You are here: Kaedrin > Weblog
Sunday, June 29, 2014
Hugo Awards: Spellbound
Spellbound is the second book in Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles. The third books, Warbound, is nominated for this year's Hugo ballot, so being the completist that I am, I figured I should read these first two books. I enjoyed the first book, Hard Magic, enough that I'm not finding this to be a chore, though I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have been inspired to proceed through these sequels if it weren't for the third one being nominated this year.
After an introduction set at the close of WWI, this book picks up where Hard Magic left off, with the Japanese Imperium having suffered a defeat at the hands of newfound Grimnoir knight Sally Faye Vierra, with assists from Jake Sullivan, and a diverse crew of magical "actives." The American government, led by FDR, is trying to align around how to handle actives, possibly leading to registration and reeducation camps and other such dystopian nightmares (which, as established in the previous book, is how the Soviets and Japanese Imperium are handling the Actives). A sudden uptick in terrorist attacks seems to be driving this strategy, and the Grimnoir are being set up. Even more troubling is that Okubo Tokugawa - the fearsome chairman of the Imperium who was thought dead after the Grimnoir victory at the end of Hard Magic - appears to be alive and well. Oh, and the alien being that everyone derives their magical powers from? It has an Enemy, and the Enemy's scout, called the Pathfinder, is on its way.
So there's a lot going on in this book, and it very much reads as a sorta middle part of a trilogy to me. Hard Magic set up the world and the magic system, but basically told a self-contained story. This book introduces several elements that are unresolved at the end of the book, though it doesn't quite end on a cliffhanger either. Again, this seems to be a common thread amongst trilogies, so who knows where it's going from here. In that way, the plot is a bit more flabby than it was in Hard Magic (which wasn't exactly tight either), but I'm also reasonably confident that Correia will manage to tie things together in the third book.
As I mentioned in my review of Hard Magic, one of the challenges that any book with magic faces is this sort of escalation of power that is needed to continually up the stakes in the story. This worked well enough in Hard Magic, but it did get a bit excessive towards the end of that book. As such, I was a little worried that this book would just keep escalating, but Correia has shown an admirable restraint. What's more, he even manages to explain how and why the escalation of power happened in the first book, and he does so in a way that is natural and satisfying. It's clear that Correia had thought all this through and let that guide the first book without actually explicitly laying out why, for example, Faye has seemingly endless reserves of power. Indeed, after her heroics at the end of Hard Magic, she spends a good portion of this book significantly weaker in power.
I didn't spend any time going over details of the magical system in the previous review, but it's worth discussion a bit here because it does naturally lend itself to the story. Each Active has the ability to pull magical power from an alien being, but they are generally limited to a single ability. So Jake Sullivan has the power to manipulate gravity (increasing, decreasing, or shifting the direction of gravity) and he's referred to as a "Heavy." Faye is a Traveler, and she has the ability to teleport herself and others (she also has the ability to map out the world in her head, so she can avoid teleporting into other objects, etc...) There are Healers, Cogs (who have supernatural intelligence), Brutes (guess!), Voices (they can do Jedi mind trick manipulations), and so on. The Power seems to be in another plane of existence, and its comprised of all sorts of fancy geometric shapes. If you can see the Power, as some folks can (like Sullivan or Chairman Tokugawa), you can copy some of those geometric shapes and leverage the magic those areas represent. These shapes are kinda like spells, and if you carve them onto yourself, you can gain new powers (for example, many have Healing spells on their body). Of course, it's a painful process and one person can only take so many spells...
So this is all well thought out and reasonably well balanced. There are still some situations where the magical powers escalate, but Correia is pretty good at keeping it all grounded and reasonably well balanced. There are powerful villains, and you will fear for our protagonists, but Correia is able to come up with solutions that are reasonably satisfying.
The expansion of story threads has also lead to an expansion of characters. We still have our core Grimnoir Knights from the first book, lead by Sullivan and Faye, but we also get another cell of Grimnoir, some more of the Grimnoir elders, a whole group of villains at the OCI (a government organization that is being set up to take control of U.S. actives), a woman named Hammer (sorta freelance), and even an Iron Guard from the Imperium. For the most part, I was very happy to return to the characters from the first book, and that's usually a good sign. The structure of the magical powers sorta lends itself to a large ensemble, kinda like the X-Men, so it's good to know and like many of these characters.
