book review: europe in autumn

Europe in Autumn is a near-future sf novel by Dave Hutchinson. It’s set in a fragented Europe where nations are being created by squatters and rail lines and the borders to travel between them also proliferate. Rudi is an Estonian cook who gets recruited into an organization that hates these borders and does its best to get people and material through them. It has a bunch of oldschool spy tradecraft that Rudi finds ridiculous at first, but gradually becomes more useful as the plot deepens.

Though it was more of a technothriller, it reminded me of China Miéville’s The City & the City, one of my favourite detective stories. I’m looking forward to picking up the sequel.

book review: lud-in-the-mist

Lud-in-the-Mist is a fairy story by Hope Mirrlees that was written in the 1920s but doesn’t feel especially out of date. There are some stylistic choices with the point of view never holding still with one character for long, which doesn’t feel very disciplined, but it’s completely forgivable because the story is so pleasant.

Lud in the Mist is a boring little town just to the East of the Faerie lands. When people start acting strangely the Mayor tries to get to the bottom of things and discovers smuggling of faerie fruit, which is such a tremendously obscene thing to eat or even discuss that in the court records it is referred to as silk. All sorts of things happen with this faerie fruit, including to the Mayor’s son and a whole school full of girls (guess which one is more of a concern). There are reversals and clever bits and friendship and strange oaths and it’s all quite charming.

If you enjoyed Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust you really should read this fairly neglected classic.

books review: the hidden family, the clan corporate, the merchants’ war

It seems fitting to review the second third and fourth books in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series together because the flaws they have as stand-alone books make sense if you look at them as chapters in a longer story.

At the end of book 1 in the series we were up to date with Miriam Beckstein, tech journalist who is also a countess in an alternate universe where the geography is shared with Earth but technology and society has spun off on a very different track. Miriam and her clan are people who can hop between that world and our own (it’s set in the early 00’s U.S. homeland security paranoia).

In The Hidden Family Miriam has learned about a third world which is where there are more world walkers who are trying to destabilize the Clan’s power base in the medieval world. This third world is kind of steampunkish and hugely politically repressive. Miriam is trying to create a new economic base for her extended family in that new world.

In The Clan Corporate basically nothing happens. It’s an intensely frustrating book, to Miriam as well, because she’s basically just locked up while her family figures out how to sell her to the royal family to squirt out worldwalking babies. We also meet a DEA agent who’s dealing with the aftermath of one of the medieval spies turning on the Clan’s drug smuggling operation.

By The Merchants’ War the Clan is plunged into civil war and Miriam is on the run in the steampunky world and we’re learning just how genre distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy are kind of dumb.

I really like the story this series is telling. People are clever and behave like real clever people might. I just hate how it’s broken down into these separate volumes so you need to have recap time and setup time before the grand climax of the book, which in books 3 and 4 don’t even really happen. It’s the kind of series that’s crying out for a one-volume edition with some of the redundant bits edited out, since nothing is standing at all on its own. (You may remember that I had the same issue with Dance With Dragons. Too much like catching up with the characters and not enough story-structure for my taste.) But I’m looking forward to finishing the series because Stross writes great, thought-provoking stuff and the fact that it’s getting less and less like Zelazny and more like, well, Stross makes me very happy.

book review: the family trade

The Family Trade is the first book in The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. It’s the story of Miriam Beckstein who’s a just-fired tech journalist. In the aftermath of the story that was too big to let her keep her job she discovers she’s a countess as part of a feudal clan in an alternate Earth that she has the rare ability to travel back and forth between.

While that sounds like it could be the basis of a pretty simple fish-out-of-water tale, this is Charlie Stross, so of course Miriam sets out to deal with the world, and change it. The riches of her clan on the other side are based on basically being drug mules on our side. While this is lucrative it’s also vulnerable to market fluctuations (if the war on drugs in the US ended, there would go their wealth and power).

Stross writes characters that are competent and resilient and generally deal with things so you can get to the next idea. It keeps the plot moving when you don’t have to wait ages for a character to figure out some problem the reader saw the answer to as soon as it was proposed. The grander idea of “how will Miriam reshape her clan’s economy” is an idea you want to puzzle over, and the main reason I’m going to be resolutely avoiding spoilers from here on out. I’ve read the background on how this series got split into volumes kind of weirdly and yeah, it’s pretty noticeable, since this book ends kind of right in the middle of things happening.

Good light, fast-moving stuff. I’m looking forward to the next book.

book review: the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet

David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch in Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century. Jacob is a clerk who’s there to make his fortune so he can go back home to marry. Things don’t work out as he’d hoped and he has to become much better at politics than he was on arrival.

Mitchell splits up the narrative between a few different viewpoint characters in the book, which gives us not just the colonial perspective on what’s going on. The most troublesome part of the book for me was the nefarious practices going on in the mountain abbey. While the rest of the book felt like a more-restrained part of The Baroque Cycle, the abbey rumours were exceedingly pulpy and over the top. It made for a weird tone, since I wasn’t sure if the overly lurid doings were supposed to be taken seriously or if they were being overdone as a statement about exoticization/orientalism or if they were just weird.

In the end it was a satisfying story, but not as impressive as something like number9dream or Cloud Atlas.

book review: april 2011 bulk edition

I have been neglecting my reviewing duties. But don’t worry, I’ve still been reading. I haven’t given up on the printed word (and image). Just been slow in typing about them. So here is a list of the books I read before coming to Australia.
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