Tag: Novella

This Census-Taker – China Miéville

In past posts, I’ve alluded to the divide within the speculative fiction world, wherein on one side stands the group that wants to elevate unheard voices, shine a light on different stories, and push the boundaries of our boundless universes just a bit farther. From the other side wafts a miasma, that same stench that has consumed U.S. politics which, in this case, wants to make science fiction “Great Again.” That group calls itself the “sad puppies,” which isn’t a joke, somehow. Anyway, their continued efforts to bend the system to push certain works toward award nominations have been less effective than previous years, though not entirely ineffective. Which brings me to This Census-Taker, by China Miéville.

I had planned not to read any of the puppy-nominated books from the 2017 Hugo nominees list, but I’d been meaning to read China Miéville for a while, having had his work recommended to my time and again by friends and colleagues the world over. Despite what follows, I will very likely try another Miéville in the future.

This Census-Taker is a book that, for me, never quite took off. It blends elements of fantasy and horror within a surreal framework, muddied by the unreliable narrator, a nameless boy who tells the story in pieces, from different periods of time, and with varying levels of basic knowledge. For all its artistry, the (quite good) writing isn’t able to give the requisite lift to the book. It falls flat.

There’s a murder (maybe), and a (possibly) bottomless hole where his (suspected) evil father dumps the (presumed) victims of his homicidal tendencies: animals and humans alike. Sometimes, the story moves one step outward, telling a loose frame story—the nameless boy, older now, in some kind of incarceration, is writing down the details of his childhood—but that, too, remains somewhat bland. This Census-Taker becomes even more lackluster when comparing it to the other nominated novellas from this year’s Hugos—Black Tom, Vellit Boe, and Every Heart a Doorway in particular, which I had read shortly before sitting down to listen to the audiobook of This Census-Taker.

As I implied above, I don’t indent to blackball Miéville from my to-read list as a result of my less-than-stellar affair with this novella. He’s a fascinating figure who has amassed an impressive corpus, and I’m curious to see his takes on other genres.

Maybe you, friend, can convince me to pick up one of his books sooner. Give it your best shot in the comments.

Penric and the Shaman – Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold, who won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Series (for the Vorkosigan Saga), is a fantastically decorated writer. Among her many accolades are six Hugos, three Nebulas, three Locuses, and as of 2010 (according to wikipedia), has sold over two million books.

And because I’ve been derelict in my studies of speculative fiction, I hadn’t heard of her until I saw Penric and the Shaman on the list of nominated novellas for the 2017 Hugos.

It’s tough to give a fair review to a novella that is set smack-dab in the middle of an established series: the second novella in a series of five that is itself set within a larger series. There’s an established world, pantheon, society, and long-standing relationships between characters, nations, and religious sects that would have been prohibitively difficult (not to mention ill advised) to include in the novella.

As such, there’s a bit of catch-up on the part of a reader hopping in to the Chalion series in its fifth installment. That being said, Bujold did an excellent job of back-filling questions for new readers while making sure that her pacing would keep knowledgable fans interested. Even with her admirable efforts, I found myself occasionally lost while reading Penric and the Shaman. There was just too much information to assimilate. There was plenty of available information between the lines, in character behaviors and dialogue, but keeping track of it is where I became disoriented.

But that’s part-and-parcel of my circumstance as a reader, and not a knock against the book. Bujold’s writing is very good—she imbues a sort of clarity in her writing that makes even the abstract and hallucinatory moments in the novella easy to picture, which helped me a great deal when it came to piecing the story together in larger, implied context.

Penric is a young (too young, according to most of the reactions to him in the story) sorcerer, advisor to a princess, and a divine priest of the “Bastard’s Order”—who represent the Bastard, the unnamed god of the forgotten, abandoned, and etcetera. Penric is also possessed, or perhaps in possession of, a demon, Desmonda, who hangs out in his brain and can occasionally, with Penric’s permission use his body.

