What I’ve Read: 2016

A Princess of the Linear Jungle by Paul Di Filippo (* * *)

I’m looking to fill the last week of the year with a short read, and Di Filippo’s novella A Princess of the Linear Jungle immediately sprang to mind.

I got this book years ago from one of my favorite small presses, PS Publishing out of the UK. (Actually, I got two of these books — and two copies of another Di Filippo book — from PS a couple of years ago, in a weird book collecting twist that I chronicled here). A Princess of the Linear Jungle is a sequel to Di Filippo’s novella A Year in the Linear City. The Linear City has one central boulevard lined with buildings (one deep) on either side. Beyond the buildings on one side is “Heaven” and on the other is “Hell.” The street is an endless straight line, and it looks like we’ve gone far beyond the confines of the city in Linear Jungle.

I’m expecting an Edgar Rice Burroughs vibe here, and I’ll be interested to see how Di Filippo extrapolates the limited “linear” confines to something as boundless as a jungle.

VERDICT: I wasn’t wrong about the ERB vibe. The story begins with a passage from A Princess of Mars! This dense little novella is pulp adventure with a jazz-aged flare. The main character Merritt Abraham is part Dorothy Parker, part Zelda Fitzgerald, and her adventure into the jungle precincts of Vayavirunga with a team of scholars, archeologists, rogues and a wayward chanteuse are evocative of grand Scientific Romance. The writing style is deliberately florid and alliterative, and I really dig that. I welcome any book that sends me to the dictionary every few pages. It’s not a genre game-changer or anything, but I enjoyed the romp. The cover touts Di Filippo as the author of the “Linear City Romances,” which indicates that the author intends to write more Linear City stories. I welcome the prospect.

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Way Station by Clifford D. Simak (* * ½)

I found this copy of Way Station in a cabinet in my library, buried behind other books. I have no recollection of buying it. It was actually the third book I rediscovered in my stacks that day. If you buy books like I do, you understand. Suffice it to say, Way Station was exactly what I was in the mood for.

It’s 1962, and Enoch Wallace is a 124-year-old Civil War veteran who hasn’t aged beyond 30 — a side-effect of having turned his deserted Wisconsin farm into a way station for alien travelers in a massive intergalactic transit system. When not shunting aliens, Enoch lives a solitary life on his fallow land, a quiet local legend to rural neighbors who know how to mind their own business. But a CIA agent has discovered Enoch, and when has that ever led to anything good?

I first came across Clifford D. Simak’s work in one of my favorite anthologies, The Science Fiction Bestiary. His story “Drop Dead” is a highlight of the collection. And so far, Way Station is proving as enjoyable in its own way. It’s chock full of rumination on how we communicate with and relate to each other — both here on Earth, and within the larger galactic community. And that’s just the first 50 pages. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

VERDICT: If ever a book was ahead of its time, I think Way Station might be it. It introduces concepts like a galactic confraternity, instant transport via dematerialization and rematerialization, and even hard-light, self-aware holograms. I can’t speak authoritatively about how common those concepts were in the SFnal zeitgeist in the early 60s, but if they weren’t, I’d say Gene Roddenberry owes a huge debt to Clifford Simak. Especially interesting: the “beaming” that happens in this book leaves a corpse behind, as the traveler is rebuilt from scratch upon arrival at each new transit station. People have been pointing out for years that the Star Trek transporter is essentially a high-tech murder machine. Simak embraced this reality. As for the story in Way Station… I think it would have been groundbreaking in Simak’s day. But its ideas have become almost de rigueur in the genre by now. So its impact for modern audiences is lessened. Couple that with an awkward dialog style — and the fact that the book spends way too much time hashing and rehashing the same moral and philosophical dilemmas — and you have more of an enjoyable academic curiosity than a genuinely moving read.

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The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny (* * ½)

I picked this book up a couple of years ago on a dollar cart outside of a Best Bargain Books before they closed down on Long Island. There were a bunch of old Zelazny paperbacks there and for the life of me I don’t know why I didn’t just buy them all. I usually really enjoy his stories.

