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Books of 2010: A (lengthy) first post

 I must apologize for it taking until March for me to do my first books post of the year. I've been keeping meticulous track this year, but that hasn't made me any faster at doing the actual typing up... although I have been writing up some of these reviews as I go.

1. The Hickory Staff
I wanted to like this book, but I just couldn't. The story is your standard portal fantasy, with ordinary-world characters sucked into a secondary world, but with some nice variation in setting and some decidedly creepy enemy monsters. Unfortunately, the protagonists are downright annoying. I could have done without the "growth" of one protagonist from self-professed "wimp" to manly-man, too. Blech. The plot is pretty decent, if somewhat derivative, but I can't bear the thought of spending another two books with these characters in order to find out what happens. *

2. Shelter (Susan Palwick)
Wow. Susan Palwick is brilliant. This book is captivating, and somehow manages to be heartwarming despite the fact that everything seems to go wrong for everybody, and that the world is in a terrible state. I am beginning to think that Palwick can do no wrong. *****

3. Cast in Shadow (Michelle Sagara)
This is a decent piece of light entertainment, which seems a bit wrong to say about a book that's clearly trying for a gritty feel. My biggest complaint, I think, would be that things seem to just happen; our protagonist and her friends don't ever seem to actually accomplish anything of their own free will. I'm really not sure what the Hawks actually do, normally; they don't seem to be terribly effective investigators (Their procedure seems to be, roughly: go into slums, meet with slumlord, have magical run-in, return to the tower to nurse their wounds). There's clearly more going on here, and a lot of this book seems to be setting things up that will eventually become more significant in later books in the series. ***

4,5,6. The Book of Jhereg (Steven Brust): Jhereg, Yendi, Teckla
And just like that, I am officially addicted to Brust's Draegera books. They're secondary-world fantasy, but they're not set in a traditional Tolkein-ripoff world; rather, this is a very urban setting, and revolves around a character who's an assassin for an Organization that's essentially a kind of Mafia. Vlad's voice is very appealing, and he pulls you along so that you can't help but want to know what's going to happen next. Jhereg and Yendi are caper books, and are all about how Vlad's going to solve particular problems. Teckla is less cheerful, but I still found it hard to put down. Reading this book has led to me putting large swaths of Brust on hold at the library, which should probably give you an idea of how I feel about them. *****

7. Brokedown Palace (Steven Brust)
This book is not much like the Vlad books at all, although it's clearly set in the same world. Instead, it's a fairy tale... kind of. It's a very strange fairy tale, and I found it hard to predict where it was going to turn, perhaps because it wasn't calling on the same cultural heritage that I'm used to. ****

8,9. The Book of Taltos (Steven Brust): Taltos, Phoenix
Taltos jumps way back in time, to Vlad just getting started, and tells us a lot about how he got to where he is in the "contemporary" time line. Phoenix follows up Teckla, but is very very different. I really liked both of these two books, although neither of them are much like the first two (Jhereg, Yendi) that got me hooked.

10. Fray (Joss Whedon et al.)
This is Whedon's future Slayer graphic novel. It's been out for a while, but I only just now got around to it in anticipation of my Buffy and Angel order coming in. It creates a very strange and interesting future, one I'm not sure can be extrapolated in only a few "hundred" years from the Whedonverse present. You can tell Joss had a lot of fun playing with it, though. The art is generally very nice and appropriate, although I would complain that Fray's appearance is not entirely consistent panel to panel (mostly her face shape seems to change sometimes, although it also annoys me that her green braid seems to have vanished after the first section). ****

11. The Court of the Air (Stephen Hunt)
This is a very strange book in a lot of ways. It's part neo-Victorian steampunk, part Mieville-esque grunge, part something else entirely. The world bears some striking resemblances to our Victorian world with the addition of magic, and then veers away dramatically to become truly strange. There are sentient robots ("steammen") and crab-people, and ancient gods who are disturbingly real. It looks, cover and presentation-wise as though it ought to be a young-adult romp, complete with plucky orphans, but it is definitely not that. It is very adult, and very disturbing, and there were bits that nearly gave me nightmares. ****

12, 13, 14, 15, 16. Buffy Season 8 vol. 1-5
The biggest problem, I think, with the Buffy comics is that they can't decide how seriously to take themselves. There was always a balance of comedy and drama in the television series, but I think the weighting doesn't work quite the same way in a series of comics. One of the most unfortunate things about this series is the way it has returned Buffy (and most of her friends) to the state of perpetual teen angst that they were supposed to be emerging from at the end of the series. Buffy no longer has the burden of being the solitary slayer, responsible for protecting the human race... instead she gets to have the burden of being the lonely slayer-leader. Yay her? There's also a definite tendency for fanservice, and for working in Every Single Character who ever had a named role in the series. In a lot of ways, the comic would be btter off if it could divorce itself from the series just a little bit more. All that said, it's a very pretty comic, and some of the writing is quite good, if uneven overall. ***

