Off the Bookshelf: Winter’s End

I have a bad habit of saving all of my heavy reading for the summer. Don’t get me wrong — I love my summer reading list, but my brain’s happier when I keep reading throughout the year.

Starting around Thanksgiving and continuing through to early March, I aimed to do exactly that. I put together a short (well, short for me) reading list. If there’s a theme to this list, it’s resolving procrastination. Several books on the list were ones that I’d meant to read for the last few years (or, ahem, decades) but never got around to.

Here’s the full list:

  1. Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Lieber
  2. The End of All Things by John Scalzi
  3. Chasm City by Alistar Reynolds
  4. Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder
  5. The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
  6. The Fold by Peter Clines
  7. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
  8. The Peripheral by William Gibson
  9. The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn

Swords & Deviltry

Swords & Deviltry by Fritz Lieber (Amazon) contains three novellas detailing the origin stories and first meeting of Lieber’s famous duo, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Lieber’s stories have long been heralded as some of the primary sources that drove Gary Gygax’s vision Dungeons & Dragons, and I’ve known about them since I first read through Appendix N as a kid.

It just took me 30 years to actually read some of his stories. The first two stories in the audio book version — “The Snow Women”, which introduces Fafhred, and “The Unholy Grail”, which does the same for the Gray Mouser — were the weaker of the three stories. They were certainly adequate, and did a decent job of introducing the dangerous magic that lurks within Lieber’s world, but they felt flat to me. Lieber truly hit his stride when the duo joined up in Ill Met in Lankhmar.

In this story they take on the Lankhmar thieves guild, and suddenly it became crystal clear where a lot of Gygax’s inspiration for the Free City of Greyhawk came from. As the two thieves schemed, the beats became very familiar, and I smiled my way through their adventures, tragedies, and righteous rage.

The End of All Things

The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Amazon) made my Winter Reading list simply because I didn’t finish it during the summer. The latest book in the “Old Man’s War” universe moves the series almost entirely away from its military SF roots and into the world of galactic politics. It’s ok, and a logical conclusion to the series, but it didn’t thrill me the way the first book in the series did.

Chasm City

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds (Amazon) was one of the last Revelation Space books that I hadn’t read (the other being The Prefect). Chasm City takes place on the planet of Yellowstone in the far future. Once the jewel of the galaxy for its advanced use of nanotechnology, the system crashed when a technovirus known as the Melding Plague ran amok. Almost everyone with cybernetic systems died or was horribly transformed. The survivors are able to maintain a space age society, but only by ditching all of their magical tech and artificial intelligence.

I was expecting the book to be more about the Melding Plague and its aftershocks. It is … but it’s also a much more more intimate tale of revenge and identity. Tanner Mirabel is a mercenary hunting the man who killed his boss’s wife — and perhaps his love — across the stars. He’s travelled from the backwater world of Sky’s Edge, which has been waging a civil war since it was settled by the crew generational starships, to Yellowstone. He expected to find high civilization, but instead found the system’s famous “Glitter Band” reduced to a rust belt. It’s not a crucial book in the Revelation Space series, but it does fill in the backstory nicely.

Sun of Suns

Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder (Amazon) has been sitting in my “to read” pile for a long time. It takes place in a huge Dyson Sphere-like structure called Virga. Instead of living on the inner surface of the sphere, people life in the vast air-filled void inside it. It strongly reminded me of Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring novels, which also revolved around a free-fall human civilization. Niven’s book was about refuges eking out a life in an oxygen-rich gas torus around a star, and the technology that those colonists was limited to simple wood constructs and technology salvaged from a centuries old starship.

The humans in Sun of Suns have it better. They have barrel-like cities spinning for gravity, wood-and-steel ships that ply the vast expanses of Virga, and something of an idea of the larger world beyond. In many ways it reminded me of a mash-up between Niven’s work and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Mautrin series, right up to the savage broadsides between ships of the line and pirate scum. Needless to say, I enjoyed it.

The funny thing is that while this book had been on my to-read list for quite a while I actually had read some of Schroeder’s work before. Back when I subscribed to Analog Science Fiction and Fact I’d read at least part of the serialized sequel to this novel, Queen of Candesce. I’m strongly considering adding it to my summer reading list, but if I don’t read it then, I will in the winter.