The Dream Master is a quintessential example of both Zelazny’s sensibilities and an active sub-genre of 1960s Science Fiction that delved heavily into psychiatry, psychoanalysis and Freudian themes. Think Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Anyway, The Dream Master is about Charles Render, a Shaper who enters and manipulates the dreams of his patients to help diagnose and heal them. He receives an interesting challenge from an aspiring Shaper named Eileen Shallot; Shallot is blind, and she wants Render to enter her dreams to teach her to “see” in the dream realm, so she can treat patients. Render accepts, and that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.

There are so many things I love about Zelazny, aside from his writing style. Frankly, his male characters are always the most hilariously entertaining self-entitled misogynists you’ll ever come across. Render leads an especially successful, monolithic life in which white male privilege is akin to manifest destiny. The book also has some neat SFnal twists, set in a late 1990s that includes smart glass, driverless cars, dogs with augmented intelligence, and — of course — dream walking technology.

A word on this cover. The copy I found is the 1973 edition from Ace Books. Like Zelazny, I find it a fascinating product of its era. Never in the history of publishing was cover design aesthetic so bracingly, unapologetically ugly. I fucking love it. I hope I can say the same about the book when all is said and done.

VERDICT: The Dream Master is a short, dense read that gives you a lot to chew on – an odd admixture of Freudian philosophy, medieval imagery, Norse mythology, free verse poetry and more. It’s erudite and expects you to know what it’s talking about and I love that about it. Zelazny’s prose is accessible and enjoyable, and his characters are smart, wry, and oftentimes obnoxious. But (you knew there’d be a but) apropos to its title, the book brakes down into a series of dreamlike vignettes towards the middle. They’re a bit jarring and disparate, but they all serve the novel’s main themes, which are alienation and loss. The book recovers after that, but then goes stylistically off the rails for a grand finale that I didn’t really enjoy. So three stars for the thought-provoking parts and two stars for the ending. By all means, read it and tell me what you think. It’s a book that bears discussion.

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The Mount by Carol Emshwiller (* *)

I remember ordering this book as part of a bundle deal from Small Beers Press at least ten years ago. I was pretty rabid back then about scouring small presses for books that were new and different, and The Mount must have filled the bill. And once it got here, I put it on my shelf and promptly forgot about it.

After a steady diet of e-books and graphic novels over the last several weeks, I went into my library determined to start reading an old-fashioned, honest to goodness book. And there was The Mount. What the hell, right?

Like I said, I had zero memory of what this book is about, or why I even bought it. But here’s what I’ve gleaned from the first nine pages: Earth has been conquered by aliens, who have corralled all the humans and use them as mounts — essentially horses, complete with tack and bridles — for travel and (I suppose) toil. But there are pockets of rebels living in the mountains. I got this all from context, not some big data dump, so that shows you Emshwiller’s writing prowess. The book has been lauded as brilliant, and won the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award. It was nominated for a Nebula in 2003.

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long, huh? I look forward to seeing how this one plays out.

VERDICT: Well, color me underwhelmed. What started out as an interesting premise kind of fizzled in the execution. The main problem with The Mount is that it’s never enough of any one thing. The main character Charley/Smiley just kind of waffles through the narrative, making cursory observations of whatever situation he’s in and then abandoning them as some shiny object comes along to distract him. His attentions, intentions and devotions are in constant flux. Likely it’s a meditation on the fecklessness of any 13-year-old, coupled with the fact that Charley grew up in captivity and literally has no idea how to think for himself. I get it. But the upshot is that you have a protagonist who is basically sleepwalking through a slave revolt. It’s a coming of age novel where the main character never really comes into his own. Unsatisfying. But maybe A Wizard of Earthsea has ruined me for this kind of story.

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Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson (* * ½)

I’ve literally been hunting for this book for years — ever since reading Ronson’s extraordinary The Men Who Stare at Goats. But I couldn’t even scare up a copy in The Strand bookstore in New York City. So I bit the bullet and got it as an e-book through my library.

In Them, Ronson attempts to track down the shadowy figures — the secret cabal of international powerbrokers — who supposedly run the world. And his journey takes him from one extremist group to another. From radical Islamists in London, to white supremacist militia movements in the U.S.

