New Books (January-February)

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Featuring: Stephen Aryan, Associated Press, Ray Bradbury, Christopher Buckley, Karen Cleveland, Craig DiLouie, Thoraiya Dyer, Raymond E. Feist, Kameron Hurley, Luke Jennings, Charles Johnson, Shilo Jones, Robert Karjel, Lisa Klink, Snorri Kristjansson, R.F. Kuang, Rachel Kushner, Jonathan Lynn, Claire O’Dell, David Pedreira, Terry Pratchett, Jeffrey Rosen, R.A. Salvatore, Gavin Scott, Jeremy C. Shipp, Charles Stross, Tom Sweterlitsch, RJ Theodore, Matt Wallace, Jesmyn Ward

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New Books (February #2)

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Featuring: Nick Aires, Jesse Armstrong, David Baldacci, Adam Christopher, Sebastien de Castell, David Downing, Mark Andrew Ferguson, Matthew Glass, Daryl Gregory, Austin Grossman, Randy Henderson, Antonia Honeywell, Kameron Hurley, Ben Kane, Dennis Lehane, Evie Manieri, D.J. Molles, Benjamin Percy, Tamora Pierce, Christopher Reich, Loren Rhoads, Anthony Ryan, V.E. Schwab, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Simon K. Unsworth, Jen Williams, Jonathan Wood Continue reading

Upcoming: THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley (Angry Robot Books)

I’m a little late to the party, here, seeing as nearly everyone has shared this cover (ever since it was unveiled on A Dribble of Ink). And, once you look at it, you can see why. The cover for Kameron Hurley’s upcoming fantasy novel THE MIRROR EMPIRE is pretty damned stunning…

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The piece is by Richard Anderson, who also did the US cover for Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. (I must say, though, this one is much better.) The novel is due to be published by Angry Robot Books in September 2014. Here’s the synopsis…

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.

In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.

Kameron Hurley is, of course, the award-winning author of God’s War, Infidel and Rapture. I’ve only read the first one, but it was damned good. The trilogy was published in the US by Night Shade Books, and Del Rey UK published the first book last year, and Infidel last month.

Also on CR: Guest Post by Kameron Hurley; Review of God’s War

Guest Post: “And the World Turned Gray: Gritty vs. Classic Heroes” by Kameron Hurley

KameronHurley-AuthorPicKameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.

Also on CR: Review of God’s War

***

Peake-GormenghastI’ll sometimes hear folks musing about where the “gritty” hero came from. And though you’ll get a lot of knee-jerk responses of the “Well, it’s a reaction to traditional goody-goody heroes,” I’d argue, in fact, that gritty, unlikeable heroes have been around a lot longer than you’d think. Gormenghast wasn’t exactly full of heroes. It was full of idiots and backstabbers. We just didn’t celebrate them. They were funny.

Oh, sure, what littered the shelves as I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s were indeed mostly traditional sorts, I suppose. But there were notable exceptions – Jennifer Roberson’s Tiger, Mary Gentle’s Ash, and let’s face it, you know, Conan wasn’t a sweetheart fun dude.

Hobb-1-AssasinsApprenticeUKBut the hero who broke all the rules – who didn’t really save the world, who didn’t get the girl that tore me up the most – was Fitz in Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice. I’d argue Hobb’s semi-tragic hero, who did not slay the dragon or win a kingdom (even Joe Abercrombie’s characters sometimes win a kingdom) or run off with the love of their life, was among the first to start the shift toward a hero who was a bit more gray, a bit more complex, and whose end was a lot less predictable than most. Fitz was the Catalyst. He was the person great events moved around. He was not the active agent. Only the spark.

In truth, on looking at a lot of fantasy heroes and heroines of the past, what I found had changed most between, say 1970 and 2004 wasn’t the level of grit or gritty. After all, there was a lot of dark, messed up stuff going on in the New Wave (The Stars My Destination, for a brief departure into SF-land, was hardly full of nice people). Instead, what changed was this idea that the good guys were always going to win. That the Big Bad would be defeated. So you got heroes like Fitz, and KJ Bishop’s war-wrecked veterans, who, it could be argued, often did more harm than good. Maureen McHugh writes complex characters whose endings always tend to be ambiguous, sort of non-endings, more abrupt halts than tying up all the loose ends.

What we’re falling in love with, over time, isn’t necessarily the grittiest jerk with a sword – we had Conan for that. What began to happen is that we craved more complexity in our stories. And with complexity comes a good deal of ugliness. The bad guys sometimes win. Sometimes it’s not even clear who the bad guys are. Oh, sure, folks wrote dark, complex fiction prior to when the term “grimdark” popped up, but grimdark – tragedy, complexity, brutality – of this type has been especially sought after from the early 2000’s. Just as New Weird started becoming a Named Thing, the dark fantasy writers were beginning to get more attention, too.

ME3_Cover_ArtIt’s been interesting to watch video games go through this same tilt toward the more complex, the tragic. I sobbed my way through Mass Effect 3, while the galaxy was being destroyed around me. And… I found it deeply cathartic. But… why? What are these complex stories giving me that fluffier, more comfortable stuff isn’t?

I’d argue this love of the grim and complex isn’t just about the maturity of an art form, but a reflection of the times we live in. The United States has been at constant war since 2001. That’s thirteen years of war. That kind of war – even one conducted on far shores, and brutally ignored in our media – seeps into everything. The world looks a lot more complex when you’re fighting in residential areas and sending drones to blow up wedding parties, doesn’t it?

Our fiction, the stories we were interested in, changed too. Because war gets into your bones. Veterans come home. The war they fought not only affects them, but everyone around them. It bleeds into everything.