Penric is sent off on a mission to capture a runaway shaman, Inglis, who has been charged with murder. When Penric and his cadre of soldiers finally catch up to Inglis in the snowy mountains, they discover that the situation is much more complex than they’d been led to believe, and Penric is tasked with balancing his roles as a clergyman and sorcerer, torn between his desire to help the man he’s chasing and appeasing the hard-nosed military leader who just wants to complete the mission.

Penric and the Shaman is, all-in-all, an excellent story that deals with intriguing themes of belief, death, personal responsibility, and agency within a wonderfully deep framework that I knew almost nothing about. I’m sure I would have loved the story if I was familiar with Bujold’s other work, but as it is, I really enjoyed Penric and the Shaman.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe – Kij Johnson

A strange and delightful congruity connects The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with the last Hugo-nominated book I reviewed, The Ballad of Black Tom. Both reach back toward Lovecraft, grab hearty handfuls of story, and mold it into works that manage the requisite respect for the author of such incredible tales while openly challenging his prejudices. You can refresh your memory about how Victor LaValle elegantly reframes Lovecraft into a tale of loss and revenge in last month’s review. We’re here today to talk about Kij Johnson’s brilliant, expansive, and enthralling The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

Most of the story takes place in the same world as Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, complete with the array of fantastical locales and creatures that populate Lovecraft’s dreamlands—that’s right folks, there are zoogs, gugs, and ghouls aplenty in Vellitt Boe. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read Lovecraft’s Unknown Kadath, but based on some cursory research it’s a bit of an outlier in Lovecraft’s body of work, particularly because it isn’t as macabre as his other works. In fact, some people on the web called it “uplifting.” I’ll reserve my own commentary until such time as I have read the book in question. I’m certain that an intimacy with Unknown Kadath would make reading Vellitt Boe all the sweeter, but even without knowing the context in which the story’s told, Vellitt Boe is a terrific work of writing.

In contrast to where LaValle took Lovecraft’s horror, Kij Johnson took the wonder and fantasy of Lovecraft and cranked them up to eleven. But there’s a stunning reversal at the heart of the story, specifically to do with wonder, which I’ll go into further below. Where LaValle took Lovecraft’s bigotry and reformed it into a story of loss and cathartic revenge, Johnson looked at the complete lack of women—his dismissive sexism—in Unknown Kadath and, occupying the space he glossed over, tells a story about adventure, fear, wonder, and the subversion of the divine.

Vellitt Boe, the eponymous protagonist of the novella, is a professor at the Women’s College at Ulthar (one of the dreamlands). That there is a Women’s College at all, and the hinted-at fragility of its existence, is clear commentary on Lovecraft’s treatment of women in general, but it isn’t a focal point of the story. It’s the foundation upon which the stakes are built for Vellitt and, though they remain throughout the story, an odd distance grows between Vellitt and the College she defends; her need to protect the school, its staff, and its students never falters, but her personal connection to it wanes.

A brief overview of the story’s events before I dive into what captivated me about it: Vellitt Boe is awoken in the middle of the night to discover that one of her brightest students, Clarie Jurat, has run away with a man from the waking world. As Clarie’s father is one of the benefactors of the Women’s College, this scandalous event could have far-reaching ramifications, up to (and including) the closing of the Women’s College. Vellitt volunteers to go after Claire and return her to the College, and sets off immediately. At this point, we know little of Vellitt aside from her role at the school and tidbits about her personality. As she travels, we learn more about her past and her passions—the story is a story of growth and change that is inspired by (and mirrored in) her adventure. Ultimately, the quest takes Vellitt out of the dreamlands and into the waking world where she finds Clarie and delivers her message—that Clarie must return to the dreamlands. That she must go home. It so happens that, because of the quest itself, Vellitt is barred from returning to the dreamlands. She is unable to go home.