All roads lead him to the nefarious Bilderberg Group, a global cabal of businessmen who supposedly dictate world events.

Them is a little bit out of my wheelhouse and I found it more interesting than enjoyable. If you’re a student of sociology, or extremists, or fringe lunatics, you may have a better reading experience. Still, the book kept me engaged. And I’m probably reading it at the right time, considering the recent ascendency of the Alt-Right (i.e. White Nationalists, i.e. hate-fueled assholes) in Trump’s America. It always helps to know what you’re up against. Let’s just say it’s not a group of evil businessmen that I’m worried about.

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Bitch Planet Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick (* * ½)

Yet another graphic novel that had been languishing on my shelf. Bitch Planet hit the scene like gangbusters a few years ago. I even heard DeConnick talking about it on NPR. If that doesn’t scream “You’ve Arrived!” to the pseudo-urban hipster intelligentsia, I don’t know what does. (I kid (kinda); I love NPR).

And DeConnick deserves it. After her groundbreaking run on Captain Marvel, she’s become an influential comics voice. I’m glad she turned her spotlight on the misogyny that runs rampant in our society. If you don’t know, Bitch Planet is a maximum security prison (on another planet) where Non Compliant women are incarcerated for not adhering to their expected roles in a patriarchal society. That, or their husbands just got tired of them. The book plays heavily on the tropes of 70s women in prison exploitation films.

Legions of fans started to post selfies with the “NC” tattoos the prisoners wear. It was quite a fad. So why wouldn’t I pick up this book?

Unfortunately, Bitch Planet just doesn’t live up to the hype. I understand that DeConnick is doing important work here, but the story feels thin — which is ironic considering the big ideas being examined. I don’t really care about any of the characters or story beats, and I’m only marginally interested to see how the book progresses. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just not grabbing me.

Still, the second volume — President Bitch — is calling out to the completest in me, so why kid myself? I’ll let you know what I think when I read it.

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Satellite Sam Vol. 3: Limestone Caves of Fire by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin (* *)

When shelving my unexpectedly acquired Pureheart (see below), I took inventory of the graphic novels I have waiting for attention. And since my reading time has been extremely fractured lately due to multiple podcasts and freelance gigs, another comic fit perfectly.

I came to Satellite Sam with a lot of enthusiasm. Set in 1950s New York in the days of live television — and centering around a Bob-Crane-like sex scandal murder mystery — I figured, what’s not to like?

Unfortunately, the final collection left me flat. I don’t know if it’s because the story petered out, or it wasn’t as good as I had hoped, or I just waited too long between installments and lost my aforementioned enthusiasm. I suspect it’s a combination of all three. Whatever the case, I found myself finishing it just to finish it.

I admire the ambition and research that went into the book, and might recommend it as an interesting curiosity. But I can’t go much beyond that — even taking all the kinky sex and nudity into account.

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Archie: Pureheart the Powerful (Vol. 1) by Frank Doyle (* *)

This was a total impulse buy. I was at my local comic book shop looking for the first volume of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (another Archie title) and saw this collection on the $5 rack. I just couldn’t pass it up.

It’s exactly what you’d expect from an Archie comic — corny, goofy fun. Archie’s (or Reggie’s or Juggy’s) superhero alter ego isn’t something I remember from when I read the comics as a kid, but a few of the stories made laugh out loud. Still, I attribute my enjoyment of this book more to nostalgia than anything else.

Ever since reading and LOVING Afterlife With Archie last year, I’ve been on an Archie kick; Sabrina is supposed to be another straight-up awesome horror comic. Afterlife Vol. 2 is due in February. And the spooky looking Riverdale is soon coming to TV on The CW. I even read a preview on my library app of the new Archie Vol. 1 by Mark Waid. So after about 35 years I guess I’m officially back into Archie. Weird.

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Who Killed Kennedy by David Bishop (* * *)

I never even would have heard of Who Killed Kennedy – much less read it – if not for my 11.22.63 podcast. But since this Doctor Who novel deals with a time traveler attempting to prevent the Kennedy assassination, we included it in a bonus episode we called British Invasion.

