Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Review: Planesrunner


Everness, Book One
by Ian McDonald

I decided to try a new format for my reviews. I hope this is a useful format.

Plot: Everett Singh's dad, a quantum physicist, is kidnapped off the street in view of Everett by three men in a black car. Later that night, Everett gets a message from his father containing a mysterious app, with only the note "For you only, Everett." Turns out that his dad has been working on a scientific project seeking physical proof of parallel universes, and the app is a map of all the known universes, the only one of its kind in existence. Now Everett is on the run from agents of the Plenitude, an alliance of the known universes. They want the map, called the Infundibulum, and will stop at nothing to get it. But Everett has other plans, and he uses the Infundibulum to travel to an alternate London in a daring attempt to rescue his dad.

Notable Characters:

  • Everett Singh. Teen boy who is as good at cooking as he is at math, and not afraid to use either in pursuit of his goal. Punjabi, or at least half Punjabi (his dad is Punjabi, but I never figured out if his mom is). Authentic teen male voice.
  • Sen Sixsmyth. Fearless teen girl with an attitude and a love for "bona" tech. Airship pilot in an alternate London.
  • Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth. Sen's adoptive mother. No-nonsense airship captain. Strict but compassionate, not afraid of a fight.

Worldbuilding: Excellent! The second half of the book takes place in E3, an alternate universe in which oil-based technology was never developed and modern technology comes out of a coal-based heritage. More advanced than our universe in some ways - carbon nanotubes are used everwhere - but less advanced in some areas, like computing. Very steampunkish feel.

Things I liked: 

  • The worldbuilding and the steampunkish feel to E3, as noted above.
  • Airships!
  • Hard science fiction that doesn't shy away from science and math.
  • Authentic teen boy voice. A boy who's good at math and soccer and cooking, and isn't afraid to use his culinary skills.
  • Sen Sixsmyth is just about the best thing about this book. She's a fantastic character. Her adoptive mother Captain Anastasia is pretty awesome, too.
  • The bond between Everett and his dad. Everett is a typical teen boy, and mentally rolls his eyes at some of the things his dad does, but it's clear that they are close, and Everett literally travels to another universe to rescue his dad. 
  • There's too much detail in the descriptions, and it bogs down the story in some places. In some ways the detail is good, as it contributes to the worldbuilding. It's also authentic to the protagonist, as we learn early on that he notices details and connections. However, in places there's so much detail that it almost seems to be stream of consciousness and it's hard to follow.
  • I think the cover really does the book a disservice, and probably deters a lot of teens from picking it up. The biggest problem with it is it's too busy. I think the picture of Everett coming through the gate would have made a better cover. Although I have a problem with that image as well, as he looks more like a caucasian with a tan than someone of Indian ancestry.
Who would like this book:
  • Math and science geeks
  • Steampunk fans
  • Boys and girls
  • Hard science fiction fans
Get it from:
FTC required disclosure: Copy received from the publisher for evaluation as a Cybils awards nominee.  The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Monday, January 28, 2013

50 Essential Science Fiction Books, and my commentary

Recently, AbeBooks posted a list by Richard Davies of 50 Essential Science Fiction Books. It's a pretty good list, and I agree with many of the choices, but there are some changes I would make, and some books that I think should have been included.

There were some constraints placed on the list that affected the books selected. Davies was trying for a diverse mix of subgenres and themes, so in some ways diversity overrode influence in making the selections. He also limited the list to no more than one book from each author, so highly influential authors are woefully underrepresented. (How can you choose only one book to represent the canon of authors such as Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, or Bradbury?)

Working within the constraints as defined, in some cases, I would have chosen a different book to represent some of these authors.

Stranger in a Strange Land
For Robert A. Heinlein, I think I would have selected Stranger in a Strange Land for sheer influence, rather than Starship Troopers. However, my favorite Heinlein book has always been The Door Into Summer, which has been a favorite of mine since about fourth grade.

The White Mountains
For John Christoper, my choice would have been the first book in his young adult Tripods series, The White Mountains, over Davies' selection of The Death of Grass or No Blade of Grass. The White Mountains has been very influential in introducing generations of new young fans to the science fiction genre. Read my review of The White Mountains.

I enjoyed Rendezvous with Rama quite a bit, but I agree with commenters who said that Childhood's End would have been a better selection to represent Arthur C. Clarke.