Connection to home, or a lack thereof, is a recurring theme in the story, and there’s a kind of inverse relationship between Vellitt’s fading connection to her home and the overall story arc. As she travels, we learn that Vellitt lived an adventurous and nomadic youth, finally settling at Ulthar and hanging up her traveling cloak and boots for what she thought would be the remainder of her life. But at 55 and back on the road, Vellitt feels the breath of new life in her, and though she sees how she has aged since her traveling years, she realizes that while she was happy at Ulthar, she was stagnating. She was home at Ulthar. But she’s at home on the road—at home at the helm of her own moment-to-moment experience.

As she travels, she’s presented with difficult trials, and each is surmounted with the intervention of Vellitt’s own lived experience. The people she traveled with, the loves and abuses and terrors and strengths of her youth, they all inform her and propel her in strength toward finding her goal, which happens to be restricting that selfsame adventurous streak in a young girl. Vellitt feels for Clarie, for her desire to see the waking world, but she knows that tragedy could befall the Women’s College if this one girl’s thirst for adventure isn’t curbed. The sacrifices she must make so that the progress women made in that world wouldn’t be nullified. It’s a conundrum. It’s thought provoking and gives pause.

Before I spoil the whole book for you, I’d like to talk about one more thing I found particularly compelling about The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: The dreamlands are extraordinary, vivid, and magical. To us—and to waking-world dreamers who visit—it is a fantastical delight. In many respects it is to Vellitt and Clarie, but it is home. Having both been involved with dreamers, they yearn to see the waking world, with its infinite sky of billions of stars, with its enormous scale and properly behaved physics. A tessellating sky that’s something between paper maché and silken lacework is beautiful, but limited. Through the eyes of Vellitt, the awesome landscape of the dreamlands is dimmed, and when she finally opens her eyes in the waking world, a Wisconsin blue sky on a clear day holds the majesty of all the prismatic crystalline cliff-sides you can imagine. The simplicity—mundanity, even—of the real world isn’t replaced. Rather, it is seen from a different perspective, and I was as enchanted with the infinite sky, one I’ve seen every day for my whole life, as Vellitt when she first saw it.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is available on Amazon.

The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle

Note: Herein begins a series of reviews of books nominated for this years Hugo Awards. For those who don’t know, I will be attending the Hugos this year in Helsinki, Finland, and have more than a little catching up to do in regards to the nominees. I’ve already reviewed a few nominated stories, which will be back-tagged with the Hugo tag, should you be interested in seeing the group together. 

When my dad first saw Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, he expressed an emotion that, at first, struck me as odd, but as I thought about it, made a great deal of sense. He found the film deeply cathartic. To watch a group of empowered Jews brutalize Nazis, he said, felt good. Really good.

I thought about that for a long while. The second world war carved a deep wound on the entire world, and the holocaust left horrid scar tissue in my people across the diaspora. We are all affected, generations later, no matter our ties to survivors or victims, no matter our beliefs or shifting religious affiliations. As my father said to me once, during my time as a rather angry atheist in college (I’ve since calmed down), the Nazis wouldn’t have cared what you believed. To them, you are a Jew.

The scars left on a people from having atrocities visited upon them last generations, a metastatic stiffness that has a rippling affect on our capacity for integrating into the world around us. And because humanity displays a tremendous weakness for even short-term memory, the victims of history are often blamed for the cultural wounds that shape our collective neuroses.

And so when my dad saw Inglorious Basterds, he saw a power fantasy for a people disempowered by history, in the heart of the greatest and most terrible robbery of their dignity and humanity. He had a chance to live out a dream he’d never known lived deep in him. Watching the film again, I saw what he meant, and completely agreed.

In many respects, I imagine that The Ballad of Black Tom can foster similar catharsis for black Americans. The protagonist undergoes a transformation through the novella, from a wily young man using ignorance and intolerance to his advantage to a powerful, somewhat divine being visiting destruction on those who robbed him of everything. He plays by the rules, bending and weaving through them as he will, getting slightly ahead in a world that perpetually pushes him behind. When he’s pushed into encounters with the supernatural, the comfortable—if harsh and dehumanizing—world cracks at the seams.

