Underrated SF/F: Shrouded by Frances Pauli

And here we are again. Another science-fiction book that deserves a little bit more love. Now, with the past few, I covered books that, while definitely underrated in their own ways, were still books that have some level of familiarity in the wider world. But today, I want to bring something up that’s a little more modern, and from an author with a lot less name recognition than she deserves. While I basically love all of her work, I do have a very big soft-spot for this one in particular. And with the re-release of the series, there’s no better time to shine some light on it.


This is Shrouded by Frances Pauli.

Now, this book has a little bit of a story along with it. It was originally published a few years back by a small press out of Washington State. A small press with lots of big ideas and attractive contracts. But because publishing is a brutal business, that press eventually went the way of too many others. So the first three books in the series were recovered, reformatted, and rereleased.

And I love them. Taking inspiration from the works of Ursula K. Le Guin (Here’s looking at you, Left Hand of Darkness.) and combining that high-minded, social science fiction with the sort of imagery and word-craft I’ve come to expect from high-fantasy authors like Catherynne Valente and Scott Lynch, Pauli manages something unique with this work. It walks clearly on the science fiction side of the fence, but every now and then, it climbs that fence to take a peek at how the fantasy side lives.

Spoilers Start Here

We open with Vassia fleeing, trying to get off planet and away from her father. That leads her to the excursion of a lifetime, to the mysterious planet of Shroud. Mysterious and… strange. The Shrouded are all men, which is why they bring in brides. Brides like Vassia and the other women she traveled there with. And they are ruled by the power of the Heartstone, which finds perfect matches. Heartmates, as they’re called. Two people destined to be together.

On top of this, Shroud is also a valuable economic planet. It’s loaded with gem deposits, and anyone who can work their way into that will be working their way into a lot of money. That, along with his daughter, inevitably draws Vassia’s very powerful father to the planet of Shroud.

And at a bad time. They’re in need of a new heir, and the Heartstone, which should be selecting from one of the viable princes, is instead being… difficult. Every prince is feeling drawn to the same woman: Vassia. That definitely shouldn’t be happening. One heartmate, and that’s all. Something is very much amiss, and there are a lot of cooks in this particular kitchen.

Spoilers End Here

Shrouded—and in fact, all of the Heartstone books—are beautiful works of science fiction, and in the general glut of available books out there these days, they absolutely deserve more attention than they’ve been able to get. There are a small handful of authors I read religiously, and Frances Pauli is right in there with all of my other favorites. I would absolutely recommend Shrouded to anyone… just anyone. Period.

Underrated SF/F: Hopscotch by Kevin J. Anderson

Once more unto the breach we go.

When people hear the name Kevin J. Anderson, about the last thing they think of is an underappreciated or underrated author. And for good reason. He’s been wildly successful in his career. But he also has a black sheep of sorts floating around, and I think it’s one worth a much closer look.


This is Hopscotch.

Originally published in 2002, and republished by Kevin J. Anderson’s own publishing house (Wordfire Press) in 2013. And it is the very first Anderson book I ever read. In fact, I would say that reading this book had an impact on me (I originally read this in sixth grade.) and my writing that goes pretty deep. Sure, it’s science fiction, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be time for drug use, drinking, tortured artists, and lots of sex.

In fact, in reality, those are probably where a lot of our scientific advancements will go instead of, I don’t know, faster than light travel. Kind of just the way of the world.

Spoilers Start Here

Now, this is the story of four people, in a world where body swapping is not only possible, but exceedingly common. People swap consciousness back and forth more often than I change clothes. Three of our four main characters have this ability: Garth, who’s a talented artist, Teresa, who’s looking for the answers to life’s great mysteries, and Eduard, who has turned body-swapping into a business. Don’t want the flu? Live in my body for a couple weeks. Going through surgery? Take my body to the Bahamas.

