This post will, I believe, catch me up on talking about all the novels I’ve read so far this year. By my count, I’ve read twelve novels so far this year, which meets the goal I set for myself. Despite my love of books, I’m something of an infrequent reader — once I start reading a book I like, I am generally unable to stop, and that doesn’t work so well with the other responsibilities in my life right now. Hence the infrequent indulgence.
But I have found I’m buying books far faster than I read them, and realized I had to do something. This year’s experiment has been successful in carving out chunks of reading time every month or so in which I devour a few novels. I’m hoping to increase this in the coming year.
Anyway, enough about my reading habits… on to the reviews!
The Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt
I picked up this book without having read any reviews or heard any buzz, solely on the basis of the prettiness of the hardcover edition available in Canada and the UK. I just wanted to… to caress it.
The book — like many of the ones I own — sat on my shelf for a while, unread, until I saw an equally pretty sequel, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, tempting me from the store shelves. One book I will buy on impulse, but I will not commit to a whole series in hardcover when I haven’t read anything by the author before. This prompted me to drag The Court of the Air off my shelf and into my reading rotation, and I was quite pleased with the result.
The Court of the Air is a steampunk fantasy novel, by my estimation — though it is not strictly set in some alternate Victorian England, the Kingdom of Jackals retains strong echoes of such a setting, with orphans and workhouses and a criminal underground. Of course, the Kingdom of Jackals also has steammen (sentient steam-powered automata) and a sort of crab-people among its citizens, is subject to float quakes (where chunks of the earth float away up into the air), and is terrified of the changes wrought on people caught in the fey mists.
The story follows the lives of two orphans. Molly Templar was abandoned as a baby, and now keeps getting returned to the workhouse. She soon finds herself the target of assassins, because of a secret carried in her blood. Oliver Brooks, tainted by the mists as a boy and seemingly unharmed, is still an object of suspicion to his neighbours. When his uncle is murdered, he has to run for his life. Both are destined to become key players in the events about to shape the world.
Hunt has created a delightfully rich backdrop — even if some elements seem a bit over-the-top — and takes our two protagonists on independent, meandering journeys to show it off. This helps develop the depth of the world, and the context of the conflict in which the characters eventually find themselves embroiled. This tour of wonders is also helpful in priming the reader to accept as reasonable some of the deus ex machina moments that crop up later in the book without any explicit setup — having seen all the peculiar things that go on in the world, these new things suddenly thrown in don’t seem impossible or even improbable.
Somewhat refreshingly, Hunt doesn’t have his protagonists meet up until toward the end of the book, and even then, they don’t stay together long — they are two players in the game, and on the same side, to be sure, but they each have their own story. The fun comes not in their interactions with each other, so much as their interaction with the quirky and intriguing cast of supporting characters.
The pacing of the novel threw me off somewhat, at first. As I’m sure I’ve pointed out several times in these review posts, my preferences tend to lie in the “show me your big idea so I’ll care” end of the literary spectrum, so I tend to be a little slow getting into books that do a lot of setup and groundwork. The Court of the Air didn’t fall prey to this quite so much, though — while the scope wasn’t revealed until later on, the early chapters themselves were quite satisfying due to the revelation of Hunt’s world. The one caveat to this was, while each early chapter was interesting, it didn’t compel me to keep going. I mean, I looked forward to seeing what came next, but I felt I could wait until the next night. In comparison, I stayed up until 6 AM reading the last third of the book in one fell swoop, because by that point I had a sense of scope and arc of the novel, and I needed to see how it turned out.
From that, you might gather I enjoyed this novel, and you’d be right. While it isn’t perfect — the prose is a bit rough in places, and the pacing kind of off — it has a lot of interesting ideas, a delightful setting, and a lot of fun action and intrigue. It was entertaining of its own accord, and hopefully indicitive of great things to come from Hunt.
