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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Off the Bookshelf: Fractions, Words of Radiance, Shards of Honor

by Ken Newquist / June 11, 2014
Cover art for Words of Radiance.

My annual vacation to Lake Champlain is still a ways off, but I've begun attacking my summer reading list with a vengeance. I've completed one book -- Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold -- have have launched into two more: Fractions by Ken MacLeod and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. I've also found one of the books on my list is caught in the Amazon/Hachette crossfire.

I've been looking for a new science fiction series to sink my teeth into, ever since completing Alistair Reynold's Revelation: Space and catching up with The Lost Fleet. When it comes to summer reading, I enjoy old school space opera with a touch of military SF (and sometimes, more than a touch). Think Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and you'll know what I mean.

Shards of Honor

That's what I was hoping for with Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor It's what I got ... but not what I expected. The book is one of the foundational books of Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, which spans 16 novels.

It opens strongly with Cordelia Naismith, the captain of a peaceful Beta Colony survey ship, being captured by Aral Vorkosigan, captain of a Barrayan ship ... who just lost his command to a coup. Together they're trapped on a primitive and dangerous frontier world, and their only hope for survival is finding a Barrayan equipment cache.

I was expecting more of a cat-and-mouse style adventure from this book, but instead it was more Enemy Mine. It was a good enough read, but it wasn't quite what I was expecting, which was more space naval combat. Completing this book (my first one this summer!) led me to read another foundational book in the series, The Warrior's Apprentice. This novel introduces Miles Vorkosigan, whom Bujold herself described as being the linchpin of the series.

Fractions

I haven't read much of Ken MacLeod's stuff, mostly because it's been so damn hard to find in physical book stores. Being able to buy the books digitally helped with that, and thus, Fractions -- the first half of The Fall Revolution -- is on my Kindle.

It's one wild and crazy book, and I mean that in a good way. I'm about a third of the way through it, and it reminds me strongly of the Eclipse Phase role-playing game (but before the tech when insane and, you know, ate the planet).

It's a dystopian future ruled by the US/UN conglomerate, though "ruled" doesn't mean what it used to mean. The world is broken up into political, socioeconomic, and ideological factions, themselves part of larger, world-spanning fractions (yes, that's a thing).

MacLeod's won the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Award several times, and it's easy to see why. Fractions is packed with all kinds of geeky politica goodness -- one of the protagonists is a communist mercenary, another is a wet-behind-the-ears humanist who just escaped from his parents' religious enclave, and still another is a researcher delving into forbidden "deep" technologies.

The book has echos of William Gibson's Neuromancer, particularly with regards to body augmentation tech, cyberspace, and the evolution of Artificial Intelligence, but MacLeod's political perspectives give the novel is own spin on the cyberpunk genre.

It's gotten bogged down in places -- MacLeod loves throwing out new terminology, which itself spawns new acronyms, which you then have to go back and decipher. It's a first novel, and it shows ... but he starts pulling it all together about a quarter of the way through the book. I'm looking forward to finishing the first half; the second half may need to wait until my Winter Vacation Reading List.

Words of Radiance

Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance is my audiobook of the moment, and given its 48 hours, 15 minutes running time, it's likely to be my audio book for quite some time. It's the follow up to The Way of Kings, Sanderson's inaugural book in the Stormlight Archive series.

That book inspired a fair amount of debate in my gaming group; some felt The Way of Kings was filled with unsympathetic characters who's stories were far too divergent to be entertaining. I can understand that criticism, but my take is that this is epic fantasy -- we know going in that there are going to be a lot of characters, wandering very different paths. The question is -- do you have faith in Sanderson to bring it all together? Based on the Mistborn series, as well as his work wrapping up The Wheel of Time my answer is "yes".

Personally, I greatly enjoyed The Way of Kings. I loved how Sanderson setup the great mystery of Roshar -- the Voidbringers and their assaults on the storm-wracked world, the Knights Radiant and their fights against the Voidbringer invasions, the decision by said Knights to give up the fight, the magic system that gave the Knights their strength ... it was all very cool, and in my opinion, worth reading the entire book for.

Words of Radiance picks up where The Way of Kings left off. The omens foreshadowing "The Final Desolation" -- which itself might include the return of the Voidbringers -- have been recognized by a handful. Most of the world remains ignorant, but a few are entranced by one of its signs: the return of intelligent spren. These mystical, fairy-like creatures are once again bonding with humanity though even they don't know why.

If anything Words of Radiance has gotten off to a slower start than The Way of Kings -- much of the first part of the book (up to the initial interlude, where I am now) is laying the groundwork for further chapters. Given the climax of The Way of Kings, that is understandable; the main characters need time to adjust to their new circumstances. It can't be all action, all the time, but I do hope things pick up after the interlude.

The Hachette Dilemma

This year's summer reading list is being disrupted by the contract negotiations between Amazon and Hachette Book Group, one of the Big Five publishing companies. Both sides are playing hardball, with Amazon refusing to allow pre-orders on Hachette books and not stocking Hachette books in their warehouses. All of this causes pain for their customers, and (of course) for Hachette. Apparently the sticking point is on the cost of ebooks, which Amazon wants to sell at a lower price than Hachette is willing to entertain.

As a libertarian-minded fellow, the fact that they're doing this doesn't much bother me. We've got two multi-billion dollar companies engaged in contract negotiations. It's inevitable that people (readers and authors) get caught in the crossfire, but let's face it -- readers have benefited from lower costs, and authors from wider distribution.

That said, I think competition is good. Amazon's tactics have been ham-handed, and frankly I'm not going to let them stand between me and the books I want to read.

There's only one book on my summer reading list that's been caught in the corporate war zone: Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey.

Typically I'd read this book on my Kindle while on vacation at Lake Champlain. Given that Amazon isn't selling it, I plan on buying the hardcover from Barnes & Noble instead. I usually take at least one print book with me to the island, just in case my Kindle fails ... this year that book will be Cibola Burn. I win because I get my book, James S.A. Corey (actually a pen name for two authors) wins because they get paid, and maybe Amazon loses a bit by making it more difficult to buy from them.

I will say that this dispute has led me to thinking about diversifying my ereaders. The Kindle is convenient, responsive, and well-made, but there is the specter of vendor lock-in. While I can always buy ebooks through Apple's iBooks or B&N's Nook app for iPad, I don't really like reading books on the iPad. It's functional, but not comfortable, and nigh near impossible outside.

My mother has a Nook e-ink tablet that she likes, and the Nook Glowlight reader looks like it does what I need: a high-contrast, outside-friendly, e-ink reader. Plus, it supports ePub, the open source book format, which opens up even more options. It costs $100, which is a bit pricy for redundancy, but I'm seriously considering it.

As always, I'm also going to be checking my local used book stores (The Quadrant, Hooked on Books) to see if I can pick up any books on my list. Prior experience says its unlikely any of the books will be there, but it's worth stopping by. Who knows, maybe I'll find a new addition for the list...