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Books To Look For
Ink & Sigil, Kevin Hearne, Del Rey, 2020, $28, hc
Humor is never objective. Like other malleable emotions such as love, or what constitutes good art, it's subject to what we bring to the table while experiencing it.
It's also really hard to do well because on top of all the normal requisites for a good story—believable characters, excellent prose, a strong narrative—it has to deal with the funny quotient. Which, as I just mentioned, is basically hit or miss, depending on the reader's sense of humor.
Humorous fiction in our genre seems to come in two flavors.
There are the stories in which everything—the plot, characters and prose—serves only one purpose: to lead to the next joke, pun, or slapstick pratfall.
Then there are the ones that do everything at the same level as a more serious story and the humor comes from the characters' quips, the various situations in the narrative, or the tone of the writing. The big difference between this style and the former is that the humor is an add-on, not the sole reason for the story.
Kevin Hearne writes both. For the former one has to only look at The Tales of Pell, his collaborations with Delilah S. Dawson. For the latter we have the book in hand and also, to some extent, his Iron Druid series. His high fantasy books (The Seven Kennings series) might have humorous elements, but I don't know because I haven't read them. I'm at the point where no matter how good a really long book might be I'm not interested in reading it, especially when I know there's a whole series of them stretching off into the unknown distance, but that's a discussion for another time.
Ink & Sigil introduces us to Aloysius "Al" MacBharrais, a sigil agent who uses magical inks and sigils in his duties as a liaison to the Fae courts. The story's set in Glasgow and told from Al's first person perspective and I have to admit that I immediately heard early Billy Connolly in my head as I was reading, especially when Al was taking the piss out of someone, and that made me smile more.
(I should probably note that swearing is much more common in the UK than in North America, and that's reflected in the text. So if that sort of thing upsets you, this might not be the book for you. Anyway.…)
Al carries a pair of curses. Anyone who hears his voice begins to hate him. Before he figured it out, he was completely estranged from his son and others that he cared about. Now he only communicates in writing or by using a voice app on his phone.
The other curse is that his apprentices keep dying in freak accidents. The latest is Gordie who choked to death on a raisin scone (leading some characters to decide that it was suicide, since who eats scones with raisins in them?).
But this freak death has some terrible ramifications. The main job of sigil agents is to facilitate travel by otherworldly visitors—essentially providing them with a visa which allows them to stay for a set length of time. But Gordie, Al discovers, has been trafficking Fae and was in possession of sigils he had no right to know at this point in his training.
The more Al and his team, along with a rescued hobgoblin named Buck, delve into what's going on, the more questions need to be answered and the more trouble arises. And the whole endeavor could well cost them their lives.
Hearne has created a completely immersive world in Ink & Sigil, including a magical system that feels very fresh to this long-time reader. That he keeps it all firmly grounded in our world is all the more impressive.
I loved the cast of characters, the humor, the very Scottishness of it all, and can only hope that this will be as long-running a series as the Iron Druid was. I should probably mention that Al's world is part of the one explored in the Iron Druid books, but a part of it we've only briefly seen before. Still, you need no familiarity with any other book other than the one in hand.
The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind, Jackson Ford, Orbit Books, 2019, $16.99, tpb
Random Sh*t Flying Through the Air, Jackson Ford, Orbit Books, 2020, $16.99, tpb
I was attracted to Jackson Ford's Teagan Frost books because of their titles. They seemed to promise a kickass and irreverent story, and happily, they delivered.
Imagine that your parents, like Teagan Frost's, were brilliant scientists who mess around with genetics before the birth of you and your siblings. Imagine that each of you is born with special abilities. Yours is a minor, but very real gift for telekinesis. Then imagine that your brother goes a little crazy, and because of that your whole family, along with your parents' scientific notes, is destroyed in a fire. You survive, but the government takes you away to a facility where you're subjected to an endless barrage of tests.
Then imagine a woman named Tanner, the head of a clandestine government agency, takes you away from all that and allows you to live a normal life so long as you work for her on various assignments geared toward your particular abilities.
That's Teagan's life. It's not perfect but it beats living on a commune in the middle of nowhere with her parents or being stuck in a box in a government facility constantly being tested and having samples of your genetic material taken.
