Sunday, August 31, 2008

Victory of Eagles

Book four of seven from Worldcon (listed in the order I read them) was Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik. If you're not familiar with the series, let me just say, "Napoleonic War with dragons."

I'm not sure how much to write about this one. It's book five in a series I love, but like all extended series entries, it's kind of a closed loop. Fans of the series already know what's what and have probably already read it. People who haven't read the series aren't likely to read this one first, and a lot of people have told me they don't like to start reading long series in the middle, not knowing how long it will go on or whether it will stay good. They would rather wait for the series to wrap up and read the entire thing.

But I don't want to say nothing, so first, a random observation: this is the first book of the ones I brought back that was not in first-person (the others aren't, either, but it's odd that I would read all three first-person books back-to-back).

As far as the book itself, it was both great and disappointing. Great in the sense that it deepens the characters and the story and is wholly absorbing. I flew through this book and didn't want to put it down. I was a bit disappointed with the climax, though. Not so much with the outcome, but the way in which it unfolded felt a bit rushed to me. I can understand Novik not wanting to end on a cliffhanger--she did it with the previous book, and may not have wanted to do the same twice in a row--but it seemed like everything wrapped up a little too neatly.

Two things that strike me about the series:

Number one, it reminds me a lot of the Harry Potter books in that both concern an outsider brought into an insular society who, over the course of several books, learns of fundamental racial injustice within the society and works subtly to correct it. And both have main characters who are believably flawed, yet are basically good-hearted. They win our sympathy early and hold onto it through many trials.

Number two, the books have the feel of something written in the 19th century, which lends greatly to the flavor of this 18th century story. The characters' dialogue and subtle nuances of spelling and grammar ride a delicate balance between the old-fashioned turns of phrase which lend atmosphere and modern readability. Novik and her editor have done a great job with this. And the plotting groans with outrageous potboiler twists which fit perfectly with the tradition in which she's writing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Money Shot

The third book I read from the Worldcon stack was Money Shot, from Hard Case Crime.

Money Shot is a taut little noir novel by Christa Faust, about a former porn star who is lured out of retirement to shoot one final scene, only things don't work out well. She is bound, interrogated, tortured, shot and left for dead, which understandably pisses her off. Over the course of the book, she pursues her revenge against the men who destroyed her life.

Like Staked, this book has a lot of heavy lifting to do in the first chapter: introduce us to a compelling character with an urgent problem, while also introducing us to the world the character inhabits and his/her place in it. I usually prefer a more leisurely approach to world-building, but as short as Money Shot is, it doesn't have time to dance around with a lot of delicate exposition. Instead, it spends the first few chapters doing some thorough scene-setting so that it can barrel ahead full-speed when the action starts.

But this is not just a by-the-numbers mystery/thriller. A book featuring a female lead in the sex trade could easily have come off as pedantic or preachy, but Money Shot manages to hit some thoughtful thematic notes while missing the obvious pitfalls that such a story could have fallen into. Faust has written an excellent story here, featuring a main character who is believably resilient and human. If you like old-school noir thrillers and aren't too offended by the porn industry, you should give this a read. Seriously.

Obligatory link to the youtube trailer here:

Sunday, August 24, 2008


So I mentioned that one of the novels I brought back from Worldcon was Staked by Jeremy Lewis. I read it immediately after finishing Soon I Will Be Invincible, and was struck by an odd similarity.

Not only are both books written in first person, but both books are written in first person viewpoints that alternate between a male and a female character. However, and here's the neat trick, I think Staked makes better use of the alternating viewpoints than the big-time mainstream novel.

Staked is basically a vampire noir mystery, featuring Eric, a vampire strip club owner with memory problems. He comes to in an alley, after having just killed another vampire during a "rage blackout." Almost immediately afterward, he is forced to kill a werewolf, setting in motion a chain of events that will change Eric's (un)life, as well as the lives of everyone around him.

