One of my favorite SF writers is Lois McMaster Bujold. She has written dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction since her first three novels, Shards of Honour, The Warrior’s Apprentice and Ethan of Athos were all published in 1986. Lois has remarked that her plots are often predicated on "the worst possible thing you could do" to a character.
Lois won the Nebula Award for Falling Free and The Mountains of Mourning and the Hugo Award for The Vor Game, Barrayar, Mirror Dance and The Mountains of Mourning. She was nominated for the John W Campbell Award in 1987.
I had an opportunity for a brief interview regarding the latest book from the Vorkosigan universe, CryoBurn.
MJ: It’s been quite a while since you wrote a Vorkosigan book. Is it hard for you to return to a character or series after a period of time? What preparation do you have to do?
LMB: I can’t say that it was any harder than starting any other book, no. I didn’t do a lot of prep — it was the new, older Miles, not his former, younger versions, who I had to get my head around, after all. His voice came back to me readily. I do a certain amount of setting-and-plot development in advance, in notes, but the bulk of it is assembled on the fly once the characters are set in motion. It’s like laying tracks in front of a moving train, which are built of materials the train is carrying.
MJ: I love how many of the Vorkosigan books seem to feature different medical technologies. Uterine replicators, the various treatments Miles has gone through, the technology in Beta Colony and Jackson Whole. In a parallel universe would you have pursued an advanced research or medical degree?
LMB: Possibly. I was a biology major in college and worked in medical technology in my youth — as a pharmacy company lab tech, a drug information office clerk, and most importantly for my store of human observation, as a drug administration technician on nursing units (a sort of nurses’ aide who gave all medication except IVs) for upwards of a decade. I have also been a science fan all my life, enjoying pop-sci non-fiction reading. And I was interested in nature photography, at one point.
All signs point to my psyche being built to be a writer, though. I’m still not entirely sure if the enjoyment of fiction isn’t really just a clever dissociative disorder, and once we all have the right meds, we’ll have no need for art to make our brains feel better. Now, there’s a SF plot…
MJ: CryoBurn brings us an interesting look at the moral and political aspects of life and death when cryonics is a reality. Where did this come from?
LMB: Well, of course cryonics has been an SF staple for decades, worked over by various writers in various ways. It has appeared as background, and sometimes foreground, technology in the Vorkosigan series right along. But my particular interest in the subject stemmed from some conversations with a reader of mine, well over 15 years back, who was involved in one of the real-world companies who are attempting to start freezing people today, in the here-and-now, in the hope of future revivals. He was very sincere, and pitched me his materials. When not hand-waved in an SF story, this stuff is really medically, ethically, emotionally and financially complicated.
In many tales, of course, cryonics is simply used as a method to get characters into a future that we-the-readers can then experience over their shoulders. (See: Futurama for the ultimate devolution of this lone-hero trope.) But I got to thinking — what if everybody wanted to get in on the game? What would a society look like if everyone was trying to emigrate into their own future that way — and how would the residents of that future feel about this wave of interlopers, double-dipping on life when the current people hadn’t even had one turn yet? What, in short, would the demographic conflicts be like if a whole society dedicated itself to this?
These SFnal issues, plus the thematic issues of Miles’s next life-stage, dovetailed neatly.
Also, any number of readers had bitched and moaned mightily about the presence of romance in some of my recent work, so I threw them a book with all politics (and techno-politics) and no romance. We’ll see if they like that any better.
MJ: Many of the worlds in your Vorkosigan universe are based in various cultures on Earth. The Vorkosigan Empire is born out of Russian stock, it appears. Do the books (and Miles) have a large international following as well?
LMB: The Barrayaran Firsters were mainly Russian, British, French, and Greek, all thrown into a very lumpy melting pot. My books have been translated into about twenty languages, so far. Some of these SF markets are really tiny, but it’s always cool to see the translations (Shards of Honor in Hebrew, good grief!), and wonder what I wrote. My most successful translations seem to be in Russian — there’s an active Russian fan base which has hit the internet, now — French, and Japanese.
MJ: Your books cross genres regularly. Many mix elements of fantasy, mystery, humor and romance into the central storylines. Are they planned or do they develop organically as you write?
LMB: They develop organically. (With lots of planning tucked in where needed.) Characters generate plots.
MJ: One cross-genre aspect of your books that I like is that the relationships you develop between characters are complex and well done. Is it a strength of yours to write romance well?
LMB: I don’t think that’s a judgment for me to make. You’ll have to ask the readers (who, if they run true to form, will disagree vociferously and bafflingly with one another.)
MJ: Miles is one of the most memorable characters I have read. You write the male "it seemed like a good idea at the time" thought processes scarily well. Does he have any real-life influences on his character creation? How did you come up with the character?
