Posted embarrassingly late due to exigencies of work, family, and the like.
R. Scott Bakker, The White-Luck Warrior: 2011 release. R. Scott Bakker's latest doorstop fantasy is the 2nd in a trilogy and the 5th in the sequence begun by The Darkness That Comes Before - and like the books that preceded it, its approach to deconstructing epic fantasy is both striking and deeply flawed. Three threads of story intertwine through the novel, which follows Anasumrimbor Kellhus leading a vast and fanatically devoted army through Sranc-infested wilderness to try to avert the Second Apocalypse, his wife and Empress's attempts to hold Kellhus's empire together in his absence, and the efforts of his former tutor (Drusus Achamainan) to find the hidden sanctuary which produced Kellhus, so he can understand how his one-time student can be defeated. Shades of the Lord of the Rings and D&D run through the book - and the moments and images I find most effective draw almost all of their power from those associations - but ultimately The White-Luck Warrior is sufficiently infested with the most tedious tropes of Abercrombie-style fantasy to make it the penultimate Bakker novel I intend to read. Which is to say, I intend to finish the trilogy and stop there.
Marie Brennan, With Fate Conspire: 2011 release. swan_tower (Marie) is a friend and in my writer's group, but it takes much more than that to get me to admire a book the way I love this one. The fourth book in the Onyx Court sequence, With Fate Conspire advances the timeline of the Onyx Court to the Victorian Era, when the construction of the London Underground - a gigantic loop of iron - is tearing the physical structure of the Court to pieces. With this physical disintegration comes a social one, with gang lords springing up in a Goblin Market, where kidnapped humans are forced to tithe the bread that the fae increasingly need to stay alive.
With Fate Conspire is a wildly ambitious novel in terms of both world-building (no surprise, in light of all the cool magical tech that swan_tower introduced to her world in A Star Shall Fall) and the scope of its action, which ranges from Fenian bombings and Spiritualism to the uses and abuses of magical technology. The details and historical context of Victorian society are reproduced with painstaking accuracy, to the point where I (no great fan of social anxiety) had a hard time reading some of the earlier sections written in Eliza's POV. Brennan doesn't flinch from the implications of her setting, and this results in a book that is chock-full of lovely and logical interactions between characters and the world they live in. This is a worthy conclusion to the Onyx Court sequence that also stands alone quite effectively, and is on my shortlist to nominate for the Hugo award.
Ed Brubaker, Sleeper: Season 2: Collecting the last two volumes of Ed Brubaker's Sleeper (one of the darkest and most effective superhero noir stories out there), these twelve issues follow Holden (the books protagonist) as he tries to navigate a course between his ruthless handler, John Lynch, and Tao, the manipulative mastermind Lynch is using him against. While the endgame plays out more or less as one might expect in light of the comic's dark tone, the puppet strings are more visible than I'd like them to be. That said, there's a lovely moment towards the end that I'd been waiting for since very early in the series; I just wish that Brubaker had found a slightly less depressing way to wrap things up.
Mike Carey, The Unwritten, v. 4 - Leviathan: 2011 release. The adventures of Tommy Taylor and his companions continue, as they head to Pittsfield Massachusetts to try to tap into the narrative left behind by Herman Melville when he wrote Moby Dick. Meanwhile, Pullman persuades a sinister puppeteer to hunt down Tommy and his friends, and after that a lot of cool stuff happens. (Given the title and the Moby Dick connection, it's probably safe to say that it involves a whale somehow.) Anyway, Carey continues to deliver with this series, and since he still gets me to read comics when many former favorite comic creators *don't*, I expect to nominate this for the Best Graphic Story Hugo.
Dorothy Dunnett, Checkmate: I had to borrow a friend's copy of Checkmate in order to finish it, because the version I own has two copies of the signature wherein Lymond arrives in England and no actual ending. That was, as one might imagine, rather frustrating, especially given how much I approved of the final resolution.