Needless to say, Eduard is the one who ends up in a problematic situation, needing the Bureau of Tracing and Locations to step in when someone refuses to give his body back (The BTL is a necessary part of this kind of world. They can track who’s actually in which body.). And this is where we see character four, Daragon. These four were orphans in a monastery together. But while the other three were normal and could hop minds around willy-nilly, Daragon was the freak who couldn’t. Instead, he was able to tell who’s mind he was dealing with, no matter which body it moved into. Hopscotching didn’t trick him at all… which of course meant he was immediately sniped up to work in the BTL.

The plot of Hopscotch is… well… which one? There are four plots, and rather than focusing on one main one, Anderson allows them all room to breathe, and one of them will almost certainly speak to any given reader. Which is risky… but kind of brilliant. It’s a move that led critics to sort of pan the book, and they are certainly allowed their opinions. Everyone is. My opinion is that, by leaving room around the plots like that, I not only got the story that grabbed me hardest of all—Garth, the artist who swaps bodies so his can rest while his mind continues to work on the collection—but I got three other very interesting plot lines that gave me room to take a break.

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Kevin J. Anderson is a true fixture in the science fiction community. And clearly not just because he shows up at conferences all the time (Seriously, though. All. The. Time. Even in little old middle of nowhere Eastern Washington where I live. There he is.). He’s written over 120 books, including Star Wars EU (Excuse me, Star Wars Legends, thank you so much Disney…), X-Files companions, Dune prequels, and dozens of his own books. Yet somehow, when Hopscotch is brought up… crickets.

And hopefully, I can be a little part of the movement to change that. Because, really and truly, the book is brilliant.

Underrated SF/F: Sacrè Bleu by Christopher Moore

Oh dear, it seems like I missed a couple weeks. I have a really good explanation for this (Although timing was completely astounding. Right out the gate? Dang…). See, my roommate blew out her meniscus a few days after my last Underrated SF/F post went up, which suddenly put double the household workload on me, plus doing some extra work that wasn’t there before. And in combination with my own books and short stories and contracts and such… well, you get the idea.

But I’m going to endeavor to stay on schedule (Knock on all the wood you can, folks.), so I’m back in it, and this time, with another one of my favorite books. Now, unlike The Cyberiad, this book is probably a little more well-known. This falls majorly into the “Doesn’t get Enough Love” category.


It’s Sacrè Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore.

I know it seems weird that a book by Christopher Moore could ever end up on a list like this. We’re talking about the guy who wrote The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Lamb and Coyote Blue. He’s a brilliant, comedic master, blending fantasy and paranormal and science fiction into a giant block of genius that, as far as I’m concerned, no one has ever managed to come close to. He’s bawdy and inappropriate and witty and… why would I have one of his books here?

The simple answer? Sacrè Bleu is not a well-loved addition to the Christopher Moore library.

Now, I’m the first to admit that it’s a different sort of book. It’s a bit more elevated than most of his early books. They’re all brilliant, of course, but this isn’t the same firecracker comedy and action that people necessarily expected from Moore. Instead, Bleu wanders through the story in a very peculiar sort of way. It doesn’t thrust a plot into your face. Instead, it lets a dozen tiny plots eventually become one. The humor is subtler and the language is toned back considerably. There’s an underlying reverence for the subject matter that isn’t necessarily present (Or even possible.) in some of his other books.

Spoilers Start Here

Sacrè Bleu is essentially Moore’s ode to Impressionist Era France. Seurat and Monet and Manet and, of course, the ever-present Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It goes through painting, and ties everything together—even some of the more bizarre things, like Monet painting his wife as she died—with an underlying thread of magic.

Nothing is ever overbearing in this book, least of all the magic. And it’s unique, as magic goes. The ultramarine blue—once the only shade of blue acceptable for painting the shawl of Mary in religious works—is magic. It can bend and distort the flow of time. And this is how the plot is moved along. The Colorman is a part of the ritual to create the blue, as well as a muse, named simply Bleu. Between them, they have immortality, and they have control. Bleu can ensnare the minds of artists—as Muses tend to do—and has done so for centuries upon centuries. The blue paint used by the Celts to adorn themselves in battle? Yeah, that was her. And they got power from all those warriors wearing the pigment. Monet painted his wife in an attempt to stop time so he could save her from death.