I have to admit, the first chapter put me off a bit. There's a lot of ugliness in Eric's world, and Eric himself is a bit of an off-putting character. Vampires in this world are not glamorous, that's for sure. Add to that the necessity to infodump lots of world detail right up front to get us up to speed on Eric's character and surroundings, and I wasn't sure if I'd like Staked after the first chapter.

But Lewis pulls off some major scores after this. Riding a thin edge of comedy and disgust, he pulls you into Eric's world deftly, showing you the standard vampire hero surrounded by a cast of stock characters.

But when the viewpoint shifts to Tabitha, Eric's stripper girlfriend/ vampire groupie, you find out that she's a deeper character than Eric gave her credit for being. And as the novel unfolds through their shared viewpoints, you realize that the world Lewis has created is a more layered, more interesting place than either of his main characters realize. By splitting the viewpoint between two characters, Lewis is able to show us things about the characters and the world that no single viewpoint could have given us, and by the end, I was eager to read a second book in the series to learn more.

Fair warning: the book is full of strong language and graphic depictions of violence and sex and foul bodily functions. And the mystery isn't very strong. It's one of those "mysteries" where you really only have one viable suspect, so the big revelation of who's behind all the madness isn't much of a surprise. But the trip getting there is mighty fine.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Pose

So I mentioned last time about this funny thing I'd brought back from Worldcon. I've scanned it now, so here you go. But first, the set-up:

While I was at Conestoga, one of the Triple-F girls (I believe it was Tulsa resident Michele Bardsley) made a joke about how she'd been working on her standard urban fantasy cover pose. She then turned her back to us and looked back over her shoulder with one hip cocked out. I laughed, because I'd seen that kind of pose, although I didn't think it was nearly as ubiquitous as she made it seem.

So then while I'm at Worldcon, Ace is handing out these samplers of new books, with the headline "Brand-New Science Fiction and Fantasy from Ace and Roc." Only a scan of the 6 books they're sampling from reveals no science-fiction at all, only one alternate world fantasy and 5 urban fantasies. And when they show the covers on the back, here's what caught my eye (click the pic for a slightly larger view).

Anything look familiar?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Soon I Will Be Invincible

I had planned to scan something funny I brought back from Worldcon, but I haven't got my scanner set up yet, so I guess I'll do a book review first. Soon I Will Be Invincible came out in hardback last year, the debut novel from Austin Grossman. As you may tell from the title, it's a light-hearted look at superheroes, a mainstream novel that looks at some of the basic cliches of the genre and turns them on their heads, makes them fun again.

I was worried that this would turn out to be yet another parody by a writer who looks down on the genre, like Asimov's anti-Batman Batman story "Northwestward" in the anthology "Further Adventures of the Batman," or like Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. As the authors take apart the silliest tropes of the genre, you get the sense that they're talking down to you: "You're stupid for liking this stuff, but I'll take your money anyway."

Grossman doesn't do that. He's smart enough to see how silly the genre can be, but he loves it anyway, and he lets that love shine through throughout the book. The book is written in first person, from the alternating viewpoints of two main characters, the megalovillain Doctor Impossible and the cyborg superhero Fatale. Evil genius Doctor Impossible escapes from prison and immediately launches into a new plot to take over the world; with his greatest nemesis, the superhero Corefire, missing, he actually has a shot at it this time. Meanwhile, Fatale is invited to join a superteam called the New Champions (their mission: to find Corefire and stop the doctor's villainous plot), which allows her to see the unglamorous details of the heroes' behind the scenes lives.

In some ways, it's what I wanted Hero Go Home to be, except that Hero Go Home will be explicitly series fiction, while Invincible is a literary one-off. Parts of it feel a little well-worn, but parts of it are brilliant. Grossman introduces the conceit early on that being an evil genius is actually a mental disorder, Malign Hypercognition Syndrome. So that whenever he does the obviously self-defeating things that villains do (parodied well but somewhat tediously in the Evil Overlords list), he's not being stupid or a victim of bad writing; he's merely exhibiting the symptoms of his disease, and often enough, he realizes it, which makes him even more human and sympathetic.

