Having not written anything for nearly 3 months now, it seems about time to give another overview of books I've read recently. Fortunately, that number isn't too formidable, as during October and November I basically read no books other than those that were necessary (the demands of university), so it's mainly those I've read within the last couple of weeks.
A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham:
An interesting premise and it comes with very high praise from GRRM himself, who compares Abraham to Vance, Harrison and Wolfe. Safe to say this is exaggerated, but it is still undoubtedly one of the better examples of epic fantasy out there. The main idea is in the form of the magic system - the andat, a concept in corporeal form, transcribed by "poets" who control them, have the power of gods. Of course, to become one there is an arduous training programme, etc, etc. But surprisingly, we don't simpy follow someone through a predictable life as they emerge as a poet fighting for noble causes, never making mistakes. Instead, our protagonist, offered a great opportunity, leaves the school to become an anonymous labourer. The culture of the Saraykeht (and the wider world, at least what we see of it) is refreshingly different from that of most other epic fantasies, drawing influence from the east. And the main story is not about saving the world, it is not a tale of good vs evil, it is not about the triumph of righteousness. It is instead the story of the lives of a few ordinary people, who end entangled in far more complex intrigues than they ever intended to be involved in. True, Abraham never approaches the depth of political intrigue or weaves the story with such skill as a pinnacle such as GRRM does, but it is there, and a credit to the novel. His attempts to address ethical questions are perhaps less successful, taking a heavy handed approach on the issue of abortion, but it is better to see the issue raised, even if imperfectly, rather than to have yet another vacant epic fantasy. It isn't perfect, but for a debut it is excellent. It isn't another Lies of Locke Lamora, and it is a shame that it was released in the same year, because it will almost certainly be overshadowed. 8 out of 10.
Prodigy by Dave Kalstein: A very impressive novel. One that I'm surprised I've heard so little about. A SF story set 30 years in the future in a spectacular school for the brilliant doesn't sound like a hugely enticing premise. But one remarkable aspect of the novel that makes this so worthwhile is the atmosphere of it and the author's sheer cynicism - on a level with Kafka and Heller. And it is entirely believable. There are some aspects which he emphasises too much, some implausibilities - but that is only to be expected. The main characters really shine through in this - the brilliantly intelligent, hard working Valedictorian, Goldsmith, the popular, failing, drug dealing Cooley, the cold, emotionless Camilla, the naive, kind headmaster and the Machiavellian President Lang. It is filled with twists with characters you had supported unreservedly throughout suddenly turning traitor. The school is slowly revealed to you, as if you are a visitor, walking through its front doors into the technological marvel, blinded by its great visible attributes, until slowly the mirage is torn away, revealing the darkness of its foundations. This plot itself is not a brilliant, complex, intricate story, the setting is not startlingly original, the
book's insights are not truly remarkable or particularly subtle, but these are mere details. It is both a hugely entertaining SF thriller and a morality tale, based on one key question: What is an acceptable price for progress?
8.5 out of 10.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
A brilliant short story collection. I'm still pretty new to reading short stories, but Borges is the best short story writer I know of - even surpassing Kafka. The stories in Labyrinths are always intelligent, philosophical and most of all entertaining. They generally take on a surreal tone, but it is difficult to generalise about such varied tales. Most take a theme, idea or metaphor and extend and exaggerate it to its limits. For example, the idea that a writer writes what they know, based upon their experiences. So in Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
, Menard manages to rewrite the Quixote word for word without ever copying, purely by going through similar experiences. Yet his Quixote is immeasurably superior to Cervantes' original, as Borges so eloquently explains to you. Other stories range from the cryptic library of Babel, filled with books of seemingly meaningless gibberish, to the radical premise of society based on a lottery in the Lottery of Babylon. In short, if you want to read short stories, read Borges. Not one of the stories was weak, and several were absolutely brilliant. 9 out of 10.
Feeling Very Strange edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
This is probably one of those short story collections released this year that you've never heard of, never seen on the shelves in even the largest bookshops, never seen an advert for, and in short, isn't likely to become a bestseller. But it is still remarkable, with stories by some of the most talented writers in speculative fiction, including Jeff Vandermeer, Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Michael Chabon, Ted Chiang, Kelly Link and Bruce Sterling. There was not a single weak story in the collection, and some were absolutely brilliant. And it does its job admirably - it makes you feel very strange, and in the process, you begin slowly to understand what slipstream is, with a debate on the subgenre interspersed between the stories, ending on the humourous note of rebranding the genre as "infernokrusher" fiction. To conclude, now that you know this exists, go and read it! 9 out of 10.