Who Killed Kennedy is very entertaining — and you don’t have to be a huge Doctor Who fan to enjoy it. Sure, you’ll get more out of it if you are, but the novel focuses on the main character James Stephens, a journalist who is tracking mysterious events throughout the UK and a nebulous figure who seems to be at the center of them all — an operative who only goes by the code name The Doctor. The Doctor only makes tangential appearances throughout the narrative, leaving the story resolution and neat time travel bits in James’s hands.

As an added bonus, I also got to interview author David Bishop about writing the book and his wide-ranging writing career. When you’re done reading the book, go have a listen.

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Crime by Irvine Welsh (* * *)

I’ve come to expect a good many things from the books of Irvine Welsh, but I never expected that Crime would be a sequel to Filth. But here we are.

Scottish police detective Ray Lennox — onetime partner of Filth’s notorious Bruce Robertson — is on holiday in Florida, and going out of his mind. He has been traumatized they the kidnapping and murder of a young girl in Scotland — a case that he solved too late. So he’s come to get some sun, plan his wedding, and put himself back on track.

But this is Welsh, so of course Ray soon embarks on a booze- and coke-fueled bender. He winds up in a stripper’s apartment partying in front of the stripper’s young daughter Tianna. When it becomes apparent that the girl is in danger from her mother’s sleazy friends, Ray takes it upon himself to rescue her.

And so begins what might be the most redemptive book Welsh has written since Trainspotting. It’s so weird to have a Welsh protagonist be a basically decent person. I kept waiting for some awful shoe to drop. But Welsh has far more than skeezy cheap tricks up his sleeve, and by the end of this book I came to care inordinately about Ray and Tianna.

Another winner from one of my favorite authors.

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The Martian by Andy Weir (* * ½)

I’ll admit it straight out — I read this book because I absolutely love the movie. As a rule, it usually happens the other way around with me. That being said, I saw The Martian in the theater, and watch it to the end every time I stumble across it on cable. It’s already a Science Fiction classic in my mind. So when I got done with my year of Hobb (see below) I borrowed Andy Weir’s book on my trusty Overdrive library app, and finally had at it.

And as much as it pains me to say it, I liked the movie much better. It has nothing to do with the considerable math and science in the book. That part is awesome. So are Mark Watney’s constant challenges to survival in a hostile alien landscape.

The simple fact is that Mark and all the other book’s characters seemed a bit flat. This is obviously in comparison to their on-screen counterparts who were played so well in the film. It’s impossible for me to know how much my cinematic preconceptions influenced my reading experience. However, if I were forced to consider The Martian in a vacuum, I think I would have only found it a fair/interesting read, never quite edging into “good” territory. So my rating reflects that. By all means, read the book and see the film. Both are well worth it. But if I had to choose…

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The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy by Robin Hobb (* * *)


Fool’s Assassin / Fool’s Quest / Assassin’s Fate (coming Spring 2017)

I’m capping off my year of Hobb with the first two books of her most recent trilogy, packaged as Fitz and The Fool. Book three comes out in 2017.

As the name suggests, we pick up with FitzChivalry Farseer after the events of The Tawny Man trilogy, where he seems to have found some measure of peace and contentment with the woman he loves. New to the story this time out — an unexpected daughter named Bee, who seems to have all the earmarks of a White Prophet.

Suffice it to say, the plot amps up as the Fool turns up, and Bee is abducted. Now Fitz must channel all his magic and energies to find and rescue Bee, with the Fool in tow.

The first two books of this new series meet the caliber I’ve come to expect from Hobb. She clearly has not run out of ideas. What’s better, Fitz’s story has finally intersected with the settings and characters in the Rain Wilds/Liveships books. It’s great to see the wider world come together.

That being said, Fitz’s mopiness and self-recrimination are ramped up to a near-constant 11 this time out. And for the first time I find myself liking the character not for who he is, but in spite of who he is. It’s a shame that some of the more redemptive character moments in The Tawny Man trilogy seem not to have stuck here. Fitz just seems destined to pout, no matter his circumstances.

But I’ll be front and center when Assassin’s Fate is released in 2017.

