Monday’s Link Assemblage

Links, get it?

Avast, here are some things I found on the internet that you might not have seen yet. Enjoy, link to me, tweet about it–whatever floats your boat.

Jay Lake – The larval stages of the common American speculative fiction author

Writer larvae of the world, unite! As a somewhat proud member of, oh, stage three or so of Jay Lake’s humorous catalog, I can say that I don’t really look forward to my inevitable progression. Someday, hopefully, I’ll be  a butterfly. Or at least a moth.

The Wall Street Journal – The Death of the Slush Pile

The lessons here are: 1)query those agents and 2)there are no shortcuts. Slog it out.

Jo Walton – SF Reading Protocols

This is what happened when I tried to get my girlfriend to read Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, only in reverse. I thought her anthropological training and interest in race issues would make it a breeze for her, but she got completely derailed by the cold open (heh) and the early focus on politics.

Just a sidenote to any authors: the sentence, “Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience.” makes a damn fine motto/mantra, just bear in mind that Ms. Walton’s definition of “SF” is “the broad genre of science fiction and fantasy.”

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5 Points Book Review: The Court of the Air

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

From the back of the book:

When Molly Templar witnesses a brutal murder at the brothel she has just been apprenticed to, her first instinct is to return to the poorhouse where she grew up. But there she finds her fellow orphans butchered, and it slowly dawns on her that she was in fact the real target of the attack. For Molly carries a secret deep in her blood, a secret that marks her out for destruction by enemies of the state. Soon Molly will find herself battling a grave threat to civilization which draws on an ancient power thought to have been quelled millennia ago.

Oliver Brooks has led a sheltered life in the home of his merchant uncle. But when he is framed for his only relative’s murder he is forced to flee for his life. He is accompanied by Harry Stave, an agent of the Court of the Air — a shadowy organization independent of the government that acts as the final judiciary of the land, ensuring that order prevails. Chased across the country, Oliver finds himself in the company of thieves, outlaws and spies, and gradually learns more about the secret that has blighted his life, but which may also offer him the power to avert the coming catastrophe. Their enemies are ruthless and myriad, but Molly and Oliver are joined by indomitable friends in this endlessly inventive tale full of drama, intrigue and adventure.

1. One-Sentence Sentence: A socio-political, international-intrigue-laden, faux-victorian, steampunk, manic, magico-techno-sortof-thriller overstuffed with lovecraftian-ripoff gods, too many deposed aristocrats, barely-there secret police, body horror, fairies (in the fay sense), airships, unbelievably (literally) vast conspiracies, the menace of communism (really? in 2007?), artificial intelligence, ancient prophecies, pulp fiction and two convenient orphans, Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air is…complex–confusingly, needlessly, maddeningly complex.

2. Op-Ed: Ok, confession time: I’m a sucker for steampunk. No, actually, that’s probably not good enough. I love a good steampunk story. In fact, if I had the time, money and a cadre of like-minded friends, I would probably be a full on goggles-wearing steampunk cosplayer.

In point of fact, I like any story that manages to avoid the twin gravitational poles of heroic-epic-Tolkien-Jordan-fantasy and magic-in-the-real-world-potter-twilight-urban-fantasy.  Now, there are lots of subgenres and sub-subgenres and intra-genre niches that fit this definition of what appeals to me, but there’s something about steampunk that just appeals to the tinkerer in me.

The tropes that speak to me–the mad scientist, the polymath inventor, the airship captain, the class stratification, the explorer mentality, the labyrinthine cities, the Dickensian underclass–aren’t unique to steampunk by any means but they just seem to work a little better there. I wish I could tell you why clockwork or steam-powered technology intrigues me more than dilithium crystals or whatever, but I honestly don’t know.

(I’m glad that it’s finally out in the open. In 2008, when the Boston Phoenix and the New York Times came out with big “What is this Steampunk craze?” articles (here and here, respectively), I had already been a longtime devotee. If I had to pin down my first exposure/falling-in-love moment, it would probably be sometime around 1995 when in short order I stumbled into The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children and Final Fantasy III. Within a few years, I’d read Paul Di Filippo’s The Steampunk Trilogy, the first of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and well, it was on.)