Dauntless and Fearless, by Jack Campbell
Dauntless and Fearless are the first two books in Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series. (Campbell is the pseudonym for John G. Hemry.) These are straight up military science fiction, and though I’m not deeply read in the sub-genre, they seem quite excellent. I discovered them via a post by John Scalzi, and after reading the first chapter online, I knew I wanted more. Thankfully, there was a 4-for-3 sale on at the time, and so I got all the volumes in the series thus far in one go.
The premise is that John Geary died a hundred years ago, in a last stand born of desperation that made him into the legendary Captain “Black Jack” Geary. Except that he didn’t die — he managed to escape his ship in a stasis pod, and it kept him alive in suspended animation as a century passed, until he was found once again. Through some very unfortunate circumstances, he finds himself in command of the remains of the Alliance’s fleet, trapped in enemy space, in a military very different from the one he knew. His only mission is to get them home.
As you might expect, that is not an easy task. It will apparently take a full six books (of which there are four currently out).
Dauntless, the first book, has Geary working to overcome his own doubts, and whip the fleet into shape under his command as they try to escape the overwhelming enemy force. Fearless directly follows this, concentrating on the next big endeavour on their journey home.
I found the pacing slightly odd in these, but I believe that is simply reflective of my inexperience with military SF — I’d read parts of David Weber’s On Basilisk Station in the Baen Free Library and it was paced similarly. They tend to focus on a few big events or military situations, and cover them in great detail, which — as I said — feels a bit odd to me. When I do a tally at the end of the book, the list of stuff that happened is typically short, but it was told in such a level of interesting detail that it kept me turning pages nonetheless.
That is, in fact, why there are two books included in this entry, rather than one — I finished the first, and felt the need to plow right into the second. The plot is compelling, and Campbell is dropping in tantalizing hints of larger mysteries and conspiracies as well as some decent character development, all of which makes me a happy camper. While my tastes in general do not run to military SF, when it’s this good, I’m happy to include it in my reading pile.
Young Miles, by Lois McMaster Bujold
This omnibus should need no introduction to a seasoned SF reader — it collects the first of Lois McMaster Bujold’s award-winning Miles Vorkosigan novels. (Note to nit-pickers: I am aware that there are earlier books chronologically in the series, but I’m using “first” in reference to Miles himself, not the whole series.) I had been hearing about this series for years, but ever time I looked at one of the books, something about them evoked a bit of a “meh”, and so I never read them. It took years of praise and a four-for-three paperback sale before I actually bought Young Miles, but I am ever so glad that I did.
These books are excellent. Well, at least, everything I’ve read so far. Young Miles consists of The Warrior’s Apprentice, the shorter story “Mountains of Mourning”, and The Vor Game. They follow the title character — Miles Vorkosigan, a crippled genius living the in shadow of his legendary father and grandfather — from the beginning of his career, as he gets himself into and out of trouble through sheer wit and brilliance. Even these early books, we begin to see that he will become a legend in his own right — so long as he doesn’t get too far in over his head.
Bujold has crafted an incredibly compelling and likeable character in Miles, and that is what drives the story of these books. The setting is fairly standard for space opera (though with many nice details and inventive ideas), and there’s no big idea or hook — what drew me in was the character of Miles, and how the story just naturally grew out of him. In fact, when I finished Young Miles, I went straight into the next omnibus, Miles, Mystery, and Mayhem, and was only able to stop once we hit a story that did not focus on Miles. (I read Cetaganda, but once I hit Ethan of Athos, I was finally able to stop. For a while.)
I have since pushed Young Miles on a reader who does not normally read SF; she loved it. I think I may have found, in the Vorkosigan novels, another universal recommendation — I think that, like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, I could recommend Young Miles to anyone and they would enjoy it. It’s not overly technical or science-heavy, and the stories are so character-driven that you can’t help but be pulled along to find out what happens next.
I know I’m (very) late to the party on this series, but Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels are fantastic, and worth checking out even if you don’t normally read SF. Highly, highly, highly recommended.