Aristocratic Necromancy: Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Marsh

A new review over at Tor.com:

Reign of the Fallen opens with a brilliant first line and a gorgeous sense of voice.

“Today, for the second time in my life, I killed King Wylding. Killing’s the easy part of the job, though. He never even bleeds when a sword runs through him. It’s what comes after that gets messy.”

Sleeps With Monsters: Magic Roadtrips, Graceful Space Opera, and a Bleak Take on Star Wars

A new column over at Tor.com:

Cast in Deception is the latest novel in Michelle Sagara’s long-running Chronicles of Elantra series. The Chronicles of Elantra stars Kaylin Neya, a private in the Hawks—the police force of the city of Elantra—who consistently finds herself at the centre of cataclysmic events. Over the course of the series, she’s gathered around herself a wide variety of friends and allies, from the last living female Dragon to a set of peculiar young Barrani (an immortal race—think elves, and not the friendly kind), and the only Barrani Lord in the Hawks. In Cast in Deception, Kaylin’s current Barrani houseguests get her involved in their problems, and magic, politics, and found family all tangle together in a story about growth and trust and unwanted roadtrips.

Sleeps With Monsters: Strange Differences and Unusual Similarities

A new post over at Tor.com:

Creatures of Will and Temper starts slow and measured. It’s the end of the 19th century. Sisters Evadne and Dorina Gray—Evadne awkward, worried about social conventions, only passionate about fencing; ten years older than Dorina, young, unconventional, interested in everything to do with art and beauty and seducing other women—visit their uncle Basil in London.

DARK STATE by Charles Stross

A new review over at Tor.com:

Last January’s Empire Games kicked off a new, standalone chapter in Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes continuity: a science fictional thriller involving panopticon societies, multiple timelines, a cross-timeline Cold War and nuclear-armed standoff, political crises, and family secrets. It packed a lot into a relatively slender volume. As its sequel—and the middle book of a trilogy—Dark State has a great deal to live up to, and even more work to do.

It succeeds admirably.

EMERGENCE by C.J. Cherryh

A new review over at Tor.com:

If you’re new to the Foreigner series, this is not the place to start. (The best advice is to start at the beginning, or else at book four, Precursor.) If you’re a fan, then it’s entirely likely that you already know whether or not you want to read Emergence: it does very similar things to its predecessors—although it suffers from the absence of the aiji-dowager, whose inimitable presence has improved every book that’s featured her.

Sleeps With Monsters: Odd and Satisfying

The first column of the new year, over at Tor.com:

Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher—the penname of the Hugo-Award-winning Ursula Vernon—is really fun, and strangely difficult to describe. Its main characters have been condemned to death (or longterm imprisonment) for various crimes. But their city is losing a war, and losing badly. Their enemy employs “Clockwork Boys”—constructs of machinery and flesh that are practically unstoppable. Finding out how the Clockwork Boys are made, and how to stop them, is a suicide mission that’s already killed dozens. But our heroes’ lives are already forfeit.

 

Sleeps With Monsters: Therapeutic Compassion

Midwinter’s come and gone, and we’re rolling in towards the New Year. I’ve missed most of the last few days, snowed under with a cold, but here’s a new column over at Tor.com anyway:

I missed Michelle Sagara’s Grave when it came out in January 2017, though I’d been looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy that started with Silence and continued in Touch. Emma Hall, whose necromantic power has drawn unpleasant attention from the Queen of the Dead, is on the run with her friends. If she’s going to survive and keep her friends alive—and open the doorway that leads the dead to peace, the one that the Queen has kept shut for centuries—she’s going to have to figure out how to confront the Queen and win.

 

Sleeps With Monsters: Alex Wells Answers Six Questions

A new post over at Tor.com:

AW: I definitely set out to make Mag and Hob’s friendship the emotional core of the book, from the start. Even back when I started writing it, I was already sick of the mass media depiction of friendship between women—well, and friendship between woman and men too, come to that. It’s such a common, annoying trope that women are friends until suddenly there’s This Guy and then it’s all about This Guy and the friendship falls apart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real friendship between women that’s been so weak as that.

Pretty but broken: MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA

Mass Effect: Andromeda is, as most people have probably gathered, the fourth and latest instalment in Bioware’s Mass Effect series, and the first not to star the iconic Commander Shepard. It’s also done a lot less well for Bioware than anticipated, with no further content for the game announced. I’m not surprised that it hasn’t done as well as Bioware might have expected from previous titles in the series: while extremely pretty, as a role-playing game and as a narrative experience, Andromeda is pretty comprehensively broken.

