December 12, 2014

Continuations of Series

Recently I read on in several book series that I'd started earlier this year. I completed a trilogy, read the new second book in a trilogy-in-progress, and finished a duology:

→ The Last Policeman series by Ben H. Winters follows a New Hampshire detective who's determined to keep solving crimes even though life as we know it is about to be destroyed by an asteroid strike. As that premise might suggest, it's kind of a page-turner, so I'm glad I waited to read the first book until all installments of the trilogy were published. I read and loved THE LAST POLICEMAN in September and then rationed out the other two books over the next two months. They're all fantastic.

I was delighted to find COUNTDOWN CITY as excellent as the first book. In less than three months, the asteroid will strike, and the situation is growing more and more apocalyptic. Southern New Hampshire now lacks electricity -- and coffee! Henry Palace would like to continue solving crimes, but he no longer has the resources or the authority. Still, he takes on a missing persons case, and in the course of the investigation, he has to enlist the help of his sister and get mixed up in her wild conspiracy theories.

The premise of the series is what attracted me, but the great characters and narrative voice have me hooked. I like the way everyone in this story is real and flawed. I also like that while the mysteries are eventually solved, it doesn't happen cleanly: Henry makes mistakes and gets things wrong in the process.

I was almost too nervous to start WORLD OF TROUBLE, because as much as I wanted to know how the story resolved, I was afraid of how the story would resolve. I won't say much about this book so as not to give anything away, but it was a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

The asteroid is fast approaching, and the situation is beyond desperate, but Henry Palace is determined to solve one final case. The search takes him into new territory, where he encounters people who are taking a variety of tactics as they face the end of the world.

Every chapter of this book is agonizing and surprising. While there are still moments of levity, the overall tone is appropriately more intense than in the first two books. Henry, along with the rest of the world, is under a lot of strain, but he remains the single-minded and honorable policeman I've grown so fond of.

→ Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series begins with ANCILLARY JUSTICE, which I recommended in June. The epic work of science fiction came out last year and won all the awards. This fall's new installment, ANCILLARY SWORD, is another accomplished novel, and I liked it even better than the first book.

After completing an ambitious and dangerous quest, Breq is sent to handle a more modest military assignment. She's put in command of a ship, a strange experience since she's an artificial intelligence who used to be a ship. Interacting with the ship's AI gives Breq some of the omniscient powers she once had, and she's grateful for that, but it also makes her feel even more acutely what she's lost.

This story is smaller and quieter than the first one, and it appealed to me even more. Breq's continued adjustment to her identity leads to unusual conflicts (as well as a distinctive narrative style) and a powerful personal story. While she's dealing with that, she's also making friends and enemies around a planet plagued by culture clashes and power struggles. The various threads of the story explore human and societal behavior in ways that are both unique to Leckie's richly imagined world and uncomfortably familiar to Earthling readers.

This middle book of the trilogy drills deep into the effects an empire has on those it conquers. I expect the final book to involve some dramatic changes in the empire, but this one is more about making the best out of an existing, flawed situation. I was glad to learn more about culture and personal life, and the worldbuilding continues to be clever and often subtle. I appreciated how Leckie skewers many flawed science fiction tropes. For example, a character speaks of "the Athoeki language", referring to the name of the conquered planet. The ever-perceptive Breq thinks, "The Athoeki language. As though there had only been one. But there was never only one language, in my experience."

I remain very impressed by the skill and creativity that Leckie demonstrates in this incredible trilogy. And while the books make up one large story, each plot operates fairly separately, and the endings aren't cliffhangers, so you won't be kicking yourself if you start reading before ANCILLARY MERCY is released next year.

→ Dreamblood is a fantasy duology by N.K. Jemisin with a setting inspired by ancient Africa. I'm not a frequent reader of high fantasy, but I enjoyed the first book, THE KILLING MOON, and recommend it to any fantasy enthusiast. I'm still not a huge fan of the genre, and if this were a longer series, I probably wouldn't have devoted the time to continuing. Since there's only one other book, though, I went ahead and read on.

THE SHADOWED SUN begins by introducing a new character who is training to become a priest within the religion that featured prominently in the first book. This character has a different religious role than the previous ones, which gives the reader access to a new set of customs, and what's even more interesting, she's the first woman ever permitted to join the order. When a tragedy occurs during her apprenticeship test, many see it as proof that women can't properly handle dream magic, but the accident is actually the sign of a dangerous evil that's threatening the city.

Meanwhile, some familiar characters are dealing with the consequences of events from the first book, and again the plotlines involve a mix of magic and political intrigue. Several different cultures take part in this story, and Jemisin demonstrates her considerable worldbuilding talents with the fully imagined, distinctive portrayals each one receives.

Like the first, this book is well written, with great characters, intriguing conflicts, and a detailed world. The complicated plot requires setting up a lot of pieces, and I felt events slowed down too much toward the middle, but overall it's an exciting story with much at stake.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bill Morris at The Millions takes a look at recent novels with a near future setting: "Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation -- in a sense, to extrapolate where today's world is going. It's a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it's a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know -- or imagine -- where we're headed."

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