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Newsletter #102 June August, 2013

Short Recommendations
by Don Blyly

        Julie E. Czerneda has written over a dozen sf novels, most of which I’ve read and enjoyed. I was very interested to pick up her first fantasy novel, A Turn of Light ($20.00 trade paperback, 854 pages–which means the publisher gave us the whole novel at once, instead of making the author chop it into a trilogy and making the reader wait years to get the whole story–as some publishers tend to do). The book is wonderful.
        Almost 20 years before the story begins, a group of refugees stumble upon a small vacant village where magic works (because it is where two worlds overlap). The village allowed some of the refugees to stay, but used nightmares to drive away others. As the story begins, Jenn (one of the first to be born in the village) is approaching her 19th birthday and is wondering if she can find a way to use magic to produce a husband for herself. Everybody in the village loves Jenn, but know that she’s a little strange–so it’s not a big surprise when she’s suddenly accompanied by a man that she claims she’s known her entire life, but nobody has ever seen before. As Jenn’s 19th birthday approaches, many other visitors start showing up at the village, some human and some not. The book is filled with delightful characters, some dark elements but mainly upbeat elements. The book comes to a good conclusion, so that many readers think the novel tells the whole story, but the author says there will be a second novel set in the village, coming in maybe a year or two. The cover art for the book is also wonderful, but I didn’t realize how wonderful until I was far enough into the story to start picking out little details from the art that I had initially missed.

        I’ve enjoyed Laura Resnick’s Esther Diamond series, featuring a woman who moves from Madison, Wisconsin to New York City to try to make it as an actress, but has to keep taking odd jobs to pay the rent. Her mis-adventures always end up in the midst of supernatural mayhem, with a lot of humor and a bit of romance. The first book in the series that I read was Doppelgangster ($7.99), where Esther is working as a singing waitress at an Italian restaurant that happens to be a mob hangout. When supernatural things start happening, Esther and some of her friends have to save the day. I enjoyed Doppelgangster enough to go back and read Esther’s first adventures in Disappearing Nightly ($7.99), and to follow her later adventures in Unsympathetic Magic ($7.99), Vamparazzi ($7.99), and Polterheist ($7.99), her latest.
        In Polterheist, Esther is so desperate for rent money that she takes a Christmas job as an elf at a major department store. The department store is trying to be politically correct, so the fourth floor is now Solsticeland instead of Christmasland, and is full of part-time employees who will be out of a job on December 25, so they have a certain attitude towards their jobs and management. The founders of the store have all died, leaving management to not too bright the next generation–all of whom fight with each other like cats and dogs. There are always two Santas on duty. One deals with the kids and the demanding parents until he can’t take it any more, at which point he swaps places with the Santa in the break room. All the part-time employees have nickname for each other, such as Moody Santa, Giggly Santa, Wheezy Santa, Diversity Santa, Drag Queen Santa, etc. Esther is Dreidel, Santa’s Jewish elf; Naughty and Nice are a pair of under-dressed elves that spend most of their time privately dealing with one of the sons who inherited the company. Fourth floor workers start disappearing, without even bothering to pick up their last pay checks, and other strange and dangerous things start happening, so Esther and her friends have to save the day again, with as much humor as possible.

        Harry Turtledove has written a huge number of books, some of which I’ve enjoyed a lot, and some I couldn’t get into at all. Supervolcano: Eruption ($8.99) is the first of a series of disaster novels about a huge volcano eruption in Yellowstone (as happens about every 700,000 years, and last happened about 700,000 years ago). Because it’s a disaster novel, it’s necessary to have a bunch of characters to show the reader the disaster from a bunch of points of view. The characters in Supervolcano are well-drawn and a lot of fun to observe. The disaster is described in enough detail to be believable but not enough detail to become tedious. Because the characters are so much fun to observe, it’s possible to have humor even while states are being blown away and people are dying (off-stage) by the millions. I’ll be reading the next two books in the series. Supervolcano: All Fall Down ($26.95) will be coming in paperback in December, at which point Supervolcano: Things Fall Apart will come out in hardcover.

        The Human Division by John Scalzi ($25.99) is the fifth book in the Old Man’s War series, and is very good. In the fierce competition for colony planets, the humans used to have an advantage against the hundreds of alien races because the Colonial Union had kept Earth in the dark about the true situation, and had been harvesting a hundred thousand new troops per year and hundreds of thousands of new colonists per year from overcrowded Earth. Now that Earth knows what’s really going on, it has cut ties with the Colonial Union and stopped the flow of troops and colonists. And some mysterious force is making Colonial ships disappear, while also seizing alien ships near the Colonial border (and making it look like humans are responsible).
        The novel was originally published as 13 digital installments, so Scalzi wrote it so that each installment tells a complete story, yet the 13 installments together make a complete novel, and he made it work. The book also contains 2 extra short stories. But the mysterious force seizing ships is still mysterious at the end of the book, so we’ll have more to look forward to in this universe.