LMB: Every once in a while — a couple of times a year — I still get nonplussed notes from male readers, sometimes quite long-time ones, who’ve just found out I’m a woman. I have not, to my knowledge, ever had a female reader make that mistake. Make of that what you can.
Like most characters, Miles is an amalgam who is forged by the events of his books into an alloy, and becomes himself through his actions (and he’s exceptionally active.)
He actually began as a thing to do to Aral and Cordelia — I first envisioned him back when I was still writing Shards of Honor. I knew their first son and heir would be born damaged, and be smart, short, and difficult. I knew that before I knew his name or that he would be an only child. With that for a magnetic core, he began to attract other elements. Direct inspirations include T.E. Lawrence, another ambitious soldier who was brilliant, squirrelly, and short, and a physical template from a hospital pharmacist I used to work with back in my 20s, from whom I stole the height, physique, chin tic and leg braces. Miles’s “Great Man’s Son” syndrome comes from my relationship with my own father, who was a professor of engineering of international repute.
MJ: What’s next? Do you have anything underway?
LMB: I’m working on a series prequel, a sort of bon-bon for series fans (and me) starring Miles’s feckless cousin Ivan. The mode so far is comedy/romantic-suspense or something like that. It ran well last winter, stalled in the summer, was totally derailed by the extended CryoBurn promotional push, and has just undergone corrective surgery in an effort to get it to walk upright once more. We’ll see. No contract or deadline at present, to my immense relief. Some fans recorded the readings I did from Chapter One on the recent book tour, which are up on-line somewhere. No title or pub date yet, either.
It is the summer break of 2001, and five college kids wake up after a party one morning to find two things have happened: 1) They’re all sporting a good hangover, and 2) they all have superpowers. Not that they know this right away, of course, and that’s part of what makes the first third of the book exciting. This is Superpowers, by David J. Schwartz, and the novel gets right to it, setting a pace that even the character Jack might have trouble keeping up with. The beginning of the book reminded me of the first season of NBCs Heroes, when it was easy to get swept up in the emotions as people discovered the extent of their powers, and also decided what to do with them.
One of the refreshing things about the novel is the different approach to a subject which has been capitalized on so much lately in literature, movies, and the aforementioned TV shows. There are no real super villains. There is no criminal mastermind for the newly formed group to do battle with. There are only their own issues in having telekinesis or super speed in the real world, and in the end, that may be more difficult to fight than if there had been a Dr. Doom or Lex Luthor. At least then, you would have someone to focus your newly formed powers against.
The book moves quickly, and if you get engrossed enough, it may seem like you’re on page 100 in no time, without a lot of showy plot development. In this case, this is ultimately a good thing, as I breezed right through the book, having felt like I watched a good movie, or enjoyed some decent music. There was no challenge of the mind, but it was fun. It was like the novel equivalent of a summer popcorn movie, with just enough at the end to keep you pondering it in a way that summer blockbusters don’t.
I give it an 8 out of 10.
Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is a divisive body of work even among his long-time readers. Starting off as a close imitation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, by the second book Jordan had gained enough confidence in his own storytelling abilities to make his world unique. The first four novels follow the three young men who are destined to be the center of many important events leading to the Last Battle against the Dark One, a godlike being trying to escape his prison, and the novels are very action-oriented without sacrificing too much nuance of character and philosophy. Unfortunately the fifth novel, The Fires of Heaven, saw a shift from characters and action to politics and battle maneuvers. This was partially due to the fact that the three protagonists were gaining positions of political influence and had begun leading large armies, but Jordan failed to balance this new focus with the old, eventually sacrificing everything that originally made the series interesting in favor of texts that read like the dullest of history books. Jordan’s penchant for free indirect style was good for the early, limited cast, but once the narrative expanded to encompass the entire known world it suddenly became both impractical and debilitating. By the eighth book the series had nearly ground to a halt, each novel consisting mainly of political and military maneuvering, usually with some major battle or event slipped into the final chapter to keep the fans happy.
With Jordan’s death in 2007, many fans suspected that they would never get to see how his story ended. Despite slamming on the narrative brakes through so many novels, the occasional battle or character portrait—the chapter "Honey in the Tea" in Knife of Dreams is a great example of the latter—were proof that Jordan could still write thrilling stories if he put his mind to it. However, his increasingly debilitating sickness coupled with his longstanding promise to destroy all of his notes should he die before completing the series threatened to create a legion of frustrated fans. Thankfully, Jordan rescinded his note-destroying policy and picked fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson to complete the series after his death. While both Jordan and Sanderson originally intended to complete the series in just one more book, it became obvious to Sanderson that it would take a trilogy to untangle all of Jordan’s knots. Towers of Midnight is the second of Sanderson’s trilogy, after the more politically heavy The Gathering Storm, and it is truly a return to the action- and character-centric approach of the early novels.