Long story short, The Court of the Air seems to have been tailored to my tastes, but by the end I was deeply disappointed. In the broad strokes, Hunt’s world is breathtaking. The scope of the story and the scale of the worldbuilding are staggering. But, like pointillism, when you get closer the whole thing dissolves into a meaningless wash of color.

While reading, the book that sprang repeatedly to my mind was China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. This, by itself is definitely not a bad thing. Back in the day, it was Perdido that really opened my eyes to some of the stranger dimensions of fantasy literature. However, when my thoughts kept alternating between “oh, that was done better in Perdido Street Station” and “I wonder where my copy of Perdido Street Station got to?” I knew that the jig was up: fridge logic abounds, and the Oliver storyline hops from cliche to cliche before devolving into a full-on cliche storm after an unexpected (and ridiculous) level in badass.

Yes, I spend way too much time on tvtropes.org. No more links, I promise.

3. Thumbs Up: The Molly Templar storyline generally, and Molly herself, though I could’ve done without the prophecy mumbo-jumbo. As I mentioned up above, the worldbuilding is very well done, specifically in regards to how the various cultures are revealed through the actions and attitudes of characters and not troweled on in paragraphs of description. Additionally, I appreciate that much of the world was left unrevealed, as I assume the countries and cultures not gone into will appear in the sequels.

Among the more intriguing things left unexplored:

  • the bio-magical and gene-tampering Caliphate
  • the Aztec-inspired ancient culture that thrived during the ice age
  • the origins of the Steammen and the deeper workings of their society

The Steammen culture is worth a little extra attention here for being particularly original and well-written. A nation-state and corresponding diaspora of artificial intelligences, they aren’t robots of any sort you’ve seen before and that’s pretty hard to do.

Also, maybe i’m somewhat alone on this one, but I thoroughly enjoyed that nearly everyone Molly met in the first third of the book ended up dead a few pages later. Nothing like bringing senseless mayhem everywhere you go to get a character moving. Plus, Count Vauxtion, though hardly original, made a great unstoppable assassin. I imagined him looking like Malcolm McDowell in “Heroes”.

4. Thumbs Down: The Oliver storyline and Oliver himself. On top of the banality of the cliches I mentioned earlier, the kid is a total cipher with a mysterious past who…blah blah blah, even recapping it is boring. He gets dragged around by a frankly much more interesting character and ends up saving the world, except that Molly actually does all the hard stuff anyway.  And she gets a freakish zombie robot steamman as a sidekick, while Oliver gets…more cliches (a failed knight looking for atonement, a talking weapon so powerful it makes itself sad, a fugitive aristocrat who is also a pirate, and a twisted deformed mutant who is also a nice guy).

And on top of that, around 100 pages from the end, Oliver gets a few more layers of nonsense poured over his storyline thanks to some shoehorned plot about his parents and the pseudo-god-fairy-godmother who may in fact be behind the whole story from the beginning. Except she’s not.  Also, his powers beat everybody else’s powers combined.

Lord, why couldn’t this just be a fun adventure yarn about Molly Templar: scrappy orphan caught up in events beyond her control?

Sorry. Moving on.

Wait, no I’m not. Two storylines, both following orphans inextricably linked to the same country-, generation- and millenia-spanning conflict, and they don’t even meet up until three fourths of the way through? And then, after only a few pages, they separate for the entire rest of the book? Really? Are you serious, Stephen Hunt?

Ok, now I’m moving on. Here is the rest of the stuff i didn’t like, in list form:

  • The Court of the Air, the namesakes of the entire book, are underutilized, underexplained, something of a cliche and completely unnecessary, all at the same time!
  • The various countries and cultures, while all interesting, are somewhat transparent copies of real-world countries and cultures. (Dear fantasy authors, please stop creating fantasy versions of England. There really are enough of them already out there. Thanks.)
  • Communityism in general. As much as the idea of communists voluntarily submitting themselves to be trapped in perfectly equal robot bodies is disturbing, it is also silly. Plus lots more transparent copies of real-world things (communityism = communism, Carl = Marx, Gideon’s Collar = guillotine, ad nauseum).
  • Mcguffins: the super god-fighting machine, the airship fuel, the guns of justice, Oliver’s mystery powers (and Oliver himself, sort of).

Alright, clearly, I could go on. Suffice it to say that very little of this stuff occured to me while I was reading it. The pace is fast, the action good, and Molly at least is an interesting and exciting addition to the ranks of scrappy heroines.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Did I mention the merits of spending an afternoon perusing tvtropes.org?

5. Recommendation: I’m not sure I’ve written enough reviews here for this to be obvious, but the reason I’ve gone on at such length about the flaws in Hunt’s book is because I very much wanted to like it and I felt that there was a great story there (specifically Molly’s story) that got in turn shortchanged and buried by the rest of the narrative.

Read Perdido Street Station, then everything else Mieville has written, then come back and read The Court of the Air.

-3 Stars-

5 Points Review Scale

1 Star: I would never burn a book, but this really tempted me
2 Stars: Read this book only if you have no other books and reading is the only thing that makes the voices go away
3 Stars: Lousy book with redeeming parts or Good book with obvious flaws
4 Stars: Buy it, read it, loan it out, forget who you loaned it to, buy it, read it, loan it out…
5 Stars: This will be on the syllabus in my upcoming seminar: “The Best Books You’ll Ever Read”

Chapter One, Line One

Snoopy typing

One of my favorite authors of 2009, Gail Carriger (Soulless, remember?) has posted a rumination on the opening lines in fantasy/scifi novels. Check it out, won’t you?

(Make sure you scroll on through the comments for more great first lines.)

So, bearing in mind the immortal words of Sam Seaborn (“Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.”) here are some selected opening lines for you, gentle reader.

First, I love these two, from the American Book Review’s 100 Best Opening Lines:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” – Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Travler

And some personal favorites:

“It was a dark and stormy night.” – Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

“The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category.” – Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

“The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green, saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below.” – Dan Simmons, Hyperion

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy.” – Isabel Allende, House of the Spirits

“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

And for sheer quantity of melodrama-flavored awesomesauce, it doesn’t get any better than this:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.” -Stephen King, The Gunslinger

Finally, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to show you the (latest) opening line from my Work-In-Progress:

“Autumn was early to class, something she couldn’t remember ever happening before.”

Do you have a favorite opening line? A least favorite? Comment away!

5 Points Book Review: The Italian Secretary

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

1. One-Sentence Sentence: What if an old Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript had turned up in somebody’s attic or basement and Caleb Carr had decided to submit it as an original “Holmes” story?

2. Op-Ed: While perusing the local used bookstore after seeing the new “Sherlock Holmes” movie, I stumbled across The Italian Secretary, which I had seen described as Sherlockian pastiche. Now that I’ve read it, I prefer to think of it alternately as first-rate fan fiction or a sponsored follow-up similar to Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time books. Much like Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm, Mr. Carr was approached by the estate of a famous author with a long-running, much-beloved series. Unlike Sanderson, however, Carr didn’t have voluminous notes and an already mapped out story to work from.

Unfortunately for the sake of my contextualization, the last time I read authentic ACD-penned Holmes was close to two decades ago. Since then, my recollections, opinions and insights on the famous consulting detective have been heavily colored by parodies, various televisual homages and the most recent movie (which I enjoyed the stuffing out of, by the by).

That being said, Carr does an astonishing job at matching style and characterization to Doyle’s versions of both Holmes and Watson. The plot is pretty much boilerplate, in the Hound of the Baskervilles, Adventure of the Sussex Vampire vein (and so is the movie, come to think of it: viz. seemingly supernatural occurrences debunked by deductive logic. Actually inductive logic, but that’s another blog post), but the execution is deft and surefooted to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Carr actually was handed a notebook with Doyle’s notes and outlines.

3. Thumbs Up: The joy of a new Holmes story–complete with marvelously accurate characters, a moody and atmospheric setting and great attention to historical and canon details.

4. Thumbs Down: The plot itself falls on the pedestrian side for Holmes. Though the mystery is interesting for the reader and for dear Dr. Watson, the detective himself comes across as somewhat bored. Plus, it’s not true Sherlock Holmes–no matter how accurate the copy, it’s still a copy.

5. Recommendation: Read it if: you’ve read the four novels and fifty-six short stories that make up the canon, perused the pastiches, watched the movies and played the videogames.

