Selected SF/F Previews for 07/2014

This month’s round-up of SF/F releases at SFSignal lists an almost unmanageable 420 titles—nearly twice the normal number. As usual, I’ve sampled all their available Amazon previews to highlight a few of interest, but given the large number of possibilities, I’ve allowed myself to list 14 titles this time.

  • Ben Winters, World of Trouble. I’m eager to read this, the third book in the Last Policeman series, because the first two were pretty great crime novels. The premise is that astronomers can see a planet-killing asteroid headed toward Earth, so civilization is falling apart, but the main character is a police detective still trying to do his job.
  • Hannu Rajaniemi, The Causal Angel. I’ve heard a lot about the Jean le Flambeur series, and based on reading some of Rajaniemi’s short stories, I expected to like it. And indeed the preview had all the shiny far future stuff I’d have guessed it would, so even though this was the third book in the series and kind of hard to follow, I was sold.
  • J. Kathleen Cheney, The Seat of Magic. This is the sequel to The Golden City, which I selected to comment on last fall but still haven’t gotten around to reading. Anyway, it’s an urban fantasy set in Lisbon in the early 1900s, which remains an interesting choice. The prose is solid, and the author’s blog has some nice articles about doing historical research for it.
  • Andrei Bitov, The Symmetry Teacher. This seems to belong to the genre of playful novels that are themselves about novels/narration/writing. It’s got an absurdist/satirical feel that I’m not sure about. But I liked several images and turns of phrase in it, so I’m curious about the whole.
  • Charles Stross, The Rhesus Chart. Either the preview for the fifth entry in the Laundry Files series benefits from comparison with several hundred other previews, or else I may have been too quick to judge the direction of the series based on an earlier volume, because this seemed very solid. And I’m delighted if I was wrong, because I love the idea of Lovecraftian urban fantasy. So now I’m interested in going back and completing the series from where I left off.
  • Nick Harkaway, Tigerman. Out of all the books on SFSignal’s list this month, I think this is the one I had heard the most buzz about. Supposedly, it’s sort of like what if Graham Greene had invented Batman, and in the first couple of chapters, you’re introduced to a tropical island brimming with colonial/neocolonial froofrah and strange goings-on, so I guess I can see it. There’s something about the language and focus of it that kept me from getting as involved as I’d have liked, but I appreciated the dry wit and invention, so I remain hopeful about it.
  • Anthony Ryan, Tower Lord. This is the sequel to Blood Song, which by number of positive reviews was one of the most successful fantasy novels of 2013, and the preview does take up an interesting point of view right from the start, even if the subject matter and occasionally the language both seem ordinary.
  • Deborah Harkness, The Book of Life. I have basically no idea what’s going on at the beginning of this, the third book in the All Soul’s Trilogy, but it only takes a few pages to be persuaded that the series features clear prose and character-driven plotting. And that’s enough, given that it’s also hugely popular and that the author is a historian who teaches at USC, for me to be sure I’ll wind up reading it, so I didn’t want to be too spoiled by the plot details.
  • Daniel Wallace, The Kings and Queens of Roam. This seems to be a novel about a blind girl trusting in her sister’s tall tales too much. If the preview is reasonably representative, the book wears its themes pretty openly, and it straight up tells you what one of the big plot developments will be. I haven’t seen Big Fish, which many other readers mention as something that attracted them to this author, but apparently that’s a good thing, because this book may not live up to people’s expectations. But what I see in it are a lot of fun stories within stories, and that could be plenty for me.
  • Julia Cresswell, Charlemagne and the Paladins. This seems to be a succinct introduction to the very coolest medieval king (later emperor) enshrouded in legend. I’m not sure why it’s on SFSignal’s list, unless they’re expanding to cover all sorts of non-fiction about history, myths, legends, and fairy tales, but I’m not arguing.
  • Zachary Jernigan, No Return. This seems to be a New Weird fantasy novel about a world manipulated by an actual living god of celestial proportions and how some folks resist him. Although there’s something very unsubtle and first-time-novelist about the prose on view in the excerpt, I actually kind of liked how pulpy it was.
  • D. J. Molles, The Remaining: Refugees. I’m really suspicious about the politics of originally-self-published post-apocalyptic survival novels, and an opening question in this one (where are the zombie-ish women?) isn’t reassuring: this could go in a terrible direction. But the clean, readable action scenes did stand out as worthy of further consideration, so I might try the first book in the series eventually.
  • Joe Abercrombie, Half a King. I’ve really enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s last few novels. This is his first YA book, though, and his first book in a new setting, so it’s not an insta-buy for me. And after sampling the preview, I’m not sure it doesn’t come off as too simplistic. But it did read very quickly, and I felt some curiosity about the gods/religion of Gettland. And my trust in the author’s ability to create great characters through action over time still stands for now. So I may get around to reading this at some point.
  • Kenneth Mark Hoover, Haxan. The preview for this only reveals it to be a western that happens to mention witchcraft. But based on the publisher and the book blurb, there must be actual fantasy elements to it. And even without any SF/F to it, it would stand out for having some pretty decent lines.

Board game rank change report for 2014Q2

I’m late in posting this month, but on July 1, I captured the state of the board game rankings at BoardGameGeek so that I could compare them to the rankings from the end of last quarter, as usual. So here are the games that have for whatever reason (sudden popularity surges, being recategorized, etc.) shown large positive movement within the top 500 in the past quarter.

Fast, positive movers among 'Board games':
087 (+107) Lewis & Clark
186 (+314) Splendor
260 (+240) Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men
288 (+104) Bruxelles 1893
305 (+195) Star Realms
320 (+129) BattleCON: Devastation of Indines
342 (+158) One Night Ultimate Werewolf
354 (+113) Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak
377 (+123) Madeira

Fast, positive movers among 'Strategy games':
169 (+331) Star Realms

Fast, positive movers among 'War games':
252 (+248) Dungeon Command: Curse of Undeath
270 (+230) Heroes of Normandie

Fast, positive movers among 'Family games':
019 (+481) Splendor
032 (+468) Yspahan
090 (+410) Nefertiti
153 (+347) Machi Koro
177 (+323) Carcassonne: South Seas
185 (+315) The Adventurers: The Pyramid of Horus
233 (+267) Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension
284 (+216) Cube Quest
288 (+212) SOS Titanic

Fast, positive movers among 'Collectible games':
006 (+494) Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men
033 (+467) Blue Moon
072 (+406) Weiß Schwarz
077 (+423) My Little Pony: Collectible Card Game
117 (+383) Conquest Tactics
119 (+381) Mage Knight

Fast, positive movers among 'Thematic games':
173 (+327) Risk 2210 A.D.
239 (+261) 1911 Amundsen vs Scott
291 (+209) Might & Magic Heroes
292 (+208) King & Assassins

Selected SF/F Previews for 06/2014

I’m a little late this month, but as usual, I’ve sampled the available Amazon previews linked in SFSignal’s monthly listing of new SF/F, selecting a few to highlight here.

Incidentally, I also did a little retrospective comparison with Tor.com’s Fiction Affliction column to see if it would be a better source for me than SFSignal. I like that Tor.com covers all the major releases well, includes blurbs, and breaks down their listings by sub-genre, but they omit an awful lot of small presses, UK releases, non-fiction, and re-issues of OOP titles. Looking over my past selections, those options evidently do matter to me, so I’ll stick with SFSignal.

