I classify a good book as one that I enjoy when I'm reading it, but I can put it down and go to sleep at a reasonable time at night. An exceptional book is one that keeps me reading until my eyes fail to focus around 4 am, or sometimes even to dawn. Finding an exceptional book is a joy, but finding too many in a row makes it hard to function during the day. Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge ($24.95) is an exceptional book. In the near future a world-wide government is set up, and the government shows how all-inclusive it intends to be by declaring that everybody born exactly at midnight of the first New Year after the establishment of the government will be assured a position of importance when they turn 21. The government hires Ko, a huge multi-national corporation, to provide security to make sure that nobody cheats to try to slip in individuals who were not born exactly at midnight. So, Ko cheats to get the daughter of a couple of their executives into the program. Jackal Segura is given all the best tutors, the best learning opportunities, and very heavy conditioning that loyalty to the corporation comes before all else. Ko has trained her to be an exceptional project manager, a position in the government where they are sure she can contribute publicly for the good of the world and privately to look out for Ko's best interests. About the first third of the book covers Jackal's training by Ko.
Unfortunately, just before she turns 21 Jackal happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is vacationing in Hong Kong with most of her classmates when terrorists strike, killing hundreds of people-including most of her classmates and some high-level Chinese politicians. Ko quickly decides to help frame Jackal and disown her rather than risk their major business interests in China. Ko then pulls some strings to get her into an experimental prison program where virtual reality is used to punish prisoners at about 10 times the speed that things are flowing in the real world. Thus, an 80-year prison term will feel like 80 years to the prisoner, but their body will only be 8 years older when they are released. About the middle third of the book covers Jackal's court and prison experiences.
Before she has served her full virtual reality term, the experimental program is cancelled because everybody who has gone through it has emerged with serious mental problems. Jackal discovers and joins a sub-culture of those who have gone through the experiment virtual reality treatment. (It was not only used in prisons, but also to deal with chemical dependency and various mental health problems, and everybody who was an experimental subject came out the of programs with similar problems.) About the final third of the book covers this sub-culture.
Usually, first novels have awkward aspects, where the author is still trying to learn how to handle all the challenges of writing. But in this book, everything is handled well-the interesting ideas, the pacing, the characters, the dialogue, the physical descriptions.
The Briar King by Greg Keyes ($23.95, due early January) is the fat first book of an epic fantasy series that is designed to appeal to the same people who are reading the series by George R. R. Martin or Robert Jordan. As with Martin's and Jordan's series, we have here a big world full of different nations plotting against each other, often with palace intrigues within various nations, and lots of characters and subplots to try to keep straight. The big difference is that both Martin and Jordan grabbed my interest right away, and then gradually built up the complexity of the plot; Keyes starts throwing pieces of subplot at the reader so fast that I was nearly halfway through the book before enough pieces fit together for me to figure out what was going on and become engaged with the story. Once I became engaged with the story I enjoyed the novel, but it took a lot of patience to get to that point.
I finally got around to reading The Last Hot Time by John Ford ($12.95), which I had been hearing good things about for a couple of years. A young paramedic from rural Iowa decides to move to the big city: Chicago, after the Elves have moved in and brought their magic with them. (One of the first things the Elves used their magic to do was wipe out TV.) Chicago has a Roaring Twenties feel, but some of the mobsters have pointy ears. It was a fun, light contemporary fantasy.
Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer ($6.99) is a promising first novel by a local author. Sixteen-year-old Eliana has a pleasant life at a music conservatory, but her country is undergoing hardship. A new religion has taken over the land, based on the use of magic, and it now has an army of radical enforcers, the Fedeli, who will gleefully publicly slit the throat of anybody they suspect is still following the old religion. The Circle is a powerful group of mages that are supposed to be the enforcement arm of the Emperor, but seem to actually control the Emperor. The empire has just been through a hard war, and famine has struck the area where the fighting took place, which the mages blame on the enemy. When one of Eliana's classmates is killed by the Fedeli in front of the entire school, and Eliana's roommate is kidnapped by the Circle, she leaves the conservatory and learns enough about what is actually happening in her country that she eventually becomes part of the underground movement. The second book in the series, Turning the Storm ($6.99), will be out around the beginning of January. Naomi will be signing at Uncle Hugo's on Saturday, December 14th, from 1 to 2 pm.
Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card ($25.95) continues the story sequence begun in Ender's Shadow (which covered the same time period as Ender's Game, but seen through the eyes of Bean) and really developed in Shadow of the Hegemon (after Ender left Earth, Bean helps Ender's brother Peter against the plotting of Achilles). While there are some loose ends at the end of the book that could at some point lead to another book in the series, this book did a fine job of wrapping up the story line dealing with Achilles and his plots. Recommended, but only if read in sequence.