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The Book of Time by H.G. Wells and Richard A. Lupoff (* * ½)

This is another book that I read for my 11.22.63 Podcast. Odd that, because while there’s time travel here, there’s no Kennedy connection. My co-host Skipper Martin thought three Richard Lupoff stories in this book — “12:01,” “12:02” and “12:03” — would make for good discussion for a Time Loops episode that we’re doing (to be paired with Ken Grimwood’s Replay, listed below). The stories deal with a character reliving the same hour over and over again.

Anyway, there are a couple of stories from H.G. Wells in this collection as well. Because of that, I now have three separate editions of The Time Machine in my library. But my review of this collection is going to stay Lupoff-centric.

“12:01” and its sequels are okay time travel stories. They may have been more arresting when the time loops concept was newer, but here we are in a post Groundhog Day world. I like how Lupoff tries to expand the premise a bit in “12:02,” and again in the very recently written “12:03.” His other story in the collection, “Nebogipfel at the End of Time,” connects with Wells’ The Time Machine. To say any more than that would be a spoiler. But let’s just say that Wells’ story gets along just fine without it.

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The Rain Wild Chronicles by Robin Hobb (* * *)


Dragon Keeper / Dragon Haven / City of Dragons / Blood of Dragons

Back to Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, this time with the four-book series, The Rain Wild Chronicles. This is sort of an indirect sequel to the Liveship Traders trilogy, as it picks up after the events of that series with a few of the same characters making appearances. But it’s really its own story, as a set of misfit children — especially touched (read: deformed) by their life in the Rain Wilds — decides to take a band of sickly dragons up the Rain Wild River in search of the mythical lost city of Kelsingra, a vast metropolis where dragons and Elderlings were once said to have lived side by side.

Hobb gives us an entirely new set of characters to care about, and fleshes out her wider world in ways both expected and surprising. Self-discovery and transcendence lay at the heart of this narrative, all of it hard won. You can pretty much always count on Hobb’s characters having a hard time in a hard world. That’s true for the dragons equally as much as humans. But it makes their triumph that much sweeter.

Two things I’ve noticed upon binging Hobb this year, however. First, rape is an ever-present theme in her work; second, inconvenient characters — both good and bad — have a tendency to be killed off rather than dealt with. These aren’t deal breakers, just observations.

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Where The Time Goes by Jeffrey E. Barlough ( * * ½)

It’s a thrill I’m lucky to experience about once a year. I go to the radio station where I do my DeFlip Side radio shows, and a box from Gresham and Doyle awaits. I snatch it up with glee and forget about whatever book I had on deck. That box means a new Western Lights book from Jeffery E. Barlough, and for that I drop everything.

This year’s title is Where the Time Goes, and I had the added pleasure of seeing myself blurbed on the back cover! This is the second time Mr. Barlough has seen fit to blurb me, and the first time attributing it to DeFlip Side. So yeah, plenty of bias.

But to be honest, Where the Time Goes is an odd duck. It has all the earmarks of a classic Western Lights fantasy mystery. From the back cover:

“Set in the remote, small town of Dithering in the Lingonshire dales (it’s on the road to very few places), the new work is described by the author as a grim little tale, unlike any other in the Western Lights series … a wild ride through some of the strangest country in the sundered realm. Dr. Hugh Callander, formerly of Maunder College, Penhaligon, has returned home to Dithering to find that the cavern known as Eldritch’s Cupboard is active once again. Who is behind the livestock losses on the neighboring farms, the mysterious disappearances of Dithering townsfolk? Might the dark tales of a monster actually be true? Tales of a ravenous beast that for centuries had made the Cupboard its lair, and Dithering townsfolk its prey?”

Barlough brings his signature Victorian flair to the proceedings, and this book can best be described as a sequel of sorts to A Tangle in Slops. But for all its quaint and spooky charm, the narrative takes a hard left into more Science Fictional territory — giving it more in common with Strange Cargo. There’s a time travel element involved too, hence the title.

It’s an intriguing read overall, and Barlough is right when he classifies the book as “unlike any other in the Western Lights series.” The ending is a show stopping game changer. But I can’t say if those changes are good or bad until I see how they play out in the next book.

I can’t wait for The Thing in the Close to come out next year!

