What I Read on My Summer Vacation

Three weeks in Europe means a lot of time on planes and trains, so I actually got to read some fiction for a change. I’m stuck in a meeting all day today, and need a morale boost on the way in, so I’ll go back to my book-blogging roots and type up the books that I read:

— Lev Grossman, The Magician’s Land. Conclusion of the trilogy begun with The Magicians back in the day, and while it’s a better book than the first one, if you didn’t like the first book, you probably won’t like this. Mostly because of the characters, who are very much a like-them-or-hate-them crew.

Personally, I think it’s brilliant. The Magicians was the rare magical-college novel where I recognized the characters as similar to the people I hung out with in college. Most of the time, the characters in magical-college stories remind me of people I found irritating, if they seem like human beings at all. The characters in the Magicians weren’t exactly likeable people, but they fit with my experience of college in a way that, say, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin doesn’t, and as a result, I really enjoyed the whole series.

— Paul Cornell, The Severed Streets. I debated whether to include this at all, because I gave up on it about a third of the way through. This is the sequel to the creepy urban-fantasy police procedural London Falling, which I liked quite a bit (though it ought to come with a warning sticker for new parents). It did a great job with the issues of normal people trying to figure out magic in a modern world, and also the way magic would need to function for it to actually exist.

The sequel, though… The opening chapters do a really clumsy “Previously, on Shadow Police…” sort of thing, recapping previous events for new readers in a thuddingly obvious way. Then there’s a Real Person Cameo, a self-indulgent flourish that never fails to bug me, and then there’s a dramatic plot moment whose eventual resolution is so crashingly obvious that the rest of the book was going to be spent rolling my eyes at the characters not seeing what they needed to do. At which point, I decided the best thing to do was to read something else instead.

— Tobias Buckell, Hurricane Fever. Sequel to Arctic Rising (which I enjoyed when it came out), in a world reshaped by global warming. This one is set in the Caribbean, largely on boats, and follows what happens when retired Caribbean spy Prudence “Roo” Jones gets a message from a former colleague who’s just been killed. It’s fast-paced spy-novel action, with some good solid SF development of a very plausible future world. The villain is maybe a hair too mustache-twirlingly evil, but the SF props and action setpieces are so much fun that Buckell gets away with it.

— Daniel Abraham, The Widow’s House. Fourth in the Dagger and Coin series, and these keep getting better. It’s an epic fantasy with characters who are hopelessly out of their depth and improvising madly, you know, like people do. The evil tyrant is there mostly by accident, and his actions are horribly comprehensible (not justifiable, but you can see how he ended up where he is); his chief opponent is a young banker who’s stumbling toward modern economics, and a widow trying to run a resistance movement around stifling social constraints. The closest to a stock character is the grizzled mercenary soldier, but he serves as a nice grounding point for the expanding and deepening understanding of the real menace they’re fighting. This is excellent stuff, highly recommended.

— Ian C. Esslemont, Assail. Umpteenth book in the setting introduced in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, picking up a whole bunch of loose ends from earlier books. Highly enjoyable if you’re a fan of the series, highly incomprehensible if you’re not. Esslemont isn’t quite as good as Erikson in some difficult-to-pin-down way, but if you like massive epic fantasy, this might be the best game in town.

— John Scalzi, Lock In. Hey, did you know that Scalzi has a new book out? Somehow, it slipped under my radar…

It might seem like a big shift to go from Esslemont’s epic fantasy of epicness to Scalzi’s near-future SF thriller, but in both books a lot of the pleasure comes from the snappy banter, so it’s not as big a gear change as you might think. This is a different setting than his other work, but very much a Scalzi book.

If you insist on a reference point involving another author, the obvious place to go is a book I haven’t actually finished, Mira Grant’s Parasite, which was up for a Hugo this year. I read the publisher-provided excerpt of that in the Hugo packet, though, and this is kind of similar– near-future SF with a medical angle, thriller-ish plot involving mysterious things that shouldn’t be able to happen with the magic new medical technology. I’m sure John won’t mind being compared to a Hugo nominee, but the comparison is both god and bad– like the bit of Parasite that I read, I don’t think the world of Lock In is really different enough from the present, given the massive changes wrought by the disease that forms the core of the backstory, on top of the fifteen years of further technological development. Lock In is probably a little better in this regard, but I might just be saying that because I like the narrative voice a lot more than I liked that of Parasite.

It’s a snappy, fast-paced thriller novel, with chases and explosions and a whole lot of snappy banter. I read the entire thing on the flight back from London (after finishing Assail during the taxi-and-takeoff phase of things), and that’s pretty much a perfect match for it. It’s not without flaws– there are places where it’s a little too obviously Talking About Serious Issues– but on the whole, a fun read. If you’re only going to read one near-future SF thriller this year, read Toby’s book, because he’s not getting a tenth the hype, and its setting is better worked out. But if you’re going to read two near-future SF thrillers, follow Hurricane Fever with Lock In.

— Charles Stross, The Rhesus Chart. Fifth book in the Laundry setting, not counting a smattering of novellas and short stories (including this year’s Hugo winning splatter-fest “Equoid”). This was much more of what I want from the Laundry books than the last couple, which were pretty grim. Right up until the last chapter, anyway; the final twist felt kind of forced. Again, these are not to all tastes; if you like the earlier books, you’ll probably like this just fine. If you didn’t, well, you’ve presumably moved on to other things more to your liking. Right?

And that’s what I read on my big European adventure. I’m currently a chapter or two into Greg van Eekhout’s California Bones, but being back in the whirl of kids and classes is going to wipe out most of my reading time, so progress on that will likely be slow.

So, what are you reading these days?

Comments

  1. #1 Double Shelix
    Schenectady
    September 4, 2014

    Oooh, Scalzi AND Stross. I’ll get right on those. And you’re not the first person to recommend Tobias Buckell, so that just made it’s way to the top of my list.

    I find lately there to be a dearth of good, hard sci fi of the Alistair Reynolds/Peter F Hamilton genre. I don’t mind fantasy, like the Malazon series, for a bit of a break. But i am jonesing for a good, long, multi thousand page epic like the Night’s Dawn Trilogy again.

  2. #2 JayC3
    Atlanta, Georgia
    September 4, 2014

    Currently reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Although you would probably say, “Everybody knows that,” I never realized how much unsettled the science was in the early 20th centrury and the real engineering problems involved. Just finished Andrew Weir’s The Martian. Fast read and again the engineering problems in this fiction book were presented realistically.

  3. #3 OAB
    September 4, 2014

    Double Shelix: If you have not tried it I would think S. A. Corey’s Expanse series would be just the thing.

    And let me second the recommendation for The Dagger and the Coin, very good.

  4. #4 Wilson
    September 5, 2014

    For people who want to know more about California Bones, the fantasy fiction podcast PodCastle recently did a spotlight on it.

  5. #5 John Rieffel
    Union College
    September 6, 2014

    I was on quite a reading bender this summer too, and not all sci fi!

    – Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members – a biting and hilarious sendup of academic life in a small midwestern english lit department. Great pre-tenure reading.

    – James Corey, Cibola Burn — book uh, four? of the series? Fun enough, but not as dark or nail-biting as the first two.

    – David Shafer, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — when the Times Book Review mentioned both Don Delillo and Neil Stephenson I was sold. Lived up to the hype, but ends a tad too abruptly.

    – Dan Barber, The Third Plate – made me hungry, grumpy, and inspired about food all at the same time.

    – Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice — still warming up to it, but it won a Hugo!

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