One of the great things about the internet, is that authors can use their awesomeness to make me want to buy their books just by hanging out online and not much more really. This is doubly so at cons where you can see them actually talk. I’ve yammered on about that before, but the first line of a blog post always stymies me and there’s a good chance I’m going to go back and change all this before I post it. Or not. Rambling intro or not, this is one of my finds from the last Boskone, Undertow by Elizabeth Bear. Spend any time in the SF circles and you’re bound to hear her name. She’s a beast when it comes to productivity with a massive laundry list of books out. She’s got award noms all over the place. In fact, she was nominated for three more today, about three hours ago.
Also can I say, Holy shit New England! Woo! Finally, some SF writers that aren’t from the Great Lakes corridor or the Pacific Northwest. It’s almost a rule you’ve got to be from there or at least lived there for a while. I swear it’s most of the authors I follow with the exception of an Arizona enclave and a couple in Brooklyn.
Now if only Rhode Island can become a hotbed of SF….
No more distractions, I’m on a schedule! Back of the book time!
A frontier world on the back end of nowhere is the sort of place people go to get lost. And some of those people have secrets worth hiding, secrets that can change the future – assuming there is one…
Andre Deschenes is a hired assassin, but he wants to be so much more. If only he can find a teacher two will forgive his murderous past – and train him to manipulate odds and control probability. It’s called the art of conjuring, and it’s Andre’s only route to freedom. For the world he lives on is run by the ruthless Charter Trade Company, and his floating city, Novo Haven, is little more than a company town where humans and aliens alike either work for one tyrannical family – or are destroyed by it. But beneath Novo Haven’s murky waters, within its tangled bayous, reedy banks and back alleys, revolution is stirring. And one more death may be all it takes to shift the balance…
So as I said, I picked this book up at Boskone a couple months ago and when I was standing at the huskster’s table I had an oh shit moment. My plague ridden phone wasn’t about to play nice with the internet to reassure me I was picking a Book One or a Standalone. And like I said, Bear has a lot of books out. A large part of my decision to start with Undertow was simply that it was the most standalone sounding of all the books at the table that day. I didn’t want to poke around the internet too much about it and spoil the book so there were times during the book where I wasn’t sure.
All the human characters have pasts that weigh heavy on them. Cricket, who is as much of a protag as Andre, has an especially heavy past. Greene and Closs, the antagonists who do the running of the planet, have interactions together that seem much bigger than just one story. Andre himself has a lot of baggage with his family. Because of all this, I kept flip flopping in my head if Undertow was truly a standalone book or part of a bigger world. In the end, it’s just a good book. The characters have serious depth and that’s really the important part. If it is perfectly standalone, Bear should totally mine those backstories for more books. If it’s or becomes part of a bigger world, it reads like the Clockwork Century books do, connected but not dependent on the other stories.
Ever get tired of Star Trek/Wars type aliens that are humans with makeup? Undertow has one of the best written alien species I’ve ever read. The ranids of Green’s World are amphibians that reminded me a bit of EverQuest frogloks. The ranid POV chapters are some of the most fascinating reading I’ve done recently. Everything about their from their social structure and how their effected by humans down to their communication methods and use of unique pronouns are all seriously well thought out. They think fundamentally different than people and that’s ridiculously difficult technical thing to write and have any sort of readability leftover.
Mega character depth and kick ass aliens. There’s got to be something cool to tie it all together, right? Hell yes there is. Andre is a professional assassin after all. The planet is on the brink of rebellion to begin with and he pushes it past the point of no return with his latest hit. He falls in with Jean Gris, a conjure man who does all that bending of probability, and Cricket, the archinformist (hacker). The POV moves around, which is good because I liked the other two better than Andre. Fight against the man, stop the bad guys’ heinous plan and try to make a clean getaway. It sounds very basic but when you’re boiling things down to barest plot points to avoid spoilers (and hide the fact that I don’t take notes when I do this and I don’t always type these right when I finish a book), of course it’s going to sound basic. It’s a character driven story anyways. If this crew was doing their laundry, I’m sure it would be interesting. There’s some nifty tech that shows up in the latter half of the book that throws a cool twist in matters. I love it when philosophy and tech combine. Quantum anything makes me happy.
Closing statement? Sure I’ll make one.
Undertow is a great book. Simple right? It’s also perfect if you want a primer on how to write aliens that are actually alien.