Five months have passed since my last review — yikes! The semester can really wreak havoc with those of us on academic schedules. But, on the bright side, I now have a fairly significant backlog of books that I can review for this blog. First up is an unreserved rave for John Scalzi’s Lock In.
The short version of my review is that if you like smart, imaginative science fiction, you should buy this book immediately. I knew almost nothing about the book’s plot when I began reading but I was drawn into Lock In’s world from the very first page. Scalzi handles his exposition masterfully; information about this alt-universe version of the United States is revealed at just the right pace,* and without making the reader feel as if she’s drowning in unfamiliar terms. So if you’re game for a great sci-fi novel and you don’t mind going in blind, just take my word for it: this book is awesome and you should read it.
If you’d like to read a few minor spoilers before deciding if Lock In is for you, follow me past the jump.
Last week I told you about a back-luck streak I had with books, when I felt like every book I started wound up being a snooze-fest. Dreadnought was the book that broke that streak. It simply didn’t give me time to get frustrated or bored. Dreadnought moved at breakneck speed from the first chapter to the epilogue and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. I do not advise starting this book on the bus on the way to work, as you may be far too tempted to “forget” your stop and possibly your job altogether in order to finish it.
Dreadnought opens in a Confederate military hospital in Richmond, Virginia, where practical Vinitia “Mercy” Lynch is a nurse. In Priest’s alternate Clockwork Century, the Civil War did not end in the 1860s; instead, it has turned into a decades-long conflict so deadly that every Confederate state (save for Mississippi and Alabama) has outlawed slavery and given former slaves citizenship in order to recruit more fighters. Mercy’s own loyalties are somewhat divided; while she works at a Confederate hospital and Yankee armies burned her family’s farm twice, she is also married to a Union soldier.
The events of the book are set in motion when Mercy receives an unexpected telegram. Her estranged father, Jeremiah Swakhammer, has been critically injured. His friends beg her to make the long trek to Seattle to visit him. Mercy — still reeling from a recent death — decides that despite her father’s failings, she can’t ignore what might be his dying wish.
There’s just one problem. There’s a chance that a few Civil War battles are smack in the middle of Mercy’s route to Seattle and her father.
So I’ve officially shattered my anti-urban-fantasy prejudices and gorged myself silly on my new favorite comfort reading. But what’s a girl to do when she runs out of Kate Daniels books? I decided to try something else that I’ve been a bit prejudiced against: steampunk.
My impression is that steampunk is more an aesthetic than a genre–specifically, it’s a blend of nineteenth-century clothes and steam-powered machines with twentieth-century tech.* I think I’ve been disinterested in steampunk because this is not an aesthetic that holds much appeal for me. I’m not particularly nostalgic for corsets.** Sure, they can look cool, but I enjoy my internal organs in their current positions, thank-you-very-much.
But after I ran across the fifth gushing review of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, I decided to give them a try. The first book in the series is Boneshaker, which opens in 1879 on the outskirts of Seattle–but a very different Seattle than the one we know. This Seattle has been shut off from the outside world following the release of toxic subterranean gas that the locals call the “Blight.” The gas escaped the earth when a mad inventor named Leviticus Blue recklessly tested a new mining machine that he called the Boneshaker.
I’ll start with a caveat. Two caveats, actually. First: ignore this book’s awful cover. I promise this is not a novel about a sci-fi Playboy mansion.
Second caveat: if you’re not familiar with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is probably not the place to start. Bujold’s Vorkosigan series is an all-time science fiction classic, smart military sci-fi set in peacetime. There are two main characters: Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, heroine of Shards of Honor and Barrayar, and her son Miles Vorkosigan, a physically disabled young man growing up in a militaristic culture that fears mutation. Most of the Vorkosigan books chronicle Miles’s adventures as he works to find a place in the universe for himself — and a place on his home planet of Barrayar, arguably a more challenging task.
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the first book to feature Vorkosigan supporting player Ivan Vorpatril as its main character. Ivan got a minor turn as a point-of-view character in A Civil Campaign, but this is our first book with Ivan as the hero. He’s usually being dragged into Miles’s crazier schemes against his will and better judgment. Ivan’s loyalty and courage and cheerful desire to do as little as possible have made him a fan favorite with Vorkosigan readers, and I know I’m not the only Bujold fan who was delighted to see him get his own book.
Last week I reviewed Connie Willis’s Blackout, the first part of a two-part novel. I was frustrated by Blackout’s slow pacing and repetitive story, but invested enough in the plight of lost time travelers Mike, Eileen, and Polly to want to find out what happened next. After reading All Clear I stand by my review of Blackout — I think Blackout would have been better with about 200 fewer pages (or if 200 pages had been spent on character development instead of an endless series of failed attempts to find time-travel drops). But All Clear made the journey worth it.
Welcome to Oxford, 2060. Time travel has transformed the study of history into a combination between anthropology and undercover journalism. At the beginning of Blackout, we meet three historians about to embark on World War II missions. Merope Ward is observing evacuees from London in the English countryside, disguised as a maid named Eileen O’Reilly. Polly Churchill has discarded her distinctive surname and become Polly Sebastian, a shopgirl, in order to observe behavior during the London Blitz. Mike Davis is pretending to be a war correspondent for an Omaha newspaper in order to observe the evacuation of British soldiers to Dover.