And I say this as an avid consumer of Bioware’s style of character-driven plot-heavy RPGs: I’ve replayed the first three Mass Effect games at least three times each, and invested so many hours into the Dragon Age games that I positively quail at the thought of tallying up the total time.

Andromeda sees a group of at least a hundred thousand people from the Milky Way — the long-lived asari and the equally long-lived krogan, the short-lived salarians, the military-oriented turians, and, as always, humans — take a 600-year cryosleep journey to the galaxy next door, for the sake of adventure, exploring new frontiers, and unconsidered colonialism. (It is unclear whether, or how much, the leaders of the Andromeda Initiative know about the threat the Reapers pose to the Milky Way, which Shepard spends so much time fighting in the original trilogy.) Andromeda opens aboard the human colony ship, or ark, as it arrives in the Andromeda galaxy, immediately encounters a dangerous and mysterious space phenomenon (consistently referred to later as the Scourge), and discovers that the planet they were hoping to settle has had something catastrophic and weird happen to it.

The player-character can be a woman or a man, the daughter or son of the human Pathfinder, Alec Ryder. The Pathfinder’s job is apparently to be the point exploration person and authority on the challenges and opportunities of new planets. The Pathfinder is also linked to an artificial intelligence called SAM, which Alec Ryder himself developed. SAM provides data and analysis to the Pathfinder. On your first mission, you learn your brother (if you play as Female Ryder, which obviously I did) is in a coma due to things going wrong as he was coming out of cryo, and by the time the first mission is over, Alec Ryder is dead, and the younger conscious Ryder has been unexpectedly promoted to the role of Pathfinder.

There are two areas in particular where Andromeda falls down compared to other games both in the franchise and from the parent game developer. One is in its characters. The other is in how it integrates its narrative structure (and available choices) into its open-world sandbox.

Among the attractions of a character-driven RPG are the characters. Andromeda stumbles here from the beginning. I don’t know whether I’d feel more identification with Younger Ryder’s family issues if we’d actually met the brother and the father before the first mission kicks off, or if I’d had a sibling or a father of my own. But something about the initial introduction of Andromeda‘s player-character feels alienating and off, much more so than in Bioware’s other games that gave you a family and a context. In Dragon Age: Origins, for example, you spend a certain amount of time with your family/friends before significant shit kicks off, while in Dragon Age 2, although we open in medias res, this is followed by a period of downtime and adjustment which lets you get familiar with your family and new friend Aveline — and gives you a range of options in how you react to that family and friend. The other Bioware games don’t begin in the same fashion — Mass Effect provides a military officer, Dragon Age Inquisition a sole survivor, and they both in different ways avoid needing to make an immediate emotional connection to the player-character’s nearest and dearest.

Andromeda, on the other hand, presents you with a set of pieces that are supposed to have emotional valence, but doesn’t do the work needed to imbue them with connection and meaning. This is poor writing, especially for a game based on your choices. The game assumes that you, as the player-character, will care about Random Father and Random Brother without investing any real time or depth in those relationships.

This is a failure that continues through Andromeda’s approach towards characterisation, particularly with regard to the characters who become members of your crew and potentially your party. Other Bioware games — notably the first and second Mass Effect games, Dragon Age: Origins, and Dragon Age 2 — made you work to recruit characters. In the case of Dragon Age Origins, you don’t even encounter some characters until you’re about a third of the way through, giving you plenty of time to appreciate them as individuals, while in Dragon Age 2 and the first Mass Effect game, bringing characters on board occurred in the course of the plot, so that your introduction to them provided an impetus for both character and narrative development. In Mass Effect 2, character recruitment was a large part of the plot: something that, together with the excellent character-writing, worked especially well in building emotional investment in these individuals. (Mass Effect 2 and 3 had the advantage of being able to leverage your existing investment in some of these characters, but the writing exploited these pre-existing emotional hooks in extremely effective ways.) Too, previous Bioware games — in particular the Dragon Age ones — made you work to develop a rapport with your party members, making your relationship with them depend on their approval or disapproval of your actions.