Ultimately, this was a fine sequel, even if it felt like it was setting up a lot of things that wouldn't be resolved in this book. Correia can spin a good yarn, but I'm find it to be a little too loose. This is probably a matter of preference, and I'm sure there are many who love these characters so much that they want to spend as much time as possible hanging out with them, but I find that these books don't necessarily need to be as long as they are. So what we have here is a well executed sequel, and I am looking forward to seeing how some of these threads are resolved in Warbound, which I am starting this week. Given what I've read so far, I can't really see Warbound taking one of my top two votes, but it's got a pretty darn good chance at snagging that #3 slot in my Best Novel ballot.
In other news, I've knocked down 3 out of 5 Novellas and am hoping to finish that category off this week. After that, I've got to finish Warbound, and then I'm done with the fiction categories. I'm looking at a few of the other categories (Dramatic Presentation, Fan Writer, Zines, etc...) though there are definitely a few categories I don't think I'll be voting on (how does one vote for the "Editor" categories?) So yeah, I hope you're enjoying these Hugo posts, because we've got several more to go!
(Oh, I almost forgot: Obligatory note of all the controversy surrounding the nomination of Correia's book. I've already (briefly) discussed it elsewhere, but for now I'm concentrated on actually reading the books and stuff. I may get around to doing something in more detail about it, but then, I may not, because who cares about that sorta Inside Baseball crap when I could be reading about how Faye is going to kick the crap out of this Enemy Pathfinder thing we keep hearing about?)
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Hugo Awards: The No Award Conundrum
Since I know you're all curious about the voting system for the Hugo Awards, I thought I'd spend some time babbling about it, just for your edification. Believe it or not, voting systems have a lot of interesting pitfalls, not the least of which is that there isn't a particularly great solution to discerning the preference of a large community of individuals. Every system has its flaws, even something as simple as Plurality voting (i.e. the choice with the most votes wins).
Fortunately for you, I'm not going to babble on about this too much (and you don't want to get me started on the Electoral College, our misunderstood friend), I'll just note that the Hugo Awards uses an Instant Runoff System. In other words, I don't just vote for my favorite novel, I rank all the nominated novels in order of my personal preference. When it comes time to vote, unless there is a clear majority favorite, most winners can't win based solely on the voters who ranked the winner #1. There is an additional wrinkle in that there is an option available in every category called "No Award", which means that you think that no one should be awarded for that category (or that the category should be abolished). There are some finer points to the voting process, and this has already been discussed to death in other venues so I won't belabor the point.
Add in a particularly controversial ballot this year, and I think the voting process is going to play a particularly big role, especially when it comes to the Best Novel ballot. When the awards were announced this year and the entire The Wheel of Time series was nominated for Best Novel, there were a number of people who seemed to think that it was a shoe in to win the award. Given the Hugo Award's populist nature and just how popular The Wheel of Time series is (despite it's length, it's got more readers by at least an order of magnitude), that's probably a fair supposition... except that I think Instant Runoff Voting will squash any hopes that it will win.
While I assume the dedicated fans of the series would vote for it in the #1 position, I suspect few will rank it at #2 or below... and many have already expressed the notion of voting for it below No Award (or, as the link above notes, not include it on the ballot at all). Some will do this because they actually hate the books, but many will be doing this as a sorta protest of the obscure rule that allows multiple books to be nominated as one.
Personally, while I recognize the need for the No Award option (and the ability to leave options off the ballot), I'm also hesitant to deploy it except in extreme circumstances. The No Award option makes me a little uncomfortable. I mean, I am voting, so I'm obviously considering my opinion to be worthwhile, but on the other hand, the No Award option feels sorta petty, except in extreme circumstances. I'm even a little on the fence about the Wheel of Time situation, though I think I'm leaning towards ranking No Award above it because it is ridiculous to nominate a 14 book, 11,000 page, 4.4 million word work for a best novel award. The only other situation I'd consider deploying No Award is when a nominee is not at all Science Fiction or Fantasy. Given the fuzzy nature of genres, it would also have to be an extreme case, but in this year's Novella category, we have a great example: I'm sorry Wakula Springs, but there is nothing even remotely science fiction or fantasy about this story (except insofar as all fiction is a fantasy, I guess). We could quibble about a couple lines in the story, but this is ultimately historical fiction or maybe literary fiction. It's a fine story, but I have no idea what it's doing on the Hugo ballot, except that it was published by Tor (a genre imprint).