It’s all these little things that really make Sacrè Bleu come to life. And it’s a lot of those things that make it, perhaps, a bit of an odd bird for Moore fans. There’s the odd anatomical reference thrown in, because this was the era of brothels and opium dens. You can’t completely avoid them, I reckon. And Bleu herself does tend to engage in amorous activities with the painters she seduces. So maybe not a good one for the kids. But there’s little that speaks to the fans of, say A Dirty Job and Practical Demonkeeping. Instead, this is historical and wonderful, filled with mystery and subterfuge and, perhaps, a little uncomfortable (Though all the best books secretly are, I think.).

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What makes Sacrè Bleu stand out from other books by Moore—and I would venture to say a lot of other books in general—is this care and respect that ran through the entire work. Yes, I could talk about the beautiful impressionist paintings spread throughout the book, the fact that it’s a beautiful book to look at (Seriously: if you can manage it, get the hardback edition.). The way they chose to make the text itself blue instead of black, the way they took so many of the elements of the classic Moore cover and elevated them. But that’s not what makes the book such a hidden gem. It’s that care and respect and, as I said before, reverence for the subject matter. And I think that’s when Christopher Moore really does his absolute best work.

Look at Lamb, where he used the Bible in combination with historical research. It’s regarded by many as his best work. Look at Fool and The Serpent of Venice, where he plays off of classic literature (King Lear and The Merchant of Venice/The Cask of Amontillado, respectively.). These are brilliant books, more even than his early, establishing works that brought him such fame. You can tell he loved all of these research-heavy books. But, as far as I can tell as an outside observer, Sacrè Bleu was above them all. He registered a website, filled out pages and pages with what he learned, what he thought, pieces of art he wanted to include but just couldn’t make work. This is a book that, according to the evidence, was close to Moore’s heart. Every author has a book or a series come up now and then that just grabs hold of them. And I think Sacrè Bleu is that book for Moore.

So if you’re looking for a gateway to Moore, this isn’t your book. If you’re looking for another Island of the Sequined Love Nun (Yes, that’s one of his books.), this is definitely not the book for you. But if you like art and you like history and you want to experience a thick, wonderful book (And who among us doesn’t?), then give this little azure tome a try.

Underrated SF/F: The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

Hello all, and welcome to what’s hopefully going to be a new series for y’all: Underrated SF/F Novels. It’s a bit of an interest of mine, seeing what was written that maybe doesn’t get the same attention as the Fahrenheit 451s and Hunger Games and Left Hand of DarknessesLeft Hands of Darkness? I’m not entirely sure how you would pluralize that.

But anyway, I’d like to take a closer look at the books that never quite made it into the eye of the general public. Whether they’re just a little bit too old to still be in the public eye, they’re new but haven’t made it, or were just a little bit too bizarre to make big public waves no matter when they came out, I want to share them… or at least the ones I know. We are talking about underrated books, and with so many out there, I probably haven’t even read one percent.

And, just in case anyone is being extra wary, there be spoilers in this and pretty much any of these posts. I’ll try to mark them off so you can skip through them, but I’m only human and might miss something. You’ve been forewarned.

So, today I want to take a swing through one of my favorite books. Now, a lot of people know Stanislaw Lem from his novel Solaris. It’s far and away his most popular work, and there was even a movie made of it. But I’m not here to talk about that.

cyberiad cover 75

I’m here to talk about The Cyberiad.

If you know the book, you’re probably very excited to find someone else who’s actually read it. I always am. If you don’t know it… well, here’s the basic rundown: The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories written by Stanislaw Lem about the “illustrious constructors” Trurl and Klapaucius. It’s a universe where the majority of intelligent life is robotic or mechanical in nature, the squishy “Paleface” having died off long ago. It’s a universe where gleaming robo-knights ride mechanical steeds to save princesses made of steel and wire and resistors.