Except then a body turns up at the site of her last job, killed in such a way that only she could have done it. Tanner gives her twenty-four hours to clear her name, but that might not be enough.
Teagan's point of view voice is a perfect guide through the novel. A mix of wiseacre and snark, with just a touch of innocence because she's only recently been allowed to partake of all the things that we take for granted. Kicking back and having a beer, pretending to be normal, is a novelty.
There's plenty of action as the plot careens toward its dramatic conclusion and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Since you can see from the header that there's a second book, I suppose it's not much of a spoiler for me to tell you that Teagan survives. That might not be the case with book two where she and team have to face off with a boy who has the ability to create earthquakes.
Everything that made the first book enjoyable is still present, but the danger—and havoc—is turned up to a Spinal Tap eleven, and it makes me wonder if Ford hates L.A., because he really does a number on the City of Angels. Not everybody makes it out this time, but with the teaser at the end, I think there'll be a third book and I'm looking forward to it.
Madrenga, Alan Dean Foster, WordFire Press, 2020, $15.99, tpb
I haven't read Alan Dean Foster in ages, though not for any particular reason. He just fell off my radar and got lost in the tsunami of books that gets published every year until Madrenga washed up one day on the shores of my P.O. Box—and that's probably taking the analogy too far.
Madrenga is both the title of Foster's new book and its main character: a homeless boy from the streets of the capitol of Harup-taw-shet who is recruited by the Queen's counselor Natoum to deliver a private message to Queen Zhelerasjju of Daria. He's an unlikely candidate to make the long and perilous journey, but Natoum assures the dubious queen (as well as Madrenga) that the boy is up to the task.
So off Madrenga sets with his pony Orania and his puppy Bit. Natoum might have faith in him, but Madrenga's not convinced. Or at least not until strange things begin to happen to him and his companions. With each peril and challenge they face, the three begin to change. The boy gains stature and muscles, the pony becomes a war horse, the puppy some kind of hellhound, albeit it one that mostly retains the affable qualities of the puppy he was unless danger threatens him or his companions.
Madrenga is an episodic novel with the overall arc being the delivery of the message but constructed of lots of somewhat self-contained incidents as the trio make their journey, each one reading like a delightful mashup of a tall tale and a faerie tale. One of the things I liked the most was the light-hearted tone of the story and the amusing situations that Madrenga gets into and then out of again.
So you could say that the story's a little old-fashioned, but you could also say that it's timeless. Madrenga's a simple character, full of courage, heart and loyalty, and I enjoyed traveling with him and watching him grow from an innocent street kid into…well, I'm not going to tell you. But Foster plays fair, and all the strange things that happen to Madrenga and his two companions make perfect sense when we finally get to the end of his journey.
Storybound, Emily McKay, Entangled, 2020, $17.99, hc
As I mentioned in the last issue in my review for Ash Parsons's Girls Save the World in This One, there's something particularly fun about made-up media that's inserted into a book as if it were real. In this case, it's a series of fantasy novels called The Traveler Chronicles, set in the Kingdoms of Mithres.
Edie Keller and her mother move around a lot because of her mother's job in palliative care, so Edie's best friends have always been books. Her favorite series is The Traveler Chronicles, and her favorite character is the main protagonist Kane the Traveler, whom Edie kind of thinks of as her book boyfriend because she's not ever going to stay anywhere long enough to have a real one.
The latest move brings Edie and her mother to Austin, Texas, the same weekend that The Traveler Undone, the final book in the series, is published. Kane dies in the end of the book and Edie is devastated, but she doesn't get a lot of time to worry about her feelings because elements of the Kingdoms of Mithres are bleeding into her everyday life.
Her dad's in prison after going crazy with hallucinations and hearing voices, and now she's scared that it's happening to her. But then a trip to Book People literally transports her to the world of the Traveler books and those fears are forgotten because, while Kane died in the book, here it hasn't happened yet. Having read the book, she knows how to save him and is determined to make sure that not only will he survive but he'll also marry the princess, which will save the kingdom.
Unfortunately, Kane's a bit of a dick, and neither he nor the princess have any interest in each other.
Edie has her work cut out for her.