        The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty ($14.95, due May 28) is a light, funny urban fantasy by a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Zoë Norris had been working for a publisher of travel guides, but lost her job when the publisher’s wife (who Zoë didn’t know about) found out about the affair the publisher had been having with Zoë. Zoë heads for New York City and tries to find a new publishing job, and eventually talks her way into a job for a small publisher of travel guides. But neither the publishing company staff nor the customers are human, much to Zoë’s surprise. She decides that working with vampires, zombies, minor godesses, etc., is better than being unemployed, if the job doesn’t kill her (which it might). Light, fluffy fun, and the first of a series.

        I picked up The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins ($7.99), set in Colorado a few years after the Civil War. Cora Oglesby and her husband Ben had nothing left in Virginia after the war, so they’ve been traveling the West, bounty hunters looking for supernatural bad guys to kill. I found the book moderately entertaining, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I were a fan of westerns. A puzzle develops around the middle of the book about Ben, which is resolved by the end of the book, but I’m still not sure what the story is about Ben’s horse. A sequel set four years later, She Returns from War ($7.99), recently came out.

        Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins ($25.99) is an interesting book that’s hard to categorize. Set on a planet that clearly is not Earth, in a country that is similar to revolutionary-era Russia (anarchist bombers, an unpopular and bloody war, several types of government agents who often plot against each other, a totalitarian leader, etc., but no communist party and no obvious religious structures or conflicts), Inspector Lom is summoned to the capital (somewhat similar to St. Petersburg) to catch a terrorist. Lom has been selected because he is not involved in any of the plots within the government. Beings have been falling to the surface of the planet after being engaged in an interstellar war. The humans refer to these beings as fallen angels, and the government has been implanting pieces of the fallen angels into people for various purposes. Now, a fallen angel has survived the fall to the planet and has bloody plans for using the humans. There are various Russian fantasy beings tossed into the story. The story has elements of historical novel, thriller, police procedural, and fantasy, and perhaps also science fiction. The way it ends, I’ll be dissatisfied if there isn’t a sequel.

        The Ramal Extraction by Steve Perry ($7.99) is the first of a new series about a small band of former military people who form a specialized fighting force that travels the galaxy as mercenaries. On one planet, the galaxy-wide chain TotalMart is having problems with shipments being hijacked that the local police can’t seem to solve (because some of the local police are involved in the hijacking), so Col. “Rags” Cutter and his team are called in. From there, the team goes to the planet Ananda, where the daughter of a Rajah has been kidnapped shortly before she was to marry the son of another Rajah, and war could break out if she isn’t found and returned safely. The book is full of interesting characters (mostly humans, but not all) and lots of fast action. Much better than average popcorn without any danger of straining your brain.

        Flashback by Dan Simmons ($10.00) is an interesting cross-genre book set in the U.S. a couple of decades in the future. Most of the population is addicted to flashback, a drug that lets them re-experience the best parts of their lives. Most of the world is in a recession, the country is falling apart and almost nobody cares. To bring in some hard currency, the U.S. and Russia have mandatory military drafts so that they can sell their armed forces to Japan and India as mercenaries for the war in China. The U.S. has already lost 4.5 states and the remaining states are administered by Japanese “advisors”.
        Six years before the novel begins, a Japanese billionaire’s son was savagely killed in Denver and Det. Nick Bottom worked on the investigation. Three months after that, Nick’s wife (who worked for the district attorney’s office) was killed in a car accident and Nick turned into a flashback addict so he can relive, over and over, the happy periods before she died, and he was fired from the police force. As the novel begins, the billionaire decides to hire Nick to try once again to find out who killed his son. Nick wants to get as much cash as possible from the billionaire, buy as much flashback as possible, disappear, and go back to reliving the happy times. But the billionaire has enforcers who track Nick down, confiscate his drugs, and force him to work on the case. Once Nick finds that his wife was somehow involved with the murdered son, and that her death probably was not an accident, he becomes obsessed with discovering how his wife was involved in the case, and in the process shows the reader what the world is like.
        If you simply accept the background as presented, the book is very good. If you start to question the way the world is presented, there are major problems. One example: the countryside is filled with gangs of heavily armed bandits, so all the farms, ranches, and small towns have been abandoned. But years after all the farmers and ranchers have fled to the big cities, there’s no shortage of food.

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