Additions to the List

There are some books and authors that I was surprised to find weren't represented on the list. A list that excludes Andre Norton, E.E. Doc Smith, and A.E. van Vogt can't really be considered representative of the greatest works of science fiction.

Andre Norton is probably best known for her Witch World fantasy series, but she was also well known for her adventure science fiction for young adults. Storm Over Warlock was significant as an early science fiction adventure novel with a female protagonist.

E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series is probably the foundation on which all other space opera is based. Although some of the societal aspects of the story are pretty cringeworthy by todays standards (ie., racist and sexist) it's still a shining example of what space opera could be. As a teen I loved the sweeping story that traveled through time, space, and history. Although Triplanetary is listed as the first book in the series, I believe that First Lensman was originally the first book and Triplanetary was added later as a prequel (similar to what John Christopher did with When the Tripods Came).

Slan is another book that was a big influence on my younger self. It's been a long time since I read it, but from what I remember of it, it would have a lot of appeal for today's fans of dystopian literature. 

Modern SFF

Some of the modern selections seem odd to me. Although I respect that it's sometimes difficult to identify which of the newer books will have lasting value, I disagree with more of his modern selections than the classic ones. I've never been able to get more than a few chapters into a China Miélville book; I just don't enjoy them and don't see the appeal. And while I loved Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, it's very much a product of its time, and I'm not sure it will have the lasting value to be included on a list like this.

What are your thoughts, fellow SFF fans? What science fiction (not fantasy) would you include on a list of essential science fiction books?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

My Favorite Books that Didn't Make the Shortlist

I used to think that the job of a book awards committee was to pick the best books of the year. After six years of serving on the Cybils Awards panel choosing the shortlist for science fiction & fantasy, I know differently. The truth is that there are any number of books in any given year good enough to be award winners, and no matter what criteria or metrics a committee works with, in the end, there is a subjective factor that plays a role. Any two different panels of judges will choose two different slates of books. Sure, there may be some overlap, but probably less than you think.

It's often a heartbreaking experience. You read and read and read some more, and you come to the table with your perfect, beautiful choices. These are the best books of the year, you're sure of it. Then, the real work begins. Because your fellow judges will have their perfect, beautiful choices that may or may not be the same as yours. Some of your choices will elicit a "meh" reaction from your fellow judges, and a few may even meet with outright opposition. You argue and you compromise, and you come up with a list that everyone can be satisfied with, but it's almost guaranteed that no one will love all the books on the list.

As painful as the process is, I really believe that we end up with a shortlist that is stronger, more diverse, and overall better than a list created by any one of us would be. Every year there are at least a couple of books on the shortlist that I wouldn't have picked, but taken together I've been very happy with the list for every panel I've served on.

The other painful part of the process is that there are inevitably books that have to be sacrificed to the gods of compromise. Every judge had books that they loved with burning passion, but had to give up because there wasn't enough support from the other panelists. We like to say that after the final discussion, we can all go in a corner and cry for the ones we lost.

Here are my favorite books of the year that didn't make the shortlist:

by Ursula Poznanski

This book was a lot different than I expected. Although the plot revolves around an online videogame, it's more of a mystery and a compelling, suspenseful psychological thriller.

by Terry Pratchett

This was initially placed in the fantasy/sci-fi category, but after reading it we realized that it was more historical fiction, so moved it to the YA Fiction category. Anyone who loves Terry Pratchett's distinctive humor and keen observation of human nature will enjoy this rollicking story of a young man named Dodger who meets everyone from Charlie Dickens and Sweeney Todd to the Queen herself as he seeks to protect a young lady from sinister forces.

by Kristin Cashore

I felt that this third book in the Graceling series was the best one yet. Read my review of Bitterblue.

The Crown of Embers
by Rae Carson

Sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, this was another sequel that I thought surpassed its predecessor.  As much as I loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I thought this second book was even better. I thought that Elisa's character arc had reached a nice resolution by the end of the first book, and I wasn't sure what else Carson could do with her, but Carson surprised me by how much more Elisa's character developed in this book and how much more the plot advanced from the first book. At one point I was ready to give up in disgust when it looked like the book was going to take the easy and obvious way out of a situation, and then Carson surprised me yet again.

