A bit of a mixed bag this time around in the mini book reviews: a couple of anthologies, a trip to the post-singularity future, and a Three Musketeers-inspired fantasy. We'll start with Dangerous Women, then jump out to Under the Moons of Mars, take a look at Traitor's Blade, and finish with Rapture of the Nerds. So, without further ado, here we go!
Dangerous Women, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
In theory, the Dangerous Women anthology from Martin and Dozois should have been a great book. After all, it's got a strong, intriguing theme, a boatload of well-known authors (a number of whom are writing additions to popular series), a pair of seasoned editors who are expert at crafting these types of collections, and enough room for the authors to take as much time as they want/need to develop the stories they want to present. But it didn't pan out that way.
Instead, what they reader's got to deal with is a vast, aimless mishmash of — sadly — frequently boring tales that's so bloated a shipping crane is needed to hoist the original hardcover off of the shelf and over to whatever reading area is designated, with a very real risk of severe, debilitating, permanent personal injuries if it ever happens to tip over and fall onto said hapless reader (in fact, this thing is so big ["How big is it?"] that the publishers had to break it into two volumes for the paperback edition). What makes this tome so bulky is the length of the stories — you won't find more than a couple that are less than 20 pages long, and many are up in the range of 40 pages (or more — Martin's own contribution is a whopping 81 pages). Normally, I'd be fine with longer fare — in fact, generally, I would applaud editors and publishers who give authors room to maneuver — but in this case, I found many of the stories to be boring from the outset, making it unreasonable to slog through the entire length of each and every one of them. As a reader, I normally expect a couple of bad to indifferent stories in any given anthology, but in this case, where they're the rule, rather than the exception, and gigantic to boot, it's just unforgivable. In fact, this collection was so unengaging that not only did I stop reading many of the stories after a page or two, jumping ahead to the next in line, but I put the entire book down three or four times to take breaks and read other books. If this collection had been as well-crafted as Martin and Dozois' Old Mars, I wouldn't have stopped reading it for love or money. But it wasn't.
There are a couple of contributions that save Dangerous Women from being a complete wash-out though. Carolin Spector's "Lies My Mother Told Me" was a great addition to the Wildcards universe, with its examination of the things — internal and external— which can try to control the most powerful of superheroes. Melinda Snodgrass' "The Hands That Are Not There" was also absorbing in its tale of a man's obvious but inevitable slide to towards ruin. "Bombshells" by Jim Butcher was an entertaining addition to the Dresden stories. And "Shadows For Silence in the Forests of Hell" by Brandon Sanderson was a story I'd like to see explored at greater length in a novel. I wanted to like Martin's "The Princess and the Queen" — an addition to his A Song of Ice and Fire series detailing the Dance of the Dragons period of inter-Targaryen civil war in Westeros — but, as noted above, it was a great beast of a story, and one that I'd already read in detail in another form very recently in The World of Ice and Fire, so I gave up on it.
On the whole, four (maybe five) good tales alone were not enough to save this lumbering wreck of an anthology, any more than having four good swimmers push against the bow of an out-of-control car ferry would keep it from piling into a pier. Dangerous Women should be a good anthology. Instead, it's a dangerous anthology — dangerous for the amount of time and money that could be wasted on it.
Under the Moons of Mars — New Adventures on Barsoom, edited by John Joseph Adams
I've always been a sucker for good stories about the golden age of Mars — tales set on the Mars of imagination that existed in the minds of writers (like Wells, Bradbury, Wollheim... or Edgar Rice Burroughs) before science outstripped dreams and told us that there were no canals built by vanished races, and that the red planet had never been a place of wild adventure. So, when I saw Under the Moons of Mars — New Adventures on Barsoom at the bookstore, I just had to snap it up. And editor John Joseph Adams certainly does not disappoint with this collection of the further adventures of John Carter, his descendants, and others in the extended Burroughsverse.
My favourite among the lineup was Peter S Beagle's "The Ape-Man of Mars", where Tarzan is transported to Barsoom and meets John Carter. While the Lord of the Apes is thoughtful and cautious, Beagle presents the Warlord of Mars as a swaggering bully. The story gives the impression that, fresh from his Confederate loss in the US Civil War, Carter's wasted no time in dominating the Martians to assuage his wounded pride — pride that's threatened by the sudden appearance of the stronger and more intelligent Greystoke. "A Sidekick of Mars" by Garth Nix also takes a cynical look at what a man like Carter might be like, seen through the eyes of another Earthman transported to the red planet. But "Woola's Song", by Theodora Goss, gives a more sympathetic portrayal of Carter, told by his calot companion.
If you're a fan of Burroughs, or tales from the golden age of the red planet in general, Under the Moons of Mars is well-worth the buy.
Traitor's Blade, by Sebastian De Castell
Some books are perfect for a summer weekend at the cottage or the beach. They're the kind with a good story that you don't want to put down — not gripping, per se, but interesting enough, and entertaining enough, that you can convince yourself without much effort that it's okay to read just one more page before you put it down, and that one more page turns into the whole book — and a pace that lets you jog through it quickly enough that the book doesn't feel anywhere near as long as it is. Traitor's Blade by Sebastien De Castell is just such a book.