  • John James, Votan and Other Novels (Fantasy Masterworks). I had never heard of these historical novels before, but Neil Gaiman’s introduction compares the main character of two of them to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. And the preview reminded me of two of my very favorite books, the omnibus edition of Tom Holt’s The Walled Orchard and Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. Anyway, the premise is that a Greek trader finds himself being worshipped as Odin. Historical comedy that fantasy fans will enjoy evidently ensues. I thought well of the writing too, so count me in.
  • Alexey Pehov, Chasers of the Wind. First in a new trilogy by the “Russian George R. R. Martin”? OK, that’s not selling it, and the translation may have been too faithful, particularly with respect to colloquialisms that sometimes feel stiff or awkward. But by the time I was fifty pages into the preview, I realized I was pretty drawn in. It’s straightforward epic fantasy, but I liked the texture of it. Perhaps in part because of the awkwardness rather than in spite of it, it just has its own feel.
  • Michael R. Underwood, Shield and Crocus. Right away, this had me wondering exactly what genre it’s in: fantasy? steampunk? magitech? science fantasy? It turns out it’s a New Weird fantasy novel about superheroes in a world unrelated to ours, which sounds awesome. The preview is also competently written and loaded with colorful details.
  • Leigh Bardugo, Ruin and Rising. This is the final book in the Grisha Trilogy, and reading its preview reminded me that I did enjoy the first book in the series. It’s set in a sort of fantasy Russia where some people grow up to have very well-defined talents and roles within a ruling order of magic users, but the main character is special even among the special, and complications arise. Book three seems good too, so I ordered book two to catch up.
  • Matthew Johnson, Irregular Verbs and Other Stories. I bought this instantly on the strength of the first story, which is about being a part of a society that develops new words and grammatical structures on a daily basis. In particular, it focuses on being part of a couple in that society that develops their own private language (actually, something more like Vygotskyan inner speech in terms of its personal resonances and non-shared memories being paramount). But the second story got off to a good start as well, so I’m pretty psyched about reading more.
  • James S. A. Corey [Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck], Cibola Burn. I’ve been meaning to try this series, “The Expanse,” and the preview for the fourth book was encouraging. This seems like pretty decent space opera that focuses on action more than I knew.
  • P. C. Hodgell, The Sea of Time. This is the seventh book in the 32-year-old Kencyrath saga, and the preview is sort of infodumpy, I guess because it has been a while since book six. But I loved the first three books in the series, and I’m delighted to be reminded of them. I don’t doubt I’ll catch up at some point, but I liked the earlier books so much that I really want to re-read the whole thing.

Finally, some re-issued classics I knew about but had never read also piqued my interest: Robert Aickman, Dark Entries; T. J. Bass, The Godwhale; and A. & B. Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God. I’m not certain I’ve been consistent about how I’ve noted things like that in the past, but not only are these not new to me, I’m also not sure it was their previews that got my attention as much as the simple fact that they’d been re-issued or in one case re-translated.

Selected SF/F Previews for 05/2014

Once again, I’ve sampled all the available Amazon previews linked via SFSignal’s monthly listing of new SF/F, and I’ve chosen a few to highlight.

