A to Z Challenge – O is for Old Man’s War

old-man's-warThis is one of those rare times I’ve picked up a book not because I read the synopsis and it sounded good, but because I enjoyed the author so much on the Internet I pretty much had to buy at least one of their books to support them in being awesome.

I’ve been following John Scalzi on Twitter for the better part of a year and reading his Whatever blog on and off for longer than that. He’s consistently funny, thoughtful, and down-to-earth, and at some point last year I finally decided I needed to, you know, actually read his books.

So I picked up Old Man’s War at the bookstore over Thanksgiving, figuring if I was going to start with his stuff, I was going to start at the beginning.

And I’m happy to report that I might enjoy Scalzi’s science fiction more than his hilarious Twitter posts. And that’s saying something.

John Perry is a man who is ready for a new life. His wife has been dead for eight years, his son has grown up, and so at age 75, John joins the army, specifically the Colonial Defense Force.

You see, humans have started colonizing the galaxy, but we aren’t the only sentient race out there, and habitable planets aren’t exactly plentiful. So we’re in a constant war with other races to expand. And it’s the CDF’s job to protect and defend human colonies from alien invaders.

Old Man’s War starts the day Perry joins the military, and we jump onto the ride with him. He’s a fun and funny narrator with a good sense of humor (sometimes subtle, sometimes less so), perfect for introducing us to the strange new world beyond the borders of Earth.

I hesitate to say too much about what you find, because that’s half the fun of this novel: the discovery process, the revelation of something new with each and every page. Scalzi’s built a great universe for us to explore, and it’s a joy to do so.

I loved the way he had me grinning at one page and then punched a hole in my gut the next. It’s actually amazing how he handled the deaths in the book (because it’s a book about war, this is hardly a spoiler). There was something stripped-down and bare about their descriptions that made them all the more poignant, even without accompanying angst from our narrator.

One of the things I loved most about the book was how easy it was to read. This might sound like a strange thing to praise, but after Endymion and If on a winter’s night a traveler, I was tired of books that stuck me with pages-long paragraphs and detailed descriptions and philosophical arguments to make your head spin.

Old Man’s War did not have that problem, and it was like a breath of fresh air. I practically devoured the book, and it was such a nice change of pace after reading two books in a row that felt like they required an advanced degree to understand.

That’s not to say Old Man’s War skimps on the science or even on the explanations of the technical stuff. But Scalzi (rather brilliantly, I thought) breezes past the how (“You don’t have the math”), giving us just enough to understand what’s going on without getting overwhelming.

Some people have said Scalzi is reminiscent of Robert Heinlein—and being as that I’ve read only one Heinlein book, I won’t argue. However, Old Man’s War reminded me a little bit more of Ender’s Game, only with old farts instead of six-year-old children.

If I had one complaint about this book, it’s that it’s a little more episodic than I anticipated. Perry’s goal is really just “join the army and survive”; there’s not really an overarching story question from what I could peg. But it’s well-written enough and otherwise enjoyable enough that it didn’t bother me too much.

If you enjoy science fiction and you haven’t read Old Man’s War, add it to your list. Hell, even if you don’t enjoy science fiction but are willing to give the genre a go, pick it up. It’s a great read for longtime sci-fi fans and newbies alike.

And while you’re at it, follow Scalzi on Twitter. You won’t regret it.

A to Z Challenge – G is for Grave Mercy

grave-mercyGrave Mercy caught my eye for a number of reasons. A YA historical romance set in the Middle Ages, something I have rarely seen. A secluded convent of assassin nuns. Political intrigue. An absolutely fantastic tag line: “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?”

Not to mention a serious-looking girl on the cover holding a CROSSBOW. (See image to the right.)

All of that conspired to get me to pick up the book. But what drew me in and kept me reading was the lovely, lovely writing. This was one of the rare present-tense books that sucked me in almost immediately and didn’t let me go. I absolutely adored it from start to finish.

Fourteen-year-old Ismae is rescued from an abusive marriage and delivered to the convent of St. Mortain, the god of death. There, she is given the option to become a handmaiden of Death, trained as an assassin to carry out Mortain’s work. Ismae jumps at the chance.

