Monthly Archives: May 2013

Tethered by Meljean Brook: An Epistolary Review

Dearest Elizabeth,

I was thinking just yesterday of all the fun times we’ve shared, but especially how many letters I’ve sent you detailing my courtship with my amazing and perfect husband. Of course, not everything was amazing and perfect at first, as I’m sure you can recall. He’s an artist, of all things, and I just can’t abide all that girly drawing. I mean, I work in a male dominated profession, and it’s extremely threatening to me to have a guy hanging around questioning my authority with his feelings and stuff; how will my painting crew ever take me seriously? Certainly years of experience mean nothing when a woman in authority has an artsy boyfriend. I mean, the man uses product. Srsly.

So, Richard and I were hanging around, communing wordlessly using our eyes the way we do, when the most terrible thing happened! The set up is a little confusing, and in truth, even though it just happened I can’t really track the details, but the upshot is this: a college friend of his looked him up on facebook, and then after all the friend requests were sent and accepted, the college friend totally hacked Richard’s account and started posting all this bad stuff! He liked both Nickelback and Justin Bieber using Richard’s account! Who even does that?

Now, you know that Richard is an artist, but he’s also an 3133t h4xor, which, I might point out, is totally gender normative so I don’t even know why I was being so weird about the art thing. Anyhoo, He totally spray-painted some keyboards with camo like in the movie Hackers, and we were ready to roll with our boss plans to rehack the account and give the college douchebag some well earned comeuppance.

the hackers in the movie hackers huddled around a computer screen

Now, at this point in the letter, I believe it is customary actually to detail all the awesome ways we defeated the college douchebag, up to and including fun evil monologuing from the bad guy, but really we just kicked him into the ship’s engine and totally won using our wordless eye-gazing powers. And we didn’t kick him into the engine in a cool way, like when Malcolm Reynolds does it to that one dude after they’ve messed up the train heist for Nisca, but in a way that blows the narrative tension in our big rehacking takedown mission. Also, the bad guy lived on this really sweet sounding dystopian community, but I’m not going to tell you about that either. I’m going to tell you more about my eye-gazing superpowers and how me and Richard really love giving each other matching guns. Actually, he got an air-rifle this weekend and we had a really good time shooting at pop cans, and then we had some mildly kinky sex because I’ve got some real issues with male authority so that means that [letter redacted at this point].

[Still redacted]

[Still redacted]

Phew, that was hot, amirite? I mean, who doesn’t want to hear about how Richard and I have a love that is more love-like than any love that has ever loved before? And how our relationship is such a vortex of perfection that you can literally kick a bad guy into it and kill him? Or possibly I mean figuratively. Words were never my strong suit, and certainly now that I’ve got all this wordless eye-gazing going on, I’m out of practice.

So we launched all zig, we saved the princess, and then we deleted all reference to Two and a Half Men from Richard’s facebook page. Then we went upstairs and [still redacted].

Thanks for being such a great friend. I’m really hoping my next letter, which will be about Richard’s amazing sister, will be much more enjoyable.

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro

Love & Zombies by Eric Shapiro is one of those things I haven’t known what to say about because experience isn’t reflection. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure I can say anything smart about it. I blew through a bunch of novellas all in row, which made me have a whole thing about what makes a good novella versus a novel or a short story, but then I waited too long to write any of those thoughts down. But let’s see if I can recreate some of it. 

First off, the novella is a funny beast, occupying an odd middle distance. Novellas can fail in a lot of ways: not concise enough, meaning they should have been cut to a short story, or taking on too much, meaning they should be a novel. (And the latter might not actually be true, because some of my most hated books were expanded from short stories and/or novellas.) I feel like this book fell into the latter category, in that there was a lot going on, but expanding this scenario would only weaken it, while the specific aims of the story needed a little more time. The most successful novellas I’ve read often occur in already established worlds, so the exposition is just gestural, and then we can go from there. It was the exposition stuff that didn’t work so great for me here, so. 