I wasn't as thrilled with the Fatale sections of the book. They're more drab, more downbeat, and occasionally drop into pure infodump. And though Grossman does a lot of things well in this book, sometimes the action scenes overwhelm him. A big scene in the middle where Doctor Impossible fights the New Champions single-handed suffers from some curious gaps and continuity errors; other scenes which could have been set-pieces are avoided completely and we see only their aftermath.

Overall, though, it's a funny and fast read. I recommend it for superhero fans.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Worldcon Continued

Sorry if this is hyper-detailed and boring, but I'm doing it as much for my own memory as for your enjoyment.

Friday: I mentioned yesterday that I'm in an on-line writers group called Codex. Friday morning, a bunch of us met up in the Hyatt for a get-to-know-you breakfast. Forgot my camera, of course. I'm going to name as many as I can, with links, because they're a really talented group, and probably much more fun to read than me.

Besides Mary and Ted (mentioned yesterday), there were a ton of others. Cat Rambo and her husband Wayne, Tina Connolly, Catherine Yoachim, Rachel Ann Dryden (no link, sorry), J.F. Lewis a.k.a. Jeremy, Eric James Stone, Sandra Tayler and her husband Howard (creator of Schlock Mercenary), Elaine Isaak, Rebecca Roland (sorry, no link), Camille Alexa, Lawrence M. Schoen. The two dudes I talked movies with the previous evening, Matt Rotundo and Larry Hodges, were there, along with Matt's wife Tracy. The lovely Alethea Kontis stopped in for a bit, and the equally lovely Diana Rowland (pictured at right; all party photos are from Sat. night, which is when I finally remembered my camera) organized the whole deal. I'm forgetting some people, so please forgive me, but there literally wasn't enough time to get to know everyone.

Whew. Like reading Matthew Chapter 1, isn't it? The breakfast was a $20 buffet AND I ONLY MADE ONE TRIP (thereby breaking another personal rule)! That's how busy I was meeting new people.

So anyway...

I don't remember what else I did for most of the day. I know I spent some time in the SFWA suite, eating the free lunch to compensate for the double-hit of Maggiano's and Hyatt buffet. Talked to some guys there, probably Ted and Jeremy (that's Ted to your left). I know I made a pass or two through the dealers room to talk to other Codexians at the SFWA table, and I went through the art show to check on another piece I was bidding on. I had a list of panels I wanted to attend, but for some reason, when the time came, I blew them all off.

At 4:00, I hit the Baen Travelling Slide Show, which was fun, and then I ditched the con to see a little of downtown Denver. Along about 7, I dropped back in to the SFWA suite for a bite to eat and the Analog/Asimov's Party. Lots of fun. Talked to a bunch of folks, including a Codexian I hadn't met yet, Jenny Rae Rappaport. I remember some sort of good-humored drunken argument with Camille Alexa, in which I don't think she ever got to her point, then a bunch of us went party-hopping. I stumbled back to the Marriott at 0-drunk-thirty.

Saturday: Somehow avoided a hangover and headed to the Marriott early to attend an editors panel. The one best thing about the con was meeting a bunch of people at all levels--newbie writers, rising stars, experienced pros, agents, editors--and finally internalizing the not-so-remarkable fact that people do this stuff all the time, and so can I. I've known it and paid lip-service to it for a long time, but for at least a couple of days, I really believed it. Crazy. And to prove how serious I was getting, I not only joined SFWA, but took out a year's subscription to Locus (although it didn't hurt that the curiously hot Amelia Beamer was manning the table).

Blew off the Wild Cards panel to wander the dealers room and talk to people, probably including Jeremy (pictured at right). Jeremy is the author of Staked, from Pocket Books, which is one of the books I brought back from the con and have in my To Be Read stack. At 1:00, I headed to the Upcoming Tor Books presentation. Man, Tor has a lot of books coming out. They had like five editors there presenting different pieces of the line. That was followed by a podcasting panel that was pretty informative, after which I headed to the dealers room again.