And when his father is executed by police for absolutely no reason, the world shatters and Tommy Tester wonders why the rules mattered at all. No matter what he believed, no matter his actions or efforts, he is subhuman. Second-class and worse. He gives in to the darkness that lingers nearby, reaches for the horror that’s held at bay and wraps himself in it. Then, he finds revenge.

Victor LaValle’s writing is spectacular, harkening to Lovecraft (by whom the story must have been inspired, especially given the presence of Cthulhu) but exceeding it. It fits in with the canonical mythos while proving that Lovecraft’s defects—his intolerance, his bigotry—aren’t what makes his brand of horror great. They detract from it. The scars from the horrors visited upon African Americans are ripe for the kind of horrors these tales visit upon the world. With LaValle’s brilliant novella, we get a taste of how sweet that revenge might be.

The Ballad of Black Tom, published by Tor.com, is available on Amazon.

Snapshot – Brandon Sanderson

I’m not sure about other writers in the world, but it seems to me unique that Brandon Sanderson considers writing a new novella to be a break from, well, writing. Granted, he did write Snapshot as a break from working on Oathbringer, the third volume in his mega-epic Stormlight Archive series, but, like, I mean…he wrote a novella as a breather from a bigger project.

Maybe I’m crazy, though. All I know is that I hope to display such fortitude toward the craft in the future, once I strengthen those muscles a bit.

On his blog, Sanderson said that Snapshot was a story idea that wouldn’t leave him alone; something he had to write furiously over the course of a week.

I can see why the idea stuck in is mind. The premise of Snapshot is cool—Cool enough that MGM is already optioning the story—and though it is expansive in potential scope, the story is very focused and leverages the “wow” factor to excellent narrative effect. In the not-so-distant future, something allows for the recreation of a particular day, complete with people, animals, everything, that can be explored by anyone in the present time. In Snapshot, the technology is used for detective work, and the detectives within the snapshots (as the instances of recreated days are called) have special badges that inform any non-person within the snapshot that they are, in fact, a simulation that will perish when the machine is turned off at the end of the night. The moments when people realize they’re artificial are profound and emotional.

There’s a twist within a twist within a twist in Snapshot, and because I enjoyed reading it so much, I’ll forgo talking directly about the plot any further.

What I will talk about is the meat of the idea that drives Snapshot. It’s as though Sanderson took the concept of a “story within a story” and tried to make it literal. There’s something deeply satisfying about reading that structure—the metagame rests in the back of your mind as you read. It’s one of those Inception memes, in the form of an electrifying—and actually very good—story.

What’s especially cool about Sanderson’s execution of this story is that there’s the twist you expect, which occupies the bulk of your subconscious processing while you read, but makes the reveal of the twist you don’t expect a much more powerful experience.

Snapshot is short, focused, and stably-paced. The characters are great, and the action is sporadic, playing a backseat to the general thrill of the story. I can’t recommend it enough—this one will absolutely become a TV show.

Snapshot is available on Amazon.

Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire

heart-bigAfter seeing her at a reading at Borderlands in San Francisco, I became a fan of Seanan McGuire. Before that reading, I’d only seen her work in Altered Perceptions, wherein she wrote a very moving personal piece about living with OCD. I knew she was rather prolific (from her essay more than anything else), and knew that I wanted to read something by her, the gods of my ever-growing to-read list willing.

The opportunity came to request her upcoming novella, Every Heart a Doorway from NetGalley, and I was delighted. Two birds with one stone, as they say.

Every Heart a Doorway is a tale of belonging, of a community of misfits and ill-fits, and of self-discovery. While it is, superficially, a simple tale, it is built on a wonderful, rich concept that is so large in scope that it encompasses worlds. It’s appeal lay in its telling-which was beautifully executed-and in its characters, a varied group of wonderfully zany, morbid, logical, calm children.
Set in a boarding school for children who’ve journeyed “beyond the looking-glass,” Every Heart a Doorway follows Nancy, a girl who found her way through a door in the cellar into the halls of the dead. Upon her return, like all children who go through portals to other worlds, she was somewhat incompatible with her old life.