Love & Zombies starts with a very satisfying first person voice: self-effacing while self-aggrandizing, and just freaking funny. The way he introduces you to the other characters – a girlfriend, an asshole best friend – was really grand, with a lapping, anecdotal quality I enjoyed. Turns out the asshole friend wants to pull some ill-conceived and unethical job for a cuss-ton of money, and our protagonist goes along with it for pretty stupid and illogical reasons. Which was okay by me, because I’ve certainly done stupid things for stupid friends, and I’ve probably stupidly entreated friends to do stupid things for me, and sometimes they’ve even gone along with it. Childhood friends especially, because even though we were just friends because of proximity, when you think about it, nostalgia plays its ugly hand.

The set up is very pulpy, and therefore pretty bananas. Main character dude is feeling emasculated because his hot girlfriend is possibly too GGG, and he’s not feeling worthy of her. This kind of amazing perfect gf for an admitted loser could piss me off, but our MC actually acknowledges that his feeling are dumb, and doesn’t put his crap on her. The stupid, unethical thing in this case is to drive out into the Nevada desert from California, find a zombie, and then squire her to Las Vegas, which is where everything, in pulp style, goes even more pear-shaped. 

Oh, did I mention there were zombies? This being one of the things that didn’t work so great for me in this novella. Apparently there have been zombie outbreaks all over the flyover states, but places like southern California have heretofore been untouched by the zombie plague. Which, fine; maybe my irritation with this set up is that I live in a flyover state full of zombies, so this sort of coastal insouciance about the zombie plague reads a little lame. I think it works in the whole personal metaphors of the main character, so it’s fine, but it doesn’t work on a nuts-and-bolts nerd world-building level. I guess I’m just saying that the world doesn’t make any sense, except as a personal metaphor, which is why this both works and doesn’t as a novella. You can’t expand it, but you can’t contract it either. 

I’ll just say: I liked the voice on this thing a lot. The main character is right: I may not like him, but I love his girlfriend, or maybe I just like how he talks about his girlfriend. (Which is another thing: as much as he talks about the girlfriend, I didn’t feel like I got enough screen-time from her to really dig her, except as a construct of the protagonist. Which is also fine, on some levels, because it’s about him thinking about her and not her. Just, it would have been nice to get a third act snap where you see what he says about her from a slightly different vantage, which would be her vantage. First person though, whatever.) 

I liked the near-zombie girl and the throats she rips out half-pretending to zombification. I also liked a lot of choices made by the protagonist, because while nostalgia may be sweet, his friend was a huge asshole. I’m not enamored of the tie-up, which read too cutesy perfect for me. Maybe the average novella should end with blood on the floor, because we don’t have the investment in your usual novelistic HEA. Maybe. It’s possible I’m bloodthirsty in my needs. 

Two of the novellas I read in my novella week were DarkFuse titles: this and Worm by Tim Curran. Worm was decidedly more about gross pulp thrills, while this was more voice-driven, with a chatting, hipster douchebag protagonist and his admittedly stupid problems. You could almost smoosh them up into a single hot novel, something with killer voice and killer kills. I kind of did that by reading them back to back, which I would recommend. The nice thing about novellas is you can put them down in a sitting, much like a zombie. Love, however, takes more than a headshot to vanquish. A worthy take-home, all told. 

Thank you,NetGalley, for the ARC. 

Wittgenstein’s Mistress

“In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” 

There’s an old saw, deployed in freshman (or maybe more properly sophomore) English classes about first lines. They set the tone, or gesture to the plot. They are a sign pointing off to the castle. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” One rich man (and, in truth, several) will marry in the course of the novel. So here in Wittgenstein’s Mistress we have a woman, in an world empty of people (and, eventually, we learn of all living creatures) writing her life as a signal to whomever might be there, which is, also eventually, no one. These street-messages were written before, when she was still searching, and when she was, coincidentally, mad with her aloneness. So many years have passed that the woman who looks back out from the mirror – a mirror she once signed, in lipstick, with a name that keeps changing, because she would only and ever be the person looking back from the glass – the woman who looks back from her from the mirror is her mother. 