So there you have it. I'm still pondering, and obviously I'm not done reading all the stuff, so maybe I'll turn around on the No Award option in some other categories. I'll be sure to post my final ballot once I submit it (probably towards the end of July, which is when the deadline is...)
Sunday, June 22, 2014
Hugo Awards: Novelettes
As far as I can tell, Science Fiction is the only genre that continues to use Novelettes as a category. For the uninitiated, the Hugo Awards defines a Short Story as less than 7,500 words. A Novelette is between 7,500 words and 17,500 words. A novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words, and a novel is more than 40,000 words. Everyone else says there are short stories and Novels, with the Novella being anything inbetween (and many awards only feature short fiction and novels, with no space for novellas). Science Fiction, on the other hand, clings to the Novelette. Legend has it that this is a legacy of SF's pulpy magazine roots, where different sized works had different pay scales, which I guess makes sense, but it's otherwise a pretty pointless distinction. That being said, I was much more happy with this year's slate of Novelettes than I was with the Short Stories... There were 5 nominees, and it only took a couple hours to read all of them (on average, somewhere between 30-60 minutes per story), and if you're looking for some quality short fiction, this is a decent place to start. My rankings for the Hugo Voting.
I just finished the second Grimnoir book and am starting on the third (i.e. the actual nominee) this week. I've also started the Novella slate, and should be finishing that off soon enough. If I have time, I will try to tackle the second Wheel of Time book as well. The voting deadline for the Hugos is the end of July, so you will only have to deal with these Hugo posts for about another month or so...
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
I have actually been listening to less Podcasts of late, though that's really just because I've finally taken the plunge into the rough and tumble world of Audiobooks, most of which are roughly the length of, like 10-20 regular podcasts or something. That being said, I still listen to a fair amount of podcasts. Some of the second string podcasts are getting sidelined to make room, but that's ultimately not a bad thing. Anywho, here are four podcasts I've glommed onto recently and have been enjoying.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Hugo Awards: Short Stories
I have never been a huge fan of short stories. I think the biggest part of that is that I tend to read them in collections of short fiction, which tend to be, by their very nature, uneven. Like anthology films, it's hard for me to take in a bunch of short stories at once, and I usually find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. There are some exceptions, I guess. I've always been a fan of I, Robot, but those stories have a consistent style and throughline that is usually missing in short fiction. I have a fondness for Clive Barker's Books of Blood series of horrific short stories and they are some of the most imaginative writing around, but even those tend to be very uneven (and I suspect many would more readily be classified as a Novelette or Novella). Of course most short fiction is published in magazines (or websites these days) first, and are never meant to be collected together, but I still tend to struggle with them.
I have read occasional short stories here and there on the interwebs, but I've rarely strayed from known authors... which is odd, because you'd think that short stories would be a good way to experiment and try new things without making too much of a commitment to any one story. And while I've struggled with short stories in the past, I've also been getting a little tired of stories that are much longer than they need to be, so maybe it's time for a sea change. So it's a good thing there are a bunch of short fiction categories in the Hugo awards, eh? Well, if the Short Story slate is any indication... I'm not going to get back into short stories after all. This is not a statement of quality, just of my personal taste - these are all well written stories, they're just depressing as all get out, none seem to have much of a plot, and none of them really scratch my speculative fiction itch (indeed, most of them would probably fit more under Fantasy than SF, but even amongst Fantasy, these are a challenging bunch). That being said, I read them all, and will rank them as best I can. There are only 4 nominees (the Hugo rules say that a work cannot be nominated unless it has at least 5% of the votes, and the short story ballot tends to be the most contentious - last year there were only 3 nominees!) and they are all available for free online, but like I said, these weren't really my cup of tea.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
You know the drill, yet more links uncovered by my chain-smoking monkey research squad. Enjoy:
Sunday, June 08, 2014
Hugo Awards: Hard Magic
One of the challenges of an award like the Hugo is how to handle sequels. One of the nominees this year is Warbound, by Larry Correia... but it's the third in a series of books. Do I need to read the first two books in the series in order to give the third a fair shake, or are all bets off when an individual entry gets nominated? Being something of a completist when it comes to questions like this, I decided to start from the beginning. As luck would have it, Hard Magic (the first book in the series) is a fine book, and I've already begun the second book too. It does seem like these books are relatively self-contained though, which is good (I'm still glad I started from the beginning, but I'm guessing you wouldn't have to...)