So is it a novel concept, this traveling into a world that should only exist in the pages of a book? No. But done well, it can be a lot of fun, and McKay does a good job, especially with the characters. While there are certainly serious elements, it's the humor and Edie's spunky personality that shines through and keeps the reader entertained and turning pages.
Everything pretty much wraps up by the end of the book, but there are a few dangling threads that hint another volume might be coming, and I'm looking forward to how the new storylines will play out.
TITAN, François Vigneault, Oni Press, $19.99, tpb
Genre fiction at its best reflects our own world through the prism of fiction, taking elements of the present and letting us see where they might take us if left unchecked. Though originally published in French in 2017 by Editions Pow Pow, the sf graphic novel TITAN gives us a disquieting reflection of 2020, minus the pandemic, as it tackles colonization, capitalism, revolution, and racism.
Colonization is probably a bigger issue here in Canada than it is in the States—or at least it's more in the public consciousness—but seeing as how Vigneault is a Montreal writer, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he would include it in a story about political and social unrest. The more we learn about its impact on our Indigenous people, the more we come to see that it lies at the root of so many of the problems we all face today.
Heinous though slavery might be, at least it's an honest horror. There's less pretense that it was used for the "betterment" of the people it enslaved. In Canada the church and government decimated the Indigenous population under the banner of improving their lot in life—taking from them their lands, rights, language, and culture—and it's only in the past decade or so that the general populace is beginning to cut through the lies and propaganda to understand what was done in our name.
Vigneault understands that no one wants to be lectured. Instead he tells us a story that allows us to see the injustices of the present day in a fictional setting, showing us both sides of the great divide, and allows us to draw our own conclusions
So he sets his story in the future, in Homestead Station, a massive mining colony on the moon of Titan where tensions are rising between the giant, genetically engineered Titan workers and the Terran management and security forces. Our viewpoint character is MNGR First Class João da Silva, who arrives on the station to determine why production is down, but the heart of the book is a Titan woman named Phoebe Mackintosh.
Phoebe is assigned as a liaison to de Silva by Cyrus, the head of the Homestead worker's union. She was once a fighter on the "mixing" circuit (think cage fighters without cages) and thought that she'd left fighting behind her. But unfortunately the union workers and Terrans are on a collision course, leaving de Silva and Phoebe caught right in the middle of the escalating conflict.
In simplistic terms, it's easy to deal with the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots that fuel these kinds of situations. The haves need to give up some of their privileges so that the playing field is leveled for the have-nots. In reality, even when the haves think of themselves as allies, that's not something most of them are going to do.
Colonization and racism are the bastard children of capitalism, which gets its mandate from the old law of the jungle: The fittest survive. Whoever gains the most wealth and power is the winner, regardless of who gets stepped on along the way. We have to only look back over the past fifty years to see this in the rise of corporations.
Their goal is to dominate, period. I don't doubt that their ultimate endgame is to be in charge of everything, including the making and maintaining of laws of governance. There's no sympathy for the have-nots because they're perceived as weak and useless except for the labor they can provide.
This is where our world is headed. On Titan, and throughout this future universe, it's already happened, and Vigneault allows us a glimpse into how it got there and how it might begin to unravel. TITAN can be brutal and violent, but also thoughtful, tender, and filled with great heart. But most importantly, there is truth.
Phoebe and de Silva's journey through the book are our windows into the conflict. We understand—from both sides of the struggle—the betrayals and loyalties, the opportunistic grabbing of power and the shattering loss of the same.
It's a powerful story that is strengthened by Vigneault's simple but expressive art. There are only three colors used—black, white, and a deep rose—which I wouldn't have thought would work until I saw it. It reminds me a little of the underground comics I read in the sixties and seventies where the lack of prettiness highlights the stark reality of the world he depicts.
I don't read French so I'm really happy that Oni Press has published this translated version, which allows me to appreciate Vigneault's powerful storytelling. Although it does make me sad that TITAN feels more relevant today than maybe it did when it was first published.
Attack Surface, Cory Doctorow, Tor Books, 2020, $26.99, hc
Attack Surface, Cory Doctorow, Cordoc-Co LLC, 2020, $32.44, audiobook
How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, Cory Doctorow, OneZero, 2020, free website (https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59)
DRM (Digital Rights Management) drives me crazy. It only exists to lock the reader/listener/viewer to a certain platform. If you change the medium you want to use to access your purchase, you have to buy it again (e.g., you've had a Kindle and want to switch to a Kobo). It's like buying a book or record, then moving to a new house and finding out that they only work in your old house.