In Andromeda, there’s none of this. The characters show up without you needing to do a thing, and their introduction lacks… well, character. I remember vividly Mass Effect‘s introductions to Ashley, Garrus, Tali, Wrex and Liara; ME2’s Miranda, Mordin, Samira, Thane, Garrus, Tali, Grunt, Jack, that moment where you meet Dr. Chakwas again and it’s like a shocking relief; ME3’s re-introductions to Ashley (I only saved Kaiden once), Liara, Grunt, Garrus; Origins‘ first meetings with Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana and Sten; DA2’s introductions of Aveline and Anders, and even Inquisition‘s individual introductions of Cassandra, Varric, Solas, Josephine, the Iron Bull, Vivienne, and Dorian: they stand out. Some more successfully than others, but they’re all individual moments, ones that give a powerful sense of the characters as people with agendas and desires of their own.

Hell, I remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and its first introductions to Carth, Bastila, and the Twi’lek and the cat-person whose names I’ve lost to the mists of history but whose initial introductions left me with abiding senses of them as individuals.

Andromeda‘s characters lack these powerful moments. With one or two exceptions — the turian smuggler/fixer Vetra, who’s raising a teenaged sister, and the weary krogan mercenary Drack — they come across as bland ciphers, or worse, annoying ones. (Liam and Peebee, I’m looking at you.) Beyond Drack and Vetra, they lack any real suggestion of wanting connections or emotional lives of their own, any suggestion of a present life outside and beyond their immediate use to Ryder. This lack of depth in the characters and the player-character’s interactions with them provides a corresponding shallowness of emotional investment. Why should I care about these people?

I don’t have an answer. Or rather, the answer is that I really don’t: I kept playing more from hope that things would eventually start coming together to provide an emotionally powerful experience, and growing more and more dissatisfied when they didn’t. I suspect this reaction was exacerbated by the diffusion of narrative tension created by the open-world approach to gameplay: in order to avoid the narrative seeming like an arbitrary series of fetch-quests, open-world gameplay needs to be constructed very carefully, and deep attention needs to be paid to structure and pacing. Without this attention, narrative drive — forward momentum — falls apart.

Dragon Age: Inquisition, Bioware’s other game to use the open-world approach, suffered from some of this diffusion of tension. But there, by and large, the characterisation was strong enough to bridge some of the gaps, and the pacing didn’t fall quite so slack — possibly because Inquisition offers its characters at least one fairly striking reversal, and the binary choices that the narrative ends up providing at fork points feel a little more meaningful. Andromeda — it’s pretty, I grant you. Actually, it’s visually stunning: the environments and the landscapes are utter works of art. But even those gorgeous environments grow tedious when one is engaged in a seemingly-endless series of fetch-quests, and when none of one’s choices as a player-character feel as though they have any particular weight or impact.

Also, as a game, it has a deeply unexamined relationship to colonialism. Its assumptions made me feel uncomfortable, for while the game seemed to feel that the thematic argument it was having was about artificial intelligence, modification to bodies, and life (insofar as it was having a thematic argument), there’s this swathe of hey sure it’s perfectly fine to invite yourself into someone else’s house and mess with their stuff that’s just… floating around.

And yet. And yet I finished the game, grinding my way through the final back-and-forth-and-back-again that was the climax and unsatisfying conclusion. I don’t know whether that says more about my stubbornness or Andromeda‘s ability to compel me to find out what happened next — despite all its many, manifold flaws.

I don’t think I’d recommend it to an existing Mass Effect fan, though. Part of my dissatisfaction with it was the way it reminded me just enough of what I loved about the earlier games to tantalise me with its possibilities, without ever giving me the same narrative fulfilment.

There is more I could say, but it would mostly be repetition upon the same theme. They don’t make ’em like they used to, apparently. Either that, or I’m getting even less easy to please in my old age.

Women Who Love Women: November Dispatches From FF Romance

Gun Brooke, Arrival, and Carsen Taite, A More Perfect Union. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

This month’s set of offerings (care of the Bold Strokes Books’ Netgalley page) are largely unobjectionably boring. We’re mostly short on the hilariously awful — as far as I can tell from first chapters, and barring Shea Godfrey’s laughably overdramatic opening to King of Thieves — and long on the deeply uninspired prose and tediously poor characterisation.

I’m cruel because I care. Let’s be fair: lesbian romance needs to up its game if it’s going to play for a bigger slice of the romance market pie. It’s not going to manage that without paying a lot more attention to the craft of catching a reader’s attention. Many readers aren’t short of other options.