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A Time To Remember by Stanley Shapiro (*)

I’ll put this bluntly so I can save you some precious reading time. This is a terrible book. Terribly written. Terrible characters and characterization. The pages hold a terrible message and the book has a terrible overall sensibility. Author Stanley Shapiro must have been an angry and bitter man; his disdain for people and society ring out loud and clear on these pages. But none of that prevented me from talking about this book for 3 hours.

I read A Time To Remember for my 11.22.63 Podcast, because it’s about a time traveler who tries to prevent the Kennedy assassination. We included it in a show that also featured a discussion of the television movie Running Against Time, which was an adaptation of this book.

If you’re in any way interested in knowing more about A Time To Remember, I recommend that you listen to that show, and skip this piece of junk.

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The Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb (* * *)


Fool’s Errand / Golden Fool / Fool’s Fate

Liveship Traders done (see below) I dove right into Tawny Man. And I was right to hold off. There’s no way to fully appreciate this second outing with Fitz and the Fool, without reading the Liveships books. And this series does, indeed, spoil that one.

That being said, the story takes place squarely in the Six Dutchies. The royal bastard Fitz — living in reclusive obscurity after the harrowing events of Assassin’s Quest — is swept back into palace intrigue, when the Fool shows up on his doorstep. Fitz is persuaded to find and rescue Prince Dutiful of the Six Dutchies, who has been lured away by a faction who would expose him for having the Wit (Hobb’s readers will understand).

This leads Fitz, the Fool, Dutiful and Nighteyes on a world-spanning journey that ends up in the far frozen north, on a quest to slay a legendary black dragon encased in ice.

It was just awesome to be back with Fitz. And I don’t know why. He has a tendency to be a real mope, all but drowning in self-pity. He’s the kind of character I normally have no patience for. Maybe I see something appealing in his relentless self-flagellation and stubborn adherence to duty and honor.

In any event, this series does a wonderful job of picking up the threads of the first trilogy and weaving them into something new and wonderful. This isn’t a cash-grabbing rehash. There are a ton of complicated interpersonal relationships at play in the narrative, and action aplenty. And in true Hobb fashion, no character is left unscathed.

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The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb (* * *)


Ship of Magic / Mad Ship / Ship of Destiny

Herein begins my Year of Hobb.

Here’s the deal. Last year I had to take a prolonged trip to the West Coast, and I used it as an opportunity to finally finish Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy. So when I had to head west again to Vegas this year, I decided to read Fool’s Errand, the first volume of The Tawny Man Trilogy, which continues the adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer and his buddy the Fool.

Here’s where things got problematic. Fool’s Errand was terrific, but it referenced events in Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy — which came out between Farseer and Tawny Man. And I knew that if I didn’t back up and read the Liveship books, I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the Tawny Man books. And I also knew that I’d probably be spoiling the Liveship books.

So I made a decision, one that goes against many ingrained reading habits.

I’m not a champion of e-books. And that has hindered me from reading many older SF&F series, as I tend to collect individual volumes by chance whenever I see them, then dive in when I have at least the first two. But I only had the second Liveships book in my library. So I bit the bullet, put an app called Overdrive on my iPad, and joined the 21st Century by borrowing the first and third Liveship e-books from the library.

I’m glad I got over myself, because I haven’t been this entertained by a series in a long time. It was great to experience Hobb’s wider world and gain a perspective from characters who disdain the Six Dutchies (the main setting of the Farseer books) as a savage backwater.

Also, there are pirates, sea serpents and ships that can talk (Liveships. Duh). And amidst all the swashbuckling fantasy, the trilogy explores much heavier themes like family, sacrifice, abuse and — most prominently — rape. There’s a LOT going on in these books, and the story arcs of the wonderfully flawed main characters — human and ship — are terrific.

And keep your eye on Malta. She’s so astoundingly selfish in all the most entertaining ways.

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The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross (* * *)

Charles Stross’s latest Laundry Files novel is something of a departure for the series. After five novels following the exploits of the beleaguered Bob Howard, secret agent for the occult agency The Laundry — which protects England and the world from supernatural horrors from beyond space-time — the series’ sixth volume is written from the point of view of Mo O’Brien, Bob’s wife and accomplished agent in her own right.

