Leaflet Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made World coverThe world is still only half-made. Between the wild shores of uncreation, and the ancient lands of the East lies the vast expanse of the West—young, chaotic, magnificent, war-torn.

Thirty years ago, the Red Republic fought to remake the West—fought gloriously, and failed. The world that now exists has been carved out amid a war between two rival factions: the Line, enslaving the world with industry, and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence. The Republic is now history, and the last of its generals sits forgotten and nameless in a madhouse on the edge of creation. But locked in his memories is a secret that could change the West forever, and the world’s warring powers would do anything to take it from him.

Now Liv Alverhuysen, a doctor of the new science of psychology, travels west, hoping to heal the general’s shattered mind. John Creedmoor, reluctant Agent of the Gun and would-be gentleman of leisure, travels west, too, looking to steal the secret or die trying. And the servants of the Line are on the march.

I can’t remember exactly how I became interested in The Half-Made World, but it’s been a while. I wasn’t quite ready to drop enough money to buy a new hardcover from an author I’d never read though, and that’s why when it came time to find books to populate my Nook, I was ridiculously pleased to see that for some reason, it was on sale for $3.99 (I later discovered that this was a promotional price because the sequel came out last week). It would have been worth paying more than that.

Characters in Conflict

The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, was how every viewpoint character had a strong internal conflict between who they were, what they were doing, and what they wanted to do.

The world of this book feels very magical-wild-West: there are cowboy-like outlaws (the Agents of the Gun), industry-driven railroad men (the men of the Line), the innocents caught in the middle, and the magical Hillfolk that no one fully comprehends. There’s a viewpoint character from every group except the Hillfolk.

John Creedmoor, Agent of the Gun, is ridden by a demon who lives in his revolver. The demon, Marmion, is used to more or less dictating the actions of his host. But Creedmoor delights in defying his master as much as he can, even when it results in demonic torture. Don’t get me wrong: Creedmoor is not a good man, and that point is frequently reiterated through his thoughts and actions. But there is a part of him that knows what good is and that wants someone to do the right thing, even if it isn’t him. John’s internal conflict was, for me, the most compelling conflict of the story.

Lowry is a man of the Line. Men of the Line are supposed to be more or less the same across the board: more or less equally capable, efficient, and unquestioningly loyal to the Engines they worship. His little rebellions are nowhere as brazen as Creedmoor’s, but they wouldn’t fit his character if they were. He is ever so slightly proud of his accomplishments (pride is anathema for Linesmen). He struggles with his desire for glory and his place in a system that doesn’t allow for glory. Especially when he’s put in contrast with Creedmoor, who is a complete glory hog, Lowry is actually an interesting character considering he comes from a group of people who are supposed to be the bland product of assembly lines and cookie-cutter lives. Where he ends up at the end of the book is perfectly fitting (though it felt unfulfilling for a moment and it took me a bit to realize how brilliant it was).

Liv was, for me, the least interesting of the characters. She too is in conflict with herself for most of the book—she struggles with her revulsion and pragmatic acceptance of Creedmoor—but I think she surprised me the least and had the simplest character arc. That said, she is very different, in a good an interesting way, from your typical fantasy heroine. She’s just not, in my opinion, the most interesting person in the book.

Drive to the Sequel

This book’s ending feeds heavily into the sequel. The biggest secret of the book still hasn’t been revealed, new difficulties are introduced, and in general it does a good job of letting you know that if you enjoyed this book, you must pick up the next one as soon as possible. But while I thoroughly enjoyed the setting and I’m emotionally invested in Creedmoor’s character, especially after the events at the end of the book, I’m going to hold off for a bit. Why? Because Liv suddenly became more central (and I already mentioned that she’s not the most interesting for me), and given the back-cover copy of the sequel, I’m not sure that the sequel will end up being what I’d expect. So I’m going to hold off until the price drops to something closer to the price of a mass market paperback. Gilman’s voice and setting are intriguing, and I want to try more; I’m just not quite prepared to pay a premium for it yet.

content warnings: Language (several F-bombs) and allusions to Creedmoor’s liaisons with various women.

Leaflet Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music—hints of their true nature buried in in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless “haint” lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.

