SF Book Review, Part 19

As we near the Hugo nomination deadline, I have been surprisinly lax in my reading. That being said, I have made pretty good progress in terms of reading books I thought might be worthwhile, even if I won’t end up nominating most of them. I’m going to make a last minute push for a couple books and/or stories though, so we’ll see (nomination deadline is March 10). Here’s some stuff I’ve read recently:

  • The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold – The third book in Bujold’s Chalion series, this one seems almost completely disconnected from the previous two entries. As such, it takes a bit to get going, and unfortunately it never quite reaches the heights of Bujold’s other work. Still, there are some fine sequences and decent ideas explored here. The book opens with Lady Ijada defending herself against a half-mad prince. Lord Ingrey is dispatched to investigate and transport the body to its final resting place. He is also tasked with escorting the accused killer to judgement. With the price dead and the King on his deathbed, the Crown is in play, and their journey is beset on all sides by intrigue and danger. The book perhaps bides too much time on this journey. The series has been pretty talky so far, but nothing compared to this book, which is extremely dialogue heavy and filled with esoteric lore that was only hinted at in previous entries. It’s certainly not a bad novel or anything like that, but it was a little disappointing when compared to Bojold’s other work…
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – The first in a trilogy, this covers an expedition to the myserious Area X. Cut off from the rest of the continent by unknown means, no one knows what the deal is with Area X. Numerous expeditions have been dispatched to explore the area. Some were uneventful, some resulted in mass suicide, some ended in violence, and some of the expeditions just disappeared. This book contains the 12th expedition as it makes its way through Area X. Things almost immediately start to deteriorate. The general tenor of this book makes it feel a lot like Lost – a mysterious and isolated locale, previous visitors with unknown motivations, strange artifacts, and so on. Like Lost, I’m not entirely sure how much of this will work out in the end, but I’m comforted by the fact that the author completed all three volumes and published them in short order, which makes me think he may actually have a plan. The story is told in first person, as if we’re reading one of the expedition member’s journals, and VanderMeer has a very ornate style. This is a short book, but it’s dense and introspective. Which is not to say that it isn’t exciting or compelling. The central mysteries are well drawn and intriguing, and there are some revelations later in the book that are eye opening. This will almost certainly be nominated for a Hugo (It’s already garnered a Nebula nom), though I’m a little more mixed on it. Definitely one of the better novels I’ve read from 2014 though, and I do plan on reading the next volume in the series (which I think says a lot).
  • Undercity by Catherine Asaro – Set in Asaro’s well-established Skolian Empire universe, this is the start of a new series of books covering Major Bhaajan, formerly military, now a P.I. The initial segment of this book is fantastic. Bhaajan is hired by royalty to locate a missing prince, and Bhaajan has to return to her former home in the Undercity (a series of caves and slums under the Empire’s capital city) to investigate. This section moves surprisingly quick, then the story transitions to a slower pace, dealing more with the politics and sociology of the Undercity. It almost makes me wonder if the first section was published separately (Update: apparently, it was!) The middle act, dealing with maneuverings of drug cartels in the Undercity, is a bit too slow and repetitive, but things come together well enough in the final act, as the cartels plan to go to war and other revelations about the population of the Undercity come to pass. I enjoyed this and am curious to check out more of Asaro’s work, though I don’t know how likely I am to read the next Bhaajan book (which, again, says something I guess). Not something I plan on nominating, but I’m glad I read it…
  • Riding the Red Horse – I took a flier on this collection of short stories and essays mostly because it features Eric Raymond’s first published fiction. I did not realize at the time that one of the editors was the dreaded Vox Day, but his commentary before each story (he shares this duty with Tom Kratman) gives him away (and generally, this commentary was unnecessary and needlessly dismissive of other perspectives). That being said, folks familiar with military history will recognize some of the names, like Bill Lind or Jim Dunnigan, who mostly provide the non-fiction portions of the book. Some of these could be eye opening, but only if you’ve never heard of Lind’s conception of 4th Generation warfare, etc… Some highlights from the book:
    • Sucker Punch by Eric S. Raymond – This was the reason I bought the book, and it comports itself well. I don’t think it will be making my ballot, but it is a short, interesting, and fun little military story about naval warfare (and how certain weapons might change the game). Worth reading!
    • The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF by Ken Burnside – Those familiar with the Atomic Rockets website will be right at home with this essay. The pragmatic considerations of space travel, in particular the problems posed by Thermodynamics, are applied to typical military SF tropes, and the results aren’t pretty. The unimaginative would probably find this to be a killjoy, but the notion of working within our understanding of science when writing SF is one of the things that makes SF so great. This is one of the Sad Puppy nominees (under Best Related Work), and for once, I agree with them.
    • The General’s Guard by Brad R. Torgersen – Interesting story of a General who attempts to unite various factions of his empire by forcing them to work together. From each tribe, he selects the strongest… and weakest member. It seems reminiscent of the other Torgersen stories that I’ve read; he seems every concerns with finding ways to interact productively with people from different backgrounds (whether they be aliens and humans, folks from different tribes, or two people with vastly different skillsets).
    • Turncoat by Steve Rzasa – This tale of an AI that inhabits a ship might be my favorite story in the collection, and the idea gets explored well enough despite the large amount of previous material with similar subject matter (i.e. The Ship Who Sang, Ancillary Justice, etc…) and it hints at some troubling things about potentially “uploaded” humans that might be weird in the longrun. Will probably make my ballot, though I’m not sure if this is a short story or a novelette…

    If you’re a fan of military fiction (and non-fiction), you’ll probably enjoy this collection. There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t enjoy, and a lot of them were decent. I even enjoyed Vox Day’s story (not award worthy, but definitely a sight better than that thing that was nominated last year).

And there you have it. I’m going to try and read some more short stories, novelettes, and maybe a novella or two before the Hugo nominations deadline. I will post my final ballot sometime next week…

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