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Monthly Archives: July 2019

“The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson

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After enjoying Brandon Sanderson’s standalone novel Elantris and consistently hearing great things about his longer works, I finally started into his epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. The first volume, The Way of Kings, follows several characters in a world that’s heading toward some sort of apocalyptic event. Kaladin was once a respected squad leader in Alethkar’s army but has now been condemned to life as a slave. Dalinar, uncle to the king of Alethkar, has been experiencing disturbing visions during the storms that periodically sweep the continent. Shallan has concocted a daring plan to save her family from ruin but soon finds herself entangled in even larger events.

In some ways, The Stormlight Archive bears similarities to other epic fantasy series. There’s magic, mystical creatures and phenomena, prophecies, and a setting with monarchial governments and a medieval level of technology. But Sanderson finds ways to make his world stand apart from others. One difference I greatly appreciated is that the world of Roshar changes. Many stories feature worlds where technology has stagnated: people are using the same technologies to raise buildings, procure food, and fight their enemies that their ancestors of five generations ago used. Within just the first Stormlight book, we see people making incremental progress in attempting to recreate the rare and ancient Shardblades, while a pair of scientists make a new discovery about the fairylike spren. The people of Roshar are actively investigating the natural laws that underpin their world and discovering new things.

Among fantasy fans, Sanderson is known for creating well-thought-out magic systems. The magic in TWOK is described in concrete, logical terms, so it feels like a natural part of the world, just as chemistry and electromagnetism are. Of course, there are exceptions, but the characters react to these in a logical way: they remark on these phenomena being unusual. This gives the reader confidence that these discrepancies are meaningful and makes you look forward to finding out what’s going on.

Sanderson also has a talent for creating engaging characters. Dalinar could easily come off as stuffy or self-righteous, but his genuine love for his family and country makes his quest to reform the Alethi army sympathetic. Kaladin’s growing ties to the other members of Bridge Four and the small victories he wins on their behalf get the reader to root for him. Shallan’s cunning and her determination to save her family similarly get the reader behind her.

Sanderson’s fans refer to the rapid-fire sequence of revelations that tends to come at the end of his novels as the “Sanderlanche.” The Sanderlanche at the end of TWOK hits a perfect balance between answering questions the reader’s been asking throughout the book and presenting new ones. It encourages the reader to put the pieces together and theorize about what’s going to happen next. My own theories for the second book, Words of Radiance, are below. (Obviously, these include spoilers for TWOK.) I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing how accurate (or not!) they turn out to be.

 

 

  1. The Knights Radiant forsook their charge to protect humanity because they learned about the enslavement of the parshmen and refused to countenance it.
  2. The spirits that Shallan sees are truthspren.
  3. Renarin was even sicklier as an infant, to the point where he wasn’t expected to live long. Dalinar sought out the Old Magic to save him.
  4. Dalinar will save Elhokar from Szeth’s assassination attempt by speaking one of the ideals of the Knights Radiant, which will give him a power-up the way it did for Kaladin.

Shimmer Issue 46, by E. Catherine Tobler (editor)

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After thirteen years of publication, Shimmer is closing. They’ve consistently delivered high-quality speculative fiction, and they pulled out all the stops for their final year. Gabriela Damián Mirvete won the Tiptree Award for “They Will Dream in the Garden”, and the magazine as a whole has been nominated for a Hugo Award.

Shimmer’s final issue, #46, was included in the Hugo voters’ packet. As one would expect, there are some great stories in here, and I would be hard pressed to choose a single favorite. If I did have to choose, I would probably go with Cory Skerry’s “Antumbra,” since I’m a sucker for a good changeling story. Honestly, this one is worthy of a Hugo nomination in its own right. One extra bit of icing on the cake is that the piece taught me a new word: “antumbra” refers to one of the three parts of a shadow (and it makes perfect sense as a title, once you learn a bit about the main characters and their relationship to each other).

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Rust and Bone” could also be read as a changeling story, though not as directly. While there was some wonderfully vivid imagery, the story was less engaging than it could have been because we never really find out why the main character’s mother gave her up to Grandmother or what she got in return. (We’re also never told clearly what Grandmother is, though the line about her rocking chair being made of iron suggests that if this is a take on the changeling myth, the traditional role of the species is reversed.)

“40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was” by Alex Acks is another strong story. The list format can be hit-or-miss, but Acks does a great job of relating a coherent tale with very brief vignettes.

I also enjoyed Steve Toase’s “Streuobstweise.” The title is a German word for “orchard,” which is a central location in the story. The piece is filled with evocative imagery, particularly some drawing on senses other than sight. It’s an unsettling, claustrophobic story that straddles the line between fantasy and horror.

One thing that surprised me about the issue was how many stories had a science fictional premise, since Shimmer has tended to lean heavily toward contemporary fantasy. A.C. Wise’s “The Time Traveler’s Husband” and Leonie Skye’s “Tryannocora Regina” both deal with time travel or alternate timelines. “The Time Traveler’s Husband,” in particular, is an engaging and complex story. Readers familiar with Audrey Niffinegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” may get something extra out of it, since Wise has stated that her piece is a direct response to that novel. Wren Wallis’s “Ghosts of Bari” is another sci-fi story, this one more in a space opera vein. It’s notable for being the last story published by Shimmer.

While I’m sad to see Shimmer end, I appreciate that they’re going out on a high note. There’s a variety of stories here, most of them strong. It’s a worthy Hugo nominee, and a tribute to all the work Shimmer has done over the years.

“Space Opera” by Catherynne M. Valente

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I was lucky enough to meet Catherynne M. Valente at a convention, where she talked a bit about how her novel Space Opera came to be. She had posted an idea for a book—“Eurovision in space”—on Twitter, and her agent pre-accepted it. Which, of course, meant she now had to write it. The resulting novel tells the story of a has-been frontman for a glamrock band who finds himself competing in an interstellar competition to determine whether humanity will be allowed to take its place among the starfaring species of the galaxy.

Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will love Space Opera, as the tone and voice are reminiscent of that book. However, by comparing it to a story known for its humor, I don’t mean to say that Space Opera doesn’t deal with any serious subjects. The perennial sci-fi question of how to determine an entity’s sentience is a key part of the book, as is the issue of how to build a functioning society comprised of species that are radically different from one another. The human characters also deal with broken friendships, guilt, and feelings of professional inadequacy.

The full range of Valente’s imagination is on display in the description of the various aliens Decibel Jones encounters in his journey. Because this is a short book, we don’t get as much time to explore these cultures as I might prefer, but Valente does an excellent job of making each one feel unique. The climax provides a lovely “sensawunda” moment, but it’s more than that. Like the best SFF stories, it speaks to something fundamental about the human condition.

I’ve heard Space Opera described as a “marmite” book, one that readers either love or hate. While I don’t think it was perfect, I’m definitely more towards the “love” end of the spectrum. Writing a story that’s humorous almost to the point of absurdity, while still saying something important, is a difficult balancing act to manage, but Valente pulls it off well.