I finished two novels out of the six (or was it eight? They blur together) that were available this month. One of those was Gun Brooke’s Arrival, the latest novel in a science fiction romance series. The other is Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union, a romance between a military officer involved in investigating misconduct at an officers’ training school in Washington, and a political fixer who has no reason to trust the military. Neither of these novels were actually good, mind you — though A More Perfect Union was tolerably okay — but they shared one feature that set them apart from their peers this month. Their characters were interesting and had personality. And not the kind of personality that makes you want to throw them off a cliff, either.

Gun Brooke’s Exodus series, of which Arrival is the latest instalment, is terrible science fiction. The worldbuilding is shoddy and inconsistent, the technology hasn’t been thought through, and the ongoing political situation is of the “throw a bunch of terrorist threats and racism analogies at the ceiling with no particular co-ordination and see what sticks”  sort. There’s a large, well-organised group of people who’ve left their homeworld on a colony ship because they don’t like the fact it’s being taken over by “changers” — mutants, basically, like the X-men, who seem to have been fighting the government for a while. But wait! There are also “good” changers, some of whom have hidden themselves aboard the Exodus vessel. Fortunately, it seems, because the bad changers have been trying to sabotage the project from the get-go.

The worldbuilding’s a hot mess, basically. And Arrival is also a hot mess structurally. But it has a pair of interesting characters.

Lieutenant Pamas Seclan was held captive by hostile changers for years before she escaped. She forged identity documents to get herself aboard the Exodus project, hoping to be able to reconnect with her adult children, Aniwyn and Pherry, at the end of the journey. (Her children were left to grow up under the debatable care of her abusive husband.) Aniwyn is now known as Spinner, and a Commander in the military. But Pamas’s hopes of peaceful reconciliation with her children are dashed when the new colony’s medical facilities are attacked with a virulently dangerous substance.

Darmiya Do Voy is a scientist and a member of the advance team that helped get the colony ready to receive colonists. Her homeworld was destroyed and she’s one of only a handful of survivors. She’s also one of Spinner’s best friends, which makes things awkward when she and Pamas immediately find themselves forging a connection. As the two of them negotiate Pamas’s complicated past and her relationship with her daughter, they find themselves at the forefront of attempts to defend the colony from the antagonistic changers.

The plot as a whole doesn’t make any sense, I should tell you. But the characters and their arc are entertaining and fun.

Meanwhile, Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union features Major Zoey Granger, an officer who blew the whistle on fraudulent dealings at her base. A chance meeting with political fixer Rook Daniels as Granger’s en route to testify before Congress results in a fast-growing attraction between the two women. When Granger’s reassigned to work at the Pentagon — and when her first job is investigating some young officers whose potential misdeeds are likely to have political complications — she and Daniels meet again professionally, and this professional relationship is somewhat antagonistic. Both of them are convinced that the other is holding back relevant information, and that the other doesn’t understand the real picture. They also find it difficult to trust each other on a personal, relationship level. When a Pentagon officer commits suicide, things get even more dangerous.

A More Perfect Union is tolerable romantic suspense, but it too is off-balance structurally and pacing-wise, and its characters, apart from its romantic leads, are thin and two-dimensional. But its romantic leads have characters, and their growth from miscommunication and mistrust towards mutuality is treated reasonably well. I wouldn’t say run out and read it now — but of Bold Strokes Books’ available romances this month, this one might well be the best.

Sleeps With Monsters: Djinn and Politics in an Interesting Debut

A new column over at Tor.com:

S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass is only the latest of this year’s excellent run of debut novels. It’s not my favourite—I have fairly specific tastes in what really hits my utter favourite spots. But it is a really solid fantasy novel with a vivid setting and an interesting set of protagonists.

2018: Books I Know About And Want To Read

These are the books I know about that are coming out next year that I want to read. (If you want to make me really happy? GIVE THEM TO MEEEEEEEEEEE. Ahem.)

 

Tor.com:

Everything. No, seriously. Have you seen their list? I’m not just saying this because I like the people who work for them – though there’s that, too. But with Elizabeth Bear’s STONE MAD, Kelly Robson’s GODS, MONSTERS, AND THE LUCKY PEACH, the next book by Ruthanna Emrys, a new Charlie Stross, J.Y. Yang’s THE DESCENT OF MONSTERS…

Look, people. They know the way to my heart, is what I’m saying.