  • Jeff VanderMeer, Authority. I greatly enjoyed Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, just a couple of months ago, and the sequel looks good too. Apparently, it will give some insight into the mysterious organization that keeps sending explorers into Area X.
  • Garry Kilworth, SF Gateway Omnibus of the Navigator Kings trilogy. I had never heard of this Polynesian fantasy series, which consists of The Roof of Voyaging, The Princely Flower, and Land-of-Mists, but the opening pages got my attention instantly. The giant head of a god swims around by itself near the shoreline, searching for victims? Sign me up for more of that kind of weirdness.
  • Seanan McGuire, Sparrow Hill Road. I’ve had mixed reactions to this author’s stuff. Her work under the name Mira Grant isn’t for me, and I only sort of liked the first book in her InCryptid series. But a few weeks ago, I finished reading her Velveteen books, and I loved them so much that I am willing to try anything she writes for a long time to come. This seems to be an InCryptid spinoff told from an interesting point of view—a ghost’s story.
  • Wu Ming-Yi, The Man with the Compound Eyes. I’m probably influenced by all the hype I’ve seen for this book, but the premise is interestingly complex, and it’s well-written. By coincidence, there’s Polynesian-inspired fantasy in this book too, and it initially strikes me as more problematic than Garry Kilworth’s, because it’s both less true to the actual details of any source material and yet also posited as being more attached to the real world, so it seems like a pure stereotype. But there seems to be enough going on in this book that I’m willing to play along.
  • Catherynne Valente, Indistinguishable from Magic. This is a collection of Valente’s blog posts and whatnot on miscellaneous topics: pop culture, her own books, etc. I hadn’t read her non-fiction before, but I liked the preview of it and would be glad to read more, because it seems pleasantly light and insightful and because she happens to like things I like.
  • Benny Lindelauf, Nine Open Arms. Based on the preview, this appears to be a warm and simple YA haunted house story, translated from Dutch. Given that translations basically have to succeed in getting published twice, I’m inclined positively toward them from the start, and I liked a number of images and foreshadowy hints of things to come in it.
  • Chris Willrich, The Silk Map. A few months ago, I decided against reading the first book in this series, The Scroll of Years, because I thought it was a standard fantasy novel with a mishmash of Asian decorations and absurd plot points. On reading the preview of the sequel, I realized it might be something different: an absurd mishmash, maybe, but instead of a standard fantasy novel, more like something by Ernest Bramah or James Branch Cabell—gently humorous fantasy that intentionally pairs ornate imagery with silly events to make fun, mostly of itself. Honestly, I’m still not sure what this is, but now I have some hope for it.
  • Robert Kroese, Starship Grifters. This seems to be humorous SF, more in the vein of Harry Harrison than Douglas Adams, but I’m willing to go along, because I like humorous SF.
  • Gideon Defoe, Elite: Docking is Difficult. More humorous SF, this time associated with a video game I haven’t heard of. But the same author has written a series of humorous novels about The Pirates!, and I’m especially willing to give an established comedy writer a shot.

Selected SF/F Previews for 04/2014

As usual, I’ve sampled all the available Amazon previews linked via SFSignal’s monthly round-up of new SF/F, and I’ve chosen a few to highlight.