The Jennifer Morgue

The Jennifer Morgue (Amazon) is the second book in Charles Stross’ The Laundry series. My friends and I have been taking turns buying the paperbacks (or at least, we had been until my reading pace lagged so far behind them that they decided to go ahead and buy the sequels without waiting for me). The Jennifer Morgue has a fantastic setup involving all manner of super spy troupes, and it builds on the milieu of the first novel in the series, The Atrocity Files. I’ll warn you though — while this is a hell of a fun book to read, it is significantly racier than the first, with a lot more sexual references. That’s not something I’d been expecting based on the earlier book and while it’s not something that would stop me from reading it, it was a surprise.

The Fold

The Fold by Peter Clines (Amazon) is a straightforward science fiction thriller, but it’s a good science fiction thriller. Mike Erikson is a high school teacher with a mind for puzzles. A great mind for puzzles; in fact he’s one of the smartest people in the country. A good friend of his works at DARPA and strongly suspects that something has gone wrong at a research facility in the California desert. Scientists there claim to have found a way to “fold” space, allowing for instantaneous travel between two points. It even works and is “perfectly safe”, but there are unspecified, unknown problems that prevent it from being ready for prime time. Mike lets himself get talked into the consulting gig and soon finds that everything is just a little bit … off. And it’s that little bit that makes all the difference. The Fold is the sort of brain candy that I usually add to my summer reading list, and it was a welcome addition to my winter one.


Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (Amazon) is another book I’d been thinking of reading for a while. The setup is straightforward: a rogue star/comet/stellar phenomenon appears in the sky over the Earth and bestows superpowers upon a few of its inhabitants. Without fail, all of these supers turn evil, shredding governments and seizing control of their own fiefdoms. Steelheart, an impervious villain who transformed much of Chicago to steel and rules it as a tyrant, is one of the worse of these new powered individuals.

The novel is one of Sanderson’s young adult books, so it’s a lighter read than the Mistborn or Stormlight Archives. The protagonist is a young man who’s father was murdered by Steelheart and who is the only person who’s ever seen the super hurt. He links up with the Reckoners, a band of individuals intent on taking down the villains and demonstrating that hope is not lost.

The novel’s tied into Sanderson’s larger Cosmere universe, and as such I’ve been curious about it. I was also hesitant; most of the super-powered novels I’ve read (or more likely just paged through) have come across as fan fiction. Sanderson does a good job here though, mostly by turning one of the key tropes of supers — that there must be superheroes to combat supervillains — on its head. That, coupled with Sanderson’s super-powered magic system, made for a compelling read. The sequel’s definitely going on my summer reading list.

The Peripheral

I got The Peripheral by William Gibson (Amazon) for Christmas, and then promptly forgot about it until I’d reach the end of my winter reading queue. Excited to read some new Gibson — I hadn’t read anything by him since 2003’s Pattern Recognition — I launched into it … and suddenly got very confused.

I’m 10 percent of the way into the book and I’m still confused. Unlike some of Gibson’s recent books which took place in the near future, The Peripheral is a return to a more cyberpunk-like reality. From the Wikipedia synopsis, it looks like the book involves two separate futures (one relatively close to our own, the other taking place after a major cataclysm.

It may be that I’m reading the book too late at night, or I’m just not concentrating enough on it … but the plot has been clear as mud, and I only realized the bit about the two futures from reading Wikipedia.

I like and trust Gibson, but I think this is a book that I need to read when I’m not bone-tired and mind-weary from working the day job and coaching my son’s baseball team. Punting this one to the summer, and restarting it then, seems prudent.

The Sixth Gun

Graphic novels tend to be a summer thing for me, mostly because of my long-standing tradition of reading Hellboy and B.P.R.D. by the campfire or flashlight while on summer vacation. During the rest of the year I read my regular superhero comics and catch up on old storylines using Marvel Unlimited.

I made an exception for The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn (Amazon). I came to the book by way of the role-playing game; I’d been intrigued by its take on the Weird West, with six magical guns possibly heralding the apocalypse should they fall into the wrong hands. I asked the game for Christmas; when I started paging through it during the holiday break I realized hey, this is based on a comic book!

Not wanting to spoil the story, I ordered the first graphic novel in the series, Cold Dead Fingers, which introduces us to its protagonists: Becky Montcrief, who’s stepfather owned one of the series’ namesake guns, and Drake Sinclair, a Confederate soldier turned freelance gunslinger who’s motives are less than saintly. Together they’re on the run from General Hume, a resurrected Confederate general who wants the guns for his own terrible reasons.

It’s a fun read; the only disappointing thing for me is that I really need to read the rest of the books in the series before I head back to reading the RPG sourcebook.

%d bloggers like this: