read, as the characters—and the reader—never get a chance to relax and catch their breath. Help is found (mostly unexpected), mysteries are unraveled, and a lot of craziness goes down. Minds may have been blown. It was a lot of interesting and bizarre fun, and I am happy to have read it.