Reviews: Leviathan Wakes, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, The Vespertine

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, was recently nominated for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it’s appearance there was a bit of an outlier: Jo Walton’s Among Others and China MiĆ©ville’s Embassy Town both received earlier nominations for this year’s Nebula Award, and George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragon’s wasn’t much of a surprise. But Corey’s is the only first novel—first, at least, for the collaboration of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck who publish under the Corey pen name—to appear on the list, but the nomination is, I think, well deserved.

The novel is written from the alternating perspectives of two different characters, each narrative overlapping somewhat in its description of events while also retaining something of its own character: Holden is the XO of an ice mining vessel, fiercely independent but with a heart of gold; Miller is a hard-bitten detective for a private security agency, cynical and a bit past his prime. The former’s story reads as swashbuckling space adventure, the latter a noir-inflected police mystery, and both quickly intersect with elements of alien encounter, zombie horror, and epic space battles.

I know, it sounds like a train wreck of stock characters and tired scifi tropes, but it just plain works. The result reads like the big-screen space-adventure blockbuster that post-Firefly scifi fans have long waited for, only in book form. Leviathan Wakes isn’t brilliant—the characters don’t really stretch beyond the limitations of their conventions and the big reveals aren’t exactly mind-blowing—but the book itself is damn good fun. The sequel, Caliban’s War, is expected out in June.

On the other end of the scifi genre, The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang is a short but pithy and thought-provoking meditation on the meaning of sentience, autonomy, and freedom.

Winner of the 2011 Locus and Hugo Awards for Best Novella, Lifecycle tells the story of Ana, a former zookeeper now employed by a software company to train intelligent, virtual pets; and Derek, an animator who designs their parts. Through a series of failed start-up companies, corporate merges, and shifting consumer demand, the continued existence of the AIs that Ana and Derek have worked so closely with becomes imperiled, and the two face increasingly difficult dilemmas that raise thorny philosophical questions of freedom and autonomy. This isn’t a casual read, but Chiang does an admirable job of incorporating a complex thought problem into a highly readable and personal narrative.

Finally, I really should stop getting sucked into reading YA novels by their gorgeous cover art, but at least this time, it wasn’t a mistake: Saundra Mitchell’s The Vespertine does have a beautiful cover, it’s true, but it’s also a surprisingly good YA historical fantasy.

Teenager Amelia van den Broek, in 19th century America, is sent by her brother from rural Maine to stay with her cousin in Baltimore, in the hope that she might find a suitable husband. Instead, she finds romance with the enigmatic and roguish artist Nathaniel. Meanwhile, she also discovers within herself the preternatural gift to experience brief visions of future events. These two discoveries plunge her into a downward spiral of tragedy, as she struggles with both her forbidden feelings for Nathaniel and her strange and seemingly dangerous gift.

As far as teen supernatural fiction goes, The Vespertine is pretty well done, rich with historical detail and introducing some interesting and subtle supernatural elements. Advanced warning, though: the language in the first chapter is ridiculously flowery and labored, but Mitchell quickly finds a happy medium between period style and readability. The sequel, The Springsweet, is expected out later this week.

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