She burns a house to the ground, and lives in its double. She worries, rightly, that the burned down thing that once was a house is still called a house by her. There is no one else to call it a house, or a ruin, or anything at all. 

Speaking aloud is a form of madness. 

It’s dangerously easy to fall into the single-sentence paragraph style of this book, which, to be frank, irritated the fuck out of me at first. I sat on my porch, in the midst of my life, half-managing the political machinations of several neighborhood kids and my own as they shot each other with Nerf guns and played princess, often at the same time. (Medicis would understand, but with poison.) 

Don’t make every thought a paragraph.

But then I went to the cabin. 

Where certainly not every thought is a paragraph, in truth, something more like all thoughts do not collect into paragraph drifts of connectives. There was a grouse in the grass, and she and the grass were almost the same thing, but she was eating out the grass and craning her neck to watch me even though I only moved to smoke the cigarette I was stealing. My daughter ran up and caught me smoking and the grouse vanished like a magic trick, not even exploding off into flight, but shifting to become more like grass in the moment it took me to address me daughter and turn back. Who was I stealing the smoke from? 

I think this novel would be a brilliant Twitter feed, or a tumblr with the Impact font of the lolcat:

In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street

I think this novel predicts the solitary madness of social media.

I don’t expect linearity or conclusion from the single-line status updates of my avatared friends, even this word adrift to mean a collection of real friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and people I don’t even like. If they were all gone, I might gossip about people who were all gone, all gone so long their fame left a collection of single-sentence anecdotes about them. I would continue my updating of my status into the great ugly void of an empty world, which would only be ugly because it was a void of people to speak my madness too, not because it wasn’t beautiful. There would still be grouse-like grass I could steal a smoke from, though never an interrupting daughter, which is where the sadness comes in. 

Last lines are their own riddle, in all truth. 

“Someone is living on this beach.” 

Ink by Amanda Sun

 Ink by Amanda Sun has a cool set up: people with the power to make drawings – even calligraphy – come to life, and an unusual setting: modern Japan, with a mostly Japanese cast. Though the main character is a gaijin, all of the other important characters (discounting her aunt, who isn’t hugely important) are Japanese teenagers in a local school. Katie Greene has moved to Japan to live with an aunt after the death of her mother, and is just a couple of months into her time there. Her spoken Japanese isn’t great, though passable, and her kanji is bad. (Which is not a criticism; kanji is hard.)(And, I just quizzed a friend about living in Japan, and about the writing systems more generally, and I’m feeling pretty impressed about how difficult they are to master.) 

I admit I was a little worried about this set up, because while the whole fish-out-of-water, new-girl-at-school trope can be a nice metaphor for more general teenage alienation (e.g. Twilight) or the dislocation of grief (e.g. Mac’s relocation to Ireland at the start of the Fever series after the death of her sister), sometimes this trope can fall into the whole exoticized other thing that’s either lazy at best, or racist at worst. I don’t actually have the background in modern Japanese teen culture to back up this statement, but I felt like Inkavoided this trap, and the Japanese cultural milieu wasn’t played as backdrop or stage-set. The depictions of the city and school systems were matter-of-fact and not romanticized, but with the short bursts of wonder, like the sequence with the cherry blossoms – beautiful! – that runs to a rainstorm and rotting petals in clumps. Foreign cities are sometimes really irritating for the new resident – I can’t read anything - but then they knock you down at the odd moment with their civic power. This book captured that well. 

Katie is occasionally too quickly cognizant of when she makes a misstep – oh no, I just used the familiar, not the formal! or whatever – when I think the slightly later dawning horror of screwing up in an unfamiliar social system might have worked better overall. While the mystery of the magical drawings starts with a pretty tense situation – Katie is eavesdropping on an ugly break-up, by accident – that tension runs out pretty fast into the usual bad boy with a heart of gold and couple other dudes for a triangle-ish situation. Her friends get sidelined equally quickly, going from lifelines to bit characters and plot-expedience-devices. The aunt also exits stage right for the most part. The plot dissolves into a lot of prêt-à-porter angst, never really harnessing the real traumas of Katie’s backstory, and the magic ends up being a little dumb and convenient. 

Which is frankly a crying shame. There was potential here for the magical ink to function as a grief mechanism, a dangerous and seductive escapism into the built-worlds of our desires, and Katie’s attraction to the bad boy could have been an expression of grief-fueled anger, the self-destructive grief tendency made manifest. But, nope. Katie is milquetoast and often drearily stupid, and her love interest’s vacillation between being a douche-bag and dreamy are obnoxiously obvious. Why is he pushing me awaaaaaay? Is it because of his feeeeeeelings? You think? Jesus. Katie should have just gone and made out with Tanaka, because he was funny and straight up. Jun and Tomo can take their angst and stuff it. 

Which, I’ll admit, is my old talking here, and might not be a cogent criticism of a YA novel published by Harlequin Teen. But I’ve been schooled enough in both romance and YA to know that very interesting things can happen in those genres, especially when the dissociation of the paranormal is thrown into the mix. Especially when potent metaphors for the aliveness of writing is the basis. That this ended up being perfunctory and cliche is disappointing – yet another average-yet-special girl must choose between assholes – but it might not actually be surprising, all told, and at least it has a setting that I enjoyed.


from Amanda Sun’s blog



Oh, and one last thing: I received this as an ebook from NetGalley – thank you! – and I was initially confused by the little drawings at the corners of the pages. The first third has these little petals in various formations, and then later a bird, etc. There are also larger pen drawings, usually illustrations of what the various characters were drawing. I did enjoy the full illustrations, which had a drippy, sketchy quality that was in line with the tone. I was perplexed by the smaller drawings – the petals, for example – which didn’t seem to correlate to scene breaks. It wasn’t until halfway through the bird drawings that I realized these must be planned as a flip-book, which is really cool design, one that works beautifully with the themes of the book. Good design that is totally lost in the ebook format. I have embraced ebooks – partially out of necessity, and partially out of expedience – but it behooves publishers to translate this paper-bound stuff to the electronic medium a little better. A YouTube video, an app: something should be linked at the end so we can experience this piece of the book that is just straight up nifty. Alas. 

Fox 8 by George Saunders

Pro-tip: don’t start reading the work of an author by half-assedly picking up a short story cut out of a larger collection and then offered up as a b-side extra, no matter how free it is from the library, no matter how attractive the cover. Don’t you want to eat that cover? I sure do. I’m not doing Saunders any favors as a reader by reading Fox 8: A Story first of his stuff, because even he knew there was something off about this. If you’d already read Tenth of December: Stories, from which this was excised, you might like it more, being able to place it within the album of ideas. 

But an epistolary short story written by a fox in fox dialect? Man, I don’t know, that’s maybe at least one gimmick too many. The puns made me roll my eyes, even though there was an “I know, rite?” that made me laugh, I’m embarrassed to admit. The whole thing struck me as trite and bossy, which is the worst kind of both of those things. This is all sounding meaner than I intend, and I’m sorry. Let me start again.

Based on a source I can’t remember or reproduce – seriously, I’m the worst reviewer today – Saunders briefly considered publishing this as a children’s book, complete with illustrations. (No, wait, here it is.) Which is where the few odd illustrations – which I would like to eat, I would like to reiterate – come from. There’s a term paper in there somewhere about didacticism in literary fiction and children’s lit, with a side bet in eco-lit as cultural superego, which, like all superegos, is both annoying and correct. 

I think this will be neat for Saunders enthusiasts, and I dig the whole single short story ebook thing being picked up by your more literary folk. Genre writers – at least romance and sf writers – have been doing this for a while, but all the press I saw about this single seemed surprised. 

I liked the very end? I can’t say I liked this, exactly, but it wasn’t bad. Definitely a matter of taste. 

Sigh.

The Best Man by Kristan Higgins

The Best Man was an idle Netgalley request which I read also idly, over the course of some time. Probably not the best way to read such a thing. The set up and a lot of the characters are very romantic-comedy broad: Faith was left at the altar years before by a dream boyfriend, Jeremy – high school football star, dreamy, caring – when he was outed as gay by his best friend, Levi – wrong side of the tracks, taciturn. She returns home to her screwball small town to keep her dad from marrying a “gold-digger”, which gives her the opportunity to work out her past with the gay ex-fiance and the meddling best man.

Her relationships with the former fiance, now a dreamboat doctor, and the best man, now an honorable sheriff, are the best parts of the book, but especially the former fiance. These three have history and weight behind their relationships, and it was really nice to see the process by which Faith forgave and came to terms with Jeremy. She and Jeremy have the sweetest relationship in the book. Levi was a little too much in the mold of Sam Shepard in Baby Boom, and I bridle at folksy small-town stuff. That’s really a matter of taste though.

The larger cast of characters was less awesome. There are some squabbling grandparents who I think are supposed to be funny in their bickering, but they genuinely seemed to hate each other and had wasted their lives being stuck with one another. That was depressing. Much of the comic stuff fell flat for me, like a series of first dates that ranged from dumb to offensive. Don’t use trans people as a punchline. The gold-digging girlfriend was ridiculous, and the panic about widowed parents beginning to date again was directed in the wrong directions.

So, a fine little bit of frothy small town rom-com with some sweet moments and some really terrible ones.

Fiend: A Novel by Peter Stenson

About halfway through Fiend: A Novel, I thought, fuck, what am I doing. I’d sworn off drug abuse fiction after Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Christ, already. I get it. Drugs are bad. (And before you go humorless on me, understand that I’m kidding about “drugs are bad” being the PSA of Requiem.) But good thing Greg sent me a message alerting me to the existence of this, because it’s also got zombies and it’s set in the Twin Cities, two things I pretty much adore when they’re done right. This does them right, in my humble, undead, Midwestern opinion. I always fucking knew St Paul was full of zombies. (Minneapolis might be too, but our heroes never venture to my side of the river.) 

Chase is coming off of a week-long tweak when a little girl tears the throat out of a Rottweiler, then attempts to eat his face off too. Being on the end of a meth binge, he’s not so sure she’s real until his friend Typewriter caves in her skull and sets the house on fire. Like 28 Days later or Rick in Walking Dead, Chase and Type have missed the zombie apocalypse in their altered state: turns out everyone died one night, and then the next day, a bunch of ‘em got back up. Following the odd, but mostly unbroken convention in zombie lit, no one calls them zombies. Because the zombies giggle – which is hugely ominous at points, all this soft laughter coming from god knows where, or loudly from behind a straining door – the band of survivors call them Chucks. For the chuckling, you see. And the really fun part: only people high on meth, and continuously high on meth, survive the zombie apocalypse. The tweak shall inherit the earth. 



Concentrations of meth labs in the US. 



The voice is first person, with a stripped down punctuation and almost stream-of-consciousness. I say almost, because its really more stream-of-highass-award. This sort of damaged-by-drugs narration can grate, I find, often taking the lazy way out when it comes to control of the prose or the tone. I found Stenson to be quite good at both, and he just did a masterful job of vacillating through the extreme highs and lows of the junkie. There was a lack of affect and incuriousness running through even the highest sections, so that it wasn’t too precious either (a problem sometimes in druggie lit, I think). Lots of body horror, juicy, yucky descriptions, and repellent metaphors. The horror went comic a lot too, because bodies are funny as often as they are gross. The lack of quote marks on the dialogue was cool, running it so that you sometimes can’t tell if Chase said it or just thought it real loud, and it’s not like he knows or anyone is really listening anyway. The obvious analogy to make here is The Road, but I think it’s much more like The Reapers Are the Angels in terms of use of dialect, idiom, and genre pulpiness. (Though this isn’t nearly as stagy or ponderous, for better or for worse.) Certain punctuation won’t survive the apocalypse, apparently; literacy is as cooked as the meth when you’re dealing with zombies. 

I also really liked the local setting, because I totally know those kids from White Bear Lake – called, uncharitably but accurately “White Boy Lake” around here – who come rolling in with their privilege and rebellion, and then acclimate to the leveling effects of a decade of being strung out. The Hmong cook certainly has some shit to say about Chase and his ilk, and the demarcations of the neighborhoods and landmarks comes from someone who hasn’t just googled that stuff. Locals, heed this passage:

At Summit, the apex of our shitty little town, stands the governor’s mansion with its slabs of imported stone and then the Summit Club, and I picture F. Scott sitting in there writing about Bernice bobbing her hair. From this elevation we can see West Seventh, the flats of St Paul, where we see poor white Chucks shuffle around, tiny as ants, each and every one of them unified in their singleness of mind. Beyond them, across the Mississippi, not really visible, streets like Chavez and Independence, the skin once again darkening. Our city: each neighborhood segregated, first by economics, then by race. Each neighborhood now hosting its own walking dead, its own hidden pockets of shit-smoking motherfuckers trying to find the next hit.

I almost has the fury of Colson Whitehead’s final pan of a zombie New York in Zone One, but St Paul isn’t New York, and Mark Spitz’s averageness is a different coping strategy than being fucked up. Whitehead’s protagonist Mark Spitz could never get up to the grandiloquent bullshit of a junkie, the sine waves of hope and despair; Chase would never ruminate with such urbane disconnect. There’s no taxonomy of survival narrative, just a sloppy, ugly existence from one hit to the next. Plus, really, fury isn’t a Midwestern thing when you get down to it. These autopsies of cities are personal things, and I respond to that personality immensely. I can see my house from here. And it’s on fire.

I thank Netgalley heartily for the ARC, and apologize if I’m not supposed to quote. 

My Nebula Predictions

A couple months ago I set out to read all of the Nebula nominees in the novel category for 2012, which are as follows:

I didn’t have much faith in my completing said project, but here I am, roughly a week before they are to be announced, having read five and a half of the nominees, and also a bonus previous novel. So good job, me. Even though I haven’t finished The Drowning Girl, which if it keeps going like it’s going, is going to be my favorite of the bunch, I feel like I can make some predictions.

2312 is going to win it.

But didn’t you just say that The Drowning Girl was your favorite? Sure, but that’s more personal taste than award trends. Let’s break this down.

I’m going to discount both Ironskin and Throne of the Crescent Moon because they are first novels. I just tried to figure out how many Nebulas have been awarded to first novels without much success. Certainly Neuromancer, which won in 1984, was a first novel, but I’m not seeing much precedent for that to happen. Also because Ironskin sucks. Crescent Moon is fun, but not up to the level of writing in some of the other novels here, much more beholden to genre conventions. I just don’t see such a conventional fantasy novel winning this, especially given the competition.

I’m also going to discount Glamour in Glass, partially because it is a sequel, partially because I don’t like it, and partially because the vote in the half-assed science fictional update of classic literature category is going to be split between that and Ironskin. Both Ironskin and Glamour in Glass take on story styles written by women in the early 19th C; Jane Eyre and Jane Austen being the hat-tips, respectively. Neither was particularly successful, in my opinion, but the deeper problem is that we’re dealing with awards voted on by nerds. Smart, writing nerds, but nerds nonetheless. Nerds can have strong feelings about the Janes (and I get that conflating a character with a novelist is a hugely insensitive thing to do, and still I do it) – case in point, myself – but it’s as much impediment as it is push. I hate every single thing Ironskin does with Jane Eyre, and it’s not a coherent novel there at the end. If I didn’t have the intertext in my mind, I would just be puzzled by it. Glamour in Glass is more successful, being less tethered to source material, but it’s ultimately less fun than the first novel in the series (which was also nominated and didn’t win), and its science fictional aspects are badly considered. (Badly. Is word.)