The first in an upcoming series, Traitor's Blade tells the story of Falcio, Kest, and Brasti, a trio of down-on-their-luck Greatcoats, taking whatever jobs they can (and frequently getting underpaid — or not paid at all) as they roam the land searching for a lost relic of their king. Once, the hundred-or-so Greatcoats were the king's law — each individual member combining the roles of police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner — roaming the land in their big leather coats (armoured and packed with pockets containing all manner of potentially helpful items) and helping the people, and Falcio, Kest, and Brasti were among the best. That is, until greedy and corrupt nobles raised an army of knights, overthrew the king, and cast out the Greatcoats in disgrace — but not before the king gave each Greatcoat his or her own secret mission to complete in the dark years ahead. Now the three find themselves having to take work escorting a princess and her caravan to a wedding, with the dangers of the road proving less hazardous than the conspiracy among the nobles which they stumble into, a young girl's need for a protector during a deadly festival in a city, and Falcio's occasional fits of berserk rage.
You may have already picked up the vibe that Traitor's Blade draws some inspiration from Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and that's certainly true, but De Castell has done a reasonably good job of telling his own, unique story, and has laid the foundations of (if not fully constructed) his own somewhat-Medieval-kind-of-Renaissance world with its politics, gods, and magic. It's a rollicking story that never loses its pace and has enough funny banter to balance out some of the grim things that happen to or are remembered by its characters. As characters go, Falcio, the narrator, is well-rounded and sympathetic, though this companions, Kest and Brasti, are a bit thin. I also had a problem with part of the book where Falcio is taken in by the priestess of the healing/prostitution cult, in that her insistence on exorcising him of his psychological pain felt a little too much like Spock's brother Sybok's routine in the execrable Star Trek V - The Final Frontier; but worse, as part of her healing ritual, she forces sex on him. Now, it is done in the service of healing him, but one has to note that Falcio tells her "no", and yet she still proceeds, which makes it rape, and thus definitely not okay. When all is said and done, Falcio eventually decides that he might like to take the priestess up on her offer of running off to some nice island with her and leaving the cares of the world behind, so he's obviously okay with what's happened... and yet, and yet, and yet, are we, as readers, supposed to be? I don't know. I'm still a bit uncomfortable with it. Lastly — and this actually is lastly, because it happens at the end of the book — I had a problem with the presentation of Kest's battle with the Saint of Swords (basically the demigod/god of swordfighters who, at this point, has been summoned by the bad guys to kill the good guys), because it's not actually presented. Throughout the length of the book, we're frequently told about Kest's abilities with a sword, that he's essentially the most badass swordsman alive, and yet, when it all comes down to the final battle, we don't actually get a description of him showing his prowess and defeating the Saint. He says his goodbyes, walks off towards the Saint for a duel, other things happen with other characters, and then Kest is back, victorious. Huh? The book has plenty of scenes where Falcio demonstrates his proficiency in a fight (with a sword and otherwise), and Brasti's archery skills are displayed from time to time, but when his big moment comes, Kest gets a raw deal. It doesn't matter that the story is told from Falcio's point of view; to have that kind of build-up and then not show anything just doesn't wash. It's a cheat. And it really took the wind out of the emotional tone and the rhythm of the plot at the story's climax.
That said, overall, Traitor's Blade was an entertaining read, and I'm looking forward to the next volume, Knight's Shadow. I have no problem recommending this book to anyone looking to buy something on their way to spring break or a vacation.
The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
How can I describe the whirlwind that is Doctorow and Stross' The Rapture of the Nerds? Well, how about a post-human, multiply transsexual re-imagining of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — if Arthur Dent had just a little more input on determining the fate of the world (if not his own particular mode of existence). Clear things up any? Not much? Not surprised. It's not really a book that lends itself to a quick summation, even though, beyond the crazed contortions of its plot, it's not really about much, other than one person's fortunes and misfortunes when dragged unwillingly into an adventure.
In a future where much of the human population has uploaded into a post-human state of electronic consciousness and left the Earth to go about its strange business with AIs in the busy communication lanes of the solar system, an anti-technological Welsh potter named Huw receives a summons to do his civic duty and take part in a committee to evaluate a new piece of technology that's been downloaded from the post-human/AI cloud. The device turns out to be something wholly unexpected, and Huw ends up being dragged around the world, through regions with radically different cultures, technological levels, and levels of moral and environmental mutation and degeneration, as various factions try to get a stake in determining the fate of the world. Because, as Huw discovers, the powers-that-be in the cloud aren't content to leave the backward Earth alone anymore; now they're trying to decide whether to tear the planet down to use for computing materials, and Huw's been appointed to argue the case for its continued existence. If that weren't enough, he's later stiff-armed into taking on the role of the defence in an alien trial to determine whether to allow the continued existence of humanity and the entire solar system. Then there's the repeated sexual reassignment surgery, and forcible uploading to the cloud. Got it? Still not quite? Then read the book.
Throwing out post-human, environmental, technological, and cultural what-ifs like cards from a deck hurled over their shoulders while they're on the run from their own imaginations, Stross and Doctorow have concocted a story that's one hell of a wild ride — for Huw the protagonist, and for the reader, both who are desperately trying to keep up. It's funny, it's weird, it's scary, and it's worth every penny just to pick up a copy of this book, read through it, and say you've managed to hold on.