The thing about Saturday at Worldcon is, most other cons are three days long, and that's being generous. They generally start in the afternoon on Friday and go till the early afternoon on Sunday. At some point on Saturday, you realize the con is going into its fourth full day, and you're like, "God, isn't it over yet?" I was hitting that point.

In the dealers room, I hung out with Sandra Tayler at the Schlock Mercenary table for a while, then ran into Camille Alexa, who wanted to finish her comment from the previous evening, but somehow never did. She invited me to the Abyss and Apex party, then promptly left for another engagement. So I was stuck talking to lovely new writer Alycia C. Cooke for an hour or so (that's a pic of the party at left--Hadley Rille books editor Eric Reynolds, Camille Alexa and Alycia on the right--so you can tell I was really suffering by having to pass time with her), until she headed for the Hugo ceremony and I went to dinner with friends.

I headed back for parties at 10. Hit the Ace Books party first, where I spoke with the awesome Shanna Swendson (pictured at right), with whom I'd had a reading at Conestoga. You can't see them in the picture, but she was wearing killer-sexy red heels.

At some point, I hooked up with a bunch of Codexians--Rachel and her very nice friend whose name might have been Heidi, Matt and Tracy, Ted--and we hit some of the other parties, mainly the Baen Books party. I actually ended up getting stuck outside the party for ten minutes or so; the door guards said the party was crowded, so they were limiting entrance to just Baen authors and guests. Now, I'm not a Baen novelist (yet), but I have had two stories published in Baen's Universe, which was more than could be said of the rest of our group, and they all got in right away.

Eventually, they let me in, and I hooked up with my newfound friends just in time to take off again. After a couple of quick turns through other parties, we headed back down to the Ace party again, where I encountered the highlight of my night. As we're going in the door, John Scalzi comes out carrying his Hugo for Best Fan Writer (which is probably the closest I'll ever get to a real one), followed closely by Mary Robinette Kowal, who is...

wait for it... longer a Campbell Award nominee, but a Campbell award WINNER. I pulled out my camera to get a picture of her and somebody there says, "No, you've got to take a picture together." So that's her on the left, there. We're both a little flushed. In her case, it's the glow of victory; in mine, it's beer. Plus, my gel was getting tired, so I've got the crazy Reverend Jim hair going, and I had spinach or something in my teeth, but I GIMP'ed it out.

Big, big congratulations, Mary.

Sunday: Hit the art show to pick up my O'Connor. Talked to a couple of folks and lingered in the dealers room, hoping to spot a few others. It was strange and sad. Saturday, I was ready to go home, at least until someone waved free booze under my nose. But Sunday, I didn't want to go without saying goodbye to the many really cool people I met, and I didn't get to. So on the drive home, though I was happy with the con, I felt incomplete.

So let this be my other excuse for all the name-dropping. Because if I mentioned you here in the recaps and went to the trouble to link, it's because I thought you were pretty cool and wish I could have talked to you more face-to-face. And if I didn't get to say goodbye in person, let me say it here.

Goodbye. It was nice meeting you. I hope to see you again.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Back From WorldCon

So I'm back from Worldcon, and gotta say, it was in many ways the best one ever (of course, I've only gone to three, so ever doesn't mean much). I had meant to liveblog via wifi, but my portable keyboard wasn't working, and neither was my wifi access, so no go. The con was held (mostly--more about that later) in the Colorado Convention Center, which features a giant blue bear peeking in. Looks pretty cute from the outside...

But from the inside as you made the long walk from the convention area to the exit, you got a prime view of bear-crotch.

Quick recap:

Wednesday: Went first to registration to pick up my badge'n'stuff. Stood in a LONG line behind this girl, kinda cute, with hair dyed shocking red and a blue dress with red lace at the bottom of the skirt--Superman colors. More about her later.