Pirate Cinema
by Cory Doctorow

Doctorow's books tend to defy the rules about what makes a "good" book -- too much exposition, too political -- and yet they are compelling books with loads of teen appeal. Pirate Cinema is no exception. Doctorow really "gets" the things that are important to teens, and writes about them with respect. Pirate Cinema will appeal to anyone of any gender growing up in the Internet age.

The Girl with the Borrowed Wings
by Rinsai Rossetti

I loved this heartbreakingly beautiful story of a victim of emotional abuse finding herself through her interactions with a shape-changing young man, but sadly I couldn't convince my fellow judges. This is one that sticks with you and keeps you thinking long after you finish reading it.

by Juliet Marillier

Shadowfell is a strong, character-driven fantasy about a girl who can see the Fey in a world where any hint of interaction with them is punishable by death -- or worse. The worldbuilding is lush and the Good Folk are real characters, and interesting ones at that. Neryn is a strong character to begin with -- traveling with a gambling addict father, she's the one who has to try to keep them alive -- but as someone who has had to hide her secrets carefully, her character arc is more about learning who, and when, to trust.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ratha's Creature Graphic Novel

Ratha's Creature Graphic Novel Sample Page

I'm excited to announce that, after months of planning, we've launched a Kickstarter project to fund a graphic novel version of Ratha's Creature. My company, Imaginator Press, is the current publisher of the Ratha series, and last year author Clare Bell and I started discussing the possibility of creating a graphic novel version, both as a gift to the loyal fans, and as a way to bring Ratha to a new generation of fans. We put out a call for art submissions and selected a fantastic art team, who have been working to develop characters and create samples. But to make this dream a reality, additional funding is needed, so we turned to Kickstarter.

The Kickstarter project launched yesterday, and significant momentum is building. Already, on the second day, we are 16% funded, and today we were delighted to discover that Kickstarter selected our project as a Staff Pick for the Comics category! Ratha friends and fans have heard the call, and helped to spread the word, on social media, on DeviantArt, and elsewhere around the Interwebs. On Ratha fan, Jessica Alvis (*seasaidh on DeviantArt) issued a challenge to Ratha fans: post a drawing every day the Kickstarter project is running and include a link to the project.

We're off to a great start, but we need all the support we can get if we want to reach our funding goals. (On Kickstarter, projects are only funded if they reach their goal. If the amount pledged by backers falls even a dollar short of the goal, the project creators get nothing.)

Check out the project, watch the video, read about the great rewards, then please consider backing this project, and helping us to spread the word. We have some great rewards for backers, but the biggest reward is knowing that you helped to make this project a reality.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Cybils 2012 Finalists Announced!

It's Cybils Finalist Day! The Cybils shortlists have been announced, and what a fabulous group of books! Go check them out!

Here's a list of the Fantasy/Science Fiction finalists:

Fantasy & Science Fiction (Young Adult)

And All the Stars
by Andrea K Höst

Every Day
by David Levithan

Planesrunner (Everness, Book One)
by Ian McDonald

by Rachel Hartman

The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories
by Brenna Yovanoff, Tessa Gratton,  and Maggie Stiefvater

The Drowned Cities
by Paolo Bacigalupi

by Sarah Beth Durst

Click here for Fantasy & Science Fiction (Young Adult) shortlist with blurbs and links

Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade)

by Kate Saunders

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities
by Mike Jung

The Cabinet of Earths
by Anne Nesbet

The False Prince: Book 1 of the Ascendance Trilogy
by Jennifer A. Nielsen

The Last Dragonslayer (The Chronicles of Kazam)
by Jasper Fforde

The One and Only Ivan
by Katherine Applegate

The Peculiar
by Stefan Bachmann

I was honored to serve again on the Fantasy/Science Fiction (Young Adult) panel. There were so many good books that choosing only seven finalists was HARD! A big shoutout to my fellow panelists. They're all smart, interesting folks who know their SFF! I loved working with them and will miss our discussions. Go follow their blogs:
A big shoutout also to the terrific Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) panelists! This was one of the most active and dedicated panels I've ever worked with. They generated hundreds and hundreds of messages discussing the books over the course of the three months, and had two separate chat sessions during the holidays, lasting several hours each. Their discussions ranged far and wide, and covered everything from middle-grade appeal to internal consistency. If you want to know more about middle-grade fantasy & science fiction, you couldn't do better than to follow these folks: