Monday, September 17, 2007


Book Report

I've been meaning for ages to do capsule reviews of some of the books I've been reading, but haven't found the time to do so. In an attempt to add a bit of structure to my mad ramblings here, I'm experimenting with adding regular features. In addition to Free Fiction Friday, I'm going to try to do a book report every Monday. These won't be very lengthy, and I doubt seriously that they'll contain much in the way of insight. Consider these little more than the kind of report you had to do in middle school just to prove you'd actually read the book, and not just the back cover flack. I will, though, try to clue you in to whether you might like the book, as well.

First up is Austin Grosman's Soon I Will Be Invincible.

This book was recommended to be from all corners, but it was Jess Nevins telling me that I should check it out that was the proverbial straw. So I have Jess to thank for his. Grossman's prose is light and breezy, and the book itself is a treat. I don't think that it's a funny as most reviewers (and Grossman himself) appear to think that it is, but that might just be because I'm so indoctrinated in the logic of superhero comics that I fail to see some of the inherent humor. I mean, of course a supergenius is going to end up evil as a matter of course, and try to take over the world. What else are they going to do with their time.

The book is an extremely loving view of a superhero universe, complete with all of the insanity and strange logic familiar from the comic book varieties. It reminded me of nothing so much as Kurt Busiek's Astro City series, and while Soon I Will Be Invicible fails to reach some of the sublime heights of the best of Astro City, it comes pretty close.

My advice to all of the reviewers who think that Grossman is blazing new territory with Invicible is to check out any of the collection volumes of Astro City, in particular Tarnished Angel and Confession.

If you're the kind of reader who has already plowed through all of Astro City and is hungry for more in the same vein, though, I recommend Grossman's novel highly. But if you do pick it up, got for the UK edition, not the American. The American volume (the cover is above) has some hokey satin-and-spandex routine as its design approach (as though embarrassed that it's a book about superheroes, for christ's sake, and trying to keep it at some ironic distance). The UK edition has a cover by Bryan Hitch (he of Ultimates and The Authority). And if the cover weren't enough, there's also a signature of color images at the back of the book, faux comic covers featuring some of the key players. Check out the link for the image gallery in this BBC interview with Grossman, or embiggen the cover above.

Next up is Ian McDonald's Brasyl.

What can I add to the chorus of praise already heaped on this book? Not much, but I'll try. Brasyl is not a perfect book, but it comes very, very close.

Lou Anders, editorial director at Pyr (who published the US edition of Brasyl) advised me not to read the book until I'd finished work on my own End of the Century, which will be published by Pyr sometime late next year or early the year after. I took his advice, and I'm glad I did. While my own novel and Ian's are two very different beasts, structurally they are very similar, and they share some preoccupations and concerns. Maybe that's one of the reasons why Brasyl resonated so deeply with me, since it's clear that Ian and I have read a lot of the same books (David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality least among them). Or maybe it's just that, like Ian, I very much dig the image of people with superscience sword capable of cutting through anything running around the streets of a modern metropolis.

I resisted the temptation to fire up Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to The Mission while reading the sections featuring the Jesuit priest in colonial Brazil, but just barely. But I couldn't prevent those refrains from running through my head. And believe me, the reveal of the big cathedral ship floating down the Amazon, the sculpted angels seeming to dance above the tree tops? The orchestration in that scene was amazing.

My only quibble, if I have one, is with the glossary at the back of the book. It was the same beef I had with Ian's previous outing, River of Gods. I think that both books should lose the glossary all together. They are somewhat useful tools, but neither contains all of the foreign words that I don't recognize in the text, and so rather than constantly flipping back to the end of the book to look up a word that isn't going to be there anyway, better to get them all from context, as I have to do anyway with the unlisted terms. Besides, there's always Google if I just have to find a definition right away.

In any event, highly recommended. If you've been looking for a story featuring bisexual transvestite wheeler-dealers in the future, kick ass Irish Jesuits in the past, and complex TV producers in the modern day, complete with knives that will cut through the bonds of space-time and secret conspiracies across the multiverse, then Brasyl is the book for you. And if you haven't been looking for that story, then you should be now.

Last on today's menu is Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn.

I've been reading a lot of franchise fiction lately, research for some upcoming work, and much of that reading has been in the universe of Warhammer 40K. Prior to this summer I knew very little about the franchise, aside from the fact that it was tied into a table-top war gaming system, and involved space war in the distant future. Solaris, the publishers of Set the Seas on Fire and the forthcoming Dragon's Nine Sons and Three Unbroken, is an imprint of Games Workshop, who does Warhammer and Warhammer 40K, and shares editorial staff with Black Library, the in-house imprint that does the tie-in books. As a result, when I was at BEA a few months ago, flogging the Solaris books, I got a chance to leaf through some of the recent Black Library titles set in the 40K universe. Intrigued by what little I'd seen, I nagged George Mann at Solaris until he sent me a care package of the books, and dove in.

I've only read a half dozen of the novels so far, and a handful of short stories, but what I've learned is that Dan Abnett is a Bad Ass.

I knew of Abnett's work in comics, having enjoyed the stuff he's cowritten with Andy Lanning, and in particular Majestic, their run on Legion of Super-Heroes, and the ongoing Nova series. Having admired his comics work, though, I was still completely unprepared for how good his prose would be. The writing itself is often very spare, with the occasional poetic flourish, but the level of invention is just staggering. I've been reading a bunch of the source material and game manuals for Warhammer 40K the last few months, so I know where Abnett is pulling some of the bits of worldbuilding from, but the uses to which he puts that source material is often little short of revelatory.

There was a time when I railed against franchise novels, and if I still harbored those prejudices I'd have been denied the shear pleasure of reading Eisenhorn. An omnibus that collects three novels featuring Gregor Eisenhorn, an Imperial Inquistor, Eisenhorn isn't just one of the best franchise books I've ever read, it's one of the best science fiction novels, franchise or no, that I've read in ages. Really remarkable work. And recommended to any reader of quality SF. Knowledge of the Warhammer 40K universe (or, in fact, even knowledge that there is a Warhammer 40K universe) isn't required to appreciate the book's qualities.

Okay, that's enough bloviating for one week. I'll try to do another book report next week, assuming I've finished a new book by then. But don't expect to get three books in a week again, anytime soon. Having read these three in the last few weeks, though, and admired them all, it seemed a shame not to cover them all.


I'm interested in your appraisal of the 40k stuff. I've generally avoided franchise fiction, mostly for the same reasons that I avoid series fiction in general. It just so happens that I've played 40k since forever, but was never particularly tempted by the fiction. Will have to check it out.

The whole Solaris project fascinates me, too. They're publishing some really great material from authors and editors I love. While I knew they were an arm of Black Library, I didn't know they shared editors. Hm. Must investigate.
I'm curious about Abnett's upcoming, non-tie in Solaris book, myself, and the cover by Dave Seeley is stunning (I got to see the full painting at Boskone too).
I'm looking forward to what Abnett does with his own novel, too. But I really can't recommend the Warhammer 40K stuff I mentioned highly enough.

Glad you finally got to the Grosman and that you enjoyed it. was meant as a comedy? I thought there were some humorous bits, but constantly funny? Huh. I guess, like you, I'm used to the tropes and logic of superhero comics and take the funny parts for granted. (FWIW, I like it better than Busiek).

Brasyl rocks hard, like a very hard thing indeed. It kept me very well entertained on a long, tedious plane flight recently. And, yeah, either do the glossary right or get rid of it altogether.

Eisenhorn I haven't read, so thanks for the rec.!
I read the Grosman last month, and thought it was fantastic; I'm only a poradic comic reader, but felt like he did a great job. I didn't realize that the British edition had a much cooler cover. I did notice that several reviewers seem to think that the Doctor Impossible chapters are a lot better than those narrated by Fatale. I'm not sure I me the Doctor Impossible chapters are more fun, but the Fatale sections seem to carry a bit more emotional heft.

As to Brasyl, I've been trying to decide if I want to pick it up...I read River of Gods (the first thing by McDonald that I've read) and enjoyed it, but not quite enough to put him on my buy at sight list.
Jess, I don't know that it's intended to be an outright comedy, but if you look at the pull quotes assembled on Grossman's website, you can easily get the impression that "funny" is an overriding concern. The LA Times review, listed fairly high in the list, calls it "a full-on spoof," NPR says it "is as funny as it is introspective," and Grossman himself says that the book is "funny, sad, and as true to the material as I could make it." So maybe not exclusively funny, but it seems to come first in the list quite a lot.
Howard, I'm pretty much with you in largely preferring the Fatale chapters, and I agree that the reviewers, if they express a preference, seem almost universally to prefer the Doctor Impossible bits. Maybe that's why they all think that the book is a funny novel, where I see it as a novel with some funny bits.

If you enjoyed River of Gods, then I'd definitely recommend Brasyl. Very much in the same vein, only with more sword-fights and quantum computers.
i'm glad you reviewed one of the warhammer 40,000 books. it's frustrating the lack of attention anything franchise (i didn't know that was the word for them) gets. sure, some of these shared world books can be tedious, poorly written, cliched; but some can be a pretty good read. we'd never know it, though, because it's not easy to find a decent review that's not a poor summary or that doesn't simply dismiss them because, well, we all know that a franchise book can't be any good . . . so it's either spend $8.00 and take a chance (how fun!) or not read them at all. i find it interesting, too, that among early writers of warhammer 40,000 stories/books were storm constantine, ian watson, and barrington j. bayley.
Mitchell, I'm not sure that "franchise fiction" is any kind of official term for it (I've often heard them called "tie-ins" and the like, as well), but it's the name I use most often. I understand your frustration, though. Very few review outlets cover that kind of work. I think it's largely because the percentage of tie-in and franchise books that are bad is so high, but there's also a clear prejudice against them on the part of many reviewers, which is unfortunate. I think things like these Abnett books, or Kim Newman's Jack Yeovil novels (in particular Drachenfels, which is just remarkable), or the Doctor Who novels of Paul Cornell or Lawrence Miles, or the Star Trek novels of Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens, are equally as good as, if not better than, much of the "legitimate sf" that does get reviewed and lauded. Much of franchise fiction is bad... some of it, VERY bad... but that doesn't mean that there isn't quality stuff out there to be found. Unfortunately, most of the outfits that do review franchise fiction, tend to review it with an eye towards how faithful it is to the franchise, or how closely it jibes with the reviewer's own views of the characters, instead of judging it in literary terms.

And you make a good point about the folks that contributed to those early stories and books. I meant to post a link to an interesting article about that, which I'll have to dig up and post now.
I think Chris is onto something. There are absolutely excellent works of media tie-ins. I think Kate Orman's Doctor Who novel, The Left-Handed Hummingbird is an utterly flawless work, and I quite enjoyed A.C. Crispin's Sarek once upon a time too. I was talking with George Zebrowski about this ages ago - and George is nothing if not a champion of integrity in writing - and he said he had no problem with the fact of media tie-in work, but he lamented that it was often not held to a higher standard. I know from my friends that do media tie-in work that it is often a rush job, done on tight deadlines, and I think that contributes to the problem. Also, the advantage, from a publishing perspective, of a licensed property is that you know that you will sell x amount every month, no matter what the content, and I think this can breed a certain laziness when the bottom unit sale is seen as "good enough" or conflated with all that it will potentially sell. This is not to say that certain individuals within that framework do not produce works of genius. The aforementioned Cornell, Orman, the Reeves-Stevens, Newman, apparently Abnett, Miles, most likely Salvatore, etc... I personally have been curious about Greg Keyes technomage trilogy for Babylon 5, since I know that was done under the direct guidance of Straczynski. But I have yet to be convinced that the general franchise reader pays as much attention to who the writer is as they do in general fiction, but I'm sure the careful reader, who did a little homework ahead of time, could read entirely media fiction and be quite satisfied, if they followed the writer rather than the property. Certainly, in recent months I've come to reexamine my own opinions about tie-in work, and I think today I hold that what matters is the quality of the effort. I hope I can laud good narrative of all stripes - comics, books, television, tie-in or not tie-in, and, equally, recognize a poor effort for what it is.
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