  • M. A. C. Farrant, The World Afloat: Miniatures. I’m not sure how these micro-fictions came to be labeled SF/F, but the ones in the preview are pretty good—quirky, amusing, and slightly surreal. I don’t know if I’d stick with these comparisons after reading more of the stories, but the first names that came to mind as reference points were Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Walser.
  • Mary Robinette Kowal, Valour and Vanity. The latest in Kowal’s Glamourist Histories begins with a really nice examination of an ancient work of glamour. I like this Regency fantasy series a lot, and I’m sure I’ll read this installment of it eventually.
  • Christopher Priest, The Islanders. One of two books by Priest listed this month (the other is The Adjacent, which gave me a sort of creeping feeling of paranoia), I guess The Islanders is just now coming out in paperback. I had not previewed it before and didn’t realize it had formal qualities reminiscent of the Dictionary of the Khazars or Invisible Cities, to which all I can say is yes.
  • Nathan Hawke (a.k.a. Stephen Deas), The Crimson Shield. I’ve enjoyed other work by Deas, and I’m surprised to see him working under a pen name—often the sign of a mid-list author looking to get renewed attention—because I thought he was reasonably popular. Anyway, here he has begun a sort of Viking-inspired trilogy that strikes me as moving into K. J. Parker’s territory: low-magic fantasies with snappy writing and robust characters living through episodes inspired by history.
  • Daryl Gregory, Afterparty. Neither SF about drugs nor SF about religion are even remotely things I go looking to read, but I have to admit the preview for this novel, which combines both themes, seems pretty well-written and engaging.
  • Lynn Flewelling, Shards of Time. I’ve long heard that Flewelling’s Nightrunner series was worth checking out, but I think this preview of the seventh book was the first thing I’ve actually read by her. It had a warmer, friendlier tone than I had expected of a book about a roguish fantasy duo (?), and after a few pages that reminded long-time readers about where the series stands, it quickly got down to the business of a reasonably intriguing adventure.
  • Sergei Lukyanenko, New Watch. I guess like most folks I first heard positive things about the Night Watch series when the first movie was released. It’s sort of a Russian urban fantasy thriller or polizei procedural (?). At least one other book in the series has been listed at SFSignal as a new release in the past 6-7 months, but I believe I skipped mentioning it because the preview didn’t show quite enough to convince me. Now, the fifth book’s preview is similarly oblique in some respects, but I’ve seen enough to be persuaded I should go back and try the first book or two in full.
  • Michael J. Ward, The Eye of Winter’s Fury. Choose-your-own-fantasy-adventure novels are often not well-written, so the bar for impressing me with one is set pretty low. The preview for this third book in the DestinyQuest series strikes me as not too bad, and I’m glad to see the form revitalized, so I’m sold. Apparently, only the first book is available from Amazon US, but perhaps Canadian or UK sources will work.
  • Katherine Addison (a.k.a. Sarah Monette), The Goblin Emperor. Monette is another fairly popular SF/F author whom I’m surprised to see taking on a pen name, but this book is getting a lot of positive attention, so maybe it helped. I’m afraid I had to read the first part of this preview twice to reboot my tolerance for the pronouns thou, thee, and thy in fantasy fiction, but once I got over it, everything else about the prose seemed reasonably fluid, allowing me to see what there is to like here: a fantasy story that begins exactly where it should and launches into matters of political intrigue immediately with none of the typical “ordinary world” introductions to the characters or the setting. Other reviewers say you should read the appendices about how names work pretty early on, though.
  • Robin Riopelle, Deadroads. Wikipedia says there are still 26,000 speakers of Louisiana French alive today, so I guess this novel’s frequent use of it in scenes set in the near past is plausible, but forgive me if I’m suspicious of whether a Canadian writer may have romanticized or exaggerated it a little. Anyway, this seems like a decent contemporary urban fantasy about siblings who have special powers or duties connected to dealing with ghosts and who have to track down a murderous one or something.
  • Jenna Helland, Theros: Godsend, Part I. I’ve never read a Magic: The Gathering novel, so I don’t know if this one is typical, but it did a pretty good job at what I would expect from one: leaping into very unrealistic but interesting fantasy situations as quickly as the imagery on the cards does. In this case, there was stuff right away about gods fighting in the sky that I took a while to try and picture for myself, and I liked a few other details that likewise featured the simple, colorful qualities of the game. Apparently, whatever edition of MtG this story is based on has a Greek mythology flavor to it, and that comes through strongly, but I think a number of things about it are original too. Anyhow, at two bucks and 124 pages, the cost of being wrong about this seems low.

Board game rank change report for 2014Q1

Every quarter, I compare the current board game rankings at BoardGameGeek with the rankings from three months ago to see what new games have appeared and what old games have enjoyed sudden surges in popularity. Games tend to climb the charts more slowly in the overall ‘Board games’ category, so I list them when I see a jump of +100 ranks, whereas in other categories I only note jumps of +200 ranks. Sometimes classic games are added to new categories and will jump up for probably no other reason. Also, I only keep track of the top 500 games in each category from quarter to quarter, so it’s theoretically possible for a game to gain ranks slowly and never show up. But with those caveats in mind, here are some lists of games that have popped up on the charts in the past quarter.

