I’m not usually a big reader of military SF, but when a new book by Linda Nagata shows up, I take note. You should, too, and her new novel The Last Good Man has just shown up. It’s a very-near-future novel that takes a close look at warfare as it may soon be fought: in tight, uncomfortable quarters with automated machines taking most of the shots, while humans continue to do the bleeding and dying. You may never look at a drone the same way after you read this book.
The thing is, Linda Nagata is equally proficient at the tech, the action, and the human heart. In this one she takes a gamble, casting as soldier-protagonist a woman past forty, with a yawning hole in her heart where her soldier-son was, before his death under dire circumstances. Not exactly a cheery starting point, but this is a book with passion, one that fights its way toward its own kind of redemption. Linda’s a tough writer, but beneath that toughness lies a powerful compassion.
For something a little lighter, by which I mean utterly silly, try The Temporary Magic Series, by Craig Shaw Gardner. This tale concerns one Lenny Hodge, a young man of peculiar talents—who goes to work for an even more peculiar temp agency, Terrifitemps, which quietly controls the world. Pitted against the evil Fu, Lenny must join forces with the likes of a swami, a vampire, a werevole, and Bob the charming but annoying magic horse. If you liked Craig’s hilarious Ebenezum series about a wizard who’s allergic to magic, you’re sure to like this. Silliness for all ages.
Craig is another of my writer friends who did great with traditional publishing… until everything changed, and suddenly he found himself without support from the big city. Like many of us, he’s been working on bringing out his backlist in various formats, including ebook, audiobook, etc. Rather than going indie, he opted to go small press, and Crossroads Press has been doing a fine job releasing his old work and his new. In fact, this book came out for about one week from a mainstream publisher, who didn’t seem to know what to do with it; and now it’s back, from Crossroads.
It occurs to me that I’ve probably told you about these books before. But that was a while ago, and a good recommendation never gets old!
Speaking of young adult science fiction, here’s a series you really should read, whether or not YA is your thing, or for that matter, science fiction. It’s a parallel worlds story that treads the boundary between young adult and adult fiction (the way Harry Potter did), which means I can heartily recommend it for both audiences. The Portal Series by Richard Bowker begins with Portal, published a few years ago, about two young men (boys, really) who find themselves in an alternate Earth, and entangled in an American civil war. That’s followed by the more recently published Terra, which takes one of the boys, Larry, to another alternate Earth resembling ancient Rome. Richard is currently writing a third in the series, Barbarica, and it’s even better. Also, I don’t think we’re in YA-land anymore.
Richard Bowker is not as well known to current audiences as he should be. He had a bunch of novels published by New York publishers, to good reviews. But somewhere along the way, traditional publishing failed him and he quit writing for a while. Then he returned, writing better than ever, this time indie publishing. And his new stuff is great! You owe it to yourself to give his books a try! Here are the two current Portal books:
One of the things we always struggle with as writers is knowing how much detail to provide in a given scene. Too little, and you haven’t given the reader enough of a sketch to complete the illusion. Too much, and you risk boring the reader, or depriving her of the chance to use her own imagination to fill in the picture. To make matters worse, the balance is different for every reader. You will never be able to please everyone.
What got me thinking of this was Heinlein’s young adult classic Starman Jones. I first read this book in a library hardcover as a, well, young adult, and certain scenes have stuck with me ever since. I recently downloaded the audiobook from Audible, and started reliving the story of a young man’s journey from vagabond to starship astrogator. (It holds up remarkably well, despite the basic premise—that starship jumps would be calculated at lightning speed with paper and pencil—now seeming ridiculous.)
Early on, there’s a scene where Max is running away from his no-good stepfather, and he risks hoofing it through a tunnel where ring-jumping trains blast by at supersonic speed. He makes it through by the skin of his teeth…
“He reached the far end with throat burned dry and heart laboring; there he plunged downhill regardless of the sudden roughening of his path as he left the tunnel and hit the maintenance track. He did not slow up until he stood under stilt supports so high that the ring above looked small. There he stood still and fought to catch his breath.
“He was slammed forward and knocked off his feet.
“He picked himself up groggily, eventually remembered where he was and realized that he had been knocked cold. There was blood on one cheek and his hands and elbows were raw. It was not until he noticed these that he realized what had happened; a train had passed right over him.”
Those lines go by pretty fast, especially in the audio narration. But my first reading of them left an image scored in my memory: the magnificent silver ring trains, lancing through the hoops across the countryside; the peril of venturing too close, much less into the tunnel; and the moment of truth, when an unscheduled train blasts overhead, the concussion wave nearly killing our hero before he can get more than shouting distance from home. That scene took pages, in my memory—in my imagination. But the core of it was just one line: “He was slammed forward and knocked off his feet.”
Did that scene hold the same power for every reader? Maybe not. But maybe for some, it did.