-3 Stars-

5 Points Review Scale

1 Star: I would never burn a book, but this really tempted me
2 Stars: Read this book only if you have no other books and reading is the only thing that makes the voices go away
3 Stars: Lousy book with redeeming parts or Good book with obvious flaws
4 Stars: Buy it, read it, loan it out, forget who you loaned it to, buy it, read it, loan it out…
5 Stars: This will be on the syllabus in my upcoming seminar: “The Best Books You’ll Ever Read”

Monday’s link assemblage

Monday morning afternoon, scourge of the salaried class, has arrived. But this week, it brings the debut of a new feature – a link collection/infodump/lazy-ass post o’ fun.

Basically, here are some things I found on the internet that you might not have seen yet. Enjoy, link to me, tweet about it–whatever floats your boat.

Who’s Blogging What?

Selling a Debut Novel – 2010: A Book Odyssey

It’s somewhat traditional for debut authors of a given year to be grouped as a “class”. A group of YA/MG (Young Adult/Middle Grade) 2010 debuts (or debs) is blogging together at 2010: A Book Odyssey. Jen Nadol, author of The Mark (due out January 19) polled her fellow tenners and wrote up an interesting statistical analysis.

Electric Kool-Aid Conflict Test – The INTERN

The INTERN is the Tyler Durden of the publishing world, only less anarchic destruction and more snarky deconstruction. Nameless and personality-rich, here she gets existential on chapter-ending cliffhangers.

The Curious Case of the Headless Heroine – Gail Carriger

Soulless author (Note: Soulless is a book. To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Carriger does, in fact, have a soul.) Carriger turns her sleuthing skills to the troubling trend of headless heroines on urban fantasy book covers. What could be behind this insidious imagery?

New Sidebar Links:

Wondermark – Perhaps the finest 19th century clipart webcomic in history. No mean feat, that.

Query Shark – Aspiring writers take heed. Serious heed.

Tor – Top-notch publisher, but also a fantastic website for original stories, great commentary, book giveaways, etc.

This Recording – Reliably interesting, urbane, intelligent, amusing commentary on culture. Plus, free mp3s.

Bonus Link

A quiz I created on sporcle, Fictional Countries. Fair warning: folks tell me it’s a hard one.

Top 10 books of 2009*

*That I will hopefully read in 2010

When I visit bookstores or spend time in airports or inevitably end up on amazon.com, my book addiction rears its ugly head and I end up with lots of books that I probably shouldn’t have purchased. As a somewhat direct result, I am often unable to afford so-called “new” books at any given time of the year.

Basically, if you were hoping for this blog to be about forthcoming or recently released books, then you should either start sending me some for free or shut up.

Nevertheless, books keep being released and my wish list grows ever longer. I’m sure many of you out there can relate, so I’ll get off the carping and on to the top ten 2009 releases that I hope to purchase and read in the coming year:

10. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde (Amazon)

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Released: December, 2009
Out in Paperback: ?
Why I want to read it: On his venerable “Whatever” blog, John Scalzi (scifi writer, check him out) runs one of the best recurring features for writers: The Big Idea. The gist of it is that authors write a short essay describing where or how they got the idea for a book. Go read Jasper Fforde’s Big Idea for Shades of Grey then tell me you don’t want to read it too.

9. Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox (Amazon)

Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox

Released: January, 2009
Out in Paperback: Now
Why I want to read it: As one of the few fantasy novels that takes its cues from somewhere other than medieval Europe, I think Dragon in Chains should have a place on lots of lists–a sort of affirmative action for non-Western fantasy. On top of that, all the reviews are stellar and the sequel is due to be released this Spring. Plus on a personal note, my own work-in-progress involves a not-inconsiderable amount of Chinese mythology. Birds of a feather and all that.

8. Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (Amazon)

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

Released: November, 2009
Out in Paperback: Now
Why I want to read it: A semi-sequel to City of Saints and Madmen, Finch is set in VanderMeer’s rambling fictional city of Ambergris. Apart from my deep and abiding love of fictional cities (more on that below), Finch is also equal parts noir thriller, detective story, and political thriller. Plus, fungal technology!

7. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Amazon)

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Released: September, 2009
Out in Paperback: May, 2010
Why I want to read it: The sheer number of positive reviews and the deafening volume of their praise. Also, when speculative fiction breaks into the Time Magazine top ten books of the year, you know its either boilerplate or a damn good time. All indications are for the latter, so count me in.

6. Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente (Amazon)

Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente

Released: February, 2009
Out in Paperback: Now
Why I want to read it: First, I love archaic words (palimpsest – n. a reused manuscript where the original text has been incompletely obscured by the new text). Second, I love maps (like the cover). Third, I love fictional cities. Fourth, this particular fictional city is only accessible in the sleep that follows sex, which, talk about your narrative devices, yowza. Fifth, go back and reread the fourth, ok?

5. The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist (Amazon)

The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist
Released: March, 2009
Out in Paperback: ?
Why I want to read it: I enjoyed the hell out of the first book in the series (The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters) and am tickled by the thought of more of the same, only sequel-ier. Plus, Miss Temple! She’s sassy, blonde, fearless, titillating and one can easily imagine Kristen Bell in a corset while reading her chapters. What’s not to love?

4. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Amazon)

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Released: September, 2009
Out in Paperback: Now
Why I want to read it: Combining steampunk and zombies could have gone one of two ways. The first way is a cliche storm of epic proportions. Luckily, the second way is Boneshaker.

3. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (Amazon)

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Released: October, 2009
Out in Paperback: September, 2010
Why I want to read it: World War I as seen through the twin lenses of dieselpunk and biopunk (for the Central Powers and the Allied Powers, respectively) might be one of the best alternate history ideas of all time, irritating nomenclature aside.

2. The City and The City by China Mieville (Amazon)

The City & The City by China Mieville

Released: May, 2009
Out in Paperback: April, 2010
Why I want to read it: Three words: Perdido Street Station. A few more: China Mieville is one of the finest writers out there. Every book he writes will be on a list of books I want to read. Even though it’s not a part of the Bas-Lag universe, The City & The City looks to be even better.

1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Amazon)

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Released: August, 2009
Out in Paperback: April, 2010
Why I want to read it: Postmodern Harry Potter, with all of the best implications of that phrase. Plus, I’ve been a fan of Grossman’s writing for a while, and it’s always fun to see a “serious” writer try their hand at speculative fiction.

So there you have it. Feel free to buy any of these and mail them to me. In return, you’ll get your very own acknowledgement on this here weblog. Keen, huh? Oh, and if I ever get my book published, you can have a free signed copy.

Pulled for retooling

C'mon, everybody's doing it...

Six months! I do feel a bit...sheepish.

Six months later…

Yeah, so that worked out well.

Blogging and I have a tempestuous relationship–always have, always will, I imagine. Suffice it to say that I’m sorry, and I would like to promise to do better, but that and $1.50 won’t buy you a cup of coffee anymore.

Things in the scope of this blog that happened in the past six months that I didn’t blog about:

  • Passing the 50,000 word mark on my work-in-progress!
  • Reading a lot of books
  • Writing a fair number of things that weren’t my work-in-progress but may turn out to be full-fledged ideas anyway
  • Much writerly pontificating
  • Much self-inflicted misery about not writing enough and doing other things (TV!) when I should be writing
  • The ongoing slow implosion of the publishing industry over Americans not reading/book sales declining/Stephanie Meyer ruling the world/e-books/whatever else

Things NOT in the scope of this blog that happened in the past six months that (duh) I didn’t blog about:

  • Looking for and failing to find a new job (many applications, cover letters and interviews. sigh.)
  • Two week trip to Argentina!
  • Holidays
  • I got paid to blog about bicycles (the only thing that competes with writing, reading and girlfriend for my love), but examiner.com turned out to be a total writer-scamming racket

Right, so it’s a new year all of a sudden, which practically begs for a new danthology! ‘Because the old one worked out so well’ you might be saying. Well, Sarcastro, get ready, because I’ve got plans. Big ones. On blue paper and everything. Here’s what I’m resolving (see what I did there? Happy new year, kids.) to do starting probably Monday, January 11th.

  1. More 5 point reviews! Up to three per week until I run through my backlog, then as often as I actually read things.
  2. Work-in-Progress tracker! This is more for me, but if you care, you can track how many words I’ve written. Luckily, there’s no tracker for how many of them are actually good.
  3. Writerly pontification! At least once a week, but hopefully twice. We shall see.

Ok, there you have it. I want to make good on the promise I made to myself when I started danthology. This blog is a space for me to get all the reading/writing stuff in my head out and hopefully make it interesting to at least a few other people. The goal being that if I’m cranking up the brain muscles in a writerly way here, it will make it easier and less cluttered when I have to do the same for my fiction.

See you soon.