Three of a Perfect Pair

This is kind of a three-pack of short book reviews, so I can maybe stop thinking about these particular books and move on to obsessing about something else. The title of this little doo-dad was inspired by a favorite song and the fact that two of the books have something in common.

I follow the blog io9.com, mainly for news about upcoming sci-fi movies and books, and reviews of the same when they come out. One of their writers, Charlie Jane Anders, has written a fair number of writing advice articles which I’ve found very helpful. Three books io9.com raved about over the past year or two are Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Madeline Ashby’s vN: The First Machine Dynasty, and Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds. I kept telling myself that I had too many books in my to-be-read queue to make time for these, but at the same time I wanted to find out what’s selling today in the world of sci-fi and fantasy by authors on the rise. I wanted to see what the competition is up to but I realized my reading habits in the realm of sci-fi were pretty solidly confined to a group of authors who were on the rise in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. I mean for example I love Iain Banks’ Culture books, and have all of them, but guess what? I’m not sure I believe Consider Phlebas would get published today as a sci-fi authors’ first one out of the gate. William Gibson is brilliant, but the publishing landscape has changed too much since he got his start for me to try to emulate him and expect any good result. Ditto John Crowley, M.A. Foster, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville, and a bunch of others.

I bought these three new(ish) books all at once and read them a couple of months ago. They’re all three really good and are all very distinct from one another, even though two of them are from the same publisher. When I realized Blackbirds and vN were both from Angry Robot Books, I thought maybe I’d made a mistake but the two books could not be more different in tone, attitude, and subject material. This is a spoiler-free set of reviews, by the way, just in case you’re even slower than I am on picking up new books by new authors. Okay, I did buy Banks’ Surface Detail the week it came out from Daunt Books in London, not that that makes me a crazed fanboy or anything like that.

Blackbirds
This was the one I was most curious about, and so was the first one I read. If you’re familiar with Wendig’s blog, the tone of his authorial voice will come as no shock. It’s profane, shocking in places, and sometimes hilarious, which I fully expected. I did not expect to be so touched by so many of the characters’ interactions and relationship issues. I will caution readers who are sensitive to violence that you might want to read this one carefully. Recommended.

The Windup Girl
The best-written and most fully realized of the three. Two months after reading, I still find myself getting lost in thought, contemplating this or that scene. This book does haunt me a bit. I was mildly disappointed about one scene near the end where a character is triggered to violence. I was not disappointed by the violence itself but by the precise thing that set off the character. Maybe it works better than I think it does because the particular instance of abuse was the straw that broke the camel’s back and it could have been anything additional done to the character. Now I’m not sure — and this illustrates perfectly why I love this gorgeous, ambitious, and beautifully-written book. It does make you think. Strong recommendation.

vN: The First Machine Dynasty
A fun read but not as wonderful as io9.com has claimed. It is well written, with a solid authorial voice, but the thing that bothers me is that the main character — a female robot — keeps getting rescued. I mean, we’re almost getting into fairytale princess territory, here. It especially grates because the character is supposed to be so advanced and have all these fabulous abilities, and the author is famously interested in progressive gender politics — and yet, this young woman who is the protagonist seems to drift through the story almost without agency. That she gets rescued so often by a male robot just makes that lack of agency more bothersome. Weak recommendation.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? What should I read next?