So that leaves us with 2312The Drowning Girl, and The Killing Moon. Really, any of these could be awarded the Nebula and I wouldn’t be surprised. All three are written by established sff writers who are decidedly in control of their game. Much as I love The Drowning Girl so far, it is a difficult novel with a difficult narrative voice. Despite how into it I am, I keep having to take breaks from Imp and her craziness – using her own term on herself – because, as she says, the ghosts are infectious. The novel is not approachable the way its main character is not approachable, cut through with all kinds of deflective ticks. I think that’s grand, but it’s not the sort of thing that wins awards. (And I’m not saying readers are stupid for not loving this or anything; the heart wants what it wants.)

The Killing Moon too has difficult main characters, though the sheer level of craziness is not at the level of The Drowning Girl. But the high fantasy world is richly drawn, with a coherent and thoughtful magical system, and a believable political conflict. Compared to Throne of the Crescent Moon, which reads as Arab/Persian culture with the serial numbers filed off – and, I totally get that running a slash through Arab/Persian is a hugely insensitive thing to do, yet still I do it - The Killing Moon runs its vaguely ancient Egyptian culture with less reliance on actual cultures both extant and ancient, which I count as a plus. I’d hedge and say this is the likely second choice to be awarded the Nebula.

But what it comes down to is that 2312 is the only novel nominated that is traditional science fiction. Which is weird, right? That five of the novels nominated would be fantasy of one stripe or another, and only one your daddy’s space opera? I think both The Killing Moon and Glamour in Glass have magical systems so tightly defined as to read as science fictional in a way – there are rules, and epistemologies – but they don’t have the gee whizziness of space exploration at their backs. So I think that voters inclined to the strictly science fictional will vote for the only book that registers their predilections,  for better or for worse.

I fairly loved 2312 myself, so this is not a bad choice. Also, and this is going on hearsay because I haven’t read much Kim Stanley Robinson, but I am given to understand that some readers were bored to death by the extremely wanky hard sf tone of the Mars trilogy, and while wanky hard science is in evidence in 2312, it’s not the main or only thing. I feel like KSR is going to be awarded the Nebula the way Bob Dylan was awarded the Grammy for Time Out of Mind. Sorry we fucked up and never gave you an award for Blonde on Blonde, and it’s also good to see you’re out of whatever you were doing in the 80s. (See also: the Nebula for Blackout/All Clear, because that’s not Willis’s best work by half.) Which is not to say that 2312 isn’t pretty freaking great, nor Time Out of Mind. Just that it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Tune in next week to see how full of shit I am.

ETA:

I was right! Of course.

Nebula Nominees: The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I am going to begin somewhat uncharitably by making fun of the cover for Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Now, I know covers ain’t content, and usually authors have close to zero say in cover choice, so I’m not making fun of Ahmed here. However:

The cover for Crescent Moon, which has very cartoony looking D&D people looking boss

Seriously. 

I showed this cover to my husband and asked, “Where’s the Disney singing sidekick?” At which point he retorted, “Is that Mel Brooks?” But snarking hipsterism aside, the cover is kinda perfect, because Throne of the Crescent Moonfeels like very old school, summer vacation reading, sword-and-sandals fantasy, the kind of thing little Ceridwen would stay up reading past her bedtime because OMG, it’s the end of the world! and also maybe some fart jokes; lol; he said fart. The cover conveys that pretty well, as does the completely forgettable title which feels like it was spat out of the Random Fantasy Novel Title Generator. It’s just sad, is all, because the title and cover are so stock fantasy, and I think the book itself is maybe more interesting than the cover implies? Maybe not, because I can’t say I more than liked this, and I only read it because I’m trying to get through the 2012 Nebula nominees before May 18th when they announce the winners. (Kim Stanley Robinson: why did I leave your doorstopper for last?) 