With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds. …

The Hum and the Shiver had me excited: it has an interesting premise, an interesting context, a killer title, and a visually appealing cover (can you believe it’s just straight-up photo-manipulation?). My little brother sent it to me for Christmas, because he is an awesome brother, and I read it in about two days.

Delicious Tidbits

The book has plenty of things going for it: an interesting take on contemporary fantasy (it’s definitely not urban, and none of the characters are cliche); the main character grows into a unique type of inner strength; the worldbuilding elements are delightfully fresh (music-based magic in rural Tennessee!). The elements of mystery surrounding the Tufa draw you through the book, and the cast of characters is very dynamic.

One of my favorite characters in the book was Craig Chess, the Methodist minister who has recently moved to Cloud County to work among the notoriously nonreligious Tufa. He’s awesome. He is a man who acts on his faith, who suffers fits of temper and temptation but always finds a way to deal with it, and who, although he earnestly wishes others to find the truth he holds dear, doesn’t need you to be in his congregation for him to wish you the best. He stands in stark contrast to the likes of Dwayne Gitterman, Bronwyn’s ex-boyfriend, who really doesn’t wish anyone well but himself.

Hangups

So I enjoyed the book. But I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone. The book’s charm very much hangs on its milieu—the unique setup, context, worldbuilding, and small-town characters. In my opinion, the plot was not particularly masterful. Some of the conflicts, like Bronwyn’s inability to play music when she first returns home, are solved with surprising ease. The viewpoint is almost confusingly omniscient (to be fair, I haven’t read an omniscient POV since I read Dune, so my distaste for this technique could just be because I’m out of practice reading it). Plot-driven readers may take issue with a character or two who have more page time than their plot purpose warrants.

After reading the last page, I put down the book and said, “Really? Really that’s how you end it?” The ending didn’t resonate with me in a meaningful way. For a book that has so much heart, it felt surprisingly hollow.

Even so …

I still enjoyed it. Knowing what I know now, I’d still have read it. It’s a rich and textured novel with plenty in its pages that will please. Its heroine has a very interesting growth trajectory that I found satisfying. Alex Bledsoe recently announced that there will be a second book in the same world called Wisp of a Thing, and I’ll likely read that book as well. It’s not a perfect piece, but like I said, it has a lot of heart, and I’m glad I had a weekend to spend on it. If only for Bledsoe’s beautifully imagined Tufa culture and folklore and they way he put magic into the mundane, I’d gladly read the book again.

Content warnings: Language, sex, discussions about sex, mature themes, some violence (but not much).

Leaflet Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna ClarkeToday I’ll be reviewing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but before I make any comments I have to preface them with a sad, awful fact: I’ve been reading this book since January.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a beastie when it comes to length. My mass market paperback runs to 1,006 pages. But the length was no reason to take so long. Life happened, and my leisure reading suffered for it. As a result, my impressions of this novel are spread over nine months, so take pretty much anything I say about it with a hearty grain of salt.

Especially this first comment: The plot was pretty disjointed and full of vignette-style stories and incidents. That isn’t to say it wasn’t enjoyable, just that it was very, very hard to come back to when I was short on time, especially since I new section and chapter breaks were few and far between (I hardly ever stop mid-scene, but while reading this novel I had to on more than one occasion).

To somewhat support my point, please note that the book is called Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and you don’t meet Jonathan Strange until page 243. In fact, I think he is only obliquely mentioned once or twice before then (excluding footnote references), and you only notice the mentions because his name is on the cover.

However, the book is full of delightful descriptions and immersive prose and circumstances (everything about the book is geared to immerse you in the alternate history—even the spelling). If read in a more sustained manner, it would probably be rich with an atmosphere that lingered when you had to put it down. Clarke’s descriptions of fairy things are full of synesthesia and mixed metaphors, and it works perfectly because the fairies are not quite human and live in a place that is just a sidestep shy of our reality. An example: “[The fairy box] was a beautiful shade of blue, but then again not exactly blue, it was more like lilac. But then again, not exactly lilac either, since it had a tinge of grey in it. To be more precise, it was the color of heartache. But fortunately neither Miss Greysteel nor Aunt Greysteel had ever been much troubled by heartache and so they did not recognize it.” The descriptions are brilliant and they’re done with precision and deliberation.