One of the things I liked best about Every Heart a Doorway is the way McGuire built a system around the various magical worlds. While the story never delved deeply into this “magic system,” its presence served as a compass that positioned the characters in a framework, made their wild variations make perfect sense, and piqued my curiosity more than a little. The “handwavium” of many fairytale worlds is effectively nullified by an intellectual and academic approach.

The school is filled with characters who traveled to fascinating worlds, all of whom want to return, thinking them their true homes. For whatever reason-different for each child-they were returned to reality. Some were expelled, others returned as a test, administered to ensure their commitment to their particular world or their desire to stay in reality.

When students (and eventually a teacher) start turning up dead-brutally murdered-a panic sets in over the school. Nancy and her (few) friends set about uncovering the mystery. The challenge makes makes marvelous use of the skills or abilities some of the children gained in their worlds, leading to fantastical moments-like a boy animating the skeleton of one of the victims using a flute carved of bone-that make the story shine.

Every Heart a Doorway was a beautiful read, and some of the underlying messages could do with wider spreading-inclusion, openness, self-confidence-especially in this troubled sociopolitical climate.

I hope that Every Heart a Doorway is a taste of a larger world McGuire is building-I picture a world-hopping heroine embarking on many adventures in this multi-verse-but if it is not, Every Heart a Doorway was a delightful and satisfying enough morsel on its own. It is yet another fantastic novella that you should not miss.

Pre-order Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway on Amazon.com. (Using that link helps support The Warbler!)

Of Sorrow and Such – Angela Slatter

SorrowsandSuch_FINAL_hiresOne of the biggest unforeseen benefits of ramping up review cadence and outreach on The Warbler is the opportunity I’ve had to read so many different works by authors of whom I hadn’t heard, in formats outside the long-form epic fantasies I long favored.

Through this new, widened lens, I’ve (re)discovered that novellas are wonderful things.

Angela Slatter’s Of Sorrow and Such is one such thing of wonder. Slatter is an award-winning Australian author—a doctor of creative writing—with an impressive list of published short fiction, flash fiction, and anthologies in her CV. Of Sorrow and Such is published by Tor’s new imprint dedicated to short fiction, Tor.com Publishing.

Of Sorrow and Such occupies that special space in speculative fiction, wherein a fantastical, dystopian, or utopian setting is a vehicle for the expression of raw human experiences. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a great story in it, but the novella deals with hard, human truths that reach beyond the fiction and into the everyday lives of many of its readers.

There’s mesmerizing rhythm and poetry in the way Slatter writes. Patience Gideon, the story’s protagonist-who evidently features in a number of other works by Slatter—has a way of observing the world which both enriches it and robs it of its color. She sees through the manifold lens of her many hardships: The difficulty of being a woman in a medieval-ish society; of being a witch among superstitious villagers; of raising an orphaned girl as her daughter; of maintaining anonymity in plain sight.

In a society that sees women as little more than chattel and burns women with magic at the stake, privacy and secrecy are paramount to survival. So when a village woman arrives at Patience’s door, holding up her severely injured sister, and reveals herself as a shapeshifter, things get complicated. We are tested alongside Patience and by her, when she and the other characters in the novella do things that disturb us, or leave us feeling weak, having no idea what we’d do in her stead.

Fantasy often glorifies the magically-gifted, and Of Sorrow and Such is another great example where this isn’t the case. Witches, in Slatter’s world, are just like us, but with more to fear. I’ll leave you with a sentence I found particularly good from the novella, from which the name of the story is derived.

“My girl, my darling girl, don’t wish for what I’ve got—a witch’s life is made of sorrow and such. Be happy you’ve a chance at something else.”

Tor.com publishing’s catalog of novellas has intrigued me for a few weeks now, and reading Of Sorrow and Such makes me want to head to their site and pick up a number of other novellas. The joy of reading a satisfying story in an hour or two is intoxicating. I highly recommend reading Of Sorrow and Such, and checking out the rest of the Tor.com catalog.

Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

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When he was a graduate student in astronomy, Welsh writer Alastair Reynolds published four short stories that marked the beginning of his career as an author. While working at the European Space Agency, he began work on what was to be his debut novel, Revelation Space. He’s been a published writer for almost 30 years, with over forty published short stories and twelve novels.

But I hadn’t heard of Alastair Reynolds until I saw the cover of Slow Bullets in Tachyon’s catalogue. The cover intrigued me—a spaceship seemingly in good repair that, when examined closely, exhibits signs of decay, over a planet covered in swirling storm clouds that shows no sign of advanced life: no lights twinkling from cities on the night side. No speckling of settlements on the light side.

The description of the novella hooked me as well, with one line in particular: “Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable.”

I cracked open the book the minute it arrived at my house, even though it was a few lines down in my “priority” reading list, because something about it called to me. I wanted to hold it; to raise its intriguing cover closer to my eyes and see if there was more to be learned from it. To read its first page.

And on the first page alone, I was sold. It’s been a long while since I felt so strongly about an opening page. In fact, I can’t remember the last book I read whose first page affected me the same way.

So much character and world was built in to those few lines. So much that pulled me in and invested me in the protagonist, who had already lost so much, and would obviously lose more as the story unfolded. So much about a galaxy at war, wherein expression was forbidden.

So I turned the page. Then another. And another. And before long I was sunk deep in Scur’s plight, horrified and enraged for her and the other soldiers subjected to the tortuous slow bullets that shackled them to their duty. And when she was taken prisoner, I shared her terror and was inspired by her bravery.

Then, darkness. And reawakening. And with that awakening, an entirely new set of problems. A villain on the loose, and an unfamiliar universe outside the hull of a dying ship.

The story that Slow Bullets became had me enthralled—it is full of tension, confusion, fear, horror, and loss. It fascinated and inspired me. Most of all, I really, really enjoyed it. With Slow Bullets, I’ve become a fan of Alastair Reynolds. If science fiction, mystery, and political thrillers intrigue you, I highly recommend Slow Bullets-. It’ll sate your hunger as it did mine.

Perfect State – Brandon Sanderson

perfect-stateThis will be a slightly spoileriffic review, so beware, I suppose, if you haven’t read it and would very much like to.

Perfect State is a novella that takes a new look at an old classic of philosophy: the brain in a jar. My understanding of popular interpretations of the theory are limited to that one Philosophy class I took—then quickly dropped—in college, and The Matrix.

Perhaps I’m no expert in the subject. I have, however, pondered the topic with friends at great length, late at night (especially in college), only to get lost in the maze of what is reality, anyway?

Interesting conversations, those.

What I find particularly compelling about the brain-in-a-jar theory is that following any number of logical threads leads to some fundamental questions about experience and subjectivity. If we are indeed disembodied brains, our experiences the result of electrical stimuli, are they still real experiences? Is reality itself not a series of electrical stimuli interpreted through an apparatus that happens to be an organic machine? Am I not already a brain in a person-shaped jar? Are any of the people I know, the things I interact with, the routine of my life-is any of it real? How could I tell if it wasn’t?

These aren’t exactly the questions Brandon Sanderson asks in Perfect State. In fact, he does away with a good deal of the highfalutin pontification, in favor of telling a very fun story. Not to say that there are no interesting questions raised by Perfect State. There are. You should read it.

The hero of Perfect State is man who knows he is a brain in a jar. Turns out, all of humanity are brains in jars. The difference is that each and every person gets to “live” in an environment/world/locale personalized to them. A world that will challenge them and demand they ascend to positions of power. For some, like the hero, these worlds are fantasy settings, complete with cultures, creatures, magic; the whole nine. For others, like the nemesis of the story, they’re cyberpunk worlds replete with robots and (one hopes) a veritable cavalcade of sweet guns and laser noises. For still others, the challenge might be political, social, cultural.

Every individual lives in a world designed and specialized for them. A Perfect State, if you will. (Sorry about that.)

