I'm an excruciatingly slow reader - not a wonderful trait for an editor, I'll admit - and my modus operandi is to be continually buried under manuscripts, but I've been making a concerted effort to read outside my own submission pile, not just to keep tabs on what those other guys are doing, but more broadly so my own knowledge of the field doesn't grow myopic. Lately, I've been impressed with quite a number of books I've read which I didn't publish, and I thought I would share them here:
The Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross I'm just going to have to read everything Charlie writes, which would be a damn sight easier given my sluggish pace and my day job if he didn't write so damn much. I came at Stross initially on Michael Swanwick's recommendation, like so many of us with the Accelerando tales that Stross maintains isn't necessarily representative of the larger body of his work. Since then, I've read most of the stories in Toast, been fortunate enough to have published him twice, and read the two books in the Eschaton series. Here I was slower to engage with The Iron Sunrise than I had been with Singularity Sky, largely because the underlying concepts were new in the first book and reiterated in the second. It felt like a retread for the first few chapters, and aside from one interesting revelation about the Eschaton's motivations and concerns which I won't spoil though it isn't given a lot of space, the ball of what we know about this universe isn't carried many yards in this second novel. But what began to hook me, and, in fact, resulted in my enjoying Iron Sunrise even more than Singularity Sky, was the unfolding of the plot itself. Without giving anything away, I wasn't prepared for Iron Sunrise to turn into quite the action-novel it becomes, and I was delighted to discover that Charlie - who is the finest extrapolator out there when it comes to the intersection of cutting edge computer tech and economics - is damn good at writing action-adventure too. The second half of the book flew by for me at edge-of-your-seat pace. Now I've noticed Charlie once or twice defending the stereotypical Baen books when others dismissed them. I wonder if he's been reading them, taking notes, and applying what works very well for their audience to the" higher order" of big-concept, sophisticated-idea SF from whence so many of us look down our noses at Baen. Ironically, the net result of my reading Iron Sunrise may be that I pick up an Honor Harrington novel one of these days. Not something I would have extrapolated to be the result of my reading "Lobsters" a few years ago.
The Briar King by Gregory Keyes I've had this novel on my shelf for some years after having picked it up at a World Fantasy Convention. I don't read much epic fantasy, but Greg and I once got into a wrestling match following a drinking contest, and that plus the fact that it's a gorgeous hardcover was enough to let the novel survive several book-winnowings. Then, lately, I've been offered more and more traditional fantasy submissions at Pyr, and while fantasy is not a large percentage of what we publish, we are doing enough of it that - after reading an "almost there" first novel and perching on the fence on it for some weeks - I thought I could benefit from checking out some of the recent crop of successful fantasy writers. And was hooked from the first chapter. Keyes has constructed a remarkably believable secondary world, peopled with three dimensional characters whose personal dramas and political machinations are as interesting as the novel's fantastical elements. So much traditional fantasy seems to exist in sanitized quasi-medieval worlds, where the most notable staple of actual medieval life - the Catholic church - has been replaced by a not-very-well realized magical system, oft based on Celtic themes or goddess-worship. By contrast, Keyes constructs a church ever bit as ornate and stratified and believable as the Holy Roman Empire, but functioning along entirely different (if analogous) lines. Nor are his characters wholly black or wholly white; all are well-drawn "real" people, even (or especially) the villains. If all epic fantasy read like this, I'd be an enormous fan. I suspect that readers of George R. R. Martin might enjoy Keyes while they are between books, and possibly fans of Steve Erikson as well. At any rate, I picked up the Charnel Prince immediately upon closing the Briar King. I hope to have that read before Christmas.
Old Man's War by John Scalzi Let me say right off that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am very glad that I read it. This is surprising to me. Not only is it "not the sort of thing I normally read," but initially, I quite deliberately held off checking it out. First, because I had heard that Scalzi admitted to (cynically?) seeking out what sells (military SF) and then writing same, and second because Scalzi put me off on his blog by quoting my most hated cliché, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." I read for entertainment, yes, but part of what is entertaining to me is the act of learning, of bettering myself, and I have always held the occupation of writer as something laudable on the level of that of teacher or scientist and expect writers to be somewhat smarter than average. I read to learn, and when a writer tells me upfront they have nothing deep to say, I take them at face value and go elsewhere. But I found I kept going back to Whatever, where I (at first) reluctantly found many of Scalzi's posts to be quite entertaining, informative & altogether worthwhile. Then Charles Stross started touting Scalzi and when I spoke with him about it, Charlie told me there was more going on in Old Man's War than I was giving it credit for. Thus shamed, I sought out John in Glasgow, and while we only spoke briefly, I thought he was a genuinely nice guy and liked him immediately - and that, more than anything, always makes me want to read someone (the reverse is also true). Nor did it hurt that I love the Donato cover. So, in what was increasingly feeling like an inevitable move, I picked up Old Man's War and read it in about three evenings. Yes, I agree America needs to get over Heinlein. Yes, I agree there's something cynical (or is that brilliant?) about discovering that military SF outsells everything else, then writing a Heinlein-lite wish-fulfillment tale for a graying fandom about 75 year olds becoming young again and going off to fight in a Heinlein military SF space adventure. But the book is executed so well, the narrative so engaging, that I was drawn in from the first line: I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army. I teared up at least twice during the read, once at the start and once at the end. My wife came in the bedroom as I was finished OMW, and I tearfully told her how much I loved her. She saw right through it and laughed at me for getting emotional with Scalzi's book. Suffice to say, yes, I'll certainly be coming back for the Ghost Brigades.
Meanwhile, while there is some blatant Starship Troopering going on, I don't actually think that was Scalzi's primary model for Old Man's War. Structurally, the Heilein OMW most reminded me of was Job: A Comedy of Justice - the first Heilein novel I ever read and an altogether underrated work. With a warning about SPOILERS, if we view outer space as the afterlife (and Scalzi makes this metaphorical association clear throughout the narrative), then both novels are about a man who enters the afterworld only to find that the woman he loves isn't there, then discovers her in an adjacent afterworld he's not allowed in, and breaks rules and braves hell to be reunited with her again (in a third, "quiet" life). So, deliberately, subconsciously, or accidentally, Scalzi has actually combined the setting of one of Heinlein's most famous works with the structure of one of his little-known ones, in a narrative that is more original than derivative, and absolutely deserving of its status as one of the most impressive (and successful) authorial debuts in a long while. Pick it up if you haven't already. If I can read it in three nights, you can probably read it in three hours, but however long it takes, it will be time well spent.
Update: John Scalzi has responded at great length to my post, and I am both flattered and embarrassed to have sparked such a long and considered reply. For the record, Scalzi and Anders do seem to be in accord on most of the points enumerated, and I found his discussion of the difference between process and net result most illuminating. And minty fresh.