Overall, the plotting was not my favorite (probably a symptom of the nine-month read). I think it could have done with more focus and some quicker pacing. Even so, the novel definitely has texture. The worldbuilding is deep and full, complete with folktales (which of course made me happy). The characters are hardly stereotypes, and even when they don’t act exactly as you thought they would, they are still acting perfectly (or perhaps brokenly) human. Mr. Norrell is someone I didn’t like, but I couldn’t help but empathize with him on many occasions.

My final note will be somewhat redemptive for the plot: After I picked the book up for the homestretch sprint of reading I started close to a chapter called “A little box, the color of heartache.” From that chapter on I quite enjoyed the pacing and the conflict up to the finish. The end relied on a bit of what felt like deus ex machina, but what with a prophecy being in the book from the beginning, it isn’t so bad and probably wouldn’t have stung so much if I could actually remember any of the prophecy by the time I got to the end.

Bottom line: I dropped the ball as a reader on this one. Sorry, Susanna Clarke. I’m perfectly willing to give it another try if you put out another book (short story collection excluded for the moment due to the stack of to-read books next to my desk).

Leaflet Review: The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The Prestige Cover

This is a lamentably crappy scan of the paperback cover.

Over the past few weeks I finally read The Prestige by Christopher Priest. (I have, of course, seen the movie, but that’s kind of irrelevant.) For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (and thus can’t puzzle out what The Prestige is about), I provide the back-cover copy from my paperback edition:

In 1878, two young stage magicians clash in the dark during the course of a fraudulent séance. From this moment on, their lives become webs of deceit and revelation as they vie to outwit and expose each other.

Their rivalry will take them to the peaks of their careers, but with terrible consequences. In the course of pursuing each other’s ruin, they will deploy all the deception their magician’s craft can command—the highest misdirection and the darkest science.

Blood will be spilled, but it will not be enough. In the end, their legacy will pass on for generations … to descendants who must, for their sanity’s sake, untangle the puzzle left to them.

The book is told through a series of first-person accounts that are scattered throughout time: some are in the present (from the descendants whose sanity is at stake) and some are from the past (the dueling stage magicians, i.e. the portion the movie covers). The accounts are mostly written in personal journals, most notably from Alfred Borden (the first past-based viewpoint character) and Rupert Angier (the last past-based viewpoint character).

Narrators with Secrets

The narrators are obviously unreliable. In Borden’s journal he confesses this up front: “The very act of describing my secrets might indeed be construed as a betrayal of myself, except of course that as I am an illusionist I can make sure you only see what I wish you to see. A puzzle is implicitly involved.” Because Borden so obviously hangs a lantern on the fact that he can’t be trusted, it becomes apparent that trusting Angier is risky business as well.

Having seen the movie, I already knew some of the secrets and illusions Borden and Angier would put out there (though Angier’s secret is notably different from what it was in the movie). In many ways, I wished I hadn’t already seen the movie—I wish, for example, that I could regain the initial effect of reading Borden’s contradictory prose without knowing the reason behind it. However, I relished the more intimate look into the minds of characters I already knew (in their essentials). The film does a wonderful job of focusing on the outward relationships the two magicians have and the effects of their secrets on those relationships, but the book brings you closer to the individuals.

Characterization & Fragmented Effects

The prose was interesting, and the characters’ voices and mannerisms were quite distinct. Angier is a penny counter; Borden is an idealist and theorist. Andy Westley/Nicholas Borden (he was adopted, and the Westley name is his adopted name and how he thinks of himself) shows a realistically confused young man; Kate Angier (great-granddaughter of Rupert) delicately captures her childhood experiences from an adult perspective.

Having so many narrators fragments the storyline—which is only more fragmented by the fact that many times you can’t trust what you’re being told. However, except for Andy’s account, each individual gets to go through his or her story, beginning to end, without interruption. I loved this. Each character was engaging enough alone to draw me into the story, and there were secrets and details enough to discover that repeated plot points weren’t redundant. Andy’s account bookends and separates the others’ accounts: because he comes into the Borden–Angier feud as an outsider, it’s almost as though the reader is discovering the family secrets as he does, so his bookending is appropriate.