 

Tor Books:

K. Arsenault Rivera’s THE PHOENIX EMPRESS; Robyn Bennis’s BY FIRE ABOVE; Tessa Gratton’s THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR; Mary Robinette Kowal’s THE CALCULATING STARS; Charles Stross’s DARK STATE; Ian McDonald’s LUNA: MOON RISING; CITY OF LIES by Sam Hawke; Lara Elena Donnelly’s ARMISTICE; Alex Bledsoe’s THE FAIRIES OF SADIEVILLE; Ilana C. Myer’s FIRE DANCE; John Scalzi’s HEAD ON.

 

Saga Press:

In no particular order: EUROPEAN TRAVEL FOR THE MONSTROUS GENTLEWOMAN by Theodora Goss; TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse; RED WATERS RISING by Laura Anne Gilman; the next book by R.E. Stearns; the anthology ROBOTS VS. FAIRIES.

 

Angry Robot:

Micah Yongo’s LOST GODS looks interesting, but I’m definitely looking forward to BLOOD BINDS THE PACK by Alex Wells. And the next book by Tim Pratt!

 

Solaris:

REVENANT GUN by Yoon Ha Lee

 

DAW:

C.J. Cherryh’s EMERGENCE; HEROINE JOURNEY by Sarah Kuhn; Tanya Huff’s THE PRIVILEGE OF PEACE; Todd Lockwood’s THE SUMMER DRAGON; V.M. Escalada’s GIFT OF GRIFFINS; Cass Morris’s FROM UNSEEN FIRE.

 

Titan:

Okay, so it’s listed as Baen, but I have to believe Titan will grab the UK rights: David Drake’s THOUGH HELL SHOULD BAR THE WAY.

 

Gollancz:

Dhonielle Clayton’s THE BELLES; Alastair Reynolds’ ELYSIUM FIRE.

 

Harper Voyager:

Rebecca Kuang’s THE POPPY WAR; Nicky Drayden’s TEMPER; Becky Chambers’ RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW; Sarah Tarkoff’s SINLESS.

 

Orbit:

Tade Thompson’s ROSEWATER; Vivian Shaw’s DREADFUL COMPANY; Alex White’s A BIG SHIP AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE; Tyler Whitesides’ THE THOUSAND DEATHS OF ARDOR BENN; Melissa Caruso’s THE DEFIANT HEIR; Sam J. Miller’s BLACKFISH CITY; S.J. Morden’s ONE WAY; Elizabeth Moon’s INTO THE FIRE.

 

Ace:

Emma Newman’s BEFORE MARS; Django Wexler’s THE INFERNAL BATTALION; Genevieve Cogman’s THE LOST PLOT; S.M. Stirling’s BLACK CHAMBER. (He’s a mansplainer of the first degree on the internet, but it sounds like an interesting book.)

 

OTHER/INDEPENDENT:

I look forward to new books from Ursula Vernon writing as T. Kingfisher; Melissa Scott; K.J. Charles; C.E. Murphy; and with any luck, Heather Rose Jones.

 

…I haven’t even scratched the surface of possible YA to look forward to.

 

Okay, guys. What am I missing?

STARFIRE: SHADOW SUN SEVEN by Spencer Ellsworth

A new review over at Tor.com:

Ellsworth’s worldbuilding continues to grow ever more mind-bendingly batshit. That’s a compliment: giant spacewhales (space slugs? space centipedes?) whose flesh holds compressed oxygen and can be mined by a labour crew; untouched planets at the heart of Shir space; strange miracles and peculiar sentient beings—more space opera should include this level of weird. (It reminds me a little of Kameron Hurley, though without Hurley’s deep commitment to biological squickiness.)

 

MASS EFFECT: INITIATION by N.K. Jemisin and Mac Walters

A new review over at Tor.com:

Jemisin and Walters have written a really fun book. Fast-paced and full of action, it maintains its tension throughout. Harper is a recognisable version of the character we meet in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but one who’s more fully-fleshed-out (and shows, I think, more of a sense of humour) than the character we see there.

Sleeps With Monsters: Lost Suns, Times, and Theorems

A new column over at Tor.com:

Tessa Gratton’s The Lost Sun came across my radar thanks to a Twitter recommendation by Leah Bobet. The first volume of the Gods of New Asgard series, it takes place in a world recognisably similar to our own, but one where the initials U.S.A. stand for “United States of Asgard,” where gods and valkyries and prophets are an intrinsic part of the political process, and trolls roam the landscape. It didn’t sound at all like my sort of thing—but it turns out it’s really great.