December 01, 2011

Current Reading

by Alan Beatts

It's been a long time since I've had a chance to write about what got me into this business to start with.  But, my time is a bit less crazy now and I've been lucky enough to have a great run of reading.  All of the last four books I've read were excellent and so I thought I'd share them with you.

The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan is the sequel to The Steel Remains.  Being a sequel, it's not the place to start if you haven't read the first one.  Of course, if you haven't read the first, you really, really should.  It was Morgan's first venture into fantasy after making his mark on the science fiction field with novels like Altered Carbon, Market Forces and 13.  Both it and The Cold Commands reveal his affection for some of the great fantasy of the 20th century, like Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and David Gemmel.  You'll notice that I don't mention Tolkien in that list.  Morgan's take on fantasy is very much of a piece with some of the other writers working today who are aware of the unpleasant realities of pre-industrial societies.  Casual violence, draconian legal systems, crushing poverty, and court intrigue with the player's lives at stake are all part of the realities of such a world, even if the world is imaginary.  So, you won't find any happy, bucolic hobbits singing as they frolic in pastoral meadows but you will find a story that stands up well next to the likes of Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie.  And there is an added bonus in the form of one of the three protagonists, Ringil Eskiath, who is the toughest homosexual character in SF and Fantasy since David Drake's Joachim Steuben.  Unlike Steubin however, Ringil is a sympathetic and very human character.  The Cold Commands is a solid followup to the first novel and I recommend it highly.

After finishing that novel, I picked up Reamde by Neal Stephenson (the title of which we pronounce "Ream Dee" around the store).  It's not really science fiction at all, unless you consider the idea that any on-line game could ever give World of Warcraft some real competition to be science fiction.  For lack of a better term, I'd call it a techno-thriller, except it's really, really good and is filled with characters who have real depth and act like normal people (at least for some values of "normal").  It's chock full of terrorists, spies, Second Amendment libertarians, former out-law bikers, and the obligatory computer geeks of both the Eastern European, Asian, and American varieties.  It also lacks something I've come to expect from Stephenson -- there is no point around the middle of the book when he seems to lose the plot for about 100 pages or so and takes the reader wandering in the wilderness.  Reamde is a step up in his writing style and a novel that should be enjoyable and accessible to almost anyone.

My taste is nothing if not broad, which prompted me to grab a copy of Of Limited Loyalty after my jaunt with Stephenson.  This is the second novel of Michael A. Stackpole's Crown Colonies series which started with At The Queen's Command.  The series is set in an alternate history of the American colonies.  Normally I don't really enjoy alternate histories because I find them a bit dry and boring, not to mention there is a limit to how clever you can be by adding magic (or alien invaders) into history.  However, Stackpole managed to catch my attention with the first book and he's held it through the second.  I think the secret to the appeal of these books is that he's done an almost perfect job of imitating James Fenimore Cooper's style, setting and characters (though slightly updated for modern readers) in a world in which magic works in only the most limited ways and is just starting to become acceptable to the Catholic Church, after being suppressed for centuries.  That element of fantasy adds a touch of spice that makes the story engaging without being over-clever.  The short version is that, for whatever reason, I loved it.  It's a perfect piece of escapist fiction and just the thing for a long plane flight or to get away from the relatives for a few hours.

Finally, I finished my run with Stephen King's newest, 11/22/63.  Before I get into it, a quick aside speaking as a bookseller -- what a terrible title.  I had to go look it up to include it here and I'm going to forget it as soon as I stop writing this.  I suppose that, were I a decade older, it wouldn't be like that but I don't think I've _ever_ remembered the date that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  However, given that it's Stephen King, the title isn't going to be a marketing problem.  Everyone will just talk about, "The new Stephen King novel" through the holiday shopping season and then afterwards it will forever be, "Stephen King's book about JFK".  Still, couldn't there have been a better title?

That failing aside, I thought it was excellent.  And, I should point out, it is _not_ a horror novel _at all_.  11/22/63 is pure, top quality science fiction predicated on the recurring theme of time-travel and revising the past.  It's not surprising that at the end of the book King gives a nod to Jack Finney's classic Time And Again, which is one of the greatest time-travel novels ever.  Based on the date and what I've said thus far, I'm sure you've guessed that the basic story is about someone going back in time to avert Oswald's assassination of Kennedy.  But that doesn't even scratch the surface.  It's a novel about the 50s (both the good and the bad), love, commitment, and the prices we pay in life.  It also has an arc of character development that has been missing in much of King's work recently.  If you've never tried any of his work, this is a good place to start.  Moreso, if you gave up on him (perhaps because you were one of those poor bastards like me who read Cell, let's say), 11/22/63 might be a place to give him a second chance.

Sadly now, my perfect run is over.  I'm slogging through a first novel which, while not _bad_, is not going to knock my sox off like the last four did.  But that's the constant risk when you're a reader.

This is our last newsletter of 2011.  It's been quite a year, in both the good and bad ways, but all the portents are suggesting that 2012 is going to be a good one.  I hope that you all have a wonderful holiday season, a happy and calm New Year, and that 2012 brings you all that you hope for and more.

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