I immensely enjoyed the book. The characters change, develop, and evolve over the many years of their lives documented within its pages. The story essentially comes down to one of obsessions, whims, and deep-seated aspirations. (It reminds me of English-language Romanticism, Gothic elements and all.) The Prestige, in the end, is a ghost story: the ghosts of whims, the ghost of obsession, the ghost of aspirations of immortality, whether through fame and glory or other means. The ghostly prestiges—the lingering effects of the novel—are the ghosts of human frailty and desire. As such, the book is chilling and fascinating, and it echoes painfully with reality—as nearly all good fantasy does.

Small Gripe

My only complaint would be that there were occasions when I didn’t believe that the words Angier were using were native to his time period and experience. Not to say that they couldn’t have been, but they didn’t ring true in my ear and jerked me out of the illusion of reading for a while.

Book–Film Comparison

As a side note, I couldn’t help comparing the novel and the film, if only to decide if I still liked the film adaptation after reading the book (I’ve watched the movie many, many times because I like it so much). I can’t say that I disagree with any of the choices the adaptation made. Focusing only on two characters made it easier to fit in the time, and focusing on the external effects of their decisions translates better to film and analyzes another side of obsession (as well as answering questions that Angier himself raises in his account). I even agree with how they changed Angier’s secret because it made it easier to get the strong impact without the luxury of time that a novel affords. I’d say I appreciate the film even more now that I’ve read the book (though, as I said before, I wish I could have had an untainted reading of the book—alas, it is not to be).

Christopher Priest’s The Prestige won the World Fantasy Award in 1996.

What the Editors Are Looking For

Something writers often hear is that they should submit their novels and sotires to editors and literary agents who will be a “good fit” for their work. The reasons for this are twofold: “good fit” editors are more likely to offer you a contract and they’re more likely to “get” your novel and share a vision of your work.

A concern I’ve often heard is that authors are afraid big, scary, corporate editors will overhaul their stories. That fear is greatly diminished when you know the editor gets your book—which is why you want a good fit editor. This is something most authors understand.

The trouble some writers on the traditional publishing road run into is that it’s sometimes tricky to figure out what individual editors like because they work behind the curtain. Yeah, you know the book came from Tor, but who inside of Tor worked on it? A lot of times you can find that information by looking in the acknowledgements in published books similar to yours. Pub Rants, a blog from Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency, often has her impressions of what editors in general are looking for during a given season or year. There are also small contributions like the one I’m about to give you: my specific observations from speaking with four editors at WorldCon.*

Jim Frenkel (Tor)

Jim is looking for “really good books,” which isn’t very helpful for most people who are already pretty sure they have one of those. But if you’ve already got a really good book on your hands, Jim is pretty open in terms of genre. He’s edited science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, and engaging science-related nonfiction. He’s hardly picky.

Right now a book he was excited to talk about is Lady Lazarus by Michele Lang. If you don’t know already, it’s a historical urban fantasy set at the beginning of World War II in an alternate universe where the main character is the last in a long line of Jewish witches who help keep demons from meddling in human affairs.

Jim also mentioned that he does agenting on the side and works a lot in foreign rights, so I would be inclined to believe (though he never actually said this) that he thinks at least somewhat on a global scale.

Liz Gorinsky (Tor)

Liz was one of this year’s Hugo nominees for Best Editor, Long Form. She has a background in comics (and she’s starting to get her fingers into more of those again), and she prefers more literary-style fiction. (Since “literary” is such a non-descriptive word: She recently edited Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, if that helps you peg one aspect of what she considers literary.)

Moshe Feder (Tor)

Moshe was also a Best Editor, Long Form, Hugo nominee. He’s the editor for Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells (to give you some reference points for his taste). Moshe has a background in science fiction, so he appreciates magic and worldbuilding that make sense (which explains why Sanderson’s almost scientific magic systems appeal to him so much).

One thing Moshe stressed while I was speaking with him was how he strives for empathy and understanding in the author–editor relationship, even with authors whose books he passes on. That isn’t to say that other editors don’t strive for it too—both Jim and Liz said that they want authors to have authority over their books—but it was a point of emphasis for Moshe in our particular conversation.