And it’s a world with a new profession: the constructors. Essentially, with enough time and resources, they’re very nearly god-like. But through these tales of electronic men and women, we’re offered the chance explore ourselves as humans. Aging, dying, dementia, injury. We get to look at the entirety of the human condition through these stories.

A bit of brief history: the collection was originally published in Lem’s native language (Polish) as Cyberiada in 1965. In 1974, the first English translation (The Cyberiad – Fables for the Cybernetic Age) was published. And major kudos have to go to Michael Kandel, the translator. I don’t know how he managed to do what he did. Lem wrote in rhyming verse (In Polish), and relied on puns and humor and pseudo-technical jargon, and Kandel managed to translate all of that without losing the unique spirit that made The Cyberiad its own special entity, separate from almost all of Lem’s other works (Although a bit of that whimsy can be found in Imaginary Magnitude, as well.).

Spoilers Start Here

So, without going through each and every story individually (There are a lot of them.), I’m just going to give a bit of a personal highlight reel. There’s not a bad story in the book, but some of them are always going to stand out more for a particular reader than others.

The first story I think of when The Cyberiad comes to mind is The Third Sally, or The Dragons of Probability. For me, this is quintessentially what the book is about. Why yes, of course dragons exist. Well no, of course you can’t see them. They’re highly improbable. The only reliable way to encounter one is to artificially raise the probability of one existing to a near certainty. It’s full of a lot of mumbo-jumbo about dracometers and such, and includes a wonderful sequence where Klapaucius is raising the probability in the area so high that rocks are floating and passing moths are beating out entire books in Morse code with their wings. It’s inanity on the page.

After that? The Second Sally, or The Offer of King Krool. This one is about the epitome of the fake technical jargon Lem has throughout the book, with an entire chase scene between the beast they intend to create and the titular King Krool… but all done through mathematical equations in order to program the creature. King Krool is a great hunter, and if the beast doesn’t meet his needs, well… that would be the last of our illustrious constructors.

I think the human angle is shown most in The Seventh Sally, or How Trurl’s Perception Led to No Good. And it brings up a very fundamental question, one that’s explored often by various science fiction greats: when does consciousness begin? If you craft something, and the programming is so advanced that they feel pain and anguish and joy and sorrow and every other human emotion, who’s to say that they aren’t themselves conscious, sentient beings? And this story best shows off the differences between two otherwise fairly similar characters. Trurl is egotistical and rash, whereas Klapaucius is calmer and thinks less of himself. True, they’re both incredibly intelligent, and think highly of their own intelligence, but it’s subtle differences that keep these two friends/colleagues/rivals from coming too close to each other.

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Mix those stories with others, such as Altruizine, A Good Shellacking, Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal, and Trurl’s Electronic Bard, and you have a collection that seems like it should have gone places, at least to me. Perhaps it was a bit too strange for its own good. Perhaps the humor wasn’t all-encompassing enough. Perhaps the moon and stars were out of alignment or the editors sacrificed one too few goats to the Gods of Publishing. Whatever the reason, this book has always languished in the dreaded midlist, even at the height of its popularity. It retains a loyal following, but never enough to skyrocket him to the fame of other SF/F short story writers like Bradury or Pohl.

If you’re looking for something a little bit odd, a little bit funny (Or at times, a lot.), and entirely unique to itself, I can’t recommend The Cyberiad enough. It’s, for me, the book I turn to when I’m feeling a little down and out. It makes me smile, it’s never too heavy or too childish. Like a cybernetic Goldilocks, The Cyberiad is just right.

Now, I don’t know when I’ll see you all again. I’m hoping to do relatively regular posting on here, but how often that is will all depend on how this fits into my own schedule. I have books that need writing, books that need reading, dogs that need tending, and websites that need maintaining. But I promise not to leave for too long.