After three years of training and apprenticeship to the convent’s healer/poison mistress, Ismae is sent out for her first kill. But these missions bring her into conflict with the mysterious Gavriel Duval, who claims he is trying to ferret out a traitor to the new duchess.

As the convent is also looking for the traitor, Ismae is assigned to be Duval’s mistress in order to gain access to the royal court. Neither of them are happy with the agreement, but Ismae has an additional, secret order: to ascertain whether Duval himself is loyal.

However, all her training can’t prepare her for the numerous political machinations she will face or the new feelings Duval raises in her. And with time running out to secure the duchess’s throne, Ismae will have to rely on more than just her skills to protect her country.

There’s so much I enjoyed about this book that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Ismae has not had an easy life: her mother tried to abort her with a herbwitch’s poison, and as such she has a jagged scar that runs the length of her back. Her father beat her regularly, and then sold her into the marriage she escapes at the beginning of the book.

Her entire life has been out of her control, so when Ismae gets the chance to make a choice for her own future, she leaps at it. I loved watching her grow, as she became more confident in herself and her abilities as Mortain’s handmaiden. She’s extremely devout, but her faith grows and changes throughout the book as well as she prays, questions, and comes to understand more about what Mortain wants from her.

And throughout most of the book, Ismae is the one doing the rescuing, which was so very many kinds of awesome, to say the least.

The romance between her and Duval builds very slowly and very sweetly, and very believably, particularly considering we never go into his viewpoint. They constantly clash throughout the book, as they have similar goals but different ways of going about them. I loved the way they gradually came to admire and respect each other, which provided a lot of delicious angst on Ismae’s part as she tries to keep her head and heart separate and follow her duties to Mortain.

The historical setting combined with the slight twist of fantasy creates a fascinating world for the story. LaFevers weaves them together beautifully, drawing you in to the cloistered life of the convent and the more unstable, treacherous world of the royal court. Her writing style is perfect for this; the narration felt genuine and not once did I come across something that sounded anachronistic or that made me stumble.

At times, Grave Mercy reminded me of a (much) less adult version of Kushiel’s Dart, what with the various political threads, the first person POV, and a main character who acts as a spy in addition to something else. (This is a sign of praise, by the way; I adored Kushiel’s Dart and own the next two books in that series.)

I had minor quibbles with the book—I guessed the traitor very early on, and I think the reveal took a little longer than it should have—but by and large the rest of it was so well done that it didn’t bother me.

If political plots, assassin nuns, the series title “His Fair Assassin,” and romance sound like your cup of tea, then pick up Grave Mercy the first chance you get. It’s such a wonderful, well-written story, and well worth your time.

The Updated Reading List

Now that we’re almost three full months into 2013, let’s see how I’m doing with the actual reading list, shall we?

Fiction:
Endymion by Dan Simmons
Long Lost by David Morrell
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis
Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis
The Course of Honor by Lindsey Davis
Young Men in Spats by P.G. Wodehouse
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey
Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey
Shada by Douglas Adams
The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
The Honor of Spies by W.E.B. Griffin
Foreign Influence by Brad Thor
True Blue by David Baldacci
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Gone by Michael Grant
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
The Ancient by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Awakens by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Spirit by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Apostle by R.A. Salvatore
The Wind Merchant by Ryan Dunlap
Triple Play by Abigail Barnette
Long Relief by Abigail Barnette

Nonfiction
The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire by Susan Ronald
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Story by Robert McKee
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Recently Added
Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger
Winterblaze by Kristen Callihan
The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross
Beyond Shame by Kit Rocha
Lamb by Christopher Moore
The Dame by R.A. Salvatore (Actually was a Christmas gift for a friend, but he loaned it to me once he finished)
Exclusively Yours by Shannon Stacey
Yours to Keep by Shannon Stacey

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Mort by Terry Pratchett

Men-at-Arms by Terry Pratchett
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett
Jingo by Terry Pratchett
Queen of Shadows by Dianne Sylvan

I think I’ve actually done a not-terrible job on reading books I actually own, and a particularly good job of reading more in genres that are not romance. I’ve also managed to hold off on buying too many more books; the one exception, as you might be able to tell, is Discworld. And I don’t really count that because I buy them as much for my roommates as for me; all three of us are kind of in love with the series.

What books have you read lately? Anything worth adding to the TBR list?

Book Review – Endymion by Dan Simmons

I read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, the first two books in Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, in 2010, because I was looking to expand my science fiction horizons. (Pretty much the same reason I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress last year.)

Both were dense, not just in writing but also in subject matter, but they were fascinating stories, though I got the sense I was only grasping about half of what Simmons wanted me to. Though I liked the books well enough and could definitely appreciate the skill with which Simmons wrote, they were hard as hell to get through at times. Once I’d finished them, I figured I was done.

Endymion by Dan SimmonsThen I was at the used bookstore and spotted a copy of Endymion, book three of the Hyperion Cantos, and I picked it up and read the first sentence.

You are reading this for the wrong reason.

My attention. You have it.

I bought it and started reading it in 2012. Obviously, it took awhile for me to finish. This is in a large part because I spent most of last year rewriting my WIP not just once, but twice, and at the end of the day I wanted a book I could read quickly and that wouldn’t require me to parse futuristic technological terms and philosophical discussions.

But over the past two months, I’ve sat down and read it. And discovered the rich, multi-layered world I’ve come to expect from Simmons, along with a protagonist I loved in Raul Endymion.

Endymion takes place nearly 300 years after The Fall of Hyperion. Raul is a Hyperion native, working as a guide for hunters that come to the planet, just one of the many jobs he’s had over his 27 years.

By that time in my life I had learned a little bit about sex and much about weapons, had discovered firsthand the power greed has in the affairs of men and women, had learned how to use my fists and modest wits in order to survive, was curious about a great many things, and felt secure only in the knowledge that the remainder of my life would almost certainly hold no great surprises.

I was an idiot.

I love this guy.

Raul is sentenced to death after he kills a man in self-defense, but wakes up after his execution to find he’s been rescued by an ancient old man with a favor to ask. Raul’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is to rescue 12-year-old Aenea from the Time Tombs and keep her safe from the various forces that seek to destroy her. Because Aenea is the new messiah, and her message will shape the course of humanity.

After 300 years, we see how the events of The Fall of Hyperion have affected the formerly interconnected worlds of the Web. Worlds that were one beacons of civilization are now nearly empty, the population dead from starvation or infighting. Worlds that were popular tourist destinations when terraformed have been reclaimed by nature, and the remaining humans there eke out a scarce existence.

Rather than the Hegemony, the prime governing body is now the Pax, which has grown out of the Catholic Church, a religion that was nearly extinct during Hyperion.

The Pax makes use of the cruciforms, cross-shaped parasites that attach to the body and can completely resurrect the host from just about any kind of death. This gave the Church the boost it needed to become a major force in the universe, with billions of people scrambling for the promise of literal eternal life.

And the Pax, with its massive armies and nigh-unlimited resources, is after Aenea.

The book alternates between two viewpoints for the most part: Raul’s, in first person as he transcribes his memories of meeting Aenea, and then Father Captain Frederico de Soya, the Pax captain in charge of Aenea’s capture, in third person present tense.

I by far preferred being in Raul’s point of view, in a large part because it always takes me a bit to get used to present tense. Simmons does it well, but my personal issues with it were still there, enough so that I would groan when I saw viewpoints had switched again. (De Soya himself is a good character, don’t get me wrong, and I liked him, but I had the most trouble reading his sections.)

It didn’t help that de Soya’s sections also seemed to be more crammed with description, like the four solid paragraphs that take up three-quarters of a page detailing the hierarchy of the Church, when the salient bit of information from this info-dump is tucked at the very end of the final paragraph.

I understand adding context and sometimes exposition is required, particularly in science fiction and fantasy novels where you’re dealing with so much new stuff, but damn. Dude, cut to the chase already.

In fact, if there was anything that annoyed me about the book, it was that: the occasional forays into too much description or too much philosophizing. And poetry excerpts. Thankfully these weren’t long, but damn, I hate poetry excerpts in novels. (At least we didn’t go into three pages of Elvish poetry a la Tolkien. Yeesh.)

Generally, I liked Raul better not only as a narrator, but as a character as well. He doesn’t see himself as a hero by any stretch of the imagination, but once he promises to protect Aenea, he sets about doing the best job he can despite the overwhelming odds against him.

He has a sense of humor that comes across in both his narration and his interactions with others (“Bring on the velociraptors!” made me giggle out loud), he and makes an effort to lighten dire situations with a joke, even if it falls flat.

He’s not perfect, and he’s not terribly well-equipped for the job he’s doing. We see his doubts, his fears, and his determination; we see him fall and get back up; we see that maybe Raul is, at heart, the hero he doesn’t believe himself to be.

Would I recommend this book? It’s difficult to say. I’ll almost certainly pick up The Rise of Endymion because I want to find out what happens to Raul, but I don’t have the gripping “must know NOW” sense I did after finishing some other novels (Cinder and Changeless spring to mind). I think that’s because I know it’ll be a tough read, and I have to steel myself for it.

Endymion may not be easy to read, but it is a well-written novel with a rich and fascinating world. If you’re a fan of science fiction and haven’t read the Hyperion novels, I would tentatively recommend them as long as you know what you’re getting into.

I don’t think you have to read Hyperion or The Fall of Hyperion in order to enjoy Endymion (the story is comparatively stand-alone), but it would add much more to your experience if you did.

And if you’re not a science fiction fan, you might want to look for a slightly easier introduction to the genre.

Book Review – The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis

silver-pigsThe Silver Pigs was the first book I read in the New Year, based on the recommendation of my great-uncle, who sent me it as well as Shadows in Bronze, the next book in the series, and The Course of Honor, a historical romance by the same author.

And really, this is the kind of book that, at first glance, sounds exactly like a story I’d love. It’s a detective story, for one, and it’s set in ancient Rome, for two. (We’ve been over my love of ancient Greece and Rome before.) I’d never heard of the combination, so I was eager to give it a go.

Alas, while it was an enjoyable read, I had a number of issues with the book that prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending it.

(Synopsis courtesy of Amazon)

When Marcus Didius Falco, a Roman “informer” who has a nose for trouble that’s sharper than most, encounters Sosia Camillina in the Forum, he senses immediately all is not right with the pretty girl. She confesses to him that she is fleeing for her life, and Falco makes the rash decision to rescue her—a decision he will come to regret. For Sosia bears a heavy burden: as heavy as a pile of stolen Imperial ingots, in fact. Matters just get more complicated when Falco meets Helena Justina, a Senator’s daughter who is connected to the very same traitors he has sworn to expose. Soon Falco finds himself swept from the perilous back alleys of Ancient Rome to the silver mines of distant Britain—and up against a cabal of traitors with blood on their hands and no compunction whatsoever to do away with a snooping plebe like Falco….

The first-person narration was surprisingly witty, and I enjoyed Falco’s wry sense of humor. His comments often had me chuckling out loud, like in this section where Falco is talking to his friend Petro, who also happens to be captain of the watch, about the girl he’s just rescued from thugs in the Forum:

I explained about her in a way that laid a great deal of emphasis on my gallant role as a rescuer of frantic nobility, and (in view of Petro’s earlier remark) less on me wrecking market stalls. It seemed best not to place him in any awkward dilemmas.

“I’ll have to take her back,” Petro said. He was nicely drunk.

“I’ll take her,” I promised. “Do me a favour. If you go it’s ‘Thanks for doing your duty, officer’; for me they may stretch to a small reward. Split?”

Lubricated by a good wine, my crony Petronius becomes a gentleman. Not many men are so considerate of the profit and loss columns of M Didius Falco’s personal accounts.

And while I was iffy on Falco at the beginning, I eventually came around to liking him and rooting for him. He and Helena in particular had some fun sparring, though admittedly I’ve seen it done better.

It’s clear Davis has done her research, and that comes across on every single page of the book. It’s chock-full of historical detail, some stuff I knew but a whole lot more that I didn’t. (Personal favorite new trivia: the contents of Lenia the laundress’s bleaching vat.)

Rome and Britain came alive on the page, and I liked getting the little insider tidbits about how it was to actually LIVE during that time, something you don’t necessarily get from other books or even movies.

However, the flipside of having an author who’s done such extensive research is that sometimes it feels like she wants to show it off. There’s a fine line between including enough concrete detail to make you feel like you’re there and dumping so much description on the reader that you feel like you’re drowning, and it’s a line that Davis leaps across many times.

Any time I spotted a block of text that covered half the page, I made it no more than two lines before I started skimming. Over-description is one of my book kryptonites; if there’s too much then you had better be 1) fantastic with it or 2) do everything else so well that I can forgive it.

It also didn’t help that every single one of the characters would start talking! Like! This! occasionally, like they were all possessed by the spirit of William Shatner. I don’t mind exclamation points, don’t get me wrong, but in this particular case it got distracting very quickly. It added extra emphasis to phrases and lines I’m not sure should’ve been emphasized. Everybody “sounds” overly emotional, whether it be excited or angry or whatever. And I’m not sure that’s how she wanted some of those characters to come across.

There were also a number of times we got a block of text summing something up instead of SHOWING us what had happened. For example, there was an entire section where Falco was undercover that, rather than letting us see what sleuthing he did, we got a page and a half of summary followed by him telling a cohort what he’d discovered. While I liked the realism of stretching the solving of the mystery over the better part of a year, it resulted in a lot of summary and exposition, which kind of eliminated some of the fun of a detective novel.

This approach also reared its ugly head during the climactic fight scene, which kicked off with the information that the fight took half an hour (BULLSHIT*) and comprised of four paragraphs of summary which ultimately committed the cardinal sin of action scenes: It was boring. No tension, no excitement, nada. I almost threw the book down at that point AND I WAS 19 PAGES FROM THE END.

If you can’t write fight scenes, AVOID THEM. Find some other way to handle the climactic confrontation. And if there has to be a fight, for God’s sake, put a LITTLE effort into making it exciting and, you know, believable.

A lot of the issues can probably be attributed to this being a first book, which is why I’m usually willing to give an author a second chance if my primary problem with their book is something that’s usually fixed by experience. Since I already have book two, I’ll most likely go ahead and read it to see if it’s improved. However, if I had to find book two myself, I probably wouldn’t bother.


*I have a very good friend who likes swords**, so I asked him for a reality check when that sentence pinged my bullshit-o-meter. He laughed for two minutes and told me the average to-the-death swordfight lasts 11 seconds. The more you know!
**By “likes swords” I mean “don’t ask him about them unless you are prepared for a 45-minute conversation during which, if you are an author, you will want to take copious notes.”

The Book List for 2013

As with last year, I have a scary pile of books sitting on my shelf that I would like to attempt to read at some point during 2013. Some were on there last year (Um, oops?), some were gifts, some were recommendations, some were “Oh, hi, massive sale at the used bookstore,” and still others were “I have disposable income and no willpower.”

No willpower whatsoever.

No willpower whatsoever.

And as with last year, this list will expand as my favorite authors publish their newest books (come on, February!) and as I discover new shiny things that make me go “Oooh!” (Example: Brandon Sanderson has a handful of novellas I have not yet read. I MUST AMEND THIS.)

Fiction:
Endymion by Dan Simmons
Long Lost by David Morrell
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis (finished on January 4!)
Shadows in Bronze by Lindsey Davis
The Course of Honor by Lindsey Davis
Young Men in Spats by P.G. Wodehouse
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
Kushiel’s Avatar by Jacqueline Carey
Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Shada by Douglas Adams
The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
The Honor of Spies by W.E.B. Griffin
Foreign Influence by Brad Thor
True Blue by David Baldacci
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold
A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Gone by Michael Grant
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
The Ancient by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Awakens by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Spirit by R.A. Salvatore
The Demon Apostle by R.A. Salvatore
The Wind Merchant by Ryan Dunlap
Triple Play by Abigail Barnette
Long Relief by Abigail Barnette

Nonfiction
The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire by Susan Ronald
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Story by Robert McKee
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain

Anything on there look good to you guys? What does your 2013 reading list look like?