I feel like Dunnett's habits of deluging the reader with red herrings and diversionary bits of history reaches its apotheosis in this book, though of course I don't know how the Niccolo books are in that regard. I also feel like the actual character plot (what I cared about) was buried under 400 pages of historical action & Lymond busily engaging in dubious social behavior. It's clear that this was the story Dunnett wanted to tell, but I also feel like there is a perspective from which the events of Checkmate can be described, however uncharitably, as an idiot plot.
All the red herrings and the gathering sense of doom towards the end meant that Dunnett got me with her final deceptive statement, though. I felt a vast and terrible sense of being cheated for two pages, before I realized what she'd done there.
Stephen Johnson, The Ghost Map: As I think I've noted elsewhere, the parts of this book that were most awesome was the history of sanitation bits. The anecdotes about the various forms of filth-gleaning and processing that went on in the City of London during the Victorian period were also pretty sweet, and I should probably look into that further at some point. As with The Invention of Air, Johnson's attempts to relate a relevant and interesting historical moment in the 19th century to (for instance) the prospect of nuclear terrorism struck me as strained, and a distraction from the interesting bits, which were the historical and scientific sections. That particular aspect of the 'popular' non-fiction formula continues to leave me cold.
John Le Carre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: I picked this up from The Other Change of Hobbit on a lark, and then devoured in over the next 48 hours. The introduction, of all things, started the book off on the right note by asserting that the term 'mole' for a deep cover spy was popularized by Tinker, Tailor, and whether that's true or not, the linguistic influence of Le Carre on many of the authors who followed him is quite clear. The book proper does a nice job of depicting the evolution of WW II espionage into Cold War espionage, and the sorts of games that agencies on both sides of the Iron Curtain ran against each other. I will confess to being less than enamored by the constant intrusion of Smiley's personal life into the awesome espionage action, though I imagine there are those who found it a humanizing element in a book that deals in the profoundly cold-blooded logic of power politics, both foreign and domestic. Me, I liked the wheels within wheels, and expect to be reading more Le Carre when I have a chance.
Madeleine E. Robins, Point of Honour: A Fallen Woman investigates a scandal involving various noblemen and several other Fallen Women, and punctures, bludgeons, and otherwise defeats various footpads and ne'er-do-wells with a sword, her mirror, or anything else that's handy. Fun stuff! More seriously, though, this is a romance-tinged romp through the demi-monde of a partialy invented Regency England, with a protagonist who is pleasingly competent. The general shape of the ending was structurally inevitable from very early in the book, and the specific shape was clear about a hundred pages out, which undermined my ability to be surprised by the final "twist", but overall I enjoyed it and look forward to reading the next in the series.
Mark Waid, Incorruptible v. 1 & Irredeemable v. 1-2 (re-reads): These books are two sides of the same coin, with Incorruptible existing in the shadow (literally and metaphorically, alas) of Irredeemable. The premise of Irredeemable is that the Plutonian (one of many thinly-veiled Superman analogues that have existed in comics over the years) loses his shit one day and becomes Earth's worst and most ruthless supervillain instead of its nigh-invincible defender - and his former companions, as they investigate, realize that they didn't actually know him very well at all. The image of not-Superman as constantly besieged by the world's expectations, and unable to make healthy human connections with anyone that the book presents is an unnervingly credible one.
Incorruptible, in turn, is the story of a supervillain who was at ground zero for the Plutonian's first atrocity, and has decided to try to redeem himself as a result. Incorruptible suffers a bit from its ground level focus, but more from issues of tone and art - whereas Irredeemable is consistently dark (leavened somewhat by bits of black humor involving the Plutonian), Incorruptible has goofy character names (e.g. "Max Damage", "Jailbait"), a lack of moral coherence in Max's newfound scruples, and frequently involves characters that look just plain silly. The effect is a tonal incoherence that undermines the book's effect.
Well, that's it for January. I haven't finished anything since February started, unfortunately, though I'm halfway through a bunch of books. Maybe tomorrow...?