The conglomerates that use DRM have no respect for their customers. There's nothing they like better than making customers pay more than once for the same product. Even more troubling, they can remotely remove material from your device as happened a number of years ago with Amazon and George Orwell's Animal Farm. With DRM you can't back up your product in a case such as that. Sure you get a refund, but imagine how you'd feel if someone could physically come into your home and take away a book because they've decided you shouldn't have it.
Once you buy a book, album, or film, it should be yours to do with as you like so long as you don't break any copyright laws.
Cory Doctorow has long been a proponent of DRM-free products. Years ago he proved to his publisher that he could give away ebooks on his own site and people would still support him and buy the paper books. One might argue that he's a Big Name writer and can get away with this sort of thing, but at the time he wasn't.
Now he's stepping up again, putting his money where his mouth is, and publishing the audio version of his next book himself because Audible won't sell DRM-free books. He's started a Kickstarter for the audio version of Attack Surface and as I write this the fundraiser is well on its way to proving that while Audible might have a lock on ninety percent of the market share for audio books, an indie audio publisher can still be viable.
This is a good thing.
I'm happy to support the endeavor even though I don't normally "read" audiobooks. I'm not sure exactly why but I've never enjoyed being read to. Yes, I realize I'm in a minority, but what can you do? For this book, however, I went back and forth between listening and reading, and I found the audiobook more enjoyable than I thought I would.
It's partly that it's a Doctorow novel, and I can never get enough of either his fiction or non-fiction. But it's partly the narrator as well: Amber Benson, who I know from the Buffy TV series, though she's done many things since, from writing, to acting in films, to directing. And now, apparently, narrating audiobooks.
She does a terrific job of capturing the first person narrative of Masha Maximow, and as I write those words I realize the voice actor is a big part of what works or doesn't for me when it comes to audiobooks. I said above that I don't like to be read to, but I've thoroughly enjoyed a few readings over the years. The late Parke Godwin comes to mind. Neil Gaiman. Joe R. Lansdale.
Like Benson, they add a dimension to the written word. They have voices that pull one into the story—or at least they pull me where too often I'd rather just read the book.
And what of the book?
Attack Surface is a stand-alone novel set in the same near-future world of Little Brother and Homeland. Masha Maximow is developing counterterrorism protocols for a transnational cybersecurity company, making the hacks that allow repressive governments to spy on their dissidents. Then she turns around and secretly uses her skills to help those same activists evade detection—at least she does if their cause is just.
When the targets are strangers in overseas police states, she finds it easy to ignore the collateral damage, the hurt brought into the lives of the dissidents. But when the company she works for gets contracts in the States, and those same hacks she created are now aimed directly at the activists she knows and grew up with, she can't ignore the damage any longer. The problem is that no matter which side she chooses, someone is going to get hurt.
Doctorow wrote Attack Surface in 2018. I read it in 2020 and I have to admit it was a little jarring with the protests in Portland on the news and reading about a quite similar situation in Doctorow's novel, except in the book it's happening in San Francisco. There were times when I felt like I was reading two different versions of the news, but Attack Surface was giving me the behind the scenes intel, such as why the president sent his goon squads into Portland or harassed peaceful protesters in Washington so that he could have a photo op with an upside-down Bible.
We always hear about science fiction being prescient, but really what the best writers do is extrapolate from the present situation. As when William Gibson didn't so much invent cyberspace in Neuromancer as show us what the shape of the internet would be, and how it would filter down to the lowest strata of society. As Doctorow has done many times before, and here explores the possibility of future surveillance and how it might be used.
The scary thing isn't that we already almost live in the world of Attack Surface. It's that you can bet there are people right now actively working on how to bring it about.
It's going to require vigilance and activism on our part to make sure it doesn't happen. A good place to get informed as to where we are right now in the struggle is Doctorow's How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, a free read on the web that gives a thorough background on the issue and offers up some solid advice on how we can deal with the data mining that is present in every aspect of our current technological lives.
I highly recommend both books, especially Attack Surface.
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