Fast, positive movers among 'Board games':
014 (+143) Caverna: The Cave Farmers
051 (+109) Nations
059 (+228) Eldritch Horror
060 (+160) Russian Railroads
194 (+161) Lewis & Clark
220 (+232) Concordia
274 (+226) Glass Road
281 (+106) Amerigo
297 (+203) Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia
318 (+167) Firefly: The Game
329 (+171) Advanced Squad Leader: Starter Kit #2
370 (+130) BattleLore (Second Edition)
373 (+127) Advanced Squad Leader: Starter Kit #3
378 (+122) Francis Drake
392 (+108) Bruxelles 1893
396 (+104) 1775: Rebellion
Fast, positive movers among 'Strategy games':
199 (+301) BattleLore (Second Edition)
223 (+277) BattleCON: Devastation of Indines
273 (+211) A Study in Emerald
Fast, positive movers among 'War games':
019 (+481) Advanced Squad Leader: Starter Kit #3
020 (+480) Advanced Squad Leader: Starter Kit #2
043 (+457) BattleLore (Second Edition)
067 (+255) The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-43
165 (+335) Diplomacy
256 (+244) Sails of Glory
Fast, positive movers among 'Family games':
055 (+445) Ingenious: Travel Edition
069 (+431) Mahjong
088 (+352) Steam Park
128 (+372) TurfMaster
151 (+349) Blueprints
222 (+278) Fantastiqa
287 (+213) Cinque Terre
Fast, positive movers among 'Collectible games':
012 (+488) Warhammer: Diskwars
016 (+484) Dungeon Command: Blood of Gruumsh
021 (+479) Star Realms
109 (+318) Huntik: Secrets and Seekers Trading Card Game
114 (+386) Xia: Legends of a Drift System
Fast, positive movers among 'Thematic games':
058 (+442) Zombicide Season 2: Prison Outbreak
098 (+402) Space Cadets: Dice Duel
117 (+383) TurfMaster
156 (+344) Police Precinct
185 (+315) Leader 1: Hell of the North
203 (+297) CV
216 (+284) Silent Death
227 (+273) Galaxy Defenders
229 (+271) HeroQuest Advanced Quest
276 (+224) Dark Moon
289 (+211) Super Fantasy: Ugly Snouts Assault

Selected SF/F Previews for 03/2014

In an ongoing effort to discover more of what’s up in current SF/F, I’ve sampled all the available Amazon previews of new titles linked in SFSignal’s March round-up, and I’ve chosen a few to highlight.

  • Mark Smylie, The Barrow. Immediately upon reading this preview, I sent a bunch of my friends a one-line note: “Holy crap, it’s an Artesia novel!” At least three of us bought it instantly. Whatever its flaws may be, don’t mistake this first novel for a typical grim fantasy GRRM knock-off/D&D campaign journal. Smylie’s Artesia is easily the richest and most thoughtful sword & sorcery comic book I’ve ever read–the setting, plot, and characters are all amazing. The novel may be rougher. Certainly, there’s prolific cursing, and others’ reviews promise there are disturbing sex scenes, which I’d count as a negative. But Artesia was so good that it has bought Smylie an awful lot of latitude with me as a reader.
  • Brad Aiken, Small Doses of the Future: A Collection of Medical Science Fiction Stories. Aiken is a practicing physician, so these stories ought to be well-informed if nothing else. The preview seems well-written in a careful, precise sort of way. And I’m especially intrigued by the context, because this seems to be part of a relatively new series called Science and Fiction by Springer, a scientific publisher.
  • Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer, The Time Traveler’s Almanac. Like The Weird, this seems to be the VanderMeers’ attempt at a comprehensive anthology synopsizing a very large SF/F sub-genre, and looking at the table of contents, I think they may have been successful once again. The stuff included in the preview reminds me how many old time travel stories are a little too pat and almost silly. But then we get some Ursula Le Guin, and I’m hooked.
  • Menna van Praag, The House at the End of Hope Street. What a charming magical realist premise: a woman is given an opportunity to stay in a house where many famous women have figured out what to do with their lives and where, apparently, their portraits on the walls will talk her through the same problem. The preview seems warm and inviting itself.
  • Andrzej Sapkowski, Baptism of Fire. This is the third novel in Sapkowski’s Witcher Saga, and the preview seems typical. I can see why these books are so popular in Europe. They’re clear, straightforward sword & sorcery stories that put dark magic and difficult ethical dilemmas into the foreground. They’re what Warhammer Fantasy novels seem to aspire to be.
  • Chris Wooding, The Iron Jackal. I’m not sure this is new even in the US, but it’s new to me. It’s the third in a series that I’ve heard described as a “steampunk Firefly,” and the preview fits that description pretty well, which means I’m sold.
  • Leslye Walton, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. This is a young adult magical realist novel in which a girl is born with wings. I’m not sure I like how the preview spends so much time on the multi-generational backstory. Fortunately, it delivers the magic right up front very vividly, and the multi-generational part is written well enough that I remain hopeful about the return to the main character.