Where does that leave the rest of us, following in Heinlein’s footsteps? Trying to decide, scene by scene, what to tell and what to leave out. Writing, rewriting…
In case you wondered what I was up to with the Reefs of Time rewrite.
Here’s a book that was up for the Norton Award. Though it did not win (Arabella of Mars, by David Levine took that honor), I really liked it. It’s a young adult SF novel called Railhead, by Philip Reeve—an author I know nothing about, except that he wrote this sparkling and imaginative far-future tale. In this distant future, trains form the backbone of interstellar travel. The difference between these trains and ours is that when these trains go through tunnels, they’re jumping through stargates from one world to another. Also, the locomotives are sentient. We learn about these trains through a kid named Zen Starling, who, caught between formidable opposing powers, must find his own path to what’s important. Written with a light and sure touch, this is one of those YA books that has good reason to appeal to any audience.
I especially like finding good science fiction in the YA offerings. Most of the Norton finalists tend to be fantasy. I like fantasy; don’t get me wrong. But I keep remembering that it was YA science fiction that first got me hooked on SF as a kid, and I sometimes wish that there were more of it being written today. Well, here’s one worth your notice. Railhead, by Philip Reeve.
Congratulations to all the winners of the Nebula, Bradbury, and Norton Awards this year! The Nebulas are the annual award of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and the award trophy is a gorgeous block of Lucite with embedded planets and things, each one unique. Consider that list, linked above, to be another recommended reading list.
The winning novel was All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, and I loved it. A blend of fantasy and science fiction, it was engaging and compelling, and the characters were achingly real. Heartily recommended. I also loved one that didn’t win: The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin. (I “read” both of these via their wonderful audiobooks, really great narrations.)
Winning the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult SF/F was Arabella of Mars, a lively sort of steam-punk story by David D. Levine. David is one of my Book View Café colleagues, and I offer him a special, collegial fist-bump of congratulations!
Finally, and if you think I’m saving the best for last, you’re right: The recipient of SFWA’s Grand Master award, and about time, is my wonderful friend—everyone’s friend—fantasy and children’s book writer Jane Yolen! It’s a richly deserved award, and I especially liked her words of wisdom to writers: “Just write the damn book!”
I don’t recommend good books as often as I should. But there’s no time like the present. Between my regular reading and my reading for the annual Nebula Awards, plus the audiobooks I listen to while walking Captain Jack, I’ve read some really good stuff lately.
Let’s start with Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerwoman series. This isn’t new, but if you haven’t read it, you should, and then it will become new and wonderful to you. There are four volumes so far, and she’s working on the fifth.
The first is The Steerswoman. The story is set in an apparent fantasy world in which there are wizards and regular folk and Outskirters… and steerswomen. The steerswomen are itinerant gatherers of information; they seek and record knowledge of all sorts. They are honored and a little bit feared. Sort of like action-adventure librarians. Rowan is one such steerswoman, and her quest is for knowledge about a most unusual kind of stone. She’s smart and savvy and good with a sword when she needs to be. So is her new-found friend Bel, an Outskirter.
As the narrative winds on through Rowan’s adventures, you gradually begin to understand that what seems to be fantasy might be something else altogether.
Terrific writing, characters worthy of your care, a world of familiarity and strangeness: It’s all here, and well worth your time.
I’ve known Rosemary as a colleague and friend for many years, but it took me until this year to read these books—despite my best intentions, and rave reviews from both my wife and my brother. Don’t you make the same mistake.
Here are the first two, in the Kindle store. You can also get them at Nook, iBooks, etc. These are her own reissues; they were originally published by Del Rey.
My friend Richard Bowker has a new novel out in the Kindle store (coming soon in other stores). If you’ve read any of his books, you know he’s a terrific writer. This one’s called Terra, and is a direct sequel to his earlier book, The Portal, which tells the story of two boys who stumble into, and through, a dimensional portal into an alternate Earth. I’ve read it in manuscript, and it’s excellent. (The new one, I mean. But they’re both excellent.) Richard is hard at work on a third volume.
If you like to laugh, that is. My friend Craig Shaw Gardner recently reissued his Cineverse Cycle in ebook form, and it’s probably my favorite of his funny trilogies. (His humorous fantasy is often compared to that of Terry Pratchett.)
The series starts with Slaves of the Volcano Gods. But honestly, the best title of the bunch (and really, one of the best titles in all of literature) is the third book, Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies. Slaves is where you start, though, with Roger’s life changing forever with his discovery of the secret decoder ring that unlocks the parallel universes of B-movies! And pits his destiny against that of the grand Plotmaster!
If you like private eye novels, and if you like near-future civilization-grinding-down novels, and if you like great characters and witty dialogue and sharp writing, why don’t you check out my friend Richard Bowker’s new book, Where All the Ladders Start. Because it has all that, and more.
I got to read this one in manuscript—actually, in several different drafts—and it’s really good. I understand it’s available now in both ebook and paper. Check it out!