And that seepage is nothing compared to the grim reality faced by those whose countries we waged war in.

So when people tell me that the rise of gritty, complex fiction is a reaction against traditional heroes, or something only aliened teen boys read, I can’t help but sigh. Because I’m seeing the desire for grim stories from another angle. From the position of a people who perpetuate violence on others but have very little experience of violence. People struggling to figure out who the good guy is, because, increasingly, as they look in the mirror they realize that it isn’t as clear as it once we.

We look for ourselves in our stories. It’s how we make sense of the world.

The gritty and traditional heroes are products of their times. We used to believe we were right. We’d always win. The world was black and white. As the world is split wide open with greater access to information and instant communication, many are waking up to that fact.

It’s the gray heroes we see – the ones who don’t always win. The ones who bring more war than peace. Who solve disagreements with brutality. With force. And fear. And fault.

We see ourselves.

And we’re not traditional heroes.

***

Kameron’s God’s War, Infidel and Rapture are published by Night Shade Books in the US and Del Rey in the UK (only God’s War has been released so far in the UK).

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US Covers

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UK Cover (Paperback) for God’s War

“God’s War” by Kameron Hurley (Night Shade/Del Rey UK)

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The start of a new, unconventional SF trilogy

Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn’t make any difference…

On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there’s one thing everybody agrees on…

There’s not a chance in hell of ending it.

Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx’s ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war – but at what price?

The world is about to find out.

This is an unconventional, highly original and enjoyable debut sci-fi novel. I took my sweet time getting to it, for reasons I cannot fathom, but since its release in 2010 it’s received a lot of positive coverage from around the blogosphere. And now I know why. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but it’s tightly written, well-constructed (for the most part), and… well, bonkers. I enjoyed this.

It also has one of the greatest, make-you-sit-up-and-take-note first sentences: “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”

The short Part One is a rapid-fire, near-riotous introduction to Nasheenian society and our main protagonist, Nyx. She is a somewhat troublesome, sometime rogue “bel dame” (a sanctioned bounty hunter and enforcer, I suppose). She’s been doing work on the side, which she really shouldn’t, and her sisters do not take kindly to this. We get a few hints of her past, but not too many until very near the end. She is caught, punished and imprisoned. Then we jump forward about seven years, and Nyx has moved on from her bel dame past and is working as a bounty hunter with a motley crew of violent and eccentric misfits.

The story is pretty grim, overall. The two main nations featured are at war with each other, and have been for quite some time. The two sides are constantly experimenting with new and innovative ways of causing mass-murder, often utilising the novel’s greatest creating: the bug-related bio-tech. (This is why the term “bugpunk” has been coined, and you’ll quickly see how suitable it is.) Nyx can be brutal (emotionally and physically) to those close to her. She’s reckless, cavalier, and self-destructive. Rhys, her pet magician (and the second ‘main’ character), is long-suffering, but they have a really interesting dynamic. They embody everything about each other’s culture that they don’t like, and yet they are drawn to each other nevertheless, and have created a mutually beneficial arrangement that seems to suit them both.

Hurley’s characters are pleasantly diverse, and I liked the imbalance towards more female characters. (Nasheenian society is matriarchal.) I enjoyed the way Hurley wrote them all, and I think she’s created a great society and world with which to keep writing in and for fans to keep reading (there are two more books in the series). Rasheeda, in particular, is creepy as all get out. And bonkers. The inclusion of shape-shifters was interesting, too (all that mucous must be a bit of a bitch, though…). The characters are interesting, three-dimensional and felt distinct from each other. I particularly liked Nyx’s crew, who created a dysfunctional family to follow. Rhys was a great character, and I liked all of his P.O.V. chapters. He’s a good lens through which we learn of the Nasheenian matriarchal society and the differences between that and his own, highly conservative Chenjan culture.

Bugs! Let’s get back to the bugs for a moment. They are everywhere and in almost everything: medicine (needles have eyes, because they seem to be specially engineered creatures), magicians control them for various means (healing, torture, light, espionage, security and surveillance, communications, etc.), and even some weapons have biological components. “Bio-tech”, in other words, on this world, is really “bug-tech”. Maybe my favourite things about this were the “bakkies”, which seem to be semi-organic (at least) buggies or cars. It’s all very weird, but detailed and very well-devised and realised on the page. Hurley never delves too deeply into how it all works – she gives us just enough to know what to picture, and then gets on with the story. Once the book ended, though, I felt like I had a pretty clear picture of how it all worked and fit together. Very cool.

Elements from early on in the novel are tied up quite nicely by the end (there’s a nice circle to the narrative). As a first novel, there is of course a lot of world-building going on, almost all of it very good and often fascinating, intricate. This can sometimes feel like it’s taking over the story, however: relegating the bounty hunt (or “note”, as it’s referred to on this world) to a near-peripheral status. I didn’t mind so much, as I enjoy reading about the world and its various societies. That being said, there were definite times when I had to remind myself that there was a narrative running through this, and it wasn’t just an exercise in imaginative social and cultural creation. This makes the end a little bit busy, in my opinion, although I will accept that I was distracted by the world-building, so I may have missed a couple of salient points from early on.

The writing is very good. I was willingly pulled on through the story, and read it relatively quickly.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed God’s War and, while flawed, I can certainly see how it has grabbed the attention of a number of discerning SFF fans. As I said, it’s unconventional, but it also draws from a lot of SFF traditions and plays around with almost all of them in new and interesting ways. Highly original, it really is about time God’s War was picked up by a UK publisher – which it now has been, by Del Rey UK (who are proving to have a pleasingly eclectic taste in titles).

Definitely recommended. I’ll be reading Infidel quite soon, followed shortly thereafter that by Rapture (both of which I already have from the US).