Friday, July 18, 2014

Hits and Misses

Alien Collective
Gini Koch
Daw, 2014
ISBN 0756407583

Introducing Garrett, P.I.
Sweet Silver Blues (1987)
Bitter Gold Hearts (1988)
Cold Copper Tears (1988)
Glen Cook
Roc, 2011
ISBN 0451463978

The Alloy of War
Brandon Sanderson
Tor, 2011
ISBN 0765368544

So Many Names!

While I was bulling through the Hugo nominees the stack of books next to my bed was growing steadily. I do have a Kindle, but there's something visceral about holding a chunk of dead tree in my hands, of putting those pages up to my face and smelling the faint spice of paper. And then it makes me sneeze and I try to remember if I took my allergy meds.

The topmost book in my stack was Gini Koch's Alien Collective. It's book nine in a series already ten books long. Apparently ditzy former high school cheerleader Kitty Katt-Martini is an ambassador for aliens from Alpha Centauri, who joins in a protest against a candidate for President of the USA, and is spirited away from there by police who have been tipped off that there will be a series of bomb attacks. That's how the book starts, and it pretty much keeps it up for all 500+ pages. If you haven't read the previous eight (I haven't, either), then you'll be doing some catching up, but Koch makes sure you have all the necessary information. In fact, sometimes it seems that there are pages and pages of backstory (from the previous eight books) being dumped on the reader. There is a cast of characters a mile long, and after the first dozen I didn't even try to keep up.

When the action finally picks up things start moving more smoothly, and Koch shows that she can maintain a consistent impersonation of Kitty's ditzy personality without making her too unbelievable. The people who really are unbelievable are the aliens around her, who married her (it's a part romance, part SF adventure story), who made her their ambassador, and the current president of the USA, who treats her with more deference than members of his own cabinet. If you can swallow all of that then Kitty isn't a problem.

Even though Koch's writing has an easy breezy style I found the story a bit of a slog. I wondered if the fact that its target audience more than is usually the case must be women was what was tripping me up, but my wife didn't have a different verdict.

I make an effort to pick books by authors with whom I'm not familiar. Sometimes I find a gem. Sometimes I bite on a rock. This isn't a terrible story, but it wasn't the kind of book I enjoy reading. If you think you might like the series, I recommend starting at the series' beginning, with Touched by an Alien.

And then there was the Dame

Glen Cook's "Garrett, P.I." fantasy series isn't what all the other fantasy detectives are based on, but it's not hard to see how Simon R. Green's "Nightside" series, China Mieville's "Bas-Lag" series, or Jim Butcher's "Dresden" series got some of their heritage from Cook. Garrett (that appears to be all of his name) is a veteran of a long running war between two kingdoms, chronicling his life in the first person. He is now making a living for himself as security consultant for a brewery and negotiating the release of kidnap victims. Cook seems to pay an homage of sorts to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, among others, by tossing female characters into the story that are treated with a sort of retro sexism - not something you'd usually expect in a story written even as early as 1987. Garrett also uses words like darko, breed, and halfblood to refer to non-human and half-human characters. He seems to pride himself on not killing people when he can avoid it, even though he associates with others who have no compunction about killing, and often employs them to assist him.

Garrett's first adventure sends him out of town to track down the heir to a fortune of stolen silver. The second story starts as a kidnapping of the son of a powerful wizard, but things quickly get complicated. The last story pits the local crime boss against an ancient religious fraud, and Garrett ends up in the middle. All stories are entertaining and well written, moving along at a good pace. If you're a fan of Mieville or Butcher, Glen Cook will be worth your time.

Steel vs Gold

The magic in Glen Cook's world is the hand-wavey kind. Garrett buys it from wizards and hopes it works when he needs it. More recent fantasy authors who put magic in the hands of their heroes put considerable thought into how that magic is supposed to work, probably influenced by games like Dungeons and Dragons. My next author, Brandon Sanderson, even wrote a blog post describing his methods for including magic in his stories, and of his stories the Mistborn series is probably best known for its magic system, which allows certain people with the right genetics to swallow various kinds of metal to do magic.

Brandon writes in the acknowledgements of The Alloy of Law that he was planning all along to write two further trilogies to take place in the Mistborn setting. He says that the present book is not part of those two trilogies. It takes place some years after the initial stories finished. Technology has advanced to the stage of electric lights and internal combustion engines, and people with the right genetics to use magic have become more common since no one is killing them off, anymore. Lord Waxillium, Wax to his friends, is able to use two powerful kinds of magic, and has made quite a reputation for himself as an effective lawman. Now that he's back in the big city he finds that he can't simply be an aristocrat and run his businesses in peace when a mysterious gang of robbers starts interfering with his life.

This was a great story, full of derring do and veiled romance and mystery. For me it's so far the favorite of the Mistborn stories, and, while it's not part of one of the promised trilogies, its ending makes a sequel necessary. I'm definitely looking forward to that!