So Doctor Aboulla Makhslood is the last of the ghul-hunters, a wheezy, fat old man with a cheerless, devout dervish apprentice. Abdoulla is definitely getting too old for this shit, but not so old he can’t enjoy giving his apprentice a hard time and opening up a can of whup-ass on some ghuls. The story starts with Abdoulla’s old flame asking for some help in the deaths of some of her kin, and Abdoulla saddles up the donkey and heads out. Abdoulla’s very much like your kinda racist teasing old uncle, who talks a lot of shit but is essentially a good guy. If only he would STFU about how much he loves living in New York. 

There’s a getting-the-band-back-together feel of the opening, which has Abdoulla and his dour dervish meeting up with a badass Cheetara vengeance girl, finding their purpose – we must find the ghul-of-ghuls! – and then chatting over tea with Abdoulla’s neighbors and friends, who just happen to be an alkemist and a mage. Wonder fantasy team activate! There’s a lot of street-fighting and Robin Hoody folk characters, dire magic, out of touch Khalifs and civil unrest, and everything winds up to a pretty perfunctory meeting with a Big Boss – zap! pflash! – complete with moral compromises and the like. Super fantasy friends to the rescue! Huzzah!

I told myself I wasn’t going to be a quipping jerk in this review, and I see I’ve failed at that completely. Let me start again.

There is a lot I liked about Throne of the Crescent Moon, the primary thing being its cranky old main character and his cranky old friends. It’s neat to see a fat old grouch grouse his way through a plot usually left to the young and beautiful, people like his pious apprentice and cat-changing-girl. He and his old friends score a lot of points off of their youthful exuberance, even if it occasionally seems unfair that everyone seems to be written to bear Abdoulla’s quips. It’s also too bad the dervish and the cat-changing-girl are so thinly written, especially the supposed sexual tension between the two of them. I believe that not at all, and none of the “conflict” the dervish experienced rang true to me. 

I also enjoyed the…how do I put this?…religiosity of the characters? Abdoulla and his old friends are cynical, urbane folk who have little faith in institutions or even human nature, and this rubs up against the youthful piety and certainty of the younger characters. But, Abdoulla still has a complicated and dynamic engagement with his religion and his faith, even while it’s kinda crimped and leftways. I’m not a believer in much myself, when it comes to your traditional monotheisms, but Abdoulla read to me like my Grandpa Ed, who for generational reasons could never come out and own his atheism (in the strictest sense), instead subsuming his wonder and prayerfulness into hymns and books. Abdoulla believes in things: his city, his friends, even the concept of duty (despite his constant bitching), and he calls those things God. Even the devil can quote scripture, but it takes a holy fool to make a fart joke and then quote scripture. Grandpa Ed would approve. 

I think I’m going to go out on a limb and say this isn’t going to win the Nebula. Not only is Throne of the Crescent Moon a first novel – like any award, name recognition factors – but it also has a pretty stock fantasy plot, despite the slightly unusual main character. (I don’t think the cranky mentor is unusual, just to be clear, just that it’s unusual for him to be the main character. It’s like if Obi Wan were the protagonist of Star Wars, and also drank and farted more.) So, enjoyable little book that doesn’t set out to accomplish much, but does accomplish the small things it sets out to do. A younger version of me would probably like this more, as she wouldn’t be as jaded about fantasy conventions. I feel like maybe Ahmed was working out his fantasy tropes in this his first novel, and that will leave him open to muck around with convention more in later outings. That would be swell. I’d read ‘em.