Decent fantasy novels and sci-fi short stories

I’ve taken a break from reading serious fiction, and have enjoyed reading light stuff over the summer so far.

Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen is very light.  She is a Bay Area resident, apparently.  The novelty in the book is that the society with a little bit of magic (controlled by rival queens, natch) is the result of a long-ago and near forgotten magical “crossing” from the modern United States which perhaps suffered some kind of apocalypse.  Books survived the crossing, but somehow nobody makes any connections between the books’ contents and their own society.  Science is sometimes remembered, sometimes forgotten.  I guess in our own world we have that going on, so I shouldn’t be bothered.  Come to think of it, why in fantasy novels are there never any hotels, where rich people go on vacation?  Once Bilbo got rich, did he ever stay in a Club Med?  Did Prince Caspian use money to book the top floor of a Westin? They always stay in inns, six to a bed, with a tall man with long hair and sharp sword taking the chair by the window.  These societies are always starkly unequal, but the rich people never read luxury magazines.  Oh, the book has some explicit sexual descriptions and violence, which is going to drive librarians crazy.

The Nethergrim by Matthew Jobin who teaches anthropology at Santa Clara.  The book was given to us by his anthro colleague Mary Hegland.  I could not get my kids to read it (I think they are tapped out on fantasy novels).  I enjoyed it, and would say it is in the pack.  The writing is definitely above the pack.  You can tell a PhD dude wrote it and took the time to write it well.  But in the end, and remembering he did not write it for me, I’d say good not great (with upspeak).  The reading experience was similar to The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  The trouble is the fantasy novel field is now so full that you have to have gimmicks to keep any interest at all.  Jobim’s is a sly ironic detachment in tone, especially when describing the stereotypical “girl falls in love with Prince.”  The Prince (well, the local lord’s son) is charmingly self-deprecating, which only makes him more attractive to the reader, though the girl seems unaware. Has she read no storybooks?  No, apparently, because in this fantasy village almost no one is literate except for the usual wanna-be magician’s apprentice.  No sex, just yearnings.

I’ve also read through many of the stories in Gardner Dozois’s 2000 The Year’s Best Science Fiction and I think, frankly, that I have gotten sci-fi fully out of my system for several months. Too many short stories that combine too much pretend “hard science” with really prosaic stories. Can you tell I got down on the whole genre by the end? But there were some gems that I really liked.

  • David Marusek “The Wedding Album” was insanely good for the first 30 pages, and then petered off for the last ten. Boy I liked it. So clever, about what the limits might be of an AI snapshot of “us.” Very much in flavor of Ted Chiang.
  • Robert Reed “Winemaster” was an enjoyable read, but never really provoked the wonder that this kind of sci-fi story should.
  • Alastair Reynolds “Galactic North”was a space opera chase that tried to tackle big themes but to me felt flat… no real characterization.
  • Eleanor Arnason “Dapple” was an enjoyable fantasy novelette. Pretty light fun.
  • Stephen Baxter “People Came from Earth” a very nice (because extremely short) exploration of the stark hardship that might be our fate, someday.
  • Karl Schroeder “The Dragon of Propyat” really this was just a bad story that should not have been in the collection.
  • Walter Jon Williams “Daddy’s World,” excellent writing, good complement to the Marusek story, about being downloaded and “living” in cyberspace.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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