Picking up immediately after the disastrous events of The Rhesus Chart, The Annihilation Score finds Bob and Mo on the skids. In the midst of this domestic turmoil, Mo gets a new assignment — form a superhero team.

As CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN creeps ever closer, people around the world are starting to get thalmaturgic superpowers. The Laundry has charged Mo with cataloging and classifying the emerging metahumans, and building a PR-friendly superteam to fight threats.

I really enjoyed The Annihilation Score. Stross doesn’t quite pull off the same magic with superhero tropes that he did with vampires in The Rhesus Chart, but he comes very close. And he especially nails Mo’s disenfranchisement — as a female team leader in the world of rabidly sexist comics fanboys, and in the wider world in general as a woman of a certain age.

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Replay by Ken Grimwood (* * ½)

I sprinted through Replay so I could talk about it on my 11.22.63 Podcast, centered on the Hulu TV series 11.22.63 and the Stephen King novel on which it’s based.

King’s novel is about a teacher who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. We’re doing a bunch of bonus shows about other books, films and TV shows that feature time travelers who attempt to stop the Kennedy assassination, and Replay fits the criteria.

When 43-year-old Jeff Winston drops dead of a heart attack in 1988, he wakes up in 1963, back in college and back in his 18-year-old body. Baffled, Jeff nonetheless makes the most of his second chance and relives his life, using his foreknowledge to gain a fortune. By the time 1988 comes around again, Jeff is wealthy and powerful; but his heart fails once again, sending him back to college.

What follows is a series of time loops — or replays — in which Jeff lives and dies again, and again, and again, with increasing disdain. But when he meets Pamela, another replayer, they fall in love and his life suddenly regains meaning. What follows is a love story that unfolds across several lifetimes. Oh, and Jeff attempts to prevent the Kennedy assassination at one point.

While Replay’s time loop premise is reminiscent of the cult classic film Groundhog Day, the book actually came first. And while it was lauded for its originality upon its release, I found the book lacking.

When you come down to it, Replay is nothing more than an exploration of different male power fantasies, with Jeff spending his various lives becoming a titan of industry, a hedonistic international playboy, a renowned scholar, a reclusive farmer-philosopher and — above all, in every life — rich. Rich, rich, rich. And while the story of Jeff and Pamela was mildly engaging, it is a narrative fueled primarily by midlife crisis. Which ultimately left me flat.

We’ll be talking more extensively about Replay on an upcoming bonus episode of 11.22.63: An Event Podcast. Click here to learn more and subscribe. I hope you’ll be listening.

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Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer (* *)

I loved Angélica Gorodischer’s novel Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was. Here’s what I wrote about it in my 2009 Best Reads segment:

“The stories within recount bits of history from a vast and timeless fictional empire, forming a mosaic treatise on the nature of power — primarily the power of the stories that we tell ourselves, and their role in shaping our collective reality.”

So when I discovered that Small Beer Press was offering Gorodischer’s book Trafalgar, I jumped on it. And it looks like Gorodischer is exploring some of the same themes. Main character Trafalgar Medrano is a character at the local watering holes who likes to tell stories about his latest intergalactic sales trips. Is he lying? No one knows. And I frankly don’t care because the fantastic set-up — coupled with fond memories of the joy and complexity of Kalpa Imperial — make this a no-brainer for me.

VERDICT: It pains me to report that after a brief burst of initial enjoyment, Trafalgar’s fantastic tales wore thin fairly quickly. Which is odd, because Gorodischer trades in many fantastic ideas and locales. But the main problem with Trafalgar was its eponymous protagonist. He’s like that quirky uncle you have who can be a delightful distraction or a real pain in the ass depending on the day and your mood. And the stories followed a Star Trek TOS-like formula of Trafalgar encountering the illogical particulars of an alien society and proceeding to blow it up — ideologically — mainly to sell something or get laid. It was like Kirk without Federation regulations to keep him in check. But I must give kudos to the unique time travel story “The Best Day of the Year,” which included a wonderful nod to Vonnegut; it reminded me that Gorodischer’s wit and charm are here in full force. They’re simply not enough to compensate for the selfish main character. If you like his style, your mileage may vary.

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