Despite my earlier griping about Jordan’s political and military obsessions, they do begin to pay off in Towers of Midnight. That continent-spanning web he had spun starts to come crashing down like a meteor, and we finally get to see just how big the Last Battle is going to be. It still feels like Sanderson is being forced to juggle more items than he’s comfortable with, but he keeps them all in the air just long enough for the big finale, which will be hitting readers in force with the upcoming A Memory of Light.
It is especially good to see so many promised character arcs pay off. Rand returns to sanity, Perrin finds a balance with his wolf nature, Mat faces the monsters of his past, Egwene establishes her rule, a royal family is reunited, an old character is rescued from a torturous fate, a possible future is glimpsed; it’s like a checklist of all the things we’ve been wanting to see for over a decade, but which were put aside in favor of narrative machinations of questionable worth. No doubt Jordan would have given us the same things had he time, but Sanderson brings a great energy to the proceedings, which is surely why Jordan chose him as a replacement. With so many character arcs cleared away, Sanderson sets himself up for a Last Battle that will have plenty of room for action without any frustration that one’s favorite character has been short-shrifted.
This would be a great place for old readers who abandoned the series to jump back on. I only skimmed Sanderson’s previous novel (The Gathering Storm being saturated with politics as it was), but I couldn’t put this one down. Still, this is hardly the best recommendation for convincing non-fans to start on The Wheel of Time. Depending on how well A Memory of Light wraps up the series, one wonders if it will be worth the eventual frustration to start it. Jordan created a world with a lot of promise, and we’re about to find out how much of that promise will be kept.
The Windup Girl was a difficult novel to read. Not because it took place in the future, with all kinds of futuristic stuff to describe, and futuristic lingo that you have to learn. It’s the past that made this a tough nut to crack for me. Specifically, Thailand’s past
This novel, taking place in a vague future that could be a thousand years from now, or twenty years away, takes place in the city of Bangkok, or what used to be Bangkok, I’m not sure. The novel goes right into the story, and doesn’t belittle the reader with a “catch up,” but rather gets right into it, assuming that you’ll get the hang of it as you go along. Normally, I like when this is done, such as in A Clockwork Orange, when you are just expected to pick up the local slang in which the novel is written. It allows the reader to be completely immersed into the world that the author has created, making it that much more vivid
In this case of The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi is attempting to immerse the reader into the Thai culture, which in many ways, is more foreign than the frightening future England that Burgess painted in the aforementioned dystopian novel. Many of the pro-words are Thai or Cantonese, and the novel constantly refers back to the past of Thailand, expecting the reader to have a grasp of the history, their gods, their profits, and many, many other references that I had no clue about, making it very difficult to follow the story, since much of the tensions were based on the history of the country.
Now, much of it was based on false history. That is, the history in-between our present day, and the unnamed time in which Bacigalupi’s world takes place. But I gathered that much of it was even further back, into our shared (ours and the novel’s) history, and with no knowledge of the region’s history or culture, I just… didn’t get it.
This is the negative beginnings for me of the book, so now let me give it some praise. Despite the difficult (or at least often incomprehensible) read, I hung in there, and what I got was a good story, with very developed characters, who seemed believable in their motivations and their individual quests. Character development is one of Bacigalupi’s strong suits, here. The Windup Girl herself, while seemingly not the main character, is none-the-less pivotal, and though she seems pathetic and one-dimensional at first, over the course of the story, more and more depth is added until at the end, you have a character worthy of rooting and hoping for.
You want things to work out for many of the characters in the novel, and in the end, you mostly get just that. The ending, which I won’t go into, all clicked together to make it a book worth spending your time on. Should a sequel be written, I hope that it goes further into the Japanese culture only glimpsed in the story. That was the main aspect of the novel that I was interested in, and that’s what I’d like to see more of.
I give The Windup Girl 8 out of 10.
Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
Sir Richard Francis Burton–explorer, linguist, scholar, and swordsman; his reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead.
Algernon Charles Swinburne–unsuccessful poet and follower of de Sade; for whom pain is pleasure, and brandy is ruin!
They stand at a crossroads in their lives and are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy.
The two men are sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack, and to find out why werewolves are terrorizing London’s East End.
Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age, and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn t exist at all!
The voordalak — creature of legend, the tales of which have terrified Russian children for generations. But for Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov — a child of more enlightened times — it is a legend that has long been forgotten. Besides, in the autumn of 1812, he faces a more tangible enemy: the Grande Armee of Napoleon Bonaparte.
City after city has fallen to the advancing French, and it now seems that only a miracle will keep them from Moscow itself. In desperation, Aleksei and his comrades enlist the help of the Oprichniki–a group of twelve mercenaries from the furthest reaches of Christian Europe, who claim that they can turn the tide of the war. It seems an idle boast, but the Russians soon discover that the Oprichniki are indeed quite capable of fulfilling their promise… and much more.
Unnerved by the fact that so few can accomplish so much, Aleksei remembers those childhood stories of the voordalak. And as he comes to understand the true, horrific nature of these twelve strangers, he wonders at the nightmare they’ve unleashed in their midst….
Full of historical detail, thrilling action, and heart-stopping supernatural moments, Twelve is storytelling at its most original and exciting.
The Cardinal’s Blades by Pierre Pevel
Welcome to seventeenth-century Paris, where intrigue, duels, and spies are rife and Cardinal Richelieu’s agents may be prevailed upon to risk life and limb in the name of France at a moment’s notice. And with war on the horizon, the defense of the nation has never been more pressing.
Danger is rising from the south–an insidious plot that could end with a huge dragon-shaped shadow falling over France, a shadow cast by dragons quite unlike the pet dragonets that roam the cities like stray cats, or the tame wyverns men ride like horses, high over the Parisian rooftops. These dragons and their descendants are ancient, terrible, and powerful … and their plans contain little room for the lives or freedom of puny humans.
Cardinal Richelieu has nowhere else to turn; Captain La Fargue and his elite group of agents, the Cardinal’s Blades, must turn the tide. They must hold the deadly Black Claw cult at bay, root out traitors to the crown, rescue prisoners, and fulfill their mission for the Cardinal, for their country, but above all for themselves.
It’s death or victory. And the victory has never been less certain.
shields are shattered.
before the world founders
no man will show mercy to another."
Wuruyaaria: city of werewolves, whose raiders range over the dying northlands, capturing human beings for slaves or meat. Wuruyaaria: where a lone immortal maker wages a secret war against the Strange Gods of the Coranians. Wuruyaaria: a democracy where some are more equal than others, and a faction of outcast werewolves is determined to change the balance of power in a long, bloody election year.
Their plans are laid; the challenges known; the risks accepted. But all schemes will shatter in the clash between two threats few had foreseen and none had fully understood: a monster from the north on a mission to poison the world, and a stranger from the south named Morlock Ambrosius.
Lord Isak is dead; his armies and entire tribe in disarray. As the Farlan retreat and Kastan Styrax mourns his dead son, it is King Emin who takes the initiative while he still can. The secret, savage war he has devoted his life to nears its terrible conclusion as Ruhen positions himself as answer to the Land’s problems. Before the conquering eye of the Menin turns in his direction Emin must take his chance and strike without mercy.
A showdown is coming and battle lines are drawn as blood is spilled across the Land. The specter of the Great War looms but this time the Gods are not marching to war. It will be men who decide the future now. But before victory, before survival, there must first be salvation-even if it must be sought in the darkest place imaginable.
With the tide turning against Emin and his allies the key to their survival may lie in the hands of a dead man.
The vampiric sorcerer Uctebri has at last got his hands on the Shadow Box and can finally begin his dark ritual–a ritual that the Wasp-kinden Emperor believes will grant him immortality–but Uctebri has his own plans for both the Emperor and the Empire.
The massed Wasp armies are on the march, and the spymaster Stenwold must see which of his allies will stand now that the war has finally arrived. This time the Empire will not stop until a black and gold flag waves over Stenwold’s own home city of Collegium.
Tisamon the Weaponsmaster is faced with a terrible choice: a path that could lead him to abandon his friends and his daughter, to face degradation and loss, that might possibly bring him before the Wasp Emperor with a blade in his hand–but is he being driven by Mantis-kinden honor, or manipulated by something more sinister?
For two hundred years Tracato has been the center of enlightenment, as the serrin have occupied human lands and sought to remake humanity anew. But the serrin have not destroyed Rhodaan’s feudal families entirely, and as Tracato faces the greatest threat to its survival in two centuries, old rivalries are stirring. Sasha must assist her mentor Kessligh to strengthen the Tracato Nasi-Keth, yet with one royal sister siding with the feudalists and another soon to be married to Tracato’s most powerful foe, her loyalties are agonizingly divided.
Worse still, from Sasha’s homeland the Army of Lenayin are marching to make war upon Tracato. Can she fight her own people? Or must she join them, and fight not only her lover Errollyn, but to extinguish the brightest light of hope in all the land–serrin civilization itself?
Our thanks to Pyr for their continued generosity.