Lou Anders (Pyr)

Lou has been nominated for Best Editor, Long Form, five times, and this year he took the Hugo home. When one of my friends (the lovely Charlie Holmberg) asked him what he was looking for in a book, initially he answered with an abstract measuring stick. If his wife has to ask him what a manuscript is like and he just meanders through a list of its merits, she’ll let him know he needs to put it down; if instead she has to force him to sit down and finish reading the manuscript because he’s so excited to tell her about it, he knows it’s something he needs to buy. (So essentially, he wants writers to be brilliant.)

After the more abstract description he was able to give some definite genres he’s looking for, though. He digs sword and sorcery (he even edited an anthology of short stories in the genre) and epic fantasy. He watches ebbs and flows of interest and developing ideas carefully. He knows the history of speculative fiction genres and he has it in mind when he’s looking at fiction. If you’re a writer who flourishes in the “anxiety of influence,” try running your stuff through Pyr’s open submissions pile.

I mentioned more about Lou’s preferences when I posted about publisher’s styles, so you can find those there if you want more information about what he’s looking for right now.

There are, of course, many more editors than these four—but these are the ones I’ve met and spoken with recently, so that’s all I’ve got for you right now.

*Please remember to take my observations with a grain of salt. I’m hardly perfect.

ePublishing and Your Writing Career

Renovation WorldCon 2011 LogoYesterday was Day 1 of WorldCon, and I’ve been roaming around as my writer friends’ freelance editor buddy. The day was fairly uneventful, but there were two major highlights for me: chatting with Moshe Feder from Tor and hearing from Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications. Some of what we talked about is particularly relevant to aspiring (and, honestly, established) authors.

While we were talking with Moshe (some friends of mine waylaid him, and he’s nice enough to chat with us), he mostly told stories about his career and let us know we are free to submit to him (I obviously won’t be taking advantage of that), but one tidbit you may be interested in is what he said about the touted ebook revolution, the future publishing structure, and the place of editors.

Editors in ePublishing

Moshe said that no matter how publishing convolutes, writhes, and reinvents itself, authors will always need an objective editorial eye to help them reach their full potential. While current publishing has a lot of rough patches (high overhead, etc.), it serves a purpose: it helps authors improve their work, grow their talent, and reach an audience. The need for those things will never go away. (So Moshe firmly believes that his line of work will not become obsolete, even if the printed word completely dies out.)

However, something that is changing, in Moshe’s mind, is how writers are reaching readers. As physical bookstores are fading from ubiquitousness, it will be harder to reach casual readers (you know, the readers that take a book outside the “die hard” readers and send it blossoming into widespread readership). In the past (and still now, to a certain degree), casual readers would pass book showcases (i.e. bookstores) in the mall or near their other regular errands. Then cover design and marketing could take over to let a casual reader know that he or she really did want to read a certain book. Now, Moshe says, no one in the industry is quite sure how to let casual readers know about awesome books. (This is also, he said with glee, marketing’s problem, not his. It’s a puzzle he doesn’t want to have on his plate.)

Career Writers’ Successes

While you’re thinking about the puzzle of publication promotion (couldn’t resist the alliteration), some words from Jacob Weisman may be hopeful to those of you looking to be career authors.

He said to remember you’re building a career, not just pieces of a career like a draft, interview, or promotion campaign. Judge your success on the right scale, and always remember the overarching career goal. Every step in your career should be a building block (but that doesn’t mean each one must be a success).

Here Weisman’s commentary ends and mine beings. When you’re building a career, one “failure” shouldn’t send you into a dizzying spiral of self-doubt and depression. A really rotten draft does not a rotten writer make: it’s one part of your career, one bit of the groundbreaking and foundation work you need to do. You won’t get anywhere without digging in the dirt for a while, but the dirt shouldn’t get you down. Keep at it, and when you get stuck, get yourself and objective eye.

Further WorldCon insights and commentary are forthcoming, so stay tuned! Today I ran into Brandon Sanderson (I almost didn’t recognize him with his goatee), talked with Liz Gorinsky of Tor, and went to presentations by Pyr and Angry Robot. Hopefully more about what I gathered from all them tomorrow.