Since I’m at Boskone, talking and listening to people talking about science fiction and fantasy literature, it seems appropriate to do a quickie post listing notworthy genre stuff I’ve read recently. There isn’t that much of it, as I’ve been doing a lot of non-fiction reading, and also slightly preoccupied with book promotion. Still, I’ve been reading a few things while putting SteelyKid to bed, and might as well comment on them here:
The Alchemist’s Apprentice, The Alchemist’s Pursuit, and The Alchemist’s Code by Dave Duncan. Duncan occupies a literary position similar to that of the late Donald E. Westlake. His books are never going to be hailed as Great Literature, but there’s a certain level of craftsmanship to them that means they almost never disappoint. These are basically historical mysteries set in Venice in the late 1500’s, featuring and narrated by Alfeo Zeno, a poor nobleman apprenticed to Maestro Nostradamus (cousin of the famous Nostradamus), who is frail and brilliant and the Nero Wolfe to Zeno’s Archie Goodwin. There’s barely any fantastic element– the occasional scrap of prophecy, and that’s about it– but Duncan’s Venice is as richly detailed as any fantasy world, and Zeno’s narrative voice is charming. I hope he writes more of these.
Ariel by Steven Boyett This is twenty-mumble years old, but recently reissued (in support of a new sequel), and I had never read it before. It’s a post-apocalyptic animal companion novel, where the apocalypse is the collapse of all modern technology and its replacement by magic, and the animal companion is a unicorn. This includes a sequence that rather firmly dates the book, and also a little of that “My hobbies, let me explain them to you at length” thing that you find in a lot of SF. It gets away with the occasional lecture on the strength of the narrative voice, which is good, because the apocalypse described doesn’t make a lick of sense. The ending is a little abrupt, but the path to it is good fun.
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Westerfeld’s YA steampunk WWI novel featuring German walking machines vs. English bioengineering is an example of a best-selling author using his powers for good. The book is fairly standard YA stuff, plot-wise, but it’s beautifully produced, with high-quality paper, interior illustrations, and an awesome map showing the combatant nations as symbolic animals. Westerfeld apparently commissioned the art himself, because he wanted to re-create the feel of an older sort of kids’ book, and the result is really cool.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman The first of the books I’m reading off the Locus recommended reading list because I think I ought to consider them for the Hugo nomination. This got bumped up a bit because I’m signing books this afternoon at a table next to Grossman, and I wanted to be sure I have something to talk about, but it’s really a book aimed straight at me. As an academic at a liberal arts school, I’m a sucker for the idea of the college novel, but as a former beer-swilling rugby player, I find a lot of the fantasy college novels that get written to be insufferably twee. This story of an aimless young overachiever who ends up attending a secret magical college somewhere in the neighborhood of Vassar does a great job of splitting that difference: the students drink a lot, have a realistically tangled set of relationships, and most importantly, they’re actually aware of modern culture– they crack a few Harry Potter jokes, and are heavily influenced by a set of crossover fantasy novels. There are a few false notes– the protagonist is a shoo-in for the clueless naif hall of fame, and things go a little wobbly in the last third– but Grossman’s writing style is perfectly suited to my tastes as well, and carried me past them well enough. This is definitely not for everyone– Kate would loathe it– but I enjoyed it quite a bit.
And that’s where I stand in terms of genre reading in the last few weeks. I’m also halfway through the newest Steven Erikson doorstop, but wouldn’t even attempt to summarize the plot of that. Next up is Adam Roberts’s Yellow Blue Tibia, because while he was kind of an ass about last year’s Hugo ballot, the premise sounds like exactly my sort of thing.