Category Archives: Paolo Bacigalupi

The Best Six Novels I’ve Read in the First Six Months of 2011, Sort of

Well, 2011 is about half gone, and while I’m not going to look at the New Year’s Resolutions I posted (because I’ve exceeded some considerably and failed at other even more), I thought this would be a good time to look back over the novels I’ve read during the first half of the year that I’ve written about and see which ones were the best.

One thing quickly became clear:  I need to read more novels.  Not all the novels I’ve read have appeared here for the simple reason that some of them were not fantasy or historical adventure.  I’ve decided to keep the science fiction separate (which is why I started Futures Past and Present), and after one review, I’ve not blogged about any mysteries or detective stories.

So here’s my list of the top six (very loosely defined, as you’ll see) of the best novels I’ve read so far this year.

6.  The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi and The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell.  Okay, if you want to get picky, these are two books, not one, and they’re novellas rather than novels.  I”m going to stretch the definitions a little because they were written in a unique collaborative manner, take place in the same world, were marketed together, and were published at the same time.  They discuss a world filled with something called bramble, which I described in my review as kudzu on steroids.  Bramble is the side-effect of using magic and is slowly taking over the world.  And it’s a world I want to see more of.

5.  Hawkwood’s Voyage by Paul Kearney.  This one is the first of a series of five.  It’s in print in an omnibus volume entitled Hawkwood and the Kings along with the second installment, The Heretic Kings.  I’ve read both of them, although I haven’t gotten to the remaining three yet (I will).  I think I prefer Hawkwood’s Voyage to The Heretic Kings simply because of the way it’s structured.  There are several viewpoint characters, and in the first book, the viewpoint alternates between chapters.  In the second, the book is divided into sections with each section telling the story from a particular character’s viewpoint.  This is epic fantasy on a dark and bloody scale, with action, intrigue, heroism, villainy, and mystery.  They’re both much better than average, and if you haven’t read them, you should.  My reviews of both are here and here

4.  This book will be discussed later.  You’ll see why.  Trust me.

3.  The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells.  This is the first in a series of at least three.  Martha Wells has been posting snippets of the next volume on her blog, but I’ve not had a chance to read them yet. This series could turn out to be science fiction at some point, but for now I’m considering it fantasy for two reasons.  One, Martha has only written fantasy so far.  Two, it reads like a fantasy.  But it has that sense of wonder you get with the best science fiction that seems to be missing these days.  It’s the story of a young man (but not a human man) you discovers who his people are and what his purpose in life is.  It has some of the best aerial combat sequences I’ve read in a long time.  Here’s what I thought of it in detail.

2.  Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick.  This one is a great novel about an honorable thief who finds himself trying to save his kingdom.  The sword fights go on for pages, yet Hulick, an accomplished fencer, makes them seem like only a couple of paragraphs, they flow so naturally.  Beginning writers should study him to learn how to write a fight scene.  Loads of fun.  The complete review is here.

4.  Thirteen Years Later, 1. Twelve by Jasper Kent.  Vampire hunting during the Napoleonic Wars. Evil, repulsive vampires, not the sweet, sexy kind meant to appeal to the necrophilic fantasies of teenage girls.  The vampires in these books are pure evil and not to be trusted at all.  This is vampire hunting for the intelligent reader.  I’ve put these two books together because they are part of a greater story arc.  While you can read Twelve as a standalone, Thirteen Years Later is very much dependent on the previous book.  I put them together on the list because I think of them as part of the same work.  How to rank them, along with The Cloud Roads and Among Thieves was tough.  I loved each of these four books, but for different reasons.  In the end, I decided to use the vampire books to bookend (so to speak) the other two.  This pair of books is intelligent, fresh, and surprising.  A high water mark in vampire fiction.  Reviews are here and here.

And that’s it.  The best six novels I’ve read in the first six months of the year.  If you’re looking for a good read, you can’t go wrong with any of these.  I’ve put a widget up at the top of the page in case anyone decides to take a closer look at one of these books.  It will probably stay up for the next month or so.

I’m looking forward to what the next six months will hold.

Brambling On

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a pair of novellas from Subterranean Press.  Written by Tobias S. Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi, these tales revolve around a world in which the use of magic results in the growth of a plant called bramble.  Bramble, for those of you who haven’t read my review or the novellas, is something like evil kudzu.  I’m sorry; that was redundant.  Anyone who’s ever had to deal with kudzu knows it’s evil.  Bramble is like kudzu on steroids.  With thorns.  It takes over everything (just like kudzu), and the thorns can send a person into a permanent sleep.

When I wrote the review I expressed a desire to see more of this world.  My wish has been granted.  If I can figure out how I caused that to happen….well, never mind.

Now, Buckell has written a sequel which went up on the spring 2011 issue of Subterranean Magazine a day or so before I started my traveling.  I tried to read it before I left, but I didn’t quite get to it.  Last night, I finally managed to read it.  It was worth the wait.

This particular installment concerns one young man by the name of Mynza, who happens to be a thief.  The story opens with him climbing the wall of the keep of the Mayor of Alacan.  He brushes against a spot of bramble growing in a crack in the wall and just manages to make it to a balcony before losing consciousness.  Turns out this is the balcony of the Mayor’s daughter, who in a twist on classic fairy tales motifs, awakens him with a kiss.  While there, Mynza takes several things, some freely given (the girl’s virtue) and some not so freely given (jewels and a signet ring).  Because his burglary wasn’t sanctioned by the head of the family that adopted him as a young orphan, they end up parting ways. 

At least for a few days.  Bramble has encroached to the point that the town has to be abandoned.  Instead of aiding the citizens in their escape, the Mayor and the merchants charge a toll to be taken out.  Most of the population can’t pay the price, and bramble has spread to the point that even the only road out, controlled by the Mayor, is closing.  Mynza has spent most of his coin from the jewels he fenced.  It’s at this point that responsibility finds him, and although he’s fully grown physically, he finds himself forced to grow up.

I’ll not say more about the details of the plot or the other characters.  This in many ways was the best of the three stories, although all of them are essentially stories of hope, despite their dark settings and events.  My reasons for saying that have to do with the changes Mynza undergoes, as well as those of one of the other characters.  To say more would be to spoil the story for you. 

I’m beginning to see a theme in the tales of this world.  A theme of how we, as people, as individuals, need each other.  Of how strong love is, propelling us to greatness and bringing forgiveness and hope where none appears to be.  I find these themes refreshing.  If this series takes off, and I hope it will, I’m sure either Buckell or Bacigalupi or both (either separately or collaboratively – that’s a hint guys) will end up writing novels set in this world.  While I will certainly rejoice over them and read them, I hope the authors never leave the novella form behind when writing in this world.  It’s the personal stories of the ordinary people, people trying to make a difference, however small, in a world that’s getting darker that gives these tales their power.  In this day of fat fantasy and never ending series, it’s nice to step back from the epic and focus on the personal.

There’s been a lot of blogging in the last month or so about whether fantasy is too dark.  If you feel that way, then you need to read these works.  They’re a breath of fresh air.

The Alchemist and the Executioness: A Joint Review

The Alchemist
Paolo Bacigalupi
Subterranean Press
Trade $20; Limited – sold out
96 pages

The Executioness
Tobias S. Buckell
Subterranean Press
Trade $20, Limited $45
104 pages

Here’s a pair of novellas that will definitely be worth your while.  The backstory behind them is that Tobias Buckell had an idea for a fantasy world and invited his friend Paolo Bacigalupi to join him in it.  Together they developed the settings, history, and characters.  What resulted from this collaboration was the pair of books you see above.  Hopefully, this is the first of many because they’ve created a fascinating world with an interesting magic system.

In this world, magic, as the publisher’s promotional copy says, has a price.  If magic is used, bramble grows.  Bramble is like kudzu, only with thorns.  It takes over everything.  Little magic, big magic, it doesn’t matter.  If you use magic, bramble will grow somewhere nearby.  It’s caused the downfall of an entire empire in the recent past and is well on its way to taking over the entire world.  (I told you it was like kudzu.)  To bet stuck by bramble is to risk falling into a deep sleep, one from which you won’t likely wake up.  It’s never stated when bramble first started, but The Alchemist implies that it wasn’t always around.  It can be burned out, but there are enough people who use magic (in small amounts, of course, not enough to really hurt anything you understand) that this is a losing battle.

I’ll start with The Alchemist only on the basis of the alphabet.  Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the hottest new writers working today, and after reading this book, it’s easy to see why.  Of course, if you’ve read any of his short stories or his novel The Windup Girl, you already know this about him.  The Aclchemist concerns, well, an alchemist.  One who has spent a literal fortune trying to find a way to successfully battle bramble.  He’s not doing this purely from altruistic reasons but because his daughter has a wasting lung disease. The only cure for it is through magic.  He is able to keep the disease at bay, but to do more will cost him is life.  The Mayor of the city of Khaim has declared that practicing magic is a death penalty offense.  The alshemist succeeds in his quest.  And that proves to be his undoing…

The ink on the book was barely dry when Bacigalupi picked up a Nebula Award nomination for it.  (Congratulations, Paolo, and good luck!)  It’s understandable when you read it.  The prose is moving and at times poetic.  While I found some of the villainy a little over the top, the story’s ending wasn’t as dark or nibilistic as I was expecting from the set up.  I definitely want to see more of this character.

The Executioness is the story of a middle aged woman, the mother of two boys, who takes up the axe in order to keep her family from starving when her father, an executioner himself, dies. This is not your typical fantasy heroine.  That’s a good thing.  Buckell does a fine job of developing her character, and anyone, male or female, who’s ever had children will relate to her motivation.  After her alcoholic husband is killed and her sons stolen by raiders, she takes off in pursuit of her boys.  The raiders are practicing what they call Culling, reducing the magic using population by kidnapping children and taking them away across the sea to be indoctrinated in the raiders’ religion.  She quickly catches up with them, only to be defeated and tossed in bramble.  Somehow she awakens, her wounds healed (this is never explained, something I hope is addressed in a later book), in a caravan, where she becomes one of the guards.  The caravan is heading to the city where her sons have been taken, so she has no problem riding along and earning her keep with her axe.  In the course of the story, she becomes something of a legend, as the number of raiders she fought grows with each retelling as well as the outcome of the fight changing.  In the end, she leads an army of some of the fiercest fighters you never want to tangle with:  an army of mothers who have had their children kidnapped. Whether they’re successful, well, that would be telling…

Buckell is the author of several well received novels and one short story collection, which can be ordered here.  I picked up a signed copy of Crystal Rain when it was up for a Nebula a few years ago and the awards ceremony was held in Austin.  I confess I haven’t read it simply because it is signed, and those books aren’t the ones I take with me to read when I travel and so tend to sit on the shelf longer than unsigned books.  It’s in the TBR stack, and after reading The Executioness, it will be moving up closer to the top.  Much closer.

These books might seem a bit pricey to some of you, especially in the current economy.  But if you can afford them, you should check them out.  The illustrations by J. K. Drummond are great.  I’m hoping these two glimpses into this shared world will be the first of many.