So how does our hero know he’s a brain-in-a-jar living in an artificially-generated reality? The beings with the keys to the mind-simulations tell him. They tell everyone, evidently, when they come of age.

So where’s the tension? Where’s the story?

I’m glad you asked, friend.

Our hero, bored as he might be with his perfect and immortal life, ruling over a world designed for him, is more comfortable ignoring the reality of his artificial reality than confronting it head-on.

And the guys with the keys to the simulation just informed him that he has to go on a date. With another brain-in-a-vat. Outside of his State. To propagate the species. (Which is, apparently, a matter of finding compatible couplings and synthesizing a new brain out of DNA taken from the pair. In case you were curious.)

The ensuing adventure is a short and thrilling ride wherein Sanderson gets to play with a number of settings—fantasy, noir, dystopian future—and ask some interesting questions about what such an existence might be like for the brains who live it.

The pacing is perfect, the action is engrossing, the characters fascinating, and the major twist spectacular. Read this one in an hour or two, and find yourself—like me—wishing there was more. The nice thing about a setting with infinite possibilities?

There are infinite possibilities.

Legion: Skin Deep – Brandon Sanderson

Legion_Skin_Deep_by_Brandon_SandersonIn my last review I mentioned that right after reading Altered Perceptions, the final 20% of which was composed entirely of an early draft of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, I read Brandon’s (second) most recent novella, Legion: Skin Deep. (I say second there because in the intervening week I noticed he released another novella.)

Legion: Skin Deep is the sequel to Legion — which I read, thoroughly enjoyed, and didn’t review — both of which feature the same rather peculiar protagonist. Stephen Leeds is a man with multiple personalities. The catch? His personalities aren’t quite hallucinations. And he uses their help to solve mysteries. Sound fun? It is! In the first book, he takes catches a flight to Israel to recover a camera that can (presumably) take photos of the past. It’s action-packed, fun, quirky, and leans heavily on one of the most unique character dynamics I’ve read in any book.

In Skin Deep, Stephen Leeds has been brought on for a new case, this time dealing with an interesting development in biotechnology. He’s chasing down the body of a scientist that mysteriously vanished, which also happens to contain encrypted data…in it. I won’t say how, even though it’s not a huge plot point, but for a writer steeped in fantasy, it’s great to see some sci-fi muscles getting flexed. The most interesting parts of the story aren’t even in the main mystery plot; they’re in the deteriorating relationship Stephen has with his aspects (personalities,) and his worrisome loss of control over them. Brandon neatly throws in several theories in the midst of the action that made my mind churn, and I really hope another sequel is on the way to answer some of the burning questions I was left with at the end of the story. It was short, sweet, and very well paced, and the writing is worlds better than the early draft of The Way of Kings I’d read the day before. It really is inspiring to see how much he’s developed as a writer, and it fills me with the desire to work harder on my own projects. Thanks for the inspiration!

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Bonus: The Water that Falls on You From Nowhere – John Chu

Checking a calendar, it appears I downloaded this in 2013, before it had won the 2014 Hugo award for best short story. It’s  a powerful story set in a world in which lies and truths manifest physically. Lies result in water falling on you, no matter where you are. The strength of the deluge depends entirely on the strength of the lie. Truths cause warmth to blossom all around you. It’s a clever pinnochio-esque theme.

The plot revolves around a young Chinese man and his lover, and the difficult process of coming out to a traditional Chinese family. Despite the foreignness of these issues (to me,) John Chu expresses them in such a viscerally relatable way that as I read, I was consumed by emotions that felt as though they were buried deep inside of me. Straight, White, and Jewish, I felt comfortable riding behind Matt’s (the protagonist’s) eyes. I felt his pain and shame, and his love, self-loathing, fear and doubt. It’s a powerful story, and I can see why it’s an award winner, despite my feeling that Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Lady Astronaut of Mars was a far better candidate for the Hugo that year. For what it’s worth, The Water that Falls on You From Nowhere is great writing, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a quick, moving read.