This series, called the Grimnoir Chronicles, takes place in an alternate history version of the 1930s. It's a universe where magic started appearing in the mid-nineteenth century, and has slowly but surely become more common. Many differing attitudes about "actives" (folks with magical power) exist, from the Japanese Imperium (who kidnap active children and train them in scary "schools") to the German war machine (who leveraged an active to raise zombie armies) to the Americans, who seem to sway back and forth in their democratic ways (this seems to be something that will be tackled in later books, but is introduced here). Jake Sullivan is an active, a war hero and ex-con working for the government. He quickly runs afoul of a secret society called the Grimnoir, actives who seek to ensure that magical powers are used only for good (or something like that), and a plot by the Imperium to assemble a super-science doomsday weapon. Will Sullivan and his plucky allies fend off the dreaded Imperium?
This books is attempting an interesting balancing act, mashing up many different sub-genres, including urban fantasy, pulpy noir, gritty action, and even a bit of steampunk for flair (really just a bunch of dirigibles, but hey, that's steampunky, right?) For the most part, Correia makes this mixture work, which is impressive - this combination of elements was far from a sure thing, but he manages. The only thing I was hoping for that I didn't get much of is some fantastic noir turns of phrase, but then, it's hard to hold something like this up to the standards set by folks like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler (but then, the setting does sorta beg the comparison).
One of the things I find frustrating with fantasy stories is the way magic is handled. All too often, the magic is described in such vague ways and with few limits, leading to an escalation of powers that can get tedious and strain credibility. Correia manages to design a system with some limits and logical extensions, and he does treat the subject consistently, but there is still that escalation of magical powers that gets difficult to swallow. It never gets too ridiculous, and the limitations of the system are clear and well balanced, but it's still magic, so it can also, at times, get to be a bit much. I do wonder how well Correia will be able to swing this in future books, though I guess I'll find out soon enough.
The characters are, for the most part, a compelling bunch. Sullivan makes for a good hero, a huge physical presence who is nevertheless deceptively clever, we discover much about the magical system through his eyes. His gang of allies also has some bright spots, in particular Faye, a young teleporter who has seemingly endless reserves of magical power and a fast thinking mind. This being alternate history, we're also treated to some historical figures like General John "Black Jack" Pershing and John Browning (this works, but I'll also say that Neal Stephenson did it better in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle). As villains go, the Chairman of the Imperium is imposing and while his powers are seemingly infinite (there's that escalation of magical power I was talking about), Correia comes up with a believable way to "defeat" him (spoiler, I guess!) Sullivan's brother Madi is also a formidable foe (and again, we get some escalation of powers to make him so).
What you end up with is a well executed mashup that is a very fun read. Correia can spin a good yarn, and while I will say that this isn't something I'd have sought out on my own, I'm glad I read it and will have no problem getting through the next two books. I found this one a tad on the long side, but again, I had no major problems getting through it, and it was a lot of fun. Since this isn't actually one of the nominees this year, I shouldn't really be ranking it, but it feels like something that would come in towards the middle of the pack. Assuming there's not a drastic uptick in quality or something in the nominated work, I can't see it unseating my top two votes (which remain Ancillary Justice or Neptune's Brood). Again, this is blatant speculation, but I could see Warbound coming in third (ahead of Parasite and The Wheel of Time). I'm currently reading Spellbound (the second book in this series) and have started reading the other fiction categories (look for a recap of the short story ballot next week).
(Incidentally, I've left out all the controversy surrounding the nomination of Correia's book. I've already discussed it elsewhere, and will probably bring it up again at some point, but for now, I'm concentrated on actually reading the books...)
Wednesday, June 04, 2014
It's that time again, and yes, I guess it's been that time a lot lately, but links are fun, so enjoy them why don't you:
Thoughts and ramblings on culture, movies, technology and more; updated every Sunday and Wednesday.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
And Now the Screaming Starts
Back of the Cereal Box
Movable Type 5.12
Copyright © 1999 - 2012 by Mark Ciocco.