17, 18. Angel After the Fall vol. 1-2
Okay, before I even get into the story, I have to complain about the art. It's nice art, I guess. But it's really dark. Really really dark. So dark, in fact, that half the time I can't tell what's going on. Now, I get that they're trying to replicate the "feel" of the TV show, which was, in fact, very dark. But...there are limits. Okay, story criticism time. I don't have enough information yet, but it seems clear that one of the fist things they've decided is that they need to bring Fred back, somehow. This, of course, explicitly contradicts the show's insistence that Fred wasn't just dead, her soul was completely destroyed. And so, one of the first story decisions made was to undermine the great tragedy of the show in order to bring back a favourite character. How... like a comic book, really. The second volume, the "First Night" stories, were rather disappointing, overall (though I did kind of like the one with the hapless sign guy -- that one was pretty good). They don't provide any useful information, either because the writers are trying to sustain mystery, or because the writers don't know where they're going with things, with the result that they seem rather... pointless. Alas, Angel gets a "meh" from me. **

19. War for the Oaks (Emma Bull)
This is a book I've seen cited a lot lately as an early example of urban fantasy, and it certainly represents a classic example of the genre -- fairies show up in a modern urban setting and interfere in human lives. It's also a story that's very focused around music, specifically the idea of being a rock and roll band. Could you write a story like this anymore, with a band that gets known just because they're so very good? I don't know. Maybe that's overly cynical of me. Anyway, it's a good story, and a good read, and I recommend it. The edition I read had clips from a screenplay that had been developped in the back, and I think it's just as well that the movie never got made -- this is the kind of thing that probably wouldn't be handled well on film. ****

20. Ink (Hal Duncan)
I am still not smart enough for Hal Duncan. This is the conclusion of the story begun in Vellum (if story is the right word -- there's a plot, but it's not really about the plot). It's a virtuoso performance, demonstrating an impressive capacity to blend just about everything you can imagine. Recommended if you like having your brain blown. Not recommended if it's important to you to know what's going on.  ****

21, 22. The Book of Athyra (Steven Brust): Athyra, Orca
These two books mark the first time that Vlad stories are told by someone other than Vlad. In Athyra, it's a third person narrator, while in Orca it alternates between Vlad and Kiera as first-person narrators and the whole thing is framed by Kiera telling Cawti about it. These are very different from the other Vlad books in other ways, too. Vlad's life has changed dramatically, and his way of interacting with the world has changed, too. And revelations abound! I continue to be inhaling these books, so I can only conclude that I'm still enjoying them immensely. ****

23. Undertow (Elizabeth Bear)
I enjoyed this book, but I'm not sure Bear would have become my favourite! author! ever! if this had been the first book of hers that I picked up. And yet, I can find nothing specific to complain about. I do find it very interesting that the back cover talks exclusively about André (who is, admittedly, the first character we meet), when it's not exclusively his story.  I like the ranids as aliens -- they're humanoid enough to be completely comprehensible, and yet there are convincing touches of alien culture and perspective. It helps that a lot of the ranid perspective is filtered through a character who is closely associated with the humans and accustomed to interpreting for them. I would have liked to see the identity issues pushed a little bit more around the cloning. ****

24. The Phoenix Guards (Steven Brust)
Okay, now I think I must go and read Dumas. Brust is riffing on the Three Musketeers here, and although I know the skeleton of that story, I've never actually read it. So I think I'm missing some context? Not that you need it for the story, but Brust makes it such a fun story that I want to see more of what he's playing with. Paarfi is a wonderful narrator and character in his own right. I look forward to spending more time with him. Also, you've got to love how the morality and logic of the Musketeers -- er, Guards -- bears no resemblence to our "earth logic". Heh. ****

25, 26, 27. Hammered, Scardown, Worldwired (Elizabeth Bear)
There is something inherently amusing about the idea of Canada as the Great Western World Power, and it regularly makes me giggle over the course of this trilogy. Oh, sure, it's justified by an American theocratic implosion and climate change making much of Europe (or at least the UK) uninhabitable, but it still feels like a large, complex joke. I can say this because I am Canadian. I do particularly love the shuttlecraft names -- especially that there's one called the Ashley MacIsaac. That's just funny. It's funny, reading this story, how "conventional" a sf series this is, when much of Bear's later work seems to be more experimental or less straightforward. Which is not to say this is a completely straightforward story -- there's plenty of complexity going on -- but it is a gentler sort of introduction than a lot of her other work. At least, that's my perception. I am profoundly bitter and broken up that she killed off a certain character -- curse you, manipulative author, for making me sniffle! Also, I am very amused by the Havana Red Sox versus the Yankees. Though it was probably funnier before Boston actually WON a World Series. ****

28. Five Hundred Years After (Steven Brust)
Unlike the Phoenix Guards, this is a story that ends badly. And yet, the narration manages a beautiful balance of comedy and tragedy, and the story just carries you along... Paarfi is such a fun character, and he really carries these books more than the actual characters in the story. ****

29. Dragon (Steven Brust)
Vlad goes to war! Vlad makes a very amusing soldier.  ****

30. Issola (Steven Brust)
This volume gave me whiplash. So many revelations! So much new information about the world and how it works, and so many more hints! And there's all kinds of emotional impact, too. Whew. ****

31. Dzur (Steven Brust)
Centered as it is around a particularly excellent meal, this book tends to make one hungry. I'm noticing a tendency for Vlad to figure something out, and then not share it with his audience in order to maintain the suspense. It's nice to see Vlad back in Adrilahnka, though. I do hope he can figure out a way to come back long-term without getting himself killed, because I like his friends and associates very much.  ****
Tags: books

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