Took a couple of turns through the Dealers Room and the Art Room, both of which were still setting up. Broke my "never buy anything on your first trip through the dealers room" rule when I snapped up the new Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles. Saw some art I liked, but didn't bid on anything.

Attended the Wizards of the Coast slideshow by the very cute and personable Erin Evans. I don't read Dungeons and Dragons books, really, but the talented Ms. Evans (who is apparently also an editor) convinced me to give one a try. After the panel, she put some free books on a table and I went up to get one. I managed to get a copy, but some other folks weren't so lucky, thanks to a couple of bookpigs who grabbed up multiple titles (one guy hoovered up six).

Also went to a panel for beginning writers, which I probably wouldn't have done if it hadn't featured Mary Robinette Kowal, someone I knew on-line from the Codex writers group (you'll see that word a lot in the rest of the recap). Mary, besides being a Codexian, is also the secretary of SFWA and was a nominee for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which was to be awarded at the con on Saturday night.

Skipped opening ceremonies, but did attend the reception for Lois McMaster Bujold, the Guest of Honor at the con, with the friends I was staying with (who attended the first day of the con, then bummed around Denver and attended the Scottish Games over the weekend). It was not too crowded, pretty low-key. Great spinach puffs, not-so-great manners from several of the fans rushing at any waiter with a tray of food in his hands. I was still a bit fried from the drive up the day before, so we skipped the parties.

Thursday: Spent the early part of the day just wandering. Went through the art show again, and decided to buy something. This was not a small decision for me, given the amounts of money gushing through my hands at downtown Denver prices. I bought a beautiful piece: "Zephyr's Tomb" by William O'Connor. It was a Giclee' print on canvas which the artist had retouched with oils to brighten certain areas, giving it the look of an original painting. An absolutely gorgeous addition to my new house, but it means I need to make a sale now to help pay for it.

Attended a panel on getting an agent with several big names in the industry, then went to the dealers room and bought my membership to SFWA from Mary. Met Ted Kosmatka, who is also in Codex; Ted's mom Marilyn was also at the con, having co-written a book with Eric Flint from Baen. The SFWA table turned out to be a pretty regular Codex hangout throughout the convention.

Hiked over to the Sheraton to check out the SFWA suite and attend the Rising Stars reception. There was a lot of walking at this convention: I was staying at the Marriott, but the con was being held in the Convention Center, with other events held at the Sheraton and the Hyatt. Sometimes, the decision on which event to attend was made by simply saying, "How far away is it?" Met Ken Scholes at the event, another Codexian who has a book coming out with Tor.

There were some panels I wanted to attend, but skipped in favor of finding a bar where I could smoke a cigar and relax. After the cigar (Cifuentes y Cia Partagas Black Label), I went to the SFWA suite, where I got into a discussion with a couple of other writers (whose names I didn't catch) about underrated SF movies. We batted around a few possibilities, then I took off to join my friends at Maggiano's Little Italy, a fantastic Italian place, but ended up costing us $40 bucks a person. Really need to make some sales now.

After dinner, I headed to the Daw Books party held in the SFWA suite. It was fun. I talked for a while with a couple of brothers, Dani and Eytan Kollin, who have a book, The Unincorporated Man, coming out next year from Tor (I would link you to the book's website, but it seems to be down, so I'm giving you Dani's LiveJournal instead). Cool guys, and the book sounds interesting. Left the party fairly early to try the main party floor, but the line for the elevators was so long that I blew it off and headed back to the Marriott to sleep.

More con stuff tomorrow...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Off to Denver

I'm heading to Denver tomorrow for the 66th World Science Fiction Convention starting Wednesday. I expect that free Wi-Fi will be available, so I plan to do a bit of live-blogging, and hope to even remember to take pictures. I'm looking forward to meeting Codex friends, and may even join SFWA while I'm there.